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Friday, July 30, 2010

Cyrus

Title: Cyrus

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: July 24th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

If Grown Ups was proof that you can predict exactly what you're in for when viewing the cast list, Cyrus is proof that you cannot. Best known for their work in Judd Apatow produced comedies, actors John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill contribute to the independent scene and the results could be vastly different than what you would expect.

Reilly's character is named John. That should give you an idea of how laid back this production is. The actor doesn't even have to respond to a new name. John is a depressed guy grieving over a divorce and watching his ex-wife get remarried before he does. Almost completely withdrawing from social gatherings, John is eventually talked into attending a party to meet someone new. And low and behold, he actually succeeds. But not before getting boozed up on vodka and singing bad karaoke in front of all the guests. Doesn't matter though. She digs it. The "she" I'm referring to is named Molly (Marisa Tomei).

The new lovers decide that their chemistry is so grand that Molly invites John to stay at her house to practice their love some more. John is more than happy to oblige but encounters a surprise at the first visit. Molly does not live alone. Clinging to her like a dog to his master, Molly's twenty-one year old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill) takes on a strange fascination towards John. He cannot stop staring and is always showing up at the most unwelcome times. Their conversations are always awkward mostly because Cyrus seems to give off a weird vibe. John shrugs it off at first then later has a hunch that Cyrus is protecting or hiding something.

Suspicions rise higher after John notices that Molly never wants to leave the house. And Cyrus' medical history of panic attacks increase to the point where Molly has to sacrifice time with John in order to give him special attention. Is Cyrus trying to sabotage the relationship?

John confronts Cyrus and demands to know the truth. He discovers that he was already in a battle for Molly's exclusive attention. The feud turns playful to ugly really fast. And it appears that only one can prevail.

The majority of this film's dialogue sounds oddly natural. Conversations are brief because the characters are often at a loss for words, even when they clearly have things to say. One reason for this is that the movie tries to keep things down-to-earth. It's the sort of comedy where audiences can relate to the universe depicted on the screen. The other reason is that the actors were given virtually unlimited improvisational freedom. Scenes were set up and the cast was trusted to make something out of it. This technique works well at keeping things grounded but can also lead to suffering of plot pacing and entertainment value. Sadly, this is one of those cases. Too many scenes left me wanting more or wondering what could have been instead of appreciating what was there.

Hill's performance is one of his creepiest and best. The way he stares at Reilly's character could fool someone into believing he really does have some sort of chip on his shoulder. Reilly sticks to what he does best and acts as the laid back guy who enjoys cracking jokes. Both actors are given a fair share of moments to shine. Overall, the character direction is very good.

The same cannot be said about the cinematography. The camera shakes around so much that a simple conversation scene can turn nauseating. The most annoying thing is the over-reliance on zoom-ins. This technique should always be kept to a minimum no matter what genre but these filmmakers seem to be so in love with it that the zoom-in seems to occur randomly, losing any potential for a dramatic close-up. I realize this was always intended to be a low budget picture but a little more variety would be a lot easier on the eyes.

The final result is a film that tries hard to be different and offers a moderate amount of laughing opportunities. Its indy trademarks can be too obvious for the casual film watcher to get around. I say give it a rental for the highlights and avoid paying a movie ticket to watch the low points on a big screen. Your eyes don't deserve that kind of treatment.

Rating: 6


Small Soldiers

Title: Small Soldiers

Year of Release: 1998

Date Viewed: July 23rd, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

In the opening scene of this film, the evil CEO of GloboTech Industries (Denis Leary) asks a fascinating question.

"I'm sick of watching toys do things in commercials that they can't really do. What if they could talk? What if they could walk? What if these things can really kick butt?"

Chances are a movie screenwriter asked himself this same question. And thus Small Soldiers was born.

Teenager Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) intercepts a shipment of not yet released on the market high-technology toy sets: The Commando Elite and the Gorgonites. The two sets are voice activated and are programmed to respond intelligently to the environment around them. And they each have a background story. The Gorgonites are a motley crew of strange looking alien creatures that have crash landed on Earth and want to find a way back to their home planet of Gorgon. The Commando Elite are a merciless group of rogue soldiers who have made it their mission to search and destroy the Gorgonites, just because they have nothing better to do. The toys' programming is so advanced that they all have minds of their own and also seem to suffer from Buzz Lightyear syndrome. They do not recognize their purpose as toys. As far as they are concerned, they are really soldiers and aliens.

Alan hopes to sell the Commando Elite and Gorgonites as a way to earn some money for his father's struggling toy store and win back some of his trust lost from his troublemaking past.

But soon trouble finds him. The Commandos and Gorgonites break out of their boxes and cause all sorts of havoc around town. Alan later learns that the reason his toys act so intelligent is that all of them were installed with advanced military weapon technology by a pair of crooked toy designers (David Cross and Jay Mohr) now working for GloboTech industries.

Alan befriends the Gorgonite leader Archer (voice of Frank Langella) who warns him that he is now in danger and all allies will be targeted.

Things get personal after Alan's girlfriend Christy (Kirsten Dunst) is kidnapped by the Commandos. Their leader Major Chip Hazard (voice of Tommy Lee Jones) submits an ultimatum to Alan. Surrender all of the Gorgonites or Christy will not live to see tomorrow.

Determined to rescue Christy and desperate to prove to his parents that he is not crazy, Alan recruits his Gorgonite friends in preparation for an epic showdown with the Commandos, using the whole suburb as a battlefield. Then the war begins.

This movie follows the Gremlins formula where watching the non-human creatures wreak havoc is the main attraction. Convenient enough, it is directed by the man that brought us Gremlins: Joe Dante. Main characters are second thought behind the fight scenes and humorous dialogue. The toys actually receive better character development than the humans.

The plot is clearly tongue-in-cheek the whole ride through. Watching this movie took me back to the days of using imagination to play with action figures. Everything you have ever dreamed of watching your toys perform is done here. Building machines, leaping from high places.......you name it. Chip Hazard fits Tommy Lee Jones' typecasted role as a man obsessed with accomplishing a mission. Don't be surprised if you find yourself quoting and imitating his speech pattern the next day. Hazard's soldier squad sometimes appear to be spoofing the G.I. Joe action figure series.

As fun as this movie is, it never really reaches the level of charm that Gremlins had going for itself. Maybe I just miss Gizmo too much?

At some points, the movie tries to accomplish more than what's needed and introduces some secondary characters that are either not necessary or are not given enough screentime. The GloboTech CEO for instance had the potential to be a fascinating character but he only appears in two scenes. When these sidetracking moments occur, both the pace and the fun factor is slowed down.

So even though Small Soldiers is far from a perfect film, I am still recommending it for anyone in the mood to give their brain a rest, maybe have a few drinks and enjoy an old-fashioned heroes and villains story in miniature size.

Note: If you enjoy this film, I also recommend the first installment of the Nightmares & Dreamscapes TV mini-series titled "Toy Soldiers."

Rating: 7

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Superhero Movie




Title: Superhero Movie

Year of Release: 2008

Date Viewed: July 23rd, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13




It appears that the universal attitude regarding the parody genre is that it is dead. I would argue that it is actually trapped in a coma. A victim of numerous stabbings by perpetrators Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer; two hack screenwriters who think that simply referencing a movie is funny. Apparently nobody ever told these clowns that a comedy needs to have....believe it or not.....jokes or gags for it to be funny. As a result, audiences have been dealt four different sad excuses for parodies ranging from barely watchable (Epic Movie) to flat out pathetic (Meet The Spartans). Thanks to these guys, today's audiences have pretty much lost all faith in ever seeing a classic spoof like Airplane ever again.


But wait! All hope is not lost! Here comes Superhero Movie to save the day! With writer/director Craig Mazin at the helm along with veteran spoof master David Zucker serving as producer, this movie kicks all of the Friedberg/Seltzer projects to the curb. It marks a triumphant return to the days where Hollywood's biggest blockbusters were lampooned in front of our very eyes and we loved every second of it.


Okay, maybe I'm being a little overdramatic with this. The film isn't THAT great. However, parody fans still owe it to themselves to see it because Hollywood needs to receive the message that we demand quality in our beloved genre. Superhero Movie can be described just like watching our favorite action heroes battle their villains. Some hits. Some misses. A cheesy moral. And of course an epic finish.


In this story, we meet lovable loser Rick Riker (Drake Bell.) He can never seem to do anything right. As a young child, Rick inadvertently kills his parents (in a scene featuring the triumphant return of Robert Hays to the parody genre) while trying to defend them from a mugger. His inheritance is wasted after he sold all of his family's Google shares and invested the money in Enron. He lives with his crazy Uncle Albert (Leslie Nielsen) and Aunt Lucielle (Marion Ross) who never seem to connect with him. Worst of all, he is bullied at school and constantly humiliated in front of his childhood crush Jill Johnson (Sara Paxton).


His fate is soon realized after getting bitten by a radioactive dragonfly during a class field trip. He begins to develop new superhuman strengths and can even climb up walls with ease. The transformation comes not a moment too soon as evil scientist Lou Landers (Christopher McDonald) creates a new device that helps him fight his terminal illness. By taking the lives of innocent victims, their vitality adds days to his life. He takes on the name Hourglass as a reference to his mission. Only a mass murder can realize his dreams of living immortal.


With the help of superhero mentor Professor Xavier (Tracy Morgan) and the wise yet insensitive wisdom of Jill, Rick (with a new alter-ego known as The Dragonfly) has to look deep within himself to find the courage to take on his new calling and save the world from the evil Hourglass.


As you've probably guessed by now, this film is essentially a reworking of 2002's Spiderman. The subplots poke fun at elements from Batman Begins and X-Men just to name a few. Parody fans should be rest assured that the idea is in good hands. David Zucker's influence is evident in nearly every scene. All the rules for success in the genre are followed. For instance, the actors play their parts straight, meaning that they are completely oblivious to the ridiculous sight gags around them. Leslie Nielsen has made a living off this sort of art for the past few decades. Drake Bell and Sara Paxton are both new to the game but appear to have been coached very well.


Another Zucker trademark is the play on words. In one scene, Landers arrives at the Riker's Thanksgiving dinner and explains that occasions like these mean a lot to him because he never had much of a family and never married. Jill holds up a fruitcake and asks "Fruitcake?" in an offering manner. Landers with his back turned replies "Nope. Just haven't met the right woman."


This use of clever comedy is balanced with cheap cliche comedy that is sometimes still funny. If sex and fart jokes are too lowbrow for you, it's best to avoid this movie because it is full of both. It may also not appeal to those that look down upon slapstick. Rick Riker is a klutz after all and the film will remind you of this fact every five minutes or so.


The biggest offender that prevents this film from becoming the classic I so desperately want it to be is the fact that Mazin and Zucker completely plagiarize themselves at times. Not only do several "Rick hurts himself" scenes recycle during the movie but the second-to-last scene is taken directly from the ending of the first Naked Gun movie. Stephen Hawking meets the same fate as O.J. Simpson's character.


Oh yes, Stephen Hawking. I forgot to mention him. A foul-mouthed version of the famous scientist appears as comic relief inside a movie that is already nothing but comic relief. Hawking's catatonic condition leads him to all sorts of bad situations such as getting stuck in a bee's nest and spilling hot coffee all over himself. Making fun of someone because of something they can't help always rubs me the wrong way. Evidently however, I hear that the real Hawking has a strong sense of humor himself and doesn't mind being parodied so perhaps I am a bit over-sensitive here. Point being though, it's not a film for the easily offended. But if you're already familiar with Zucker's track record, that shouldn't come as a surprise.


I had a really really good time watching this movie. However, in the spirit of objectivity, I can't recommend it to anyone other than longtime fans of Zucker spoofs. It's a huge step in the right direction when you compare it to the Friedberg/Seltzer junk but it doesn't have enough creativity to work for a large crowd.


Then again, these movies are not made for large crowds anyway. So who am I to complain?



Rating: 6

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Time Traveler's Wife






Title: The Time Traveler's Wife


Year of Release: 2009


Date Viewed: July 23rd, 2010


MPAA Rating: PG-13





Back when I worked behind the counter at the neighborhood video store, there was a regular customer named Alice that always asked me the same question every week. "Have you seen any good love stories lately?"


If I could still communicate to Alice, my answer this week would be, "Yes. The Time Traveler's Wife."


I rented this one because time travel stories have always appealed to me plus movies adapted from novels are usually laced with creativity. One of the first novels I've ever loved was H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and one of the first movies I had ever watched was Back to the Future Part II. So I knew I had to check this out eventually. It was just a matter of waiting until I saved up enough gumption to bring a "chick flick" up to the cashier.


The title character is named Claire Abshire (Rachel McAdams). At the age of six, Claire meets adult Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) at the back meadows of her family's home in a rather unusual way. Henry appears unexpectedly behind one of the tress without any clothes on whatsoever. Claire offers him a blanket to cover himself which he graciously accepts. In exchange for her kindness, Henry explains he arrived at her home completely by accident. He was born with a unique condition that causes him to randomly disappear and travel back and forth through time. He has no control over when he travels or where he will end up although there is a pattern of returning often to familiar locations. Instead of doing the sensible thing like reporting the naked guy with crazy stories to the police, Claire becomes fascinated with the time traveler. The fascination turns into genuine romance as she matures into an adult.


Henry makes several return visits to the Abshire family home with stories on their future together. He further explains his condition by noting that his clothes do not travel with him so he needs to immediately find new things to wear before his presence creates disturbances in public. This obstacle makes it impossible to stay settled in any stage of life.


There is actually another first meeting between Claire and Henry when they encounter each other (now both as adults) in a library. This time it's Claire who has to introduce herself to Henry because at this moment in time, Henry had not yet traveled to the Abshire home.


Be prepared to see lots of flashbacks and flash forwards like that. The movie doesn't really follow a story arc. It shows you what it wants whenever it wants. This may sound like an extended episode of Lost but I can assure you that it is not that hard to follow, unless you have very little practice in watching time travel stories.


The science behind Henry's time travel is only touched upon in fragments. Even to the end it remains mostly an enigma. The main focus is watching Claire cope with all the disadvantages of living with Henry. It's not much different than having a husband that is always away on business trips. Here one day, gone the next. Sometimes Henry recognizes where he is, sometimes he doesn't. Where does family fit into play? And of course the most important question: How many compromises are needed to keep this marriage alive and strong?


These are just a few of the many themes explored in this complex love story. There are several surprises in store for the audience and the deeper you think about this film, the more rewarding the experience will be.


As stated before though, it is best not to dwell on the sci-fi aspects. Some of the ground rules (such as Henry's ability to interact with himself) may or may not contradict with your idea of what time traveling should be. The film is fully self-aware of what is asked of the audience and Henry even flat out admits at one point that he never understood why Claire was so quick to believe his story on their first meeting.


The Time Traveler's Wife is a fine display of great storytelling. The concept is intriguing, it has its own identity and there is enough replay value to warrant multiple viewings.


Are you sold yet, Alice?



Rating: 9

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Invictus



Title: Invictus


Year of Release: 2009


Date Viewed: July 21st, 2010


MPAA Rating: PG-13

Is it just me or does Clint Eastwood seem like a really busy guy these days? In 2008, he brought us one of my favorite films of that year; Changeling, the true story of the disappearance of Christine Collins' son. Later that same year, he returned in front of the camera for the heartfelt and very entertaining Gran Torino. The next year, Eastwood returned to the director's chair to continue his streak of emotion stirring pictures with Invictus; a new kind of tale about South Africa's famed president, Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman).

Originally conceived as a full biopic, it was later decided to focus on a specific era of Mandela's political career; the era that brought not only a personal victory but one for an entire country.

The film begins with Mandela's release after twenty-six years behind bars as a political prisoner. He wins election to office with the goal of uniting the dangerous and often violent divide between the white Afrikaners and black natives of South Africa. This idea doesn't go over well with all the population (What campaign ever does?) and it doesn't take long for Mandela's security team to fear an attack on the progressive leader.

Searching for effective options, Mandela turns his eye to South Africa's rugby team known as the Springboks. The team is made up almost exclusively of white Afrikaners. The black natives hold contempt for the team because it is seen as a dark label of longtime racial injustice. The bitterness is so strong that the visiting teams often have stronger home field support than the local team. Sensing an opportunity to shake up the current morale, Mandela arranges a special meeting with the Springboks captain Fran├žois Pienaar (played by Matt Damon). A lifelong rugby fan himself, Mandela pitches a seemingly impossible task to Pienarr, asking him to lead his team to the Rugby World Cup. The idea is that if they could get the entire nation to rally behind a common goal, it will pave the way for further progress and get opposing parties into the habit of working together.

Initially reluctant given the team's less than stellar win-loss record, Pienaar is eventually won over by Mandela's charm and fearless charisma. During the meeting, Mandela brought up a poem that he said kept his spirits up for so long during his imprisonment. The poem, titled Invictus, includes the phrase "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul." These newfound fighting words inspire Pienaar to rally his troops and bring the World Cup trophy to a new united South Africa.

Nelson Mandela's personality has been brought to life in cinemas before. Dennis Haysbert gave a well crafted performance as Mandela in 2007's The Color of Freedom; a fine film in its own right. Freeman however doesn't perform Mandela. He IS Mandela. Not that surprising considering that he was reportedly hand-picked for the role by the man himself. Freeman devoted extensive practice to imitate Mandela's speaking style and accent. This is Acting 101 here brought to you by one of the world's finest.

Freeman immersing himself as a historical figure doesn't surprise me. What did surprise me was Matt Damon as a perfectly convincing rugby player. Well.....almost. My Dad thought Damon wasn't quite big enough to fit the bill although he does look more buffed up than usual. All the real rugby training that he prepared for probably contributed to the new muscles. Either that or Eastwood just used the right kind of camera tricks.

While we're on the subject, Eastwood's presentation, especially the cinematography is outstanding. Establishing shots are beautifully set up. Zoom-in shots are used at all the right times. The music score is minimal but effective. Eastwood has been around the movies for a long long time and knows what works. And it shows. Like I often say, experience is the only skill you can't teach.

Sports seem to have a way of bringing people together. The movie likes to explore this theme in between inspirational monologues spoken by Mandela and Pienaar. The actual scenes of rugby are few and far between, so action fans may be a little disappointed with the excitement factor. The heart of the film lies with witnessing one man's persistent devotion to unite his country in any way he can. There is a lot to admire about Invictus. So by that note, it's unlikely that you will regret renting this.

Rating: 8

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Commentary: The Saga of Lindsay Lohan









The year was 1997. I was eleven years old and spending a Saturday afternoon in my usual way. Catching up on neglected sleep, playing through Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for the two-hundredth time, shooting some hoops in the driveway and reading my favorite pop culture magazines aimed at kids.


One such magazine was Disney Adventures. One of its featured articles of the month was an inside scoop on Disney's upcoming remake of The Parent Trap. Remakes were not as common in 1998 as they are today so it was kind of a big deal. The article included an interview with a pretty redhead girl almost exactly my age that had been casted in the lead role of the twins. She seemed genuinely excited to be involved with the project and had that aura about her that suggested she was going to be around for a long time. A year later, the film released. It was a commercial success and the young girl received lots of critical praise for her performance including a Young Artist award. The career of Lindsay Lohan had begun.


When Lindsay reached the age of eighteen, she had acted the lead for six feature length films and was a household name.


Just a few years later, her name became a punchline.


It's hard to believe that this sweet young girl grew up to be someone who nearly destroyed her own life via drugs and alcohol. On the other hand, when details of Lindsay's background began to surface in the media, maybe nobody should have been surprised.


I'm not a celebrity so I can't speak from experience, but I have no doubt that living amongst bright lights and paparazzi like how Lindsay has lived for half of her life has to be tough. Especially for someone as young as her. Being in the public eye can be extremely stressful at times. When this happens, one needs to draw support from something or someone in order to acquire some relief. Being around family is a common way to escape some personal troubles. Something tells me that Lindsay had no such luxury. Let's examine her parents.


Her father Michael has a long history of trouble with the law. He had been jailed for charges of Wall Street insider training. At his son's communion party, he was involved in a fistfight with his brother-in-law that landed him assault charges. And while those charges were pending, he was hit with a DUI arrest and then later he divorced his wife, Dina.


Speaking of Dina......isn't it a little strange that she is almost as big of a celebrity as her own daughter despite never acting in a movie before? She is like a running gag on a sketch comedy show...always popping up everywhere whether it's welcomed or not. For a while it seemed that with every Lindsay Lohan media appearance there was a Dina Lohan appearance where she was more than happy to share with the whole world how proud she was of her daughter's success. Dina, we have no doubt that you enjoy depositing those huge paychecks your daughter brings home for you every year. We also know that Lindsay's success has not been enough for you.


A short-lived reality television series titled Living Lohan debuted in 2008. I think many will agree with me that this was one of the worst shows to ever be aired on the E! network and that's saying a lot. The premise was basically watching Dina Lohan and one of her other daughters Ali seeking the same level of fame and spotlight that Lindsay had achieved. Lindsay did not make a single appearance for this series and I do not blame her one bit. Dina reminds me of a group of people that appeared on an episode of Maury Povitch's show with the theme "Quit Pushing Your Child To Be A Star". She was clearly playing a game and using her family to prolong her own time in the spotlight.


The saddest part was watching her deny it week after week. I remember watching one episode where she insisted (on camera of course) that she wants to raise her children as normal kids. Right. Because there is nothing more normal than having cameras follow them around all day and urging them at every opportunity to do something that makes them famous. Another episode showed Dina spending time on the Internet looking for gossip/opinion articles concerning Lindsay. When she saw something she didn't like, she made phone calls to anyone that would listen to say how she felt victimized by this kind of "cruelty." To be fair, I'm sure there was a lot of uncalled comments by insensitive people. Every celebrity gets that. But somehow I have a feeling that a lot of it was legit criticism that she didn't want to hear. As unlikely as this may be, I would love nothing more than Dina Lohan to read this blog because I have always wanted to give her a piece of my mind.


To put it simply....her parents have issues. And unfortunately for Lindsay, it appears that a lot of this immature behavior displayed by her parents have rubbed off on her. Lindsay has two DUIs on her record and tabloids linked her to a rumored scuffle with Hilary Duff. Like father like daughter. And Lindsay is not shy about the spotlight either. Always partying and hanging out with other notorious celebrities such as Paris Hilton. Like mother like daughter. At least Lindsay was smart enough to keep enough distance from Dina so that she didn't have to live in anyone's shadow. The sad part was that she had less people to depend on for support.


As of this writing, two days have passed since Lindsay began her ninety day jail sentence; the consequences of spending too much recreation time on drugs and booze; and then later avoiding second chances designed to help her learn discipline. Instead of counting their daughter's money and pushing the family in front of every camera in sight, Dina and Michael should have spent their time counseling Lindsay when she was clearly in distress. When her daughter's partying habits started to draw concern from the media, Dina just shrugged it off as if it was just normal child behavior. She never seems to neglect her family unless she has nothing to gain from it. Thanks to expensive lawyers, Lindsay had gotten herself out of so many slaps on the wrist that she was probably feeling invincible even up to her last time in court.


Do I feel sorry for Lindsay Lohan? Yes. Not because she doesn't deserve jail time, but because her peers and especially her parents have failed to teach Lindsay the sort of self-discipline that is needed to survive in this crazy world of ours. She had been told too many times the false philosophy that no publicity is bad publicity. She needed to take responsibility for her actions. She needed a wake-up call and it is such a shame that a jail sentence had to be that call. Perhaps all this time spent isolated in a cell will give her enough time to think about the decisions she had made and how to better prepare for the future.


On a personal note, you can color me surprised that I decided to spend time out of my day to talk about Lindsay Lohan. After all, it's not like she doesn't get enough attention from the media. There's a special strange connection regarding celebrity/fan relationships that is difficult to explain. For the longest time I have not been able to explain it but I think I've got it figured out now.


Let's say you visit a friend's house for a party one weekend. There are people you know and people you don't know that are visiting the house. One party guest that you have never met before takes the inititave to tell a hilarious story about one of his blind dates. The story is so memorable and so entertaining that it becomes engraved in your memory to be recalled later at another conversation. You never meet this wild party guest again so you fail to connect with him on a personal level. Nevertheless you will always remember him and you'll find yourself referring to him as the "blind date guy" or something to that effect when recalling the story to friends.


Now imagine that you are watching America's Most Wanted one evening. Low and behold....the blind date guy's mugshot is on the screen and the host is telling you to watch out for this man as he is a dangerous fugitive. You are shocked to find out that a person linked to you is now involved with something completely over his head. Never would you have predicted this to happen. You wonder how such a fun-loving guy (or so you thought) can become this sort of person and what could have possibly lead to it.


The point I'm trying to make here is that it is natural to care for individuals that you don't really know so long as there is a connection. Lindsay Lohan is like that person at the party telling that hilarious story. The person has left his/her mark on every guest sitting in that room and now they are all connected to him/her. Truth be told, Lindsay Lohan has entertained me at several points of my life, just like millions more that have watched her perform on their television screens. That is why the public is so fascinated by celebrities. They are human yet they are super-human in the eyes of their fans. When superhumans act human, it shakes up the image we create for them.


I truly wish you all the best, Lindsay. Assuming you end up serving the full sentence, these are going to be the toughest ninety days of your life. However, I have hope that this can also be the best thing to ever happen to you. It is okay to be vulnerable and human. It is not okay to avoid lessons that can be learned from vulnerability. I am so sorry that you were not given the attention needed to avoid this ditch you're currently stuck in. I don't know what it's like to be a celebrity but I do know what it's like to be depressed. My wish for you is to start enjoying life again without the booze. You're still young and have plenty more memorable movies to make and keep us entertained with until you're done. It's time to live up to what has been predicted since 1998; that Lindsay Lohan is here to stay.


And maybe we can get you smiling again just like how you were in that issue of Disney Adventures years ago.


Yeah, that's more like it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Inception




Title: Inception

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: July 16th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Writer/director and some say master storyteller Christopher Nolan brings another mind-bending tale to the big screen which suitably enough is all about the mind. Inception rounds up some of Nolan's past actors with some new A-listers to present a destined blockbuster that does not directly follow ideas from past films like we're so used to seeing in the summer season.

When the hypefest for Inception began during the months leading up to its release, I remember reading one online article with the headline: "Is Inception Too Smart for Today's Audiences?"

I think a better question would be: "Is Inception Too Confusing for Today's Audience?" Or how about any audience? It's probably best to judge for yourself. In the meantime, I'll give you my take.

Inception has two main plots and seemingly infinite subplots. The first main plot follows our hero and leader Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio). His role is the extractor. Through his mastermind invention of shared dreaming, Cobb can mentally but not physically enter any person's dream in order to gain knowledge from a subject that may otherwise never be learned. Shared dreaming is the revolution of interrogation methods. By infiltrating the mind when it's at its most vulnerable, Cobb has almost God-like powers and seems unstoppable. These powers are also the reason he lives his life on the run.

Cobb eventually finds himself cornered by Saito (Ken Watanabe), a man with the authoritative power to stop Cobb. Instead of bringing him in, Saito offers Cobb a chance to do him a favor in order to retain his freedom. Cobb must perform shared dreaming on Saito's enemy (Cillian Murphy). But this time, he is asked to do the opposite of Extraction called Inception. An idea is planted into someone's head rather than stolen from it. Cobb agrees and begins to assemble a team for the mission.

With his right-hand man and fellow dream infiltrator (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) by his side, Cobb acquires the other most valuable ally for this quest: a young architect by the name of Ariadne (Ellen Page). Her role is to build things in the dream so that a path exists only for Cobb's crew to follow. After this lengthy setup is finished, the quest begins and the movie throws in twists and turns so rapidly that the audience barely has any time to breathe.

I almost forgot to mention the other main plot. Cobb's past is shrouded in mystery that is slowly revealed over the course of the film. His wife followed his studies on shared dreaming so intently that she eventually became convinced the world she was living in was not real. Without spoiling the consequences, I will say that her actions following her new state of paranoia is shocking to say the least and it has left Cobb in permanent distraught in own unconscious.

The psychology of dreams is explored brilliantly. It may be an exercise in exposition but it is fascinating exposition nonetheless. Nolan's descriptions flow like unconscious information that is normally lost on an individual but become so clear once it is spelled out. Among the many ideas explored is how time can seem to pass normally in a dream state while in reality hardly any time has expired at all. And how many instances can one recall when someone realizes he/she is dreaming before they wake up? The movies ponders great questions and offers some answers.

Yet other questions are not answered. Why was it so important to have an architect on the team? With the way Ariadne's character was introduced, it led me to believe that she would play a major role on the final result of the mission. After her formal induction under Cobb's command, she is hardly given anything to do for the rest of the movie. At times, the plot feels like it is drifting along without its characters. Such an odd problem considering how dedicated the story seems to be at developing them.

Here's my biggest disappointment with Inception. For a movie that is all about exploring the dream phenomenon, there is so little imagination put into its visuals. The human mind is capable of seeing anything when asleep yet most everything the audience sees is bland and uninspired. The trailer shows promise of jaw-dropping environments but doesn't deliver on what should have been the sauce on the Big Mac. I recognize that Nolan is more of a storyteller than a visionary director but someone somewhere dropped the ball on this golden opportunity.

Furthermore, the movie soon becomes its own worst enemy by attempting to be too smart. After a satisfying first act, things go downhill once Cobb's team begins operation Inception. We are supposed to come up with our own explanations for why things happen and who is responsible. There is a difference between films that purposely leave things open-ended and films that have no idea where to go next. Considering Nolan's obvious talent, I was surprised to find that he is not immune to the latter type. If a film requires this many puzzle pieces to connect even after its conclusion, something is sorely missing. I can picture many conversations taking place with people who "got" the film and try to explain things to their peers. The ironiy is that every explanation is bound to be different. As an attempt to compensate for this mess, countless random and brief action scenes are thrown in with their purpose being to wake up the audience from their trance instead of complementing the plot. This sort of "stop-and-go" pacing hurt my ability to get emotionally involved with onscreen events.

I have so much respect for Christopher Nolan. The man was brave enough to deliver a summer blockbuster free from sequel tie-ins and past ideas. An impressive feat for today's era. And he tackles a subject with such complexity that there really is no way around making the product somewhat confusing. Yet despite being fully prepared to have my mind challenged, it didn't take long for me to throw in the towel and lose by technical knock-out due to falling off the bus headed for the movie's destination. The strange part....and I can't believe I'm typing this....is that I don't even think Nolan knew where he was traveling.

Rating: 5

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Grown Ups




Title: Grown Ups

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: July 15th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13




If I was a paid critic, recommending a movie like Grown Ups to the general viewing public would grant me large ridicule and possibly being shown the door. Luckily I'm just a regular guy so I have nothing to lose.

When you pay money to see a movie produced by Happy Madison, you should already have a general idea for what you're in for. It's not high art, that's for sure. You're most likely in for lowbrow humor, a nonsensical plot and/or an over-reliance on the improvisational skills of its stars. Grown Ups has all of that and not much else. For Happy Madison fans, that is all that's needed. Sandler and his pals never seem to lose any sleep over what critics think of their work. They only care about pleasing themselves and their fans.

Here's the movie's story. Five childhood friends all with the same mutual respect for their popular basketball coach reunite as adults after the coach unexpectedly passes away. Guilty over the long period of no communication and recognizing the impact he had on their lives, the five pay tribute at the coach's funeral then later arrange to spent a relaxing weekend together with their families at a cabin in the woods. This impromptu vacation will give all of them a chance to catch up with each other, improve their family functions and remember the spirit of having fun with life. I won't even bother to list any of the characters' names because the movie hardly even cares what they are. So why should I?

Here is the real story. Adam Sandler speed-dials his best friends and asks if they are available to help out with his new movie. Neither he nor his agents have a script lined up but they figure they can just wing something until the camera catches some funny material. I imagine the conversation probably went like this:

Kevin James: "I'm not so sure about that, Adam. There's this other project that I..."

Adam Sandler: "Salma Hayek just signed on."

Kevin James: "Count me in."

In other words, the whole thing is an excuse to get Sandler, James, Chris Rock, David Spade and Rob Schneider together on screen trading one liners and insults. Actually, Chris Rock was given a lot less to do than the others for some reason. But he is my favorite of the group so maybe I'm just biased. Even if you don't like this sort of material, you have to give these guys credit for not being afraid to make jokes at their own expense.

The experience of watching something like Grown Ups is like spending a weekend with five of your funniest friends. What's not to like about that? I suppose some would just prefer the real thing but most everyone doesn't go to the movies for reality.

The jokes here are very funny so long as you can appreciate "spur of the moment" humor. This is the reason Grown Ups is only worth watching once in a crowded theater. Even after only a single viewing, it was obvious that revisiting these jokes would never garner the same kind of enjoyment. It's similar to retelling a hilarious story at your next party. It was way funnier when it happened five seconds ago as opposed to five days ago.

A common misconception surrounding material that is dominantly ad-libbed is that it's the result of lazy efforts replacing "true" comedy. That may be true in some cases (I'm looking at you Couples Retreat) but I beg to differ here. Sandler and his crew are known to film several alternate takes of many scenes and only settle for the ones they like best or know will work best. Most outtake reels could last as long if not longer than their feature films. Is that lazy filmmaking? I don't think so. They could make things easier on themselves by just keeping the first thing they shoot and cashing in the paychecks faster.

As good of a time as I had watching Grown Ups, there is one missing element here that prevents it from reaching the same league as Happy Madison's more memorable works. It's missing some heart. Even when Sandler's movies were at its silliest, there was always some sort of heartfelt message or theme that could be taken from the whole ordeal. It doesn't exist here. I suppose you could say "winning isn't everything" could be the theme but it seemed too "thrown in" for me to take it remotely seriously.

The best way to approach Grown Ups is to keep your expectations low. It also helps to go in with a good mood in order to embrace its silliness. It's a fine way to spend time if a rainy day is tampering with your summer and it may even give you some ideas on how to spice up your own vacation. But whatever you do, don't try the Arrow Roulette game. You're guaranteed to lose a friend that way.

Rating: 7

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Ali

Title: Ali

Year of Release: 2001

Date Viewed: July 11th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

The always charismatic Will Smith gets the chance to portray an icon in the Michael Mann-directed and simply titled Ali. Whether the material has promise or not, Smith can always be counted on to bring his A-game to the studio. Fortunately for us, Smith is not the only one with their A-game intact. The supporting cast and direction also do an admirable job of bringing history to life in this admirable film.

Muhammad Ali's early life is passed over in favor of focusing on the time when Ali's stock rises to its highest level. The movie opens with a montage where we see Smith as Ali (known then as Cassius Clay) preparing his body and mind for a big heavyweight boxing bout. In the background, we see speeches from Malcolm X (played here by Mario Van Peebles) and Martin Luther King Jr (LeVar Burton). This video package is effective in playing up to how Ali fits with the rest of the inspirational African American icons and its setup for the title fight taking place of a prologue. It also could be an artistic reference to the personality of Ali himself. Talk a big game then let your fists finish the conversation. Indeed, Ali was known for his words just as much as his fights.

After the impressive opening, we are given a glimpse of Ali away from the spotlight. He is devoted to the nation of Islam and is friends with Malcolm X. He is also quite the ladies man. Mann saw fit to give Will Smith a long love scene with his real wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Perhaps it's an overly generous contract deal but at least it stays true with its title character.

Ali's invincible image takes a hit after the assassination of Malcolm X. Distraught and bitter over the ongoing civil rights battle, Ali refuses induction into the US military, using his Islamic background as a case for the conscientious objector clause. His other reasoning is that he should not have to fight against the Vietnamese when his real enemy is right at home within US borders. While awaiting trial, Ali's title is stripped away and later won by rising star "Smokin" Joe Frazier. After winning the lengthy case, Ali is then given a chance to regain his title by challenging the man who defeated Frazier; George Foreman. This fight closes the film in the same manner as it opened; a dramatic battle for supremacy.

We are not really given a chance to explore the mind of Ali. Rather the movie operates as a fly-on-the-wall perspective of his finest moments. It should also be noted that the movie doesn't really humanize its protagonist either. His followers are in awe of his presence yet Ali is also a bit of an enigma. Case in point: for a long time in reality, his Islamic background was placed in doubt over the possibility of it being nothing more than a ploy to escape the military draft. We also do not see why he and Malcolm X have such a strong bond or why he took such joy at using announcer Howard Cosell (an unrecognizable Jon Voight) as comedic material. These unexplored areas work to the film's advantage since it's real goal was to present a moving tribute to the legend of Muhammad Ali instead of just the man himself.

Visually, the film is impressive. Mann uses a variety of camera angles, still shots and moving shots to bring this tale to life. In the past, I have criticized Mann for relying too much on style over substance. The same methods apply here but it feels much more at home this time. A ton of credit should also be given to all responsible for setting up the fight scenes; the movie's bread-and-butter. This is no Rocky Balboa picture. The scenes are presented with the purest detail of realism and Smith imitates Ali's fighting style flawlessly. If it were not for these scenes, the movie would fail to be memorable.

The scenes that illustrate Ali's journey from man to legend may seem to drag too long for some viewers. I give Mann credit for marching to the beat of his own drum and avoiding some of the usual cliches that accompany sports-related biopics. The outline is unorthodox but it works fine.

Much like the man himself, Ali packs a solid punch. Those looking for a more complete examination of the legendary boxer will be disappointed in what Mann has to offer. Those that want to see the impact of what this legend had on so many will probably find satisfaction.

Rating: 8

Thursday, July 8, 2010

My Big Fat Greek Wedding




Title: My Big Fat Greek Wedding


Year of Release: 2002


Date Viewed: July 5th, 2010


MPAA Rating: PG


When I first heard the title of this film, I was expecting the story to be about a wedding that had an abnormally large dinner buffet at the afterparty. To my relief, the movie is much more intelligent than that idea could ever have been.


Whether we deny it or embrace it, every family is weird in their own way. The family depicted in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is wacky enough to cause any person related to them to be wary of leaving the house.


The story centers on the family's ugly duckling, Toula Portokalos (actress and writer Nia Vardalos). During the opening credits sequence, Toula narrates her life growing up in the Portokalos home where traditions, meals and conversations were different than anywhere else she knew. Her father Gus (Michael Constantine) constantly embarrasses her with his Greek superiority complex. He loves to show off his knowledge of the Greek thesaurus and believes Windex has the magic power to cure any flaw that exists in the universe.


Toula is the only offspring of Gus' family that has not yet married or given birth. Despaired with her haggard appearance and family pressures, Toula wishes she could get out of this Greek nightmare and have a chance at a more "normal" life. The first sign of change takes place when non-Greek high school teacher Ian Miller (John Corbett) walks into the Portokalos owned restaurant and into Toula's life. After a bad first impression, Toula gets inspired to break away a little from her family's traditions and attend college. While there, she acquires computer education and an appearance makeover. As luck would have it, Toula gets another chance to flirt with Ian after the latter spots the former working at her Aunt's travel agency. Their eyes cannot stay away from each other and by the time the first real conversation starts, Ian and Toula realize that they are destined to be together.


Only one problem. Gus wants Toula to marry someone of Greek heritage to keep their family traditions intact for the future. Toula is skeptical that she can marry Ian without her family's shadow lurking over her. But Ian is determined to win over the Portokalos family by any means necessary, even if it requires him to receive a Greek baptism.


My Big Fat Greek Wedding is packed with one-liners that you are certain to find yourself quoting the next day although they can never be delivered as well as the cast do them. Conversations like "Can I please date your daughter?" No!" are not funny when you read them on paper. But when you hear Constantine speak the reply in that comically distressed voice of his, it is hilarious. All the characters are perfectly cast. I have no idea how many of them are actually Greek but you could fool me into thinking that none of them were even required to act their part.


The story is nearly perfectly paced and offers plenty of gags for fans of fish-out-of-water comedies. At one point, Ian undergoes a baptism ceremony at the Portokalos' church as an attempt to win his soul some Greek credibility. Toula (clearly embarrassed for him) turns to her brother and says "Any second now he's gonna look at me and go, "Ha. Yeah right. You're so not worth this."" She must be worth it because the baptism is just the start of the wedding preparations. He still has to undergo lessons in Greek dialect (a favorite prank opportunity for Toula's brothers) and getting his parents through a Portokalos family party without suffering too much of the alcoholic effects of ouzo.


Even though the Portokalos' are a family of antagonists, it's impossible not to like them because they care so much for Toula's well-being and have no earthly clue how unorthodox their traditions seem to the rest of the world. That's where the majority of the movie's humor derives from and its executed great.


If there is anything negative to say about the movie, it's that some of the punchlines lose their luster after hearing them more than once. The movie is watched at my family's household usually on a yearly basis and it makes us laugh every time but it never beats our first viewing at the multiplex when most of the audience walked in not knowing what to expect and ended up smiling the rest of the day.


If my understanding is correct, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the most financially successful independent film of all time. A title well deserved in my book. It's a great example of what positive word-of-mouth can do for you. Comedies need inspiration to work. By that line of reasoning, you could say that My Big Fat Greek Wedding is one of the most inspired comedies to come out of this decade.



Rating: 9

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Eye See You

Title: Eye See You

Year of Release: 2002

Date Viewed: July 4th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

Originally titled D-Tox, filmed in 1999 and trapped in the can until 2002, Eye See You is a horror thriller starring Sylvester Stallone as distressed policeman Jake Malloy. One by one, Malloy's fellow cops are being murdered by someone with an extreme hatred for the police force. The killer also has a personal grudge against Malloy since he was the one responsible for almost catching him during a previous spree. The murders are baffling to the police and it causes Malloy to act uneasy yet still level-headed enough to perform his duties.

That all changes when the killer targets Malloy's wife and kills her in his signature manner: gouging out the eyes with an electric screw, slicing the rest of the body and hanging it from the ceiling with rope. Distraught by the events, Malloy withdraws from his duties and becomes dependant on alcohol to ease his suffering. After a suicide attempt, Malloy is sent to a rehabilitation clinic for policemen located in the middle of ice-covered Nowheresville. (According to the internet, it's actually in Wyoming.)

Malloy is not given any chances to heal his wounds. The killer assumes the identity of one of the clinic patients and begins murdering everyone one-by-one in the same familiar fashion. With an ice storm surrounding the area, escape is impossible. Exposing and extinguishing the killer is the only option for survival.

I rented this movie because the idea of seeing Sylvester Stallone in a horror film was intriguing to me. It's kind of like watching Christian Bale in a comedy or Steven Seagal playing a wimp. It's a case of two unlikely associations. Stallone is an underrated dramatic actor so his presence is welcome here. The problems lie with the film's script which isn't actually that bad.

Aside from the stretch of a rehab clinic being so far cut off from the outside world, there isn't really anything wrong that stands out. The story is set up fine. The characters are introduced fine and are given things to do. The pace is steady. Even the revelation of the killer is not that predictable. Yet for all these good things, something seemed missing. Perhaps an interesting twist with the plot or characters was needed. Whatever the case may be, the movie is too formulaic and not as exciting as it should be.

Perhaps the reason it had stayed in the studio vault for so long was that nobody had enough faith to give it a wide release for an attempt at big profits. It would have been hard to market this as something special when it clearly does not appear that way on the surface. So instead it was quietly released and went unnoticed by most of the general public.

Eye See You had potential to be an interesting tale. If only there was a way to help the audiences care about what was going on, it would have had a better chance with the marketing department. The effort is there but what's missing is the entertainment value that thriller fans expect from their genre.

Rating: 5

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Law Abiding Citizen



Title: Law Abiding Citizen


Year of Release: 2009


Date Viewed: June 30th, 2010


MPAA Rating: R


Gerard Butler plays a man who takes the law into his own hands in Law Abiding Citizen. This thriller is sure to get some folks cheering, some squirming in their seats and some doing both.


Butler's character is Clyde Shelton, a seemingly average Joe with superb planning and inventing skills. On one ordinary evening, a pair of robbers break into his home. Before they leave, he is forced to watch one of them rape and murder his wife and then later murder his daughter. The two criminals eventually wind up in police custody. However, the justice is flawed as the one who committed the actual murder was only sentenced to five years while his accomplice was given the death penalty. It turns out that Clyde's lawyer Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) made a deal with the murderer that he would testify against his accomplice in exchange for a reduced sentence. A dismayed Clyde holds contempt for Nick and believes that he cares more about his personal conviction record than true justice. Nick claims his motivations were to lock both men up with an easier case rather than risk letting them both go free.


Ten years later, the murderer is found in twenty-five pieces on Clyde's property. Clyde turns himself in and makes no effort to hide the fact that he was responsible for the gruesome act of revenge. At first, Nick applauds Clyde for his brilliant planning and execution. Then he becomes uneasy after learning that Clyde's mission isn't finished. His war extends to the entire criminal justice system. Everyone linked to the system is now a potential target, including Nick. Even though Clyde is behind bars, bodies start to turn up everywhere and it leaves everyone wondering if they might be next.


I'm happy to report that this is Butler's best role in recent years. He avoids his typecast and delivers a memorable performance of a man with nothing to lose and rage that cannot be contained. Until now, I never imagined Butler being this scary.


Foxx's performance is mostly calm and collected. He does what is expected of him but is not given a lot of challenging material.


The story is intriguing due to the absence of clear-cut good guys and bad guys. Both Clyde and Nick want justice but they can't seem to agree on its definition. This might also ring true for the general public. If you were in Clyde's position, what will need to be done in order to help put your life at ease again? For some, seeing the wrong-doer get locked up and off the street so that he/she cannot harm anyone again may be enough. For others, it's necessary for the wrong-doer to be inflicted with an equal or greater amount of torture as revenge for the pain endured by the victim. The story may hit extra close to home for anyone who has ever felt betrayed by the justice system that is trusted to protect them.


All the makings of a modern-day classic are here. But there are lots of "only in the movies" moments that bring down its credibility. Questions like "How did he get the knife?" or "How did he do that silently?" will plague the more detail-oriented viewer. For the average viewer, the tension and unpredictable nature of the plot will be enough to leave them satisfied.


Law Abiding Citizen is a test in the form of a movie that measures how much personal vengeance means to you. If you find yourself cheering for all or some of Clyde's actions, you probably have a much tougher soul than mine.



Rating: 7