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Wednesday, July 27, 2011



Title: Devil

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: July 13th, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG-13

According to most pediatricians, the first few years of childhood are the most influential on a person's life. Sometimes I feel that way about the first few minutes of a movie. They can be really cheesy sometimes but I absolutely love an epic opening title sequence with the main credits flashing onto the screen. It's the perfect mood setter. Most of my favorites come from the filmography of Tim Burton. That candy bar assembly line at the beginning of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Amazing. Those aliens causing all sorts of destruction in the Mars Attacks opening? Awesome. And of course who can forget all those vague glimpses of the Batman logo before finally panning out to reveal the full image with Danny Elfman's famous theme playing in the foreground?

Devil has an opening title sequence from that very tradition. The movie begins with a Philadelphia fly-through with the image flipped upside-down. It felt like swinging around with your feet attached to the bottom of an airplane. The dark shadows and haunting music are a good indication of what's in store. It's an attention grabber, an idea I hadn't seen done before and very interesting. But I can't decide if it was a good or bad decision. That same type of dilemma came back several times while watching the rest of the film. There are a lot of interesting ideas here but not all are necessarily good ones.

This movie marks the first of a series of original stories imagined by M. Night Shyalaman that are later scripted and directed by other less prominent filmmakers. Shyalaman's vision of the devil is that of a being that lives and walks among us; often disguised as a mortal. Most of these details are spelled out to us through narration from supporting character Ramirez (Jacob Vargas). All the information came from bedtime stories that his mother used to recite. The building that Ramirez works security for is under a suicide investigation led by Detective Bowden (Chris Messina). While this is happening, five strangers find themselves trapped inside a stalled elevator while it's hanging approximately thirty stories up. 

The situation at hand is stressful enough. But things grow out of control when the already paranoid captives encounter deal with random power outages that bring physical harm to one or more of them at a time. Scares evolve into scars. And then comes gruesome murders. As the death toll piles up, Bowden and Ramirez struggle to preserve the remaining victims' sanity; complicated further by Ramirez's own panic. With his mother's stories still impressed in his mind, he is convinced one of the elevator passengers is the devil in disguise and that nobody's presence is part of a coincidence. Everything plays a role in the legendary custom known as the Devil's Meeting where targets are rounded up for psychological torture before the inevitable violent death sentence.

Devil plays safe instead of reaching for the stars. Setting the entire story inside the confines of the elevator would have been the necessary path for becoming a strong psychological thriller. It comes with higher risk but higher reward. The script that came to be splits the story into two points of view. There are the trapped elevator occupants with limited knowledge of the situation and there are the rescuers who are forced to stand by and watch helplessly as the murderer within that limited space kills everyone else off. With a running time of only eighty minutes, it's a burdening challenge on the storytellers. There is a grand idea behind all of the events. It does not receive strong enough support because of the limited time to elaborate on its featured players. Some disappear before anything can be learned about them.

But even if the right time was available, I sense the story's climax would still have a difficult time finding the perfect connection. It's frustrating trying to explain this in spoiler-free context. Devil has a clear idea of what it wants to be but doesn't have enough stepping stones to reach that mountaintop. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that when M. Night Shyamalan envisioned the main concept and presented his rough draft to potential colleagues, the conversation went something like this.

"I have an interesting idea. It could be something special but I can't figure out where it goes from here. Perhaps if the project was handed over to a promising director, he/she can find the missing piece."

A promising director was found. A strong effort was put forth. But the piece is still missing. It's too bad because Devil is ripe for Shyamalan's unorthodox niche. Ramirez's final quote says that if the devil is real, God must be real too. Hey, there's a sequel idea. Maybe there's still time to tie everything into a complete package after all.

Rating: 5 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011



Title: Tangled

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: July 8th, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG

(Special thanks to Ellen for loaning this disc to me.)

The history of the Walt Disney company has more ups and downs than Space Mountain. Their best known projects have come from their famed animation studio; home to some of the most talented artists in the world. The story behind the success is very much like a fable. A person dreams of having a special power. The dream comes true. Then the dream corrupts the person into selling out their values to satisfy greed. The person eventually reaches an epiphany, returns to their true self and everyone lives happily ever after. The last part hasn't quite happened yet. I think it's an overstatement to say that Tangled is Disney's long-awaited return to form. But they're definitely getting there. The one thing that can probably be universally agreed upon is that the movie successfully avoided becoming its own punchline.

Continuing with the fairy tale tradition, Tangled's story is set in a storybook world full of magic. The most sought-after magic is a yellow flower which has the ability to heal wounds and prevent aging. The first person to claim custody of this special power was an elderly woman named Mother Gothel (voice of Donna Murphy). Her story circulated as a legend before coming to the attention of the royal family. They are expecting their first child but the Queen is deathly ill and needs a miracle cure. Her soldiers locate and steal the magic flower for it to be distilled into an elixir. The queen's life is saved and the magic is somehow transferred into their child's enormously long hair. Princess Rapunzel (voice of Mandy Moore) is born.

But Mother Gothel soon returns to reclaim her prized possession. She kidnaps Rapunzel and raises her as her own inside a tower far away from the civilized world. The presence of the magic hair keeps Mother Gothel safe from death by natural causes. Now a teenager, Rapunzel has yet to see the world beyond her towering prison. An opportunity to change that comes when a scoundrel named Flynn Rider (voice of Zachary Levi) enters the tower to escape from the authorities who want him executed for theft. In return for reacquiring the stolen loot, he agrees to escort Rapunzel to the city where glowing lanterns illuminate the skies. The lights have mesmerized the young girl since early childhood and will bridge the path to her destiny.

Tangled is full of surprises not just in its well conceived storyline but its style and presentation. I watched this movie using a dusty eight year-old Xbox DVD player with a below average screen size and the resolution was so impressive that I was fooled into thinking that I had accidentally switched on a hidden upconversion button that I didn't know about. And this happened after being exposed to the high definition version as it was being demonstrated at the department store I work at. No matter what your home theater is comprised of, the video glows as strong as Rapunzel's hair. The animation is top notch as well. Somehow the bar of lifelike realism continues to rise higher even when not required.

Minus the use of pop culture references, the Dreamworks influence has clearly seeped its way into modern Disney-employed storytellers. That's actually not a criticism because there is a lot to be learned from that studio despite how hit-and-miss its track record can be. The slapstick humor is some of the most pleasing of its kind since the birth of the Shrek franchise. Some of the funniest moments involve a supporting character who has now joined the ranks of Percival McLeach and Captain Hook as some of Disney's best comical villains. Flynn's recurring rival is Maximus; one of the horses belonging to a palace guard sent out to capture Flynn. Even after the guard permanently leaves the story map, the horse carries on the mission and gets into some rather amusing scuffles including a sword fight that even makes the characters question the validity of the situation. Some of the other great moments are a result of simply clever animation. There's a great scene where Rapunzel has a devil of a time trying to hide Flynn's unconscious body into her closet. Somewhere the spirit of Curly Howard is sitting by watching proudly.

To bring the character of Rapunzel to life, the underrated Mandy Moore stepped up to the plate and smacked a home run. Voice work is simple in theory but can also be the most complex of all film jobs. Moore brought the right amount of charisma for giving credibility to Rapunzel's joy, fear and naivety. The animators even gave her a subtle nod by matching up their hairstyles at one point. Veteran Disney composer Alan Menken returns to familiar ground to score the primary music and the song numbers. And although Moore and her fellow castmates stay true to the loud boisterous singing tradition seen since the early days, the lyrics and melodies do not live up to the legacy. A Disney animated feature without a memorable show-stopping number is like eating pancakes without syrup. It's still appetizing but the absence of flavor makes it forgettable. It's too bad that a Howard Ashman only arrives once in a blue moon. I miss him now more than ever. 

The story is far from the most original of Disney offerings. It's basically The Hunchback of Notre Dame combined with the typical "lost princess" scenario. But it's the right dish to serve for the occasion. The Princess and the Frog was considered a return to Disney's roots. Tangled is that plus a glimpse of the future. It hasn't looked this bright for a long time.

Rating: 8

Tuesday, July 19, 2011



Title: Pro-Life

Year of Release: 2006

Date Viewed: July 1st, 2011

MPAA Rating: Not Rated (Made for Television)

Out of all discussion topics that are bound to instigate strong emotions, I can't think of a more uncomfortable conflict to get stuck in than when the abortion issue arises. One of the most common arguments heard from its opponents is that all births are God's will. Interfering with God's will is of course sinful and blasphemous. This Masters of Horror tale directed by John Carpenter takes that idea and flips it around. What if there's an event where it's God's will to prevent something from being born? The word "something" is not a typo.

The film opens with teenage girl Angelique (Caitlin Wachs) running alone through the woods of a semi-rural town. There's a look of fear and panic on her face. She reaches the highway only to get nearly run over by two doctors; Alex (Mark Feuerstein) and Kim (Emmanuelle Vaugier). While trying to restore the girl's composure, they notice that her figure shows the mid-point physical signs of pregnancy. Angelique accepts their offer of an evaluation at the nearby clinic. The incident came not a moment too soon because close on the trail is Angelique's estranged father Dwayne (Ron Perlman). Due to one or more non-detailed incidents at the clinic, Dwayne is bound by a restraining order that prevents him from getting anywhere close to the building. He knows Angelique is inside and of her pregnancy but has no knowledge of the circumstances. He also knows that the clinic employs doctors that specialize in abortion procedures. As a staunch follower of Christianity and its pro-life dispositions, the idea of his daughter being subjected to something contrarian is unacceptable to him.

The doctors are only interested in monitoring Angelique's health especially since they're aware of her father's reputation. But Angelique pleads to have the fetus aborted, insisting that it's God's will. She refuses to explain the pregnancy's origins because the story is too nonsensical to be believed. But the doctors soon realize that the situation is anything but typical when the three trimesters of pregnancy seem to be progressing within mere hours. Time is running short to make a decision. Meanwhile, Dwayne makes preparations to make the decision for them. Armed with guns and his three allegiant sons, he storms the clinic for a firefight between pro-life and pro-choice with one side vowing to win at any cost. Even a human cost.

I wouldn't have believed this to be a John Carpenter film if his name wasn't flashed at the title sequence. Underneath all that camp and shock scares, I think of Carpenter as a filmmaker who follows in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick that often has something to say about society. His films are typically grounded on satire and symbolism. We don't get to see very much of that here. That might be because his role was strictly limited to the director's chair although there's usually no way of finding out for sure. There are indeed true cases about fanatical pro-life devotees who have violently attacked abortion clinics to advance their cause. And there are countless individuals who unquestioningly devote themselves to religion without exceptions. But despite all these openings for social commentary, Dwayne's character is little more than an average loon who belongs in an asylum for the insane. The climatic firefight plays out like the ending of a B-movie western. "You have my daughter!" "She's safe away from you!" "You shot my son!" "He shot first!" "You're a murderer!" You're insane!" (Not actual quotes.)

As for the supernatural side of things, (this is a Masters of Horror episode after all) Carpenter's take on hell's breeding grounds is uncharacteristically comical. I mean to say that he's done comical themes before but it's odd to see it so imbalanced here with true-to-life issues. When the evil being's form is revealed, my reaction ranged from initial shock to hysterical laughter. It's frightening yet so typical.

Dwayne's mental breakdown pushes all other angles to the back seat. He kills doctors, their employers and even innocent bystanders all in the name of God. Ron Perlman doesn't fit my preconceived image of a religious fanatic but no doubt fits naturally into the psycho role as he always does. Those who enjoy gore-fests in their horror films will be delighted at the exaggerated ways the victims bite the bullets. And that's practically all that can be said about this movie. Despite having subject matter that challenges boldness, Pro-Life declines to take a life of its own. One could argue that the topic is far too touchy and redundant to make a distinctive message. I think there is a lot of psychological factors left to be explored. Unfortunately for guys like me though, nobody involved in the production noticed or gave a damn.

Rating: 4

Pro-Life is currently available to watch for free (legally) at IMDB, Hulu and YouTube.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Commentary: One Hundred Reviews and a Note of Thanks

Homecoming marked the one hundredth film review posted in the journal. I have to admit that back when this project was first launched in the summer of 2010, I didn't expect it to reach that far. No, really. So many other personal projects that fell outside life's bare necessities had been given up on because of a lack of motivation or confidence. We're talking about works of writing, room re-arrangements, social clubs and countless school assignments. This blog had a few rough spots at times but here it is still actively standing after one year.

Some of the most rewarding times of my life since graduating high school had been where I had just finished watching a movie and couldn't wait to tell someone about it. Or having a friendly debate over a movie's success or failure to reach its artistic goal. I was even lucky enough to get paid to do those things for a few years. I'm a quiet introvert especially in large social settings but come to life when movies are brought up in conversation. I guess it's that same spark or whatever you want to call it that fuels this ongoing project, which has no end in sight by the way. It will continue for as long as it stays fun and I can't see that ending anytime soon.

The journal was created as a way for me to continue watching films beyond simple personal enjoyment and to also reach a new audience to share that passion with. To all readers, even if you had only skimmed through a single post, thank you for making this possible. I look forward to meeting more bloggers and having many more fun entertainment discussions.

Expect another Masters of Horror episode review as well as some past and present Walt Disney studio releases to be posted within the next few days. As for the long term future, it might be time for a re-design in order to help give the journal a more unique identity. Since I'm still a novice, I will gratefully welcome any advice from experienced bloggers on how to shake up the layout to look nicer without fear of overcompensating. I might even edit some of the older posts to help them match up with the current font patterns and stuff like that. Any other questions, comments or advice for improvement are all welcome here at any time.

Thank you again. Wishing everyone a nice weekend.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011



Title: Homecoming

Year of Release: 2005

Date Viewed: July 1st, 2011

MPAA Rating: Not Rated (Made for Television)

I won't claim to be an expert on politics or anything for that matter. But I enjoy my right to vote and take it seriously. Whenever there's an opportunity to have my voice heard on an issue no matter how big the mob, I'll take it so long as I feel my view is informative and fair enough. That's why it has hard to shake off the frustration from when I was denied the chance to vote in last year's mid-term elections. The reason is a long story which I won't get into but it basically involves a legal misunderstanding.

Homecoming is a short film created for the premium cable series Masters of Horror. It's loosely inspired by a short story written by Dale Bailey titled Death and Suffrage. I was intrigued to watch this episode because of the theme of denied suffrage with some hypothetical questions. The dead cannot vote because they have no life and therefore no voice. But what about the undead? And what if the undead are soldiers who died fighting to preserve our country's democracy? What are their rights? I know, I know. It's a ridiculous concept, but that's not the point.

In this story, the current president of the United States is responsible for initiating an overseas war that was met with divisive reaction at the homefront. Supporters insist the operation is necessary to defend America from foreign threats. Critics believe there are ulterior motives and that the troops are dying for no good reason. With Election Day just months away, presidential speechwriter David Murch (Jon Tenney) and political author Jane Cleaver (Thea Gill) campaign for their leader's re-election by appearing on nationally broadcasted talk shows to rally justification for the war and de-legitimize their opponents. During one fateful interview, the mother of a deceased soldier publicly criticizes the administration for allowing her son to die for what she believes is an unclear purpose. David consoles the woman with a bold claim. He says that if he was granted one wish, it would be to wish her son back so that he can tell everyone of the operation's importance. The President likes David's words so much that it becomes a part of his campaign speeches.

Just days later, the wish is granted but more than what was bargained for. Hundreds of deceased soldiers rise from their graves and return home to the country they served. But they are not out to make speeches or eat brains. They have returned for one reason; to submit an absentee ballot. The President's public relations team are initially delighted over this miraculous happening. They are confident that these brave men and women will recognize the value of their sacrifice and thus support their leader. But early results indicate a contrary intention. The soldiers are fighting to swing the vote in favor of any politician that promises to end the war and prevent anymore of their current soldiers from dying. Upon learning this, the President's team contradict their own propaganda by asserting that the undead soldiers should not be granted suffrage because they are legally dead. Soon there are more drastic measures taken. Some of the remaining soldiers that have yet to vote are being interned by government security. It's a zombie film so of course we know that won't last.

Even for the most casual followers of U.S. politics within the last ten years, what the story is really about should be obvious. Not only is this probably the most partisan Masters of Horror episode, it doesn't even count as horror. The tone is dominantly comedic. I didn't believe Sam Hamm's teleplay credit at first because I was half convinced it was written by one of my former sociology professors who was so openly far left that he was hilarious to listen to. If you find those type of people amusing, Homecoming might be worth a watch. A lot of hilarity is related to its near-complete absence of subtlety. Other moments such as the celebrity parodies are funny on their own. Jane Cleaver is a full-on sendup of right wing pundit Ann Coulter with an extra dose of insanity. An early scene shows Jane engaging in sexual foreplay with Jon by pouring hot candle wax all over him. I'd like to think that even the real Coulter wouldn't act this crazy but perhaps it's best to digress on that for now.

Some of Homecoming's more serious satire touches upon torture and the general public's treatment of veterans. A decapitated soldier is kept under close watch for government study. An officer observes that the zombie can never be killed and shoots it with his gun to prove the point. His aide reacts disapprovingly because the soldier can feel the pain. But the officer shrugs it off because his captive "signed up for it."

It's probably no coincidence that the movie's best scene is also the least partisan. Like a chapter from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a lone soldier is wandering around town unintentionally scaring all the passerbys because of his deformed appearance. A kind-hearted couple notice the soldier's presence and invite him into their diner for conversation and hospitality. They treat him like a son because he reminds them so much of their own son who is still serving overseas. This scene serves well to remind that while there is always a time and place for cynicism, it shouldn't replace the opportunity to commend selfless bravery.

On a purely technical scale, Homecoming has a lot of things going wrong very early. The political pundits become convinced of the soldiers' true agenda because of the sudden swift in early polling. Yet these guys should barely be making a footprint in a land populated by millions. The main premise is also deeply flawed. Only the soldiers who disagree with the war want to have their votes counted. The movie attempts to cover that hole by explaining that the ones who believed in the cause rest peacefully from a job well done. That makes as much sense as declaring that you'll stay home on Election Day because the current president is still the best man for the job.

There does come a point where veterans of other American wars begin to emerge from the graves. There are some good satirical possibilities in imagining how veterans of different generations would view the issues we face today. Instead there's a new angle to the infamous 2000 presidential election this time laced in straw man wrapping. It's very possible that some shady activities were indeed happening during that whole debacle. But nothing is as black-and-white as the movie wants to believe.

Even for those that disagree with the political message, I think it's hard to argue that Homecoming doesn't have its heart in the right place. It closely captures the frustrated "pro-military anti-commander" rhetoric coming from the left wing during this ongoing divisive era. The fatal fault is the unintentional exploitation of the very people the film tries to humanize. By insinuating that the uncounted votes of the deceased will sway an election, it unfairly categorizes viewpoints that can only be drawn by individuals and adds to the straw man tone that hurts the persuasive power.

Rating: 5     

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Hangover: Part II


Title: The Hangover: Part II

Year of Release: 2011

Date Viewed: May 26th, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

In Jackie Chan's autobiography, a single sentence described the basic business model of China's film industry during the time he was working to break into it. It read (paraphrased) "If something works, you do it again." When Bruce Lee became the top box office draw at Hong Kong cinemas, every studio wanted to cash in by creating their own variations of the winning formula. Hero is trained in martial arts. Hero's family dies. Hero uses martial arts to beat the bad guys and avenge the family's death. Before anyone knew it, there were Fists of Fury clones everywhere on the market. Though we have yet to see our North American studios resort to that level of outrageous, they sure seem to be heading in that direction.

I am not against sequels in general. It's usually fun to see familiar characters encountering a different situation or the same situation with a different twist. And it can still count as creative work. I am however against the practice of greenlighting sequels without having a fresh idea to take with it. This happens because the studio is more concerned about maximizing revenue while the original idea is still fresh on the consumer's mind. Hollywood's number one priority is not producing fine art (though that often happens anyway) but to earn money. Sad but true. A sequel to The Hangover, the lightning in the bottle of 2009, should have surprised nobody. The original was not meant to have a continuing story but it raked in too much box office revenue to be left alone. Like all those Fists of Fury wannabes, The Hangover Part II has too much insecurity to be its own thing. By focusing too heavily on recreating the magic from the past, it dooms itself from becoming anything more than an exercise in self-plagirism.

Set a few years after the first story, the Wolfpack reunites for another bachelor party this time in celebration of Stu's (Ed Helms) wedding. With the past chaotic escapades still fresh on his mind, Stu takes no chances and limits the events to a casual brunch before traveling to Thailand to meet the in-laws. Following an awkward dinner with the bride's family, the gang coaxes Stu and his future brother-in-law Teddy (Mason Lee) into joining them for a campfire chat. They spend the night roasting marshmellows and enjoying what is probably one of the last few opportunities for all of them to be together.

The story fast forwards to the following morning. Stu, Phil (Bradley Cooper), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) wake up in a shanty Bangkok hotel room with another massive hangover and no memory of how they ended up there. Doug (Justin Bartha) is absent again but resting safely at the wedding location. Teddy however is nowhere in sight. Feeling responsible for the mess and curious to know how he received his new face tattoo, Stu refuses to return for the wedding until Teddy is found and brought back. The trio search the seedy streets of Bangkok, finding some new and familiar friends while running from new enemies along the way. And then.....there is nothing left to talk about. If you've seen The Hangover Part One, the rest can be easily predicted.

The lack of creativity here is astounding, even for Hollywood standards. I already covered just about every new idea, so what does that say? The location changed and a few characters are swapped but the sequence of events remain untouched as if someone was worried about ruining the recipe. But here's why more change was needed. A big part of the original movie's fun was in not being able to expect where the clues will lead to. Or how it all started. Or how close or far they were to finding their friend. I won't give away spoilers but there's really no point anyway. The Hangover Part II spoils itself by its unwillingness to bend even slightly for the sake of surprise. Not even Rain Man feared change this much and he was know what.

Here's what else we know. A prostitute is involved somehow. Alan will have a new small sized sidekick to play around with. A kidnapping and ransom plot will be thrown in. Teddy will not be found until Phil makes that confessing phone call and Stu reaches that epiphany. Mister Chow and Mike Tyson will show up because it's too small of a world for new gangsters and celebrity cameos. Stu will write another song. Do you still want to see this movie? If not, don't blame me. Those are not spoilers. They have all been revealed through trailers, promotional interviews and the opening scene. In other words, they want you to learn those things so you'll feel comfortable knowing that it's a risk-free movie. By the time I realized there were no more surprises, I was begging for someone to take chance with anything. Make Stu an alien. I don't care. Just try something. And there is absolutely no reason for Doug to once again disappear for half of the movie. Why not seize the opportunity to develop his character a little more? It would have been interesting to see how his personality reacts to being lost or watch him lose his wit's end over Alan's antics.

If there's one thing that's immune to staleness, it has to be the lead actors. The chemistry between them is still very strong. And though the cards dealt to them are largely poor, each one contributes in keeping this watchable. Zach Galifinakis' strongest talent still seems to be acting like a child trapped in an adult's body. The "stay-at-home son" scene with his mother is worthy of a few laughs. Ed Helms is superb as the square guy gradually losing his sanity. I think the only way a third film could be convincing is if he starts hanging out with a new circle of friends only to find out they are just as crazy as his old circle. After this incident, I would have retired from the Wolfpack. Bradley Cooper doesn't have any memorable moments but his screen charisma is necessary for keeping things moving.

As my role models always say, it's better to try and fail than to not try at all. The Hangover Part II is one of the laziest efforts in storytelling beyond what could even be imagined. Thus it deserves no commendation. Unless I've got it all wrong and the producers were simply giving what they thought the fans wanted to see. In that case, it's our fault for not demanding more.

Rating: 3     


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides


Title: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Year of Release: 2011

Date Viewed: May 19th, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Johnny Depp is back (as if there was any doubt) as Captain Jack Sparrow in the fourth installment of the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. This adventure sails familiar waters while bringing along some new crewmates including new a director; Rob Marshall. Borrowing from Tim Powers' novel titled "On Stranger Tides", returning screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio turned in a script that is half original and half adaptation; one of several new directions for the series. In comparison to where it has sailed before, On Stranger Tides amends some of the past problems while allowing others to linger. Most importantly though, it doesn't forget why it exists: to deliver the fun and unpredictable thrills one expects to see in a summer blockbuster.

Picking up a short time after At Worlds' End left off, shipless and crewless Jack Sparrow travels to London in search of the pirate who had been impersonating him around town. The impostor turns out to be a former love interest named Angelica (Penelope Cruz). The ruse was a way to recruit unsuspecting townspeople to join the crew of the infamous Blackbeard (Ian McShane) whom Angelica claims is her father. The mission is to locate the fabled Fountain of Youth. Jack is tricked into serving onboard and now has to contend with his problematic feelings for Angelica while staying below the radar of Blackbeard's sword.

But there are other parties hoping to find the fountain first. Jack's first mate Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) barters to assist former rival turned navy privateer Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) with his own expedition while also avoiding the hangman's noose. Motivated by the belief that the fountain is an abomination against religion, the Spanish army also join the race. Whoever gets there first will impact a destiny over life and death. Some will die before reaching the destination.

On Stranger Tides feels more like a spinoff than a sequel and that's a good thing. In previous offerings, the writers often seemed too captive in the mindset that everything has to be bigger and better than it was before. What ended up happening was the plot bit off more than could be chewed which resulted in an unsatisfying meal. Except for the fun factor, nearly everything is scaled back from the bar that had been set prior. By allowing more room for the film to breathe, the Pirates universe remains in a comfortably ambiguous state while the characters have more freedom to grow. Jack Sparrow is still the clumsy nomad that we all know and love. But this time, he demonstrates capability to be the voice of reason when the time calls for it. Hector Barbossa's tweener role is given a new dimension from the unseen history of losing his flagship Black Pearl and his leg during a fateful voyage.

Ian McShane's depiction of Blackbeard is a very loose depiction of the real life counterpart. Lacking the intimidating presence of Davy Jones and the charisma of Barbossa, the character is at his most interesting when utilizing the knowledge of magic and voodoo. His flagship the Queen Anne's Revenge is powered by a magical sword that controls both the steering and direction. The voodoo is an invaluable tool in keeping the slaves serving under him bonded by fear. It's nice to see a legend become reimagined for the Disney universe, but the real memorable villains are the dangerous mermaids that inhabit the waters around the fountain's location. In a justifiably lengthy scene, the mermaids live up to their storied reputation by seducing a scapegoat group of live pirate bait only to attack with ferociousness when the prey is at their most vulnerable. It's one of the darkest and most exciting moments in the studio's long history.

The stale romantic subplot of Will and Elizabeth Turner has been wisely discarded and replaced almost equally stale romantic subplot. One of the mermaids is captured as part of the ritual for utilizing the fountain's powers. While I'm on the subject, let me say that I like how the rituals in this series grow in ridiculousness each time. It's a good running joke. The only human that shows pity to the mythical captive is a missionary who is mesmerized by her beauty amongst the unique constitution. She returns the fondness because he seems to have a different aura than anyone else. It's a refreshing angle to see at first but fails to grow beyond its novelty concept. This might be the only Pirates film that would have benefited from a longer running time if that came to be.

The good news is that the movie makes the most of its reduced length. The story starts off at a quick pace and stays that way to the end. In terms of action sequences, On Stranger Tides is the most satisfying set offered so far. From the early carriage chase through London to the swordfight showdown at the fountain; the movie never stops being fun from a spectator's viewpoint. For those with a story-first mindset, the experience depends on the strength of fascination with mythological themes and how far they're willing to accept the "Point A to Point B" style of narrative. I'd say that should be expected from the onset because a pirate's life was rarely any more than that.

On Stranger Tides was my first summer thrill ride of the season and I'm happy to state that it's one that I really enjoyed. Fans should not fear climbing aboard.

Rating: 8

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Country Strong


Title: Country Strong

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: May 15th, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG-13

The critic quote printed on Country Strong's DVD cover reads "You don't have to be a country fan to love this movie." I always get a kick out of seeing studios do this. It's a sign of desperation. In this case, they're trying to talk the consumer into reading the plot synopsis before skipping over it because of the title. The surest way to avoid a problem like this is to polish the product well enough for its word-of-mouth to reach beyond the core demographic. That isn't to say Country Strong doesn't have anything to offer. I know some people that really enjoyed the film. But if I had enough time to point out all the commonalities in this and other "rise and fall of a superstar" stories, I think even they would concede that it's not by any means special.

Prolific actress and now singing sensation Gwyneth Paltrow plays troubled country musician Kelly Canter. As it's often seen with real music superstars, partying too hard on the road can break a life and/or career. Kelly's image had taken a massive downfall since a tragic incident where her intoxicated body fell off the stage, causing a miscarriage of her unborn child. At her husband James' (Tim McGraw, who doesn't sing in this at all believe it or not) and her loyal fans' encouragement, a three-city comeback tour is planned. Along for the tour is Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund); Kelly's new adulterous boyfriend, and Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester), the new opening act. The crew experiences ups, downs and at one point a complete derailment during the journey. Within this intention to repair a damaged life lies a cruel fate to destroy one.

Gwyneth Paltrow has done a nice job of revitalizing her own career in recent years. Her singing performances in Glee and various award shows were timed perfectly for this movie's promotion. It may be wise choice however to scale back a little from this point to avoid risk of overexposure. Country Strong's musical numbers are as dynamic as those seen at hot ticket concerts but are somewhat soured by unoriginal titles like "Shake That Thing" and "Give in to Me." Her supporting co-stars do some fine work of their own; arguably enough to be proclaimed as the show stealers.

Sadly, the song titles are not the only unoriginal things about this film. Drug and alcohol addiction was a more intriguing silver screen topic back when filmmakers took it upon themselves to push the envelope of controversial art. By now, it has become a bit redundant especially when the main character is fictional. Infidelity is hardly a fresh concept either, but this subplot never even had a chance to become interesting because of how inconsistently it was written. When a movie has no heroes or villains, it should be the result of well-written complex character identities for it to be done right. In this case, the characters abruptly change personalities by the chapter. Just when everyone seems to be on the same page and focused on bringing Kelly back to the limelight, there out to backstab each other just minutes later. Is this supposed to be about capitalistic fame or friendship and loyalty? The movie cannot make up its mind.

There is another underlying theme that I would have liked to see more of. Celebrities like Kelly Canter have legions of fans around the world. Although every one is valuable to the career, the ones that truly define them still believe in their hero unconditionally much like how a good parent treats their child. Not the blind slaves or bandwagon jumpers but the ones that are capable of recognizing faults yet still support them for the reason they became fans in the first place. Before each of Kelly's tour stops, we see some simulated press interviews with this archetype and each one is touching. The climatic moment where Kelly finally breaks out of the shadows and shines onstage could have been a lot more powerful had the build been more consciously developed. The strongest glimpse of this theme is seen when Kelly volunteers her time to a "Make-A-Wish" type charity by visiting and performing for a terminally ill child. (I wonder how many real life requests Paltrow gets for these sort of things.)

I cannot recommend Country Strong because of its weak novelty factor and limited appeal. But I don't consider this to be a bad career move by anyone involved. Shana Feste gets to direct like a concert manager. Paltrow, Hedlund and Meester become the stars of their own show-stopping numbers. And McGraw gets someone other than himself for a while. See? Not a total loss.

Rating: 4 


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dinner for Schmucks


Title: Dinner for Schmucks

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: March 27th, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Today's pre-review joke: Paul Rudd's picture on the DVD cover is exactly how I looked while watching this movie.

A reworking of a French picture titled The Dinner Game, Dinner for Schmucks is about an executive named Tim (Paul Rudd) who will do just about anything to climb the corporate ladder and earn the coveted seventh floor office. After pitching a new business strategy, Tim gets the attention he is looking for but still has a rite of passage to complete before receiving the big promotion. The company's bigwigs like to organize dinner parties for their entertainment. But it's actually a game. To win, you have to bring along the biggest idiot you can find. Against his girlfriend's wishes, Tim decides to sell out his morals in order to win his first dinner game and impress the boss. It doesn't take long for the perfect schmuck to literally walk into his life.

Barry (Steve Carell) is an eccentric artist who has no friends except for the stuffed mice he uses for his dioramas. On his way to the neighborhood taxidermist, he nearly gets killed by crossing into the path of Tim's car. Seeing dollar signs, Tim invites Barry to the corporate dinner and offers to let him stay at his apartment for a while. Unfortunately for everyone, Barry has virtually no inhibitions and immediately tries to repair all of his new friend's personal issues including one involving an ex-girlfriend. All efforts turn Tim's life into an even bigger mess than before. With the party just days away, Tim's only hope in avoiding total life destruction is to keep his cool long enough for the big break to arrive.

Dinner for Schmucks had so much potential for some great comedic scenarios. Not a single one is realized. I once dubbed Steve Carell as the hardest working comedian in show business. I guess this proves even the best cannot save the worst written material. His character is supposed to be a lovable sidekick or at least I think he's meant to be this way. If that is the case, the writers failed. If not, they made a huge mistake. Barry's antics are worse than the kid we all remember from elementary school who thought he was the funniest guy on Earth but was actually the most annoying one. The reason that characters such as Steve Urkel or Alan from The Hangover work so well is that they are written to be annoying to everyone except the audience. Director Jay Roach has shown with Meet The Fockers that he understands why this is important. Unless I have different ideas on what constitutes as irritating, Roach missed an opportunity to get that point across.

And speaking of The Hangover, Zach Galifianakis shows up for a little while because he's a big Hollywood name right now. If he keeps getting roles like this, those days will be numbered. Galifianakis's I.R.S. agent character temporarily controls Barry's mind through psychic powers in one of many potentially funny scenes with no payoff. But none of them compare to when Tim's obnoxious ex-girlfriend tries to win him back with a lowbrow and painfully long striptease. I always watch a movie the entire way through to give it a fair chance. But when I realized there was still an hour left to watch after this point, the stop button looked mighty tempting.

One of the few moments that got a chuckle out of me was when Barry confuses Nelson Mandela with Morgan Freeman. Sadly, this joke appears in the trailer, is repeated and it only works if you remember that Freeman played Mandela in another movie. For this movie's sake, let's hope Invictus doesn't become too dated in the near future or there will be nothing left.

In my review for Let Me In, I noted that a big reason for why foreign films do not always get the remake treatment they deserve is because the studio misinterprets what made the original popular in the first place. Dinner for Schmucks is the perfect example. I haven't seen the original French film. But from what I've read, the script was filled with social satire and clever dialogue; neither of which are found here. Judging from the DVD outtakes, a moderate to large percentage of this movie was probably improvised. I am not against that practice, but it's shameful to throw away a perfectly good premise just to compete with your co-star for the biggest laugh. The aforementioned "dinner" doesn't even begin until the final twenty minutes. By then it's too late for us to fully appreciate the motley crew of idiots that deserved to be in a better movie.

With so much credible talent involved in the project, Dinner for Schmucks is amazingly disappointing. The only real schmuck was me for watching it. Don't be the next one.

Rating: 2

The American


Title: The American

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: March 20th, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

One day while browsing the IMDB home page for entertainment news headlines, I came across a link to a story concerning a screening of George Clooney's latest film The American. This was just a few weeks before its nationwide release. The provocative headline reported that the vast majority of the test audience professed strong negative reactions to the film. The author speculated that the early feedback could hurt the ongoing marketing. The article sparked my curiosity as they usually do when the content is filled with that kind of sensationalism. I eventually rented this movie with moderate reservations because the article had never left my memory. It was easy to understand and sympathize with that preview crowd. But I would not have joined their rally.

In the attention-gripping prologue, aging assassin Jack and his girlfriend are enjoying a peaceful morning in an isolated region of Sweden. Everything swiftly changes when the pair is ambushed by someone wanting them dead. Jack saves themselves from the shooter and then intentionally kills his girlfriend before leaving the scene. The action is fueled by no visible motivation so it can only be assumed that he did it under suspicion of a double cross.

After jumping around a few European towns, Jack eventually settles again somewhere in Italy. His mysterious employer assigns a new job. A fellow assassin (Thekla Reuten) wishes to acquire a top of the line sniper rifle for use on a local target and asks Jack to construct it for her. While this is being done, Jack woos a local prostitute (Violante Placido) to help fill the void of loneliness left behind from his former girlfriend's presence. It's implied that the incident in Sweden weighs heavily on his mind, possibly with a lot of guilt. It does not however affect his lingering sense of paranoia, because no matter where the American runs and hides, he will never find complete sanctuary from sudden death.

As stated earlier, it's easy to understand why some viewers will feel let down. This is not the movie that was promised by the studio promotional trailers. This is not George Clooney running and shooting through elaborate set pieces accompanied by pulsating music. It's actually an arthouse character study in the tradition of serious foreign cinema and was assembled by a foreign crew. There are few events to speak of and even less "action". Clooney and his limited supporting cast barely have any dialogue to recite. Director Anton Corbijn relies on the visuals to tell the story, set the mood and hint at character emotions. Everything from the establishing shots to the erotic moments take more than enough time to let its effect seep in. It's not a "less is more" approach because there is actually a lot to find here if you're observant enough.

I don't know why the Italian countryside was chosen for the setting but I do know that it works perfectly. The backdrop is ideally served for Jack's life of exile. It's small enough to avoid drawing attention and just active enough to blend into. The edge-of-your-seat moment for me was a late night foot chase through the streets. The area is walled in but the intersections have up to around eight branching paths which lead to seemingly infinite ways for the predator to surprise ambush his foe. It's so different than how an American studio would have handled the same scenario.

Clooney performs with masterful ambiguity. It's never perfectly clear what his current emotion is but there are always enough clues for an educated guess. Violante Placido's role as the new love interest is played much the same way where her allegiance remains questionable throughout her entire chapter. As lust-filled as their relationship can be at times, the mutual distrust prevents it from reaching the desired level.

As is the case with most foreign films, the ending is open-ended enough for the viewer to decide the characters' future. Those who have grown overly comfortable with mainstream American movies will undoubtedly groan at this practice. As a reasonably well-rounded film fan, I appreciated the screenwriter's trust in my ability to piece everything together as I saw fit. Sometimes the best stories don't need a definitive conclusion. Or as The American sets out to prove, sometimes nothing about a story needs to be that way.

Rating: 7

Tuesday, July 5, 2011



Title: Unstoppable

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: March 19th, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG-13

There is something about a big powerful locomotive that produces a heedful aura. As a young child, a train crossing through the road and blocking the car's path was seen as an event. My first college dorm room was located near a busy railway. The loud horns often kept me awake at night with goosebumps. Even now if I was caught exercising my inner child and playing around with toy cars, it would be hard to resist simulating a big train crash that leaves behind a pile of mayhem in its path.

Unstoppable operates very much like a train itself. Slow to get going but becomes a fast and exciting ride after ample time. The premise is always an interesting one. When a worst-case workplace scenario occurs, a minor mistake escalates into a potential disaster.

On a fateful morning, veteran train engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) is paired with young conductor Will Colson (Chris Pine) for a routine shift at a Pennsylvania rail station. It's their first time working together and it gets off to a somewhat bad start when Will feels some resentment directed his way from Frank's similarly aged colleagues. Apparently some of the seasoned workers feel that Will's presence is threatening their job security. The pair begin their duties but limit their conversations which hints that both men are distracted by bigger personal issues.

Meanwhile at a related rail yard, a conductor makes a careless mistake when he disembarks from the cabin while his train is in motion to adjust the track path. Thanks to faulty brakes, the train unexpectedly picks up in acceleration and no one is able to catch up to it before it leaves the yard. Other rail workers are called in to reclaim control of the unmanned train but each attempt proves to be more difficult than the last because of the ever-increasing speed factor. If a solution is not soon reached, the runaway transport could be fatal especially with its hazardous cargo onboard. Frank and Will narrowly avoid their own demise when the two trains slightingly collide. With the rail traffic monitors running out of options, Frank takes matters into his own hands, utilizing all the collected technical knowledge to invent a plan for saving the day.

When I read the cast listing, I was anticipating something that resembled a buddy action flick complete with quips and the cliche pattern of two mismatched counterparts that discover they have more in common than initially thought. What I got instead was a working-class drama with heart. Although it's obvious from the start that Frank and Will are the heroes, the movie doesn't really treat them that way until they voluntarily make their move to quell the chaos. Up to that point, they exist as afterthoughts much like the way they're viewed by their superiors. Neither character anticipates their life having any greater significance than the duties of supporting the family and future family. That's why most of their conversations are about people other than themselves. The characters' believability helps in the suspension of disbelief during the less realistic moments.

The "ordinary guy turned hero" has become a trademark role for Denzel Washington in the past decade. While sometimes his tirades can put the performance into borderline self-parody, Washington wisely scales back into a more subdued state. The character is supposed to be past the point of anger, thus any thoughts of rebelliousness come with fatigue. Chris Pine has less to work with but puts forth a strong effort to separate himself from his peers of pretty-boy actors.

As for the action presentation, Unstoppable offers three different points of view in fast-paced transition. At one moment, we're onboard the train with Frank and Will to listen in on their thoughts and see things close-up. The next moment, there's an establishing shot of the runaway train showing no signs of slowing down. And then we see the vantage point of the television audience watching all the events unfold with narration from television anchors and the "breaking news" graphic running along the bottom of the screen. No unique emotion is left out.

What prevents Unstoppable from reaching classic status is Hollywood's typical unwillingness to stray too far from the blockbuster formula. The train is enough of a ferocious presence but that doesn't stop the producers from adding an unnecessary human antagonist. Harry Gregson-Williams' music score is appropriate but far too typical of the modern "assembly line" era of synthesized tunes.

If this movie had been released in the previous century, it could have easily ended up as a sequel to 1994's Speed. But since it's allowed to stand on its own, the thrills are more often genuine than cheap. I certainly recommend grabbing some popcorn and hopping aboard for the ride.

Rating: 8