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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Due Date


Title: Due Date

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: March 10th, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

If you're in the mood for a fun road trip comedy with likable characters, memorable dialogue and big laughs at every Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Due Date wants to be that next classic but encounters too many holes in the road to travel very far.

The new odd couple is the always dependable Robert Downey Jr. as Peter Highman and rising star Zach Galifianakis as Ethan Trembley. A misunderstanding at the Atlanta airport causes the pair to be placed on the TSA's "no-fly" list. This and the loss of his wallet dampers Peter's plans for travelling home to Los Angeles to witness the birth of his first child; due to be born in just a few days. Always looking for a new friend (especially one that doesn't come from Facebook), Ethan offers him a ride. An apathetic Peter agrees but soon finds the trip to be unbearable because of his tactless personality clashing with Ethan's immaturity.

Since this is a road trip comedy, it comes as no surprise to see their journey get jeopardized by more than a few obstacles. Ethan's stash of "medical marijuana" gets them in trouble with the border police. Peter fights sleep deprivation which nearly kills him. But nothing causes more mayhem than when one of the characters says or does the wrong thing that drives the other one insane. And this is where the biggest problem lies. To make this sort of comedy work, the conflict needs to feel natural. Too often it feels forced here. It's not a case of bad chemistry. I'm still convinced both actors could work together on a really good comedy someday. It's the poor character development coming from the script that hurts more than anything. It's possible to get away with it when an actor like Downey Jr., who can be entertaining just by reading the phone book, is involved. But the same cannot be said yet for Galifianakis who seems to be a condition performer; that is, entertaining when the material is right for him. He played a great loser in The Hangover because his character was written in a cute and clever way. And Galifianakis' style of comedic timing complimented it perfectly. In Due Date, he's the same annoying loser minus the written inspiration. One scene held a glimmer of hope. Upon learning that Ethan dreams of becoming an actor, Peter challenges him to demonstrate his skills with an improvised monologue. Ethan's vulnerable side comes through when he breaks down emotionally in front of his comrade. This opens the door for the characters to find some connection, but the scene is quickly forgotten about and the opportunity is wasted.

Downey Jr. is intended to be the square Steve Martin-type to Galifiankis' John Candy imitation. But his character is so bitter and his choice of words so mean-spirited that I dreaded to watch him have conversations with anyone much less his lonely soul of a travel mate. Not to mention the exchanges are often wooden so it hurts the movie's ability to earn laughs through dialogue, which leaves dependence on gimmicks and plot turns to pick up the slack. Some of them like the great escape from the border police are entertaining enough. Others like Ethan's dog imitating his master's method of sexually pleasuring himself seem like they came from the bottom of the barrel of filler ideas.

A few other notable actors appear in what I like to call pit-stop subplots. Most of these scenarios are here to enhance the backstory of the main characters and they work suitably enough. One glaring exception is Danny McBride's scene; an outrageous side show that will probably please most of his slapstick-happy fans but left me impatiently waiting to see the plot move forward.

Movies like these make me miss John Hughes during his prime. The presence could have elevated Due Date's mediocre material into something more memorable thanks to his knack for making audiences laugh at people's misfortune yet caring for their destiny all the same. This movie is stuck between following in his footsteps while trying to avoid stumbling over its own flimsy shoes.

Rating: 4


Sunday, June 26, 2011

Let Me In

Title: Let Me In

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: March 2nd, 2011

MPAA Rating: R

A foreign film receives the Hollywood treatment and the result is wonderful. Those words are probably not written very often. The Swedish novel turned movie Let The Right One In earned enough word-of-mouth praise upon its release to become a modern cult classic. Less than a year later, an American version re-titled Let Me In was greenlit to show the mainstream domestic audience what they have been missing. Re-imagining foreign cinema is a very common practice especially with horror films. The reception for these projects tend to be less than enthusiastic because the studios are often oblivious to the elements that made the original films popular in the first place. This is not the case here. Writer/director Matt Reeves should be proud of himself for not only creating a picture-perfect adaptation but also doing what many believed to be impossible; improve on the source material.

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays twelve-year-old Owen, an emotionally disturbed outcast who lives in fear of school bullies. As their antics become increasingly dangerous, Owen's dark dreams of fighting back start to consume his innocence. In an early scene, he rehearses fantasy scenarios that end with the tormentors getting a taste of their own violent medicine. But his social inhibitions are too strong to allow anything to happen beyond the imagination.

Just as the world (both physically and emotionally) begins to look its bleakest, a new neighbor moves into Owen's next-door apartment and then into his life. The person appears to be a girl around Owen's age and under the guardianship of a middle-aged parent. Supporting characters learn secrets of their otherworldly true history but most will not live to remember them. The girl is named Abby and she's played by rising star Chloe Grace Moretz. Abby's presence fills the missing void resulting from isolation. Her behavior is principally odd. She only appears after sunset, is often underdressed and initially rejects Owen's offer of friendship despite signs of a similar loneliness. Both characters soon understand that they need each other for their lives to have any hope of finding peace. This requires mutual sacrifice. Abby has what it takes to ensure her new friend's safety, but Owen first needs to accept the reality of their situation; which conflicts with the normal notions of reality.

To be a respectable successor to the Swedish product, there needed to be strong direction. Without that, even the best idea in the world can fall to injustice. I don't know how Matt Reeves got the job, but he was the right choice. Reeves understands that every shot counts and he makes the most of all opportunities. Since at least a full year passed after watching the original film, I cannot recall what, if anything, was recreated shot-for-shot. But I do know that effort was put forth to make the project his own. The moments I adore most are the scenes fixed on a stationary platform. By presenting the drama through wide angles, it enhances both the credibility and immersion. They look like moving works of art.

The story itself is rather artful in its own right. Supernatural romances like Stephanie Meyer's Twilight have the disadvantage of depending on the audience's will to accept pre-conceived fantasy and suspend disbelief. Let Me In's synopsis is far from realistic yet it doesn't require very much compromise to enjoy. People that were considered outcasts as children can find a lot of relatable material with the two main characters. Owen's story is one of social awkwardness while Abby's situation is more about physical limitations. These flaws prevent them from mainstream acceptance, so they turn to other outcasts for coping. It's just as much a love story as it is about friendship under realistic conditions. That's why the affection that Owen and Abby have for each other is more credible than Hollywood's common practice of pulling two pretty faces out of a hat for an experiment in chemistry.

You couldn't ask for better performances from child actors. Smit-McPhee and Moretz handle their tasks on the same level of grace as typical movie veterans. It's especially notable since the roles called for emotional maturity while staying true to childlike naivety at the same time. The supporting actors offered strong contributions as well. Richard Jenkins is perfectly cast in the heartbreaking role of Abby's caretaker. His character is depicted with vulnerability yet possessing of so much strength of love for his beloved companion. Elias Koteas (a personal favorite of mine) does respectively as the compulsive detective that doesn't understand the complexity of the local crime until it's too late. The bullies that terrorize poor Owen rise above the typical after-school special cutouts and bring a genuine aura of uneasiness. Their scenes are almost too uncomfortable to be watched.

As far as things that don't quite fit like a glove, some of Reeve's more subtle art is too muddled for its own good. Los Alamos, New Mexico is the chosen setting. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe any parts of that state see winters as long and harsh as the one depicted here. It could be argued that the setting serves as an appropriate backdrop for the story's grim nature. But when the 1983 timeline complete with Ronald Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech enters the equation, one questions if a deeper meaning was intended. The only conclusions I came up with for connections with the Cold War and Republican politics are too vague for any serious thought. Those ideas, whatever they were, remain unrealized. The same however cannot be said for the heart of the movie. There is so much to appreciate here that it's discouraging to remember how poor the marketing was for this film. On the other hand, optimism for American studios' capability in faithfully translating foreign material has been boosted. Let Me In should be the blueprint for all future attempts.

Rating: 9


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Commentary: Top Ten Indiana Jones Moments

Not sure what gave me the urge to do this. I haven't even seen any of these movies in a while. But inspiration never really has a schedule anyway, right?

The Indiana Jones franchise has so many exciting moments that I love to revisit again and again. This entry compiles what I believe to be the absolute best moments over the course of all four films. I hope you enjoy this slice of nostalgia. (Be aware that this post contains spoilers.)

Did your favorite make the list? If not, please leave a comment. I'd love to hear what it is.

# 10: "Don't Call Me Junior!" (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

Upon locating his captive father Henry Jones Sr. in Castle Brunwald, Indy is ambushed by a group of Nazi soldiers. They demand him to surrender his father's diary that contains vital information on the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. Henry had originally hid the item back at home and is dismayed to learn that his son had brought it back within German territory. The two of them have a loud overdramatic argument. Indy uses the diversion to his advantage. When Henry addresses his son as "Junior", Indy suddenly snatches away one of the soldier's guns. He shoots and kills all the surprised enemies in the room before reminding his father that he hates the name "Junior."

# 9: Saved By The Fridge (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)

After escaping execution at a Nevada military base, Indy unknowingly stumbles onto a nuclear testing ground with a life-size model of a typical suburban community. His worst nightmares are realized when the sirens wail. A bomb is about to destroy everything in the area! Panicked, Indy looks around for something...anything...that will save him from the blast. At the last possible moment, he shoves himself inside a refrigerator. The last-ditch effort works. The bomb destroys the house but the fridge remains intact and is knocked far enough away from the detonation site for Indy to live another day.

This is probably the most controversial scene in the series for reasons I don't quite understand. Is it ridiculous? Of course. But is it any more far-fetched than moments 2, 4 or 8? Bashing something for implausibility is fine as long as it's consistent. This scene was gutsy to be sure but it did not contradict its own rules. I love movies that are not afraid to embrace their own wild universe.

# 8: The Curse (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom)

In an interesting twist, Indy is captured by a savage cult and is subjected to a voodoo curse that corrupts his mind. He joins forces with his captors and nearly assists in the execution of one of his allies.

# 7: Indy Almost Passes the Torch (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)

In Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's final scene, we are treated to a little tease. Indy and Marion finally tie the knot. Right when the ceremony ends, a gust of wind blows Indy's trademark Fedora inside the church and lands at the feet of Indy's son Mutt. He picks up the hat and examines it with wonder. Just before he tries it on for himself, Indy steps over and snatches the hat away. The scene is possible foreshadowing of a Mutt Williams adventure series. But it also reminds the audience that there will never be another icon quite like Indiana Jones.

# 6: "He's your son." (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull)

Indy and his friends are on the run from Irina Spalko's Soviet team. He and Marion fall into quicksand. Mutt searches for something to help them out of the situation.  Indy uses the waiting time to congratulate Marion on raising a good child and also advises her not to fret too much over Mutt dropping out of school. Marion then reveals that Indy is the other parent. His reaction is priceless. A moment of awkward silence followed by a complete contradiction of his own advice. "WHY DIDN'T YOU MAKE HIM FINISH SCHOOL!?"

# 5: The Leap of Faith (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

The third and final trial of the Holy Grail quest leads Indy into a rather unusual predicament. His prize is waiting for him at the other side of a large chasm. There is no bridge and it's impossible to jump far enough to reach it, at least not by traditional human physics. His father's grail diary implies the requirement to suspend all logic and make a leap of faith. Against all reason, he goes forth with it and makes an astounding discovery. The bottomless pit is an illusion. The bridge was cleverly disguised to be invisible to the naked eye. A thrilling moment to say the least.

# 4: The Heart Rip (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom)

Arguably the scariest moment in the series. Thugee cult leader Mola Ram conducts a ceremonial ritual for all victims that are sacrificed to his gods. He chants ominous words and then thrusts his hand inside the victim's chest to pull out their still-beating heart. The prisoner does not yet die until seconds later when he is lowered and disintegrated into a molten lava pit while his heart catches fire at the same time.



(Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

# 3: Indy Encounters Adolf Hitler. (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

Vanquishing evil is part of daily life for Indiana Jones. In this scene, he comes face-to-face with evil personified. Under the request of his father, Indy makes a stop in Berlin Germany to reacquire the Grail diary that had been stolen from him. This event takes place at a book burning overseen by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Indy literally bumps into the man himself while trying to make his way out of the building. Hitler notices the Grail diary in Indy's hand but mistakes it for an autograph book. He signs his John Hancock, returns the diary to him and resumes his business. The audience breathes a sigh of relief.

# 2: The Ark is Unleashed (Raiders of the Lost Ark)

The most epic game of hot potato reaches its conclusion when the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant to examine its contents. What they find remains unclear. Some theorize that it's God's stored-up anger. Others say it's the spirit of the devil. Whatever it is, it wipes out everyone in sight (except for Indy and Marion) and brings us one of the most gruesome death scenes in movie history.

# 1: Indy Shoots the Swordsman (Raiders of the Lost Ark)

On a day scheduled for shooting a complex fight scene, Harrison Ford fell ill due to the harsh weather conditions. To avoid a filming delay, director Steven Spielberg improvised. He asked Ford to show up on set just long enough to shoot a ten second scene where Indy opts to gun down a swordsman instead of engaging in hand-to-hand combat. The rest is history.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Social Network

Title: The Social Network

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: February 20th, 2011

MPAA Rating: PG-13

As author Charles Sykes once observed, it pays to be nice to nerds. There's a good chance you might wind up working for one. If that popular quote could be rewritten today, it might also include a warning that nerds could figuratively stab you in the back.

In this adaptation of Ben Mezrich's fact-based book titled The Accidental Billionaires, Jesse Eisenberg portrays computer nerd turned CEO Mark Zuckerberg; the man credited with creating the social network that nearly everyone and their mother uses: Facebook. But who is the real mastermind behind the phenomenon?

The film follows Zuckerberg's rise to fortune starting with his ambitious yet socially unstable beginnings at Harvard University. After breaking up his with girlfriend in the film's opening scene, a bitterness fueled Zuckerberg spends an entire night hacking into university databases to compile images of female students for a web project titled FaceMash where users rate and compare the girls based on physical attractiveness. The site sparks outrage from the university's female population and the school board who sentence Zuckerberg to academic probation. It slams his dating door shut but opens a different door at the same time. Twin brothers Cameron (Armie Hammer) and Tyler Winklevoss (Josh Pence) approach Zuckerberg about a visioned project titled Harvard Connection; a new revolutionary information sharing website made exclusively for Harvard's students. They were impressed with his fast programming skills and believe he could bring the right tools to get the project launched. Zuckerberg agrees to help but stalls on his contributions while developing something of his own.

Using the Winklevoss' idea as a blueprint, Zuckerberg recruits friend and colleague Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) for his own social network opus titled TheFaceBook. The pair advance the site far enough to connect to other universities and attract the attention of investors. While Zuckerberg and Saverin decide where to take their company next, the Winklevoss twins make plans to sue them for stealing and profiting from their ideas. This is only the beginning of an ironic saga where the people responsible for connecting friends all around the world would prove to have difficulty keeping their own.

It's clear early on that the folks responsible for assembling this account did not have many nice things to say about Mark Zuckerberg. Since the man in question declined to participate with both the film studio and Ben Mezrich, the project was left solely in the hands of those that resented him or at least had reason to. If the real facts are only halfway true, no one should blame them. Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of Zuckerberg is formidably cold. There's an etched scowl on his face that only occasionally disappears to be replaced with a subtle evil smile.  And just to eliminate any potential doubt over taking sides, Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend calls him a name that I shall not repeat here because of the blog's intended PG rating.

One of my initial worries upon viewing the film was the possibility of struggling with a limited knowledge of how Facebook actually works since I have never used the site for myself before. *Tosses aside the rock he has been living under.* But the film is less about Facebook itself and more about the theme of money being the root of all evil. As the tagline says, you don't get to five hundred million friends without making a few enemies. Replace the word "friends" with "dollars" and that should give you an idea about what's in store. I expect many cynics to dismiss the story as nothing more than an anti-capitalist propaganda piece disguised as topical media. That's an unfair declaration. It's topical for sure, but that makes it all the more effective into drawing its audience into a lesson in friendship and betrayal. Because of one person's greed for that little something extra, the ones that helped in getting that person there lose out on a fortune. Nothing political at all about that message.

To present this story, writer Aaron Sorkin mixes dramatizations of legal court proceedings with flashbacks based on testimonies. This type of narrative invites a messy result. But Sorkin handles it with slick craftsmanship while keeping things in chronological order at the same time. Oddly enough though, it's when the hip soap opera shtick goes overboard where I begin to get disenchanted from the experience. Every character has the ability to talk at very fast speeds. A speaker often receives replies before he is even finishing his thought. Dialog sentences constantly overlap each other. I realize these are intelligent well-spoken college kids but they are not supposed to be mind readers too. 

A lot of the drama is underscored with music composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The term "music" is used loosely here. All that's left in my memory is obnoxious synth that accompanies scenes designed to make the viewer uncomfortable. It works too well.

As memorable as Jesse Eisenberg's performance was, I wanted to see more variety in the presentation. The permanent frown made me wonder if this Zuckerberg guy ever had any personality. And if so, how did he manage to win girlfriends with a face like that? The trophy for strongest performance belongs to Justin Timberlake. (Ten years ago, I would never have expected myself to ever write that.) His supporting role as Napster co-founder Sean Parker easily beats all contenders in the charisma category. And he even manages to trump Eisenberg in appearing to be the most dangerous of entrepreneurs.

The Facebook empire is showing no signs of slowing down its expansion on world influence. I hope the folks involved in this "behind the scenes" profile experience the same fortune. Even if some character traits are exaggerated, the traits that lead to the drive for stronger power are spot on. 

Rating: 7