Sunday, September 30, 2007


Director: Lee Tamahori
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel, Thomas Kretschmann, Peter Falk

Running Time: 96 min.

Rating: PG-13

** (out of ****)

Next is probably just as terrible as you thought it was going to be, but no worse. I'd say it's almost on even ground with Premonition, the similarly themed Sandra Bullock "thriller" from earlier this year, which wasn't exactly an intricate masterwork of plotting and characterization. That film was boring though. This at least extends the audience the courtesy of being entertainingly bad. About halfway through this film I came to a realization: There's really no valid reason for its existence and the filmmakers all but admit to it themselves. It was almost as if someone on the set threw their hands up in the air and said, "Screw it! Let's forget this whole mess ever happened."

The script is loosely based on Phillip K. Dick's short story "The Golden Man" and is the latest Hollywood offering to drag the great name of this legendary science fiction author through the mud. The film is ludicrously cast, poorly written and will likely end up in the bargain bin of your local Blockbuster in a couple of months. Alarmingly, it also stands as confirmation that Nicolas Cage has lost his mind and must have some kind of death wish for his career. It'll make you long for the glory days of the mid to late 90's when he starred in mindless Jerry Bruckheimer action vehicles like Con-Air and The Rock, which could be considered high art compared to what we witness here. The director of this mess is Lee Tamahori (The Edge, Die Another Day), a man better known for his cross-dressing exploits than any cinematic achievement, and this should do little to change that.

Cage (with a stolen Tom Hanks Da Vinci Code hairstyle) plays Cris Johnson, A Las Vegas illusionist who performs under the stage name "Frank Cadillac" and has the unique ability to see exactly two minutes into the future. This ability applies only to events involving himself, with one noticeable exception. For some reason he can see further than that when it pertains to Liz (Jessica Biel), a woman he has visions of meeting at a diner. It's a meeting he's determined to see happen and how it does provides one of the few clever scenes in the film as he puts his precognitive talents to good, manipulative use.

Trailing Cris is F.B.I agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) who needs Cris' help in thwarting a nuclear terrorist attack in the Los Angeles area. She saw him prevent a casino robbery and thinks he's the guy who can stop this potential catastrophe. Unfortunately, Cris disagrees and the rest of the film consists of him running from her and the terrorists, who are aware of his powers and want him eliminated.

The film actually starts off really well in the casino giving us an in depth look at Cris' ability, which obviously helps him win big in slots and at the poker table. Had it continued to follow the tone it sets at the beginning, really exploring what Cris could do and its repercussions instead of deteriorating into a mindless action spectacle we could have really had something. Probably not much, but it would have at least been something. The "two minutes into the future" gimmick is a good one that you sense had some potential with a better script, even though we've seen variations on it too many times in just this year alone.

The central problem with the story is that it simply makes no sense. Why would the F.B.I. waste their time chasing around this magician with a very questionable skill when they should be trying to prevent a nuclear attack? Furthermore, why would the terrorists try to kill this guy when they should be worrying about carrying out their plan? You get the feeling this whole movie consists of people chasing windmills. There's also no reason for Cris to be running. If anything, it would benefit him to aide the F.B.I. in any way he can considering he's a fugitive. It just doesn't fit together at all.

Movies like this are known for featuring generic bad guys but this one takes it to a whole new level. With a gun to my head I wouldn't be able to pick any of these terrorists out of a line-up or tell you one thing about them. Their names. How they talked What they looked like. There was this one guy who appeared to be the leader of the group, but I'm not completely sure. There's a hysterical CGI sequence toward the end of the film that looks like a low budget outtake from The Matrix. They clumsily try to present Cris' skill of looking two minutes into the future visually, but with the slow motion photography it instead looks like he's moving objects with his mind.

As for Cage and Biel, there have been many ridiculous May-December romantic parings in film history but this one may take the cake. I'm aware of the fact that a lead actor must be significantly older than his female co-star and have no problem with it at all. Actually, as a guy, I feel it's my duty to cheer the double standard that exists in Hollywood when it comes to this, but something seems off here and I think it has less to do with the distracting age gap than the performances of the two actors. They share no chemistry and Cage's character comes across as creepy, which doesn't help.

Cage phones it in, and while it may not be the single worst performance of his career, that's faint praise considering it's coming on the heels of his abysmal work in Ghost Rider. Biel, as usual, proves herself adept at wearing tight jeans but contributing little else. And whose idea was it to cast one of the few actresses who can believably kick anyone's ass, as a damsel in distress? Julianne Moore, who would have been a more appropriate choice to play the love interest (at least age wise) is saddled with the role of a hard-nosed F.B.I. agent. Moore, though laughably miscast, is the only actor here to escape unscathed and free of embarrassment. She also gets a pass because this is the first (and hopefully last) time I've seen her taking a paycheck part. Any thrills that could be found in watching her play so far against type are offset by the fact her character is a bore who spends most of the film barking orders at subordinates.

Before seeing watching this I was angered that I accidentally found out the ending. I realize now just how stupid a reaction that was. The ending is completely inconsequential, not to mention a total cheat. The nicest thing I can say about it is that it at least made sense…sort of. Honestly, if Tom Hanks appeared onscreen to confront Cage and demand his hair back it wouldn't have saved this movie. In Tamahori's defense most of the problems with the picture are with the script as the film is competently shot and paced.

At an appropriate 96 minutes the film doesn't drag or overstay its welcome, seeming at least somewhat aware of its stupidity and not overextending itself. It is sort of a guilty pleasure to watch big stars like Cage, Biel and Moore lower themselves like this and in the right hands this could have been played well as a comedy, if only the actors looked like they were having fun. Thinking back to Cage's hair, his hilarious romantic scenes with Biel, the bad CGI sequence and even the film's silly title cause me to laugh as I type this. Next could best be categorized as an inoffensively bad film that goes down quick and easy.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Knocked Up

Director: Judd Apatow
Starring: Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Jason Segal, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel

Running Time: 132 min.

Rating: Unrated and Unprotected

**1/2 (out of ****)

Knocked Up
is worth seeing to witness one of our best comedy writer/directors have an off day and prove he's not invincible. When I finished watching this lengthy 132-minute film I was left with a single question: Did I just watch the same movie the rest of the country did? The honest answer to that is "no" because the version I saw was unrated and longer, if only by about ten minutes but I doubt a ten minute trim job could fix all the problems I had with it.

Judd Apatow has proven on television and now on film that he has a distinct gift for wringing laughs out of relatable real-life dilemmas. This time he pushes the envelope too far and the result is messy. That's not to say this is terrible film at all and even when Apatow's off the result is still better than most of the other junk trying to pass itself off as comedy. It's unfortunate the situation he's exploring here just isn't very funny and the characters (with the exception of one) aren't particularly likable.

I don't think another director could have done a better job with the material, nor do I think any would attempt to try because it's tricky. It's almost like Apatow was trying to make two movies in one but was unsure which direction he should go, resulting in a bizarre mix of cringe-worthy moments and uncomfortable situations. Things I was supposed to find funny came across as mean and when I was ready to laugh Apatow would try to get serious on me. Maybe unplanned pregnancy is a topic that just doesn't work as comedy. I don't know. What I do know is this movie does not click as well as it should. When Ryan Seacrest gives one of the best performances in your film, that can't be a good sign. Oh, and did I mention that it's REALLY long?

Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) is an unemployed slacker who spends his days lounging around with his buddies Jay (Jay Baruchel), Jason (Jason Segal), Jonah (Jonah Hill) and Martin (Martin Starr) smoking pot and trying to get their Mr. Skin rip-off website,, off the ground. One night at a bar he runs into Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl of tv's Grey's Anatomy) who's there with her unhappily married older sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) to celebrate her promotion at E! Entertainment Television to on-air personality.

Despite having nothing in common, the fully inebriated Alison and Ben hit it off, and in what has to be the luckiest night of this guy's life, end up in the sack. Alison doesn't give a second thought to this one-night stand until weeks later when she starts losing her lunch during an on-air interview with James Franco. Turns out she's pregnant and is forced to invite the guy who's too broke to afford a cell phone back into her life. Now these two, who have as different lifestyles as can be have to try to make this work as best they can for the baby.

One of the underlying problems with the premise is that these two are so ill-suited for one another that you question whether them forcing a relationship with one another is really the right thing to do for them for this child. Alison also seems a little too eager to make this work considering she really can't stand the guy. Sure he's the father but that doesn't mean she has to hold hands with him and public and pretend they're together. Nor is she obligated to live with him. Much less have sex with him. I thought that was a bit of a stretch and Apatow moves a little too quickly with this, even if it does result in some memorably comic scenes.

Scaring the hell out of Ben (and us) is Alison's sister Debbie's stormy relationship with her husband Pete (Paul Rudd), which he fears could be a glimpse into his future with Alison. She comes off as an annoying nag who suspects the reason for Pete's late nights out may be an extra-marital affair. I say she "comes off" as an annoying nag because one of the great strengths of an Apatow film is that no one can easily be classified into categories and each character is written with depth and intelligence. In the hands of a less talented director and actress her character could have easily become a stereotype. Unfortunately, the fact that she isn't doesn't really make her any more likeable. Though Apatow does manage to get a better performance out of his real-life wife, Leslie Mann, than any other director has.

As usual, Apatow as at his best when his characters are making sly comic observations about life and the best scenes of the movie come at the beginning when the guys are just hanging out and telling jokes. Here he employs his usual Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared gang, who all seem to be playing exaggerated versions of themselves. He has a great ear for how guys really talk, but this is the first time I can remember where things seemed a little forced, almost as if he was trying too hard.

There were moments throughout the film where I got the impression I was hearing actors delivering dialogue from a really clever script. Some jokes really work well. Some, like a gag involving a silly facial hair bet, miss big. You could have a great Knocked Up drinking game if you took a swig each time a pop culture reference was dropped in the film. In the 40-Year-Old Virgin Apatow clearly had a handle on them and cleverly slid them into the storyline, but here he seems to be hitting us over the head with it. You almost can't get past a single scene without an actor or actress's name being dropped, or in the case of Steve Carrell and Jessica Alba, actually showing up as themselves in the movie. As forced as the proceedings may feel at times, no one could ever think of accusing the film of being unrealistic. In fact, that may be its biggest problem: it's too realistic. It stretches to find laugh-out loud humor in life situations that aren't that funny.

That problem is especially noticeable in the relationship between Pete and Debbie, which you're never sure is supposed to be played for laughs or not. If it is, it failed, because their relationship problems are so terminal they'd be better suited to a movie like The Last Kiss than this. It just hits too close to home. There's a scene in the kitchen where Debbie's just continually screaming and cursing at Pete as Ben stands there watching dumbfounded. How is that funny? It's just uncomfortable. Then the payoff to Pete's supposed "affair" ends up being played for laughs until Apatow switches gears once again and decides to acknowledge it as a serious threat to the health of their marriage.

There are a lot of moments just like that in the film, but with different characters, like the one played by Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig. She's a co-worker of Alison's at E! who delivers subtle backhanded insults during conversation. It's incredibly realistic, just not very funny. The whole thing comes off as mean. I was never sure if I was supposed to laugh or not and the whole movie contains this odd combination of comedy and drama that don't quite mix. On their own they're executed well and true to life but together the tone seems disjointed. The worst example of this comes with the appearance of an arrogant doctor late in the film. Nearly everyone could probably recall having a doctor just like this at some point, and when you did, you found nothing the slightest bit funny about it. It's no funnier here, especially when a woman's in labor.

The closer Apatow gets to the ending of the film, the more he piles on the sentiment and dramatics, which is odd considering the mean-spirited humor that preceded it. If you have any doubts just how sappy he gets, just sit through the closing credits. When the ending does finally arrive, despite us caring what happens to the characters, it's tough to care about the final result because he wastes so much time getting there. I have no problem with comedies running over 2 hours if the material justifies it. This clearly doesn't and so many intimate details about Alison's pregnancy are crammed in you'd think Apatow was making a student medical film instead of a comedy. You almost understand why Anne Hathaway dropped out of the lead role because she didn't want any part of the graphic births scenes.

Katherine Heigl is okay as the put upon sperm victim, but she isn't exactly an actress who radiates warmth and likeability, making her difficult to root for. That's fine in the beginning, but not so much as the movie wears on. She does radiate snooty elitism though, so her interplay with Rogen works and they share great chemistry. Rogen, expectedly, carries this whole movie with his laid back, regular guy charm. The casting of him in the lead role is an overlooked reason why this movie ended up being a huge financial success. I could almost recommend it just for his performance, as he's capable of selling just about anything. That this will lead to major roles for him almost made it worth sitting through the whole fiasco.

If it seems like I'm going too hard on this film, and it reads more like a one star review than a two and a half star one, it's only because I expect so much from the talented Apatow. We're all aware of the comic brilliance he's capable of and I'll admit to being guilty of expecting perfection from him every time out. Everything in this movie went exactly as expected with no surprises. I chuckled here and there, but can't think of any point during the film where I was uncontrollably laughing out loud. It even hold a candle to this Summer's Superbad, on which Apatow was a producer, but didn't write or direct. Maybe I was at a disadvantage seeing that film first.

As disappointed as I am, it's still clear that this guy is incapable of making a movie that isn't intelligent or doesn't mostly entertain throughout, so this failure has to be looked at in context. When the film ended I felt that maybe I've had enough of Apatow for a while and need a little break. It's possible I've become desensitized to his brand of humor, at least temporarily. I'll get a little break, at least until the release of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story in December, which he wrote. Then it's another round of Apatow-produced projects for 2008, which include Forgetting Sarah Marshall and the Seth Rogen penned Pineapple Express. It gives me great hope that these projects look immensely less mature and ambitious than this, but it also kills me to say that the fact Apatow didn't write or direct either leave me more optimistic about their prospects. I don't think I'm ready for him to grow up just yet. Knocked Up proves that it is actually possible for Judd Apatow to give us too much of a good thing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

We Are Marshall

Director: McG
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Kate Mara

Running Time: 124 min.

Rating: PG

*** (out of ****)

Occasionally you hear on the news or read in the paper the story of someone who narrowly cheated death. They were supposed to be at a certain place at a certain time and through fate, chance or maybe just dumb luck they weren't. They may have forgotten something at home or slept in. Whatever the reason, they missed that flight or drive. Because of this they're alive. Others were not as fortunate. The first 45 minutes of We Are Marshall explores exactly how that must feel and it's difficult to watch. If you can make it past this point of the film without your thoughts shifting once to Virginia Tech then I commend you. I couldn't.

The film tells the true story of the crash of Southern Airways Flight 932 on November 14th, 1970 that killed thirty-seven players and six coaches from Marshall University's Thundering Herd football team. Before the team boards the plane, Marshall head coach Rick Tolley (Robert Patrick) gives them a speech about how "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." By the end of the film we realize just how hollow that statement rings. Yes, this is an uplifting, inspirational sports movie that ends with "a big game," but this time the stakes feel different and it means more. It's the rare sports film that only makes a few missteps and it could have ranked among the best in the genre, if not for one glaring problem: the miscasting of a major star in a role he can't handle and has no business playing. Nor does he seem to have any comprehension of how he should play it.

What saves the movie are the supporting performances, including a great one from a television actor who proves he can quit his day job and have a successful career on the big screen if he wants it. It's a movie that's actually about something important and tells a story that needs to be told, which is rare these days. We Are Marshall opens with this plane crash and it's horrifying. Horrifying not for what it shows, but what it doesn't. In fact, we don't even see it, which is far more effective and emotionally troubling. Just the thought of it is worse than anything that could have been depicted on screen. The real shock and horror comes when news of the crash hits and the close-knit college community of Huntington, West Virginia is forced to deal with it.

In the wake of this mourning a question no one feels like answering hovers over the University: Do they suspend the football program at Marshall or try to rebuild it? Fielding a team with no chance of winning could seem disrespectful to the victims and their families. Or, just taking the field could be seen as a triumph over adversity and a touching tribute to the fallen players. Marshall University President Donald Dedmon (David Strathairn) votes for the former and has no plans for a 1971 season, but his mind is changed by one of the surviving players, Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie, in a powerful performance). He missed the trip due to injury and organizes a rally to get a new team off the ground. The obstacles in doing so are nearly insurmountable, chief among them an NCAA regulation preventing the school from playing freshman.

There's also the challenge of finding anyone who would want to coach this team. One man who has little interest in the job is Red Dawson (Lost's Matthew Fox), the assistant coach who at the last minute gave up his seat on the plane to the athletic director, opting instead to go on a recruiting trip. He's being eaten alive by guilt and grief, with little desire left to coach football again. Enter the energetic and eccentric Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), who seems to be the only man crazy enough to want to do the job. He lures back Dawson and the rebuilding begins, much to the dismay of Paul Griffen (Ian McShane), a prominent University supporter who lost his son in the tragic crash. That son also left behind a girlfriend, Annie (Kate Mara) who's having her own problems adjusting to life after the accident.

This film explores rougher terrain than most other sports movies because it's faced with the added burden of telling this true story accurately, but sensitively as well. It succeeds…until McConaughey shows up. Talking out of the side of his mouth like a ventriloquist on speed, he appears more interested in auditioning for the sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than giving a serious performance in a film dealing with a national tragedy. Supposedly, McConaughey spent a lot of time with the real Jack Lengyel making sure he got every aspect of the portrayal just right. I've never seen Lengyel and have no idea how he talks, nor do I care. That's not important. What I do care about is that this performance is completely inappropriate and distracting in this film. Didn't someone think to tell McConaughey that it would be far more effective if he tried to capture the essence and personality of the man rather than resorting to physical imitation?

The director, McG, has to at least be held somewhat accountable for not reigning in McConaughey's annoying mannerisms and inflections. It's not that I think he's a bad actor necessarily, but he's one of those performers that have so much charisma that when they go overboard it can really turn into a disaster quickly. His cartoonish mugging for the camera may seem cute to the ladies in a romantic comedy but it's completely uncalled for here. Because he has so much charisma and can be likeable in the right role some may find his work here goofy and endearing, a nice respite from the gloom and doom surrounding the story. I found it idiotic and distracting. If you can't stand McConaughey as an actor I'm giving you advanced warning because he's in rare form here.

Luckily, when Lengyl actually takes the field to coach McConaughey's histrionics settle down at least a notch or two. Matthew Fox, on the other hand, gives a performance that's not only completely appropriate, but moving, only made that much more admirable in the face of his co-star's scene chewing theatrics. Dealing with the aftermath of a tragic plane crash isn't exactly unfamiliar territory for him as an actor, but you can literally see the grief of this community and the entire nation on his face. Justifiably, and much to my relief, the focus of the film does start to shift back onto Fox's character and away from McConaughey's toward the final act.

As distracting as McConaughey is, it's not fair for me to punish everyone else who worked so hard on this film because of his misguided effort. Many will be surprised a director who calls himself McG and is best known for helming The Charlie's Angels films actually restraint and class with this material and Jamie Linden's script is respectful. In what must be a bid for artistic credibility, McG beautifully photographs and perfectly captures the mood and feel of 1970's West Virginia right down to the clothes and music. Just about the only spot where the movie steps wrong is during a consecutive five minute stretch when the soundtrack is overloaded with nearly every top 40 song from the 70's. We hear Cat Stevens, Crosby Stills and Nash, Black Sabbath, Credence Clearwater Revival and many more I'm sure I'm missing. Great music, but my thoughts should be on the story, not how many third world countries can be fed with amount of money spent to acquire the rights to use these songs.

Unlike most other sports movies, when sentiment and cliches are piled on here I didn't consciously notice it and instead was just mostly engulfed in this story. So much so that at a lengthy 124 minutes the film didn't feel a single second overlong to me, which is an accomplishment considering I usually can't stand sports movies. I kept waiting for the movie to introduce soapy, unnecessary sub-plots but it never happened as the focus was kept on this school and how they dealt with this tragedy and its ensuing moral dilemma. The tiniest details are handled right, like Lengyel's crazy idea to pay a visit to the coach of arch-rival West Virginia University. This coach's surprising reaction to Lengyel's insane request results in the most moving moment of the picture.

It was also nice to see a cheerleader in a football movie that isn't just there for romantic purposes or to be tossed around from player to player. Mara's character didn't end up going where I thought she would and it was one of those rare welcome cases where less was more. The bond she forms with her deceased boyfriend's bitter father was well handled with Mara, and especially McShane, giving good performances. Strathairn, an exceptional actor who's been sleepwalking through supporting roles way beneath him for the past couple of years, finally gets a good one here and you'll need a heart of stone to not at least be somewhat affected by his character's passionate dedication to the school.

This is the first time I can remember knocking off a full star rating for a single actor's performance in a film, which probably isn't something McConaughey should be bragging about the next time he hits the beach. It's a testament to the quality of the film that there's still so much to recommend despite it. A failure at the box office during its theatrical run this film currently carries a very high 7.3 rating at the moment on the internet movie database, which isn't surprising given it's a real audience pleaser. Anyone who's a fan of sports movies should find even more to enjoy here than others.

I'm with everyone else who has grown weary and skeptical whenever seeing a trailer for a new movie that presents sports as some kind of metaphor for life. This may be one of those, but if it is, it sure doesn't feel like it. It's about more than just winning the big game. It isn't even about winning any game. Every time I turn on the news it seems there's a new story about gambling referees, cheating coaches or steroid abusers. As someone who's really lost interest in sports lately it was nice to see a movie that reminds us why we watch and play them to begin with. I could probably count on one hand the amount of sports movies I've actually liked. We Are Marshall would be included among them.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Condemned

Director: Scott Wiper
Starring: "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Vinnie Jones, Madeleine West, Robert Mammone, Rick Hoffman, Tory Mussett, Emelia Burns, Masa Yamaguchi

Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

While it may not exactly seem like a compliment, The Condemned is the best movie produced thus far by WWE Films and features the best performance by a professional wrestler in one of them. At the film's center is slightly more than just the germ of a good idea. It's a great, if unoriginal concept that never quite lives up to its full potential. You could put up an argument that it's a fun, action-packed movie, just not a very well made one. While a million times better than the previous two WWE efforts, it does face a familiar problem that seems to plague all their films (and television product): They take a decent concept and dumb it down to the lowest common denominator. They get further here though because this concept is actually far better than decent and the mindless action scenes are exciting.

The acting ranges from completely awful to good, Scott Wiper's direction is average at best and the script is sufficient for what's being done here. It's unfortunate the entire film has a direct-to-DVD feel and the middle portion drags because with this concept we could have gotten a lot more. Still, compared to the other two WWE features this may as well be Citizen Kane. It actually does some things right, but unfortunately not enough for me to comfortably recommend it. With all the films being remade these days, I wouldn't mind seeing a remake of this down the line with a better director, cast and script. The best news to come out of this is what made "Stone Cold" Steve Austin click as a wrestling performer on television is translated nicely onto the big screen and he does a good job in his starring debut.

Mastermind television producer Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone) has an idea that will change the face of entertainment: strand ten death row inmates from all over the world on a remote island and broadcast live over the internet their battle to the death for survival, With 22 hours until show time and short a contestant, Breckel finds a last minute replacement in Jack Conrad (Austin), a bad ass ex-military officer being held in a Central American prison awaiting execution. He's joined by nine other convicts, who include a sadistic Irishman (Vinnie Jones), a giant Russian (ex-WWE wrestler Nathan Jones), an exotic looking, but dangerous female assassin (Emelia Burns) and a martial arts specialist (Masa Yamaguchi). By the way, if they're looking to cast a Quick Kick for the upcoming G.I. Joe movie, it's clear by the end of this Yamaguchi is their man. We don't learn much about any of them before they're quite literally dropped on the remote island to do battle with one another. It's then where things start to pick up as we get a better idea of each of their personalities, what they bring to the table, and most importantly, who can be trusted and who can't. It's also ends up being the second film this year (behind Disturbia) to make clever use of an ankle bracelet to advance its plot.

A giant "X" appears on the screen over the photo of each participant as they're brutally killed off with millions watching. Expectedly, there's dissention in the control room between Breckel and his producers, who think he's gone too far. This is actually handled well and helping matters is the casting of character actor Rick Hoffman as one of them, who you might remember from his scene-stealing role at the end of Hostel. He does much of the same great supporting work here and his character ends up being one of the few we actually care about. When the film shifts gears to give us some back story on who Jack Conrad is and introduces a silly sub-lot involving a crusading F.B.I. agent and government corruption, the movie's momentum is stopped dead in its tracks.

Austin is believable as a lone wolf fighting for survival, but the introduction of a girlfriend at home just serves to set him up for a scene where his acting falters. Making matters worse, the actress playing her, Madeleine West, has no screen presence at all and feels like a second rate stand-in for someone more talented who dropped out of the project. Luckily, the film regains its footing toward the final half-hour with some very exciting fight sequences leading to a memorable final showdown with some surprises thrown in. Vinnie Jones accomplishes what can't be considered a small feat making a formidable onscreen opponent for Austin and there's a clever death scene at the very end of the film (I won't say involving whom) that would have caused an entire theater to applaud, if only anyone had seen the movie when it was released. Unfortunately, it then decides to go on for one more scene than necessary after that near perfect ending.

You can actually hear Mammone's Australian accent sliding in and out as the evil t.v. producer Breckel, which is strange considering the role would have struck a more effective note if he kept it to begin with. Were the filmmakers afraid they'd face a defamation lawsuit from Survivor creator Mark Burnett? Mammone looks and acts like a poor man's Peter Sarsgaard, failing to convince us he's dangerous enough to pull this off and not really coming off all that believably as a television producer, or at least a very good one. A more experienced, veteran actor would have been a much better choice for this part.

I also found it strange that this internet show isn't being treated as a bigger deal. Other than a scene with people watching in a bar and an effectively confrontational t.v. interview with Breckel early on, you don't get the impression it's all that important. In this YouTube generation, wouldn't kids be rushing home and stealing their parents' credit cards to watch this? Wouldn't there be Condemned parties going on? Wouldn't there be protesting? This is supposed to be a big deal! I'm not expecting a deep social commentary from a WWE produced film but when you introduce a premise like this it's almost a tease not to go all the way with it. Even just a couple of scenes like those would have really helped the film. In the least it would have been more effective than the worthless time spent on Conrad's girlfriend and an F.B.I. conspiracy.

This internet show feels like a cheap, low-rent underground operation, which does suit the style of this film, but unfortunately also dilutes the impact of the story. A better director also would have better exploited the setting, which has tons of visual potential. To be fair, Wiper does make some attempts in the third act to explore the theme of its premise. One of the most ridiculous criticisms leveled against The Condemned has been that it delivers a message against exploiting violence when it spends the entire film exploiting it itself. That's unfair. It's absolutely necessary the film show brutal violence to make that point or the intended message is completely diluted. To say this is gratuitously violent is way off the mark, especially when Swiper actually makes a classy decision at one point to not show a certain uncomfortable scene and more effectively leave it up to our imagination. Did I just use the word "classy" in a review of a WWE film?

It's a shame that many, including those within WWE, have blamed Austin for the failure of The Condemned at the box office considering his performance is right on target for the material. I'm sure not promoting the film at all and opening it against Spider-Man 3 didn't play a role. It may not be necessary for Austin to prepare his Oscar acceptance speech, but for what he's asked to do, he delivers. Swiper was smart enough not to give him anything he couldn't handle and Austin's intimidating stare and icey delivery work for the character.

His performance here is miles ahead of John Cena's embarrassing work in The Marine, mainly because he wisely isn't asked to show any kind of emotion or dimension. Unlike Cena's outing, his weaknesses as an actor are well protected. Supposedly, now all WWE produced films will go straight to DVD, where many could argue they belonged all along. That's ironic because this effort showed some improvement and was the only one of the three WWE films that could come reasonably close to justifying a theatrical release. Unlike The Marine, The Condemned is at least about something and there's a reason for its existence. It's almost good, which is really the best we could have hoped for.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Georgia Rule

Director: Garry Marshall
Starring: Lindsey Lohan, Jane Fonda, Felicity Huffman, Dermot Mulroney, Garrett Hedlund, Cary Elwes, Hector Elizondo

Running Time: 114 min.

Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

I know, I know. I'm in shock also. What I'm referring to, of course, is the star rating above. It really ruined my plans. Think of how much fun this review could have been. I could have talked about how Jane Fonda marching into Lindsay Lohan's trailer on set and screaming at her to come to work on time was more exciting than any scene in the movie. I also could have cracked jokes about how Garry Marshall, the film's director, and judge on this summer's Fox reality show On The Lot, should have been thrown OFF THE LOT by Steven Spielberg for making this mess. But I can't. Why? Because in many ways, Georgia Rule is one of the most satisfying pictures Marshall's ever made. If anything, it's his best since Pretty Woman. With all the thrashing this has taken in the media, the truth is it's actually fine.

While "fine" may not exactly seem like a glowing endorsement, it is these days when it seems even movies I give three stars to come with an accompanying laundry list of problems. This one doesn't. It only has two and they're minor. There's an issue with tone (which is understandable when a feel-good family drama tackles issues such as molestation, alcoholism and oral sex) and it's slightly overlong. That's it. This isn't a great movie, but it's certainly a good one that featured characters I cared about and kept me entertained for the better part of 2 hours. Am I guilty of going in with super low expectations? Perhaps, but I have to recommend it because when it was over I found it did very little wrong and a lot right. It also offers an opportunity to see two very talented actresses go toe-to-toe. One of which (I can't believe I'm about to type this) is Lindsay Lohan. This movie doesn't succeed in spite of her presence, but because of it.

I had a blueprint in my mind of how this whole film would play out. We'd get a whole backstory of a bitchy teenage girl acting out until her mom tells her, "You're going to live with your Grandma!" Through the tough love of Grandma and the quirky local townsfolk she'll be miraculously transformed into a good girl and reconcile with her mother. And of course she'll fall in love. Some of that happens, but most of it doesn't and definitely not in the way you'd expect it to. We join the story in medias res as 17 year-old spoiled party girl Rachel Wilcox (Lohan) is walking alongside the car driven by her alcoholic mom Lilly (Academy Award nominee Felicity Huffman). They're driving from California so Rachel can spend the summer with grandmother Georgia (Fonda) in the small Mormon town of Hull, Utah. Unfortunately, Rachel can't stand mom's company long enough to share the car ride over and is discovered on the side of the road by dim-witted country hunk Harlan (Friday Night Lights' Garrett Hedlund). After a spirited back and forth with him, she's picked up and given a not so friendly lift to town by Dr. Simon Ward (Dermot Mulroney), an ex-flame of Lilly's.

Immediately upon her arrival, Rachel has met her match in Georgia as the woman has certain rules of conduct that must be adhered to if you're given the privilege to stay under her roof. This means for the first time Rachel actually has to clean her own dishes and (gasp!) get a job. One of the more refreshing elements of the film early on is that Fonda's character isn't exactly ruling with the stereotypical "iron fist" and it appears she's playing a little game with Rachel, trying to give her just enough rope to hang herself so she can learn a lesson. Georgia is capable of giving it just as well as she takes it. She knows this teen's game because she's been through this before with Lilly. Fonda's poised experience as an actress reflects this without the character ever having to say a word about it.

Rachel reluctantly agrees to a job as Dr. Ward's receptionist. He's a veteranarian who also happens to treat humans, because, well, it's a small town and people do weird things. This and a bizarre cameo from Hector Elizondo are the weirdest things that occur in this town as for once we're actually spared a cartoonish depiction of small town America and its "quirkiness." The people actually seem normal. What a relief. They're also justifiably taken aback by the arrival of Rachel and some of the best scenes in the movie are just her walking down the street (in clothes probably not too far off from what's in Lohan's wardrobe) turning heads in amazement in this conservative town. She's definitely unlike anything they've ever seen before.

It isn't long before she takes it upon herself to flaunt her sexual magnetism all over town, setting her sites on Harlan, despite the fact he's taken by a Mormon choir girl. I also really liked how the script didn't take the easy way out by just presenting Mormons as uptight prudes. They're real people with honest values being exposed to behavior they're not used to. An incident with Rachel and Harlan on his boat sends them into a tailspin. I can't say Garrett Hedlund gives a great performance but he does bring a clueless "aw shucks" charm to the role that's welcome here. Plus, how many movies have you seen where the teen GUY is the virgin being seduced by the girl?

When Felicity Huffman's Lilly reenters her daughter's life and family secrets threaten to be exposed I rolled my eyes. Surprisingly though, it isn't handled too badly. And when it is handled badly, it's even more compulsively watchable. Played hysterically over-the-top by Huffman, Lilly comes spinning through grandma's house like an F-5 tornado of substance abuse and vulgarity. She's easily the most detestable character in the film. Is it wrong for me to say I was happy to see her injured at one point during her many unstable tantrums? I was trying to figure out exactly why this character inflamed me with such hatred. Now I know and have to admit it. It's because Huffman did such a great job playing her.

Most critics and audiences have pointed to this section of the film as grounds that the script is ridiculous. How? I can't tell you how many families I've known of that have gone through stuff exactly like this. A parent has a problem and its passed on to their kid, who in turn passes it on to their kid. It destroys the whole family. Whether it's depression, substance abuse or whatever. As for how it's handled, sure it's slightly overwrought and overwritten but it's a Garry Marshall movie! None of that makes the material ring any less true. The performances of the actresses also keep everything in check, preventing this from sliding off into Lifetime movie of the week territory.

Amidst this splattering of family secrets, Rachel reveals that her stepfather Arnold (Cary Elwes) had molested her as a young girl, although there's no way of knowing whether she's telling the truth or it's just another troubled cry for attention. The molestation mystery, which has been criticized by everyone, actually adds some much needed intrigue and bite to the material. Helping further is the performance of Elwes who never tips his hand as to whether his character did this or not. Lilly doesn't know who to believe and neither do we. Rachel has slowly gained everyone's trust but could still be playing a game. Arnold on the surface seems like a good guy. There's legitimate doubt as to who's telling the truth. Some will say the final act is messy (which it is), but it's also full of surprises. Things are more complicated than they first appear and the direction the script takes Mulroney's Dr. Ward is unexpected. We think he's being set up as a potential love interest for Lilly, but that's not completely true. There's more to him than we suspect.

Mixing family comedy and heavy drama is tricky so the tone is inconsistent at times. You could blame that on the fact Marshall was rumored to have done some re-writes on Mark Andrus' original script, which could explain some of the fluffier material, a Marshall trademark. Despite that, if you compare this to Marshall's other lightweight fare, it could be considered a snuff film. It actually earns its "R" rating which is shocking considering its director. You can't punish the movie because the studio wanted to market it as a family friendly comedy when it's also trying to tackle more serious issues.

Unfortunately because of that I can't say I'm completely sure who the audience for this movie is supposed to be. Bad Lohan press aside, it isn't difficult to see why the movie bombed. It may seem like a "chick flick" from the advertisements but it's too dirty for that and it can't be considered a good date movie since it covers topics like child molestation. I also can't imagine girls getting pumped up to drag their boyfriends to a movie where they get to ogle Lohan for 2 hours. That's too bad because everyone missed out on guilty pleasures like Fonda telling Lohan to go fuck herself, attempting to literally wash people's mouths out with soap and beating men with baseball bats. After her humiliating comeback role in the dreadful Monster-In-Law this was a definite step up. At least it's fun.

When Lohan first appears on screen what immediately struck me was how surprisingly good she looks. She actually looks healthy! She bears much more of a resemblance to the Lindsay we remember from Mean Girls than the physically wasted one we've been seeing all year on t.v. and in magazines. I'll give it to her that she cleans up really well. She looks more like a major movie star than a troubled starlet here. Her presence doesn't take you out of the film (like her silly role in Bobby), but instead draws you in as she holds a sexy spell over the movie.

For all the controversy surrounding her on this film (including the infamous letter by Morgan Creek studio boss James G. Robinson) when the cameras started rolling she brought it. They'll be those who say she's just playing herself but I have to be honest and say this was one of the few times I wasn't distracted by the fact she's Lindsey Lohan, which is ironic considering the nature of this role. There are subtle nuances underneath Rachel's tough exterior and she does a good job conveying them, never pushing too hard. That the character bears a strong similarity to Lohan's real life public persona (or at least what we've perceived it to be) only increases the fascination and makes the film that much more interesting.

While I wouldn't categorize Lohan's off screen troubles as an industry loss even close to the level of Robert Downey Jr.'s downward spiral, this was the first time I was given a glimpse that we may be missing out on some interesting performances because of them. And to think here she's working with a script that's just merely competent. Before, I just wanted to see I Know Who Killed Me out of curiosity, now I actually WANT TO SEE IT. At the very least I'll give her the chance to take me wherever she wants to go as an actress, but it would be nice if she cleaned her life up so that specter doesn't hang over every picture she makes.

I understand the temptation to bash this movie. Believe me I do. But it isn't bad. When it ended I was overcome with a sense of dread. Dread because I knew I'd have to not only praise this film, but Lohan's performance. Images flashed of subscribers fading away and my dreams of one day joining the Internet Film Critics Society going up in flames. Still, at the end of the day, I have to say Georgia Rule is engaging, complicated and full of contradictions. A lot like its star.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I'm Reed Fish

Director: Zachary Adler
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Alexis Bledel, Schuyler Fisk, D.J. Qualls, Katey Segal, Victor Rasuk, A.J. Cook, Chris Parnell, Shiri Appleby
Running Time: 93 min.
Rating: PG

**1/2 (out of ****)

Spoiler Warning! This review gives away a major plot twist, although it comes pretty early in the film. Still, I felt I should warn you.

Sometimes when a film is given a very limited theatrical release then shortly thereafter appears on DVD it's an ominous sign. Nothing would make me happier than to tell you that's not the case with I'm Reed Fish, an autobiographical film written by Reed Fish. This movie hasn't gotten much attention and I'm about to give it some, but not likely the kind it wants. While this isn't exactly a bad film, it doesn't even come close to everything it could have been. And it KILLS ME to say that. It kills me because it would be hard for you to find three actors I like more than the co-stars of this movie. When you have talent like this in your movie and deliver anything that falls short of pure greatness it's a hint that something really went terribly wrong. The nicest thing I can say about I'm Reed Fish is that it misfires in an interesting and bizarre way I've never seen before and at least has the decency to do it with gusto. You can't really hate it despite its many problems because its ambitions are too pure and its heart is in the right place. Bigger budgeted movies with nowhere near as lofty goals have fallen farther and harder than this does.

The film touches on an important point, but badly. The notion that we've all wondered what it would be like if our lives were turned into a movie. Within the first fifteen to twenty minutes comes a major twist, the presence of which nearly destroys the film. The camera pulls back to reveal that we, along with the other members of the cast are watching a movie within a movie. A movie made by Reed Fish about Reed Fish. It may seem like I'm giving away a major plot development, but I'm actually not. Curiously, director Zachary Adler throws it in almost as if it's a brief aside and we're supposed to go back to the story as if we haven't at all been distracted by it. I think it's fantastic (even inspirational) that someone wants to write their life story and I urge everyone to do it. Just make me one promise. If you do, please don't pause in the middle to congratulate yourself.

Reed Fish (Jay Baruchel) is a 23 year-old radio D.J. in his small, folksy hometown of Mud Meadows. He's taken the job from his dad who's passed away and now feels the burden of having to follow in his footsteps. The opening scene sees Reed awakened by the on-air voice of his show's co-host (and town's mayor) Maureen (Married With Children's Katey Segal) and stumbling across the lawn in his boxers to make it to work. This is a guy who's even late for his own show. Mud Meadows is a town where everyone knows everyone else's business and all their dirty laundry is aired on Reed's show. He's the arbitrator of disputes and the go-to guy for all the latest news in the neighborhood. Unfortunately for him, a fast-paced news day would include an old man getting a flat tire and the reappearance of an animal called a "zorse," which is exactly what you think it is. I'm willing to forgive the fact that he isn't a very good D.J. since I'm not too sure he's even supposed to be one. He's all this town's got and basically just inherited the job (and a lot of cash) from his father.

Engaged to be married to the beautiful Kate Peterson (Alexis Bledel) Reed's mundane existence is turned upside-down with the reappearance of ex-high school flame Jill Cavanuagh (Schuyler Fisk). She's returned home from college with aspirations of becoming a singer and her arrival slowly, but unintentionally, causes a shake up in Reed and Kate's relationship. That isn't too difficult considering Reed has little desire to get married and is nagged constantly by Kate about wedding plans. An incident in the past plays a role in tying Reed to Kate and fostering a sense of obligation in him toward this community, as much as it hampers his own happiness. You should be warned in advance that this movie continues the developing trend in Hollywood these days of beautiful women falling for dorks. Coming to the realization that these actors can vicariously fulfill the wishes of a large population of the male ticket buying audience, the studios have made sure the days of any above average looking actor headlining a romantic comedy are over.

If you thought Seth Rogen with Katherine Heigel in Knocked Up was a stretch wait until you see this. That's not a criticism though. As long is the actor makes the character likeable and worth rooting for (which Baruchel clearly does) then I don't have a problem with it. Things like that can happen in real life and I actually do like the shift of more real looking people headlining movies because it given a wider variety of talented actors and actresses a chance. Everyone can't look like Brad Pitt or Halle Berry and shouldn't be punished because they don't, especially if they have considerably more talent.

It's clear the movie is setting itself up to play like a junior version of 2006's The Last Kiss, but with quirky comedy thrown in. Much like that movie the "other woman" is being thrown in as a temptation and a device to have the protagonist reevaluate the direction of his life. Also, like that film, she's not presented as a scheming slut, but rather an intelligent person with real feelings. Here, she's by far the most interesting character in the film. Except that's kind of a problem. Whereas something like The Last Kiss presented a similar dilemma as an impossible choice the results of which would alter the protagonist's universe, this one is an uneven match up. There's no doubt at all who he should pick.

The character of Kate is unintentionally presented as an annoying nag. This fact wouldn't be newsworthy if she was played by anyone else other than Alexis Bledel. That's right this movie takes sweet, adorable, angel faced Alexis Bledel and makes her not only unlikable, but someone no guy would have any interest in spending any time with, much less marrying! Think about that for a second. It's quite an accomplishment. Still, that may have been the point. I'm not sure. There is still the detail that ties Reed and Kate that I've intentionally left out. As a huge Schuyler Fisk fan I suppose I should be throwing a party that she nearly wipes the floor with Bledel, but strangely I can't. Bledel deserved much better than this. It could even be considered false advertising that she prominently appears on the DVD cover (which is awful by the way). Gilmore Girls fans checking this out for her will be disappointed as Baruchel and Fisk carry the movie while she's hung out to dry. Criticizing Bledel's performance would be unfair since she had very little to work with. Just beefing up that character at the screenplay stage would have really helped the story resonate at a much deeper level. At the very least, it would have made his decision seem more important.

A scene comes late in the film where Kate finds out the truth from Reed. How it unfolds and how she handles the information felt so real. It offers a giant tease of where this film could have gone. Unfortunately, it's followed later by a scene in the kitchen that feels like it belongs in another movie. Reed behaves so erratically and inconsistently it's like he's been possessed by an alien. When he's asked, "Are you insane?" that question could have easily been directed at the real Reed Fish, the screenwriter of this movie. He does make his choice by the end of the film. I think. I say, "I think" because the self-referential device of this movie within a movie returns to rear its ugly head at the end just when it's most unwanted.

Why would the movie want to tell us that Jill, a character that was well-developed and we actually cared about, was being played by an actress? And why would we want to see another actress (Shiri Appleby) come in late in the film as "the real Jill" and try to tackle the role unnecessarily. All that does is serve to remind us how strong Fisk played her. What's worse is when "the real Kate" also shows up her version is EVEN BLANDER than the one Bledel played! Unless they were trying to make a point that "real people" are rarely as interesting as the actors playing them, they can't recast them during the film and expect us to have the same emotional reaction to the material. It just doesn't work. The best entertainment allows us to escape with the story and the characters. That's difficult to do when someone's onscreen constantly reminding us what we're watching is fake, but great anyway. Imagine if during The Departed Leo's character asks Marty if he thinks they should do another take. That gives you a good idea of what happens here. This isn't just "breaking the fourth wall," it's tearing down the entire house.

I may be guilty of making this movie sound more interesting than it actually is, but it's probably a compliment to Reed Fish that I'm this worked up about a low budget indie that was shot over the span of 18 days. I probably wouldn't be so upset about the missteps if I didn't at least care somewhat about the characters and the story. To its credit, the movie does a good job capturing small town life and does have something important to say, even if it chooses to deliver it in a bizarre way. It's very strange how certain jokes in the movie are delivered and certain scenes appear to go nowhere. I couldn't tell if this was done intentionally because we're supposed to be watching a movie within a movie or they were actual flaws within the script.

There are times where the film seems to be almost mocking itself, but I was never really completely sure. I'm not quite comfortable comparing it to Napoleon Dynamite, but in its depiction of whacky small town existence the closest approximation to what this looks and feels like would probably be the 2005 Johnny Knoxville film, Daltry Calhoun. Thankfully though, Baruchel is infinitely more likeable than Knoxville. The rest of it kind of plays like the illegitimate child of The Truman Show and Elizabethtown.

Since this is a small town there has to be "quirky" supporting characters, the quirkiest of which is a nerdy store cashier with an unhealthy "high-five" obsession (He's played somewhat irritatingly by D.J. Qualls). Saturday Night Live's Chris Parnell cameos as the local bartender, while Victor Rasuk (The Lords of Dogtown) gives a good, low-key performance as the producer of Reed's radio show. Amazingly, none of these characters feel thrown in and they mesh pretty well with the story. Supposedly this movie was a hit on independent festival circuits even garnering Baruchel a Best Actor award at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. It's not hard to see why as this is a good starring vehicle for him and he effortlessly carries the film. Best known for starring in the brilliant but short-lived television series Undeclared and appearing in this summer's Knocked Up, he'll have plenty of opportunities to star in better movies considering he's a card carrying member of Judd Apatow's talented troupe of comic actors.

Sometimes I'm asked if a movie is "good" or "bad." Messy movies like this highlight what a stupid question that is. When I ejected the DVD I was sure I hated it, yet had this crazy burning desire to watch it again. It's the kind of movie that could become a cult curiosity because it has such a unique vibe to it. Having your own life turned into a movie is an inspiring and amazing accomplishment and the real Reed Fish (who cameos at the end off the film) should be very proud of himself. However I'd prefer the celebration not come during the actual film. That Baruchel and Fisk nearly save this whole thing is no small feat.

It may seem mean picking on a low budget movie with this much heart that touches on something that really resonates but I do it only because I know greatness was within this movie's grasp and feel it's my civic duty to inform everyone that these three actors deserve nothing less. Any one of them are capable of carrying any mainstream Hollywood picture and probably will in the future. There's an interview with the real Reed Fish on the DVD and he talks about how this movie made his life look a lot more exciting than it really was. While that may initially seem like a scary thought, it should give hope to those who wish to write about their own lives.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Rob Zombie's Halloween

Director: Rob Zombie
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Tyler Mane, Scout Taylor-Compton, Daeg Faerch, Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, Brad Dourif, Danielle Harris, Kristina Klebe

Running Time: 109 min.

Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

Spoiler Warning!!! This review discusses some major plot points.

No, I'm not among those who believe remaking John Carpenter's Halloween is sacrilege. The franchise was completely dead in the water, marred by countless sequels of alarmingly low quality. Michael Myers, once one of the most feared screen villains had been turned into a joke. If we were going to revisit Haddonfield it was going to have to be with fresh eyes. This was a rare case where a complete reboot of the franchise was the only possible direction to go.

When it was first announced Rob Zombie would be helming a "re-imagining" of Halloween it's been fun to track the reaction from horror fans. At first there was outrage and disbelief, but slowly as the release date drew nearer there was a shift in opinion of sorts. I almost got the impression that while no one could honestly claim the endeavor was necessary at all, they were kind of pulling for him to be able to pull it off. Part of this could have stemmed from a feeling of helplessness. The film was going to be remade whether anyone wanted it to be or not and accompanying it was this strange sense of relief that Zombie had the job. His previous efforts, House of 1,000 Corpses, and to a much larger degree, The Devil's Rejects showed a nostalgic appreciation for the genre and hinted that he might have it in him to pull it off. If nothing else, Carpenter's classic story was in the hands of somebody who respected it and would be careful, even if there would be no doubt he'd try to make it his own.

I was listening to a radio interview with Zombie where he said he made two phone calls to John Carpenter. The first came before shooting began to let him know what he was doing. The second came after it wrapped to tell him he was finished. That was the extent of Carpenter's involvement. Now the question that has been weighing on hardcore horror fans minds for months is "What exactly happened in between those two calls?" Everyone has held their collective breath, almost afraid to look. Would it be another remake hatchet job along the lines of Gus Van Sant's Psycho? Or more of a pedestrian recycling like The Omen or The Hitcher? The answer is neither.

The first forty-five minutes to one hour of Zombie's Halloween could almost be considered perfect, which at once stands as both its biggest strength and weakness. By staging the first half how he does, Zombie makes a controversial trade-off. Whether or not you feel this trade-off was worth making will likely determine your opinion of the film. In choosing to focus so much on the back story of young Michael Myers, Zombie inevitably sacrifices some fright and suspense to give us a more psychologically complex story. It's a double-edged sword and a huge gamble that makes this more of a character study than a conventional horror film.

The demystification of Michael Myers begins immediately as we're thrust into the home of the poster family for white trash America. It's Haddonfield, Illinois circa early '90's and young Michael (Daeg Faerch) is a disturbed, angry kid with an unhealthy obsession wearing masks and torturing small animals. Problems on the home front are at least partially to blame. Mom Deborah (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a stripper with an abusive alcoholic (William Forsythe) as a live-in boyfriend and sister Judith (Hanna Hall) is an obnoxious slut. This combined with some serious bullying at school pushes Michael closer to the edge. The only affection he seems capable of showing is to his mother and his baby sister who he lovingly refers to as "Boo."

Zombie makes an interesting choice with the casting of Faerch. Yes, he's creepy but it's not his creepiness that is most noticeable. That wouldn't be scary. It's his anger. Anger that many kids would feel if cornered and put in the same situation. The notion that Michael Myers isn't merely just a monster, but a disturbed human being that could reside in anyone is scarier than any of the brutality that will occur later. Zombie knows this and just builds and builds until the breaking point finally comes. When it does and we hear the familiar strains of John Carpenter's classic theme (interpreted rather faithfully by Tyler Bates) it feels like a huge moment. That it's used sparingly throughout the film only helps. The debut of the infamous mask is even more effective and nerve rattling when it arrives. Zombie does his best to put his own twist on its re-debut and it's very clever and original. It's clear he respects the lineage and does his best to make the moment feel important. After all, it is.

Sheri Moon Zombie doesn't give just a good performance as Michael's mother, but a terrific one. She brings a surprising amount of emotional depth to a woman who loves her son, but knows deep down that something is terribly wrong. She wants to help, but can't bring herself to. The idea that this monster lies inside her son proves too big a burden to bare. Her conflicted performance and sell-job of the material early in the picture makes Zombie's controversial decisions later on go down a little easier.

By introducing Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) into the equation right away a unique bond is forged between him and Michael that goes a little deeper than in Carpenter's version. For some reason, there have been a lot of criticisms leveled against McDowell's reinterpretation and I can't understand why. His work here is as good if not better than Donald Pleasance's highly over-praised portrayal of the character, which just grew more ridiculous with each ill-fated installment of the franchise. In Pleasance's defense though, no one could have done anything with the increasingly cartoonish material and dialogue he was saddled with as the series wore on. The handling of Dr. Loomis' relationship with Michael may be the one thing this film does better than the original. I'd even go so far as to say this is the most interesting role McDowell's had since you know what. In trying to understand how a 10-year old boy could cause such carnage Dr. Loomis gets nowhere for fifteen straight years until Michael's institutional escape (depicted in unflinchingly violent detail). This leads an embattled, conflicted Loomis to Haddonfield and us into the more problematic territory of Zombie's film.

Interestingly, Zombie plants seeds of doubt as to what Michael Myers motives are in returning home to find his baby sister Laurie Strode (Scout-Taylor Compton), since adopted and now in high school. In the original film we knew he was coming back to kill her. Here, he may be, but we're not completely sure. That mysterious element adds some much needed tension and suspense to the latter portion of the film. Zombie also really understands the town of Haddonfield. It looks and feels like the one from the original with some nice little details and homage's thrown in to Carpenter's classic which I won't spoil. Fans will quickly notice what they are.

It's in this latter section of the film where Zombie makes the polarizing decision to edge closer to the content of the original, even going so far as to recreate certain scenes and events from it. This makes for a strange viewing experience given what came before it and I couldn't help but be reminded just how strong Carpenter's film really was as I watched (and this coming from someone who doesn't think the original is the greatest thing he's ever seen).

Scout Taylor-Compton is faced with the unenviable task of filling Jamie Lee Curtis' shoes as one of the most memorable horror movie heroines of all time. Her job is made that much harder by the fact Zombie gives her less than half of Curtis' screen time, cramming nearly all of the original's story into the last hour as he makes a mad dash toward the finish line. Things can't help but feel a little rushed, which forces Compton to do much heavier lifting acting-wise than Curtis did.

Comparing the two performances would be unfair since the character serves two entirely different functions in each film. This movie is all about Michael Myers. But I will say Compton does make Laurie Strode her own. I could swear I had babysitters who acted exactly like that. She just nails it, investing her with just the right amount of toughness and innocence. More importantly, she seems like a real teenager. Unfortunately her friends, Linda and Annie (played by Kristina Klebe and Danielle Harris respectively) aren't rendered nearly as well, although not so badly that it would bring back painful memories of the teens in Halloweens 4 and 5. I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed Danielle Harris, who heroically carried those two awful films on her back as a child actress, didn't make a bigger impression here. In her defense, she's not given a lot to work with.

It's ironic that what ends up saving Zombie's minor miscalculations in the second half was his incredible commitment to and brilliant execution of the Myers back story earlier. Because of it, there's an aura of importance surrounding Michael Myers the likes of which we haven't seen since Carpenter's original. Unlike the inferior sequels there's no winking at the audience here. This man is a dangerous killing machine with a purpose. Having the physically gargantuan ex-pro wrestler Tyler Mane in the role helps. One of the many problems with the sequels was that the actors playing Myers weren't physically imposing enough to be causing the damage the character was capable of. Here, that's definitely not an issue. He also moves more fluidly and realistically than in the other films, where the character's movements seemed jerky and robotic. You'll have to look closely to notice, but the attention to detail is such that Mane's movements and mannerisms are nearly identical to young Daeg Faerch's from earlier in the film.

But by establishing what drives Michael, has Zombie really made his actions more or less terrifying? That will be the basis for much argument among fans. Obviously by showing us who's behind the mask a certain amount of mystery and suspense will be lost. Maybe some fear as well. Some of you may not be willing to trade that in to be given a story with deeper psychological implications. I am. What Zombie creates here is a different kind of fear. A fear not of the unknown, but the known. The knowledge that Michael Myers may not just be a nameless, faceless psychopath but a real person with a past and a set of circumstances that contributed to the carnage. That combined with the physical presence of Myers lends engulfs the latter portion of the film in a different kind of terror. Is that scarier than not knowing? Maybe not, but it carries a lot of weight and gives THIS MOVIE some much needed emotional pull. A little psychological complexity can never hurt any film, remake or not. Late in the film comes a powerful scene between Myers and Laurie that convinced me Zombie not only made the right decision, but wasn't just trying to resurrect a dying franchise for a quick buck. In it it's clear that he never lost sight of the source material and approached it less as a director than as a caretaker entrusted by Carpenter to reinterpret his masterpiece. It's a job he apparently took very seriously.

I do think Zombie tries to do a little too much toward the end and I could have done with less of the dizzying camera work. Many may complain he "shows too much" in this film but I've become resigned to the fact that we've entered a new era in the horror genre and we'll never see anything like what Carpenter did again. Today's horror audiences want (or are at least are conditioned) to see more gore so it's a compromise we'll have to live with. Besides, I wouldn't, under any circumstances, have wanted Zombie to shoot the film exactly like Carpenter did. That would be pointless. If you're shocked by the amount of blood and violence in a Rob Zombie movie you probably shouldn't be watching one. However, that's not to say this film isn't suspenseful because it is. The scares are there in spades, just in a different, more abusive form.

Despite being a remake of a horror classic there's no mistaking that Zombie's grungy grindhouse fingerprints are all over it. He employs his usual troupe of actors, which in addition to Sheri Moon and Forsythe include, Bill Moseley, Leslie Easterbrook, Sid Haig and Danny Trejo. He also throws in some fun roles for Sybil Danning, Brad Dourif, Dee Wallace, Clint Howard and Micky Dolenz. Yes, that Micky Dolenz. Turns out I'm not crazy and that really was the ex-Monkee cameoing as a gun store owner. Everyone makes an impression with the screen time they're given, but Trejo makes the biggest as an orderly who befriends Myers, or at least thinks he does. Zombie litters the soundtrack at just the right moments with classic rock staples like Nazareth's "Love Hurts," Rush's "Tom Sawyer," and in case you're having cowbell withdrawal, Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear The Reaper." It works and everything fits like a glove.

Going into this "re-imagining" my secret wish was that we'd get a radically different ending than the original that provides more closure. The final scene of Carpenter's film deserves to rank among the most unsatisfying endings of any great film, right up there with the psychiatrists long-winded babbling at the close of Hitchcock's Psycho. It may be the film's only flaw. Had Carpenter closed it out (or at least tried give us the illusion he had) we may not have had to suffer through all those terrible sequels that destroyed the franchise's reputation and I wouldn't even be reviewing a remake right now. If Zombie had all of Haddonfield explode in a giant mushroom cloud before the closing credits it could be considered an improvement. He doesn't, but he does provide slightly more closure. The ending mostly works, but I can't say it left me craving for sequels. That's probably a compliment. I think, like the original, this film's reputation would only be harmed if it doesn't remain a stand-alone effort.

What's strangest about this movie is that the more Zombie departs from the source material the stronger it makes the film. This is likely because even when he veers off the map, he never loses sight of the origin story. I've seen better remakes, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a remake where the respect for the original comes across onscreen like it does here. You can almost feel it. Much like his House of 1000 Corpses, it has its problems, but even those are fascinating to watch and technically this is Zombie's most confident, cohesive effort behind the camera. You could stop this film frame by frame examining all of the interesting choices Zombie made. I may not agree with some of his decisions, but I understand why he made them and respect the hell out of him for having the balls to do it.

I noticed that when this film opened hardly a single review appeared in any media publication in the country even though it was screened for critics. Then after it set Labor Day weekend box office records, one and a half and two star reviews started popping up everywhere. Of course, these reviews immediately assigned the film the stupid, ignorant label of "torture porn," when in this case it couldn't have possibly been less applicable. This is one of the few cases where gore and violence actually take a backseat to psychological depth and character development. Did they even watch it?

I find it funny that horror is the only genre left that's perfectly acceptable to discriminate against. Even when critics praise the great ones like Carpenter's Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre it's as a backhanded compliment. They're great "horror movies," just not "great films." But those in the know are always aware that when a great horror movie comes along it's as much a work of art as any Oscar-baiting war or romance drama. Zombie's Halloween isn't in the same league as those two aforementioned classics, but in the very least it deserves to be judged on its own terms. Those who do that are destined to walk away satisfied.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Blades of Glory

Directors: Josh Gordon and Will Speck
Starring: Will Ferrell, Jon Heder, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, Jenna Fischer, William Fichtner, Craig T. Nelson \
Running Time: 93 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

Blades of Glory
is a one-joke movie. Fortunately, that one joke happens to be very funny. Helping further is that the film takes a swipe at a sport long overdue for ridicule in a feature film. The biggest mystery coming out of the movie is how we went so long without a comedy mocking professional figure skating. If you think about it, could there be a goofier sport? With its outrageous costumes, bizarre personalities and ridiculous choreography it's almost too easy. How do you mock a sport that's a mockery in and of itself? It's simple. You hire Will Ferrell, maybe the only comedic actor alive capable of making figure skating look even sillier than it actually is. Then you pair him up with Jon Heder, who has the market cornered on playing wusses. Throw in Will Arnett as a crazed rival and add that guy who was on Coach to play…a coach. The end result is a comedy that's a lot better than it should be and much of the credit for that can go to the actors, who look like they're having the time of their lives. After a solid set-up, the movie really starts to find its groove and milks just about every laugh it can from its one-joke premise, resulting in a really good time all-around.

It's the 2002 World WinterSport Games and the top two men's singles figure skaters are going for the gold. One is a testosterone-fueled brute named Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell), who's nickname is "sex on ice,' a reputation only bolstered by the fact that he really is a sex addict and not shy about saying it. His arch-rival, James MacElroy (Heder) is figure skating's golden boy, groomed for greatness from a very young age by an eccentric billionaire (played by William Fichtner). That MacElroy actually stands out as too girlish and effeminate in the world of male figure skating could be viewed as an accomplishment far more remarkable than any medal victory.

The two end up tying, which leads to a funny brawl on the podium and a lifetime professional skating suspension for both. Three years later Jimmy is working at a skate shop, while Chazz (in a very funny series of scenes) is working in costume at a kid's ice show completely drunk. Jimmy soon finds out about a loophole that would allow him to compete in pairs skating and his old coach (Coach's Craig T. Nelson) convinces Jimmy and Chazz to team up. Their competition: The incestuous brother-sister duo of Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg (played by real life husband and wife Will Arnett and Amy Poehler). They blackmail their sister/assistant/slave Katie (Jenna Fischer) into spying on the duo, but soon she finds herself falling for Jimmy and comedic complications arise from that, threatening the partnership of Jimmy and Chazz heading into "big competition." Also hanging over their head is the pressure from their Coach to perform a complicated and deadly maneuver known as the "Iron Lotus," which we learn from hilarious video footage once resulted in the decapitation of a pro skater.

One of the first things I noticed about Blades of Glory was how much work must have gone into making it. Figure skating may look silly but there's no denying it's extremely difficult. Sure the actors had stuntmen there to perform the more complicated maneuvers, but they all had to learn to not only skate, but skate very well. If none of these stars looked like they could skate professionally the comedy wouldn't work. To their credit, Ferrell, Heder, Arnett and Poehler never look awkward on the ice or like they're actors "trying to skate." I'm not sure how much visual effects played a role in this and I don't care because at least the action scenes looked real, which is more than you can say for a whole lot of other sports movies. Since everything looks believable that just makes the inherent goofiness in the premise that much funnier.

Of course, they couldn't have a figure skating movie without a bunch of cameos from professional skaters like Nancy Kerrigan, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano and Dorothy Hamill. Nor could they make it through the entire length of the film without inserting a joke about clubbing someone in the knee. Really, it was too easy for them. Not to feel left out, Luke Wilson appears briefly as a sex addiction counselor. His appearance is so random and unnecessary that it's actually somewhat funny.

The teaming of Ferrell's macho character and Heder's girly one not only gives the writers a chance to slide in gay jokes, but allows Ferrell to go over-the-top in his attempts to shock. Ferrell's antics should seem beyond tired by now but for some reason they're not. The sight of him as a womanizing, sex addicted professional figure skater is a cheap, easy laugh but Ferrell, not known for his restraint, gives us exactly what we'd expect and it's still hilarious. This is about the third or fourth film in a row Jon Heder has just played a variation on his Napoleon Dynamite character. Until he tries something different I'll have to assume he isn't capable of anything else, but here he adds a girly twist and his contrast with Ferrell makes the film, which was obviously the intent behind the casting.

I'm convinced Craig T. Nelson was only cast as an inside joke because of his onscreen television coaching experience. It's funny (even if he doesn't really do anything), but not as funny as, say, Judge Reinhold playing Judge Reinhold in a mock trial on Arrested Development. If any fans of The Office are interested in seeing this because Jenna Fischer's in it they'll be disappointed because her role is woefully underwritten. That's a silly complaint though since in a comedy like this it's a given she'll just be a plot device, which she is and that's fine. The sub-plot works for what it is. Still, as someone who's never seen The Office and was curious why everyone's been raving about her, I was hoping to see at least a glimpse of what she could do as actress. I didn't. It just wasn't that kind of part.

When I reviewed Hot Rod I complained that the film underused the comedic genius of Will Arnett. Here he's utilized far better and is given a chance to show us what he's got, especially in a gut-busting chase sequence late in the film that reminds us how impossible it is to walk, much less run, in ice skates. Arnett and Poehler do nearly steal the film from under their co-stars with their inspired weirdness, which is never clearer than during their bizarre interpretive ice routine of Presidential history toward the conclusion.

There are no less than four writers credited on this, which is surprising since it's far from the highest concept comedy, but they somehow pulled it together. Interestingly, there's also a story credit given to Busy Phillips, who you might remember as a television actress from shows like Freaks and Geeks and Dawson's Creek. It's pretty funny to think she's been spending her free time coming up with the idea for this movie. While hardly groundbreaking or revolutionary, she at least deserves the credit for realizing this would work, something clueless Hollywood studios apparently couldn't for years. In their defense they were probably too busy planning a remake of Citizen Kane or a prequel to Jaws.

Anyone going into this expecting shocks and surprises won't get any. What you will get is a lot of laughs and some entertaining performances. I wouldn't have lost any sleep if I never saw it but it's fair to say what it does for (or maybe to) figure skating is no better or worse than what Talladega Nights did for NASCAR. If you liked that, you'll like this. Blades of Glory is no Superbad, or even Hot Rod, and you'll likely forget about it five minutes after the final credits role, but it does continue the 2007 streak of winning comedies.