Monday, February 22, 2010

Extract, Couples Retreat, The Stepfather, Bronson

As I continue tearing through the '09 releases in an effort to put the year to bed once and for all, here are reviews of four titles I recently caught up with on DVD. Two comedies, two dramas and one film that sticks out like a sore thumb as not belonging in this group.


Director: Mike Judge
Starring: Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, J.K. Simmons, Ben Affleck, Kristen Wiig
Running Time: 92 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

If 2009 has taught us anything it's that ANY movie can be improved with the presence of Jason Bateman, who's been all over the place this year. Whether he's an arrogant boss in Up in the Air, a controlling husband in Couples Retreat, or giving a scene-stealing, award-worthy supporting turn as a sleazy PR exec in the overlooked political thriller State of Play, he's getting enough work that you don't hear anyone talking about that Arrested Development movie anymore. He's moved on in a big way.

In writer/director Mike Judge's (Office Space, Idiocracy) latest, and probably safest comedy yet, Bateman once again displays his effortless comic timing as Joel Reynolds, the owner of a flavor-extract company facing a crisis when his employee Step (Clifton Collins, Jr.) is involved in a catastrophic workplace accident. This brings out Cindy (Mila Kunis) a pretty con-woman looking to covertly exploit the mishap for financial gain. Kunis' performance here is far more interesting and funnier than her overpraised work in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where she was essentially just asked to play a one-dimensional saint.

Much of the film's humor is anchored in Bateman's reaction to these crazy people, like his sexually repressed wife (Kristen Wiig) their neighbor (David Koechner) who just won't shut up, his stoned-out, homeless-looking best friend (Ben Affleck) or his clueless partner (J.K. Simmons) at the plant. But most memorable of all is the hysterical appearance of KISS frontman Gene Simmons as an ambulance-chasing attorney. He fits the the role so perfectly it's actually kind of scary and a scene where he explains his one demand for settling the lawsuit had me rolling. Extract isn't as risky or edgy as I'd hoped, but it's one of those comedies that gets funnier for me the more I think back on it.

Couples Retreat

Director: Peter Billingsley
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis, Malin Akerman, Jean Reno
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: R

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Couples Retreat is a comedy that's actually inconsiderate of the viewers' time. It takes a decent enough premise that provides scattered laughs and stretches it to just shy of the two-hour mark, which is long for this type of film, even one that's a non-stop laugh riot with interesting characters we care about. This isn't, so it feels even longer. The slightly lesser offense is the casting, where random name actors were just thrown together with little regard to whether they fit the roles or it makes sense for the context of the story (four couples travel to an exotic island resort for counseling to save their relationships). While everyone is serviceable in their roles the fact the certain actors are either too young or too old for their parts, or worse, just not believable in them, caused a distraction for me.

I can't buy Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman being married parents of two children in any corner of the universe (but Vaughn's just there to be Vaughn and he does it well so that's okay) and the coupling of Jon Favreau and Kristen Davis is almost equally as bizarre. Not surprisingly, the two most credible performances come from Bateman and Bell, but even that pairing seems slightly off because Bell seems too young to be playing a mopey, depressed housewife. None of these actors will be listing this effort as highlights of their filmographies, but to be fair, the movie's goal is to provide laughs and it supplied more than I expected.

The opening credits are clever, I laughed consistently at the dry humor of resort host Sctanley (a hilarious Peter Serafinowicz), the insane methodology of its owner, Marcel (Jean Reno), a child's unusual public bathroom habits and an epic Guitar Hero face off. But damn is this movie long. A good half-hour could have been shaved off and everything would have flowed so much better because there was potential here. What's so strange is how everything seems so dragged out in the third act, yet it's somehow resolved way too quickly and unbelievably by Favreau and Vaughn's screenplay. It's the directorial debut of producer Peter Billingsley, who's better known as little Ralphie in 1983's A Christmas Story. I wouldn't necessarily say he doesn't have a filmmaking future based on this but I hope the residuals from that movie are still pouring in just in case. This isn't the abomination I heard it was, but it still should have resulted in much more with the talent on hand.

The Stepfather

Director: Nelson McCormick
Starring: Dylan Walsh, Penn Badgley, Amber Heard, Sela Ward
Running Time: 101 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

A schlocky, familiar story told well enough and decently acted with enough plot holes to drive a truck through. Not nearly as bad as I expected given my low expectations going in, but it's worth mentioning that I've never seen the 1987 cult horror film on which this remake is based. That it stars Lost's Terry O' Quinn (AKA John Locke) as the title character makes it more than worth a look, and knowing his abilities as an actor, there's little doubt Dylan Walsh had tough shoes to fill. That said, Walsh is the best part of this and the opening sequence where he shaves and casually makes breakfast while his step-family lies dead on the floor is effectively chilling in setting the stage.

Going under his latest alias of "David Harris" he not so subtly starts to show cracks in his perfect everyman persona, insinuating himself into the lives of Susan (a wooden Sela Ward) and her rebellious son Michael (Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley) and managing to knock off anyone closing in on his violent secret. It's strange that anyone would suspect anything given he has no photo identification or documents that he exists, chokes children, has a killing tools collection, stores bodies under lock and key in the basement and leers creepily at his soon-to-be stepson's bikini clad girlfriend (Amber Heard).

The characters may be stupid but a lot of the screenplay surprisingly isn't and director Nelson McCormick milks suspense (especially during the tense finale) instead of piling on the gore. This is a case where the PG-13 rating actually helps and it doesn't feel like it just was pulled off the teen slasher assembly line, even though it is. Badgely holds the screen well (if a little blankly) in his first major big screen role and has chemistry with Heard, who gives us the tamer, censored version of her fully revealing turn in The Informers from earlier in the year. Unfortunately, the "step dad" (who isn't yet married to the mother, entirely discrediting film's title) seems too psychotic right from the get-go whereas it would have been more effective to present him as a normal guy slowly unraveling at the frustration of not being able to build the perfect life for himself. In this scenario we'd be more able to share in the shock with the family since we already have information the characters don't. Not really recommendable but for a cheesy late night rental you could do a lot worse.


Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance, Amanda Burton
Running Time: 92 min.
Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Tom Hardy plays Michael Peterson, who after being sentenced to seven years in prison for armed robbery, uses vicious means to extend that to 35 years, 30 of them spent in solitary confinement. Under the guise of "Charlie Bronson" (yes, named after THAT Charles Bronson) he went on to become England's most famous convict. And after watching Bronson, the rare torturous viewing experience I'd actually want to repeat, it's clear he missed his true calling: Professional wrestling. With his trademark strongman mustache, imposing physique and charismatic oratory skills you could actually picture him taking on Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" in The Wrestler...and killing right him in the middle of the ring. What he really is though is small-time crook and bare-knuckle fighter who considers himself first and foremost a performance artist. All his life he only wanted to be famous. We know this because he tells us his story with a sinister smile from behind bars and also onstage in full clown makeup. It's nuts.

This is one of those movies where you watch it the first time just to say you survived and made it through but realize almost immediately that subsequent viewings are required in order to even have a shot at making heads or tails of any of it. Some movies borrow certain elements from other more well-known pictures and I'm always hesitant name-dropping the films because you're never sure that was even the intention. This time there's no doubt about it. The one influence that looms largely over the entire film that's plainly obvious to anyone who watches is A Clockwork Orange. It's impossible not to think of it, especially in the moments where director Refn uses classical and pop music as a backdrop for the many scenes of mayhem and ultraviolence committed by the crazed protagonist.

It's also impossible to in any way separate Hardy's performance from the film. His portrayal is the film and its an electrifying tour de force in which the actor shies away from nothing, completely submerging himself in the role. Seeing an interview with Hardy out of character on the disc was freaky because it's so hard to believe this is even the same person. He's physically unrecognizable. Too bad he wasn't nominated for an Oscar because I'd pay for a front row seat to see him accept it IN CHARACTER as this lunatic he somehow makes funny and likable. I'm still not sure what the movie's trying to say but I'm not sure I even care because it was just so different. Maybe something about giving up personal freedom for fame but I could be stretching for meaning where there isn't any.

Those who find it self-conciously artsy are probably right and by this description you already have a good idea whether it's your thing or not. It definitely isn't a biopic on this man in any real sense and it isn't exactly a dark comedy either. Nothing I say in so little space can do justice to how insane it is. Bronson is proof that film snobs complaining the more interesting movies are made outside the mainstream are right sometimes.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Blind Side

Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates, Lily Collins, Jae Head, Ray McKinnon

Running Time: 128 min.

Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

When the 82nd annual Academy Award nominations were announced on February 2nd, there was an obvious eruption of giggles, gasps, and applause when the feel-good, audience pleasing sports drama The Blind Side was read among the expanded list of ten Best Picture contenders. And you'd really have to go way back in the Oscar history books to find a nomination in this category as shocking. It's been heralded as a major comeback vehicle for its star, Sandra Bullock, who's poised to take home the statue for Best Actress after making a string of career decisions so awful they'd make Kate Hudson jealous. In fact, they've been so bad that not too long ago I included her on my list of Actors/Actresses Who Need a New Agent (Badly!). In a way, I regret the negative connotation that article's title carried because in truth I really like all those talented performers, which could help explain why I'm so reasonably disappointed in them.

When I first saw that commercial for The Blind Side, with Bullock strutting across the football field in skin tight Erin Brockovich-style clothing and a blond wig, slapping the coach's butt (you can't say "ass" in this movie) and declaring in a laughable southern accent, "You can thank me later," I no longer thought she needed a new agent. I thought her career was over. But when the film was released something very weird happened: A project that at first glance looked to represent the absolute worst of Bullock's cinematic offerings somehow resonated deeply with moviegoers. With a marketing campaign aimed squarely at church going, red state Americans and extremely strong word-of-mouth (despite middling reviews) the film went on to gross over $200 million dollars to become the highest grossing sports drama of all-time. It's a statistic sure to irk fans of Rocky, Rudy and Hoosiers since this actually has very little to do with sports, or more specifically football, in any real sense. Consider it "Friday Night Lite."

The Academy's desire to reach out to the mainstream and increase viewership for the big show has brought this picture to where it is now. I've made many jokes at the film's expense over the past few months but they were all in good fun and never mean-spirited even as online attacks from others against it were growing increasingly venomous, I really do think it's fantastic that a personal human drama with a positive message is succeeding. And while you could argue it's continuing a recent trend in diminishing audience standards (true to an extent) and that they're just filling the Best Picture slot with a moneymaker (again true) I'd much rather it be this than junk like the latest Twilight or Transformers sequel. I can at least comprehend what the appeal is here.

The last time ten films were nominated for Best Picture was 1943, which is important to note since the most under-reported and bizarre detail about The Blind Side is how it wouldn't seem at all out of place as a nominee in that year. It's a throwback to a classic era when films were much simpler and the characters in them far kinder. It may be wimpy in its syrupy Hollywoodization of a social issue but it's gutsy in how sincerely honest and good-hearted it is about those intentions. To call it manipulative would be inaccurate because it's completely upfront and unapologetic about what it's trying to do and never takes itself too seriously. Labeling it a Lifetime or Hallmark movie of the week would also be inaccurate since even those usually contain some kind of dramatic conflict...or so I've heard. This doesn't.

What director John Lee Hancock accomplishes is actually an impressive feat because for over 2 hours he manages to sustain an entertaining movie that not only lacks conflict, but one where every character is happy and there are no problems in life. Laughable in theory, but difficult to execute on screen. Filming a story featuring only nice people doing the right thing and still have it be exciting isn't easy. He should be known as Norman Rockwell instead of John Hancock and entering the alternate trouble-free universe he creates requires the acceptance of a few basic principles. Everyone goes to church. No one curses. There is no crime. 9/11 never happened. People are either rich or poor. Black or white. Democrat or Republican. They either live in fancy homes or in the "bad side" of town. Life is simple. It's as if the events that occurred in the fictional 1950's sitcom setting of the film Pleasantville were played straight in an earnest drama without so much as a hint of irony. And the 'PG-13' rating this carries from the MPAA feels like a mistake since aside from a few isolated instances of very mild violence and language, this is essentially a 'G' rated picture. That's not surprising since Hancock's previous inspirational sports drama, the Disney produced The Rookie, was actually rated that.

Based on the true story of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman, Michael Oher, the film was adapted from Michael Lewis' 2006 book, "The Blind Side: The Evolution of the Game," and that sub-title is excised for a reason. Anyone approaching this movie expecting to get any kind of insight into the technical aspects of the game of football should refer to the aforementioned scene of Bullock strutting across the field and listen to the strategic advice she gives if you want a good laugh. That, an opening that will enrage Redskins fans and the appearance of several former and current NCAA coaches, is the full extent of the football's presence in the film. What this story is really about is the bond between this mother and her adopted son, and on that level it succeeds, albeit in a traditionally simplistic way we're not used to.

Newcomer Quinton Aaron plays Oher (AKA "Big Mike"), who arrives off the street at the Wingate Christian School in Tennessee illiterate and a borderline mute. It isn't until he's taken in by feisty decorator Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock) and her husband Sean (Tim McGraw who's actually very good in this) that Mike begins to discover a love for football and family and turn his life around, transforming Leigh Ann's and her family's in the process. Yep, that's all there is to it. And there's hardly an obstacle in the way of him doing it besides him. It's very strange. These are the nicest, most tolerant people on Earth. I'd say they're the kind of people you could only see in a movie but that would be wrong because we don't even see them in movies anymore.

Without hesitance Leigh Anne takes this total stranger into her home. Her husband seems completely fine with the idea. Her precocious son, S.J. (Jae Head) flat-out loves it. But most bizarrely, her 18-year-old daughter, Collins (Lily Collins) isn't some rebellious teenager getting ready to use Mike's arrival as an excuse to lash out, but an understanding girl who befriends him. Those criticizing the film for this approach may want to decide whether they want this or the manufactured bush league screenwriting conflicts and contrivances we usually have to suffer through. The husband as an abusive alcoholic? The teenage daughter doing drugs and sleeping around? A shootout in the projects? The neighbors spray painting "the 'N' word" on the side of their car? How about "the big game?" This may also mark the first time conservative Republicans in a movie have been portrayed as anything other than gun-toting racists or corrupt government officials. They're just good, hard-working people and it may come as a surprise that even in movies it is possible for people like this to exist regardless of their political affiliation. It's funny the film has come under attack for making the opposite choices every picture in this genre is routinely blasted for.

More controversial is Hancock's idea of what constitutes conflict in this story because even the moments where he comes close to depicting it are undercut by the Utopian, danger-free atmosphere the characters inhabit. Even Leigh Anne's encounter with a gang member is just one huge set-up for a punch line that emphasizes the character's sassiness. Of course, we know if a woman dressed like that that really were to enter a neighborhood that dangerous the situation would have a far less desirable outcome, possibly threatening the film's G-rated PG-13. But why would we want to see that anyway? It's just not that kind of movie and going in that direction would have been completely inappropriate for the material.

When meeting Mike's crack addicted biological mother, the one confrontation you'd figure would be sure to set off fireworks, Hancock plays it surprisingly low-key and with little tension. Even she thinks what Leigh Ann's doing is admirable. Against all odds, the scene works anyway and somehow feels authentic in no small part due to Bullock. The only mild dissenters in the story are Leigh Ann's rich, white girlfriends who ironically question if she's harboring the same "white guilt" the film has been accused of pedaling. But entering this expecting any kind of serious examination of race relations is missing the point. This isn't trying to be Precious, a far different type of dramatic picture that beats you into submission with its harsh reality and emotionally raw performances.

This movie isn't pretending to be anymore than a feel-good fairy tale, but that doesn't make it racist or imply that black people need the help of whites to survive in society or something silly like that. To say that this has any serious agenda concerning race is giving it more credit than it deserves. The biggest stab at conflict comes late in the form of an NCAA scandal of sorts that brings the focus back to Mike calls into question the saintly family's motives as well as our own doubts that the film could possibly be as sweetly sincere as it is. Then enter Kathy Bates in a small role as Miss Sue, a tutor who shows up to help get Mike's grades up to graduation level.

As big a joke as it seems to many that this is an Oscar contender, there are three areas where you could reasonably argue it's deserving, two of which are the editing and musical score. The movie is nearly 130 minutes long and the time just flies by with everything going down as easy as children's cough medicine. That this is all just mainstream fluff is a factor in that but the film still has to be cut well and it's especially difficult to do that when there's so little happening dramatic fireworks. It's so effortless to sit through I'd actually watch it again, which is more than I can say for many depressing releases this year that were superior in quality. Carter Burwell's score perfectly matches the homey, down-to-Earth small town southern feel Hancock creates. It's the small touches like Leigh Anne calling the coach (Ray McKinnon) on her cell from the stands to scream at him during a game or Mike bench-pressing S.J. that help make the movie feel authentic without ever crossing that thin line separating it from maudlin sap.

It seems everyone's is happy for Sandra Bullock AS A PERSON, despite not being much of a fan of her work AS AN ACTRESS, and that goodwill should carry her to the Oscar whether or not the performance itself is deserving. I'll confess my appreciation of her talents peaked sometime in the mid '90's and have been in a steady decline since. The past decade or so she's really had it rough career-wise and that she'll likely be collecting a Razzie Award for Worst Actress (for All About Steve) the same year she could take home the Oscar indicates just how bad it's really been. But only over the past couple of months has it become painfully obvious just how much audiences like her and how badly they've wanted her to come back, grasping at every last straw to make that happen, even as her critics continue slamming her every step. She's someone viewers like spending two hours with even if they don't always agree with her choices.

What's most interesting about this role for her is just how much it resembles all the terrible parts she's played over the years and how it should have tanked like the rest of them. But this was the one questionable choice that somehow hit, and as shocking as it is to admit, that's largely because she does some of her best work. She's still dealing with problematic material but this is the first time she rises above it and shows up onscreen with more motivation and energy than we've seen in years. This isn't a deep or complex role, and the character she's playing is essentially a saint with just a tiny bit of an edge, but it cleverly plays to all of her strengths as a performer. Had the script been more dramatic I'm not too sure she'd be capable enough to go darker so it comes as a relief that she doesn't need to. There's just enough wiggle room that there's some of her own star personality mixed in there with this real-life woman and the combination proves to be really enjoyable, carrying the movie.

The comparison to Julia Roberts' Oscar-winning turn in Erin Brockovich a decade ago is right on the money in that both roles push the actress' looks and personalities to the forefront as part of the character rather than obscuring them like we're so used to seeing in these types of roles. Ironically, Roberts passed on the part before Bullock snatched it up and I'm not sure she could have done as well with it. In a stronger year you may have been be able to argue this performance isn't worthy of consideration, but still not having seen all the nominees, her inclusion, and even potential win, is far from the travesty it's been made out to be. To Sandra's credit, she at least comes off as someone who enjoys this and wants to do good work, but unfortunately hit a series of speed bumps along the way. I'd rather have someone like this be rewarded than, say, Eddie Murphy, who just enjoys cashing checks. While it's a great performance, she lucked out here and likely knows it. I hope moving forward she uses this success as a springboard to make more creatively fulfilling choices.

For a change, this film's nomination is actually important, not necessarily because it could represent the public's lowering standards over the past year (true to an extent), but because it really opens the floodgates in terms of what pictures and performances could potentially qualify as "Oscar worthy." You have to wonder if this policy of ten nominees were instituted a few years earlier whether similarly themed sports dramas like Remember the Titans or Miracle would have slipped in for Best Picture. Would Matthew McConaughey be preparing his acceptance speech for We Are Marshall? Unlikely (I hope), but you get the point. It's official: Now ANYONE or ANYTHING can win an Oscar. Let that scary thought sink in.

There's a lesson in what's happened with The Blind Side that might be more interesting than anything in the actual movie. Many critics (myself included) can get so caught up in analyzing the ins and outs of film that they sometimes lose touch with reality. That reality being that with the state the country's in right now audiences just aren't interested in seeing the same wrist-slitting movies that they are. Most just want to be entertained. They may not want to see obese, HIV positive teenagers physically and emotionally abused by their mothers, people getting fired, jumping off bridges, being dumped by their girlfriends or anything having to do with the Iraq war. And can you really blame them? When even a Pixar film features a traumatic death in the opening minutes and the most upbeat cinematic experience of the year is a Holocaust movie, it's no wonder audiences are burnt out and need to come up for air.

I can't exactly shower praise on the film with a straight face because it's just so goofy, but at least the intentions are sincere and it doesn't have the same inflated sense of self-importance as other award comntending films this year. Is it an atrocity that this was nominated in a strong year when clearly more deserving titles were passed over ? Of course, but at least it's a fun atrocity. A film with characters named "Miss Sue" and "Coach Cotton" doesn't exactly beg to be taken seriously as social commentary so it shouldn't be. Full of down home charm, The Blind Side is mindless, feel-good entertainment released at a time of year when sending viewers home happy is considered a criminal offense.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Director: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Amber Heard
Running Time: 81 min.
Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

Filmmakers never really know for sure how well they've cast a movie until it's up there on the screen. They have a script and maybe even certain actors in mind for specific parts but once the camera starts rolling there's no telling what will happen. The apocalyptic comedy Zombieland is an example of the best possible scenario, where special chemistry exists between the actors that couldn't occur if even just one of those performers were replaced. On paper, it appears to be a solid line-up of four talents, but nothing that would have you thinking they've assembled a "dream team." But it is. This wouldn't work as well as it does without their complete commitment to making these characters ones we enjoy getting to know and hang with.

Tempting as it is to give them all the credit for how fun this is, doing that would overlook how adept director Ruben Fleischer's debut feature is at re-energizing a familiar concept with fresh, innovative ideas. Working from a smartly conceived script from Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese he takes one type of movie that's been beaten into the ground (the zombie film) and adds another that's been equally played out (the post-apocalyptic adventure), but only by adding the third (the road trip comedy) do the special qualities in all of them start to really shine through. It's a toss-up determining whether this comedy is more fun for viewers or the actors starring in it, including one celebrity who has the cameo of the year, if not the decade. Given how smart the entire film is it's no surprise that this usually reclusive actor would agree to appear in it and boy does he ever make the most of the ten minutes he's on screen, turning an already wild time into one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences all year.

The movie opens in a post-apocalyptic zombie-plagued America with nerdy college student Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) on his way home to Columbus, Ohio to find out if his parents are still alive. As a loner with many phobias and no friends who spent his Friday nights guzzling "Code Red" Mountain Dew and playing World of Warcraft, Columbus has always played it safe. It's that approach and a list of rules he's come up with that helps him survive the zombie attacks that have claimed everyone else. After losing his car along the way he hitches a ride with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), an unhinged lunatic hell bent on finding Twinkies and willing to kill any zombie in sight to get them. Then the odd pairing really meet their toughest competition in con-artists Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a pair of sisters determined to make it to the supposedly zombie-free "Pacific Playland" amusement park in Los Angeles.

The movie is so smart in how it creates this desolate, zombie-ridden world right from the awesome opening Metallica title sequence and Columbus' rules for surviving the wasteland known as "Zombieland, U.S.A." What's so impressive about these rules is that they're not only funny, but they actually make sense (i.e. RULE #1-CARDIO) and propel the story forward in a meaningful way. When adherence to a rule by any character occurs during the course of the film title cards pop up in inventive ways in the background letting us know. The use of voice-over narration and flashbacks in a zombie comedy is practically unheard of but it's incorporated perfectly as both effectively convey the bumbling, neurotic Columbus' insecurities and give us a valuable background information on the zombie plague. One flashback featuring a brief, but extremely memorable Amber Heard appearance just might be the most exciting sequence in the film. But even that pales in comparison to the big celebrity cameo that isn't exactly a well kept secret.

Even though many other reviews have given it away and it's practically public knowledge at this point I won't spoil this legendary actor's identity on the off chance of pissing anyone off who wants to completely remain in the dark. But I will say that the more I think about this actor's appearance the more I realize what a genius choice it was to have him appear and how no one else would have had the same effect. He certainly isn't the biggest name and from what I heard wasn't even the first choice to do this, but because he's a celebrity that we imagine would be the most fun to meet, we can share in the characters' excitement of seeing him for ten minutes in the type of comedic part we wish he'd take again. And what's so surprising is that this part ends up being that of himself...or at least how audiences have long perceived him to be like in real life. The cameo is brilliant in its self-awareness and the final line he gets off put me in a state of pain from laughter. We're even treated to him spoofing one of his most famous roles in a film I was unsure I wanted to see a sequel of. After this, now I'm sure. I want a sequel to it. Some directors waste big name, talented actors for over two hours but here Fleischer has this one for only ten minutes and milks every last second of those for maximum entertainment value.

He may not be the lead, but it's Harrelson who's the star, being given the opportunity to cut loose and go completely bad-ass in ways hasn't been able to do since the days of Natural Born Killers and Kingpin. The role fits him like a glove and only a good actor could have played it because as the story wears on he's called upon to give the character of Tallahassee real purpose beyond just finding his favorite snack cakes, which isn't easy when you also have to go over-the-top as a crazy man also. When I say none of these actors could be replaced in their roles I'm specifically referring to the inevitable, but groundless accusation that Jesse Eisenberg is always playing a poor man's Michael Cera. It's a silly theory that somehow gained traction based on nothing. I'll admit I had my doubts about Eisenberg at first but now it's getting to the point where the string of quality films are too numerous to just write it off as him lucking out and stumbling onto good scripts. While it's true he's played the same "type" of character in a lot of these outings (and isn't asked to stretch much more than that again here) there's an underlying dramatic sincerity to all of his performances that make his characters relatable and realistic. This movie feels as much like a coming-of-age movie as a zombie comedy or a wild road trip and makes an interesting companion piece to his other amusement park movie, the under-appreciated Adventureland. Just the sight of how uncomfortably nervous he looks killing zombies is worth the price of admission.

Those only familiar with smokey-eyed Emma Stone as the hottie in Superbad will be surprised to discover she makes Wichita a lot more than that and proves to be a really talented comedic actress with great sarcastic timing. As Little Rock, Abigail Breslin makes a seamless transition from child star into pre-teen actress, delivering some of the movie's best punch-lines. The interplay between all the actors feels so natural it's a shock this is the first time they've teamed up and I'd be very surprised if these four performers don't really enjoy what they're doing. It just comes across in every scene. As the film neared its conclusion, just the possibility you won't get to see them together anymore is kind of dejecting. The ending showdown at Pacific Playland is exciting and unpredictable because there really is some doubt as to whether everyone will survive. Besides providing non-stop laughs, the movie succeeds in the effects department as well and never uses the fact it's a comedy to wimp out in delivering just the right amount of violence and gore. It earns its "R" rating.

This is the highest grossing zombie movie of all-time and deserves to be. Supposedly, there's already a sequel in the works that's set to be filmed in 3-D. While I'm not thrilled with that idea (is every movie going 3-D now?) I can at least understand the logic behind using that format in this instance and would probably be willing to see ten sequels with these actors onscreen again together. They're that good. There are many more places they can take take the story and characters in Zombieland and I'm looking forward to the ride. Consider it illegal to have this much fun watching a comedy.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey, Dominique McElligott, Kaya Scodelario
Rating: R
Running Time: 97 min.

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Immediately after experiencing the impenetrable sci-fi thriller Moon, I did something I don't remember ever doing least not so quickly. I watched it again. I'd have to re-watch it eventually so I figured I may as well just get it out of the way right then and there. Three or four viewings would have probably been more helpful. It isn't exactly an easy film to follow, not does it feel like the type of entertainment we're used to getting, especially in this era of CGI, 3-D and overblown special effects. Anyone who thinks 2009 wasn't a good year for movies is entitled to their opinion....even if they happen to be completely wrong. It's just that very few of these great films are the ones being rolled out for Academy Award consideration these past few months. This joins those that were unfairly ignored and it contains more emotion and ideas than any of those Oscar friendly efforts dealing with "important" topics.

It joins The Box as one of two releases this year that could be classified as hard Sci-fi. Very hard. It deals only in complex concepts and huge ideas and fans of this particular type of film (the number of which seem to be shrinking by the day) will have to pinch themselves that something like this was even released at all. The most obvious aesthetic influence on the film is 2001: A Space Odyssey, even if its theme and consequences more closely parallel Solaris. But in reality it's nothing like either, sucking the viewer into a hypnotic vortex of confusion that mirrors the plight of the main character(s). It's appropriate I re-watched the film right after it ended because the entire experience of watching the film is re-watching it as the narrative travels in circles before shocking us, then arriving at its mind numbing conclusion. Many won't care for it, but the kind of cerebral filmmaking on display here is something we rarely see anymore, as deserving of recognition as the compelling, career defining performance that carries it.

Astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is just two weeks away from completing his three-year contract to a company that hired him to serve as the sole crew member in extracting helium-3 from the lunar surface needed to provide clean energy back on Earth. His only companion on the journey is a robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) and the limited communication he has with his family come via recorded video transmissions that rarely work because of satellite failure. While looking forward to returning home soon, he's so mentally spent that he begins suffering from hallucinations, one of which leads to him accidentally crashing his rover during an excursion and landing in the infirmary. Against GERTY's wishes he goes back out to investigate and discovers another astronaut barely alive in the rover. Himself. Then things start to get really crazy. Revealing anymore would reveal too much.

I had a few reasonable theories in my mind as to how there could possibly be two Sams on the station. All of them were wrong. The majority of the film concerns Sam dealing with and trying to co-exist with this visitor who is him...but isn't. This is a challenging dual role for Rockwell and could be considered dramatically comparable to Nicolas Cage's twin turn in Adaptation (albeit more physically and emotionally taxing) because both Sams have very different and distinct personalities that are constantly clashing. One Sam's grip on reality is slipping while the other seems to be playing with a full deck, but is arrogant and has a short fuse. They'll have to learn to work with one another whether they want to or not. I've heard a lot about Rockwell's performance going in but nothing could have prepared me for what he pulls off. He literally has to act alone for the entire 97 minute running time of the picture, reacting only to a computer and the other performance he's giving as a bizarro version of the protagonist.

Rockwell is one of those frequently recognizable actors who despite showing up in smaller supporting roles in big budget blockbusters like Galaxy Quest and Charlie's Angels and giving a series of brilliant lead performances in little seen independent films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Choke and Snow Angels is still generally unknown to most of the moviegoing public. It's his ability to so fully and unrecognizably disappear into a role that can partially account for why he's still considered more of a character actor than a movie star, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But this should have changed all that and it's a shame that a grassroots internet campaign had to be launched in attempt to convince the Academy to nominate a performance they should need no needling to see is among the best of this or any recent year. Rockwell is once again a victim of being almost too invisibly good and subtly complex that his work in eccentric films that fly under the radar is taken for granted. It's easy to understand why this movie didn't connect with a mass audience but it's a lot more difficult to come to terms with the fact that his performance went unrecognized.

In a shout out to 2001, the computer GERTY (whose display screen is an emoticon conveying shifting moods) has information that Sam doesn't and one of Rockwell's most poignant scene comes when he's given the shocking explanation for why all this is happening. Sam may only have a three-year contract but someone didn't read the fine print. The choice of Kevin Spacey as the voice of GERTY is a curious one since he's a relatively big name actor with a recognizable voice. That shouldn't work but it does because it's exactly the right voice for this part--calm and objective. Would it be wrong to say that this the best role Spacey has had in years even though he never appears? Like HAL 9000 in 2001, the computer's motives are in question with the idea that it can possibly think and feel being front and center throughout and his relationship with Sam serving as the story's most important component. It's a relief that the action doesn't take a detour into space horror like Event Horizon or Alien as I feared it was headed in that direction. I have nothing against those films because that approach worked for them but it would be a disappointment for this one which proves to be more interested in dealing with more philosophical issues like the nature of human existence and family.

This marks the feature directorial debut of Duncan Jones, who's David Bowie's son, a detail that's either widely publicized or little known depending on the sources you read. It's also not very relevant until you consider Bowie's biggest hit and the fact that he probably grew up watching many of the science fiction films of the '60's, '70's and '80's that seem to have heavily influenced this one. It doesn't feel like an imitation as much as an homage or a throwback, right down to Clint Mansell's sinister musical score and the very welcome return of models and replicas rather than computer effects to create this claustrophobic space environment. Needless to say, it puts most CGI to shame because it actually looks and feels REAL.

Going in it helps to know that this is a movie driven by the psychology of human behavior, not special effects. It's slow moving but suspenseful, requiring a lot from audiences who choose to watch it. Moon isn't for everyone but contains enough mystery and action that those outside the regular hardcore sci-fi fan base could find a lot to appreciate in it if they're willing to surrender to its trippy narrative. And for those longtime fans of the genre like myself, this is the film we've been waiting for but didn't think we'd be lucky enough to get.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lost Season 6 Premiere ('LA X")


In a series known for offering up so many complicated questions, the two-part episode of Lost's sixth and final season asked some big ones this time. The biggest: Is it possible Jack's plan to reset the clock and prevent the crashing of Oceanic Flight 815 actually worked? The 2004 "flash sideways" scenes depicting what seemed to be an alternate reality with the plane landing safely, along with ghost whisperer Miles' interpretation of Juliet's final words to Sawyer ("It worked") in the 2007 timeline, lead us to believe that it could have. If not, what's the point of that? Or showing the island submerged underwater Atlantis-style? And if the plan worked, why has nothing SEEMED to change following the detonation of the H-bomb in the season 5 finale ("The Incident") other than the gang being transported to the present?

Of course, we'll get our answers (and I have my theories) but overall I felt a little let down by this premiere for a couple of pretty valid reasons. I enjoyed myself watching it and as usual it's fun to speculate how the writers will sort this out but it couldn't help but feel like a step backwards at least in comparison to the groundbreaking direction the show headed in these past two seasons. Seeing a reality in which Oceanic 815 didn't crash was fascinating in some ways, but unpleasant in others because it unfortunately resulted in the return of some uninteresting characters I didn't want to see again and situations the series had wisely moved past. I understand the necessity of their inclusion from a mythology standpoint but it did hurt the episode as a premiere and decreased its entertainment value, especially in the first hour.

I can't say I was thrilled getting to spend quality time with Charlie, Claire and Boone again. Necessary I know, but unenjoyable just the same considering those characters' departures really benefited the show. It's no coincidence the series only really started to pick up steam after Charlie's demise. I'm hoping all of this was just something that the writers had to get out of the way in the premiere and they won't be seeing as much face time moving forward. Revisiting Kate's problems with the law was also a drag since we've been there so many times before and you wonder what will be done with characters like Sun and Jin whose pre-crash back stories were such a bore the first time around. That can't be said for Jack and Locke, whose backstories are the most interesting of the series, which is why their first meeting was the highlight of this entire episode.

When Jack asked Locke how he ended up in the wheelchair was I the only one thinking he would tell him: "Well, my father stole my kidney and tossed me out of an eight story building." The possibility of Jack helping him (giving him his business card) and that we could see further appearances from Locke's evil father practically made the two hours for me. It was also great to see Rose, Bernard and Desmond again and a nice shout out to observant followers of the series that Jack and Rose seemed to have reversed roles in the conversation they had in the pilot episode and that Jack thought Desmond looked familiar.

What frustrated me most about the episode though was the tease that Juliet would live. It was bad enough that they killed her off but now it felt like they were just rubbing it in. Of course they really weren't and there was a distinct purpose in having her survive long enough to say goodbye to Sawyer and attempt to relay some important information. It's less a flaw than simply a reasonable creative decision on the part of the writers, but it speaks volumes about that character and how well Elizabeth Mitchell played her that I was still bothered by it. I can't imagine Sawyer being nearly as interesting now without her and even just in this episode you could feel her absence, regardless of how her death plays into the larger picture. At this point though, every "death" (whether it be Boone, Shannon, Faraday, Charlotte, Mr. Eko, Locke, Jacob or anyone else you could think of) has to be taken with a grain of salt now that we've been presented with the possibility that Oceanic 815 may not have crashed.

The lack of Juliet and Ben in the premiere is likely causing much of my lukewarm reaction to it since this show was in serious trouble (borderline cancellation if you remember) until the writers introduced them and shook everything up. Seeing both marginalized (and one dead) didn't sit well with me and I question how much longer they can continue with this wimpy, helpless version of Benjamin Linus before we tire of it. I know I'm ready to see the return of the psychotic mastermind. By the way, how smart was it to have Michael Emerson (with his creepy, droll delivery) narrate the one-hour recap show? Interestingly, by recapping the events in the order they happened instead of the order they occurred on the show the producers made everything easy to digest for non-viewers but probably confused the diehard fans even further by jumbling the information up.

Nothing was really advanced in terms of the Fake Locke (AKA "The Man in Black") -Ben-Richard Alpert power struggle and Jacob's death. Nothing at all. It was pretty obvious Fake Locke would transform into the Smoke Monster but it's too early to pass judgment on this constantly evolving storyline anyway. Same with everything involving the temple and this mysterious new Japanese Samurai-type character that Hurley and the gang took the injured Sayid to as per Jacob's command. The ending "shocker" that Sayid was brought back to life after drowning wasn't much of a shock. Or even a mild surprise. Again, we'll have to see how this plays out.

To be fair, I'm really nitpicking here and after the fourth and fifth seasons the writers have earned my complete trust in taking me wherever they want to go and hopefully closing the series out on the highest possible note. Nothing on Lost can be judged as a "stand alone" anything so I'm looking forward to seeing how all the pieces fit together. This was one of those very dense episodes that could probably benefit from another viewing or two before attempting to form an opinion on its quality. But I tried. It may be the only series I'd consider a mandatory DVD purchase because you're constantly discovering new details you didn't notice before only to later discover more details that cause you to re-think everything you thought you knew. It's safe bet to expect plenty more of that heading into the series finale.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My Reaction to the Oscar Nominations

Early this morning, just after the groundhog saw his shadow, the 82nd annual Academy Award nominations were announced by the lovely Miss Hathaway and AMPAS President Tom Sherak (full list here). There were very few if any surprises but on the blind, I mean bright side, there were no travesties comparable to last year's controversial snubbing of The Dark Knight for Best Picture. I've already weighed in on the pros and cons of this newly expanded Best Picture category so now we finally get to see the result of it and whether the films the Academy selected justify such an overhaul (HINT: Probably not).

While I've still yet to see ALL of the ten nominees, on paper it mostly just looks like more of the same from them, which makes sense since the problem was always their elitist taste not the number of films nominated. But some progress was made and at least an attempt was made to reach out to the their own way. The big showdown we've been building toward the last month or so between Avatard and The Hurt Locker is coming to fruition and is in many ways representative of the ongoing clash between critical and commercial tastes at multiplexes. I wish I could be as excited about that showdown as everybody else if only I didn't suspect both were nominated for reasons other than their actual quality. Here's a look at THE TEN, along with my thoughts on other categories and developments. Again, some of these I haven't seen, but the same could probably be said of the voting Academy members.

That I still actually haven't seen this yet should give you an idea as to my lack of interest. A lot of people are very uncomfortable rewarding something like this (as was plainly visible during its Golden Globe victories) and I can understand why. A film shouldn't receive a Best Picture Oscar just because it has groundbreaking special effects and made truckloads of money. But it shouldn't be unfairly discriminated against for those reasons either. Or because everyone hates James Cameron. If it's worthy artistically then it should win. If not, then it shouldn't. It's that simple.

The Hurt Locker-
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum we have a heavily overpraised film that's getting a lot attention because of its topic and the fact it was directed by a woman. Wait...women direct movies? Action movies? OMFG! The next thing you're gonna tell me is that they can vote. All this talk about the director's gender is getting out of hand and unintentionally diminishes what director Kathryn Bigelow accomplished, which was admittedly a lot. It's a terrific film but anyone thinking this is some kind of radical, risk-taking choice from the Academy are out of their minds. It's a film buff pick if there ever was one and casual viewers will likely flee the Oscar telecast in droves when they discover an Iraq war film is competing for Best Picture.

The Blind Side-
I don't even know what to say. What's happened with this movie and Sandra Bullock over the past few months is shocking and probably the single biggest story surrounding this year's race. I'm sure I'll have a lot more to add after I actually view the film.

District 9-Rather than make a joke about how the Academy thought they were nominating a foreign film, I'll instead praise them for at least really trying to go out of their comfort zone here. Two sci-fi movies are nominated for Best Picture. No matter what you think of either, that's a victory. And if you're not a fan of Avatar there's even more reason to celebrate because the presence of this film could split votes and hurt its chances. In terms of being deserved in terms of quality I think it's right on the bubble but I'm more happy for what the nod signifies.

An Education-
Who? What? Isn't this that art house movie starring that British girl with the pixie cut? That sound you's ratings for the telecast dropping a full point. That said, it's unfair to exclude films because no one has seen or heard of them and everything I've heard about this has been off the charts. I'm curious to see it even if it's unlikely many others are. Unfortunately, nominees like this are partly the reason why no one bothers watching the Oscars. Make of that statement what you will.

Inglourious Basterds-
The most deserving film so therefore it won't win. Its lack of acting nominations outside of Christoph Waltz just sealed that deal.

Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire- The acting is FAR more deserving of recognition than the actual film. I''ll just leave it at that.

A Serious Man-
Seems to be in kind of the same boat as An Education. Critically acclaimed, but little known to say the least.

Up in the Air-
No surprise at all here. Not as crazy about it as I was just after viewing it but the same could be said for 90% of the movies I see. More deserving in the writing category than any other but mostly don't have any major problems with it being nominated. Loved the ending.

Up- Completely undeserving, at least aside from the opening ten minutes. This is just a make up for last year's Wall-E snub. But things could have been worse--- like if Star Trek got in.

Other Thoughts

-Glad to see Invictus snubbed. Too many movies have already been nominated for the issues they cover rather than whether they're deserving.

- Even though it completely bombed, part of me thought (feared?) Nine would STILL be nominated just because it's a musical with a lot of stars. You know how they think.

-For my money, Melanie Laurent gave the best performance (lead or supporting, male or female) I saw all year in Inglourious Basterds and it's insane she was overlooked just because they couldn't figure out what category to put her in and ran a half-ass campaign.

-Jeff Bridges has this thing locked up.

-Ditto for Mo'Nique and Christoph Waltz.

-You could make a really strong case based solely on merit that The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner is the most deserving of that Best Actor Oscar.

-Sorry, but I still say Vera Farmiga's supporting performance in Up in the Air isn't Oscar worthy. Anna Kendrick is a closer call.

-Slightly surprised Matt Damon got a Supporting nod for Invictus. Same with Stanley Tucci for The Lovely Bones, which I keep hearing is awful, even though most of the complaints are coming from those who swear by the novel.

-Mismarketing and internet backlash cost (500) Days of Summer a Best picture slot, not to mention a Best Original Screenplay nod. If the studio releasing the film can't take its own movie seriously then why should the Academy?

-Is it just me or does this seem like an unusually weak year in the Best Actress category?

-Sharlto Copley should have been nominated for District 9.

-Still difficult to process that Sandra Bullock might win the Oscar for that movie. Unreal.