Thursday, June 23, 2011

CARS 2: The Film Babble Blog Review

CARS 2 (Dirs. John Lasseter & Brad Lewis, 2011)





CARS and it's new sequel opening today, CARS 2, are the most commercial and formulaic films of all the Pixar productions. But that doesn't mean that they suck - no, they are both fairly entertaining animated kids flicks. It's just that this new entry in the franchise has a major problem that can be stated simply: too much Larry the Cable Guy.



Way too much.



As Tow Mater, the rusty redneck tow truck friend to Owen Wilson's Lightning McQueen, Larry the Cable Guy (man, I hate typing that - he'll be LCG from here on) has been promoted to the lead character here. LCG gets mistakenly caught up in a secret spy mission involving Michael Caine as a British agent Aston Martin model (obviously 007-ish), and his partner in espionage Emily Mortimer, also a sleek European car outfitted with snazzy gadgets.



Meanwhile, Wilson is competing with John Turturro as an arrogant Italian race car in the first World Grand Prix to determine the world's fastest car. This takes us to the gorgeously rendered locations of Tokyo, Paris, and London which often distracts from the flimsy predictable plot. Eddie Izzard voices a army green SUV billionaire who's promoting a green gasoline substitute fueling the vehicles in the Grand Prix.



So Caine and Mortimer with the scrappy help of LCG work to take down the bad guys trying to discredit the threat to traditional gasoline. If you can't guess the identity of the mysterious villain way before it's revealed then you're probably not paying attention. Or Pixar has succeeded in dazzling you enough that you don't care.



LCG was fine in small doses in the first CARS, but its a major malfunction to make Mater the central dominant character. His one note bucktoothed presence grated on me in every scene, and the tired premise of  his dumb luck reeks of comic desperation, which is very surprising in a Pixar film.



No Pixar palette should ever attempt to balance the likes of Michael Caine and Larry the Cable Guy (felt I should type it out this time).



As I said, CARS 2 isn't awful, it's just awfully average for a Pixar film. There are some fun sequences, but after the company's heights of the last several years (RATATOUILLE, WALL-E, UP, TOY STORY 3) this sequel feels like treading water. And with its over abundance of country bumpkin crap via one of the unfunniest and irritating comedians of all time, it barely keeps afloat.



Oh yeah, there is a amusing TOY STORY short called "Hawaiian Vacation" before the movie so that's a definite plus.





More later...

BAD TEACHER: The Film Babble Blog Review

BAD TEACHER (Dir. Jake Kasdan, 2011)





If you've seen the trailer for this crude Cameron Diaz classroom comedy, you've already witnessed all the best lines and all the relevant plot-points. But since none of that stuff was that great to begin with, it's quite a tiring task to make it through this 90 minute mess of a movie that has maybe 3-4 solid chuckles in it.



Daez plays the foul mouthed, hard drinking, pot smoking, gold digging, and completely immoral title character who gets dumped by her rich boyfriend (Nat Faxon) at the beginning of the movie. She has to return to the job she doesn't give an "F" about, as the movie's tagline goes, teaching at John Adams Middle School (JAMS).



Diaz gets through the day by putting on DVDs for her students of movies about teachers (STAND AND DELIVER, LEAN ON ME, DANGEROUS MINDS, etc.) while she drinks from mini liquor bottles or sleeps at her desk.



As the school's gym teacher, a smirking Jason Segel clearly has the hots for Diaz, but she's got her eyes on a Justin Timberlake as a nerdy substitute teacher. Lucy Punch plays a goofy goody two-shoes rival colleague of Diaz's, who is also after Timberlake's affections.



The sloppy narrative concerns Diaz trying to raise money for breast implants. That's right, that's the plot. She puts on a sexy car wash complete with a rock video (or beer commercial) style montage. She steals standardized test answers so her class can get the highest scores and she can receive a large cash reward. She, uh, does wacky corrupt stuff for her own selfish purposes - you got it, right?



Unfortunately, precious little of this is funny. Diaz doesn't really bring anything but the bare minimum effort to her role, Timberlake is likable but not believable, and only Segel seems to have the right laid-back approach to this lazy lackluster material.



BAD TEACHER feels like a series of deleted scenes on a lame comedy's DVD special features menu. The kind you watch and think 'I can see why they cut that. Because it didn't work.'



That pretty much sums it up - much like its superficial protagonist, BAD TEACHER rarely works.





More later...

Friday, June 17, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE TREE OF LIFE (Dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)





This is sure to be the most debated film of the year.



Just a cursory glance at internet message boards shows that while some people are labeling it “pretentious crap,” another thread of folks are calling it “one of the best movies ever.”



Consider me in the latter camp.



For his first film since THE NEW WORLD in 2005, the none-too-prolific Terrace Malick (BADLANDS, THE THIN RED LINE) has made a non-linear epic of incredible photography, lavish reconstructions of astrological history, and classical music.



It’s an overwhelming work that obviously a lot of people simply won’t get. I myself am still trying to piece it together, but I think I get it. I think.



Through beautifully fleeting imagery, we follow Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents of three sons in 1950s Waco, Texas. One of the sons dies, the cause of which is never explained, and the family is in mourning with Chastain asking the Heavens: “Lord, why? Where were you?”



Malick attempts to answer that question by going back to the beginning of time in a mesmerizing series of shots of thick engulfing clouds, glowing globules of every color, shining light, fire, flowing lava, etc.



History comes alive via CGI, and we even get to spend a little time with a few dinosaurs.



The visual thrust of all of this is stupefying; it’s like Malick is actually trying to capture God on film.



I’m really not sure if he succeeded, but that a film maker would try so hard and in some flashing moments appear to get so close is amazing to behold.



The timeline catches up with the ‘50s family again, as we see the boy who died being born. A strict disciplinarian, Pitt practices tough love on his boys (Hunter McCraken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Seridan) while Chastain offers nothing but unconditional motherly love.



The vivid cinematography by four-time Oscar nominee Emmanuel Lubezki is astounding. Whether it’s exploiting the lush splendor of nature or zeroing in on the characters in emotional despair, the camera is always moving, exploring the space of every frame.



Close-ups are handled in a manner I haven’t seen in a film in ages. Even when the boys join a roving group of trouble making pre-teens, a feeling of isolation around McCracken is felt. His misguided desire to fit in with the window breaking, animal abusing brats is captured in the restless energy of the camerawork.



As the troubled eldest son Jack, McCracken is arguably the protagonist. His angry brow dominates the screen as he grows to resent his father. It’s a spare yet piercing performance – a noteworthy film debut.



An older version of Jack is played by Sean Penn, a businessman in the modern world still suffering over the loss of his brother and estranged relationship with his father. Penn’s part is one of the film’s only weaknesses. Penn, who gets more grizzled looking every movie he makes, mainly broods with his presence threatening to stop the film’s immersive flow.



As the last third becomes engulfed in surrealism, Penn is seen, suited up, wandering around a desert landscape. These images are pretty, but ultimately superfluous.



Many moviegoers (and critics) are going to be baffled by THE TREE OF LIFE. It’s a challenging and dense work that comes off at times like STAND BY ME filtered through the Kubrickian kaleidoscope of the last ten minutes of  2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.



To me it’s not just a massive breath of fresh air during this sequel saturated summer, it’s a near masterpiece about life, death, the universe and everything.



In other words, here’s the year’s first major contender for Best Picture at the next Academy Awards.





More later...

MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS: The Film Babble Blog Review

MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS (Dir. Mark Waters, 2011)







Isn't Jim Carrey too old to be doing this kind of movie?



A decade ago it seemed like Carrey was moving towards a more thoughtful phase in his career based on work based on work in such fine films as THE TRUMAN SHOW, MAN ON THE MOON, and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. However at the same time the man still had, and still has, a fondness for doing broad commercial crap, which is exactly what MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS is.



In what must be screenwriting leading man character archetype #1, Carrey plays a divorced corporate big wig, who loves his kids (also still loves his ex-wife), but is too business-minded to be in touch with his soul. So a crate coming from his recently deceased globe-trotting father containing a penguin in it will, of course, melt his cold heart, right?



Carrey comically protests the penguin and calls everyone he can think of (Antarctica, animal control, the zoo, etc.), but then another crate containing more penguins arrives, and his kids (Madeline Carroll and Maxwell 

Perry Cotton) love them so the put-upon protagonist makes his Park Avenue pad into a winter wonderland.



Carrey's shtick is always giving everybody hip snappy nicknames as he glides though films, so it comes in handy naming the penguins: Captain, Lovey, Bitey, Nimrod, Stinky and Loudy. The birds can be fun to watch, but as a large percentage of their antics are via CGI it's more and more cringe inducing than cute.  



Angela Lansbury is in the thankless role of the potential client Carrey is trying to score for a big real estate deal, and guess what? The penguins get in the way, particularly in a silly set-piece that turns the Guggenheim into a massive seabird slide.



That's actually one of the better scenes, as the film is bogged down in schmaltz and poop jokes. And I mean, a lot of poop jokes. Enough to make the "poop picnic" in JUDY MOODY seem positively understated.



Clark Gregg as the movie's villain - a creepy animal control guy who wants to take the penguins for his own supposedly evil purposes is a considerably contrived element, but in this fluffy formula he fits right in. Entourage's Carla Gugino as Carrey's ex-wife basically just shows up on time for her standard issue lines.



With it's icy subject matter, I wondered why MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS wasn't earmarked for a Christmas season release, but maybe since it's really all about the air-conditioning people seek during the heat of summer, it's probably a great marketing move.



Carrey, who's pushing 50, apparently sees himself as a post-modern Don Knotts - that is, a family friendly funny man caught in outlandishly wacky situations - and that's fine, but he's got the chops to shape his career better.



This at least proves that he's a good actor, because you've got to have talent to act like bland cash-in kid's crap like this isn't beneath you.







More later... 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS: The Film Babble Blog Review

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (Dir. Woody Allen, 2011)





At first glance, Owen Wilson looks like an unlikely Woody Allen surrogate.



Yet in Allen's best film since VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, it's an inspired piece of casting that works. Wilson puts real effort into the character of Gil Pender, a Hollywood hack screenwriter who wants to give real writing a try, and finish that difficult novel he's been tinkering with for months.



On vacation in France, Wilson's fiancée (Rachel McAdams) accuses him of romanticizing the past - particularly Paris in the '20s, an era he would most like to live in. Wilson clashes with McAdam's conservative parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), and her friends including a wonderfully snobby Michael Sheen, so he takes off on a walk around the city taking in the sights.



At the chimes of midnight, an old timey car pulls up him, and the drunk passengers plead with him to get in. After some hesitation, he joins them.



Somehow this takes him back to, you guessed it (or saw the trailer), Paris in the '20s. It's a rollicking party of an era where everybody he meets is famous figure of the arts. At a party, with piano accompaniment by Cole Porter (Yves Heck) no less, he meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife Zelda (Alison Pill).



There's also Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Marcial di Fonzo Bo as Pablo Picasso, and the best one of all: Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali.



Wilson meets a fetching model (Marion Cotillard) who he falls for on the spot. So every night back in the present, he makes the excuse to McAdams that he wants to go out on a walk, and goes back to hobnob with history. The predicament of choosing the past over the present becomes a sticky one, as there's the possibility of another love in the form of Lea Seydoux as an antiques dealer "in the now."



There's a wonderful wit and whimsy to how Allen plays this all out. It's his warmest film since, uh, I can't remember when.



In other words, it's the most satisfying Woody Allen film in ages.



Wilson's delivery of Allen's choice one-liners is infectious, and he quotes from the greats, such as Faulkner's "The past is never dead, It's not even past." convincingly enough to make one forget the man-child of "Hall Pass" from earlier this year.



The film is at its most radiant when it's in those sequences set in the past. In a neat little twist, Cotillard dreams of living in the 1890's; turns out everybody has their dream era.



One personal thought is that I wish the Woodman would've filmed this in black and white. It's not just because the opening montage of shots of Paris was strongly reminiscent of the opening of MANHATTAN, I feel like B & W would've brought out something more in the photography, the depictions of both present and 20's Paris, and the performances of the people playing historical personalities.



As I said that's just a personal quibble. I'm just an aficionado of the man's B & W work so don't mind me.



MIDNIGHT IN PARIS isn't gonna to make me rearrange my top 10 Woody Allen movies, but it's a lovely lark that I predict even non-fans would enjoy. I think most people can relate wishing for a simpler more inspiring time to live in, and I think they'll be greatly amused with this simple and inspiring story.





More later... 

Friday, June 10, 2011

SUPER 8: The Film Babble Blog Review

SUPER 8 (Dir. J.J. Abrams, 2011)







Having grown up during the golden age of Spielberg (i.e. the late '70s-early '80s) I was immediately in tune with the vibe Abrams was going for here. It helps that mood and tone that SUPER 8 is set in a small mid-western town in 1979, and centers around a group of pre-teen kids.



Joel Courtney, who's never acted in a movie before, stars as a shy model building C-student whose mother is killed in an accident at her factory workplace. His grieving father (Kyle Chandler) is the town's deputy, and for obvious reasons things are strained between father and son.



Courtney's pushy friend (Riley Griffith) is making a super 8 zombie movie, and with a small crew of kids, including fire-works crazy Ryan Lee, klutzy Zach Mills, and geeky Gabriel Basso, they sneak out late one night to work on it.



Griffith invites Elle Fanning to play the lead character's wife, and because she has a car, to the excitement of Courtney who has a crush on her.



In the middle of filming on the platform of an old rickety train station, a freight train comes nosily down the tracks. Griffiths wants to get it on film citing "production values," but Courtney sees a truck racing towards the train, and then there's a ginormous crash, completely derailing the engine and all the compartments in a series of fiery explosions. The kids escape unharmed, well, one claims he was "scraped", and recognize the driver of the truck as one of their school teachers.



They frantically leave the area when a bunch of shadowy men with flashlights descend on the wreckage.



That's the set-up, and it's a great one. From there a entertainingly tangled narrative involving a military cover-up, a budding romance between Courtney and Fanning, and, yes, a mysterious alien creature that was in one of the train's compartments unfolds.



A wide-eyed sense of wonder coupled with cynicism about government misinformation effectively evokes the atmosphere of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T., which is no surprise as Spielberg produced, and the film is a collaboration of Amblin Entertainment and Bad Robot Productions.



Like with his STAR TREK reboot, Abrams shows that he has a great grip on face-paced storytelling. As the movie lays out all its alien cards, the proceedings get a bit predictable, but the compelling craft on display never falters.



Abrams also gets the Spielbergian sentimentality down. No other recent sci-fi CGI blockbuster lately has had this much heart.



It's a promising debut for Courtney, who endearingly captures the awe in this tale of how kids can outsmart the authorities, figure out a complex conspiracy, and help an alien get back home.



As for the rest of the cast - Fanning brings poise to a standard damsel in distress part, the set of smart- alecky kid are perfectly cast, and Chandler infuses his troubled cop character with intensity.



However, Noah Emmerich as a U.S. Army representative is standard one note villain. He still kind of fits here because it's a common theme in this genre that the real bad guys are the government powers that be, not the aliens. Sure, there's a lot of killing at the claws of the creature, but that's because of military mistreatment and wrongful imprisonment, you see?



With a nice blend of nostalgia, emotional pull, and incredible special effects, SUPER 8 is as touching as it is a lot of fun.



Any be sure to stay for the end credits. I'm not going to tell you why, but trust me - you won't want to miss it.





More later...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

JUDY MOODY AND THE NOT BUMMER SUMMER: The Film Babble Blog Review



JUDY MOODY AND THE NOT BUMMER SUMMER (Dir. John Schultz, 2011)





In 1996 former Raleigh resident, and former member of local favorites the Connells, John Schultz made one of my favorite independent films: BANDWAGON, about a fictional struggling indie band.



Since then Schultz has been mainly making kids movies like LIKE MIKE, WHEN ZACHARY TAYLOR CAME TO TOWN, and ALIENS IN THE ATTIC.



That family film streak continues with JUDY MOODY AND THE NOT BUMMER SUMMER, based on Megan McDonald's "Judy Moody" children's book series, which I had never heard of befoer since I'm 41 and don't have any kids.



Okay, so I'm not in the target audience for this movie.



I'll still proceed - Jordana Beatty plays the precocious title character, who's cute but often hyper-irritating as she bounces from frame to frame , spouting out self consciously hipisms like "rare" in place of "cool," and plotting every activity with charts in a control freak manner that even annoys her close friends.



After their teacher Urkel (I mean Jaleel White) dismisses class for the summer, 2 of Beatty's friends take off - Taylor Hender to clown camp; Garrett Ryan to circus camp.



Beatty is stuck with the nerdy Preston Bailey who gets in the way of racking up those "thrill-a-delic" points our heroine imposed on her chums.



Then there's Parris Mosteller as Beatty's brother Stink, who wishes to spend the summer tracking down Bigfoot, because reports indicate he's in the area.



Their parents (Kristoffer Winters and Janet Varney) leave for a emergency trip (I can't remember why or where), and Aunt Opal (Heather Graham) arrives to take care of the kids.



Graham is a free-spirited artist (she calls herself a "guerilla artist" but that's hard to believe), and Beatty takes to her immediately.



Beatty's Judy Moody exhausting antics in spastic scenes full of harmless destruction disinterested me to the point of wondering about Graham's character. I kept thinking a dark side that she was running away from would be revealed (addiction, abusive relationship, something sinister), but then I caught myself - what the Hell kind of movie did I think I was watching?



This isn't catching up with an aging Roller-Girl! This is a loud and brightly lit kid's romp in which the only thing close to edgy is poop and vomit jokes.



I really feel out of my element writing about this movie. The kids at the preview screening were howling with laughter, while every tired gag made me roll my eyes. But again, this isn't a movie for me.



It's a disposable candy wrapper of a movie, that I bet kids will outgrow right after seeing it. Schultz seems to have found his niche making such teenybopper tripe. I'm sure it pays the bills, but when I think back to his promising debut BANDWAGON, it just doesn't seem right.



At least Connells fans who take their kids to it will enjoy trying to pick out lead singer Doug MacMillon's cameo (MacMillan has appeared in all of Schultz's films).



That's all I got out of it anyway.




More later...

Monday, June 6, 2011

DVD Review: RUBBER

RUBBER (Dir. Quentin Dupieux, 2010)





This film opens in a California desert on a road with wooden chairs strewn about. A car drives up knocking some of the chairs over. It parks in front of a man with a tie (Jack Plotnick) holding groups of binoculars by their straps with both hands.



Another man, dressed as a police officer, gets out of the trunk of the car, gets a glass of water from the driver, and walks towards the camera. The cop, played by Stephen Spinella, addresses the audience: "In the Stephen Spielberg movie E.T. why is the alien brown? No reason."



Spinella asks several more nonsensical questions about movie premises, like in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE why don't we see the characters go to the bathroom?," each time concluding "no reason." He states that this film is "a homage to the 'no reason.'" There's no arguing with that.



We then see a small crowd of people who each are passed the binoculars by Plotnick. The people point their binoculars out into the desert, some wondering out loud about what knid of film they're going to see.



So far, so weird.



From a distance the folks watch as a inanimate tire half buried in the sand, comes alive, pulls it self out of the ground and, shakes itself off and rolls down the road.



That's right - a tire comes alive and heads out over the desert terrain. It figures out that it has the power to blow up bottles and cans, then the heads of animals and on to humans, so it goes on a killing spree starting with the residents of a flea bag hotel.



There the tire, named "Robert" in the credits, but never said out loud in the movie, watches a lot of TV while the people in the desert sleep and start to starve.



The next morning Plotnick drops a turkey on the ground and a disgusting scene of the crowd members tearing it apart ensues. A wheelchair bound almost unrecognizable Wings Hauser refrains from eating the turkey which turns out to be a good discussion as its poisoned.



Spinella, thinking the audience is all dead, starts to call off whatever this experiment is, telling people they can go home. When he finds out Hauser is still alive - it's back on. Whatever this is.



Roxane Mesquida also appears as a woman who's either just passing through the area or in cahoots with whoever is running this perplexing project.



For all its meta posturing, RUBBER feels like an excuse to blow up a bunch of prosthetic heads. There's some gratuitous nudity of Mequida in a shower scene, commented on by the crowd of course, which at least I could see the point of.



I couldn't see the point of any of the rest, even as an exercise of non-explanation. Dupieux displays a fluid visual style, but its in the service of an unfleshed premise that lacks wit, and relies too much on cheap semantics.



I wish Dupieux had just stuck to the story of a killer tire and lost all the film-within-a-film rigmarole.



He could've kept Spinella as the cop on the trail of the tire; it's a role that reminds me of the George Hardy doofus hero character in TROLL 2, a film that oddly has more imagination than this one.



The answer "No reason" is actually apt here for I have no reason to recommend RUBBER.



Special Features: Interview with Quentin Dupieux, Interview with Stephen Spinella, Interview with Jack Plotnick, Inteview with Roxane Mequida, RUBBER Teaser Camera Tests, HDNet: A Look at "Rubber", and the Theatrical Trailer.



More later...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS: The Film Babble Blog Review

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (Dir. Matthew Vaughn, 2011)







Right off the bat it's clear that Matthew Vaughn is a much better fit for the X-MEN movies than the previous directors (Brett Radner and Gavin Hood respectively). A strong opening sequence set in a concentration camp in Poland in 1944 shows Vaughn getting the edgy tense tone right in introducing a captured kid (Bill Milner) who has untrained telekinetic powers.



A sinister Kevin Bacon plays German Scientist Sebastian Shaw who recognizes the powers the boy has, and kills his mother (Éva Magyar) in an successful attempt to unleash them. Meanwhile, a young boy (Laurence Belcher) encounters a young girl (Morgan Lily) who's broken into his Westchester County, NY mansion's kitchen. She can morph her form into anybody's with her true body being all blue and spiky, while he can read people's minds.



They live together as brother and sister, growing up into James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence as the movie shifts to 1962. After witnessing supernatural activity in Las Vegas involving a never aging dapper Bacon and his crystalized co-hort Emma Frost (January Jones), CIA Agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) seeks out McAvoy, because of his expertise on mutation.



So the mutants hook up with the CIA (who take a little convincing), and are stationed in a facility to train under the supervision of Oliver Platt who's never given a character name. The concentration camp kid, now grown up into Michael Fassbender, tracks down Bacon to his yacht at the same time McAvoy does, but Bacon escapes in a souped up submarine.



There's an amusing recruitment montage with McAvoy and Fassbender rounding up other mutants which is slickly cut with '60s style and a Burt Bacharach-esque bounce to the soundtrack.



A sizable stable of characters is assembled including Nicholas Hoult, Álex González, Caleb Landry Jones, Zoë Isabella Kravitz, and Jason Flemyng, with the film juggling them capably. The film's second half concerns the crew confronting the Cuban missile crisis with Bacon's sinister Shaw, who's a mutant himself, being the one responsible for the missiles' transportation from Russia.



Like in all these comic book epics, the climax is an overblown battle. It's an explosive spectacle with battleships filling the sky full of warheads.



Oddly, it feels like the influential touchstones of this movie are the STAR TREK reboot, and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS; it's an origin story intertwined with an alternate history scenario, and I was surprised at how much of it worked.



X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is a better than average summer sequel (actually prequel) that despite being cluttered with clichés, cheesy moments, and bad dialogue (Bacon even says "come with me, and you'll live like Kings...and Queens" at one point) offers a fair amount of fun.



The CGI is consistently top notch, as is the set design (I loved the complete replica of the War Room from DR. STRANGELOVE), and there's a satisfying sweep to the storyline.



Particularly in the passion of Fassbender's performance, the confidence of McAvoy, the angsty energy of Laurence, and Bacon having a ball with his Bondian villain of a role, it's an incredibly effective cast.



On the minus side, some of Hoult's mannerisms as Laurence's possible love interest are annoying and his origin as "Beast" is undercooked, the young recruits are obnoxious, and January Jones never seems to be all there, but as she's clad in white lingerie when she's not crystalized, she obviously wasn't hired for her acting ability.



Regardless this breathes fresh air into the franchise, especially after the lackluster X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE.



With this classy and exceedingly entertaining effort, consider the series rebooted.





More later...

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Failed Attempt At Redemption Through Puppetry



THE BEAVER (Dir. Jodie Foster, 2011)





So, here's this film's story - a toy company CEO is in a deep dark funk. He's uncommunicative with his wife and kids, and his business is faltering. His wife kicks him out of the house. While discarding some of his things, he finds an old ratty beaver puppet in a dumpster and puts it on his left arm, During a drunken night in his hotel room with 2 failed suicide attempts, he crashes onto the floor with a TV falling down on him.



When he awakes his puppet gives him a pep talk, and immediately he starts to get his life back together. "The Beaver," as it wants to be called, is now calling the shots to the puzzlement of his family and the employees.



Got that? Not sure I do. What makes it so hard to swallow is that Mel Gibson plays the despondent puppeteer. Gibson's popularity has waned in recent years because of famously controversial behavior, and part of this film's hype is that it could re-boot his career.



Don't count on it. This film, inexplicably directed by Jodie Foster (also appearing as Gibson's wife), is a dreary experience that has no insights into depression, delusion, or beaver puppets.



You might expect a comedy from a scenario where a man communicates only through a puppet, with a thick Cockey accent, but as The Beaver says at one point: "There's nothing funny about it."



There's a subplot involving Gibson's son (Anton Yelchin) dealing with teen angst through a budding romance with an Jennifer Lawrence (WINTER'S BONE) as a valedictorian cheerleader who hires him to write her graduation speech. It really doesn't fit, but then nothing in this film fits.



The implausibility factor here is overwhelming, and not just from the basic premise. When Gibson develops and markets a bestselling wood-cutting kit, it hits such a false note that it's deafening. Likewise Foster's one-note reaction to her husband's dementia.



An unpleasant sex scene with Foster getting creeped out by the puppet is another scene that doesn't gel.



I'm not a fan of Gibson, but there were times his performance showed real effort and passion. However it's in vain as this is strained, self conscious material that never clicks.



In the last third, THE BEAVER takes some disturbing and drastic turns that don't add up, especially when considering how tidy the ending is.



What first time screenwriter Kyle Killen, and Foster were going for here beats me.



Basically this film is a bunch of bad ideas desperately assembled in a lame attempt to form an inspirational story.



It's a failure as a comeback project for Gibson, and will probably be only remembered as a weird misguided movie that came and went with little fanfare. That is, if it's remembered at all.



More later... 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

THE HANGOVER PART II: The Film Babble Blog Review



THE HANGOVER PART II (Dir. Todd Phillips, 2011)





The sequel to the largest grossing R-Rated comedy of all time is exactly everything I thought it would be. I haven't seen such a blatant retread of a huge hit's premise and jokes since AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL.


Again we have Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ed Helms playing the man-child protagonists who wake up to find themselves in way over their heads after a night of stag party debauchery. I actually recycled that sentence largely from my review of the first one - I figure if they can recycle it, so can I.


This time the guys are in Bangkok. Helms is about to get married to Jamie Chung, and Cooper, Galifianakis, and Justin Bartha are there to attend the wedding.


Chung has a disapproving father (Nirut Sirichanya) who humiliates Helms at their reception dinner, so you know Helms will stand up to him in the end.


Bartha went missing in the first one, so their idea of mixing it up is to have Chung's younger brother (Mason Lee) disappear.


The night starts at a resort in Thailand where Helms is talked into having just one beer with the "Wolfpack," as Galifianakis calls them, on the beach with a bonfire. What could go wrong?


Just like before (okay I'll stop saying that - it could get exhausting) the camera pans up to the sky and the screen fades. We flash forward and we're in a scummy hotel room in the city of Bangkok. Galifianakis's hair head has been shaved, Helms has a Mike Tyson tattoo on his face, there's a capuchin monkey jumping around, and there's a severed finger with Lee's school ring on it among all the bottles, cocaine, and other debris from the previous night.


Oh yeah, there's also the crazy coked up Ken Jeong who Galifianakis invited as his +1 to the wedding sleeping on the floor.


So the 'Wolfpack" hit the streets to figure out what happened to Lee and they wind through a convoluted scenario involving Monks, she-male prostitutes, Russian thugs, and an obligatory car-chase that includes the classically clichéd fruit cart scene.


The problem is this material is geared more for shock value than laughs. The leads have an energy going in their performances, playing amusingly off each other, but while Cooper and Helms almost overdo their effort, Galifianakis doesn't seem to care.





Galifianakis can be funny with just an expression, and his eccentric childishness has its moments, but wears thin way before the halfway mark.


In the middle of it all there's a surprising appearance by Paul Giamatti, who has a nice sharp scene or 2 - I guess to go further about it would be a Spoiler!


Otherwise, despite the absorbing locale, and a few good lines here and there, THE HANGOVER PART II is a tedious, definitively unnecessary, and supremely unsatisfying sequel.


Actually the photos showing what happened during the guys' blackouts during the end credits are kind of funny, but again that's something they did in the first one.


More later...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Product Place Me

Morgan Spurlock made a name for himself with SUPER SIZE ME, a documentary in which he filmed himself eating McDonald’s food for one month. He followed that up with WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?, another ambitiously gimmicky documentary that was equally inconsequential.



Spurlock’s latest film is his gimmickiest for sure – it’s a movie about product placement that was financed by, wait for it, product placement!



So, a lot of this movie is a series of pitch meetings to companies that he wants to feature in his film. Spurlock approaches all the major, and not so major, corporations (well, not McDonald’s for obvious reasons) and gets rejected by most of them (“that doesn’t sound like a movie I’d have any interest in seeing” says one of the folks he cold calls), but a number of companies sign on. The one that ponied up the biggest bucks ($1 million), POM Wonderful, was rewarded with their name above the title, in case you’re wondering about the film’s bloated name.



Spurlock pads the film with interviews with film makers like J.J. Abrams, Peter Berg, Quentin Tarantino, and Brett Ratner who have differing views on product placement. Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, and On The Media host Bob Garfield also appear. Spurlock asks Nader if there’s any truth in advertising. Nader responds: “Yeah, if the advertiser tells you they’re lying.”



In one of the film’s most interesting bit is a visit to San Paulo in Brazil, a city that has banned billboards and advertising of every kind from its streets and buildings. Spurlock hammers the point though with resident’s comments, and his own obvious statements: “Look, that taxi has no ad on it!” We get it.



Spurlock is never as funny, insightful, and engaging as he thinks he is, and there’s too many stretches where the film has nothing to say about its subject. I have no idea if Spurlock thinks product placement is good or bad, I’d guess that he thinks it’s good if it benefits him.



There’s a lot of stuff a good documentarian could do with the premise. It would be cool to learn the history of advertising on the big screen, what were the biggest deals made, with more insight into the argument over its merits.



Instead we get Spurlock walking around a grocery store making lame jokes about products. He’s particularly amused about the shampoo for humans and horses Mane ‘n Tail. He giggles as he phones them, but I sure didn’t.



And then there's his cutesy mock commercial he makes for his sponsors. Really icky stuff.



Spurlock’s Michael Moore methods all fall flat once again.
In one of the pitch meetings in the first third, Spurlock says that “the goal of this whole film is transparency. You're going to see the whole thing take place from beginning to end.”



The film, and Spurlock, are indeed transparent - I can see right through them.



More later...

Friday, May 20, 2011

On Shallower Tides...

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (Dir. Rob Marshall, 2011)

Never believe the hype.

The word was that this was supposed to be the movie that got the franchise back on track. Even Johnny Depp was on record about how bloated and convoluted the last couple of PIRATES movies were, so the fourth film was set to right those wrongs.

Not so much. This installment is just as messy and murky as the last 2.

In fact, looking back - I felt exactly the same way I did after seeing the 3rd one (AT WORLD'S END). In my review of that I wrote:

"All the lame jokes, un-affecting fight scenes, and pointless attempts at romaticizing map-mythology with supposed sacred artifacts holding eternal power just left me bombastically bored.

I did however like the Keith Richards cameo (as Jack Sparrow's father no less). I heard there was a bonus scene like the other PIRATES had after the credits but at the 2 hour 45 mark I was dying to get the hell out of the theater - bet you will be too."

Except for the remark about the running time (at just over 2 hours this is shorter) I have the same reaction. This time I did stay to see the bonus scene though.

A lot of the cast from the series doesn't return - there's no Keira Knightly, Orlando Bloom, or Bill Nighy so the film offers a lot of Depp sparring off with Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane as Blackbeard, a real missed oportunity as a character.

ON STRANGER TIDES is a noisy film full of groaners (Keith Richards has the funniest line, but I won't spoil it here), poorly plotted set-pieces, and Johnny Depp just swishing through the motions. It also doesn't take any pleasurable advantage of having zombies in it!

The last half takes the plot mechanics of INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE substituting the Holy Grail with the Fountain of Youth and re-writes them over and over again to no great effect.

Penélope Cruz and Depp have some mad chemistry but when she's reduced to a screaming b**** and Depp is just an ambitious cad they join the entire cast of people it's impossible to care about.

The 3D did nothing for me either.

I have to say though the audience around me seemed to love it all (there was even applause at the end), and my wife enjoyed it saying that she loved "the costumes, the detail on the sets and the ships," "how dark it was" and that "Johnny Depp appeals to all ages."

Judging from that this movie looks pretty critic-proof. It's an event movie that people will feel obligated to see so I'm sure it'll be a big hit. To me though it was another failed fourth and a big waste of time.

More...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

EVERYTHING MUST GO: The Film Babble Blog Review

EVERYTHING MUST GO (Dir. Dan Rush, 2011)

Usually the summer movie season is time for a big dumb Will Ferrell comedy, but not this time around.

Here Ferrell takes on a spare indie film in which he plays a somewhat pathetic yet sympathetic character – a man who gets fired from his corporate job (by Glenn Howerton of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, no less) because of his drinking, then comes home to find his wife has left him. She changed the locks, and all of Ferrell’s possessions are on the front lawn. His company car is repossessed soon after as well.

Drinking PBR after PBR, Ferrell tries to make the best of the situation. He hires a young boy (Christopher Jordan Wallace) to help him hold a yard sale after his former AA sponsor (Michael Peña) tells him that’s the only way he can legally live outside on the property for 5 more days.

Ferrell eyes a new neighbor across the street – a pregnant Rebecca Hall – with who he strikes up a friendship, he blackmails another neighbor (Stephen Root) for electricity after witnessing some S&M practices through Root’s and wife’s window, and he schools Wallace in business tips as well as baseball training.

Through this all, Ferrell’s restrained though obviously pained demeanor adds up to his best performance. In previous films like STRANGER THAN FICTION, MELINDA AND MELINDA, and even his over-the-top comic work, he’s hinted at layers of this kind of depth, but here it’s present in every scene.

Although it’s based on a 4-page Raymond Carver short story (“Why Don’t You Dance?”), it bears little resemblance to it except for the basic premise of an alcoholic selling all his belongings in his front yard. Of course, it would have to be fleshed out for a 96 minute movie and writer/director Dan Rush does an admirable job of doing just that.

EVERYTHING MUST GO is a quiet touching movie that never tries to hard or panders too heavily to dramatic conventions. In its best scenes, themes aren’t spelled out; they’re inside the minds of the characters.

As an old high school friend who Ferrell happens to be reminded of because of an old yearbook, Laura Dern has a greatly affecting scene. Dern and Ferrell catch up after decades of non-communication on her front porch, and there’s a nice notion in the air that people in the movies can just share a moment together without a forced romance getting in the way.

Same goes for Ferrell’s scenes with Rebecca Hall – the organic connection between these 2 people’s desperate pleasantries is palpable and endearing.

In Carver’s short story, a young woman (who doesn’t exist in the movie), can’t quite figure out the man with his stuff in the yard who kept playing records on an old crappy turntable as she and her boyfriend danced.

Carver writes about her telling her friends about it: “She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.”

This film knows that sometimes you can’t get things talked out. Hmm, maybe it resembles the short story more than I thought.


More later...

Thursday, May 12, 2011

BRIDESMAIDS: The Film Babble Blog Review


BRIDESMAIDS (Dir. Paul Feig, 2011)


On his highly addictive popcast “WTF,” comedian Marc Maron often talks about comic actors that have a grasp on exactly what’s funny about them. In scene after scene of BRIDESMAIDS, Kristen Wiig nails exactly what’s funny about her.

Lately Wiig has been so overused on Saturday Night Live reprising obnoxious characters that weren’t that amusing in the first place, and then at the same time she’s underused in a string of sideline parts in movies such as PAUL, EXTRACT, MACGRUBER, GHOST TOWN, DATE NIGHT, etc. that it’s so satisfying to report that her first starring role is a real winner.

Wiig’s mastery of nervously nuanced body language, and naturalisticly awkward line readings carries her hapless heroine Annie here hilariously through this uber affable film.

As a former bakery owner turned jaded jewelry store clerk whose life is going steadily downhill, we first meet Wiig in bed with Mad Men’s Jon Hamm in the funniest sex scene since TEAM AMERICA.

Hamm is, in his own words on Conan, an unrepentant douche-bag, who only wants no-strings-attached sex, but it’s obvious that Wiig wants more. Hamm just has a small, and oddly un-credited role, so we know that’s not where this is going.

Wiig’s best friend since childhood Maya Rudolph is getting married, and our sardonic sad sack heroine finds out she has competition in the Maid of Honor department in Rose Byrne as Rudolph’s new upscale best friend.

There are shades of Wiig’s Penelope character from SNL, in a good way, in a bit at an engagement lunch as Wiig and Bryne keep trying to upstage each other, stealing the microphone from each other back and forth in vain to get the last word in.


The other bridesmaids that make up the wacky wedding group are Reno 911’s Wendy McLendon-Covey, The Office’s Ellie Kemper, and Mike and Molly’s Melissa McCarthy whose abrasive fearless performance comes close to stealing the movie, as funny as Wiig is.

On a plane to Vegas, Wiig gets drunk and tries to crash first class repeatedly while the rest of the cast gets in their own crazy predicaments which I won’t spoil. It’s a uproarious scene, but it’s far from the funniest ones on display, as a great sequence featuring Wiig breaking every law in the book driving up and down the road in front of a cop she had a fling with (Chris O’Dowd) tops it. I really can’t explain how this comes about – you’ve just got to see it for yourself.

As that bemused cop, O’Dowd has charming repartee with Wiig and joins the well chosen cast which notably includes the last film role of Jill Clayburgh as Wiig’s ditzy celebrity portrait painting mother.

Despite its predictable rom com trappings and some unnecessary gross-out humor (I could’ve done without a food poisoning/vomit scene in an expensive dress shop), BRIDESMAIDS is one of the funniest films of the year so far (that might not be saying much, I know).

There are more laugh out loud moments than I can count, and Freaks and Geekscreator Feig (who also helmed episodes of Mad Men, 30 Rock, The Office, and Arrested Development BTW) does a great job shaping the material written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo with a touching tone and, for the most part, great timing.

And coming from the Judd Apatow production line it’s a welcome change from the usual boy’s club fare.

Ignore the accusations of BRIDESMAIDS being a female version of THE HANGOVER (although they did cut a Vegas party scene because of the similarity) and the superficial resemblance to such chick flick crap as BRIDE WARS, because this is an extremely funny movie that really should make Wiig a star.


More later...