Saturday, July 31, 2010

July Movie Jubilee

I hate to sound like a broken record, but damn, this has been a shitty summer for movies.  Crap movies have outnumbered great ones and mediocre ones have outnumbered everything.  Damn shame.  Fortunately, it’s been a great summer in pretty much every other aspect of life -- and it looks to get even better in 10 days when I make my triumphant return to LAS VEGAS!  But first, let’s take a look at the dozen or so movies I’ve seen in the past month...

I-Am-Love I AM LOVE -- I admit it: Tilda Swinton kind of freaks me out. She looks like walking death and if I saw her ghostly form approaching me in the middle of the night I’d probably shit myself. However, that she is a fine actress cannot be denied. And did you know that she is also fluent in several languages? Well, she is, and this talent is on display in this tragic melodrama from Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino. With its themes of family dysfunction and the power of love, I found the story to be compelling enough, but I guess I’m just not a fan of this guy’s style. Too many lingering close-ups of pretty objects and flowers (not to mention Tilda’s nipples), and the proceedings just drag like hell. Swinton is pretty fantastic, though, and slow as things are for the first 90 minutes, some climactic twists will eventually perk you up. If you’re jonesing for some art house fare, you could do worse than this. Great musical score, too, from composer John Adams.

Winters-Bone WINTER'S BONE -- Excellent noir-ish mystery about a young girl who attempts to track down her deadbeat father and prevent the foreclosure of her house before she, her young siblings and their mentally ill mother are forced out into the wilds of the Ozarks. Along the way she encounters a series of bizarre characters and attempts to unravel a web of deception, double-talk and threats to herself and family.  The lovely and talented Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree with mix of sadness and battle-worn determination -- she’s a girl who is forced to do too much, too soon.  Probably the best female performance I’ve seen so far this year, and hopefully one that the Academy will remember in a few months. But even if they don’t, geeks everywhere will surely be fawning over Jennifer after she plays Mystique in next year’s X-MEN: FIRST CLASS... nice.

kids-are-all-right THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT -- A heartwarming 21st century romantic comedy about a family with two moms whose lives are turned upside when the kids decide to track down their biological father. Hijinks ensue, love is put to the test and everyone gets a lesson on what it means to be “la famiglia,” as my own family likes to say. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening are a pretty convincing lesbian couple, while Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson (better known, respectively, as Alice from Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND and the kid from BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and LITTLE MANHATTAN) are fantastic as their curious kids. But it’s my boy Mark Ruffalo who really steals the show as the easygoing sperm donor they seek -- he’s so cool and charming, it’s almost hard to decide who to root for when melodrama sets in.  Mark Ruffalo has been one of my favorite actors for a long time -- hopefully this performance, along with being cast as the new Bruce Banner in THE AVENGERS, will help take his already-excellent career to the next level!

Predators PREDATORS -- It’s a little-known fact about me, but I LOVE the original PREDATOR. It’s one of my favorite ‘80s action movies, and in fact, I recently bought the super-special edition Blu-Ray and enjoyed reveling in its awesomeness all over again. It’s just one of those movies that was perfect for its time and place. The sequel was “meh,” and the Alien vs. Predator films were abominations, but when I heard about this standalone reboot, produced by Guillermo del Toro and starring some fine actors, including my boy Adrian Brody, my interest was piqued.  Unfortunately, it didn’t get the job done. It just wasn’t BIG enough. When you call your movie “PREDATORS” with an S at the end, I assume that it is going to be filled with balls-to-the-wall Predator madness. I mean, at this point, we know what a Predator looks like. We know what their deal is. We don’t need to go through the whole song and dance again. What this movie needed was more Predators and a LOT more action.  Instead, it had a few decent moments, but in the end it was just... kinda boring.

sorcerers-apprentice THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE -- I remember when the first PIRATES of THE CARRIBEAN movie came out and I had no doubt in my mind that it would suck. Then I saw it, and was stunned that it not only didn’t suck, but it was kind of awesome. Granted, THE HAUNTED MANSION was crap, and God forbid they ever make a SPACE MOUNTAIN movie... but for some reason I had a good feeling about this adaptation of the classic Mickey Mouse sketch from FANTASIA. Turns out that my feeling was correct, as this movie was solid entertainment. It was good that they didn’t take things seriously at all and just had fun with the whole thing.  Would have liked to have seen Nic Cage play it a bit crazier, but it was still fun to see him chew the scenery. Jay Baruchel was fine, though I still think he’s better suited to supporting roles. And yes, the scene with the brooms was there -- it can’t compare to the source material (one of the quintessential Mickey Mouse moments), but it still brought a smile to my face.

inception INCEPTION -- I honestly can’t write too much about this movie yet, because I have only seen it once and I still have way too many unanswered questions.  I’ll hopefully get to see it a second time soon -- not so much because I WANT to, but because I feel like I HAVE to.  It’s not so much confusing as it is incredibly dense and so full of intricacies that it’s impossible to piece everything together after one viewing.  That said, I still think that we’re all over-thinking the whole thing and the easiest solution is probably the correct one (highlight the following invisible text for a SPOILER: The top falls, dammit!) But this is without question a must-see. Christopher Nolan is a master craftsman, the plot is truly mind-bending, Leonardo DiCaprio is at the top of his game, the supporting cast is outstanding and the haunting score is arguably Hans Zimmer’s best since GLADIATOR. Definitely one of the best all-around movies of the summer, second only to TOY STORY 3.

dinner-for-schmucks DINNERS FOR SCHMUCKS – This movie is going to hold a special place in my heart because I attended the NYC premiere at the Ziegfeld and had a close encounter with my ultimate man-crush, Paul Rudd -- by that I mean, I inadvertently leapt out from behind a pillar and took his picture, momentarily blinding him with my camera flash... oops... but hey, the picture came out great!  Memorable experience, yes... but sadly, the movie wasn’t that good. Funny in the moment, but I’ve already forgotten most of what I laughed at.  Definitely a far cry from AUSTIN POWERS and MEET THE PARENTS, as far as director Jay Roach is concerned.  That being said, it is worth Netflixing someday, especially if you love Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and Zack Galifianakis (as I do) and require a fix of their combined awesomeness.

salt SALT -- A funny thing happened when I saw this movie... I actually liked it!  In fact, I'd go as far as to say that it's the most fun popcorn flick so far this summer... and frankly, it couldn't have come at a better time for Angelina Jolie.  By my estimation, it's been at least five years since her last halfway decent movie (MR. & MRS. SMITH... and even that was only really good because you knew that she and Brad Pitt were gettin' it on behind the scenes), and she was in danger of becoming completely irrelevant as anything other than tabloid fodder.  But clearly, there's a little life left in those luscious lips of hers!  Angelina kicks some serious ass as Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who may or may not be a Russian spy.  The movie teeters on the edge of the ridiculous, but the action never lets up for a second so you never really notice -- and damned if it doesn't make you feel just a little nostalgia for the good old days of the Cold War, which was so much more fun than this whole Middle East debacle.  (I'll take ROCKY IV over THE HURT LOCKER any day!)

despicable_me DESPICABLE ME -- Moderately entertaining animated fare starring the voice of Steve Carell as Dru, a bumbling supervillain who engages in a battle of wits with a younger rival, bosses around a bunch of wacky little minions and adopts three little girls as part of his master plan.  Nothing terribly special about the movie... but certainly nothing terrible about it, either. I’m glad I got to see it for free (thank you, AMC MovieWatcher program), though, because if I had paid $17 to see this movie in 3D, I would have been pissed.  There was absolutely NO reason for it to be in 3D, as it adds NOTHING to the experience. It provided no discernable visual depth and didn’t even use any cheesy gimmicks to wow the kiddies. When used properly (as in AVATAR and TOY STORY 3, the two best examples of the technology thus far), 3D can be an awesome tool –- but for the most part these days, it is overkill and a massive waste of money –- and this movie is a prime example of the latter.

life-during-wartimeLIFE DURING WARTIME -- Here we have the latest from Todd Solondz, the very thought of which is enough to send a chill down my spine.  It's a sequel to HAPPINESS, one of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen -- a twisted ode to family dysfunction, pedophilia and self-loathing -- set ten years later, with different actors portraying the same characters.  The result is an absolute triumph for Solondz -- dark, poignant, chilling and, yes, hilarious, with brightly-colored backdrops that serve to heighten the misery.  If HAPPINESS took us on an insane, over-the-top journey through some of the most fucked-up situations imaginable, LIFE DURING WARTIME shows us the consequences of those situations and grounds them in a harsh reality.  The characters remain haunted by their past and left to fend for themselves in an uncertain future.  The cast is truly outstanding, including Shirley Henderson (whose voice is instantly recognizable as that of Moaning Myrtle from the HARRY POTTER series), Allison Janney, Ally Sheedy, Paul Reubens and Charlotte Rampling (still sexy at 64!).  But best of all is another one of my favorite actors, the great Ciaran Hinds.  He portrays Bill, the pedophile dad, now released from jail after ten years, a broken man in search of an absolution that he knows he doesn’t deserve and will likely never find. “This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around,” indeed....

get_low GET LOW -- Part true story, part folk tale about an eccentric hermit, Felix Bush, who decides to throw his own funeral party while he’s still alive. The plan is for everyone in town to come and tell stories about him (and enter a contest to win his land)... but as the layers are peeled back and more details of Felix’s life are revealed, we learn that this is really the story of an old man seeking redemption and forgiveness for his trespasses. It’s a feel-good film -- almost Capra-esque in an odd sort of way -- anchored by the best performance I’ve seen in any movie so far this year: Robert Duvall is pretty much assured of his sixth Oscar nomination, and as of this moment, he’s my favorite for his second win.  Bill Murray is also fantastic as struggling funeral director who gets caught up in Felix’s crazy scheme, and Sissy Spacek reminds us how good she can be as a woman who once played a part in Felix’s checkered past. My only problem with this movie is that it sort of plays like a swan song to Robert Duvall’s storied career -- but let’s hope that ol’ Tom Hagen still has lots of great performances left in him!

disappearanceofalicecreed THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED -- Look, I’ve seen enough thrillers, good and bad, to know that characters HAVE to do stupid, infuriating things from time to time, or else there wouldn’t be a movie. But goddamn... this little British yarn takes that stupidity to a ridiculous level. It’s about two guys who kidnap a girl and hold her for ransom. But people and things are not what they seem and twists and turns abound. The writer/director, J Blakeson, clearly has a gift for pacing and building tension, because I found myself on the edge of my seat a number of times -- unfortunately, it was often because I was so fucking furious with the decisions that the characters were making onscreen. Ah well. Fine performances, though, from all three players -- particularly the lovely Gemma Arterton, whom you might recognize from such films as QUANTUM OF SOLACE and the recent CLASH OF THE TITANS remake. She’s good... and pretty.

Coming soon: THE OTHER GUYS! SCOTT PILGRIM! THE EXPENDABLES! And, oh yeah... live reports from VEGAS, BABY, VEGAS!!!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Wow, THE KARATE KID Remake ISN’T a Travesty!

Believe me, no one is more surprised about this than I am.

Anyone who knows me knows that my favorite movies as a kid were STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI. But it’s a lesser-known fact that my favorite non-Star Wars film was none other than the original KARATE KID.  There was a period of my young life during which I would rent THE KARATE KID (along with whatever classic “Best of the WWF” volumes I hadn’t seen yet… but I digress) from the video store every week. I memorized the movie inside and out and to this day keep it on a pedestal that few movies will ever reach.

So needless to say, when I heard that they were encroaching on sacred ground and making a full-fledged remake, I was pissed. When I heard that it would star Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan, I scoffed. And when I heard that it would be called THE KARATE KID even though it’s about kung fu instead of karate, I denounced its existence to anyone who would listen, became certain that it was a disaster waiting to happen and vowed to never watch it under any circumstances.

karate-kid Well, guess what: My morbid curiosity got the best of me and I saw THE KARATE KID remake the other night. And wouldn’t you know it… not only is it NOT a travesty, but it’s actually not half bad. I still think it’s completely pointless and unnecessary, as it’s practically a shot-by-shot remake of the original, following the exact same story arc, hitting the same plot points and even borrowing many of the same visuals and exact lines of dialogue. But rather than seeming like a cheap rehash, it’s made with devout, almost slavish respect for the source material, and it works surprisingly well.

It helps that Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan work well together as fish-out-of-water Dre and maintenance man/kung fu master Mr. Han. Granted, Jaden isn’t nearly as “2010-cool” as Ralph Macchio was “1984-cool,” if you follow my meaning, and Chan doesn’t inspire anywhere near the sense of awe that Morita did… but they’re a believable pair. I also found Dre’s relationship with Meiying, his cute Chinese love interest, to be sufficiently heartwarming (though you just can’t beat Elisabeth Shue) and the bad kung fu kids, while nowhere near as awesome as the Cobra Kai, definitely gave Dre bigger beatings than Daniel ever endured. The training sequences plodded a bit (in fact, the whole movie, at 2 1/2 hours, was way too long), but the final tournament was intense and the audience got WAY into it, clapping and cheering Dre along. In the end, I left the theatre entertained and impressed.

But rest assured, the remake will never replace the original, and I really hope that any parents who have taken their kids to see it will follow it up with the original as soon as possible. The biggest problem with the remake is that there isn’t really a single iconic moment and absolutely no memorable dialogue. People have been quoting, “Wax on, wax off” for years… but I guarantee that no one is going to remember, “Put on jacket, take off jacket” a month from now. Dre & Mr. Han training on top of the Great Wall of China is a cool visual, but it’s nothing like Daniel practicing the Crane Kick in the sunset. The remake is enjoyable and even thrilling at times, but it contains absolutely nothing that will stand the test of time in the way that the original has done for over 25 years.

Should they have bothered to make THE KARATE KID, version 2010? Probably not. And they certainly shouldn’t have called it THE KARATE KID, which is just retarded. But is it worth seeing? I think so, just once, for the sake of completion. Enjoy it in the moment, and then go home and watch the original and cheer for Daniel-San and Mr. Miyagi all over again and forget the remake exists. BANZAI!!!