Monday, July 30, 2007

Review: The Simpsons Movie

Starring (voices): Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, Yeardley Smith, Albert Brooks
Director: David Silverman

Producer: James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Mike Scully, Richard Sakai
Release Date: July 27, 2007
Running time: 87 mins

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: 20th Century Fox

“Look at that, you can see the four states that border Springfield: Ohio, Nevada, Maine, and Kentucky!”

The Skinny:
The Simpsons movie, duh.

The Review:
Has it really been 18 years since the Simpsons debuted? Yup - December 17, 1989. Man, the date alone conjures memories of freshman year in high school. Typing that last sentence also gave me a sour taste of nostalgia. I can remember hearing about the possibility of a Simpsons movie every since I can remember the show airing and taking off. It’s one of those things you kinda thought would never really happen. One of those movie urban legends like Back to the Future IV. But, low and behold, here we are.

Leading up to this weekend you are probably in one of three different camps regarding the Simpsons. One, you are a die-hard fan that has been salivating over this since the 90’s and could barely contain yourself while you painted your face yellow in anticipation of opening night. Two, you are a casual fan of the show who is slightly interested in the movie but have no real expectation of what it has in store. Or three, you could really care less either way. I myself, am parked dead square in the middle of the second camp. I intermittently enjoy the show and appreciate its sharp writing and irreverent humor. I didn’t allow myself to get worked up with anticipation before I saw this movie. It could have been easy to fall into the trappings of thinking that if it took 20 years to make this movie then it must be the greatest thing ever to grace the screen. Then again there is a difference between taking 20 years to make the movie versus the movie being 20 years in the making. And on we march.

The movie itself felt, much like the Family Guy ‘movie’, less like a full movie but two or three TV episodes put together to achieve feature length. While it was much more seamless here, it is essentially, in length and material, a couple of episodes put together. The overall plot is pretty straightforward: Green Day dies while performing at Lake Springfield when pollution eats away at their floating stage and sinks it. At the funeral, Grampa has a convulsive vision of impending doom that no one but Marge listens to. Lisa and her new interest Colin convince the town to clean up the lake and stop dumping into it. Homer alienates Bart then adopts a pig, sending him into the comforting arms of Ned Flanders. The pig waste is enough to fill a silo that Homer has hidden in the backyard until Marge insists Homer properly dispose of it. He does so in true Homer fashion by ignoring Marge’s warning and dumping it in the newly cleaned Lake Springfield. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decides to take action against their spreading pollution and places a large glass dome over the town. The town finds out who is responsible for their new prison, hunts down Homer and burns the Simpson house down while the family escapes to Alaska. And so on. See, pretty straightforward. Well, for The Simpsons anyway…

Let’s face it, is the plot ever really the reason we watch The Simpsons on TV in the first place? I mean, we watch it because it’s funny. We watch it for its quick witted look at the various topics it pokes fun at (including itself). And we watch it because of its built-in familiarity. None of those things are plot driven. I was pleased to see that the formula that has worked so well for so many years was left unchanged for the movie. The creators had the good sense to know that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If something like this has worked for almost two decades, why mess with it now? The film had the same fun look through the eyes of one of TV’s most endearing families, the same comedic jab at topics like the environment, government, and religion, and the same sight gags and jokes that so many times get missed on the initial viewing. The animation looked fantastic; crisp, colorful, and tight. One negative thing I can say however is that in keeping with the same structured formula, they restricted the film from ever going for the jugular. I wasn’t looking for them to go all South Park on us, but you almost expect that they would take advantage of the bigger arena and try to get some wind under their wings to try something bigger and bolder. To have gone completely in that direction would distract us from the original appeal of the materiel, I just would have liked to see them take advantage of the freedoms of the big screen a bit more. Nevertheless, this was an entertaining film that stayed true to the materiel without straying too far from what has made it so good for all these years.

The Rub:
Your expectation level going into this will no doubt impact your overall enjoyment of the film. While I am not a die-hard fan of the show, I am amused by it and shocked that any show, let alone an animated one, can hold its own among the best TV comedies for all but 20 years and still be as relevant as it is today. It’s not the Holy Grail of Simpsons lore that some might expect, but is definitely funnier than 75% of the crap that counts as comedy these days. And after 20 years it’s safe to say that The Simpsons still got it. And there’s the rub.

*** 1/2 of *****

Review: I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Jessica Biel, Dan Aykroyd, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi
Director: Dennis Dugan

Producer: Adam Sandler, Tom Shadyac
Release Date: July 20, 2007

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 110 minutes

Distributors: Universal Studios

“Yeah? Well, I'm Catholic. I don't want to piss Mel Gibson off.”

The Skinny:
Two straight, single men try to pretend they are a gay couple in order to receive pension benefits by way of their domestic partnership.

The Review:
You are stupid.

That’s what the makers of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry think of you. At least by my best estimate, that is the only thing I can come up with to explain why this movie was made and even more offensive still, why they thought we would actually enjoy it. Some movies fail because of unmet expectations and some movies fail because they just plain suck. This one is guilty of the latter. There are so many levels on which I hated this movie it’s hard to figure out where to start. But I’ll give it the old college try:

1.) The story is skit-length deep, at best. The idea for the movie is only marginally funny - a one-trick pony that is stretched so thin that the only thing left to do is fill in the gaps with jokes (more on that later). The story of how two straight, single Brooklyn firefighters, Chuck and Larry (Adam Sandler and Kevin James) pretend to be a gay couple so they can reap the pension benefits of their new domestic partnership. After Larry’s wife dies he misses the deadline to change the beneficiary of his pension from his wife to his children. A routine search of a burned house goes bad, Larry saves Chuck’s life, they end up in the hospital, and Larry threatens to quit the department in lieu of a ‘safer’ job. He later reads an article on same-sex domestic partnership rights and decides to marry Chuck, making him the beneficiary and caretaker of his children. I will admit, I was mildly amused by the trailer, not by the story but more so because of the characters.

2.) The ‘jokes’ are unfunny and offensive. Look, they’re in a Gay Pride parade! Look, they’re at a function for gay people and there is a dance off! Look, Chuck is shopping for clothes with a woman and enjoying it! In other words, garden variety, stereotypical gay jokes. Don’t get me wrong, I am not one of those high and mighty types always looking to defend a cause. Nor am I some sensitive schlub who can’t handle a little black humor. I make fun of people and situations as a hobby, almost to a fault. It’s not that the jokes are smack-you-in-the-face offensive, there was just an unsettling feeling with some of them. Leaving the movie I said to my girlfriend, “If I was gay, I would have been completely offended by the majority of that movie.” To which she said “If you were gay, the integrity of our relationship could be called into question and that would still be a terrible movie.” Oh snap! Ultimately the movie is about gay rights, tolerance, and equality, so the subject matter itself can be, by definition, a little dicey to confront. But the subject matter is not what I am talking about. It’s the half-assed way the matter was handled. You can make a funny movie about gay characters and tolerance and equality (The Birdcage is an excellent, hilarious example) so we know it can be done, it just wasn’t done here. Maybe ‘unfunny and offensive’ isn’t fair. Maybe a better way of putting it would be to say it was offensive because it was unfunny.

3.) The characters are unbelievably dumb. This is an ‘Adam Sandler movie’ so much shouldn’t be made at the lack of depth in the characters. So I will re-phrase the title to be Chuck and Larry’s lawyer Alex McDonough (Jessica Biel) is unbelievably dumb. Even by the reduced standards of a Happy Madison picture, this one scrapes the bottom of the barrel. I didn’t buy her buying the guys’ story. I didn’t buy her not figuring out Chuck was forever hitting on her (and even letting him feel her up - although I appreciated the scene nonetheless). I didn’t buy that she had no other friends and took to Chuck and Larry so quickly that she invited Chuck to a gala and out shopping. I didn’t buy her I didn’t buy her being surprised when she finds out they are (gasp!) straight. I just didn’t buy that she was that stupid and her character didn’t work for me, at all. It’s kind of like that joke, “What’s better than winning the gold medal at the Special Olympics? Not being retarded.” Well, she didn’t even qualify for the race. I guess is a lawyer...

4.) It should have been much, much better. Maybe not because of the movie itself, but the players involved in making it. I really like Kevin James on King of Queens and his stand-up is pretty funny too. He has a physical comedic presence and an everyman quality that is endearing. Adam Sandler, let’s face it, has been in some turd movies but some of them have been pretty funny. And with his recent successful foray into dramatic roles (Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish, Reign Over Me. Well, maybe not Spanglish) he has shown that he has range. He just reduced himself into someone going through the motions here. Finally, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the guys responsible for writing this mess. Election, Sideways; those were great movies, partially to do with the fact that they were created from great screenplays. These guys have an Oscar for Christ sake! I suppose I expected more, and rightly so.

The Rub:
A bad, bad movie on many levels. A paper thin story woven together by unfunny jokes, offensive stereotypes, and characters so ignorant they made me want to punch a baby in the face. I almost walked out (and I sat through Dude, Where’s My Car? in the theatre). Had it not been for the fact that I was on vacation in the middle of nowhere and had to drive 45 minutes to get to the closest theatre to see it, I probably would have. And there’s the rub.

* of *****

Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rubert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman
Director: David Yates

Producer: David Heyman, David Barron
Release Date: July 11, 2007

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 138 mins
Distributors: Warner Bros.

"You're a fool, Harry Potter, and you will lose everything."

The Skinny:
The fifth film installment of the insanely successful Harry Potter film franchise based on the equally insanely successful books.

The Review:
I do not fancy myself a Harry Potter fanatic. I haven't read any of the books. In fact, a week before I saw this film I had only seen the first one, opening night, midnight showing, and fell asleep through it. Not that I didn't like it, but it was a midnight show. I owned the previous four movies on DVD and had always intended to watch them all, but just hadn't ever done so. I was asked to go see this one by a friend of mine (who is admittedly a Harry Potter fanatic). At first, I thought I was in a unique position to do so, so I had planned to see this movie without having watched any others to see if the movie stood alone on its own merit. A noble prospect I suppose, but I was strongly advised otherwise by my subject matter expert stating "You will be lost if you don't at least see the last two." I reluctantly put myself on a crash-course to watch them all two days before we had planned to see OOTP. I will say that I am disappointed in myself for not having spent the time to see them before now. I really enjoyed them and once again found myself in a unique position. To sit down, with no prior knowledge of the material, and immerse myself in five movies worth of a story is both efficient and, I'm afraid, draining.

It reminded me of a similar situation I found myself in involving the TV show Lost. I never watched the TV show when it first came out but I received Season One on DVD for Christmas one year and, like Harry Potter, had always wanted to watch them 'someday'. One weekend, out of boredom, in the summer following season two airing on TV, I popped it in and was instantly hooked. I couldn't believe I had waited this long to get involved with the show. I watched all the episodes back-to-back-to-back. Then rushed out and bought and watched season two the same way. Then season three started airing on TV and it was infuriating watching the episodes on a weekly basis because I had grown so accustomed to not having to wait. It didn't detract me from my appreciation of the show (it is the only TV I have to watch on a regular basis) but it is an interesting comparison on how differently you digest the show and information presented within when you watch it all at once versus as it comes out. Anyway, I am getting off track. The point I'm making is that when you watch the available material all at once, you kind of see them as chapters in an overall story versus individual pieces of achievement (as in the Harry Potter movies). It is in this position I found myself in while watching this film.

The movie opens with Harry being bullied by his cousin Dudley and his band of idiots. Shortly after Harry threatens his wand, a storm brews, the gang split and Dudley and Harry are being chased by two Dementors. Harry performs the Petronus Charm to ward off the attack. I really liked the opening sequence. Very dark and moody and I imagine, foreshadowing of things to come. The rest of the story picks up as Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermoine Granger are entering their fifth year at Hogwarts. As Harry and Dumbledore warn that Lord Voldemort has regained a body and returned to full power, the wizarding community has shunned them, opting instead to heed the musings of The Daily Prophet. In response, the head of the Ministry of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, appoints a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Delores Umbridge. As she begins to effectively take over the school by virtue of the ministry, Harry forms "Dumbledore's Army". It is within this underground and secret organization that Harry begins teaching a group of his fellow students to arm them for battle with Voldemort if the situation necessitates itself. And it does. The climax of the film takes place at the Department of Mysteries where Harry and his friends encounter Lucius Melfoy and Bellatrix Lestrange. Sirius Black is there. And Dumbledore. And Voldemort. And anyone else they think they can throw at it. It is without a doubt technically spectacular to watch, but a bit muddled with everything going on and kind of, anti-climactic I thought.

That kind of sums up the whole experience for me. It felt like one long buildup with not a whole lot of payoff. Umbridge struck a cord with me as she perfectly embodied the worst teacher imaginable, then she was let her off the hook when she was 'taken away'. "Dumbledore's Army" spent most of the movie being taught by Harry, then didn't amount to much when the time came to use their newfound teachings. And so on. Like I said, it's possible that I didn't do the movie justice by watching them all at once, but then again, it felt like it should have been able to rise above if it was, in fact, that much better than the rest of the series. All that being said, I can't think of another movie franchise where the 5th one is as good as this one ended up being after it was all said and done. But that isn't saying much.

Note: I was wise to 'catch up' before watching this film. I would have had little to no idea what was going on.

The Rub:
A decent, dark addition to the series and a fine setup to the last two chapters in the saga. The whole thing felt like it was a long winded wind up with a fizzled payoff. The battle climax was visually very, very good, but on the whole, felt a bit bloated. Maybe it there was a disconnect between the book and the film or maybe I was a bit Harry Potter-ed out by the time I saw this. It wasn't the worst of the series (Goblet of Fire was a kind of a bore) and it surely wasn't the best (Prisoner of Azkaban, please). But worth a look either way.

And there's the rub.

*** of *****

Monday, July 16, 2007

Review: Transformers

The Skinny:
A live action film based on the Transformers franchise.

The Review:
Michael Bay's existence in Hollywood is what you might call an enigma. His movies are generally regarded as inedible swill, but they seem to make a crap-ton of money. More times than not, when his name is attached to a new project it is met with a collective *groan*. Personally, I am not fanatically pro or anti Bay. He has made some alright movies (The Rock, Bad Boys), but he has made some real turds too (Pearl Harbor, The Island). Then there is Armageddon. One of my deepest, darkest movie secrets, and the reason I probably deserve to have my movie watching card revoked, is that Armageddon ranks as my #1 all-time guilty pleasure. I realize how terrible and unbelievable the movie is. And I realize the wrath that statement should incite by the general respectable movie watching population, but it's true. If Bay's movies are good for one thing it is pure, unadulterated escapism. Isn't that why we all love going to the movies in the first place? I understand, and completely agree, that his strength as a filmmaker lies solely in his ability to film action. The guy can do action with the best of them but the characters in his movies are, shall we say, a bit wooden and two-dimensional. So I suppose I was not the only one with reservedly excited about this project.

Transformers is one of those institutions from my childhood that I hold very near and dear. Like the original Star Wars trilogy or the Indiana Jones trilogy or 80's John Hughes movies, this is just one of those things that will always be untouchable. I remember playing with the toys and watching the cartoon as a kid. Like my Snoopy sheets I had growing up, or Mom's cornbread, I not only did I thoroughly enjoy them as a kid; it is comforting to go back and reconnect with these things now because of what they represent to me personally. That's probably a tad over dramatic, but a live action Transformers movie was always something I thought I would have loved to see, but would have definitely preferred to have lived my whole life without, if it was going to be done poorly. The approach was simple, tell the story of a boy and his car, set it to killer special effects and battle sequences, and try like hell not to let everybody down.

Simply put, this is the movie Transformers fans have been waiting for their whole lives. And was it ever worth the wait. The film opens in Qatar where the Decepticon Blackout attacks and wipes out a US military base while trying to hack into the military's computer network. It is an awesome scene and sets the stage perfectly for things to come. Meanwhile, the awkwardly dorky high school student Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is fumbling his way through a basic show and tell at school where he tries selling relics of his great-great-grandfathers, Captain Archibald Witwicky, a famous explorer to raise money to buy a car. He eventually gets the car, a 1970 Camero, who turns out to be the Autobot Bumblebee. Sam uses his new car to woo a classmate he is interested in, Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) – to little avail. As a result of a successful hack into the military's network, it is revealed that Sam may possess the key to locating the Allspark, a device that will grant power over all mechanical life. Since their home planet Cybertron has been destroyed by war, the Decepticons want it to gain total control of the Allspark and the Autobots are trying to stop them from having it, for obvious reasons. Bumblebee signals the rest of the Autobots, the Decepticons converge, and we're off to the races.

I can't describe in words how much fun it was to see these Transformers come to life. I actually got goose bumps when Optimus Prime first appears and speaks (voiced by the same person, Peter Cullen, who supplied the voices in the cartoons and Transformers: The Movie). Hugo Weaving does fine as the voice of Megatron. Shia LeBeouf isn't a favorite of mine at all. In fact, he rather annoys me. But I have to admit that he is perfectly cast in his role and dare I say, pretty damn funny. The rest of the movie is basically watching, in all its wide-eyed joy, the Autobots and Decepticons kicking the crap out of each other for 2 hours. The special effects are some of the most impressive and smooth I have seen, and the battle sequences are absolutely jaw dropping. I sat there like a kid again, amazed at what I was watching on the screen. This movie kind of took me back and gave me that sense of wonderment that has been missing in movies for so many years. Sure the plot is simple, but trying to fancy it up would have just turned it into a convoluted mess. It's a balls out 80's action flick, with updated effects. ILM once again proves why they are the best at what they do. Michael Bay has made a great movie doing what he knows best, while actually spending a little time making you give a rat's ass about the characters. A novel concept – I hope he learns from this going forward. Little more than a month ago, Dreamworks greenlit two sequels to Transformers. Bay has yet to sign on, but if this one is any indication, he has my vote to helm what could be an excellent film franchise.

The Rub:
Transformers lives up to the hype. It isn't the greatest movie ever made, but it is the best cartoon movie adaptation to date. This movie is funny, a lot of fun, and entertaining as hell. The plot is straightforward, the special effects and robot battle scenes are absolutely incredible, and the message of the movie is simple: Giant f*cking robots are coming. So sit back and enjoy the ride. And there's the rub.

**** 1/2 of *****

Review: 1408

The Skinny:
A supernatural writer sets out to dispel the myth of a fabled, haunted room, 1408, in a New York City hotel.

The Review:
I like John Cusack. A lot.

That was a recurring thought I had once I finished seeing 1408. I started thinking about some of the characters he has played in all the movies of his that I liked and the list was pretty impressive. A sample:

- Sixteen Candles, Bryce (super-geek). Not a predominant role, but funny never the less. (Has it really been almost 25 years since this movie came out??!?… damn I'm getting old.) All-time classic.

- Better Off Dead…, Lane Meyer. If you're around my age and this movie isn't on your list of favorite movies growing up, you probably are better off… never mind. All-time classic.

- Say Anything…, Lloyd Dobler. Top shelf Cameron Crowe. Features one of the all-time best, sappiest, most memorable scenes of teenage angst set to a Peter Gabriel song; now a standard pop culture reference. "I gave her my heart and she gave me a pen", classic.

- Grosse Pointe Blank, Martin Q. Blank. A hit-man with a heart of gold.

- Being John Malkovich, Craig Schwartz. Classic.

- High Fidelity, Rob Gordon. One of my all-time favorite movies. A classic.

Lot of "classics" there. And there are others, but while I was compiling this list, I tried to think of how these movies would have come off if someone else had inhabited these roles. With the exception of the Sixteen Candles role, I can't really think of how any of them would have worked as well as they did without Cusack's trademark wit, charm, and delivery. He seems like the kind of guy you could have a beer with while discussing these roles and he would be almost as excited as you are to discuss them. Maybe not, but whether it be his younger roles of pitch-perfect teenage life, or his older roles of, well… pitch-perfect young adult life, he seems to just have it. That it being something intangible he brings to his characters that you can't describe, but you'd miss it if it weren't there.

1408 is the story of skeptical supernatural author, Mike Enslin (Cusack). He has made a career of debunking supposed supernatural hot spots by way of a few, less than best selling novels. After completing his latest round of research, he receives a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in NYC. The message: "don't enter 1408". Thinking it to be a clever draw, he attempts to book a reservation at the Dolphin in room 1408 only to find that regardless of the date he chooses the room is "not available". After involving his agent and in-house lawyer by finding a clause in the Fair Housing Act that would force the Dolphin rent the room, the reservation for 1408 is booked and Enslin is off to for some more "routine" research. Once he arrives at the hotel, he finds out his reservation is flagged. The front desk clerk informs management, and the hotel manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), pulls Enslin aside and asks to speak with him privately in his office. Olin tells him that no one has ever lasted more than an hour and pleads with him not to stay in the room. He bribes him with a penthouse suite upgrade, access to all documentation of the 56 deaths that have occurred in the room, and an $800 bottle of cognac if he opts not to stay in the room. Enslin insists and Olin takes him to the 14th floor. On the way he questions the validity of all the claims to which Olin stops, and turns back (with the classic icy Sam Jackson stare) and proclaims: "It's an evil fucking room". When Enslin presses the issue and thanks him for the concern of his well being, Olin, unfazed, calmly states, "Look, I just don't want to clean up the mess".

Once finally inside the room, alone, he begins a series of examinations and comments at how unremarkable the room appears to be. The alarm clock in the room blares, sets itself at 60:00, and begins counting down. He begins to hear and see things that he passes as hallucinations from, what he suspects is, spiked cognac. Visions of past guests killing themselves, the temperature going from boiling hot, to so cold it snows, visions of his separated wife and daughter; he attempts to keep everything grounded with some sort of realistic explanation but soon falls victim to the mythology and attempts to leave the room. I don't want to ruin anything for those who haven't seen it, so I wont explain any further other than to say the room wont let him, and we spend the rest of the film watching him go crazy trying to get out.

The better part of this movie is just Cusack by himself in a room, and it works. Cusack doesn't bite the hand that feeds him and uses exactly what has worked for him so many times in the past – that intangible quality I talked about earlier. There aren't many actors that could pull this off and make it watchable. Tom Hanks did to a larger degree in Cast Away, and it worked there too; for a while. But much like Cast Away, a good story and setup kind of fell apart for me in the 3rd act. There was a point in 1408 where I was reminded of another of Cusack's movies, Identity, and how ripped off I felt at the end of that movie because it felt like they cheated by using one of the oldest, most tired, hack plot devices of all time to explain everything. For a few minutes, it felt like I was suckered again. Then come to find out, my fears were not realized. And while it didn't cheat, it didn't really fully recover either.

The Rub:
I loved the story and the setup. Cusack makes this even better by doing what he does best. While for me it didn't work so much as a 'horror movie' (I specify me because my girlfriend spent most of the movie on my lap…) it was still a good premise and entertaining movie nonetheless, even if it did stumble a bit at the end. And there's the rub.

*** of *****

Review: SiCKO

The Skinny:
Michael Moore takes on the United States health care system.

The Review:
I've always found watching documentaries from a critical stand point to be something of a conundrum. On one hand, you are watching a movie so you are analyzing the entertainment value of the film. On the other, you are watching a documentary so the subject matter itself becomes part of the overall critique. Sure, in movies the subject matter is always important, but you typically don't have your beliefs challenged or called into question as much as in a documentary. I mean, I can watch American Psycho and know it's a great movie without being in agreement of a psychopathic murderer's point of view. That being said, you can't watch a movie like this and ignore the content. It sort of defeats the purpose of watching it in the first place.

My personal belief is that any information we get from the media in this country is carefully orchestrated and spoon-fed to us with a purpose in mind. We are quick to judge the actions of everyone else, but rarely hold ourselves accountable for any wrong doing. That's kind of always been the American way. Listen, I think we live in the greatest country in the world, but we have our flaws. And they are glaring. If we don't like the way you are doing things, we'll kick down the door and beat you in to submission until you see things our way. The same mentality behind going to a smaller college so you are viewed as a person and "not just a number" or working for a smaller company versus a large corporation for the same reason, we are just a little too big for our britches most of the time and lose sight of how our actions affect the people who run this country, or at least should be: us, the general public. This film is basically the antithesis of what we have been told over and over about health care in this country by our government and media. That's not to say that it's without its problems either.

Focusing on the United States health care system, primarily the behavior of large insurance companies and their practices, SiCKO is Michael Moore's unapologetic look at the other side of the argument. Say what you want about him, but he is relentless at displaying his point – almost to a fault. As with his previous works, his blueprint remains intact: purge countless statistics, presumably skewed for the benefit of the viewpoint he is trying to convey, while illustrating those points with worst-case scenario examples. That's not to say the statistics aren't alarming (they are), or the examples aren't powerful (they are as well), so long as you are aware going in that in the grand scheme of the entire argument, the picture and its ideals are tangibly distorted. In the past in his quest to "reveal the truth" Moore has been accused of, among other things, staging interviews and editing out of context material together for the benefit of achieving a desired response. My biggest beef with Moore has always been that he attacks his opposing arguments by claiming they are manipulating our perceptions with half-truths, while himself overtly propagandizing the alternative argument. In SiCKO, this is evident while contrasting the U.S. system for health care with those of other countries with universal health care coverage. He scrutinizes the horrors of the U.S. system, but doesn't turn the same microscopic eye, only summarizing the highlights of the socialized health care systems in Canada, Great Britain, France, and Cuba.

I lived in Canada a few years back for a short time, and I spoke to many Canadians that complained about the health care system. Sure it doesn't cost them during their visit, but they are, as the movie states at one point, buried in taxes and the visits are not typically in-and-out procedures. So I guess the basic rule of economics still applies: There's no such thing as a free lunch. During a visit stateside, I had a Canadian friend who had to go to the hospital here for an illness. While the cost of the visit itself was a non-issue (because of insurance coverage from their work and the illness not being major), one of the first things she said after we left was how "nice" our hospitals are and how quickly we were in and out (it was roughly a 90 minute visit). When I asked which system she'd prefer if given the choice, she said ours; so long as insurance would cover the need. I guess if the coverage applied, ours would be better than paying for health care through taxes versus outright during the visit. But it doesn't always, or rarely, and that is the very point the movie tries to illustrate. I guess it boils down to not being able to have it both ways. All that being said, I saw in this movie much the same as I have seen in all of his previous works – a very entertaining and enlightening look at the other side of the coin.

The Rub:
The 'David and Goliath' aspect of Moore's pictures have somewhat depreciated with his success over the years, but they are still powerful nonetheless; this one is no exception. Regardless of which end of the political spectrum you occupy, you can't ignore this film. Funny, powerful, and thought provoking, you can't help but be disgusted at the thought of the greatest country in the world having a health care system so flawed, and to such an overwhelming degree, that it affects almost everyone in the country. And there's the rub.

**** of *****

Review: Live Free or Die Hard

The Skinny:
The 4th installment of the Die Hard franchise.

The Review:
The original Die Hard (1988) has come to be one of the standards by which all other modern-day action movies are measured. Subsequent watered-down movies of the genre were often described as "Die Hard in/on a _______" (insert your favorite action movie locale here). It also single handedly propelled Bruce Willis' film career down the path it has embodied for almost 20 years. Hell, a good friend of mine and his wife even chose this as their 'Christmas movie' when they first started dating and they still watch it every year at Christmas time. Die Hard 2: Die Harder was, meh… (not terrible but, not surprisingly, compared to the original, far inferior), and I actually enjoyed Die Hard with a Vengeance quite a bit. It was just as ridiculous as the first one with a common story line connection. You go to these kinds of movies for a reason, and it ain't to have your heartstrings tugged. You go for their ridiculousness – the action, shooting, blowing stuff up, all while rooting for the all-American good guy. That's why John McClane is the perfect action movie character and the reason the Die Hard movies are so far and above the rest of the pack – he's easy to root for because he sets out usually trying to accomplish some mundane task and ends up involved in some ungodly, outrageous situation.

With so much history invested in the trilogy thus far, it was easy to list all the reasons this movie should have failed. It is coming 12 years after the last sequel and almost 20 years (really?) after the original. Action movies aren't cut from the same cloth today as they were back in their heyday. Now the market is bloated with mostly CG crap that doesn't involve anyone passed a possibly sweet looking trailer (Spider-Man 3 anyone?). Then there was the controversy surrounding the rating of the movie itself. The previous three movies were all rated R, but when word came out that this one was being edited down to PG-13 to widen its potential audience, I was among the masses who cried 'Foul'! But the trailer looked so damn cool, and I have an affinity for most things Bruce Willis, so I decided to keep an open mind, hold my breath, and hope for the best.

The movie picks up 12 years after the last movie. We find that John McClane, supercop, has managed to divorce his wife Holly, become estranged from his daughter Lucy and remain on the NYPD. The meat of the plot was standard implausible, harebrained action movie fare: a group of super computer hackers, led by Thomas Gabriel (the underrated Tim Olyphant), plot to attack the vulnerability of the United States computer infrastructure and systematically shut down the country. As usual, McClane gets caught in the middle of everything while attempting to complete the most menial of tasks; pick up Matt Ferrell (Justin Long), a hacker wanted for questioning, and deliver him to authorities in Washington DC.

In short: this movie did not disappoint – at all. It was a lot of fun to see Willis inhabit the role again that made him famous without feeling stale or forced. I was surprised to also see Justin Long hold his own here too. The banter between McClane and Ferrell was light and funny. Even though the plot was completely absurd, the movie worked because of the dialogue and the exhilaration of the action sequences. There were times when I rolled my eyes at how over the top it was, but for the most part, I was wide-eyed at the action sequences themselves. If you didn't know it was PG-13 going in, you wouldn't be able to tell - it was pretty intense! It was just a lot of fun, and somewhat comforting, to see that a familiar, beloved movie character such as McClane can still hold his own in today's incarnation of the action movie. And as the 'cherry on top', Kevin Smith has a great cameo as Warlock, a shut-in hacker who lives in his mom's basement.

The Rub:
While it will be hard to ever top the original, this latest installment lives free and dies hard trying (come on – did I really just use a cheesy tagline pun? Grody...). A preposterous plot that doesn't even matter because of the insane action sequences and trademark John McClane smart-ass antics. It's like finding out the Smashing Pumpkins were getting back together without the sucking that came with the Smashing Pumpkins actually getting back together. Easily the best of the Die Hard sequels, this is a pitch-perfect summer popcorn action movie. I loved this movie – go see it; now! And there's the rub.

**** 1/4 of *****

Review: Hostel: Part II

The Skinny:
'Hostel' with chicks.

The Review:
When you are on the couch with your significant other looking through the paper (oh who am I kidding – on the internet) trying to figure out what movie to see and you decide on a movie like Hostel: Part II, you have a pretty good understanding of what you are getting in to. Whether it's the posters, trailers, or director Eli Roth's previous movies (Hostel or the vastly under-appreciated Cabin Fever), there shouldn't be much in the way of surprises in regards to subject matter.

Growing up, some of my favorite movie memories were staying at my grandmother's house (who had cable), sneaking down late at night when she was asleep to watch all the horror movies mom wouldn't let us watch, then being too scared to sleep and even more afraid to tell her why. In the last 30 years, the horror genre has taken many forms. From low-budget gore (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), to zombies (Dawn of the Dead), to the occult (The Exorcist; The Omen), to the good old fashioned slasher flick (Friday the 13th; A Nightmare on Elm Street), to the self-reflective parody (Dead Alive; Scream), and back, to its current incarnation; low-budget, graphic exploitation horror (Saw; House of 1000 Corpses; Hostel). Part of the reason for the constant evolution is that when a successful new idea was introduced, it would eventually replicate itself to the point of self-consumption by the sheer volume of its own proliferation; the serpent swallowing its own tail. If the sequel is directly responsible for killing the horror genre, then a close second would be a simple matter of desensitization. Like everything in America we want it bigger, better, faster; or in the case of our horror movies, bloodier, gorier, and scarier. The problem with this idea is the farther we try to push the envelope, the more diluted the end result becomes – kind of the whole 'copy of a copy' mentality.

And therein lies the problem with Hostel: Part II. The plot of this movie is an almost word for word clone of the original. Three female college students are lured to a hostel in Slovakia where they are sold to the highest bidder for the sole purpose of being tortured for the bidder's enjoyment. The problems with Hostel are still present in the sequel. You don't really care much about the lead characters. You get the perpetuation of the stereotypical American college girl – the slut Whitney (Bijou Phillips), the good girl Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), and the all-American Beth (Lauren German). All complete with an "Oh my God, this is my song!" quote. Apparently even on vacation in Slovakia, American girls are annoying. The idea of the Elite Hunting organization (the secret, murder-for-profit outfit we found out about by the end of Hostel) was a gradual build-up the first time around. The concept was novel enough in the original, primarily because you weren't really sure was the hell was going on at first. But this time around there is no build up at all. We find out right from the beginning what is going on and simply wait for the 'kill scenes' to happen without much other incident. I am not one to label these movies 'torture-porn" or buy into the theory that they are directly responsible for the moral erosion in our society. Both points seem a bit intolerant because again, you know what you are getting yourself into when you decide to see this movie. But I also don't buy the defense that it's a commentary of the darkest aspects of capitalism either. I get it, but don't insult the audience. It is what it is and that's about what you should expect. I just expect a payoff after the build-up. I'm not going to give up on him quite yet; Roth just needs to work on his presentation a bit more. Just like the lesson I learned at my 3rd grade Halloween party: don't expect to wear a cheap plastic werewolf mask and dad's old work flannel trick-or-treating and still expect to get a rise out of people, because at the end of the day when you go home to count the candy you're still just a tall, skinny dork with a crappy getup you'll never wear again.

The Rub:
A 'been-there-done-that" copy of the original full of stupid horror movie clich├ęs, bad acting, and, save for a few key scenes (the one at the end is a doozy), not all that much gore. For horror fans it's worth a one-time DVD viewing for the sake of saying you saw it, but don't call me up when you're done and expect me not to say "I told you so". And there's the rub.

* 1/2 of *****

Review: Ocean's Thirteen

The Skinny:
The sequel train keeps on chuggin'. The cast of Ocean's 11 + 2 more. Get it, 13…?

The Review:
It is virtually impossible to review or even watch a sequel without comparing it to the original(s). Such is the case with Ocean's Thirteen. Only this time, the failure of the previous movie, Ocean's Twelve, actually helps this one stay afloat.

Let me first start by saying I enjoyed Ocean's Eleven immensely. The plot was solid, the direction was slick and stylish, the ensemble cast worked great together – almost like nothing you have ever seen from a movie this big, and well, I am a sucker for anything Vegas related. It just worked on all levels – you could tell by watching it that the actors really enjoyed the process of making this movie as well as each others company while doing so. The notion of the first sequel confused me but I gave it a chance because the first one was so much fun. It disappointed by comparison, but a decent caper (who still says 'caper') movie nonetheless. Had it not been a sequel to such a cool movie, it would have been better but it wasn't, so it wasn't. No love lost though. Then the news of Thirteen comes along and I am less than interested. With the magic of the first was gone, it seemed like nothing more than one more trip back to the well for some fast cash.

This time around the group is back in Vegas. Reuben gets screwed over in a hotel deal by newcomer Willie Bank (Al Pacino), goes into shock and becomes bedridden. The rest of the clan is in it to win it for one last job (isn't that the premise for every heist movie – the infamous "one last job" job?). But the catch is they plan not to make money this time, just get revenge for their friend and ruin Bank in the process. Seems simple enough, but this is an Ocean's job so you know there will be spectacular tools and gadgets used, an outlandish setup, twists upon twists, and a smattering of funny dialogue. As far as expectation goes, you get what you pay for. The setup is unbelievable bordering on ridiculous. They plan to rig an entire casino to lose on everything (blackjack, craps, roulette, slots) for a certain period of time and create a "natural" disaster that sets into motion the possibility for everyone who just won to leave the casino with their winnings. As outrageous as it sounds, you are never once left wondering whether or not they are going to pull it off. It gets so bogged down with the twists and turns that you end up not really caring when it all doesn't come together or get explained in the end. You just kind of want it to finally end. Like putting a puzzle together and getting down to the last few pieces and just forcing them in because you want to be done whether they fit or not.

As far as characters go, there isn't much new brought to the table. Pacino reaches into his arsenal and produces his standard non-mobster bully character. He works and fits into the cast but again, nothing new. Ellin Barkin, as Bank's right hand is a fine looking cougar, but can't decide if she wants to be a tough ball buster or the comedic relief. The rest of the cast is back in the "look how much fun it looks like we're having" mode. There are 11 of them in principle, but some of them relegated to more minor roles. Since with every sequel they introduce another character to keep track of, it gets a bit heavy to give them all an equal share. But they still seem to be having fun regardless. Sometimes it works quite well and sometimes it feels forced. Like trying to rekindle a friendship with someone you used to have a blast with in high school that you just can't relate to anymore. Or like going to the bar all the time and thinking "This is so much fun. Wouldn't it be even better if I worked here?" then getting the job and finding out it's not as much fun when it's a matter of obligation. The first one was fun. The second one survived out of necessity. And this one? Well, think of it as those plans you make with people you don't usually hang out with on a random drunken night if they were actually carried out sober. It was probably a better idea in theory that in execution. With all that being said, I didn't dislike the movie. I was entertained. I just felt like I had been there before. And it's time to find a new place to hang out.

The Rub:
It's a flawed but entertaining conclusion to a franchise that has run its course. It was better than Twelve, not nearly as good as Eleven. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it either. If they even try to insult us by offering up Ocean's Fourteen, I'm out. Like anyone who has ever been to Vegas can attest, it's best to stop while you're still ahead – or at least even. And there's the rub.

*** of *****

Review: Spider-Man 3

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Thomas Haden Church, Topher Grace
Director: Sam Raimi
Producer: Avi Arad, Stan Lee, Laura Ziskin, Grant Curtis
Release Date: May 1, 2007
Running time: 139 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Sony Pictures

The Skinny:
The highly anticipated third chapter in the Spider-Man series.

The Review:
Anticipation is a funny thing, especially when it comes to movies. It is what specifically defines and drives the summer blockbuster. For some movies, your lowered expectation can actually contribute to your liking a movie more than you thought you would if it ends up being good. In others, heightened expectation can crush ones enjoyment of a movie if it falls flat or under delivers. In the case of Spider-Man 3, it was tough not to have high expectations after the masterpiece that was its predecessor. Spider-Man 2 set a new standard for not only comic book sequels, but action movies in general. I personally regard it as easily the best comic book movie ever made, and with such an improvement over the first one, it was that much more difficult not to fall into the trappings of heightened expectation this time around. The hype started as soon as the second sequel was announced. Then they upped the anti when the villains were announced. They could have put anybody they wanted in this one but as soon it was official that Venom would be a part of this chapter, comic book geeks, fanboys, and anyone who had even a limited exposure to the comic rejoiced. And the expectation continued to grow. Then the trailer was released. Everyone who was remotely interested was hooked (including myself). It all but guaranteed a monster, if not record breaking, opening weekend. The trouble with the movie business is that all the expectation in the world isn't even worth the ticket price if the movie doesn't deliver on the hype. With 3 years between the last movie and this one, Spider-Man 3 was supposed to break the mold. It did not. I could have handled a simple disappointment. But this was a collapse on a monumental scale. It reminded me of a science experiment I did in school once where everyone was supposed to build a bridge out of toothpicks to see which bridge would support the most weight. There were a couple of kids' bridges that looked fantastically elaborate in design but snapped like a Thanksgiving wishbone as soon as any weight was attached. That's a pretty good analogy for the whole mess.

Where do I begin? First, the plot is a convoluted mess. Far too many stories forced into the already too-long run time. A simple breakdown: We rejoin Peter Parker finally balancing his love for Mary Jane and his responsibility as Spider-Man. The city is starting to come around and show more appreciation, but the celebrity of being Spider-Man proves too great. On top of that, Flint Marko escapes from prison and during his escape is accidentally transformed into the shape shifting Sandman. Being around is apparently not enough story, so an "Oh by the way, THIS is your uncle's real killer" plot is contrived. Peter stakes his claim to revenge but gets hung up by finding an alien substance that darkens his suit and his personality. He becomes drunk with his newfound power and begins alienating his loved ones, including his best friend Harry Osborn; who happens to be simultaneously carrying on his father's torch by becoming the New Green Goblin. A new possible love interest for Parker is introduced in Gwen Stacy who happens to be the subject of Eddie Brocks obsession. Brock, who is also vying for a photography job at The Bugle, eventually gets a little symbiote on him as well and turns into Venom. Everyone is out to get Spidey; the villains, his girlfriend, etc, etc.

I have never been a huge fan of Kirsten Dunst in these movies but I have let it pass because the movies have been that good. It took a real pile of a movie like this to shine the spotlight on just how bad she is here. If that wasn't bad enough, she sings in the movie. Twice. Poorly. And cries. But I can't even hold that against her because everyone else in the movie cries too. A lot. I guess I misspoke earlier when I gave the "simple" plot summary. Here's my new one: Spider-Man fights some people. When he is not fighting with them, they are crying. Also when he is not fighting them, he is fighting with his girlfriend. When he is not fighting with his girlfriend, he is crying. Or she is crying. It was like watching a 250 million dollar episode of Oprah, or Extreme Makeover Home Edition with comic book characters. They should have just skipped the middle man and called the movie "Chicken Soup for the Superhero's soul". Aside from the sob fest, they completely wasted the impact of the Venom character. Miscast from the start, Topher Grace didn't even try to make it worthwhile. Eddie Brock was like Eric from That 70's Show with bad hair and an even worse costume. In the beginning of the movie, at least Sandman looked cool, but they even ruined that by movies end. The original Green Goblin was borderline cheesy. The new Goblin looked like Sharkboy in a Moutain Dew commercial. Some of the action sequences were pretty good (the first fight between Parker and Goblin and the subway fight between Spidey and Sandman), if not a little overdone. I dismissed the cartoony feel and excused them because, well, it is a comic book movie. But for all the good that was mounted by the early sequences, all was lost in the awful looking, overly long "climax". In the end, the movie took too long to get going because of all the story lines and when it finally did hit its stride, it had been stretched too thin to be worth a damn. Kind of like when you are wrapping a Christmas present and you misjudge the size of the paper and no matter how many ways you try to make it fit, it just wont work until you scrap it and start over or just slap a bow on it and hope for the best. They hoped for the best, but it never got there now matter how many times they tried to force it.

The Rub:
A disappointment in every sense of the word. Not only compared to Spider-Man 2 (whose genius is even more cemented by the stink of this sequel), but as a movie going experience as a whole. An even simpler summary: Everybody fights. Everybody cries. Especially me when I realized how much time I wasted being excited about this movie and being forced to go back and think about what might have been.

And there's the rub.

* of *****

Review: Knocked Up

Starring: Seth Rogen, Katherine Heigl, Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann
Director: Judd Apatow
Producer: Judd Apatow, Shauna Robertson, Clayton Townsend, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Release Date: June 1, 2007
Running time: 124 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributors: Universal Studios

The Skinny:
An intended one night stand turns into everyone's worst nightmare when they end up pregnant. Hilarity ensues.

The Review:
Finally. A movie that lives up to its own hype. After a disappointing month of Spider-Man this, and Shrek that, it's nice to finally have a movie that isn't so full of itself that it's bloated beyond its own good intentions. Knocked Up tells the story of an up and coming TV reporter Alison, played by the spectacularly beautiful Katherine Heigl of Grey's Anatomy fame, who recently gets promoted, goes out to a club to celebrate with her sister, meets and eventually hooks up with Ben, a pitch perfect Seth Rogen, only to find out 2 months later that their intended one night of drunken debauchery has yielded an unexpected pregnancy. All followed by the subsequent attempts to try to make the situation work by dating in the name of doing the right thing. It's a very basic, very realistic story that I am surprised hasn't been made into a movie before now. Although I'm surprised, I am very glad that it was left to the capable hands of the movie's director, Judd Apatow. Like Apatow's The 40 Year Old Virgin before it, Knocked Up is a very funny yet heartwarming movie (my girlfriend would classify it as "cute"). Guys will like it for the very raunchy quotable humor while women will like it for the "cuteness" factor. There are many hilarious scenes and (for once) not just the ones in the trailer. (See: the initial meeting to tell Cal she is pregnant, the dinner date between Cal/Alison and her sister/husband, Cal and Alison attempting to have sex 7 months pregnant). But for all its humor and heart, the real reason this story works beyond its simplistic realism is the performances and chemistry between the main characters Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl. Not so much for Rogen, who was the hilarious standout star of The 40 Year Old Virgin, but for Heigl's performance. She surprised me with not only her scrub-less hotness, but her ability to carry a romantic comedy lead. (Side note: when she first appears onscreen wearing a skin-tight tank top, the Alpha-male part of me blurted out to my girlfriend "Whoa boobs, where have you been hiding in 2 seasons of Grey's Anatomy?" Before I realized what I said, she responded with a resounding, "No kidding!" God, I love that girl.) So long as she doesn't fall into typecasting purgatory a la Julia Roberts, she can have a bright film future ahead of her. There is also a funny supporting cast in Cal's stoner roommates and "business partners" and the always reliable Paul Rudd. The only thing I can hold against this movie is the role of Alison's sister. Not for the character itself; it serves its purpose, but for the actress who plays her. Maybe I am alone on this one, but Leslie Mann (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Stealing Harvard, Big Daddy) annoys the ever-living shit out of me – she always has. I can't for the life of me see why she keeps getting cast in the same carbon-copied, annoying, whining sister/girlfriend/wife/whore role. She's not funny and it's so bad it actually distracts me from the movie when she's on screen because I just see red. That's just my personal opinion but luckily this time she's not enough to detract from the movie itself because everything else is just too damn funny.

The Rub:
An eventual comedic classic in the vein of The 40 Year Old Virgin, Wedding Crashers, Old School, this movie is hilarious. Plus your girlfriend/date will like it for the 'chick-flick' quotient – and Katherine Heigl's boobs. And that's the rub.

**** of *****