Monday, February 18, 2008

DVD Review: Margot at the Wedding

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black
Director: Noah Baumbach
DVD Release date: February 19, 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Paramount Home Video

When I was younger a friend of mine had his birthday party over a weekend at his parents’ house. A bunch of us spent the night watching movies, playing video games, and eating pizza — standard fare for the time and not unlike any other time we had done the same thing. But this one particular time we were all hanging out watching a movie and his parents got into some kind of argument in the next room. We all tried to ignore it by turning up the TV but no one was even paying attention to that anymore. My friend was understandably embarrassed which, in turn made us all a little uneasy, but through the whole event, no one ever really stopped listening to see what was going on. Watching Margot at the Wedding gave me that same feeling of uneasiness.

Margot (Nicole Kidman) sets out to visit her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who announced that she’s marrying her boyfriend Malcolm (Jack Black). The sisters are not on speaking terms. The reason for this is never said aloud but as the story unfolds you begin to get an inclination as to why.

Margot is like a bull in a china shop. She’s a typhoon that leaves a mess in her wake that isn’t easily avoided. She just blurts out whatever is in her head, regardless of its timing or audience. She doesn’t seem to possess the filter everyone else has that stops them from saying inappropriate things as they come to mind. It’s as if she doesn’t see the sense in wasting the energy to censor herself. To make matters worse (for everyone around her, anyway), she feels justified in saying whatever she wants about everything she wants. Basically she just doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get that certain things that are better left unsaid, even if everyone is thinking it. She is the type of person that forces her opinion on everyone — welcomed or not — and expresses anger when it is not met with a thankful ear.

We’ve all known someone like Margot in our lives and more times than not they have made us angry when they are on one of their rants. But like they say, bad press is still press. I think she honestly believes the things she says but at the same time, she acts the way she does to garner the attention. Her intentions may be good but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
Margot may be considered a monster by her family and everyone in her path, but that doesn’t make her character any less watchable. The performances in the movie really make the film as good as it is. The story itself is a little off-kilter but there is realism in the dysfunctional way this family interacts. Pauline seems just as crazy as Margot if not a bit more introverted. Jason Leigh plays her with modest restraint and the movie is better for it. Her laid back lifestyle isn’t equipped to handle Margot’s abrasive nature. Pauline’s fiancé Malcolm is a rather earthy, hippy of a character but seems to exist for the sole purpose of being a catalyst for igniting Margot’s rage.

Ultimately the movie really is less about the likability of these characters than the voyeuristic nature by which they are observed. Just like how we all slow down at an accident on the side of the road to see what happened, we don’t necessarily like what we are seeing the whole time, but we can’t look away in the off chance that we are going to see some sort of carnage. Of all the characters in the movie, I feel the most sorry for the kids. They have little say in what is going on around them and are just forced to deal with it. In their innocence, it seems normal for them because it seems like that is all they have really known. I suppose the upside of that is if they have friends over for a birthday party one day, they’ll find it easier to ignore than I did when everything goes to crazy in the next room.

And there’s the rub.

** 1/2 out of ****

Official [ Movie Site ]

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Review: Jumper

Starring: Hayden Christensen, Jamie Bell, Samuel L. Jackson, Rachel Bilson
Director: Doug Liman
Release Date: February 14, 2008
Running time: 88 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: 20th Century Fox

One of the cardinal rules of good filmmaking is to not underestimate the intelligence of your audience. There are different levels but it makes you wonder which is the bigger crime; not trusting your audience to figure out a movie on its own without being beat over the head with the answer, or thinking they aren’t smart enough to notice that they could have known the answer if given a plot to do so. One of the first lines in Jumper told me all I needed to know about the intentions of the film:

“It didn’t used to be this way. I used to be a regular chump. Like you.”


David Rice (Hayden Christensen) finds out as a teenager that he has the ability to “jump”, or teleport. His mother left when he was five and he lives with his father. After almost drowning on day he accidentally jumps to a library, then home, then to NYC, then into a bank to steal money. If I am moving too fast for you, not to worry, however long it took you to read that last sentence is about as much time as the movie allowed for a back story, so you’re up to speed.

Fast forward to today. David has quite a little racket going for himself. With his newfound ability perfected, he lives in a swank New York apartment bankrolled by jumping in and out of, and robbing bank vaults. One day he comes home from his latest tryst overseas met by a man in his loft. Roland (Samuel L. Jackson) never reveals where he is from but immediately tries to capture and kill him. He’s got a bunch of fancy gadgets that are never explained, but we get the idea they prevent David from being able to jump.

The remainder of the movie is David running from Roland, who happens to be a Paladin (huh?), finding out there are other jumpers out there, such as Griffin (Jamie Bell) who possess the same ability as him. Sometime in the middle we briefly find out that Paladin’s are an organization set on destroying all the jumpers. The ‘why’ is never explained, but we are expected to make that… uh, leap and just go along for the ride.

The problem with the ride is that it’s, well, kinda boring. And at my last count, action movies aren’t supposed to be. The pacing of the film is fine, I suppose, but the teleporting stuff got old pretty quick when there wasn’t much substance to be found anywhere else. The concept itself is interesting and I think there is a good movie in there somewhere, but the idea of teleporting became a bit thin. I take that back; the idea of teleportation is pretty cool, but the execution was thin.

I guess there’s a reason Nightcrawler wasn’t a bigger part of X2.

The movie is based on the 1992 novel Jumper by Steven Gould. Before sitting down to write this review, I took a midnight stroll down the Information Superhighway to find out if the book was as much of a mess. Come to find out the differences between the movie and the book was pretty substantial. I found that all the stuff they changed from the book is all the stuff that comes across as disconnected in the movie. It is curious why you would take proven material, skin the meat from it and try to dress it up in something different. Guess they should have left well enough alone.

You don’t go to a movie like this for the acting, but it is worth mentioning that Jamie Bell is by far the best part. If I was a jumper and had a friend that could do the same thing, I’d want him there to hang out with. Sam Jackson is underused and reduced to a bad comic book character. That makes more sense explaining why he looked like a poor man’s Wesley Snipes from Demolition Man. I will say though, life sized cutout of Anakin Skywalker they used in the movie is a lot more mobile than I expected from a piece of cardboard. It was still cardboard though, so don’t expect much.

This movie was like watching a bad run of episodes of the TV show Lost – too many questions and not enough answers. The difference is on Lost, at least we know eventually everything will make sense. At least more than it does now. Jumper never will. Even if the two sequels planned ever get made. The danger of telling a story over three movies is like telling any story; you have to grab them early.

The movie lives up to its name though, because the story is all over the place.

And there’s the rub.

* 1/2 out of ****

Review: Definitely, Maybe

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, Rachel Weisz
Director: Adam Brooks
Release Date: February 14, 2008
Running time: 105 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Focus Features

“You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?”

“I'd say more like one out of a million.”

“So you're telling me there's a chance.”

We all make choices in life, every day. Some are smaller and have little or no impact on the grand scheme, and some shake us to our foundation and alter the very balance of power in our lives and completely change the game. For one reason or another a few months back I embarked on a quest to find the first good romantic comedy of the season. I didn’t mean to, but after seeing so many bad ones, I imagined there had to be one out there sooner or later that didn’t make me want to reject my trade. Regrettably, my stubborn nature took over.

Well it happened. Dear God, it finally happened. But my personal victory notwithstanding, the movie isn’t completely without flaw.

The almost divorced Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) goes to tuck his annoyingly inquisitive daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) into bed one night and she starts in on him about wanting to hear the story of how he fell in love with her mother. Kinda like that TV show with the clever title – what was the name of it again? – oh yeah, How I Met Your Mother. He begins to tell the story, through flashbacks, of three loves in his past.

I remember reading an article somewhere one time that listed all these different types of women and it saying something about how men should try to date as many different types of these women as they can before they decide on “the one”. Seems like an obvious and skanky argument (wait, sorry – shaky. Never mind, skanky works) but Will must have read the same article because the three women he talks about are scattered across the board.

There’s old reliable, Emily (Elizabeth Banks), his college sweetie. The ambitious journalist, Summer (Rachel Weisz) with a penchant for sleeping with old men and young women. And April (Isla Fisher), the free spirited arty chick with whom he does/doesn’t/does/doesn’t have feelings for. Or a little bit like A Lot Like Love. The movie goes into his time juggling these three women at various points in his life leading up to now. It’s all well and good, but it’s like driving west across Colorado toward Denver, you see the end about an hour before you get there. And it does take a little longer to tell the story than it needs too. What does work, however, is the fact that none of the women are vilified. No one is painted an easy scapegoat for us to hate and root against. For one reason or another things just don’t work out with them at any given time. This happens in life and that it happens here makes this pill all the easier to swallow.

I don’t know what it is about movies, especially this type, that employs the use of kids as the voice of reason. This one is right out of the book where the kid seems to know more about what’s going on than the adults and find cute ways to tell them what is what in such a way that makes them feel stupid for ever not understanding. Sleepless in Seattle, anyone? Like I said, it isn’t groundbreaking cinema, but it serves its purpose and wasn’t terrible getting there.

This movie’s likability benefits greatly from the paltry comparisons to its romantic comedy brethren released so far this year. Take it for what it’s worth but I’d call it a win. By default, sure, but a win either way. At this point I’ll take what I can get.

And there’s the rub.

** 1/2 out of ****

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Review: Fool's Gold

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson, Donald Sutherland
Director: Andy Tennant
Release Date: February 8, 2008
Running time: 113 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Warner Bros.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I were arguing about the wide-spread appeal of NASCAR. He tried to convince me that it was a legitimate sport and I gave him the stock hillbilly-infused commentary and a battery of equally stereotyped responses to his argument. This went on for a good 20 minutes. Just when he thought he had me standing there wobbly enough, he attempted to finish me off with a Fatality:

HIM: “Hey, it’s the fastest growing sport in America.”

ME: “Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s any good.”

Not believing my statement to be true, he asked me for an example. I told him to check the box office totals for any given week during the first half of the year and in an alarming amount of examples, the top movies are garbage.

HIM: “It always goes back to movies with you, doesn’t it kid?”

Waiting for the totals this week just to prove my point was worthless – I already knew the answer. Let’s just say this coming week we get to look forward to all new trailers for Fool’s Gold with an updated tagline – “#1 Movie in America”. And I can’t say I am the least bit surprised.

So what about THIS movie, you ask? Not that it matters but Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson play treasure hunters Ben and Tess Finnegan in search of the legendary 18th Century Queen’s Dowry – 40 chests of exotic treasure that was lost at sea in the 1700’s. All this while trying to salvage their marriage tested by Ben’s inability to commit to a life outside of beach bumming and treasure hunting. It is grotesquely boring and unoriginal, even by the standards of this year’s romantic comedies. So in other words, no, it really doesn’t matter. Even my own girlfriend who loves cheesy crap like this spent the better part of the movie trying to convince me that we should leave and that I could write a review having only seen the first part of the movie. We stayed, but she would have been right.

Another friend of mine and his wife had planned all week on seeing Fool’s Gold for their date night this weekend. After receiving a text message from me warning them of the travesty that lie ahead, I strongly urged them to pick something else. Knowing that this would be the perfect opportunity for him to seize the moment, I pushed for Rambo.

This morning, I was awoken by the following message from my friend’s wife:

“Your public massacre of Fool’s Gold is the reason I had to watch the bloody and cruel obliteration of women and small children for an hour and a half. I hold you responsible for tainting my mental health and what once was a friendly and romantic tradition of "date night". My sanity and marriage has been jeopardized. Hope you're pleased.”

I knew she would hate it but her husband will thank me later, so that part is funny to me. While she vowed to make all future selections for date night movies as a result of their evening, I’d like to think she is less upset at me for not recommending Fool’s Gold, but more upset at the irony behind a romantic comedy being responsible for causing this much strain on a marriage. And so close to Valentine’s Day. My response to her was obvious:

“Chick flicks inflict their own brand of punishment and should not be used so spitefully. Tell your husband he’s welcome.”

So continues my search for the first watchable romantic comedy of the year continues…

And there’s the rub.

ZERO out of ****

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Review: Strange Wilderness

Starring: Steve Zahn, Allen Covert, Jonah Hill, Justin Long
Director: Fred Wolf
Release Date: February 1, 2008
Running time: 87 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Happy Madison Production

As I was walking out of seeing this movie, a group of people were in front of me talking amongst themselves as they walked out. One of them dropped a folded up piece of paper. I picked it up and tried to chase them down to hand it back to them, but I lost them in the lobby. After reading it (what, you wouldn’t?), I thought I’d share given the nature of the afternoon we just spent together.

Dear Hollywood,

I writing this letter on behalf of the group of young people you so affectionately refer to as ‘stoners’. While we appreciate your trying to speak to our demographic in recent years, I as chair person speak for the entirety of the group when I say, “enough is enough”. We are tired of being talked down to like we should expect nothing more simply because of the choice of recreation we decide to embark on.

To say ‘enough’ is not to say we don’t get it. We get that you are trying to pigeon-hole us into watching admittedly dumber movies because well, we have in the past. But we’ve sat through the last “stoners trying to save, their own ass” saga. I’m sure you, like us, no doubt understand the mathematical equation of the basic stoner comedy.

(s2+ T) x W = A

Or, two stoners plus a ridiculous task times weed equals awesomeness. But if you have a grasp these basic algorithmic concepts, then you surely understand the problems that can occur when you disrupt the flow of control within these individual statements. In computer science, a loop is a sequence of statements which is specified once but which may be carried out several times in succession. Most programming languages have constructions for repeating a loop until some condition changes. This is all well and good, but you flew too close to the sun, didn’t you? While operating under the notion of a condition-controlled loop, you tried too hard to force the idea by creating events that will run on their own; events that would eventually create an infinite loop. The only problem with that is that these loops are only designed to work until an exceptional condition such as an error arises. In other words, an event-driven program may be intended to loop forever handling events as they occur; only stopping when the process is killed by the operator. You sirs, dear operators, have killed this very process. A process that is know and understood by us, and previously held dear – the stoner movie. As a result, we are no longer interested in your product or products of similar likeness.

We will no longer become test subjects in an experiment that does not allow us to think for ourselves. We will no longer watch people of lesser intellect pass off their lack of skill as that of being “high”. While we appreciate what you are trying to do for our own sake, please allow us to respectfully spit it back at you as we have had our fill, thank you.

Not that we would ever tell anyone what to do because, you know, it goes against that whole ‘voice of a generation’ thing we have going, but a few pieces of advice: in the future, when trying to recreate the feeling of our group taking part in our recreation of choice, please do not attempt to “get one over on us” because you think we wont notice. Please do not include players from previously successful movies in your own. If they cannot produce on their own merit, then don’t insult us by assuming just because we see Farva from Super Troopers that we are going to clap and cheer and say, “oooh, far out. Look, it’s Farva!” in response. Please do not include people like Steve Zahn in you film and hope to rest lightly on the fact that he can be very funny, because he wasn’t here. At all. Jonah Hill is not funny, stop giving him work. Aside from Die Hard and those Mac commercials, Justin Long isn’t either. And as cute as it is that your characters in your movie are named after the same people that made it, the next time you all decide to make a movie, do us all this one little favor: Take the paper you were going to waste printing the script, roll it up with your favorite bud (kind or otherwise cleverly named), and smoke it. Smoke like you never smoked anything in your life. Then for the love of all that is holy in this world, we hope you fucking choke on it. Given the choice, next time I’d rewatch Norbit.

Repectfully (of course),
The Stoners

Huh? All this time I thought I was the critic. Go figure.

And there’s the rub.

ZERO out of ****

Friday, February 1, 2008

Review: The Eye

Starring: Jessica Alba, Alessandro Nivola, Parker Posey, Chloe Grace Moretz, Tamlyn Tomita
Director: David Moreau, Xavier Palud
Rated PG-13
Release date: Feb 1, 2008

I actually requested this review during a phase I like to refer to as the “sign up for movies I don’t want to see in an effort to challenge myself as a reviewer” phase. Or S.U.F.M.I.D.W.T.S.I.A.E.T.C.M.A.A.R for short. Right out of the gate, I had lowered expectations. Not bleak really, because I tried to keep an open mind, but lowered to say the least.

I suppose I shoulda known better. I shoulda seen it coming. Then I find out the movie was produced by Tom Cruise. I shoulda left after the trailer for Prom Night.

The Eye is a remake of The Pang Brothers 2002 Asian film, Jiàn Guǐ. I first heard about the original from a friend of mine who always tries to find these movies no one has ever heard of in search of the “diamond in the rough.” I never got around to seeing that film, but I can safely attest to the fact that this is not said diamond.

The most frustrating part of this movie is that the concept itself is quite interesting. Sydney Wells (Jessica Alba) is a concert violinist who has been blind for the better part of her life. She undergoes a double corneal transplant so as to have her sight restored. After the surgery, Sydney begins having visions of the dead and premonitions that she attributes to the violent nature by which the donor patient died. The idea always struck me as pretty twisted — a person seeing unexplained visions through someone else’s eyes all while being passed off as her mind simply adjusting to the concept of sight. Or better yet, just the idea of a blind person being able to see for the first time in years and having to re-acclimate themselves to an environment they have grown to not only survive in, but flourish. So the idea is fine, and there is a good story to be told somewhere in there, but even the best laid plans can flop down like a bag of hammers if it’s not executed properly. This is my problem with The Eye.

Horror movies are supposed to be entertaining. For that matter, all movies should strive to be, but horror in particular needs a little something extra. Whatever it is and whatever it sets out to be, it shouldn’t be boring. Boring movies are one thing, but boring horror is another crime altogether. First and foremost they should be scary. This can be achieved a number of different ways but tension is the vehicle I like to ride in. There is no tension in loud noises, only annoying loud noises. There is also no tension in blurry ‘shapes’ that hover around in the background and jump out of thin air; especially if you are telling the story of a person regaining their sight. Really, is that the best you’ve got is an out of focus lense and some creepy kids? I’ve seen home movies with better camera work than that, and that wasn’t on purpose. I would say tension could be created through a back story that makes us care about the characters or the situations they are in. Sadly, we are not afforded such luxuries. Instead we are treated to a poorly executed mess of a good idea with an ending that bounces somewhere between bad super hero and Jeepers Creepers. I would say textbook, but only if you were actually blind and tried to read one that wasn’t designed to allow you to understand it. Or if it were in Spanish and your eye doctor/psychoanalyst who inexplicably speaks the language fluently wasn’t there to translate for you. If that doesn’t make sense don’t worry, it doesn’t to me either and I saw the movie.

Which brings us full circle with the very beginning and the Prom Night trailer. I will not dive head-first into Lake JustbecauseyouCANremakesomethingdoesn’tmeanyouSHOULD. But I will stick a toe in to test the temperature — if you are going to remake a superior product, do it the justice of being relevant; don’t perpetuate the problem by making the same mistakes of your predecessors. And for viewer’s sake, engage us, even if only to a degree. Don’t bore everyone to tears between scares that aren’t even there to begin with.

Oh, by the way, the water in the lake is warm. Go ahead and take a swim.

And there’s the rub.

* out of ****