Friday, March 28, 2008

Review: 21

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Kevin Spacey, Laurence Fishburne
Director: Robert Luketic
Release Date: March 28, 2008
Running Time: 123 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributor: Columbia Pictures

It is movies like this that test the film critic in me. I have two sides battling for supreme domination. On one hand there is my generally critical nature of movies themselves as films, and on the other, there is my love for the subject matter. They are two sides that I knew walking in to the theatre would go at it like a Seinfeld black and white cookie.

The movie 21 tells a story I am familiar with. It is the Hollywood version of the book Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich, the story of six MIT students who perfected a card counting system and took Las Vegas casinos for millions of dollars in the early 1990’s playing blackjack. I use the term ‘playing’ so loosely because these kids didn’t get involved in the game to gamble. It was business and they were there to make money. And that they did. I became familiar with the story after my first trip to Las Vegas, many moons ago. The story spoke to the kid in me. The same way The Goonies made me think I was going to find treasure in the small Iowa town of my upbringing. I don’t think it was so much that I thought it was really going to happen but that it would be way cool if it did.

Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is a financially struggling college student at MIT. Since he was a child his dream was to go to Harvard Medical School but without a full-ride scholarship, that he and 75 other students are vying for, he is about $300,000 short of tuition. Enter Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), a mathematics professor and leader of the MIT Blackjack Team who offers Jim a spot in the group. He is a wily old coot. He’s a cross between the teacher he played in Pay it Forward, Eugene Simonet, and Keyser Soze. It’s an odd mix but it works on some level. It wouldn’t anywhere else but again, this is Vegas, or a Vegas movie anyway and things are off just enough for it to be par for the course. All seems to be going well for the team until Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne), an old-school casino security agent becomes determined to take them down. And yes, by old-school I mean ruling with brass knuckles in a dingy room where no cameras are allowed. In other words, a total B.A.

Even with the inclusion of Ben’s love interest, Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth), the real star of the movie is none other than Sin City itself – Las Vegas. A place where everyone has dreams of hitting it big. A place where the only limits are your imagination and your bank account. A place where lascivious activity is met with a blind eye and breeds otherwise naughty behavior. In other words, Las Vegas is a place where events told in the movie could really happen, or at the very least could be passed off as such easier than anywhere else.

The Hollywood touch makes the movie as slick as a newly opened pack of cards. The downside to that is that regardless of how fascinating the events are that the movie is based on, it needed to be polished to sell to the masses – not just card playing Vegas junkies like me. The upside is that 21 ended up being a lot better than I expected. I don’t know if it was so much a good movie more than it was just fun; and I’ll take that. It’s one of those movies you put on just before you go to Las Vegas so you can think of the truck loads of money you’ll have to carry home and all the elaborate ways you are going to win it.

Then you get there and bring a whole new meaning to the phrase, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Review: 10,000 B.C.

Starring: Steven Strait, Camilla Belle, Cliff Curtis
Director: Roland Emmerich
Release Date: March 7, 2008
Running Time: 109 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Warner Bros

So I’m in the theatre seeing who knows what with my better half. We watch the previews and turn to each other after each one is over and give the one look critique in silence. You know, that head shake or whatever to determine if this is one she sees with me or one I am on my own for. The first time I see the trailer for 10,000 B.C. I have to admit I was interested. It looked pretty decent. I turn to her shaking my head yes and am met with a blank stare and the following statement; “Are you kidding me? Aren’t you a movie critic?”


I sign up to review the movie and literally that night saw the trailer again in front of something else. Once again I thought it looked decent. Then I started thinking. Where is the dialogue? What is the story about? Wait, why did I think this was going to be good after hearing again who made it?

Dear God, what have I done.

One things for sure, no one ever accused Roland Emmerich of being a master craftsman. His previous attempts to direct have yielded exactly one and three fourths of a half decent movie – Independence Day, The Patriot, and Stargate. I can’t decide which movie makes up which percent, but I’m sticking to my figures.

Movies involving history or past events that are alleged to have taken place are tricky business. People making these movies typically try to stick to the facts as much as possible and interject the story with life where they see fit to make the story flow. Fair enough, I say. I imagine the idea of a movie like 10,000 B.C., in its infancy, was designed to tell a story focused not so much on fact, but rather an interesting setting. Again, fair enough.

There are just far too many things to attack with a movie this bad. The story itself is a garden variety prehistoric odyssey with no heart. And I may have been schooled in the butt crack of the Midwest but even I know English wasn’t the native tongue ten thousand years ago. In an interview with Emmerich he said he decided to use English in the movie because he felt using an ancient language wouldn’t have been as emotionally engaging. He went on to say that faced with the dilemma of forcing the audience to read subtitles of a language they didn’t understand and look at what was on screen, he opted for the latter. Hearing this made me immediately assume that what we were being forced to look at would have overcompensated for the lack of story. Aside from a couple scenes in the movie, it did not.

It’s hard to say if the movie is meant to be a history lesson of any kind. If it is, then it is grossly irresponsible. I thought it less of a lesson in history rather than one of economics; the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of good and services. It is bad economics to make a movie of this size and spend all the money in the budget on a handful of scenes. Emmerich is known for doing this and why he keeps being allowed to do so without producing a decent picture is beyond me. The lesson here is that if you don’t want to see it then don’t go and you win, right? Well this may be true to a point but look at it like this: A studio spends umpteen million dollars to make a pile of a movie like this then is forced to oversaturated the market with its product. This means you get sixteen showings a day of 10,000 B.C. at your local theatre while movies that cost less to make, and therefore loss less if they make less, get pulled early or not ran at all. So even if you don’t go see movies like this, you still lose.

I guess they’re right; there IS no such thing as a free lunch.

And there’s the rub

* out of ****

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Review: Drillbit Taylor

Starring: Owen Wilson, Troy Gentile, Nate Hartley, Alex Frost
Director: Steven Brill
Release Date: March 21, 2008
Running Time: 102 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributor: Paramount Pictures

This movie is a classic example of two ideas playing against the middle.

The story was based on an original idea from John Hughes.


The synopsis? Three freshmen get singled out the first day of high school by a bully. The place an internet ad and end up hiring a bodyguard, Drillbit Taylor, to protect them.


The movie is rated PG-13 (ugh)…

… for crude sexual references throughout, strong bullying, language, drug references, and partial nudity.

Based on that description, if I was a teenager watching HBO late at night and that flashed up on the screen, I would have thought I had died and gone to ‘Movies I Shouldn’t Be Watching’ heaven.

But the end result is Drillbit Taylor; a movie about Ryan (Troy Gentile), Wade (Nate Hartley), and Emmit (David Dorfman). Three freshmen who, on the first day of high school, get railroaded by the school bully, Filkins (Alex Frost). After a series of interviews, the boys hire Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson) as their budget bodyguard.

Drillbit Taylor is the nicest looking homeless guy you will ever see – in real life or the movies. His clothes are just vintage enough to pass as dirty and his hair just messed up enough not to be neat.

Filkins is the type of high school kid who lives in a nice house, drives an immaculate car and has no parental supervision anywhere to be found. The fact that he has no parents anywhere to be seen is addressed, but the idea is so obvious and out of place it made me wish they’d have just left well enough alone. He is a cross between Nelson from The Simpsons and O’Bannion from Dazed and Confused. Just crazy enough to be worried about, but over the top enough to know he will get his in the end.

My problem with movies like this are not that they are simply bad movies – I can handle that. When that bad movie is wrapped in pretty paper and jammed down my throat while being passed off as something else is where I grow tired. The people that made this movie had to know it wasn’t good, or they wouldn’t have had to resort to pulling that old ‘From the Maker’s of ____’ trick. Judd Apatow needs to stop attaching his name to movies his friends make or they are going to tarnish his golden touch. And Superbad was funny, but Seth Rogen hasn’t proved that he can write just yet.

The movie is supposed to be light with a sprinkle of warm and fuzzies but I was too bored to notice. I liked Wilson more when he interacted with the kids. I liked the kids more when they interacted with themselves. And I liked the movie more when I listened to an older couple next to me talk about how awful it was in between crunches of popcorn.

Owen Wilson elected to sit out the promotional tour for this movie. Producers were worried the press would spend more time focusing on his hospitalization last year than discussing the movie. I would like to think Wilson just knew he made a bad movie and decided to cut his losses. Who knows.

I would refer to the movie a wolf in sheep’s clothing but with a title like Drillbit Taylor, I’m not sure it was even trying to hide.

And there’s the rub.

* ½ out of ****

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Review: The Bank Job

Starring: Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, Stephen Campbell Moore
Director: Roger Donaldson
Release Date: March 7, 2008
Running time: 110min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributors: Lions Gate

It’s funny how a simple sentence can change your entire outlook on a movie.

“Based on a true story.”

We see it all the time preceding certain books and movies but its placement seems curious sometimes, no? It’s not like Saving Private Ryan felt the need to say that it was based on a true story. Why? Well, we kinda already figured that out. No, we see this disclaimer in front of movies that suggest that we may not otherwise believe what we are about to see had it not been for the fact that is was based on events that actually took place. Does anyone think The Blair Witch Project would have been half as successful had it not been for those five simple words? Exactly. The truth just feels more interesting. It’s actually quite a master stroke of marketing. It allows the filmmakers to play with the facts more than usually allowed because we the viewer tend to turn a blind eye to certain inaccuracies and embrace it as fact regardless of that voice in the back of our head asking “Did this REALLY happen?” I think Mark Twain said it best, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't.”

It is a fine line to walk though.

This brings us to The Bank Job. Based on an actual bank robbery in London in 1971, the story was alleged to have been hidden until now due to a government gag order to protect certain members of the British Royal Family. How it was hidden for almost 40 years until a Hollywood movie revealed the events as fact is beyond me but hey, they said it was so it’s gotta be true, right?

Terry Leather (Jason Statham) runs a fledgling car lot and is behind on debts to some people of a seemingly shifty nature. As if the clouds parted and a ray of coincidence shined below, Martine (Saffron Burrows), an old acquaintance of Terry’s shows up with a proposition for a job. You know, that “one last job” that plagues every other heist movie ever made. He assembles his crew of regulars and they begin planning the job. They are going after the safe deposit boxes in the vault of a bank on Baker Street in London. What they don’t know is that Martine has set them up on behalf of the British Secret Service, MI5, to obtain one specific deposit box that contains photos of a member of the Royal Family in a rather compromising position. Or positions, as it were.

The movie itself follows just about every convention of heist movie lore. Nothing even particularly noteworthy even happens during the heist itself, or so it seems. It is everything going on behind the scenes that make this movie worth its running time and work very, very well. The job itself is done about halfway through the movie and the rest of the time is spent unraveling the mess they don’t even know they’re in to begin with. I particularly took note of the fact that since the story is set in the 1970’s, the movie is forced to use of equipment of the time rather than imploring the use of intricate technology that no one understands simply for the “wow” factor. Quite a nice change of pace, for once.

Jason Statham is shaping up to be quite a charismatic action star. He is given room to work here and he does, very well. So long as he sticks to his Guy Ritchie movie roots and steers clear of anymore Jet Li collaborations, he should be well on his way.

The movie works because of Statham’s performance and the illusion of a simple heist story. The fun is seeing his crew get in way over their head and try to get back out of it. I have no idea if half of the movie is true or not, and I really don’t care. It’s not the reason I saw the movie or any part of the reason I liked it as much as I did.

But it sure didn’t hurt.

And there’s the rub.

*** out of ****

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Review: Vantage Point

Starring: Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, William Hurt
Director: Pete Travis
Release Date: February 22, 2008
Running time: 90 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Sony Pictures

Eight strangers with eight different points of view try to unlock the one truth behind an assassination attempt on the United States of America.

The concept itself is intriguing. Any time there is a story newsworthy enough to be plastered all over every channel in the known world, we get the same details drudged out in front of us until a new perspective is offered. So to concentrate all perspectives into a 90 minute movie should be nothing if not efficient.

11:59:57… 58… 59… 12:00:00 as the church bell rings.The GNN crew is covering an anti-terrorism summit in Spain. A TV producer directs various cameramen and anchors as President Ashton (William Hurt) arrives. He is introduced, takes the podium, then two shots in the chest from afar. An explosion in the distance, then the podium explodes. People die. Freeze-frame. Rewind.

11:59:57… 58… 59… 12:00:00 as the church bell rings.Secret Service agents Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox) escort the President to the anti-terrorism summit. One of them thinks he sees a shooter. The President takes two to the chest. The other chases someone. An explosion in the distance, then the podium explodes. People die. Freeze-frame. Rewind.

11:59:57… 58… 59… 12:00:00 as the church bell rings.American tourist Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker) parades around by himself filming the anti-terrorism summit. This makes sense because that’s exactly the vacation we all want to take by ourselves. He thinks he sees a shooter in the window. He films it. The President takes two to the chest. An explosion in the distance, then the podium explodes. People die. He runs after someone because he’s apparently a vigilante now. Freeze-frame. Rewind.

Christ this is getting old…

The alarm clock strikes 6:00 AM, “I Got You Babe” comes on the alarm clock radio and – oops, wrong movie.

Where were we? Oh, Spain. President, explosions, dying, chasing. Got it.

The story itself is a slim 23 minutes long; from beginning to end. Conceptually I get it, but in order to make it work I need to care why these people are doing what they are doing. Or not doing. I didn’t. I didn’t care about one of these characters; a lack of character back story and poor acting is not something this movie needed to contend with. And the transitions between the stories were awful. Literally freeze-frames and a fast rewind montage to get you back to the beginning. After about the fifth time, I half expected the General Lee to come blasting across the screen and freeze so Waylon Jennings could voice over his concern for how the Duke boys were going get themselves out of this mess.

Now THERE’s high concept.

You know that friend who thinks it’s funny to wrap your Christmas present in six different boxes like a Matryoshka doll only to find it’s a gift card at the bottom to a store you don’t like? Or how you made your parents buy you a Happy Meal every week for a month so you could collect all the Matchbox cars? But since it was a McDonald’s toy it was a generic non-brand name toy car where the decals didn’t line up and the wheels didn’t work?

That’s this movie.

The good news is Happy Meal toys have improved since I was a kid. Bad news is this movie will always suck.

And there’s the rub.

½ * out of ****

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Review: Semi-Pro

Starring: Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson, Andre Benjamin
Director: Kent Alterman
Release Date: February 29, 2008
Running time: 85min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributors: New Line Cinema

Certain things in life we have been conditioned to just take for granted. For example, I know that every October I go on a camping trip into the middle of nowhere, every weekend I see at least one new movie in the theatre, and Will Ferrell is one of the most consistent comedic actors working today. This is why the following statement physically pains me to type:

Will Ferrell’s act is growing stale.

I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later and I should have seen this coming, I just wasn’t ready to see it happen already.

Semi-Pro is the story of Jackie Moon (Will Ferrell), a singer whose one hit single “Love Me Sexy” made him rich. He then used the profits to buy an ABA basketball team, the Flint Michigan Tropics. They happen to be the worst team in the league. This may have something to do with the fact that Jackie is the owner, coach, promotional manager, and star player. He may not be a very good player, but he’s a star nonetheless. In 1976, just before the ABA collapses, the NBA agrees to merge the four best teams in the ABA into their league. Jackie trades the team washing machine for former Boston Celtic benchwarmer Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson) to make a run at 4th place and a spot in the NBA. Think: a dumbed down basketball version of Slap Shot and you’ll get close.

The good news and the bad news is that the movie is just okay. There were laughs, even a few out loud moments, but they were too few and far between to sustain the whole movie. This is only sadder when you consider the movie is only 85 minutes long. Do not expect anything more than a few hours killed on a Saturday afternoon. It follows every sports, comedy, and movie cliché in the book

Looking back on his previous films, you realize Ferrell works best when given a good script to do so, provided he is allowed the freedom to ad-lib within that structure. The trouble with Semi-Pro is that there seems to be no script. It felt like they had a basic idea and told the actors to just wing it once the director yelled “action!”. The potential for catching lightening in a bottle is there when you allow for ad-libbing, but you have to have a starting point. This concept may work on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it didn’t work so well here.

It also strikes me as odd some of the career choices Woody Harrelson makes. His dramatic acting aside, his choices for comedic roles are all over the place. But I can summarize in one sentence; this is better than Play It to the Bone but nowhere near as good as Kingpin. Hell, it may only be marginally better than White Men Can’t Jump. Yeah, that doesn’t really narrow the gap, does it? Ok, maybe it took more than one sentence… But suffice it to say even the funny parts of Semi-Pro weren’t because of Woody.

I haven’t completely given up on Will Ferrell movies (Step Brothers actually looks pretty funny) but I think it might be time he foray into new territory like he did in Stranger Than Fiction; give him a chance to grow a little bit. At the very least, he can always come back and churn out roles like the ones that made him famous if it doesn’t work out. It seemed to work for Jim Carrey. Oh wait…

And there’s the rub.

** out of ****