Sunday, December 25, 2011


THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Dir. David Fincher, 2011)

Despite the fact that the opening title sequence, a montage of shiny black bondage imagery synched to Karen O and Trent Reznor’s blaring cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, is as in-your-face as the director can get, this is oddly the least stylish of David Fincher’s films.

It’s clear that Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillion have set out to do a second adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s bestselling novel (the 1st in the “Millenium” trilogy), rather than a remake of the 2009 Swedish film, but it so often follows the storyline in the same icy manner that it feels unshakably redundant.

That is, unless you absolutely can’t stand subtitles and will only watch movies in English. Then this is the version for you.

Taking a break from Bond, Daniel Craig takes on the part that Michael Nyqvist (who can be seen currently as the villain in the new MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie) originally played in the Swedish THE GIRL… series, financial magazine reporter Mikael Blomkvist, who accepts an offer from wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate a 40 year old disappearance right after he loses a libel suit.

In order to do research on the long missing person, Plummer’s great niece Harriet (a teenager at the time of abduction), Craig is provided with a guest house on the fictional Hedeby Island in Stockholm that is inhabited by the suspicious members of the family, including an extra creepy Stellan Skarsgård. Plummer calls his relations: “The most detestable collection of people you will ever meet.” When we learn secrets of Nazi connections and sexual abuse, we know that’s no exaggeration.

Craig is being investigated himself, by the punk bad-ass hacker Lisbeth Salander played by Rooney Mara, who does a great job matching Noomi Rapace’s pointed portrayal. Mara is definitely the best thing about this one.

Craig and Mara soon start working together on the case, in procedural sequences that echo Fincher’s ZODIAC, and getting it on – in sex scenes way steamier than the original’s, so it wins on that front.

This version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO has moments of sublimity, but never gels enough to have an identity of its own. Craig, who plausibly plays a character way less confident than the iconic 007, and Mara have palpable chemistry, but when it comes down to the love triangle ending, involving a wooden Robin Wright waiting in the wings, we never feel like the leads are supposed to be together anyway so the emotional impact falls flat.

I know there will be plenty of folks who will go to see this movie who haven’t seen the original Swedish one, and they will likely be more satisfied with this one than I am. I mean, it has higher production values, “name” actors, and, yes, it is in English. 

However, for folks already familiar with this material, these elements have the unfortunate effect of reducing Larsson’s scenarios into just slightly above average American thriller fare.

More later...

A Couple Of Spielbergers To Go: One With Extra Cheese, One With Extra Action


Without a doubt, Steven Spielberg is the most celebrated film maker of our times.

With JAWS, he practically invented the notion of the event blockbuster, and his movies, including the iconic Indiana Jones series and the JURASSIC PARK franchise, have grossed billions more than any other film maker could imagine.

This year, along with the usual CGI-saturated multiplex mayhem that owes a debt to the man, Spielberg was paid tribute to in Greg Mottola’s sci-fi fanboy satire PAUL (in which he had a voice only cameo), and J.J. Abram’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS/E.T. homage SUPER 8 (which he co-produced).

‘Tis the season for Spielberg to step up to the plate himself, as the man has 2 movies to unleash on holiday movie-goers: the WW I epic drama WAR HORSE, and the CGI-animated THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN. Both are set in the first half of the 20th century, and both are, you know, for kids!

WAR HORSE evokes the golden age of Hollywood, when movies were first making the change from black and white to vivid Technicolor. A friend, Will Fonvielle, said it was “like a John Ford” film, and that nails it precisely – so much so that it looks like every other critic is making the comparison. In telling the simple story of a horse named Joey, who leaves a small farm in the English county of Devon to serve in the first World War.

Through a series of extremely well orchestrated battle scenes, Joey goes from serving the British to aiding the German army, before finding his way back to his original owner Jeremy Irvine.

Emily Watson and Peter Mullan play Irvine's parents, with Tom Hiddleston, David Thewlis, and Benedict Cumberbatch portray solidiers in the trenches, but, hey, you know it's all about the horse, as we can see in lots of Joey's close-up reaction shots.

Spielberg heavily lays on the sentiment, John Williams’ score leaves no moment unpunctuated by swelling strings, and long-time Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kamiński fills the screen with gorgeous scenery that looks like it was all shot at golden hour.

In other words, WAR HORSE is another powerfully cheesy crowd pleaser by the master of powerfully cheesy crowd pleasers.

Based on the world popular, yet not so well known in America, series of comic books by Belgian writer/artist Hergé, THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN is also a crowd pleaser, but one that tries way too hard. I read the Tintin books when I was a kid, and I really don’t remember them being jam packed with high octane action, yet that’s what you get in Spielberg’s first animated film as director.

Spielberg was reportedly turned onto Tintin when a critic made a comparison between RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and the globe-trotting tales of Hergé’s boy hero, and therein lies the problem – even with the involvement of purist Peter Jackson (co-producer), Tintin and his world is too Indiana Jones-ified.

Tintin, voiced by Jamie Bell, and his white fox terrier Snowy (who like all animals in Spielberg movies is as smart or smarter than the humans - a trait he must’ve learned from Disney), join with the crusty boozing Captain Haddock (a hilarious but often indecipherable Andy Serkis), and the bumbling cops the Thompson Twins (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), on a wild treasure hunt involving scrolls found in model ships, which are sought by the sinister Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig).

The performance capture imagery has come a long way since THE POLAR EXPRESS, with beautifully brisk vistas flashing by as Tintin engages in chases, fights, and all kinds of frantic, fast paced fury, but it’s way too busy to be truly engaging.

The plot may be impenetrable to those unfamiliar with the books, John Williams’ score cribs too heavily from his Indiana Jones soundtrack work, and it has a way too blatant set-up for a sequel, a la the end of BACK TO THE FUTURE (which, of course, Spielberg executive produced), but a franchise is what Jackson and Spielberg have been planning for ages, so that’s a given.

That said, the fun witty spirit of the original Tintin does rear its head every now and then. If only they slowed down the onslaught of nonstop thrills enough to get a better glimpse of it.

It’s funny to note that even in an animated Spielberg feature there’s lens flare going on. Old habits die hard, huh?

Despite their ample defects, WAR HORSE and THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, are both prime popcorn pictures that don’t care about anything but entertaining tons of people.

That they will do this Christmas weekend, when many folks will be looking for a good excuse to get out of house. Spielberg’s brand of family friendly fare will surely suffice.

More later...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


(Dir. Brad Bird, 2011)

Unless you've been living under a rock lately, you've heard about Tom Cruise's death defying stunt scaling the tallest building in the world (Dubai's Burj Khalifa) without a stuntman in the newest MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie. It's a pretty damn impressive feat indeed, especially as it was one of several key scenes filmed with IMAX cameras.

What's more impressive to me is that not only can Cruise can keep the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise sucessfully afloat with this, the 4th in the series - GHOST PROTOCOL, he's also conquered the screen in what I believe is the strongest action movie of the year.

And Cruise does it looking like he's only aged a couple of minutes after the last one ended back in 2006.

Now, even though I'm not really an action genre guy, I re-acquainted myself with the other M:I movies (I hadn't seen the first or second one since they were released well over a decade ago, and I always put off seeing the third), and I have to admit that they are state of the art escapism. Sure, they are souped-up vanity projects on one level, but each, helmed by a different hot-shot director - in order, Brian de Palma, John Woo, and J.J. Abrams - is slick high speed fun, and great to exercise bike to, I've found.

With Brad Bird (Pixar's THE INCREDIBLES, RATATOUIE) making his live action directorial debut, and a sharp screenplay by André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum (Alias), Cruise's Ethan Hunt chooses to accept another globe-trotting adventure with a crew made up of Simon Pegg (reprising his role as tech agent Benji from M:I:III), Paula Patton, and Jeremy Renner.

There's no way to not make the plot sound convoluted, but trust me it flows better than this description: We catch up with Cruise doing time in a Moscow prison. Cruise's IMF (Impossible Missions Force, duh) helps him escape, and they are given the mission to infiltrate the Kremlin (that's right) to extract top secret files.

After exiting the scene, a bomb goes off (one of the first notable IMAX moments) blowing up the Kremlin, and the IMF is implicated. In an all-too-brief cameo, the always reliably stodgy Tom Wilkinson shows up the Secretary of State of IMF to tell them they have to go underground to clear their name.

This involves faking a trade for nuclear codes between a French assassin who works for diamonds (Léa Seydoux) and Samuli Edelmann, the right-hand-man of the movie's villain (Michael Nyqvist), who want to annihilate the world's population in order to begin again.

This is where Cruise's skyscraper stunt comes in, eye-poppingly shot by ace cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) which is genuinely breath-taking. Although Cruise's Hunt is a cocky bastard most of the time, he does show some believable fright in this and other heart pounding scenes, and that enhances the intensity greatly throughout.

And then, when you think they can't top that, Bird and co. serve up a chase through a sandstorm which is just as thrilling.

Also, just when you start wondering, hey - what about, Michelle Monaghan, Cruise's wife from M:i:III? Pegg, among his many amusing one-liners, mentions in vague terms that she ended the relationship, but, of course, we just know that there's more to it that that.

Sure, the plot is routine, Nyqvist (who was the protagonist in the original Swedish GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO films) isn't a very memorable villain, and the last third, mostly set in a palace in Mumbai, too resembles something out of 007 in OCTOPUSSY, in its excuse to have our hero in a tuxedo in an exotic location, yet M:i:4 is still worth an overpriced IMAX ticket for, not only the awesome Burj Khalifa sequence and several choice action set-pieces, but for the sheer entertainment value of a high fallutin' formula done right.

Renner, who does his hot-head shtick here to perfection, is rumored as a candidate to take over the series from Cruise, but you wouldn't know it here - Cruise sure doesn't look like he's pushing 50 in one pummeling set-piece after another; it is as if he's been outfitted with new bionic body parts just so he can make 3-4 more of these.

More later...

Friday, December 16, 2011

In YOUNG ADULT, Charlize Theron Can't Go Home Again

YOUNG ADULT (Dir. Jason Reitman, 2011)

With Mavis Gary, a divorced writer of young adult fiction, Charlize Theron has her juiciest role since…well, MONSTER. It’s a doozy of a pathetic character that spends most of the movie looking like she’s gone to seed slouching as she shuffles around in sweat pants, Hello Kitty t-shirt, and a hoodie, but when she dolls herself up, a process we see in excruciating detail, she can still bring it as a head-turning beauty.

Theron only brings it in hopes of stealing back her high school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson), who is happily married with a new baby. When she hears about the newborn, Theron travels back to her small Minnesotan hometown to relive her teenage glory years, and put her misguided plan in motion.

YOUNG ADULT re-unites the duo behind 2007’s sleeper hit JUNO, director Jason Reitman and Oscar winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, but thankfully this time there’s less snark and more edge. This is largely due to Theron’s fearless portrayal of a highly unlikable embarrassingly immature woman, and the odd connection she makes to Patton Oswalt, as one of her former class-mates, who has to walk with a crutch because during his not-so-glory high school years, he was beaten severely – a victim of a mistaken hate-crime.

Oswalt is the voice of reason, telling Theron she’s crazy for trying to rekindle a long gone romance, but she, of course doesn’t listen. Once again playing a grinning dolt, Wilson is oblivious to Theron’s motives; in Elizabeth Reaser he has a good wife (who’s coincidentally on the show The Good Wife), with plenty of stability, so why would he want to get tangled up in his ex’s messy world?

So Theron crashes face down drunk on her hotel bed night after night, and we wonder if this cringe-inducing selfish nut will ever be redeemable. While we contemplate that, Reitman includes shots of the generic landscape of strip malls, chain restaurants, and cheap hotels, that are attempts at making a statement about the homogenization of America (Wilson boasts about a Chipotle opening in town as if it’s big news), but they still don’t serve as much more than backdrop to wallowing in Theron and Oswalt’s desperate existences.

It’s a standout performance for Oswalt, who tops his intensity in 2009’s BIG FAN simply by being himself – a self aware geek with a cutting remark for every occasion.

That said, there really aren’t that many satisfying laughs in YOUNG ADULT, and the predictability of the storyline is annoying, but spending time with these risky characters is extremely appealing during this Christmas season clogged full of overblown fantasies.

Even during her most despicable moments I was still rooting for Theron, who embodies the part so completely you will actually feel sorry for her, but not to succeed at winning back Wilson, but to move on. Obviously the woman isn’t familiar with Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, but after this disastrous trip she should definitely take it to heart.

More later...

Friday, December 09, 2011

THE DESCENDANTS: Quaffable, But Far From Transcendent

THE DESCENDANTS (Dir. Alexander Payne, 2011)

In his consistently fine films, Alexander Payne excels in capturing his characters’ descent into desperate goofiness.

From school teacher Matthew Broderick’s scheming to have an ill-fated affair in ELECTION, to Paul Giamatti’s reacting to news that his book has being rejected by yet another publisher by swigging the spit bowl at a public wine tasting in SIDEWAYS, Payne has nailed some hilariously pathetic behavior.

Which is why I kept waiting for Payne’s latest protagonist, a well-to-do lawyer in Hawaii played by George Clooney, to lose his cool. Oddly, except for some doofish running in flip-flops, and darting behind bushes, Clooney mostly keeps it in check.

Clooney’s wife is in a coma after a boating accident, he’s responsible for handling the sale of the 25,000 acres of Kaua’I island land his family owns, and his 2 daughters (the rebellious Shailene Woodley and the foul mouthed Amara Miller) are more than a handful.

There’s also that Woodley, home from private school, tells her befuddled father that “mom was cheating on you.”

With all that I expected more of a breakdown than a simple sobbing at a creek, but Clooney shows admirable restraint, only allowing his emotions to flow at appropriate points. Even when confronting the dorky real estate agent who his wife was seeing on the side, Clooney does teeter on the edge of desperate goofiness, yet still saves face.

Clooney narrates us through the tropical world where businessmen look like beach bums, as he tolerates Woodley’s druggie boyfriend (Nick Krause, who gets way too much screen-time), and the meddling members of his family (including the gruff as ever Robert Forester, and the easy going Beau Bridges).

Like with his last 3 films, Payne has adapted a contemporary novel, this time Kaui Hart Hemmings’ 2007 book of the same name, and changed crucial details to make it his own.

It has a lot going for it in its execution, Clooney’s performance, and the lushness of Hawaii is as strikingly shot by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael as the wine country he shot in SIDEWAYS was (no ‘70s-style split screen action though this time), but THE DESCENDANTS is not as sharp or vital as Payne’s previous work *, because of a padded story-line which makes its premise lose power over the course of its nearly 2 hour running time.

There’s also the difficulty of fully feeling sorry for or relating to Clooney’s character. Despite how much of a schlub they try to make him, he’s still George Clooney in all his charms, and it feels too pat that all he and his daughters need to do to heal their pain is to sit together on a sofa, eat ice cream, and watch MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. As comforting a notion as that may be to some people.

In Payne’s most popular film SIDEWAYS, protagonist Giamatti appraises one wine as being “quaffable, but far from transcendent.”


* My personal favorite of Payne’s films is ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002) starring Jack Nicholson. Definitely see that if you haven’t already before, (or instead of) THE DESCENDANTS.

More later...

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Martin Sheen Shines in THE WAY

THE WAY (Dir. Emilio Estevez, 2010)

At The Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen a few months back, comedian Jeff Ross joked: “Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez said that they would’ve been here tonight, but they had a family obligation.”

Consider Estevez's THE WAY to be that obligation.

For his fifth film as director, Estevez recruits his father Sheen to play a widowed opthamologist who decides to walks the Camino de Santiago to honor his son (played in flashbacks and apparitions by Estevez), who died while hiking the same route.

The stodgy stern Sheen is a man of few words who doesn’t share his grief or reasoning with the group of folks he befriends on the pilgrimage.

Deborah Kara Unger as a sardonic divorcée from Canada, Yorick van Wageningen as an over-eating Dutchman, and James Nesbitt as a writer working on a book about the historic walk, are Sheen’s fellow travelers.

Despite such iconic work in such classics as BADLANDS and APOCALYPSE NOW, as well as his stint as President Barlett on The West Wing, Sheen has often been neglected as an actor.

His Oscar worthy performance here should change that. Sheen’s gruff perserverance carries the film and makes you feel as if you are on the journey with him. Sheen, who can't help but bring the mighty gravitas that actually made me wish the man was the President during the George W. Bush era, proves that you can never be too old to have an adventure. You don't need any Tiger Juice either to get you going.

Although there's some existential cheesiness in the dialogue and it’s overly conventional in its construction, Estevez, who wrote the screenplay based in part on the book "Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim's Route" by Jack Hitt, has earnestly and effectively made a moving travelogue that both pays tribute equally to an ancient tradition, and a grand old actor in his autumn years.

Fancy catching up on some of Martin Sheen's back catalogue? Rent titles including The West Wing, Catch Me if You Can and Apocalypse Now with LOVEFiLM. You can also stream movies to your computer, PS3, Xbox and even internet enabled TV!

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Friday, December 02, 2011

THE SKIN I LIVE IN: This Year's #1 Creepiest Movie

THE SKIN I LIVE IN (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2011)

Congratulations to Almodóvar for making the creepiest movie of the year.

Reunited with his former leading man, Antonio Banderas, for the first time in over 2 decades, the highly acclaimed Spanish film maker has fashioned a psychosexual thriller that unnerves more than it entertains.

Banderas portrays a noted plastic surgeon who is developing a synthetic skin that can be grafted on to burnvictims. In Banderas’ pristine mansion in Toledo, which is complete with a lavish laboratory, he has a young woman (Elena Anaya) held captive that only his housekeeper (Marisa Paredes) knows about.

As it unravels what’s behind this situation, the film is as twisted as it is twisty with such disturbing details as suicide, rape, and sex reassignment surgery coming to the fore. Also in the mix is the aptly sleazy Roberto Álamo slinking around in a leopard skin suit, and Blanca Suárezas Banderas’ mentally shaky daughter.

With all those eclectic elements, you’d think you’d have a potent brew of prime Almodóvar, but not only do they not blend, they clash with one another no matter how subtly well-acted and well made the film is.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN is gorgeously shot by longtime collaborator cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, so I’ll call it lusciously creepy, but extremely creepy all the same.

I really wasn’t getting what Almodóvar was going for here, and the anticlimactic ending doesn’t help his case. This is a depraved tale that makes no statement about obsession or the theft of somebody’s sexual identity or anything really.

It’s a cold unpleasant experience that never got anywhere close to getting under my skin (yes, I know, I’m not the only critic who will say something like that).

More later...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS: The Meek Shall Inherit The Mirth

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (Dir. Sarah Smith, 2011)

Aardman Animations, the home of Wallace and Gromit, takes another step further away from clay animation with this 3D CGI holiday spectacular that roots for an underdog who wants no child to be left behind this Christmas without a present.

The underdog is Santa Claus's youngest son, the lanky accident-prone Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy), who gets in the way of his brother Steve's (Hugh Laurie) high tech military operation-stlye method of distributing gifts throughout the world from a ginormous STAR WARS-style air cruiser with a war room-esque bridge manned by elves.

Steve is primed to take over the Santa business, but his father (Jim Broadbent) announces that he's not stepping down just yet from his position at the North Pole. Meanwhile, Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), the oldest living Santa from a long line of St. Nicks, gripes about the newfangled technology calling Steve "a postman with a spaceship."

Arthur discovers that their "Christmas Accomplished" banner is premature as one present was not delivered, and with the help of Grandsanta and his oldschool sleigh, a spunky elf from the giftwrap battalion (Ashley Jensen), and, of course, flying reindeer, he sets out to right the wrong and save the day - or at least one child's day.

Like many 3D productions (with the mighty exception of Martin Scorsese's HUGO), the in-your-face imagery looks kind of cool at first, but that sensation fades fast. I wouldn't recommend spending the extra money, unless you happen to be a diehard fan of the 3D format.

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS has a lot of entertainment value, especially when it's satirizing the ridiculous logistics of Santa's one night a year occupation, but it feels more frantic than funny at times, and the stakes don't feel high enough.

It's still likable enough as a lark, though the premise of a lovable loser that wins out because of his purity has been done ad nauseam.

However, kids will be too caught up in all the swirling shininess on screen to care.

More later...

Martin Scorsese's Amazing First Foray Into 3D

HUGO (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2011)

As I've reported many times, I'm not a fan of the current 3D trend. I've found it to be a headache inducing gimmick that gets in the way of, rather than enhances, the movie-going experience.

However, I was still incredibly eager to see what master film maker Martin Scorsese could do with the format, so I put my bias aside and happily donned the glasses to take in his grand adaptation of Brian Selznick's 2007 novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret."

I was delighted from start to finish, as Scorsese's HUGO is an amazing experience in the third dimension.

Asa Butterfield portrays the title character, a 13 year old Parisian orphan who lives inside the walls of the Gare Montparnasse train station in the early 1930s. While not maintaining the station's many clocks, Butterfield spies on a toy stand run by the cold Ben Kingsley.

Butterfield is trying to finish building an automaton (a mechanical man) that his father (Jude Law) was working on before he death. Kingsley catches Butterfield stealing parts from his stand, and confiscates his father's notebook filled with important instructions.

While attempting to get the notebook back, Butterfield befriend's Kingsley's goddaughter (Chloë Grace Moretz), who happens to have a heart-shaped key that perfectly fits the automaton's key hole.

To maneuver through the mysteries of the movie, Butterfield gets help from Moretz, a wise old bookshop owner (the great Christopher Lee), and as a kind film historian (Michael Stahlberg), all while staying one step ahead of a bumbling station inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen who has just the right light comical approach to what could've been a standard fool on the sidelines role).

Butterfield learns that Kingsley is the legendary French film maker Georges Méliès, whose technical innovations in the art of movie production had folks dubbing him the world's first "Cinemagician."

There is certainly a lot of cinemagic on display in Hugo. From the inner workings of the train station's clocks, to the depth of details making up the Paris surroundings, there are a wealth of intoxicating visuals.

However, what's really stunning about HUGO is how touchingly personal a film it is. Scorsese successfully recreates the sense of wonder that he felt as a kid in the audience of a Brooklyn movie palace, with his love of movie magic culminating in a breathtaking mixture of original Méliès footage, and wondrously faithful re-creations.

Scorsese's first family film (indeed his first PG-rated film in almost 20 years) contains the best use of 3D imagery I've see yet, but it's such a work of overwhelming beauty that it would still be fantastic in 2D.

As the film's wide-eyed protagonist, Butterfield brings a lot of infectious spirit which is charmingly complimented by Moretz's precocious pluck. The subtle power of Kingsley's presence is also nicely matched with the poignancy of Helen McCrory as his wife who was once an actress in his films.

A cinematic love letter from one master to another, this film is as deserving of your ticket money as it is another Best Picture Oscar for Scorsese (Robert Richards' cinematography deserves an Academy Award too).

HUGO is one from the heart that will go down in history.

More later...

THE MUPPETS: Go Ahead, Call It A Comeback

THE MUPPETS (Dir. James Bobin, 2011)

It’s not surprising that somebody would try to reboot the Muppets. I mean, every other franchise in the world has been dusted off in the last decade so why not Jim Henson’s once wildly popular creations?

And it’s not surprising that that somebody would be Jason Segel, the oafish man-child best known for his work with Judd Apatow and the hit TV series How I Met Your Mother. Segel is a huge Muppets fan, who previously proved he could provide puppetry power in the Dracula musical climax of FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, so there’s that.

But what is surprising is that THE MUPPETS is really good.

Segel, with the assistance of co-writer Nicholas Stoller, and director James Bobin, has wonderfully captured the spirit of the Muppets I knew as a kid in the ‘70s and ‘80s, making it feel like the muddled Muppet movies made in the ‘90s never existed.

The film has quite a lengthy, yet quite enjoyable, buildup before we see our old felt friends in which we meet a new Muppet named Walter (voiced by Peter Linz), who lives in a small town (named Smalltown) with Segel as his brother Gary. You see, somehow Muppets can be related to humans – we never see their parents or get any explanation, which is just as well.

Segel, and his longtime girlfriend Amy Adams, take Walter to Los Angeles to visit the Muppet Theater and Muppet Studios, only to them find them to be abandoned cobweb-covered tourist attractions that an evil oilman named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is targeting to tear down so he can drill for oil.

So it’s up to Walter, Segel, and Adams to re-unite the Muppets so they can save their old digs. They find Kermit living in a dark mansion alone with his memories (well, and an ‘80s robot that serves Tab and New Coke – nice fitting retro joke, huh?).

Once they convince Kermit to join them, they’re off to find Fozzie Bear (in a sleazy Reno casino tribute band called “The Moopets”), Miss Piggy (now Fashion Editor of Paris Vogue), and the Great Gonzo (currently a corporate CEO of a plumbing empire). Most hilarious is Animal in court-appointed anger management therapy with Jack Black as his sponsor.

With the help of a montage they locate the others (Rowlf the Dog, the Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Beeker, Dr. Teeth, etc.), and they got a back-to-basics ‘hey, everybody let's put on a show' thing a-happenin'.

They have trouble getting a network to broadcast their telethon, as TV executive Rashida Jones tells them: “You guys aren’t famous anymore.” However Jones still gives them a shot, and the gang go full throttle to put on a money-raising spectacular in which almost every Muppet gets a chance to shine.

Bret McKenzie, from Flight of the Conchords, whose series was also helmed by director Bobin , wrote a few catchy songs for the production including the recurring theme “Life’s a Happy Song," and the Linz and Segel sung “Man or Muppet.”

I could’ve done without a few of the song/dance numbers – Amy Adams/Miss Piggy’s “Me Party” is a screen time waster, and Cooper’s rapping on “Let’s Talk About Me” is just plain awful - but for a great deal of its breezy 2 hour running time THE MUPPETS is a lot of fun.

Even the tacked on Segel/Adams rom com subplot (i.e. he forgets their 10th anniversary dinner in the midst of Muppet madness) doesn’t detract from the large amount of pure cinematic happiness on hand here.

I loved how so much of the meta material was laugh out loud funny, really enjoyed the abundant cameos which I won’t spoil, and was impressed at how dead-on the Muppet voices are – especially Steven Whitmire who has been doing Kermit since Henson died in 1991, and has often sounded a little off, but thankfully not here for the most part.

It’s certainly the best Muppet movie since Henson died, but it’s much more than that. Segel and co. have pulled off a tribute that revitalizes the furry family friendly franchise in the most welcome way.

More later...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE: The Film Babble Blog Review

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (Dir. Sean Durkin, 2011)

If you can get past the title, this is a stunner.

Elizabeth Olsen is Martha, but while she was living with a cult for 2 years in the Catskills she was called “Marcy May.” “Marlene” is the name all the women group members are given to identify themselves when answering the phone (the men go by “Michael”).

Got it?

The film begins with Olsen fleeing the cult’s farm, and calling her older sister (Sarah Paulson) to come pick her up. Olsen stays with her sister and her husband (Hugh Dancy) at their Connecticut vacation house as she recovers.

But getting back to normal is going to be difficult as she is haunted by memories of what she’s been through.

“Do you ever have that feeling where you can’t tell if something is a memory or if it’s something you dreamed?” She asks Paulson, summing up what most of the movie is like.

As many scenes form, we are unsure if what is happening is past or present. We see flashbacks involving John Hawkes as the cult’s leader, who is as scary as he is charismatic. Hawkes trains the cult members how to handle guns, perform home invasions, and participate in forced sex rituals. Even when softly singing an old ‘60s folk song (aptly titled “Marcy’s Song), Hawkes is creepy as can be.

Olsen is understandably frightened about being abducted again, constantly feeling she’s being watched. Her behavior is unnerving to Paulson and Dancy who are trying to have a baby. At one point Olsen climbs into bed with them as they are having sex. Yep, the girl ain’t right.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is a disturbing, unsettling experience. A lot of it drifts like a dream, but the kind of dream that's on the edge of a nightmare.

First time writer-director Durkin has crafted a stirring film, a different kind of psychological thriller than the formulaic fodder that usually goes by that label.

The material here may be a bit vague – we never get much of a backstory to the cult, and don’t get how Olsen got caught up with them in the first place – but this is a movie about moods and a fractured mindset, it’s not about details or exposition.

The ambiguous ending is sure to put many people off, but I found it to be fitting in keeping with the film’s eerie atmosphere.

Olsen’s performance never falters. It’s a challenging character that she infuses with an effective frazzled fragility, which is really impressive for her first leading role in a feature film.

Recently it was reported that the President ordered up this film for a screening at the White House.

Interesting choice. Maybe that will add some Obama buzz to the hugely favorable reviews this has already gathered. This is not a film to be ignored, and since the Commander in Chief himself sought it out, with hope many moviegoers will follow suit.

More later...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Michael Shannon Needs Shelter From The Storm

TAKE SHELTER (Dir. Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Ever since Michael Shannon stole REVOLUTIONARY ROAD out from under Leo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet a few years back, I've been waiting for the man to carry a movie as the lead. Here, he gets to do just that as a man tortured by apocalyptic visions.

Shannon plays a blue collar father in a small town in Ohio - so small that everybody knows each other - who continually sees ominous clouds, strange formations of frightened birds, and rain that looks like orange soda when it pours into his palm.

Nobody else sees this scary stuff so his wife (Jessica Chastain), best friend/co-worker (Shannon's Boardwalk Empire co-star Shea Whigham), and everybody else think Shannon is going crazy.

Shannon thinks he may be going insane too, as there is a history of mental illness in his family - Kathy Baker has a brief bit as his mother suffers from dementia.

Still, his awareness of his possibly delusional state doesn't stop him from building a bomb shelter in his backyard.

There have been many stories about protagonists who may be crazy, or they may be on to something (that saying about paranoiacs being the people that know what's really going on comes to mind) - it's Twilight Zone 101.

I wish I could say that TAKE SHELTER brings something new to the table, but it doesn't. It's far from fully fleshed out, there's one too many fake-out nightmare scenes, and I don't think I took away what they wanted me to take away from the ending. I say I don't think so, because I really don't know what director Nichols (who also scripted the film) wanted folks to take away from the ending.

Chastain doesn't really have much to do as Shannon's wife except look worried - a part that resembles her role in THE TREE OF LIFE - but she brings a believable presence regardless.

It's Shannon's show though, and he owns the movie indeed. It's Oscar worthy work that's pretty much the sole reason to see this movie. His brow has never looked as furrowed before than in this excellent portrayal as a honest working man plagued by fear.

It's a performance that will stay with you for days.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

The MacGuffin in MARGIN CALL

MARGIN CALL (Dir. J.C. Chandor, 2011)

Most movie-minded folks know what a “MacGuffin” is, but for those who don’t – it’s a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, meaning an object or event that drives the plot. From the Maltese Falcon to the Ark of the Covenant to the Dude’s rug, MacGuffins are inescapable plot elements in many many movies.

In “Margin Call”, we are introduced to the MacGuffin in the form of a USB drive that Stanley Tucci, just downsized from risk management at the fictitious firm the film is set at, gives to one of his former underlings (Zachary Quinto) with the warning “be careful.”

Quinto appraises the flash drive’s content after his co-workers leave, and, after crunching some numbers, he urgently calls everybody back to the office. Senior trader Paul Bellany calls Kevin Spacey as a senior broker, stressed out about business as well for his dying dog, and the news spreads throughout the firm leading to a tension filled all-nighter.

I was less concerned with the timely play-out of how our current financial crises came into being here, than I was how Chandor’s intricately plotted scenario handled its MacGuffin. All the characters (including Simon Baker as head of securities and Demi Moore as head of risk) take a glimpse at Quinto’s computer screen and are shocked by what they see.

We never see the screen, which is understandable because it would just be a bunch of numbers we couldn’t make sense of, but we get from everybody’s reaction (“Are you sure these numbers are correct?” they all seem to ask) that the info indicates that their firm is in major trouble.

The news is so dire that CEO Jeremy Irons arrives to take control. In a heated meeting, Quinto (who is one of the film’s producers) lays it out to the steely Irons: “Sir, if those assets decrease by just 25 percent, and remain on our books, that loss would be greater than the current market capitalization of this entire company.”

It is way less complicated than it sounds. Simply stated, the MacGuffin in MARGIN CALL is like a hole in a sinking ship. All the shipmates try to fix the hole, but it’s too late.

As the Captain, Irons takes desperate measures to ensure survival, but at costs that may ruin the future of the ship, and poison the waters around them.

Cold and humorless, yet still incredibly involving, MARGIN CALL takes us into the scary isolated heart of Wall Street before the rest of us had any clue as to what was going down. Its flawless cast (particularly Quinto and Spacey, who does his best work in ages), and intense tone kept me compelled from start to finish, even when I could see right through its MacGuffin.

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Friday, November 04, 2011

Faulty TOWER HEIST Has A Few Laughs

TOWER HEIST (Dir. Brett Ratner, 2011)

This began life as a notion Eddie Murphy had for a “black OCEAN’S 11’” but they threw some money at it and made it into a concept, and then later turned it into an idea.

That idea is a Ben Stiller movie with Murphy as a supporting player, ganging up with Matthew Broderick, Gabourey Sidibe (PRECIOUS), Michael Peña, and Casey Affleck to rob a billionaire (Alan Alda) who stole their pensions.

Unfortunately, even with that incredibly capable cast and that promising premise, TOWER HEIST is a half baked comic crime caper that comes close to bringing big laughs, but never quite delivers.

There are a fair amount of small laughs throughout the film, and I caught myself smiling at the shenanigans onscreen a few times, but the all-too-familiar construction of the material kept holding back the funny.

The first half is all set-up with Stiller as the by-the-book building manager of a luxurious Manhattan high rise (obviously modeled on the Trump Tower) realizing how evil Alda is after the Ponzi scheming penthouse owner is charged with financial fraud.

With the help of small-time crook Murphy, Stiller enlists his co-worker co-horts (Sidibe, Peña, and Affleck) and Broderick, as a down on his luck Wall Street broker just evicted from his tower apartment, to pull off a big-time job – stealing 20 million from Alda’s penthouse safe.

The film has been touted as a comeback for Murphy, and while there’s an undeniable charge to seeing him again assume the foul mouthed quick tempered persona that he had abandoned for family fare over a decade ago, too many scenes have no payoffs.

In one scene in which Murphy is training the crew to be thieves he gives them bobby pins and locks them on a building’s roof in the extreme cold. Once Murphy says his lines (like “here’s your punk ass bobby pin”) and leaves, the scene is over – we don’t get seeing the guys attempting to pick the lock because I think screenwriters Ted Griffin and Jeff Nathanson couldn’t come up with anything funny there and thought Murphy’s shtick would be enough.

This is a method they seem to employ throughout: let’s just get these guys bickering in set piece after set piece and people will be laughing so hard they won’t notice the predictable plot mechanics.

Director Ratner doesn’t provide a strong enough balance between laughs and thrills to make TOWER HEIST anything special - at its best it’s likably perfunctory. I also could’ve done without the Téa Leoni as an FBI agent who is on to both good guy Stiller and bad guy Alda subplot, but usually I can do without Téa Leoni so there’s that.

Like I said, I did lightly laugh here and there (not just at Murphy as Broderick, Sidibe and Peña also have their moments), and I felt a little excitement during a scene involving Alda’s Ferrarri (allegedly once owned by Steve McQueen) being dangled from a cable from the top of the tower, but with its many plot-holes and lack of payoffs this is nowhere close to how good it could’ve been.

Here’s hoping Murphy’s newly proposed project that remolds his original black ensemble comedy notion into something titled JAMAL AND TYRELL AND OMAR AND BRICK AND MICHAEL'S WACK-ASS WEEKEND gets a lot further past the idea stage.

More later...

Friday, October 28, 2011

PUSS IN BOOTS: The Film Babble Blog Review

PUSS IN BOOTS (Dir. Chris Miller, 2011)

After what’s been a pretty unremarkable year for animated kids movies, one in which even the mighty Pixar faltered with the lackluster CARS 2, it‘s a pleasant surprise to find that DreamWorks delivers a worthwhile romp with PUSS IN BOOTS. And since it’s a prequel spin-off of the SHREK series, that’s saying a lot.

Antonio Banderas, in full Spanish swashbuckler mode, voices the fearless furry outlaw hero in this lively adventure that’s part Western, and part fairy-tale pastiche.

Puss teams up with Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) and Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) to steal the goose that lays golden eggs from a castle in the clouds. They have to contend with the murderous thieves Jack and Jill (wonderfully voiced by Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris) who have discovered an ancient power that could destroy the world.

We follow Puss and his cohorts through a sprightly series of sword fights, chases and near escapes at dizzying heights, all handled with great gusto.

I particularly liked a saloon-set “dance fight” scene between Puss and Kitty Softpaws with its kinetic display of fancy footwork and saucy wit.

Thankfully, unlike SHREK and its sequels, there is a minimum of modern pop culture references – lines like “the first rule of Bean Club is that you do not talk about Bean Club” are sparse.

The film is more concerned with cat-centric humor. Puss can easily be distracted by a laser pointer like dot of light darting around, and the way he laps up milk from a shot glass won’t just make fans of felines laugh.

Banderas infuses Puss with vigor which makes it sound like he means it when he declares “My thirst for adventure will never be quenched!” He’s perfectly matched with the sultry Hayek.

Galifianakis gives an energetic voicing to Humpty Dumpty, but it isn’t a very distinctive character. A number of current comics like David Cross or Patton Oswalt could’ve done the part with very little difference.

That’s a tiny quibble for PUSS IN BOOTS is a fast paced and funny good time. The only other complaint is the obligatory 3D presentation that every CGI-ed family film seems to be outfitted with these days.

I took my brother’s kids to see the movie at the local IMAX theater (at Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh) and they oohed and aahed at the in-your-face visuals…for about 5 minutes. After that, they told me later, they were annoyed by the once again unnecessary embellishment.

The 3D didn’t do much to enhance the experience for me either. So save your money. The exquisite terrain that this kitty tackles – a well designed world that has a more appealing take on Spaghetti Western aesthetics than RANGO – will shine just as bright (or brighter) in 2D.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Johnny English is back! But why?

(Dir. Oliver Parker, 2011)

Of all the unnecessary sequels this year, (THE HANGOVER PART 2, PIRATES 4, CARS 2, etc.) this is the most perplexing. I mean, there really can’t be many out there who were fans of “Johnny English,” which came out nearly a decade ago, right?

But it was a huge hit and that’s all it takes for Hollywood to approve a follow-up so here we have it: the return of Rowan Atkinson as the bumbling blend of Mr. Bean and James Bond.

It’s standard superspy satire stuff, the kind that we’ve seen tons of times with a secret evil organization’s assassination plot thwarted through a series of comic action sequences.

This amounts to one groaner after another, yet every now and then there’s something that’s almost amusing. One such bit has the suave yet daft Atkinson, who we first catch up with training in Tibet to become a Martial Arts master, engaged in a roof-top chase.

Obviously a call-out to the BOURNE series (JOHNNY ENGLISH RE-BOURNE?), the scene features Atkinson catching up with his prey without death defying stunts but calmly approaching through sly maneuvers and even taking an elevator to the ground while the bad guy climbs down scaffolding. I almost came close to a slight chuckle.

The rest is tired terrain as you can guess the villain right off the bat, and sense every joke coming way before they arrive. Mixed up in these pointless shenanigans is The Wire’s Dominic West as Atkinson’s colleague, X-Files’ Gillian Anderson as their boss “Pegasus,” and Rosamund Pike as the obligatory love interest.

The best I can say about JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN is that it’s slickly made (Oliver Parker’s direction is sharp and Danny Cohen's cinematography is shiny), and kids will probably enjoy it as Atkinson is a likable bloke who can pull off some sturdy slapstick.

None of it made me laugh out loud, but folks around me were laughing hysterically so I guess there’s an audience out there for this brand of obvious lowbrow humor.

If you do happen to be a fan of Atkinson’s shtick make sure you stay through the end credits because there’s a bonus scene highlighting the man’s cooking skills that, like I said about a few other bits here, is almost amusing. Almost.

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Monday, October 17, 2011

RED STATE Now Out On Blu Ray, DVD, and Netflix Instant

RED STATE (Dir. Kevin State, 2011)

Last month, I went to a one night only special showing of Kevin Smith’s new film RED STATE at the Galaxy Cinema in Cary. I was a bit hesitant to go because tickets were $20, which is a bit much for a movie even with the event featuring a live interactive Q & A with Smith via Twitter.

Remembering that in response to the negative critical reaction to his previous film COP OUT, Smith tweeted that critics should have to pay to see his films like everybody else and even held up a sign at this year’s Sundance that said “God hates press screenings,” I decided I should pony up the money to see RED STATE.

I figured that I had seen his last several movies free, and it was payback time. I strongly disliked COP OUT and agree with Roger Ebert’s quip: “Kevin Smith thinks critics should have had to pay to see COP OUT. But Kev, then they would REALLY have hated it,” but dammit I’ll still take the bait.

If I didn’t know Smith had made RED STATE, I never would’ve guessed. It’s refreshingly out of his cheap comedy comfort zone and smack dab into the world of scrappy cheap horror, with Smith taking chances in a way I thought he never would. It starts out like PORKY’S with a few high school kids trying to get laid, and winds up like Waco, with a compound of extreme religious fundamentalists under siege.

Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun are the teens who are captured by members of the Five Points Church led by Michael Parks as Pastor Abin Cooper. As the frightened captives squirm – Angarono in a cage, the others in a crawl space beneath the church’s stage – Parks sermonizes at grueling yet enrapturing length with gravely-voiced intensity about the homosexuals being Satan’s instrument on Earth hastening the demise of us as a species, then dismisses the children present: “It’s gonna get grown up in here!”

Realizing that they are going to be murdered by the crazy cult for being immoral fornicators, the frantic trio try everything they can to escape.

The always awesome John Goodman as an agent for the A.T.F. gets called in by a Sheriff played by Stephen Root, who is a closeted homosexual, and a shoot-out bloodbath results.

There are sloppy edits and some jarring set-ups, but this is easily Smith’s best work in ages. In the Q & A afterwards Smith said that he “got tired of making ‘Kevin Smith movies, as much as people were tired of seeing them.” Here he proves that he’s not a hack with a powerfully paced, engagingly plotted film that features some of his best dialogue and, in Parks, actually has a performance worth nominating for an Oscar. Can’t think of another Smith film you could say that about.

It looks like Smith raided the casts of Breaking Bad and Treme for RED STATE as Anna Gunn, Matt L. Jones, Goodman, and Melissa Leo (playing the woman that is used to lure the teens in with an online sex ad) are on hand.

Although I see that a lot of critics aren’t as enthusiastic about it, I really enjoyed RED STATE and think many will take to it too now that’s available on Blu ray, DVD, and Netflix Instant starting today. I’m not sure it was completely worth the 20 bucks I spent to see it, but I can honestly say I didn’t feel ripped off. Now, if I had paid to see COP OUT at any price mind you – that would REALLY be a different story.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

THE THING '11 - A Prequel And A Remake

THE THING (Dir. Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., 2011)

 Since the original (titled THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD) was released in 1951, and the John Carpenter version came out in 1982, it looks like we’re gonna get a remake of THE THING every 30 years. But wait, this new one isn’t supposed to be a remake – it’s a prequel to the ’82 one. However since it has the exact same narrative, I’m going to consider it a prequel and a remake.

Carpenter’s THE THING starred Kurt Russell and a great cast of character actors including Wilfred Brimley, Keith David, Richard Dysart, David Clennon, and T.K. Carter as a research team in the Antarctic who battle a shape-shifting alien that can assume the appearance of the people that it kills.

There was not a woman in the cast, barely any in the crew either, so the film makers rectify that this time out by having Mary Elizabeth Winstead take on the Russell protagonist part. Beat-by-beat, Carpenter’s film is recreated but with none of the mystery or claustrophobic edge.

Set in the days right before the events of the original (uh, original remake?), THE THING ’11 focuses on the Norwegian team that encountered the killer creature from outer space before it got to Russell’s crew.

Writers Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore, who both separately have had their hands in several fanboy franchises like Star Trek, FINAL DESTINATION and the A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET reboot, have obviously studied Carpenter’s film to an insane degree, attempting to make a movie that forms a strong connective tissue to the earlier work – one that ends exactly how the ’82 remake begins, and replicates many details – sets, wardrobe, lens flares, etc.

Unfortunately that framework does nothing to hide that this is a pointless rehash, typical of the quality of just about every other remakes of ‘70s and ‘80s horror flicks that have been hitting the multiplexes over the last decade.

Despite that her wide-eyed reaction shots fill the screen for most of the movie, Winstead (a North Carolina native) barely registers as the heroine of the piece. Ripley she ain’t. Winstead had a lot more magnetism in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THEN UNIVERSE.

The supporting cast doesn’t fare much better, but Joel Edgerton, Eric Christian Olsen, and especially Ulrich Thomsen as the Norwegian chief of alien research have some stand out moments with their stock characters.

Sure, this one’s special effects are better than Rob Bottin’s in Carpenter’s film, but nothing any more impressive than those on Falling Skies or any other T.V. sci-fi these days.

The aliens have some sort of large device or wall (not sure which) on their buried spaceship that looks like a giant glowing Tetris game. That at least gives us a tiny bit of TRON-like light in this tediously dark and murky monster movie.

As I've said before, sometimes the only good thing about a reboot, remake, prequel, or whatever you want to call this is that it calls attention to the original movie.

At least this retread suceeds in doing that.

Postnote: John Carpenter’s THE THING is available on Netflix Instant now so check it out if you haven’t seen it. It's definitely a better use of your time than this prequel/remake/whatever.

More later...