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.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Hilarious Hillbilly Horror Comedy If There Ever Was One

TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL (Dir. Eli Craig, 2010)

There really isn’t “evil” in this movie. It’s just a little misunderstanding that leads to a series of senseless killings where a lot of college kid blood gets on the hands of a couple of innocent backwoods rednecks.

The title characters of this low budget Canadian production are portrayed by Alan Tudyk (Firefly, DEATH AT A FUNERAL), and Tyler Labine in his first starring role, who encounter a group of camping coeds when visiting their new acquired “vacation house” in the Appalachian Mountains. The house is a crumbling old cabin, which looks like it’s straight out of the EVIL DEAD movies or every other horror film ever - and that, of course, is precisely the point.

When undressing to go skinny dipping with her school mates, 30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden falls off a rock and almost drowns, but Tudyk and Labine who are doing some late night fishing, save her and take her back to their place in their canoe, leaving her friends to think they’ve abducted her.

Led by the crazed Jesse Moss, the college kids attempt to rescue Bowden, but that ends up resulting in multiple accidental deaths involving impalings, fire, a chain-saw, and a wood chipper.

Tudyk and Labine, who chalk this up to a “doozy of a day,” think the college kids have made a suicide pact, so there’s that clouding up the murky maniacal mix.

There’s as much a Coen brothers in farce-mode feel to the material, as there is the goofing on a genre jibing of Edgar Wright (SHAWN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ) happening. I was reminded by the relationship of the escaped convict duo of John Goodman and William Forsythe in RAISING ARIZONA, in the funny exchanges of the leads.

Despite their limited intellect, Tucker and Dale have a very funny and actually endearing grasp on a wide vocabulary (Dale claims to remember everything he’s ever heard), and a working understanding of psychological issues which helps when Bowden, who is studying to be a therapist, tries to get everybody to sit down and work things out.

A hilarious hillbilly horror comedy if there ever was one, TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL never runs out of steam. It briskly piles up a bounty of slasher movie clichés with delicious absurdity.

No doubt there’s a following out there for this that will build bit-by-bit by word of mouth, because I definitely sense a future cult classic.

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Friday, October 07, 2011

REAL STEEL: The Film Babble Blog Review

REAL STEEL (Dir. Shawn Levy, 2011)

A father and son bond over robots bashing the bejesus out of one another in this piece of cliché-ridden formulaic fluff that is sure to be a ginormous crowd-pleaser. I'm basing that on the audience at the preview screening I attended who applauded many times throughout the film.

Like the TRANSFORMERS movies, I'm feeling a "critic-proof" vibe here. Watch this be a huge hit despite critical consensus rating it low, because, hey, people aren't going to take their kids to see THE IDES OF MARCH this weekend, are they?

The movie is set in the future, just 9 years from now mind you, where not much is different except that there's a “World Robot Boxing” league (the WRB). Obviously, it's Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots as a global sport, and Hugh Jackman as a former boxer, wants to take a bot to the big-time.

Jackman is the ultimate movie underdog - he's crusty, washed up, and heavily in debt, trying to make ends meet by entering old rusty robots in rodeos and state fairs. Then his long lost son shows up, a precocious (read: smartass) Dakota Goyo, to join Jackman on the road.

Goyo takes to a outdated robot he finds in a junkyard. It only takes a montage for the robot, named Atom, to be trained and wired into shape in order to win match after match.

This all leads to a climatic fight with the undefeated champion, Zeus, a mega-robot created by Karl Yune as an arrogant Japanese designer, partnered with an icy Russian robot owner Olga Fonda who Goyo refused to sell Atom to.

The CGI-ed animatronic robot action is certainly convincing, enough to make the packed crowd around me react as if they were watching a live event happening right in front of them.

But while they clapped, I cringed.

I cringed at the ultra-hackneyed dialogue – Hope Davis as Goyo’s rich aunt actually says to Jackman: “You'vebeen working with those robots so long you've become one,” a line that I bet made Davis cringe inside.

I cringed at the by-the-numbers plotting in which there was not one unpredictable moment.

I cringed at the dance moves Goyo does with Atom (they do “the Robot” of course) that appeared to be sponsored by Dr. Pepper from the huge amount of product placement.

I cringed at the tacked on romantic subplot that has Lost’s Evangeline Lilly cheering the father-son-robot team from the side-lines.

As unbearably cheesy in its noisy boxing ring scenes as it is in its quiet attempts to pull the heartstrings, REAL STEEL is like a robot itself – a mechanical contraption made out of parts from other movies that has no emotional depth. I know that’s an easy dig to make, but it’s what this treacly tripe deserves.

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THE IDES OF MARCH: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE IDES OF MARCH (Dir. George Clooney, 2011)

Ryan Gosling continues his dominance of the silver screen this year in George Clooney’s 4th film as director, a political drama that’s flawed yet still a gem.

As a presidential campaign advisor, Gosling utilizes the same cool confidence he had in last month’s DRIVE in his back room dealings to get Clooney, as a Democratic Pennsylvania Governor, into the White House.

Gosling answers to Philip Seymour Hoffman as Clooney’s harried campaign manager whose rival on the competing Republican candidate’s team is Paul Giamatti, which is great because I’ve wanted to see Hoffman and Giamatti in a film together for ages.

Hence the title, the film takes place in March right before the crucial Ohio primary and deals with a scandalous secret involving a young staffer (Evan Rachel Wood) who Gosling has a fling with.

Wood just happens to be the daughter of the present head of the National Democratic Party, so a tangled web is being weaved when Gosling learns incredibly damaging information about his man in the race.

Giamatti wants to woo Gosling over to his side, and that might not be such a far-fetched option, but not one he’s going to leak to Marissa Tomei, Hoffman’s co-star from BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, as a New York Times Reporter.

To have these big names reciting lofty dialogue in this tightly directed film goes a long way. Sure, it’s a story we’ve heard many times before about corruption and compromise, idealism vs. empty ambition, but with these acting heavyweights aided by a sharp screenplay it’s an essential experience.

Except for a few major moments, Clooney mainly stays in the background while Gosling carries the movie. It builds to a chilling confrontation between the 2 men that I really wish television ad spots for the film wouldn’t show clips of. It’s not a spoiler that ruins the movie, but it’s still a little too revealing.

THE IDES OF MARCH doesn’t reach the heights of Clooney’s GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, for there are some convolutions in the plot mechanics. It’s a bit of a stretch to believe that Gosling alone would be able to manipulate the situation so cunningly, but the film gets so close to brilliance that it’s easy to look past such gaps in logic.

With a stellar cast, excellent cinematography by Phaedon Pappamichael, an un-imposing score by Alexandre Desplat, and a screenplay written by Clooney, Grant Heslov, and Beau Willimon (the film is based on Willimon’s play “Farragut North”), this is certainly the definition of a prestige picture, or more crudely Oscar bait.

It does has power aplenty to take it through to awards season, but I bet it will hailed more for its performances over any statement about dirty politics that it tries to make.

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Sunday, October 02, 2011

BELLFLOWER: The Film Babble Blog Review

BELLFLOWER (Dir. Evan Glodell, 2011)

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy torches girl’s stuff with a flamethrower he built himself.

That’s one way to put what happens in Evan Glodell’s directorial debut “Bellflower” which he also wrote and stars in.

Named for the street it mostly takes place on (Bellflower Avenue in Los Angeles), Glodell’s film is a frenetic mix of sex and violence shot through dirty lenses that comes off like cinematic graffiti.

Glodell plays Woodrow, who you’d label a slacker as he has no visible means of support, who with his best friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson), is preparing for the apocalypse by building weaponry and outfitting their car, because they were highly influenced from watching MAD MAX on VHS over a 100 times in their youth.

At a dive bar, Glodell meets a bleached blonde (Jessie Wiseman) in a disgusting cricket eating contest. There’s chemistry between the couple, but you just know it’s going to be explosive, not in a good way, especially when she says “You don't want me to be your girlfriend, because I will hurt you.”

Translation: Girl is going to cheat, most likely with her roommate (Vincent Grashaw) one can easily guess when seeing the ominous shot that introduces him.

Glodell and Wiseman take a road-trip to Texas on their first date, all the while drinking whiskey in Dixie cups dispensed from a nozzle on the dashboard of Glodell’s Volvo. “It’s like a James Bond car for drunks!” Wiseman says.

Seeking out the sleaziest, most dangerous roadside dinner they can find, Glodell ends up getting punched in the face by a redneck pick-up trucker, which won’t be the last time our protagonist will take a beating.

When the bottom falls out shortly after they return home with Globell getting in a motorcycle accident after discovering Wiseman’s infidelity, Dawson presents his injured friend with a black muscle car dubbed “Medusa.”

BELLFLOWER is messy, but it’s not a mess. Its emotional element is undercooked, but its chaotic construction belies a purposeful production that makes the most of its extremely low budget, which was reportedly around $17,000.

In addition to his writing, directing, and lead acting duties, Glodell also actually ate bugs, got punched in the face, and built the flamethrower, car, as well as the camera he used to shoot the film.
All of which makes BELLFLOWER one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory.

To get a sense of a filmmaker’s hopes and dreams is one thing, but to as effectively capture, with great gusto, their fears and nightmares can be just as beautiful.

However, I wouldn’t call this film beautiful, for it is often outright ugly, but its oversaturated visuals displaying grimy desperate terrain burned well into my psyche nevertheless.

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