30/January/2012 02:48 PM Filed in: The Thing
Any new movie titled “The Thing” comes with baggage. The story of a creature that takes over the bodies of its victims—it literally is what it eats—has been filmed several times, first in 1951, then, most famously by John Carpenter, and now as a prequel, inventively titled “The Thing.” What to expect? Well, more and less of the same.
The new version is an origin story and, like the others, is set in Antarctica. We learn more about the alien, how it came to Earth for instance but it feels like we actually learn too much. The mystery of Carpenter’s version is gone, replaced by straightforward horror chills and thrills. Carpenter’s film was a …, this is a creature feature.
Don’t get me wrong, the CGI is fantastic—a real step above from the ’82 version—and there are some gruesomely scary moments, but the tension and paranoid feeling that made Carpenter’s film a classic, is gone.
23/January/2012 11:22 AM Filed in: Conan O'Brien Can't Stop
This documentary about O’Brien’s 32 city pity tour after being turfed as host of The Tonight Show could more rightly be called Multi Millionaires Just Wanna Have Fun. The flame haired host repeatedly says he took his act on the road to have fun, but why doesn’t look like he’s having any? Wedged between rehearsal, onstage and candid backstage footage is a portrait of a wounded man struggling with a grave personal and professional disappointment. It’s like watching someone go through a bad breakup for 90 minutes, with musical numbers and the odd joke. For all showbiz aficionados but primarily for Coco completeists.
23/January/2012 11:22 AM Filed in: Obsession (1976)
Director Brian De Palma is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s biggest fans, and in “Obsession,” his, well, obsession with the master of suspense’s film—“Vertigo” in particular—reaches its apex.
The movie focuses on New Orleans businessman Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson). Years after his wife and daughter are killed in a botched kidnapping, he meets and falls in love with a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife.
“Obsession” doesn’t quite measure up to the sublime “Vertigo,” but it does offer up some good thrills if you can get past the implausibility of the film’s finale. The plot points might not add up, but De Palma masterfully manipulates the movie’s atmosphere, creating a sense of drama and dread that is really effective.
23/January/2012 11:22 AM Filed in: The Big Year
Not since The Beverly Hillbillies' Miss Jane has there been such a bird crazy character. "The Big Year," a new comedy starring the tryptic of comics Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, is based on a true story of birders trying to break a world record.
"This is a true story," the opening credit reads. "Only the facts have been changed." Wilson is Bostick, the world's best birder (they don't like being called bird watchers). He is the king of The Big Year, an annual competition to see the greatest amount of birds in North America in a calendar year. There's no prize other than bragging rights, but, jokes Brad Harris (Jack Black), "the bird seed endorsements are huge." The film follows Bostick and the efforts of two newcomers to the Big Year, Stu (Martin), a wealthy CEO who is finally taking time to smell the roses and look at the birds, and Harris, an unhappy office grunt who loves anything that flies, as they vie for the top spot.
Whether or not audiences will migrate to "The Big Year" depends on their tolerance for a soundtrack stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey with bird songs like a jazz version of "Blackbird," and the trio of leading men.
Each plays to his strength. Black provides the slapstick, martin is the silver haired charmer and Wilson plays the edgy jerk he's perfected in movies like "Drillbit Taylor." The three different styles work well together even though nothing about it really feels fresh. Despite its subject it never really takes flight. There's a more ripple of giggles throughout but the big laughs are fewer and further between. Surely some Blue Footed Booby jokes could have spiced things up just a bit.
Having said that, "The Big Year" is enjoyable enough, particularly if you like footage of our fine feathered friends. The final third tugs at the heart strings when it becomes more about the characters than their birding obsession. Not really memorable, but at least it’s not another installment of Martin's dreadful Inspector Clouseau series.
16/January/2012 10:31 AM Filed in: Killing Bono
The story of a rock singer’s friend who didn’t make the leap to the big time, Killing Bono, is an enjoyable but slight look at the downside of obscurity. Most notable for Pete Postlethwaite’s final appearance as a lovable but campy character with a heart of gold.
06/January/2012 02:26 PM Filed in: What's Your Number
I'm not going to suggest “What's Your Number?” is a great, or even good movie. It has a typical rom com plot gussied up with some Judd Apatow style barbs and some gratuitous shots of its almost naked stars, but it also has Anna Faris, and for me that's enough. She has crack comic timing and an unpredictable way with a line that takes a Kathryn Heigl level script and turns it into something watchable.
Faris is Ally, a young Bostonian with a bad relationship track record. Weeks before her sister is due to tie the knot she reads a magazine article which suggests the number of sexual partners a woman has had will determine her romantic success later in life. More than twenty, it says, and you have virtually no hope of ever settling down. She does the math and realizes she’s in the danger zone. To prevent going over twenty partners she revisits all her ex-boyfriends in hopes of finding a husband.
“What’s Your Number?” is a strange movie that mixes and mingles both the standard old cell phone switcheroo plot device AND edgy rape jokes. It doesn't have the laughs of an Apatow movie or the heart... but once again, I'll say it, it has Anna Faris.
Faris is working hard here, playing against a script that casts her as the most clichéd of all rom com characters, a desperate woman on the hunt for a man. She’s a harlot with a past but her male next door neighbor (Chris Evans), who has hundreds of notches on his bedpost, is a charmer who simply hasn’t found the right woman yet. Just another example of how wrong headed the sexual politics of rom coms are, even in 2011.
A love scene with a puppet and Andy Samberg is a highlight and one of the things—did I mention Anna Faris?—that make this movie almost special. There are just enough funny scenes (and shots of co-star Evans's abs) to almost make this an in-the-pocket rom com, but then the good stuff is followed by long stretches of by-the-book writing. It's a shame to see this kind of potential wasted.
06/January/2012 02:26 PM Filed in: Surrogate Valentine
In this unusual romantic comedy real life San Francisco singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura plays a heightened version of himself. When he is hired by actor Danny Turner (Chadd Stoops) to teach him how to convincingly play a musician for an upcoming movie role. The pair hit the road and when Goh’s high school girlfriend shows up at a gig, romantic complications ensue.
This movie has considerable, but low-key charm. The improvisational feel lends a sense of realism to the piece, as though the camera is a fly-on-the-wall witnessing real events. It’s not, of course, but the way the film leaves behind the conventions of typical rom coms leaves more room for the story to ring emotionally true.
02/January/2012 05:06 PM Filed in: Hobo with a Shotgun
The world can be divided into two groups. People who would go see a movie titled “Hobo with a Shotgun” and people who wouldn’t. If you are in the former group you’ll likely love the movie. If not, well, perhaps go see “Jane Eyre” instead.
Shot in Halifax by first time feature director Jason Eisener, the movie is the model for truth in advertising. There is a hobo (Rutger Hauer) and a shotgun. It’s what he does with the shotgun that, depending on your point of view, makes the movie either a grindhouse treasure or a gratuitous blood fest with no redeeming value. You see the hobo has just ridden the rails into Scumtown, the most corrupt Canadian city in the east. Ruled by crime kingpin The Drake (Brian Downey) and his sadistic sons (Gregory Smith and Nick Bateman) it is a cesspool of sleaze where the streets run red with Technicolor blood. The level of carnage brings out the hobo’s inner Charles Bronson as he brings some 20-gauge vigilante justice to the town.
"Hobo with a Shotgun" is like what would have happened if Roger Corman made "Death Wish" with a fake blood budget the size of a James Cameron movie. It's an unapologetic revenge movie that makes movies like “The Toxic Avenger” seem restrained. Any movie with kitschy lines like “I'm gonna sleep in your bloody carcass tonight” is OK by me as long as it delivers in other ways, and "Hobo with a Shotgun" does. Of course, it is first and foremost a squishy ode to the movies that filled drive-ins and grindhouses during the Nixon years but it also has a deliberate sense of humor about itself—a headline describing the Hobo's rampage reads, “Hobo Stops Begging— Demands Change”—and seems genuinely affectionate about the movies it is paying tribute to.
"Hobo" even has the same kind of pseudo social commentary that Roger Corman used to try and shoehorn into his exploitation movies. For instance, according to Corman "The Big Birdcage" wasn't just a babes, bars and bondage women-in-prison picture but a highly nuanced ode to women's lib. I think Eisener probably has his tongue in cheek when his characters take a stance on the issue of homelessness, but nonetheless the addition of some strange social commentary perfectly fits the tone of the genre he's trying to emulate.
Director Eisener's highly developed visual style and sense of the absurd fuels the entire movie. It's clear that most of the budget probably went to Hauer's salary and the blood supply, but Eisener makes the most of every scene using inventive camera angles and tinting the action with lurid cartoon colors. Blood has never looked this red and b-movies have rarely looked this cool.
19/December/2011 10:13 PM Filed in: One Day
The subtitle for “One Day,” a new romance starring Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway, should be “Carpe Diem!” Seize the day, it seems to be telling us, particularly if you’re in love.
Sturgess and Hathaway each affect English accents for their roles—his is real, her’s clearly isn’t—of people who meet on July 15, 1988 and play romantic cat and mouse for almost twenty years. In the beginning Hathaway is an earnest poet who thinks she can change the world. How earnest is she? She plays Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” as seduction music. That’s pretty earnest. He’s a rich kid with a yin yang symbol, representing the perfect union of opposites, tattooed on his ankle and, as it turns out on his heart. This pair of opposites spend most of their lives trying not to fall in love until one day, July 15th, no less, they take the leap.
“One Day” is many things. It’s a style parade of hair and clothes from the past twenty years and it’s an interesting take on how to tell a story but it’s also a little disconnected. I think the year-by-year format—we drop in on Jim and Anne every July 15 for twenty years—is the culprit. It begins to feel gimmicky by the early nineties and by the millennium almost feels as though it is playing out in real time.
Luckily the story is rescued by the chemistry between the leads. Sturgess brings an easy charm to the character, and his transformation from happy-go-lucky student to lounge lizard TV presenter is effective. Hathaway’s charm lies in the intelligence she brings to her characters. Here she plays a smarty-pants young woman set adrift in life, someone who is slowly finding the self confidence to be who she really wants to be. In Hathaway’s hands you never doubt that she’ll get there.
The decades long dance they do as they pretend not to be in love shows the chemistry between the two. The film has some serious structural flaws but the spark between the two of them forgive many of the film’s sins.
We’ve seen the ‘can men and women be friends’ thing a hundred times before but “One Day’s” “whatever happens tomorrow… we’ve had today” theme is effective and may even wring a tear or two from the most hard hearted of viewers.
09/December/2011 03:09 PM Filed in: The Help
“The Help,” an adaptation of a 2009 best seller of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, has a tricky story to tell. Make it too uplifting and it will ring historically false; make it too realistically downbeat and summer audiences might stay away. Luckily, the story of a Southern Belle’s social awakening and the women who made it possible, hits most of the right notes.
Set in the weeks and months leading up to the 1963 death of African American civil rights activist Medgar Evers, “The Help” is the story of Jackson, Mississippi native “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), who comes home from four years at school to discover the woman who raised her, a maid named Constantine (Cicely Tyson), is no longer employed by her family. Her mother says she quit, but Skeeter has doubts. Meanwhile Skeeter takes a job writing a domestic maintenance column for the local newspaper. When she asks a friend’s maid, Aibileen (Viola Davis) for housekeeping tips she realizes there is more to the lives of the maids who raised her and her friends than she previously thought. With the help of a courageous group of housekeepers she tells the real story of the life of the maids, writing a book called “The Help.”
“The Help” is set at a time in the South when groups like the White Citizen’s Council had an office on Main Street and those same citizens didn’t see the irony of arriving at a charity event called The African Children’s Ball in a White’s Only taxi cab. The film gets the casual racism of the time right, offering up a sense of the era, but in a sanitized Hollywood sort of way. The brutal details of the book—stories of lynchings and corporal punishment for trifling matters—have been wiped away. Even the death of Evers, a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, happens off screen and goes largely unexplored.
There are some subtle moments that really ring true however. In one scene Skeeter visits Aibileen as she does her chores to try and convince her to be interviewed for the book. She’s meeting with her person to person, but when it starts to rain Skeeter rushes to get out of the rain without offering to help Aibileen gather up the rest of the laundry she had been bringing in from the clothes line. Skeeter wants to level the playing field between them, but she hasn’t yet completely let go of the idea of what is maid’s work and what is not.
But having said all that, this isn’t a history lesson. If you want real life grit rent “Eyes on the Prize”—Harry Hampton’s 1987 documentary on the American Civil Rights Movement from 1952 to 1965—because you won’t find it here. What you will find is a portrait of the South painted in broad strokes, performed by an eager and talented cast.
Some of the performances are pitched a bit over-the-top—Jessica Chastain, so understated in “The Tree of Life” seems positively ready to burst in the first half of this movie—but in the Southern Belle category, Emma Stone (and her football-sized eyes) brings some curly-haired determination to the role. She’s obviously different, the filmmakers seem to be telling us, because she’s the only one without a pulled back Beehive hairdo. Allison Janney as Skeeter's dramatic mother—“My daughter has upset my cancerous ulcer,” she cries at one point—really shines and Bryce Dallas Howard as Hilly Holbrook, the town’s well-born racist, is a chilling reminder of the genteel face of intolerance.
The performance that sells the picture, however, belongs to Academy Award nominee Viola Davis. As Aibileen she is the soul of the film, a woman who has been hurt by life but is still capable of nurturing the very people who wounded her. Even though she doesn’t have the movie’s showiest role—that’s Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson—she’s still the film’s strongest and most memorable character.
“The Help” is a heartfelt and sincere story that could have benefited from a little less of those qualities and a little more realism.
12/December/2011 04:18 PM Filed in: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Earlier this year a documentary called “Project Nim” detailed the life and sad times of Nim Chimpsky, who was taken from his mother and taught sign language before being abandoned once he outlived his usefulness as a laboratory experiment. It would make a good double bill with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” a big budget prequel to the famous sci fi films. Man does ape wrong in “Project Nim,” and in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” the chimps get even.
The time is modern day San Francisco. James Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist working to create a drug that will slow, or even reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. When one of his chimp test subjects goes berserk the project is shut down and the remaining apes are ordered euthanized “in the most cost effective way possible” by Rodman’s boss, the ruthless CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo). The scientist rescues a baby chimp, the son of one of his test subjects. Soon he discovers that the drug given to the baby’s mother has filtered through his system, giving him extraordinary intelligence. Raised completely by humans the chimp, named Caesar (after the emperor, not the salad), doesn’t realize he has simian cousins until he is removed from his comfortable home and placed in an ape sanctuary. Soon Caesar becomes like Chimp Guevara, organizing a revolution against his human captors. This ape is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore.
The original “Planet of the Apes” movie was an allegory for racism and nuclear war topped off with Charlton Heston’s hairy chest and some cool monkey masks. “Rise,” on the other hand is a generic action movie with state-of-the-art primates and the occasional moment that elevates it above Tim Burton’s remake, but it doesn’t come close to the emotional realism that made the first movie a classic.
Andy Serkis's performance-capture work as alpha ape Ceasar is one of the movie’s strengths and weaknesses. There is no doubt that his facial expressions, particularly the use of his eyes, add much to the character of the chimp but the computer generated imagery used to bring Caesar to life, while impressive, lacks an organic feel. It seems fake even though much has been done to ensure a lifelike visage. The Roddy McDowell era apes were obviously fake—sometimes painfully so—but somehow they had more soul.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” plays fast and loose with the mythology established in the previous movies and takes a bit too long to get to the movie’s exciting monkey business, but delivers an exciting finale that would make Nim proud.