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Monthly Archives: March 2011



Ten Word or Less Review: Leapin’ lizard equally amazes and disappoints.

Some of Rango ranks as the best animated movie next to Pixar output.  It’s unapologetically weird and unusually adult in places.  It forsakes the usual cartoonish, round faces and surfaces which has made CGI animated movies less an art form and more an interchangeable collection of characters who could cross pollinate each others stories without notice.  It’s loaded with movie references and in jokes no one under the age of 8 would ever understand.  Unless your 8 year old has seen Chinatown, Clint Eastwood westerns or Apocalypse Now.  It’s also burdened with an over-developed plot which, as soon as you think you might we watching the first completely surrealistic $100 million cartoon, kicks in and drags the movie to an unfavorably run of the mill place from which it has trouble escaping.

Johnny Depp is the lizard with an existential crisis who becomes Rango.  Before being thrust into the plot that gets in the way too much, he’s seen as a theatrical sort, performing plays in his aquarium with his friends: the headless, one armed barbie doll torso, a wind up fish toy and a plastic palm tree.  At the cusp of a serious identity crisis his home is thrown from the back of a moving car.  It crashes onto the highway leaving our lizard stranded in the desert with only an spiritual minded, and run over,  armadillo as help.  The lizard follows the directions of the armadillo and makes his way to the aptly named town of Dirt, a barren collection of old buildings about to fall over and blow away right out of Western Cinema 101.  The town’s water is vanishing under its feet and its grizzled citizens are helpless.  Our lizard hero sees his opportunity and seizes it.  Quickly spinning tales of macho bravado he names himself Rango, the hero the town needs to solve its crisis and return prosperity.  Hopefully no one will notice he’s a hopeless idiot more likely to get everyone killed .

Rango’s style and sense of humor isolate from the rest of the CGI kids movie pack.  Instead of the usual collection of featureless, round faces we usually get in CGI kids movies, Rango is populated with grizzled critters who look lively and lived in.  They are very much a collection of Western archetypes with the looks to prove it.  The movie also, while favoring a few juvenile jokes, aims for some odd places.  Depp’s Rango is a blending of his Hunter S. Thompson persona and Jack Sparrow.  As a live action performance it would probably have been awful to watch, but hidden under the shifting skin of a chameleon with a pencil neck and big head it works well.

Where Rango trips itself up is the story department.  It works so well when it tries to be different that it’s more predictable elements are all the more tiresome.  For every Clint Eastwood populated fever dream or Lee Van Cleef inspired rattlesnake with a machine gun instead of a rattle, there’s loads of transparent plot to deal with.  Everyone will see where Rango is going quite easily so the prolonged nature of the story is flummoxing.  Had director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean) been less adamant about filling out his story so traditionally, Rango could’ve scurried along just fine leaving audiences wildly amused.  Instead it’s bounces between being inspiring and dull in equal measure.  Rango is also PG and really flirting with PG-13.  If you gots little ones this may be a bit much.  The Bill Nighy voiced Rattlesnake Jake will probably scare them senseless.  So take them twice!

Considering what the average, non-Pixar, animated movie is like, bland and annoying, we should consider Rango a wild success despite itself.  It may not fire on all levels but the parts that do work so well that dismissing it for its shortcomings would be a grievous mistake.  Imperfections and all it’s an odd angled animated confection that will probably grow in esteem over time.

Ten Word or Less Review: A monster movie, but as if directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Don’t go in expecting a rough and tumble creature feature with blood and guts and idiot characters getting torn limb from limb by drooling beasts. “Monsters” is a no-budget, horror implied, drama about two semi-regular folk who find themselves in northern Mexico, now a walled off zone where towering, unidentifed creatures wreck havoc on life as the U.S. military attempts to destroy the infestation. Circumstances leave the two walking through the infested land, observing remaining locals trying to eek out a life, seeing the devistation that has reigned down on the land first hand.

This is a two person character vehicle and I doubt many will become enthralled with either of them. She’s a girl on extended get away from her rich family (Whitney Able), he’s a cynical photographer (Scoot McNairy) trying to capture the beasts on film. He gets roped into getting her back to U.S. soil safe and sound, a task he’s not greatly interested in accomplishing. That’s about all we get for character motivation and it works for what the film is trying to accomplish. The two unknowns here are playing everything down to earth and low key, there’s no real quirkiness or forced charactization to label either of them as a type. This picture is mostly a grim travelogue with two people, had they been superficial and forced it would’ve rendered the entire experience pointless and hard to watch.

While it shares the stage with recent creature features such as District 9 and Cloverfield, it contains none of those movies more bombastic elements. Monsters has more in common stylistically with a low-budget Steven Soderbergh movie than a Roland Emmerich destruction fest. There’s clearly a fraction of the money at the filmamkers disposal. The creatures which have cropped up are mostly kept at arms length, appearing in grainy videos, the haziness of night or simply as tenticles probing around. The bulk of the movie is made in a documentary fashion, following our two characters as they see how this third world nation has been devistated by not only the creatures, but the military response as well.

Like most decent science fiction Monsters has a few thoughts on its mind. Primarily it dwells on a societies tendency to root out and destroy what it sees as harmful, regardless of comprehending the situation completely. Director and writer Gareth Edwards message gets a little muddled though. While he’s preaching the noble dogma of observation and understanding before slaughter, the creatures he presents us with routinely seem extremely dangerous. He seems to be begrudging humanity it’s right to defend itself against something we clearly could never live with in any way shape or fashion.  The monsters are basically 40 ft. tall Octopus like beheamoths. Would you walk your dog knowing you might run into an octopus the size of a whale?   Hell no.  If Edwards intent was a little less illogical it would be a little easier to go with.

Monsters is an admirable effort, a bit more thoughtful than its chaos prone brethern. While it doesn’t wow or dazzle with spectacle it does involve and provoke a thought or two. It shows that we are more and more living in an age where compelling and technologically sophisticated movies can be made for meager amounts of money. At least meager by Hollywood’s standards.   A film like Monsters gives us hope that the Roland Emmerichs of the world might one day lose their strangelhold on epic tales of destruction and braver filmmakers will apply more than just globs of CGI to accomplish a means to an end.

Ten Word or Less Review: Harrison Ford strikes back!

All great actors deserve the great swan song role.  Henry Fonda had On Golden Pond.  John Wayne had The Shootist.  Orsen Welles had Tramsformers: The Movie.  We all hoped Harrison Ford would take the opportunity to play Indiana Jones one last time and run with it.  And he did.  Right into a wall.  While the book on Ford’s career remains cautiously open for a bit longer, it seems as if his great finale may be as part of paint-by-numbers, psuedo-romantic comedy.  Morning Glory doesn’t reinvent anything, but it provides Ford with a character which embodies the perceptions of the actor head on, that of a cantankerous has been, too bored and worn out on his profession, forced to show one last time that he should never be counted down or out.

Getting top billing here is actually Rachel McAdams, the gorgeous almost starlet who seems too smart to become part of the Hollywood machinery.  Almost a headliner after the success of The Notebook, McAdams instead drew back and let stardom pass by.  She’s entered the game again and Morning Glory was suppsoed to herald her return, instead it withered on the vine and died an ugly box office death.  McAdams has the standard but well played partof plucky, can-do career gal, determined to overcome obstacles and achieve career and personal success.  She should be wise to avoid parts like this in the future though.  Kathrine Heigl does this all the time and now most people want her poisoned.  McAdam’s is a small time TV producer charged with revitalizing a dying network morning show.  In a moment of genius/stupidity, she brings on Ford’s acidic and unwieldingly cranky anchorman, an old fashioned bastard who thinks news should be nothing but meaningful and hardhitting, at complete odds with the format of morning talk pablum.  The two enter a battle of wills which feels more meaningful than it has any right to, largely impart to McAdams winning screen presence and Ford’s convincing nasty streak.  Instead of a movie which builds up to the well worn romantic climax, it aims for a professional one.  One where two people who work together achieve mutual respect for each other, and the all that love crap takes a back seat.

People have been bitching about Harrison Ford for years now.  He’s old.  He doesn’t care.  He rarely works and has nothing to prove, openly showing contempt for acting on occasion.  All possibly true but with his part in Morning Glory Ford stares squarely into the eyes of his critics and says ‘Shove it.  I’m Harrison Ford dammit.  Now get off my plane.’  His aging news anchor is an extension of himself, an old timer with the need to prove nothing to no one and simply will not cater to the gods of lower standards and expecations.  Maybe it makes him a prick but he’s a prick with ethics, no matter how buried they are under arrogance.  Ford shines so brightly with his simmering , aging rancor that he winds up putting the entire movie into his pocket and walks away with it.  Morning Glory is in most ways as routine as they come, but Ford elevates it to such a degree that anyone who has ever held an favorable opinion about the man should consider it a must see.  When history looks back on him after he’s gone, looking at his body of work and finding the great unsung pieces, Morning Glory will come up in conversation and be noticed.

Aside from Ford there isn’t a great deal to dwell on.  McAdams holds her own against the aging titan in a part which she elevates from the routine.  Her beauty is still matched by few and her lack of larger success in mainstream features remains odd.  But all the same we’ve seen this role more than enough times.  Diane Keaton is here in a part which should’ve squared off with Ford a bit more.  Her’s is an okay but under served role.  She and Ford deserve a climax which isn’t readily supplied, only hinted at.  Lots of other recognizable heads in the cast, all being amiable and pleaseant to watch.

Amputate Ford from Morning Glory and we aren’t having much of a conversation.  Without him it’s just another programmer for the double X chromosome crowd.  But alas, he is here and we are talking.  Thanks to his self-deprecating and confessional performance, Glory is elevated notches above where it deserves to be.  It achieves a consistant streak of minor achievements which add up to a winning experience.  Those who choose to ignore it in theaters would be wise to give it, and Ford, a look.  Afterwards you may not be so quick to dismiss that which you feel is over and done with.

Ten Word or Less Review: Aliens invade!  Again.

Aaron Eckhart and his mighty chin do battle with non-descript alien warriors for west coast turf in this loud exercise in alien invasion mayhem.  If this review comes across as functional, but lacking creativity, it’s because I’m merely trying to keep in line with the movie itself.  Battle: L.A. works okay for what it is, but what it is is a lot stuff you’ve seen done in a lot of other movies.

Like most alien invasion flicks the world is coasting along just fine.  Aliens have a knack for invading on sunny days.  We meet a bunch of non-descript jarheads doing their jarhead things.  People in movies like this have a knack for doing really boring stuff before the destruction kicks in.  Eckhart is the standard issue action guy about to retire out of guilt for something gone wrong in Iraq.  People in movies like this have a knack for being riddled with guilt about something.  With little warning a buttload of comets come crashing down off the coasts of major nations.  Shortly thereafter an army of heavily armed, aquamarine alien shitkickers march onto our shores and start waylaying everyone and everything with laser blasts.  Eckhart and his marines go into action, quickly finding themselves in a guerilla war scenario as Los Angeles becomes overrun with aliens.  That’s what’s here, take it or leave it.

Capably slapped together by Jonathan Liebesman, Battle: L.A. gets by on some technical proficiency and a respectable straight ahead nature.  It’s been made in the standard action movie mold of the day, which is to say everything is shaky and rattled.  It isn’t insultingly dumb, though it comes close on occasion.  More detracting than anything is the under thought and cobbled together with clichés way of the story.  The worst thing about it is the piss poor alien design.  The aliens look like a loose collection of limbs and tentacles wearing salad bowl helmets.  There’s some competent effects work here but the execution of the aliens leaves a lot to be desired.  Nor do they get much of a narrative.  They need water.  That’s it.  If there’s an FX upside I would single out the sporadic aerial shots of Los Angeles slowly being scorched away as the aliens invade one block at a time as a highlight.

Battle:L.A. should at no point surprise anyone.  If you don’t guess each death and emotional beat before they happen you’ve never seen a movie so you should maybe see something better than this.  But if distraction is all you need then it’s competently executed and doesn’t land with a complete thud.  It’s another notch in Hollywood’s ever lengthening resume of alien invasion flicks.  Unmemorable to be sure, but passable all the same.


Ten Word or Less Review: 2011 movies finally throw out something worth while.

About half way though Cedar Rapids I found myself hoping that the film unfolding before me would live up to the uncommon promise it seemed to be making.  The usual plot points that prevade boys behaving bad movies were being evaded, the usual character arcs were slightly more refined and the general feeling that Rapids was investing itself in was a desire to be genial and true, but with the prerequisite dirty jokes to keep us laughing.  Much to my appreciation Cedar Rapids held the course and managed to be an affecting instance where lowbrow humor merges with effectively portrayed characters.  If The Hangover was too callous to care about anyone in it, I never cared if they found their friend, and Hot Tub Time Machine too slapdash to take serious, Cedar Rapids represents that same type of movie, but in it’s head an idea rattles around and in its chest a heart can be found.

Hangover graduate Ed Helms is Tim Lippe, pronounced lippy, a small town insurance agent who’s never taken a small town step outside his small town existence.  Everything about his demeanor and lifestyle scream wholesome rube.  The only kind of illicit behavior Tim indulges in is a weird one, a sexual affair with his one time middle school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), whom he foolishly wants to marry out of a misplaced sense of nobility.  I doubt Tim could guess in 100 years what MILF means.  After a pious co-worker accidentally croaks in a sex game, Tim is sent in his place to Cedar Rapids for the insurance convention where his tidy world quickly comes undone.  If the film had been set in Vegas Tim would’ve died when he got off the plane.  Tim is a character so without knowledge and sin that his rather humdrum hotel illicts awes, it has a pool and the doors open with cards, and rooming with an African-American guy gives him a brief shock.  He also has to room with the abrasive Dean, the awesome John C. Reilly, a foul mouthed boob who proves a stream of unrepressed vulgarity and id.  Making it a foursome is Joan, Ann Heche, a laid back married woman who takes a liking it Tim despite his repressed nature and hesitancy at having fun.

It would be really easy for Cedar Rapids to hold Tim out as the tried and true fish-out-of-water idiot, but things are held back and Tim comes across more inexperienced and frightened of the real life suddenly all around him.  No longer rubbing elbow with small town folk, Tim is an innocent who finds out how quickly the world can corrupt and because the film doesn’t overplay his foibles, he manages to achieve something like believability.  Making things even better is an overachieving supporting cast.  John C. Reilly walks off with the movie, something the wiley character actor is prone to do.  In 99 out of 100 movies Reilly’s character is the vile rake set in oppostion to our pious protagonist.  Here innocence and sin form a bond.  Dean is gross and immature, a raging 12 year old boy still endlessly amused by fart jokes in the pasty body of a guy heading towards middle age, but a villan he is not.  Much like Tim the screenplay works to turn Reilly’s character into someone we can appreciate instead of sneer at.  Ronald Whitlock dutifully plays the straightman to Rielly’s profane jokster.  And coming off the acting side lines to surprising affect is Anne Heche.  All but absent from notable movies for most of the past decade, Heche’s appearance is defined by a sense of humor laced with just a touch of world weariness.  These four performers tie themselves together and form great quartet of comedic timing.
Behind the camera is Miguel Arteta, a deft hand with good timing and ability to sell comedy without insulting the audience or sacrificing the integrity of his characters in the process.  Seeing Alexander Payne (Sideways) listed as a producer made a lot of sense as well.  Along with first time screenplay writer Phil Johnston, the creative team eventually steer the film into common ground.  While the film consistently flirts with gray areas and murky morals, the ending is all smiles.  Nothing downbeat was called for but it’s so up in nature that the once believable ground that Rapids was walking on fades away with the closing credits.  But it’s a small complaint in an otherwise steady sea of accomplishment.
The real complaint to lobby against Cedar Rapids was the complete and utter failure to sell the film to anyone.  It’s funny, foul mouthed and affecting in ways most other movies like this aren’t.  The audience for movies like this has been getting a steady diet lately, The Dilemma and Hall Pass come to mind, and it should be no surprise that the one film which bends the genre around some doesn’t catch on.  It has more in common with indy film darling Juno than it’s beefy, big brother, The Hangover. Cedar Rapids seems destined for appreciation in the long run while its louder contemporaries quickly fade from memory.

Ten Word or Less Review: Solid opening lapses into chaotic mess.

This first part of an epic French gangster saga brings us the true life story of notorious criminal Jacques Mesrine, thug, thief, killer and kidnapper who operated in France and Canada in the 1960’s and 70’s.  Mostly unknown in the U.S., Mesrine attempts to bring to light the sprawling story of this notorious French criminal in two films.  They could’ve used 3 or maybe even 4.

This first feature, Killer Instinct, starts off on strong notes, emulating but not quite copying Scorsese’s epic crime scenarios.  Following the tried and true rise and fall of a criminal arc, Killer Instinct holds the audience in rapt attention, Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) holding the screen with fierce authority and macho showmanship.  But as this first part marches on, the story starts to slip away in a hail of important event overkill.  Whole years start disappearing between the scenes.  In just a handful of screen time Mesrine goes from being a criminal, to being married, to having a child, to going to jail, to getting out of jail, to being reformed, to lapsing back into criminality to hating his wife.  There’s no buildup to anything and the film slowly collapses in on itself as one major event proceeds another in a parade of narrative overkill.

By its conclusion Killer Instinct feels like a 4-hour movie which has been clumsily edited down to two.  The rushed nature of everything makes Cassell’s Mesrine feel less like a character and more like a thug having spastic, murderous emotional fits.  Part two of this ambitious endeavor, Public Enemy #1, supposedly plays better and when it appears in my Netflix queue I will see it.  But this first chapter ultimately feels like an ambitious but missed opportunity.