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All reviews - Movies (204) - DVDs (1)

X-Men: First Class

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 10 June 2011 05:13 (A review of X-Men: First Class)

According to the credits, it took four people to put together the screenplay for X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. With that tidbit in mind after having seen the film, here's the mental picture that I instantly get: those four people sitting at a table skimming over X-Men comic books, skipping through a scene or two of the three films that were released during the 2000s, and perhaps most important of all, putting check marks on a list of all the "requirements" that you need to make a standard-order superhero origin story. And that's the exact result we get here. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is a serviceable summer movie, all right, but that's as far as it goes. There's no pizzazz here, no desire to push the envelope in any way, no motivation to show us anything other than familiar characters making use of the "cool" powers they've been blessed with, and no interest in at least giving a fresh spin to a story we've seen told several times.

For those who think that it's pointless for originality to be found in a film like this one due to the fact that it's an origin story, I suggest you go back one month and remember what Kenneth Branagh gave us with THOR: the film was an origin story, to be sure, but there was certainly no lack of fresh character development, strong acting and witty dialogue. It's too bad that the same can't be said for the latest entry into the X-MEN canon. If that were all, I may have still relented and given it a thumbs up and told you that "it's still an entertaining enough summer movie," but there's another aspect of it that irks me on a more personal level. The film is interested in celebrating what it means to be different, to be a geek, a dork, an outsider. But holy crap, does it try hard to jam its ideas about this issue hard into the audience members' heads and hearts. Have you ever had someone try so hard to convince you of something, and reiterate their arguments over and over to the point that you stop believing them? That's what happens here. The following lines are all scattered throughout the script of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, and I have no doubt I may have even missed a few others:

"You're not alone!"
"You want society to accept you, but you can't even accept yourself!"
"We shouldn't be trying to fit in to society!"

The above lines have the effect of minimizing the film's celebration of being offbeat into a cliche rather than giving it the subtle dramatic effectiveness it deserved. Those lines are designed to be enjoyed by the mainstream audience of non-outsiders who will be watching the film and need points to be driven hard into their heads in order to understand them ("Oooh, I get it! They're weird and wanna be accepted!"). These lines aren't designed to emotionally connect with us offbeat people, because the falsity and the conventionality render that connection impossible. Somehow, I have a hard time believing that any of these four screenwriters was ever taunted by the popular kids in high school. As a card-carrying member of the "geeks and outsiders" club, I find the film to border on the offensive because of the horribly simplistic way in which it goes about dealing with this subject.

The film does get off to a good start, though. As an origin story, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS gives us a prologue in which we literally get to see the origins of both Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who will later, of course, be known as Professor X and Magneto, respectively. The film does do a terrific job at tying the story's fictional elements with historical events related to World War II in the prologue and then later with events connected to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The historical context is drawn organically and never feels forced or off-putting.

Charles and Erik certainly benefit from the powers that their mutant status have blessed them with, and it also helps that they have the help of Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who has the ability to change shapes, but the complications of the plot lead them to need to start recruiting, which is why they set out to find other mutants around the world. After finding them, an "intense" training period begins. I say "intense" in quotation marks, though, because the training montage in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is mediocre at best. We've seen plenty of training montages in other films, so to see one that is so workmanlike is nothing short of dispiriting.

But there's an even more serious issue with the whole aspect of the recruited mutants. The film tries to be as politically correct as possible by including two racial minorities in the group (one male and one female, of course), and to make matters worse, the screenwriters reveal their, um, true colors, when they have to decide which two of the recruits to get rid of, and it turns out that it's the two racial minorities (one dies, and the other turns over to the dark side). So, before we're even slightly close to the climax, our group of good guys is entirely composed of nice and appealing white folks. Once again, this film may try to make you think that it's a celebration of being offbeat and different, but it's nothing more than a vehicle to satisfy the cravings of mainstream audiences and to give them exactly what they're comfortable seeing and nothing that even slightly differs from that. Oh, and any argument of "But wait, that's how it happened in the comic books!" is not valid, because a filmmaker who does this type of movie has not only the freedom to decide which elements of the comic books to use and not use, but he/she also has the responsibility to pick and adapt the elements that will make the story as effective and interesting as possible.

All moral qualms aside, I'll admit that a more effective climax may have still saved the movie. But no such luck. The special effects in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS are so generic, its action sequences so lackluster, and its "final battle" scenes so lacking in high-octane excitement, that one honestly just watches it because it's a requirement to get through those scenes in order for the film to finally come to its satisfying close. The more severe sin that the film commits during its final moments is that it does a poor job of developing the moral conflict that the character of Erik experiences as he waffles with the decision over which side to choose. Sure, some may argue that "everyone already knows" the path that Magneto ultimately takes, but that's no excuse for a film's dramatic core not to exploit one of its most emotionally significant elements. Considering how good Michael Fassbender's performance is, this is a real shame. Fassbender is, without a doubt, the star of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, perfectly capturing all dimensions of Erik's personality and effortlessly displaying that line "between anger and serenity" that the film's plot requires of him. Give him a better film or even a masterful one (as was the case with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), and he would've shone greatly.

The rest of the cast is largely disappointing. James McAvoy can do great things when asked to play vulnerable and emotionally feeble characters. I think it has something to do with the fact that there's a hint of nervousness in his voice when he talks and with the fact that he has a general look of fragility. That produced great results when he played the subordinate in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND and when he played the apprentice in WANTED, but when asked to take on a leadership role as is the case in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, there's an inevitable feeling that he's miscast. This reeks of "let's cast this guy because he's a known name and good-looking" and it's really too bad. Jennifer Lawrence is severely hampered by the script's limitations, especially because the forced plot element of supposedly cherishing "being different" centers mostly around her character, and she's asked to deliver a couple of eyebrow-raising lines. There's little to say about the supporting players. In the role of Alex Summers, Lucas Till does a lot of standing around trying to look as Captain America-like as possible, while Kevin Bacon plays the same snarky villain that he has already played in oodles of films (he does it effectively enough, but it's one of those things where you can't help but feel like he's just revisiting a persona that he's already played before).

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is the type of cinematic effort for which the cast and crew got nice paychecks, and its makers will likely be satisfied with the box office returns; any sense of passion or of an interest in making something better than average or of working harder than necessary to make something special is completely out of consideration here. I said that THOR had set the bar high for the rest of the summer movies, because the film had such a great combination of action, character development and good sense of humor, but wow, the least that the people behind X-MEN: FIRST CLASS could've done is go the extra mile and give us at least a solid new beginning to this franchise. Instead, they just checked off all the requirements on the "superhero origin story" list, took their money, and moved on. I didn't want to use the same quip that many other critics have used ("First class? More like coach"), but it's entirely applicable. The film's excellent interlacing of true historical events with the plot, combined with the strength of Fassbender's performance, keep me from giving it a lower grade, but never does this come across as a work of first-class cinematic quality.


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The Beaver

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 9 June 2011 02:39 (A review of The Beaver)

If you've seen the searingly dark and magnificent HARD CANDY, you may remember that there's a moment at which its protagonist, Hayley (a teenage girl who is about to carry out an atrociously savage act), wonders what would happen if she were caught by the authorities. She jokes that they wouldn't do much to her other than have her do some hours of community service, and she wryly comments that "Jodie Foster would direct the movie version of it." Since I hadn't seen a film directed by Jodie Foster prior to watching the mediocre excuse for a drama that is THE BEAVER, I had no idea what Hayley was talking about, but I do now. The trailers tell you that the film is about a character played by Mel Gibson who is having family issues, and therefore, decides to start communicating through a stuffed animal, rather than speaking for himself. What the trailers don't tell you is that if it weren't for that somewhat unorthodox aspect of the plot, this would be straight-up soap opera material.

When the film begins, Walter (Mel Gibson) has already been kicked out of his house by his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster, doing double duty here as star and director), which means that we're not even aware of the reason why he was kicked out (and I wonder how many people will realize that that information is never given to us during the film). The couple has two kids: high schooler Porter (Anton Yelchin), who is fully supportive of his mother and is completely thrilled that she "finally" decided to kick his dad out, and the much younger Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), who is much too innocent to understand what is going on. After a few failed (and admittedly funny) suicide attempts in his hotel room, Walter seems to come up with a better idea. He finds a beaver stuffed animal in the garbage. The next day he goes right back home, affects an Australian accent, and starts pretending as though the beaver is speaking for him. He hands Meredith a card that says that this is a psychological mechanism that he is using to deal with his depression. Meredith, of course, wants to save her family, so she decides to play along. Porter is predictably outraged, while the blissfully ignorant little Henry starts having tons of fun talking to the beaver, as though it were a new toy in the house.

There's potentially a good independent drama to be made out of THE BEAVER's premise, but the version that has recently reached theaters certainly isn't it. What sucks is that Gibson's role is total "awards bait" and should've easily garnered him some recognition, but I don't think that's possible, considering that parts of the film feel more appropriate for daytime programming than for the film screen. When Meredith gets angry at Walter at one point and decides to leave the house, and she says "I'm taking the kids and everything we can carry!" I wanted to throw rotten fruits at the screen, and then ask "Why wasn't this sent directly to the Lifetime movie network?"

If it weren't for the offbeat plot line involving the titular stuffed animal, this would be nothing but a vapid family dysfunction drama. What I object to severely is how obvious it is that the beaver is used not so much for purposes of plot development as it is to ensure that such vapidness isn't so obvious to the viewer. And that wouldn't bother me so much if it weren't for the fact that, during its final act, the film uses the stuffed animal for even more manipulative purposes. You see, we get the obligatory scene in which Walter has to "face the beaver" and things even get violent. That's fine. What's NOT fine is the decision by the filmmakers to include suspenseful music here. It's off-putting and distracts from the emotional turmoil that the protagonist is supposed to be experiencing. Even worse, it's further evidence that the film isn't really interested in the depth of the psychological issues it's presenting as it is in offering cheap, transitory satisfaction to an audience who it clearly views as unintelligent and undemanding. Adding suspenseful music during this pivotal and emotionally climactic moment is like adding a laugh track during a funny moment in an episode of The Sopranos: sure, there may be humor involved in that particular moment, but you have to consider the CONTEXT of the story you're presenting - some things just aren't appropriate, and shouldn't be done just for the sake of milking your material in the cheapest way possible.

There's a subplot in THE BEAVER that could've been the movie's saving grace but ends up being every bit as much of a flop as the rest of the film. At his high school, Porter secretly makes money writing papers for his classmates. One day, he is approached by Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), the class valedictorian. Turns out that, despite how smart she is, she can't come up with what to say for her graduation speech, and wants Porter to write it for her. So, he starts getting to know her and, of course, romantic sparks start flying. So far, so good. But the culmination of this plot line (at the graduation ceremony) is executed so poorly and senselessly that it reeks of "Okay, let's just resolve this issue of the movie and move on.". It's not only one of those predictable moments in which someone makes the "sudden" decision to speak from the heart (cringe), but it's also the fact that what is ultimately said feels wholly unrealistic and scripted. Not even someone like the Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence can save something as poorly executed as this.

If that were all, I wouldn't be so harsh on the film, but the biggest problem here is that we have one of those denouements in which there's a montage that is meant to suggest to us that all the problems have somehow magically gone away. I don't believe that ALL genres of film need to adhere to realism, but when you're talking about a serious drama about family conflicts, the least that a movie can do is be relatable and present an outcome that appears to at least be congruent with the emotional issues that were presented. Anyone who has had marriage problems and watches THE BEAVER will likely think "Oh, that's nice. I wish my problems could be solved that easily, too." It's offensive. To make matters worse, the final voiceover is a ludicrous attempt at tying together something that never truly meshed in the first place.

Mel Gibson does what he can, but like I said, the film doesn't offer him room to give the Oscar-caliber performance he should've been able to give here. As for Jodie Foster, I'm terribly sorry to say this, especially because I've already been critical enough of the film she directed, but it's been a while since I've seen an Academy Award winner give such a shrill and forced performance. I lost count of the number of times in which she went over the top in this film. Despite his youth, Anton Yelchin has done way better work elsewhere (see CHARLIE BARTLETT, FIERCE PEOPLE and ALPHA DOG). And there's the inevitably upsetting fact that THE BEAVER chooses to go for the cliche of the rebellious older son and the complacently ignorant younger son. Where's the sense of creativity?

Family dysfunction dramas have figured very frequently in the realm of indie films over the last few years. THE BEAVER is decidedly one of the failures of the lot. Again, it's the type of film that should've been sent straight over to the Lifetime Movie Network, were it not perhaps for the fact that it has two extremely famous actors on its list of credits. I do think Foster has given terrific performances in the past, and perhaps it's for that reason that it pains me to say this more than it would for a director whose face I don't recognize, but the film epitomizes mediocrity. The good thing I'll take away from it, though, is that next time I watch HARD CANDY, I'll actually be in on Hayley's joke, and there's no doubt I'll laugh knowingly.


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Brotherhood

Posted : 6 years, 4 months ago on 7 June 2011 11:12 (A review of Brotherhood)

If there's a particular type of movie in which college fraternities are featured the most, it's in these gross-out teen comedies that depict college life as being all about partying and having sex. There's a big part of me that always cringes upon seeing that, because it leads me to think that there seriously are non-college-educated people out there who believe that that's all that happens in your average campus. So, it's always a welcome sight when a movie deals more seriously with college life, or in this case, with the darker elements of what it means to be a member of a fraternity. That's the case with BROTHERHOOD, a gritty and suspenseful independent drama/thriller that shows just how wrong things can go during a fraternity initiation.

Of course, the dismissive reaction to this sort of situation (whether in real life or in a movie) is "Well, why were those guys so dumb in the first place to do what those other guys asked them to do?" And this is where it's key to understand that college isn't the utopia of alcohol and sex that most movies choose to depict: in reality, it's usually a time in which people are away from their family and friends, and therefore feel the need to find some form of core group to which they belong. Fraternities not only fulfill that need, but also, the fact that its members refer to each other as "brothers" makes it feel even more like you're truly getting a second family to belong to while you're away from home.

So, it's not too hard to understand why Adam (Trevor Morgan) and Kevin (Lou Taylor Pucci) feel pressure to do exactly what is asked of them by Frank (Jon Foster), who is one of the leaders of Sigma Zeta Chi, the fraternity that the two guys wish to join. The problem is that Frank is telling them that, for their initiation, they each need to individually rob a convenience store. Adam and Kevin are understandably reluctant, but again, that pressure and desire to belong is so powerful, that they relent. Adam is up first, and as he is sprinting towards the convenience store, he is stopped by another fraternity member, who hands him a bag and says "Here, take this, and act like you robbed the store." Of course, one breathes a sigh of relief when this happens (not to mention the fact that it makes the film more realistic), since it means that "it's all pretend" and nothing bad will really happen. Adam isn't allowed to tell his friend Kevin that it's all fake, though, and unfortunately, when it's Kevin's turn to carry out the deed, things don't go as planned. Kevin gets wounded in the midst of the mess, and to make matters worse, it turns out that the convenience store clerk, Mike (Arlen Escarpeta), is someone that Adam knows from high school. This all marks the beginning of a series of tragic and disastrous events that bury the guys deeper and deeper into the hole of trouble.

Moral complexities on film always intrigue me, particularly when they're handled as well as they are here. As things keep going wrong for our characters, the dialogue features the classic conflict between "We HAVE to go to a hospital and call the police" and "No, no, we can still get out of this clean and without having to go to jail." One gets a clear gander here at the differences between the moral compass of one character and the other, and watching the interplay between the two approaches is fascinating. What makes BROTHERHOOD even better is that, while it does have some characters who feel more inclined to "do the right thing" and others who would prefer to just hide all the mess under the bed, we don't have the cliche of the 100% good guy and the 100% bad guy. Adam is supposed to be the more hero-ish of the group, but he does a share of things that teeter on the vile (particularly in dealing with his ex-high school friend Mike). The film deserves credit for admitting what too many films refuse to admit: that there are no absolute heroes or absolute villains out there. All we have are people who respond to situations based on what will best serve them and based on their moral values... but when situations reach the point of desperation, they'll often go with the former, as is the case in BROTHERHOOD.

Considering that the moral conflicts at play are so good here, it's a shame that the acting is generally on the weak side, with the notable exception of Trevor Morgan, who would be right at home in an A-level indie drama (when he was much younger, he starred in the terrific MEAN CREEK, another searingly dark indie film). The other problem with the film is that, during the final 30 minutes or so, there's an inevitable feeling that the filmmakers are trying to come up with as many things as possible to complicate the characters' situation more and more. As much as it helps to further enrich the moral complexity, it eventually starts feeling like an attempt to ensure the movie reaches an acceptable running time (the film lasts less than 80 minutes). One commendable aspect, though, is the revelation that takes place during the film's final moments: it's not so much a revelation, as it is something that both we (the audience) and the characters had forgotten about. It's one of those moments in which "Oh shit!" will be an inevitable reaction from many a people watching it. And the good thing about it is that it's not used so much for shock value as it is used to give the film the sense of tragic finality it deserved. Any other type of outcome would've been a cop-out.

I'll issue a warning here: the poster for BROTHERHOOD is deceptive. It makes it look like one of those gangster action movies, and that's far from the case, but for my personal taste, I'm glad about that. If anything, BROTHERHOOD is somewhat reminiscent of 2007's (better and more refined) ALPHA DOG, which wasn't so much a movie about young and thuggish gamins as it was a film about letting an issue go way out of proportion and lead to a growing avalanche of problems that would culminate in tragedy. BROTHERHOOD may not be as unsettling or as well-acted, but thanks to a morally interesting plot and to its decision to portray college life in a more serious and authentic light, it easily deserves a passing grade.


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Bridesmaids

Posted : 6 years, 5 months ago on 14 May 2011 03:55 (A review of Bridesmaids)

The folks at the Judd Apatow film factory have, at times, been accused of quasi-sexism. Some feel that the films that have been directed and/or produced by him (KNOCKED UP, I LOVE YOU MAN, FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, to name a few examples) give us male characters who are all goofy and fun, but then they give us female characters who are neurotic and complain all the time. Perhaps as a response to that, the Apatow production clan has come up with BRIDESMAIDS, a film that is all about showing us that girls can also let loose and engage in slapstick humor. While this film is inferior in quality to most of the Apatow-brand comedies (which have ranged from very good to near-great), I'm proud to say that not only is it a mostly effective work of humor, but that it finally gives a chance to Kristen Wiig (who has had some uproariously funny supporting roles in the past) to carry a film in a lead role. The result may not be comedic brilliance, but it's still a worthy ride.

Life is quickly turning very shitty for Annie (Kristen Wiig). Her bakery has gone broke. She's with a guy whom she'd like to at least try dating, but he only wants her for sex, and even rudely asks her to leave once their carnal encounters are over. She's running out of money, and her two apartment mates are being difficult about handling rent payments, and even worse, they go into Annie's room without her permission and read her diary. To make matters more difficult, Annie's best friend, Lill (Maya Rudolph), whom she has known since childhood, announces that she's getting married. This should be good news, except that Annie is worried about losing one of the few good things she has left in her life. Lill asks Annie to be her maid of honor, because, of course, she's supposed to be her best friend. But that, too, falls into question, once the wedding plans get under way, and Lill's new friend Helen (Rose Byrne), who is extremely wealthy and knows everything about planning all sorts of events, not only starts getting in the way of the wedding plans, but also seems to have an agenda aimed at stealing Annie's treasured spot as Lill's best friend. Cattiness ensues.

Ever since the bakery went broke, Annie has been working as an employee at a jewelry store, and there are two scenes that take place at that store in which Wiig gets to be at her most hilarious. Both of them involve Annie being initially "fake nice" to customers who have overly idealistic views about friends and family, yet eventually growing weary and spewing the harsh truth at them. The first scene in which she freaks out a couple is terrific ("He may not even be Asian!") and then the second scene, in which she has a delightfully venomous exchange with a bitchy high-schooler, is sheer brilliance.

But what really shocks me about BRIDESMAIDS is that, as much as I love Wiig and as much as I was looking forward to this film being "her show" so to speak, I have to admit that there is an actress in this film who upstages her. I'm talking about Melissa McCarthy, who plays the role of Lill's future sister-in-law, Megan. This performance is comedic genius. Her first scene, in which she tells the story of falling off a cruise and having an encounter with a dolphin, is absolutely uproarious, and don't even get me started on the airplane sequence. Megan embodies the Apatow trademark of having terrific secondary characters (i.e. Debbie in KNOCKED UP, Aldous Snow in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, the two cops in SUPERBAD). If McCarthy gets her own comedic vehicle in the future, count me in. The fact that she plays such a masterfully zany character in this film, yet we later find out that her character works in an ultra-serious, secretive government job is just damn funny in its great irony.

BRIDESMAIDS has what may be one of the longest sequences ever of scenes shot in the confines of an airplane (without being one of those films that is set mostly on an airplane). There are certainly a few instances in which the film could be criticized for being overlong and in need of trimming some of its fat - it runs over two hours, but if you had cut out a few things here and there, it could've easily been an hour and 40 minutes and just as funny (but then again, one could say that of nearly all of the Apatow clan's movies). However, that criticism doesn't apply to the airplane sequence, because EVERYTHING that happens during it is not only terrific, but it is edited seamlessly well. Wiig shines greatly in her portrayal of initially being paranoid about flying on a plane and then reacting to the effects of mixing prescription drugs and alcohol, while McCarthy never lets the laughs stop as her character interacts with a passenger whom she is convinced is an air marshal. The explosive conclusion of the airplane sequence is terrific, and the film surprised me when it doesn't allow our girls to arrive at their final destination, which was Las Vegas - I was totally expecting that this was going to devolve into a female imitation of THE HANGOVER, and was very pleased when I saw that the film chose to take another route.

Sadly, there are other areas in which the film doesn't fare as well. From the very first moment in which the animosity between Annie and Helen is set up, it feels like a cartoonish rivalry, rather than the more realistic material we've gotten in other Apatow-brand comedies. In one of the film's worst decisions, one of the first interactions between both characters involves a poorly-edited scene in which they purposely injure each other with tennis balls. The comedic timing is off here, and even worse, the scene feels misplaced, almost like it could've been appropriate later on in the film, or simply left on the cutting room floor. The rivalry between these two consists of tacked-on angry stares and forced disagreements. The hostility doesn't feel organic in the least bit. Consider, in contrast, the conflict between the two female characters in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. They were amiable towards each other, as much as you could subtly tell that there was an underlying discomfort, and the cattiness then starts taking place towards the climax, where it fits better, but it never feels like it's forced upon us. In BRIDESMAIDS, we're simply asked to believe that Helen is the villain and that's it. There's an attempt at the end to humanize her, but it involves the usual motions of the villain suddenly having a 180-degree attitude change and becoming a good person all of a sudden. This is too bad, because Rose Byrne is one hell of a terrific dramatic actress (see her in this year's INSIDIOUS), but she's stuck in a one-note villainous role here that doesn't allow her to shine like Kristen Bell did as the titular Sarah Marshall.

The second problem with BRIDESMAIDS is that it chooses to have a romantic subplot in which Annie seems to find potential for love in a nice cop she meets. The problem here is that there's little chemistry between the two lovebirds, and more importantly, this was unnecessary. There was more than enough material with all the wedding-related events, and this just feels like a way of fulfilling the apparent requirement that the lead MUST ALWAYS have a romantic interest in a film, which is clearly not true at all. Finally, my other quibble with the movie is that it does devolve occasionally into that hateful realm known as toilet humor, and I suspect the reason for its doing so is that it wants to say "Hey, look! Women in movies can engage in bodily functions too!" The problem is that I always fail to see the humor in said type of gross-out gags. Bodily functions simply aren't funny, whether they're carried out by a male or a female. I can't help but always get the feeling that they are inserted into movies whenever the filmmakers simply had no idea what else to put in as a joke, and for that, it reeks of laziness to me. I did appreciate the irony of having a group of women trying on bridal dresses and suddenly getting afflicted with food poisoning, because it offers a funny contrast between all the glamour and classiness we're used to seeing in these moments and the grossness that ensues, but it could've definitely been handled more tastefully.

All that aside, though, there's no denying that the majority of BRIDESMAIDS' running time consists of a hefty amount of humor. I still think that Kristen Wiig has the potential to do something extraordinary (in comedy or in drama, or even better, in a mixture of both), and while BRIDESMAIDS may not be at that level, it's definitely a good start. It sucked to see her so frequently relegated to supporting roles in which we couldn't get to see more of her hilarity, so if anything, I hope BRIDESMAIDS will be successful enough that it'll make Wiig a more marketable comedic figure in Hollywood. Melissa McCarthy's hoot of a supporting performance, though, won't soon be forgotten by me. This is the type of actress who can make you laugh even when she's not the center of attention in a scene in which two other people are talking and she's simply reacting to what is taking place.

BRIDESMAIDS may not achieve the above-average level of comedic quality as other films to which Judd Apatow has attached his name, but for those who have enjoyed those other films, there's a lot of that same mixture of humanity and raunchiness to be found here. Oh, and a warning: if you plan to wait for the DVD, make sure you don't confuse this film with BRIDE WARS, unless you're actually interested in a movie that features the same amount of "wedding cattiness" that we get in BRIDESMAIDS, minus the laughs.


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Win Win

Posted : 6 years, 5 months ago on 29 April 2011 04:17 (A review of Win Win)

Three years ago, writer/director Thomas McCarthy gave us an astoundingly terrific drama in THE VISITOR. That film's infinite virtues ranged from the spot-on greatness of Richard Jenkins' lead performance to the film's relentless commitment to realism and to its undoubtedly sharp treatment of the issue of illegal immigration. McCarthy is taking it a little easier with WIN WIN, which is more of a "kitchen sink" drama that doesn't veer too much from indie film conventions, yet manages to have enough of an edge of its own to work.

Mike (Paul Giamatti) lives with his wife Jackie (Amy Ryan) and their two daughters. He works both as a high school wrestling coach and as a lawyer, but things aren't going so well for him. The kids in his wrestling team leave a lot to be desired, and as for his day job, he hasn't had many cases come in, so things are getting tough for him financially. He calls a friend of his who is also a lawyer to see if he can send any cases his way, but no luck. Mike is representing the clearly senile Leo (Burt Young), who has been declared legally incapacitated and needs someone to be his guardian. Turns out that, because Leo has a lot of money, whoever becomes his guardian will get a very nice monetary compensation. Mike gets along well with Leo, and so, he decides to become Leo's guardian; he figures, "hey, it's better than the state taking him, and it'll help me money-wise as well." The problem is, though, that Mike lies to the court, claiming he won't move the old man to a nursing home, but he does it. In other words, he tells the judge that he'll take care of Leo, but he simply just delegates the task to the nursing home, whilst still profiting from being his guardian. But hey, at least he's being more morally virtuous than Leo's good-for-nothing, drug-addicted daughter who isn't even present, right? WIN WIN is interested in dealing with the complexities of that particular question. Things get more complicated upon the arrival of Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who is, indeed, the son of Leo's drug-addicted daughter. Kyle is completely aimless and has nowhere to stay, so Mike and Jackie decide to take him in. Maybe now Mike can morally feel even better about himself, since he's now also taking care of this kid. Or can he? Again, those are the questions WIN WIN chooses to explore.

The reason why I said that WIN WIN hardly veers from indie conventions is partly due to the fact that those of us who watch independent movies on a regular basis already have a good sense of the character arcs that are normally depicted in those films. Inevitably, there's usually an increased amount of quirkiness than what we would see in multiplex fare, but after watching many of them, it's easy for predictability to settle in when an indie film doesn't stray too far from what we expect of it. Every crisis, revelation and moment of redemption in WIN WIN happens exactly at the moment at which you see it coming. The film's ending is particularly wrapped up in an all-too-neat and perfect fashion. I understand the importance of catharsis, but for variety's sake, I feel that movies that have a lot of difficult, dramatic things happen in them should at least leave us with some bitter aftertaste once they're done. In fact, a great example of this is the emotionally devastating ending of THE VISITOR. A more specific criticism that can be made of WIN WIN in the conventionality department has to do with the scenes in which wrestling matches take place: there isn't a single moment in this film in which you'll incorrectly predict whether someone will win or lose a wrestling match. You'll be right every time - I guarantee it.

But despite the fact that WIN WIN won't surprise you very much, there's no denying the richness of the moral complexities at work here. Kyle turns out to be an amazing wrestler, and is quickly put on Mike's team, of course, and one of the interesting aspects that emerges here is that there's a sense that Mike, a middle-aged guy, feels inferior to Kyle, a teenager, because it feels like Kyle is so much more of an accomplished and successful overall person. There's one particularly good scene in which Mike asks Kyle, "What's it like to be as good as you?" He asks it in a light-hearted tone, but we can obviously tell what the subtext is here. The film recognizes something that a lot of other films (and people too) don't want to accept: that it's possible for someone young to be a lot wiser than someone older because of the experiences that he/she has. Wisdom and experience aren't measured by the number of years we've lived, but by what we've done with them. But of course, I'd never dare tell this to an older person, because they'll simply give me a lecture on how I'm young and stupid. :) The fact that WIN WIN isn't afraid to consider this possibility is highly commendable.

Of course, like I said, the meatiest aspect of the plot has to do with Mike's morally dubious approach to what he's doing with Leo and Kyle. This becomes more palpable when, as you surely expected, Leo's trouble-making daughter Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) shows up in the film's second half, ostensibly looking to take care of both her father and her son. Was it so bad that Mike chose to put Leo in a nursing home and decided to take the money for himself? After all, Leo was probably in better hands there than in the state's hands, or God forbid, in Cindy's hands. Did Mike make up for what he did to Leo by taking Kyle into his house and giving him shelter and food and a loving family? I'm presenting these aspects of the plot as questions, which may seem awkward for a review, but I'm doing it because I think it's the most effective way of preparing you for the thematically interesting film you're in store for if you go see WIN WIN. It's easily the type of movie that may lead you to a debate with others who have also seen it.

While WIN WIN's structure is too faithful to the indie film formula, and while it differs from THE VISITOR in that it doesn't touch on any hot-button sociopolitical issues nor does it have any stand-out performances, the picture's dramatic complexity is hard to ignore. With an upcoming summer blockbuster season that'll clearly relish loud noises and superhero costumes over brains and emotions, it's important to know that alternatives like WIN WIN will still come around occasionally. I can't call the film an absolute winner, but at the very least, it's a solid bet.


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Hanna

Posted : 6 years, 5 months ago on 29 April 2011 03:22 (A review of Hanna)

The title character is one heck of a viciously deadly weapon. She may be a teenaged girl, but her agility and attack skills are nothing short of astounding. However, much like the film that tells her story, she's not perfect. In fact, on more than one occasion during the film, Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) says "Just missed your heart," after having attempted to kill a target yet just barely missing that pivotal organ. Interestingly enough, that line can easily be applied to the film's quality: it JUST misses its heart. There are times at which the film comes close to having one, but there's never enough back-story or character evolution in order for that to happen. If you're perfectly happy with watching a crisp, stylish, entertaining action film with a few impressive performances, you'll likely think HANNA is a great movie. But if you're more of a nitpicker like me and you like to be able to feel something other than the excitement of the action sequences, then you'll think HANNA deserves only the mild recommendation that I'm choosing to give it here.

The opening scenes manage to be both intriguing and mechanical at the same time. The young girl is living in the woods with Erik (Eric Bana), who has apparently given her all the physical and mental training she needs to become a deadly attack viper. On the one hand, these scenes work because it's easy to become interested in finding out why this girl is leading such a different life than most other people her age, but at the same time, much like the place in which these scenes are set in, it all feels very cold and detached. Of course, though, one hopes that, after the first 15 minutes or so, we'll finally start getting some emotional meat here. The answer is that we KIND OF get it, but it's more like we get scraps of it, rather than the full dish that we deserve.

A big part of why things get a lot better after HANNA's opening sequence has to do with Cate Blanchett's pure delight of a villainous performance. In case you've been hiding out in a forest your entire life and didn't know this, this is an actress who loses herself in every role, and the results of that here are terrific. We find out that Blanchett's character, Marissa, was responsible for killing Hanna's mother, which is why Hanna has now been unleashed into the civilized world: to find the evil witch and kill her. One of the best aspects of HANNA comes about when the title character meets up with a family of four and develops a special friendship with Sophie (Jessica Barden), a girl who, despite being Hanna's age, couldn't be more different from our heroine. Sophie's first remarks to Hanna (which involve a comparison between Hanna and singer MIA) are absolutely hilarious, and starting at that point, we already know that this will be a terrific secondary character. The relationship between Hanna and Sophie eventually veers into something you may or may not expect during a particularly tender scene that turns out to be one of the film's better moments.

But Blanchett is still the biggest attraction here. There is an excellently edited sequence in which her character, a cunning CIA agent, is interrogating several people separately. The greatness of this sequence is due to how Marissa changes her attitudes and her questioning approaches depending on who she's talking to. Pure wickedness has never been more enjoyable than when we watch her manipulate a young boy into giving her the information she needs.

One of the reasons why HANNA is a generally effective film is, of course, the "fish out of water" element. Hanna lived secluded in the forest her entire young life, and is now being exposed to an entirely new world. This becomes palpable when she starts interacting with Sophie and the rest of her family (and the disorientation from both sides as they get to know each other is handled very nicely and often even humorously). But there's a great moment early on in the film that ONLY Hanna is involved in, and it takes place when she enters a motel room and is suddenly completely confused by all the electronics: she's put off by the tea kettle, she tries using the remote control to turn off a fan, etc. This is an excellent way of depicting just how different our world is from that of people who live completely shut off from it... and, well, I WOULD praise this element of the film more if it weren't for a tragic inconsistency towards the end, which involves Hanna suddenly being capable of working with a computer and performing an Internet search. Some plot holes are forgivable, but I find this one to be way too significant.

As I said, and as I'm sure you expect, the action sequences are pretty cool, though you shouldn't expect anything of KILL BILL caliber, or even anything as terrific as what Hit Girl accomplished when she kicked ass last year. The film's score is constantly good and occasionally great during the action scenes. One side note, though, is that I find it kind of ridiculous that, when people usually review films and comment on the musical score, they just talk about the score and move on without mentioning who is responsible for it, because, well, it's usually just a boring name. But since people think the name of the team responsible for HANNA's score is "cool" or whatever, there's a spree of reviews that have decided to mention them, and I would bet all the money I have that a bunch of people who are mentioning the team's name hadn't even heard of that musical duo before they checked HANNA's credits. So, as a form of rebellion and to criticize those who have done this, I will NOT be mentioning the name here, but I'll still recognize that their contribution to some of HANNA's scenes is at times pretty terrific. My point is... please give EQUAL credit to everyone, even if their name is as boring as, well, John Williams.

This is the second time that young actress Saoirse Ronan is paired up with director Joe Wright. There's no doubt that ATONEMENT and HANNA aren't really comparable films, since they're so different, but there's no doubt about the effectiveness of this pair. Ronan has an unmistakably tough task being on screen during most of the running time, and while she may not be as searing here as she was in her Oscar-nominated turn in ATONEMENT's first act, she's still very good. One quibble I did have while watching HANNA is that the camera is awfully obsessed with Ronan's piercing blue eyes - as effective as it may be to have a few close-ups of her eyes, it eventually gets tiring and repetitive, because there are too many of them. But that's not Ronan's fault. Like I said, though, the big slice of the acting praise here definitely goes to Blanchett, who gives a teeth-chattering performance. Oh, and speaking of teeth... well... I won't spoil it for you. :)

HANNA may not be the ravishing cinematic accomplishment that ATONEMENT was, but then again, it never really intends to be. It takes advantage of the apparent obsession (and fetish for some, I suspect) of watching young girls violently kick ass on screen, but it milks that obsession effectively, without ever entering gratuitous territory. The film's lackings in the "heart" department may keep it from being more than just good, but for those who don't mind that all too much, this should prove an entertaining ride.


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Super

Posted : 6 years, 6 months ago on 19 April 2011 11:58 (A review of Super)

Thank God for Ellen Page. If it weren't for her presence in SUPER (a film with virtually nothing "super" about it, aside from Page's uproarious supporting performance), the film would border on being terrible. But thanks to the fact that she was cast, this cinematic experience is slightly easier to endure, though I still struggle to recommend it.

If you're one of the people who saw last year's KICK-ASS and were put off by the film's "awkward" shifts in tone, you're in for some seriously worse disorientation with SUPER. You see, I absolutely adored KICK-ASS - yes, its tonality is a little wayward, but one thing we should understand is that it's FINE for a film to shift tones as long as it knows what the right MOMENTS are to do so. In my opinion, KICK-ASS knew exactly when and how to shift tones, whereas the poorly-edited SUPER suffers from an identity crisis that will prove annoying more than anything else for the viewer.

The plot is very simple: Frank (Rainn Wilson) lives with his girlfriend Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering alcoholic/drug addict. Unfortunately, it seems Sarah is induced to a relapse by Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a thug who, backed up by a couple of subordinates, kidnaps a drugged Sarah, leaving Frank alone and disheartened in his house. The film wants us to believe that these events lead Frank to suddenly become angry at how unfair the world is, and thus, decide to become a superhero. I'll admit there's very little in these opening scenes that make this sudden conviction believable, but alas, this is the synopsis, and I'm supposed to tell you what it's all about. Soon, Frank designs a costume and becomes The Crimson Bolt. He goes to a comic book store to gather information on other superheroes, and there he meets the effervescently geeky Libby (Ellen Page), who knows everything there is to know about superheroes. Once Libby finds out that Frank is out there fighting crime, her immediate wish is to become his "kid sidekick" in order to go on those adventures with him.

When films fail in their set-up, there's usually very little hope in what comes after it, unless something in the later scenes really wows you to no end. A film with a plot like SUPER's needs to do a good job of getting us to care about the lead, particularly in those initial scenes in which he goes out, dressed in a costume, and starts attempting to fight street thugs. But SUPER doesn't accomplish this, because it doesn't know how to display its protagonist: the film doesn't know whether he's got the strength to battle the baddies out there, seeing as all we get here are inconsistent scenes that never tell us much about The Crimson Bolt's abilities (or lack of them). The haphazard editing certainly doesn't help.

Suddenly, we get what seems like glorious reprieve from the mediocrity, once Libby takes on the identity of "Boltie" (a truly awesome name, by the way) and starts working as Frank's "kid sidekick". During most of the scenes that Libby/Boltie takes part in, pure hilarity dominates the screen. You see, this girl is so comically clueless that, whenever she attacks someone (innocent or not), she starts cracking up. And by that, I don't mean she chuckles at her victims; I mean that she goes "HA HA HA HA!!! That's internal bleeding for you!" Page is a total hoot in this film. The fact that the only good material that SUPER has to offer is related to her character is even reflected in Libby's ultimate fate in the film, which is very much unconventional and not something I was expecting.

Those good points aside, though, SUPER is an aimless film that has no interest in developing a discernible protagonist, which would've certainly made us much more interested in rooting for him in his mission to get his girlfriend back. There's a religious overtone that is meant to serve as Frank's motivation for doing what he does, but the religious aspect of the film is muddled at best. At certain moments, there was a part of me that thought it was an interesting contrast to have Frank's inclinations be based on following Jesus, yet for Frank's actions to be so intensely violent. Unfortunately, when we we come to the film's final 5 minutes or so (which are definitely the worst part of the movie), SUPER has the gall to wrap everything up into a nice little happy package in which, suddenly, our hero's ultra-violent acts all turn out to have been for an unexpectedly generous cause. This just smells of "Oh wait, wait, let's add this at the end, so we can at least give people some closure and a happy ending." I don't get too upset when, say, romantic comedies have an ending that makes all the problems go away and ties everything up real cutely (since it's the formula and all), but when a film that SUPPOSEDLY relishes dark humor and no-holds-barred violence suddenly tries to give an altruistic twist to its motivations, there's plenty of reason to feel cheated. In SUPER, the ending is too forced to make it seem like "at least all the bad stuff amounted to something good." This is yet another example of American filmmaking not having the balls to do something FULLY DARK when working with dark material.

Oh, I will say, though, that SUPER is probably the closest we'll ever get to seeing an American film depict a woman raping a man. I wish that that scene's daring nature on its own would be sufficient for me to give SUPER a higher rating, but there's no avoiding what a weak overall film this is. KICK-ASS was a fully-formed, completely enjoyable film that knew when to be funny and when to be dramatic, and more importantly, it knew when to parody the superhero genre and when to be its own movie. SUPER doesn't know when to do any of those things, and to make matters worse, it plagiarizes the line "How come no one's ever tried to be a superhero?" Sure, it's a generic enough line, and the two films do cover a similar plot, but there's such a thing as paraphrasing. Then again, SUPER is so confused on its own about what it wants to be, that its makers probably didn't even notice that they accidentally used the same line. It's too bad. On the flip side, though, if they ever make "Boltie: The Movie", I'll be the first in line.


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Scream 4

Posted : 6 years, 6 months ago on 15 April 2011 02:44 (A review of Scream 4)

"One generation's tragedy is another generation's joke."

I should give some context here before I start talking about how much I loved SCREAM 4. What I'm about to say will sound cliche, but in this case, it's also absolutely true: I literally grew up with the SCREAM movies. Now that I reflect on it, I seriously believe that the SCREAM movies were the initial spark that led me to develop the love that I have for film. And it's not even because I like horror movies that much. To be honest, in the years between the last SCREAM movie and this new one that's just coming out, the horror/slasher genre has been in an AWFUL, AWFUL stage. People say that what makes the SCREAM movies better is that they offer all the tension and thrills of horror movies while at the same time poking fun at the genre - and they're right. But there's one other key element: the SCREAM movies also feature well-conceived dramatic scenes and character development. They give us characters who are not ONLY worried about whether or not they're gonna get killed next. They are people who have issues we might be able to, if not relate to, at least understand. This franchise has living, breathing characters (well, you know, at least until their time comes), and I think THAT is really the reason why these films have been so influential on my appreciation for movies: they combine horror thrills with witty quips about the rules of the genre AND the dramatic aspect is competently handled, rather than completely eschewed (as is the case with all the other gorefest fare that multiplexes tend to offer).

The first two SCREAM movies epitomize what I described in the above paragraph. As the heroine, Sidney becomes a character we root for, not just because she's "supposed" to be the one who always survives the carnage, but because of the back story involving the murder of her mother (an event that had already taken place before the first movie even began), which gives everything much more emotional heft and complexity. SCREAM 3 gets a really bad rap, and to a certain point, I understand it - there are times at which the movie descends into being totally ridiculous and falls into the same horror movie trappings at which the first two films aimed their satirical arrows. But I didn't think SCREAM 3 was a bad film at all: it had moments in which it recreated events of the first film (which would inevitably make those of us who had seen the first film a thousand times get nostalgic) and it had some nice commentary on how the Hollywood industry works and how the life of actresses is sometimes not as glamorous as you'd think. To give you an idea, I gave an 8/10 (which means "extremely good" in my rating scale) to the first two films in the franchise, and I gave a 6/10 (which means "good" in my scale) to the third film. I'm overjoyed, thrilled and uber-excited to inform you that, thanks in large part to the return of screenwriter Kevin Williamson (who penned the first two movies), SCREAM 4 is an absolute hoot that falls squarely on the same quality level as its first two predecessors. The film manages what seemed impossible: it retains the edgy and satirical spirit that always characterized the franchise, but it's nicely updated for our generation. People who weren't born when the first film came out should have no trouble loving the ride that SCREAM 4 has to offer. The film is a supremely delightful mixture of horror and black comedy.

AN IMPORTANT NOTE: As you hopefully know, one of the staples of the SCREAM movies is the mystery as to who the killer(s) is/are, which is, unfortunately, something we hardly see done by any of the stale horror films that typically get released. Because of that, this review won't contain spoilers... until the VERY END, but I'll leave plenty of space in between, and give you a fair warning so that you don't scroll down and accidentally read it. Considering my love for this franchise, it'd be really difficult for me to feel like I wrote a complete review without commenting on the ultimate twists and revelations of SCREAM 4.

I'll give an overview of the events of the first three movies, and then do a quick synopsis for this one. In the first film, we met high school student Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who was living in a quiet California town called Woodsboro. We were soon told that, a year prior to the events of the film, Sidney's mother was brutally murdered. A man is sitting on death row for the crime, though reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) is highly suspicious that the man was framed and that the real killer is still out there. Suddenly, people close to Sidney start getting killed viciously, and Sidney eventually becomes the main target of the perpetrator. At the end of the film, Sidney discovers that her mother's REAL killer, and the person who has been murdering all these other people, was her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich). It turns out that Sidney's mother was the resident "town slut" and one of the people she had sex with was Billy's father, which led to the break-up of Billy's family, thus causing him to go insane and murder Sidney's mother and go on this murderous rampage. With the help of Gale and town Deputy Dewey Riley (David Arquette), Sidney is ultimately able to kill Billy and survive the first film's killing spree. In the second film, Sidney's off to college, and a movie version of the events of the first film is being shown in theaters. As soon as the movie comes out, a similar killing spree starts occurring, and once again, Sidney, Gale and Dewey are caught in the midst of it trying to discover who the killer is. Ultimately, it turns out that it was Billy's mother, who was out to avenge her son. The trio manages to survive that second film as well. In the third film, the events take place mostly on a movie set in which they're continuing to make movies about the trio's bloody saga, and again, REAL murders start unfolding. At the end of that third film, we find out that Sidney's mother had appeared in a few minor roles in horror films, and that she had been just as slutty during her time in Hollywood. The killer turns out to be a film director, who reveals himself to be Sidney's half-brother, a bastard child of one of their mother's sexual ventures. Again, the trio of Sidney, Dewey and Gale survives.

And now, eleven years later, we come to SCREAM 4. Sidney is back in Woodsboro, because she's on a book tour. She has published a book titled "Out of Darkness" in which she basically explains how she has dealt with surviving such macabre circumstances and losing so many people who were close to her. Dewey is now the town sheriff, and Gale is married to him - she's frustrated because she misses her reporting days, considering that she lives in a boring town in which nothing happens - but that will soon change. Sidney still has some family in Woodsboro: her aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell) and her cousin Jill (Emma Roberts). The group of people who will be our group of suspects (or if not, then potential victims, of course) includes Jill's ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella), her two best friends, Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), and the two resident "movie geeks" of the group: Charlie (Rory Culkin) and Robbie (Erik Knudsen). Of course, another murderous rampage starts taking place, with the trio of Sidney, Dewey and Gale placed squarely as the killer's main targets.

One of the great, fun things that the SCREAM movies have often done is play with the whole "movie within a movie" technique. Something to that effect is done here during SCREAM 4's opening sequence and the results are terrific (oh, and it features a hilarious cameo by Kristen Bell). All three prior SCREAM movies began with a sequence in which two people get killed - SCREAM 4 manages to "mess around" with our expectation that that'll happen yet again here, yet it still stays TRUE to the expectation. Come to think of it, that's basically what we can say about the entire film: one of the reasons why it is so brilliant is that it gives us some nice 21st century twists and turns, yet it never wavers from the spirit of its predecessors. In particular, for those of us who loved the very FIRST film, there are plenty of Easter eggs: from the garage scene at the beginning, to the house (and room) that so closely resembles where Sidney dwelled in the first movie, to the kitchen in the final showdown, in which, um, other aspects of the first film come into play (but that'd get me into spoiler territory).

One of the first lines in SCREAM 4 is "This isn't a comedy; it's a horror movie." I'm not sure I agree - I think it's both. More importantly, people should learn to understand that that's actually a GREAT thing. First of all, it sucks when movies limit themselves to the categories they've been boxed in, and second of all, when a movie of ANY genre is capable of having light-hearted humor, that's almost always a good thing. And it's an extremely good thing in SCREAM 4. The humor here is hip to the max - I can't wait to see the film on DVD with subtitles to catch all of it. The character of Gale brings all the sass and pizzazz that she'd given us in the past (she even triumphantly remarks "I still got it!" at one point), and in a hilarious instance of dialogue, when Dewey refuses to let her in on the investigation, she says "I'm going rogue!". I nearly died laughing (and there's a part of me that perversely hopes Sarah Palin watches the film). But of course, the signature humor of the SCREAM movies is in how they satirize the horror genre, and that's no exception in this fourth entry. Like I said, the movie stays close to the original spirit of the franchise while updating for the new generation, so its commentary now is on reboots and remakes and on the obsession with FILMING events in all their gory detail (and then uploading them, of course). Towards the final act of the film, there's a an ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIC moment that combines tension and humor, when one character is on the phone with the killer, and the killer is asking the character a movie trivia question, "Name the remake...", but before the killer can finish the question, the character starts naming EVERY horror remake that has ever been done. The brilliance here lies in the amount of things that are COMBINED here: we have the tension over what this character's ultimate fate will be, the great humor involved in the fact that the character lists every remake out there, and then the satirical jab at the state the horror genre is currently in, with its massive overload of unoriginal, derivative remakes. This is as close as you can get to having an orgasmic movie moment. For those of us who cherish the SCREAM franchise and who are disenchanted with what horror movies have become in the years between SCREAM 3 and SCREAM 4, this moment (and the film as a whole) offers tons of cynical satisfaction. I dare you not to love it.

Another thing that the SCREAM movies always offer and that SCREAM 4 doesn't fall short on at all is in having a great, intense final showdown, in which not only is the identity of the killer(s) revealed, but also, we find out the motivations for why he/she/they went on the killing spree. This will amaze many who are used to seeing cardboard villains in slasher movies, but the SCREAM films have never featured a villain who is simply one-dimensionally evil, who kills just for the sake of killing. There's always a reason. I won't get into the details till the spoilers section, but I will say here that, once again, this aspect of the film is nothing short of triumphant, because it continues with that spirit of staying true to the way the original films' final acts unfolded, but giving it a 21st century update: in this case, the killer(s)'s motivations have a lot to do with the current craze for documenting everything on video and for the desire to be the center of attention. The film makes some incisive commentary here about what one needs (and doesn't need) to do in order to achieve fame. If, for just one second, you could stop thinking about the fact that this is a horror film, and you could consider the message the film is delivering here, you'll see how ingenious it is. "You don't have to work hard today to be famous. You just have to be a fuck-up." Why do you think Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian get higher TV ratings than President Obama? The fact that SCREAM 4 offers a sardonic, intelligent and spot-on answer to this question in what is revealed at the end makes it infinitely better than the dross of uninspired films (horror or not) that get put out in multiplexes.

Alas, the SCREAM franchise has always been afflicted by a flaw or two. There are problems with SCREAM 4, but the good thing is that they are ALL related to only one character: Jill's boyfriend Trevor, played here by Nico Tortorella. The problems are the following:

1) Tortorella gives an awful performance. He's wildly miscast.

2) While the SCREAM franchise normally tries to make MORE THAN ONE person out to be very suspicious, SCREAM 4 seems to be particularly obsessed with making THIS character the lone suspect. This isn't a spoiler, because it's something you'll notice early on in the film, and also, I haven't revealed whether he's the killer or not: I just said the film tries super hard to make us think he is, even lingering on his face longer than it should in several scenes, having him "suddenly appear" at key moments, and even showing his reactions at a film club meeting while other people are talking about what the killer should be doing.

3) The character is not developed at all. The problem here is that, right when the film BEGINS, Trevor and Jill have already broken up, so we don't even get a chance to see what's going on emotionally between them. The film wanted to establish a parallelism between Trevor and Billy (Sidney's boyfriend in the first film), but since Trevor isn't fleshed-out at all during the movie, it's impossible for that to happen.

Thankfully, though, Trevor is the ONLY character in the film with whom I have reservations. As the "scream queen" and the heroine, Neve Campbell proves once again that she's a terrific actress. I'm incredibly curious as to why she's hardly gotten any work ever since the former SCREAM movies. She must not be very lucky out there, because she's 100 times better than the actresses who normally populate horror movies. David Arquette isn't playing the hilarious, bumbling idiot that he played in the first few movies (but don't worry, there's someone to replace him in that role), but he still gives a good performance here. I was overjoyed by the fact that Courteney Cox got to play Gale's bitchiness to a "t" once again. Her interactions with the group's resident "film buffs" in which she's uber-rude and orders them around are magnificent and totally reminiscent of the way she'd yell at her cameramen back when she was a reporter in the first three films. If there's one thing we know for sure by the end of SCREAM 4, it's that screenwriter Kevin Williamson loves these three characters. I love them, too, and I'm incredibly glad that, eleven years later, I get to see them again and that they haven't been altered or dumbed down for the benefit of modern-generation audiences. It's for that reason, and for how resolutely committed the film is to blending unrelenting tension with delightful wit that SCREAM 4 offers a wallop of cinematic brilliance and unabashed entertainment.


AND NOW...


WARNING....



SPOILERS BELOW....



DON'T KEEP READING IF YOU DON'T KNOW THE IDENTITY OF THE KILLER AND YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW IT (and seriously, if you don't know it, you should just go see it - what pleasure can there be in getting spoiled?)



OKAY, YOU'VE BEEN WARNED....



One of the fears I had with SCREAM 4 was that I knew that I was gonna have to stay off looking it up on the Internet as much as possible. Things have changed a lot since the last SCREAM. One Twitter update, one comment on a YouTube video, and the surprise is ruined. I'm glad that I managed to avoid the spoilers and that I went into the film with no information on who the killers were.

Film geek Charlie (Rory Culkin) and, much to my surprise, Sidney's cousin Jill (Emma Roberts) turn out to be the people behind the bloodshed in SCREAM 4, and this is where you have to praise the casting people. You see, considering the message that SCREAM 4 ultimately wishes to deliver, the killers HAD to be young. They had to be high school kids. Heck, I was 11 when the first SCREAM came out - these two actors are even younger than I am. I've known that Rory Culkin is terrific, but I never knew that he had the psycho thing in him. Alas, he proves he's got it here. Despite the suspiciously long mane of hair, I don't think he's ever TOO much of a big suspect throughout the film, and he deserves credit for that. Of course, though we usually see two people working together as the killers in the SCREAM movies, it's always ONE of them that is the more cold-hearted one, the one with motives that are less blood-thirsty and, well, more "rational". That job is given here to the petite Emma Roberts, who is easily the most innocent-looking person to EVER play a killer in the SCREAM movies. I have to admit, though, that a few seconds before she removed her mask, I figured out it was her because 1) she was the only person alive in the house who wasn't anywhere to be seen at that particular moment, and 2) the person wearing the costume just seemed awfully small. I recently saw Roberts in IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, and wow - not the type of person you'd expect to be the killer, but that's, of course, a good thing.

The super intense final act of SCREAM 4 starts out at a house, and the signature showdown between Sidney and the killers takes place in a kitchen similar to the one where the showdown occurred in the first SCREAM. What I LOVED here is that, in all THREE of the first films, you always had the killer explain how he/she plans on killing Sidney AND getting away with it, in order to end up looking like the lone innocent survivor... and the same happens in SCREAM 4, but with a great twist, because for once, we move beyond that final showdown and, for a second, it even seems like the killer may very well succeed in what she wants to do.

There was something that was initially off-putting to me about the fact that Jill was one of the killers, but it eventually started to make sense. I thought it was just incredibly sad and heart-breaking that Kate (Sidney's aunt and Jill's mother) actually got killed, and then when Jill is revealed as one of the culprits, I thought "Wow. That's pretty awful." But then, Jill delivers a line that not only offers an explanation but that also fits in well with the message the movie ultimately wants to deliver: "I mean, jeez, even my mom had to die, no big loss there, to make it all look exactly like the events of the first movie." When Jill displays indifference towards her mother, and she later says "Ugh, what am I supposed to do: go to college, grad school, WORK?!", then comments on how she decided to videotape everything "because no one reads anymore," and finally says that the way to become famous is by being a fuck-up, the film's critical commentary on today's youth couldn't be more obvious. And jeez, I'm 25, and I say "today's youth" like I'm this super old person, but in a way it's true, considering how quickly things have progressed and with how much the YouTube generation has devolved into a generation of people who just don't TALK to each other and hardly have any emotional exchange with one another. In this respect, one could almost view SCREAM 4 as a violent cousin to THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Its insight into our current generation is pure genius. The film manages to offer said insight while continuing to satisfy those of us who grew up with the first films and absolutely loved them for their masterful combination or horror and comedy, with terrific and unforgettable characters to boot. Regardless of whether or not I'm biased by the fact that I grew up with these movies and that they were such an influential part in how I started to develop a love for the film medium, there's no escaping the fact that it's the first 2011 film to which I can give a supremely enthusiastic recommendation.


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Source Code

Posted : 6 years, 6 months ago on 1 April 2011 01:58 (A review of Source Code)

It's easy to wonder whether or not INCEPTION was an even more influential film than some of us may have expected it to be, with recent 2011 releases like THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU and now SOURCE CODE dabbling so much in the idea of alternate realities/universes. Of course, while INCEPTION was mind-bending and ultimately ambiguous, these two early 2011 releases are happy to inform you exactly what their ideas on the subject are, and both films have a particularly optimistic outlook. I'm happy to report, though, that SOURCE CODE is a better film than THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU. It's nowhere near as ponderous, its script doesn't contain any lines that teeter on the ridiculous, it treats the political realm more intelligently, and its romantic plot is developed subtly enough that we can actually believe it.

Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a military officer who's supposed to be stationed in Afghanistan... except that's not what he's doing when we first see him. He wakes up on a train, completely disoriented, having no idea where he is, and being addressed as "Sean" by this girl he's never seen before, though from the casual way she talks to him, you'd swear that they really do know each other. Before Colter is able to figure anything out about what is happening to him, the train explodes with everyone in it. Suddenly, we see Colter in a capsule of sorts, and he starts communicating through a screen with another military officer, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who explains what is happening to him. It turns out that the train explosion that Colter was just a part of was an event that actually already happened earlier this morning. Through a "source code" that transcends the time continuum, they've managed to place Colter inside the body of Sean, one of the victims of the explosion. They're doing this because they want Colter to discover who bombed the train, NOT because they want Colter to undo the explosion (as that event is already in the past and cannot be changed), but because they suspect that the same terrorist is going to blow up downtown Chicago. Naturally, it takes a while for Colter to process all of this and to even believe it, let alone start thinking about what strategy to use to discover who the bomber is. With the "source code," Goodwin is able to repeatedly send Colter back into the train for the 8 minutes prior to the explosion, so he can use the time he gets in each attempt to discover the culprit's identity.

One of the most interesting aspects of SOURCE CODE is the fact that, as much as Colter eventually believes in the reality of the mission he is carrying out, he can't help being struck by how vivid what he witnesses on the train is, particularly when he is chatted up by Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the cheery girl who addresses him as Sean. And shock of all shocks, the interactions between these two characters are far from conventional. You'd expect that Christina is Sean's girlfriend, and that that will, of course, up the stakes and become an obstacle for Colter each time he enters the source code, but that's not the case because SOURCE CODE never resorts to easy ways of manipulating its audience. It's a better film than that. It seems that Sean and Christina had more of a quasi-friendship/quasi-flirtatious relationship, which makes the dialogue between these two characters a lot more interesting. Of course, the hindrance for Colter becomes the fact that he's not inhabiting the body of a passenger who's alone on the train, so he has to work his way around Christina as he tries to sniff out who planted the bomb.

The trailer for SOURCE CODE may turn you off because, since it looks like the movie is all about some guy who gets dozens of chances to carry out a task over and over again, you may think that this is one of those movies in which you're constantly watching the same events take place, but that's far from the case. Colter takes on different strategies on each attempt, some of which even involve getting off the train with Christina at times. The film isn't as action-based as you may think. It's more of a sci-fi movie with a mystery element to it (which will make sense to you if you've seen 2009's MOON and you're aware that this film is helmed by the same director). Admittedly, though, the "mystery element" in SOURCE CODE isn't played to much effect. Initially, it looks like the film was gonna be this cool, whodunit thriller in which you're wondering which one of the people sitting on the train is the culprit, but the film isn't really interested in startling revelations like that. It cares more about challenging you to consider what your opinion is on whether or not alternate universes exist, and to marvel at the possibility of transcending the time continuum to change certain events.

This review won't feature any spoilers, but suffice it to say that during the final 20 minutes of SOURCE CODE, the film makes its theory on those complicated subjects VERY clear. There's no room for ambiguity here (like there was in INCEPTION). I don't have a problem with a movie having a firm position on the subject it presents, but my objection here is that the film's final moments are awfully pretty and idyllic. The other issue to be had with the film is that, in an obviously forced attempt to MAKE SURE that we care about our lead character, it inserts the cliche of the strained father-son relationship. The film does such a good job at giving emotional resonance to the plight Colter faces as he struggles to carry out his mission and as he battles with the feelings he starts to have for Christina, that we certainly didn't need this, especially when it's such a conventional plot point that has been used in SO many films that feature "army guys."

Aside from its ideas on parallel universes, SOURCE CODE takes a decent amount of political jabs (at least roughly the same amount that most American films seem to take these days). The film's unique plot makes it easy for it to say an interesting thing or two about the view of soldiers as "disposable" pieces of meat that are used by the government in whatever way it sees fit. To make the criticism even sharper, the film even alludes to the possibility that some entities may view certain tragedies (like the train explosion featured repeatedly on the film) as something HELPFUL, as a stepping stone to further other interests. For its boldness to at least delve into such hot-button subjects, the film certainly deserves credit.

While I don't think the film is confounding in the least bit (in fact, it's pretty straightforward and easy to follow), I AM a little curious as to why its great cast isn't exploited as well as it should've been. Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan and Vera Farmiga have ALL given terrific performances elsewhere (see BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, GONE BABY GONE and NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH, respectively), yet their performances in SOURCE CODE are merely fine. Gyllenhaal is solid being on-screen during most of the film's running time (though I can't help but remember that he played a soldier before in JARHEAD, and was more impressive there). Monaghan doesn't have much to do except smile at first and then be confused later, while Farmiga's character goes from stern to resolute without making much of an impression.

Though you may not spend hours arguing with your friends (or on IMDB message boards) about SOURCE CODE like you did after watching INCEPTION, the film is definitely interesting in its own right. It may be a lot more mainstream than MOON, but the focus on exploring a controversial, politically "hot" subject through the filter of science fiction works just as effectively here. Rather than being a movie you'll debate with your friends, it may just be the type of movie that you'll debate with yourself, as you wonder all the ways in which your life would be different if you moved back to x point in time and changed something you did, and wonder if maybe there's another "you" out there who is living that other possibility. If a film manages to make me think about ideas like that, and it does so without blowing it all out of proportion, and without resorting to cheap tricks, it's not hard at all to recommend it.


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Paul

Posted : 6 years, 7 months ago on 20 March 2011 10:30 (A review of Paul)

The ad campaign for PAUL has wittily informed us that this film was directed by "the earthling who brought you SUPERBAD," Greg Mottola. Of course, since PAUL is largely a comedy, there won't be a single ad that'll allude to the director's more recent cinematic offering, the amazingly delightful ADVENTURELAND, because studio heads won't want you to think "No way, man, I'm not gonna go see a movie that's supposed to be funny and then isn't." Much to my huge chagrin, ADVENTURELAND was sold as a comedy, which led the mainstream audience to say "Meh" and move on after seeing it, leaving the rest of us who want unconventional and emotionally-intelligent dramas as the only people who could appreciate it. The good news is that the ads for PAUL aren't as misleading. Because it's a comedy, it makes sense to identify it as being from the director of SUPERBAD. The big question I had before watching PAUL, though, was whether Mottola would do what I begged him to do a little over a year ago. When I compiled my top 10 list for 2009 and cited ADVENTURELAND for its endearing nature and for catering to those of us who prefer movies that are more heartfelt and honest, I made reference to something Mottola said in the audio commentary for the film: "I didn't want this film to be 'cool'. This is for the 'uncool' people. We need something, too." After quoting that, I begged Mottola to continue that approach and not let studio heads tweak his films in order to satisfy mainstream audiences instead. So, has Mottola continued his goal of satisfying us "uncool" people with his most recent film? Sort of. The movie is decidedly aimed at sci-fi geeks, but the humor is broad enough that it'll satisfy others who won't get all of the dozens upon dozens of references to certain films and TV shows. The result is a film that's worth seeing, despite not reaching the level of comedic brilliance of SUPERBAD nor the dramatic greatness of ADVENTURELAND.

Clive (Nick Frost) and Graeme (Simon Pegg) are a pair of British guys who have just arrived in the U.S., and they basically pee their pants as soon as they arrive at Comic-con, which is the first part of their trip. The second part of their trip consists of visiting places where aliens have supposedly been seen. But the "supposedly" in that sentence becomes an unnecessary caveat, because Clive and Graeme soon have, um, an encounter... with Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), who looks exactly like every picture of an alien you've ever seen (we're later told why he does). The apparently defenseless creature is being tracked down by government agents, and begs the two guys to let him tag along in their RV, so that he can hide with them. The trio is eventually joined by the ultra-religious Ruth (Kristen Wiig) who initially thinks Paul is a demon.

Road trip hilarity ensues, mostly because, despite being an alien, the title character expresses himself like a regular human - and by that, I mean that he curses a lot, has fits of anger and makes raunchy sexual references. This is where we see the difference between what could've been a lame and uninspired PG-13 film, and the hard R we get here. The irreverent humor spewed by Paul is constantly good, and occasionally great. One of the biggest compliments I can give PAUL is that, despite having its share of obscure references that only some will notice, it has its share of broad ones that I'm sure 98% of people will get. In a conversation between the two villains who are tracking Paul down (Jason Bateman and Sigourney Weaver, both terrific in this movie), one of them worriedly says "The little fucker might've phoned home!" It's hard to imagine anyone not recognizing that or finding it funny. The film even quotes a line from TITANIC at one point, so it's not like its satirical focus is 100% set on the genre it so obviously reveres. Oh, and there's an instance in which we get to see a picture of a former president of the U.S., and the comment written on the picture is one heck of a delightful political jab. I was laughing at it even during the scene that came right after it.

Nick Frost and Simon Pegg clearly relish playing their geek selves here, and I think it's easy to have almost as much fun watching them as they probably did playing the two roles. Seth Rogen is enormously effective voicing the title character: it's interesting because, though you're constantly aware of the fact that it's his voice, it doesn't feel distracting in the least bit. It adds to the comedic feel. Jason Bateman makes for a terrific villain (and the film does have an interesting twist involving his character). Bill Hader is back to playing an inept cop as only he can do it, and the result is often hilarious. Kristen Wiig shows that she should stick to playing awkward characters who say inappropriate things every 2 seconds. During her first few scenes in the film, she plays a hard-nosed Christian, and she feels miscast at it, but as soon as her character makes a drastic transformation, she's back to being as funny as she's always been in comedic supporting roles.

Why can't PAUL measure up to Mottola's prior two offerings? Despite having its moments of sweetness and its moments of raunchy hilarity, the film does occasionally devolve into unnecessary physical humor. Take, for instance, a scene in which two characters are having the classic "God vs. Darwin" argument. The scene would be great if it weren't preceded by a moment of foul bathroom humor that serves no purpose whatsoever. It's like getting to eat something delicious after you just ate something that tasted awful - it's hard to enjoy it fully if you've still got an awful taste left in there. But that's not my biggest quibble, because the film actually features something that's even more unnecessary. I'm all for outrageous/inappropriate humor, but there's a scene that makes a joke at the expense of the documentary CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (my all-time favorite documentary), and the reference is simply awful. It makes little sense, and even worse, it's touching on subject matter that simply shouldn't be made the butt of a joke. It's like making a joke out of a scene from SCHINDLER'S LIST or THE WAR ZONE. My third problem with the movie is that, as great as it is to see Sigourney Weaver in the film (for obvious reasons that become even better when the line "Get away from her, you bitch!" is delivered), her appearance in the film's final moments as the big, bad villain is curiously unsatisfying. She gets dispatched too easily - we should've gotten to enjoy much more of her exploits as the film's chief "bad guy" and to see her wreak much more havoc than what we get to see.

Still, PAUL holds up really well, thanks in large part to how incredibly amusing the title character's irreverence is. This is the classic case of a movie in which you could've just had its four characters exchange witty banter with each other on the RV for the entire running time, without being chased by police or government agents, and I would've still had a fun time. That's as much a testament to Frost and Pegg's sharp script as it is to Mottola's continued success at mixing sweetness with offensive humor. PAUL may not be as refined a film as his two prior outings, but the fact that he's clearly still interested in catering to us "uncool" people is more than enough to make me look forward to his future projects.


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