Sunday, June 29, 2008

Iron Man (2008)

We were weeks late coming to the party and completely unable to get away from the hype in the media, but it didn't matter. Because when the Missus and I finally took our seats and saw IRON MAN, it was like I hadn't read a single review, hadn't seen a single commercial or trailer. Combining the big bang of summer spectacle with snappy dialog and terrific acting, IRON MAN manages to somehow be all things to all people: a fanboy's delight, a delicious serving of eye candy for the ladies, and most importantly (especially after the dearth of quality last year) a truly good summer film.

The Internet's strewn with hundreds of professional and amateur reviews, analysis, and theories as to what makes IRON MAN so great, and the vast majority seem to settle on two major points: the casting and performance of Robert Downey jr. and the inspired choice of Jon Favreau for the director's chair. Downey jr. brings a sense of his own history to the project as Tony Stark, the billionaire genius weapons manufacturer who is violently abducted by terrorists and forced to build a new super missile he was developing for the Army. Forced to confront the fact that his decisions in life have not only brought this situation upon himself, but that the very destruction going on in the world is made possible by his "contributions" to society, Stark's decision to become a superhero feels for the first time in a "superhero" movie earned. I love BATMAN BEGINS, and I love Christian Bale's performance, but where I think IRON MAN wins out (barely) is its ability to have you completely understand Stark's motivations and drive to turn from one life to another. Much of this success is attributable to Downey jr.'s performance - you get all the quirks, humor, and physicality that he's embodied in his best performances (CHAPLIN, KISS KISS BANG BANG, LESS THAN ZERO) but behind that lies the experiences of the first act of the movie, and the revelations that drive him to do what he now must do.

The rest of the cast succeeds in much the same way - instead of A-list celebrities you get consummate actors who can dive into their roles. After being slightly surprised at how high Terence Howard's voice was, his support role as Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes doesn't try to steal scenes or play a bigger part than it needs to - it's the very definition of support, and plays well for an inevitably larger role in the sequel. Jeff Bridges is always great - he gets my vote for best fictional President (in THE CONTENDER). His is another functional part, and he plays it with relish, never quite going over the line. You have no doubt as to where his path will eventually go, but when it does it still manages to surprise and bring some substance rather than typical scenery chewing. And color me crazy, but this has been the best thing I've seen Gwenneth Paltrow do in forever. The chemistry between Pepper Potts and Tony is ridiculously palpable, and their banter and relationship feels like it's been going on for years. The choices made as to what's seen on screen and what's implied work wonderfully, and you hav to feel that had this been handled by lesser hands, we would have had a much less believeable romance.

So let's talk about those hands. Despite having his biggest directing success with Wil Ferrel and ELF, my fondest image of Favreau's directing work is the robot attack in the underrated ZATHURA. In that one sequence all doubts and issues about how he could handle a film like this should have been put aside. He's got the character cred from movies like SWINGERS and MADE, and has consistently gone on record about preferring to go practical over CGI as much as possible so long as it serves the film. It's these choices that make the effects in IRON MAN so great, and also what make those effects and sequences blend so nicely with the character-driven moments.

And when he does pull out all the stops and let the action do the talking, it's breath taking. The scenes of Tony Stark perfecting his MKII suit are hilarious until the moment the suit stands ready and visible for the first time, and everyone on the audience gasps. It's incredible, and one of my favorite moments in the movie. But it still pales to the first time we see the suit with its familiar paint job. Iron Man lands in the middle of a village where the people are in the process of being victimized by the very terrorists who originally abducted Tony. Iron Man's landing, and subsequent rising up for the fist time as a hero is one of the best comic book movie images since Christopher Reeve flew onto the scene in that red cape.

This appears to be the Summer of the Superhero (THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THE DARK KNIGHT, HELLBOY II and WANTED all come out in the next few months), and the first time Marvel has taken the reins on its properties. IRON MAN proves to be a pretty high benchmark for the others to reach - let's hope they get there.

Iron Man (2008)

We were weeks late coming to the party and completely unable to get away from the hype in the media, but it didn't matter. Because when the Missus and I finally took our seats and saw IRON MAN, it was like I hadn't read a single review, hadn't seen a single commercial or trailer. Combining the big bang of summer spectacle with snappy dialog and terrific acting, IRON MAN manages to somehow be all things to all people: a fanboy's delight, a delicious serving of eye candy for the ladies, and most importantly (especially after the dearth of quality last year) a truly good summer film.

The Internet's strewn with hundreds of professional and amateur reviews, analysis, and theories as to what makes IRON MAN so great, and the vast majority seem to settle on two major points: the casting and performance of Robert Downey jr. and the inspired choice of Jon Favreau for the director's chair. Downey jr. brings a sense of his own history to the project as Tony Stark, the billionaire genius weapons manufacturer who is violently abducted by terrorists and forced to build a new super missile he was developing for the Army. Forced to confront the fact that his decisions in life have not only brought this situation upon himself, but that the very destruction going on in the world is made possible by his "contributions" to society, Stark's decision to become a superhero feels for the first time in a "superhero" movie earned. I love BATMAN BEGINS, and I love Christian Bale's performance, but where I think IRON MAN wins out (barely) is its ability to have you completely understand Stark's motivations and drive to turn from one life to another. Much of this success is attributable to Downey jr.'s performance - you get all the quirks, humor, and physicality that he's embodied in his best performances (CHAPLIN, KISS KISS BANG BANG, LESS THAN ZERO) but behind that lies the experiences of the first act of the movie, and the revelations that drive him to do what he now must do.

The rest of the cast succeeds in much the same way - instead of A-list celebrities you get consummate actors who can dive into their roles. After being slightly surprised at how high Terence Howard's voice was, his support role as Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes doesn't try to steal scenes or play a bigger part than it needs to - it's the very definition of support, and plays well for an inevitably larger role in the sequel. Jeff Bridges is always great - he gets my vote for best fictional President (in THE CONTENDER). His is another functional part, and he plays it with relish, never quite going over the line. You have no doubt as to where his path will eventually go, but when it does it still manages to surprise and bring some substance rather than typical scenery chewing. And color me crazy, but this has been the best thing I've seen Gwenneth Paltrow do in forever. The chemistry between Pepper Potts and Tony is ridiculously palpable, and their banter and relationship feels like it's been going on for years. The choices made as to what's seen on screen and what's implied work wonderfully, and you hav to feel that had this been handled by lesser hands, we would have had a much less believeable romance.

So let's talk about those hands. Despite having his biggest directing success with Wil Ferrel and ELF, my fondest image of Favreau's directing work is the robot attack in the underrated ZATHURA. In that one sequence all doubts and issues about how he could handle a film like this should have been put aside. He's got the character cred from movies like SWINGERS and MADE, and has consistently gone on record about preferring to go practical over CGI as much as possible so long as it serves the film. It's these choices that make the effects in IRON MAN so great, and also what make those effects and sequences blend so nicely with the character-driven moments.

And when he does pull out all the stops and let the action do the talking, it's breath taking. The scenes of Tony Stark perfecting his MKII suit are hilarious until the moment the suit stands ready and visible for the first time, and everyone on the audience gasps. It's incredible, and one of my favorite moments in the movie. But it still pales to the first time we see the suit with its familiar paint job. Iron Man lands in the middle of a village where the people are in the process of being victimized by the very terrorists who originally abducted Tony. Iron Man's landing, and subsequent rising up for the fist time as a hero is one of the best comic book movie images since Christopher Reeve flew onto the scene in that red cape.

This appears to be the Summer of the Superhero (THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THE DARK KNIGHT, HELLBOY II and WANTED all come out in the next few months), and the first time Marvel has taken the reins on its properties. IRON MAN proves to be a pretty high benchmark for the others to reach - let's hope they get there.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Scalzi's New Sci-Fi Classics

He's a man of many hats. Besides being a great writer and pioneering blogger, John Scalzi is also now a weekly columnist for American Movie Classics' SciFi Scanner, a site dedicated to "science fiction movies, news, and discussion." His most recent column discusses the results of the American Film Institute's Top 10 Science Fiction Movies, noting that the choices stop after 1991.

Were there any great science fiction films after 1991? Scalzi thinks so, and has decided to make a Top 10 List comprised of films after '91. The catch? He'll list five of his - the rest are up to you.

Here's the link to his original post. My additions to the list are below:
  1. DARK CITY - Between this and THE CROW, Alex Proyas has done more for black leather outfits than a million S&M shops. Intelligent, great effects, and beautifully shot with the wackiest Kiefer Sutherland performance not captured by police video.
  2. PRIMER - Yeah, it doesn't really scream "Excitement" but the strength of PRIMER lies in its ability to treat time travel in a unique fashion and not simply use it as a crutch to keep a plot from crumbling.
  3. MINORITY REPORT - It's between this and BLADE RUNNER for Best Film Made of of a PKD story. Not as in "closest adaptation" but as "this is a great film that happens to have come from a PKD story." Does anyone do ideas and action combined better than Steven Spielberg?
  4. THE FOUNTAIN - One of the most visually stunning films to come out in the past 10 years. A wonderful love story stretched across time, I include this because visually it's something we hadn't seen in a long time.
  5. CITY OF LOST CHILDREN - It's a fairy tale stuck inside a rusty coating of steam punk SF. It's got Ron Perlman. It's got evil Siamese twins. It's got the cutest, most precocious kids you'll find outside of the Little Rascals. It's French. I adore this movie.

I left out superhero movies from my list, just because I feel like that's a genre unto itself (and I shudder for actually using "unto" in a sentence). So even though I love Scalzi's list, I'd replace THE INCREDIBLES (which WOULD make my top 5 superhero movies of all time) and replace it with Brad Bird's IRON GIANT. Best 1950's SF movie to be made after the 1950's.

Other films that could have easily made the list? SERENITY (though I prefer the show to the movie), CONTACT (thanks for the reminder, Jason), and as a lot of others mentioned in their comments, GALAXY QUEST. I can forgive Tim Allen a hundred SANTA CLAUS sequels on the basis of this movie.

Anyone got anything to add? Disagree? Access Scalzi's article and fire away.

Scalzi's New Sci-Fi Classics

He's a man of many hats. Besides being a great writer and pioneering blogger, John Scalzi is also now a weekly columnist for American Movie Classics' SciFi Scanner, a site dedicated to "science fiction movies, news, and discussion." His most recent column discusses the results of the American Film Institute's Top 10 Science Fiction Movies, noting that the choices stop after 1991.

Were there any great science fiction films after 1991? Scalzi thinks so, and has decided to make a Top 10 List comprised of films after '91. The catch? He'll list five of his - the rest are up to you.

Here's the link to his original post. My additions to the list are below:
  1. DARK CITY - Between this and THE CROW, Alex Proyas has done more for black leather outfits than a million S&M shops. Intelligent, great effects, and beautifully shot with the wackiest Kiefer Sutherland performance not captured by police video.
  2. PRIMER - Yeah, it doesn't really scream "Excitement" but the strength of PRIMER lies in its ability to treat time travel in a unique fashion and not simply use it as a crutch to keep a plot from crumbling.
  3. MINORITY REPORT - It's between this and BLADE RUNNER for Best Film Made of of a PKD story. Not as in "closest adaptation" but as "this is a great film that happens to have come from a PKD story." Does anyone do ideas and action combined better than Steven Spielberg?
  4. THE FOUNTAIN - One of the most visually stunning films to come out in the past 10 years. A wonderful love story stretched across time, I include this because visually it's something we hadn't seen in a long time.
  5. CITY OF LOST CHILDREN - It's a fairy tale stuck inside a rusty coating of steam punk SF. It's got Ron Perlman. It's got evil Siamese twins. It's got the cutest, most precocious kids you'll find outside of the Little Rascals. It's French. I adore this movie.

I left out superhero movies from my list, just because I feel like that's a genre unto itself (and I shudder for actually using "unto" in a sentence). So even though I love Scalzi's list, I'd replace THE INCREDIBLES (which WOULD make my top 5 superhero movies of all time) and replace it with Brad Bird's IRON GIANT. Best 1950's SF movie to be made after the 1950's.

Other films that could have easily made the list? SERENITY (though I prefer the show to the movie), CONTACT (thanks for the reminder, Jason), and as a lot of others mentioned in their comments, GALAXY QUEST. I can forgive Tim Allen a hundred SANTA CLAUS sequels on the basis of this movie.

Anyone got anything to add? Disagree? Access Scalzi's article and fire away.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

The INDIANA JONES series of films are inextricably tied into my youth, much the same way STAR WARS was. I recall sitting in the back row with my friend Terry Brennan when our elementary school had a special screening of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK we had to get permission from our parents to attend, completely swept away as the Paramount Logo dissolved into an ominous mountain peak. I remember cutting off the end of my jump rope to make a whip and wearing my grandfather's fedora, fighting off jungle natives and crossing raging rivers in order to get to safety. Sure, the jungle was a weeping willow tree and the raging river was the small creek behind my house, but you get the idea.

The biggest gamble for me going into INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL was, would I be able to view it with the eyes of the young boy who grew up with these movies, or would my older, more knowledgeable and (sadly) more cynical eyes be too busy picking out issues to enjoy the film?

Turns out the answer's a little bit of both.

So let's get the basics out of the way. Yes, I liked it. There's more than a few inspired moments that feel exactly like an INDIANA JONES movie should feel - that combination of boyish exuberance and gee-whiz action that's not only a staple of the previous films, but of the serial adventure stories from the 30's that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg sought to emulate. For the most part the acting is great: after a rocky start Harrison Ford completely makes Dr. Henry Jones, jr. come alive in a way that's not ridiculous (with one MASSIVE exception I'll get to). The sheepish grin, the stubble, everything works. He plays an Indiana getting on in years, still capable of daring escapes and beating the bad guys, but with a weary sense that he'd rather be lecturing on field archeology and ideograms. Supporting roles by Jim Broadbent and John Hurt are short but wonderful, especially Hurt, who I can watch in anything and would have loved to see in a meatier role. And although I'm sure I'll part ways with a lot of people, Shia LaBeouf was fantastic. His interplay with Ford, his demeanor, look (I'm assuming here that the overt WILD ONE reference was an intentional wink), everything (again, with one MASSIVE exception I'll get to) worked great. He's not Short Round, and he's not supposed to be.

And since it's pretty much common knowledge that she's in the film, let's spend a brief moment talking about Karen Allen. Marion's back. It's not a huge role, but it's an important one. There's a scene where she, Indy, and Shia (playing a character named "Mutt" Williams - figure it out) are tied up in the back of a military vehicle heading into the Amazon. All three are arguing while simultaneously trying to escape. Finally Indy gets free and as he's attempting to climb to the top of the truck is stopped by a question from Marion. His response, uttered in typical Indy fashion as he scrabbles through a hole in the tarp, leaves a beaming smile on her face that instantly transported me back to 1982. It was that smile, the smile that explained everything - who she is and what it was that could snag the heart of someone like Indiana Jones. It was frickin' beautiful.

So what else worked? Spielberg proves that no one can string an action sequence together like he can, and when allowed free reign, he's perfect. There's a motorcycle chase through a college campus that ranks up with any of the set pieces from the earlier movies. There's a lot of play off the earlier movies and it when it works (like the great "snake" moment) it's priceless.

Or almost priceless. Because as great as those scenes are, they unfortunately don't remove the bad taste of others. Excepting the very beginning logo/driving sequence, the entire opening of the film felt lifeless. There are some serious lighting/set issues at work here: why, after an establishing shot outside an airplane hanger would we so obviously move to a sound stage when all they're doing is standing outside talking? Between the pale, almost purple lighting and the lack of any background detail it looks ridiculous, and for the life of me I'm stymied as to why Spielberg couldn't have shot that scene outside. This follows a pattern where you get a wide shot of an exterior or a model, and then cut immediately to a sound stage, so suddenly you can feel the ropes and chairs just out of frame. I know the other films were sometimes guilty of this; I can't watch TEMPLE OF DOOM without commenting on the different colored lights in the mine shaft. But here (the opening) it's just unnecessary.

And speaking of TEMPLE OF DOOM, a lot of people make comparisons of SKULL to DOOM, saying it's merely an additional adventure without furthering the overall Indy mythos, like THE PAST CRUSADE did. Without giving away key storylines or plot points, I would argue the exact opposite: both CRYSTAL SKULL and LAST CRUSADE are essentially silly adventures with a familial element thrown in to tie the two together. In both cases it felt (to me) that the family pieces was the window dressing that added to the adventure. Great window dressing to be sure, but dressing nonetheless. I also admit to having a soft spot for TEMPLE DOOM - it's been unfairly maligned for too long now! The "Anything Goes" opening sequence is brilliant. In fact, I would say that CRYSTAL SKULL has the weakest opening of the series so far.

Now on to the two "Raft" moments in the film. The two moments that so severely stretch the limits of belief you're left wondering how could Spielberg let that slide? And while I don't want to automatically wag the finger at Lucas, it's hard not to make a prequel reference. If you've already seen the movie you know what two scenes I'm referring to. If you haven't, one involves a refrigerator and one involves CGI monkeys. For completely different reasons, both scenes feel hollow and completely out of spirit for the film. It's easy to blame the monkey scene (involving Shia) on Lucas: once you see it you'll see what I mean. The good news is that it goes by pretty fast, and you don't have to recall it afterwards.

But the refrigerator episode, along with what follows, was far more damaging to the film, because it asks you to change your impression of Indiana Jones, and to accept a vague backstory about his time between LAST CRUSADE and now that feels completely at odds with how he was established as a character in the movies. Forget the television show, I don't want to be told that these things were hinted at there - the show is a separate entity than the films, and that sounds like weak justification to me.

Despite some pretty large problems (and I haven't even talked about the somewhat iffy script), I'm going to go back to my original thought. There is a lot of fun here. You can't dismiss the entire film (or claim "they killed my youth" a la the STAR WARS prequels) based on those shortcomings because there are simply too many things here that do work, and that are fun, and that pay perfect homage to the films that came before. See it for Marion. See it for the motorcycle chase. See it for a definition of quicksand. See it for Harrison Ford, who ably steps back into the old leather jacket and shows us a hero that is both all too human and larger than life.

See it because it's a damn INDIANA JONES movie, and you want to remember those days in your backyard, reaching for the idol with the bag for your recorder filled with dirt.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

The INDIANA JONES series of films are inextricably tied into my youth, much the same way STAR WARS was. I recall sitting in the back row with my friend Terry Brennan when our elementary school had a special screening of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK we had to get permission from our parents to attend, completely swept away as the Paramount Logo dissolved into an ominous mountain peak. I remember cutting off the end of my jump rope to make a whip and wearing my grandfather's fedora, fighting off jungle natives and crossing raging rivers in order to get to safety. Sure, the jungle was a weeping willow tree and the raging river was the small creek behind my house, but you get the idea.

The biggest gamble for me going into INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL was, would I be able to view it with the eyes of the young boy who grew up with these movies, or would my older, more knowledgeable and (sadly) more cynical eyes be too busy picking out issues to enjoy the film?

Turns out the answer's a little bit of both.

So let's get the basics out of the way. Yes, I liked it. There's more than a few inspired moments that feel exactly like an INDIANA JONES movie should feel - that combination of boyish exuberance and gee-whiz action that's not only a staple of the previous films, but of the serial adventure stories from the 30's that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg sought to emulate. For the most part the acting is great: after a rocky start Harrison Ford completely makes Dr. Henry Jones, jr. come alive in a way that's not ridiculous (with one MASSIVE exception I'll get to). The sheepish grin, the stubble, everything works. He plays an Indiana getting on in years, still capable of daring escapes and beating the bad guys, but with a weary sense that he'd rather be lecturing on field archeology and ideograms. Supporting roles by Jim Broadbent and John Hurt are short but wonderful, especially Hurt, who I can watch in anything and would have loved to see in a meatier role. And although I'm sure I'll part ways with a lot of people, Shia LaBeouf was fantastic. His interplay with Ford, his demeanor, look (I'm assuming here that the overt WILD ONE reference was an intentional wink), everything (again, with one MASSIVE exception I'll get to) worked great. He's not Short Round, and he's not supposed to be.

And since it's pretty much common knowledge that she's in the film, let's spend a brief moment talking about Karen Allen. Marion's back. It's not a huge role, but it's an important one. There's a scene where she, Indy, and Shia (playing a character named "Mutt" Williams - figure it out) are tied up in the back of a military vehicle heading into the Amazon. All three are arguing while simultaneously trying to escape. Finally Indy gets free and as he's attempting to climb to the top of the truck is stopped by a question from Marion. His response, uttered in typical Indy fashion as he scrabbles through a hole in the tarp, leaves a beaming smile on her face that instantly transported me back to 1982. It was that smile, the smile that explained everything - who she is and what it was that could snag the heart of someone like Indiana Jones. It was frickin' beautiful.

So what else worked? Spielberg proves that no one can string an action sequence together like he can, and when allowed free reign, he's perfect. There's a motorcycle chase through a college campus that ranks up with any of the set pieces from the earlier movies. There's a lot of play off the earlier movies and it when it works (like the great "snake" moment) it's priceless.

Or almost priceless. Because as great as those scenes are, they unfortunately don't remove the bad taste of others. Excepting the very beginning logo/driving sequence, the entire opening of the film felt lifeless. There are some serious lighting/set issues at work here: why, after an establishing shot outside an airplane hanger would we so obviously move to a sound stage when all they're doing is standing outside talking? Between the pale, almost purple lighting and the lack of any background detail it looks ridiculous, and for the life of me I'm stymied as to why Spielberg couldn't have shot that scene outside. This follows a pattern where you get a wide shot of an exterior or a model, and then cut immediately to a sound stage, so suddenly you can feel the ropes and chairs just out of frame. I know the other films were sometimes guilty of this; I can't watch TEMPLE OF DOOM without commenting on the different colored lights in the mine shaft. But here (the opening) it's just unnecessary.

And speaking of TEMPLE OF DOOM, a lot of people make comparisons of SKULL to DOOM, saying it's merely an additional adventure without furthering the overall Indy mythos, like THE PAST CRUSADE did. Without giving away key storylines or plot points, I would argue the exact opposite: both CRYSTAL SKULL and LAST CRUSADE are essentially silly adventures with a familial element thrown in to tie the two together. In both cases it felt (to me) that the family pieces was the window dressing that added to the adventure. Great window dressing to be sure, but dressing nonetheless. I also admit to having a soft spot for TEMPLE DOOM - it's been unfairly maligned for too long now! The "Anything Goes" opening sequence is brilliant. In fact, I would say that CRYSTAL SKULL has the weakest opening of the series so far.

Now on to the two "Raft" moments in the film. The two moments that so severely stretch the limits of belief you're left wondering how could Spielberg let that slide? And while I don't want to automatically wag the finger at Lucas, it's hard not to make a prequel reference. If you've already seen the movie you know what two scenes I'm referring to. If you haven't, one involves a refrigerator and one involves CGI monkeys. For completely different reasons, both scenes feel hollow and completely out of spirit for the film. It's easy to blame the monkey scene (involving Shia) on Lucas: once you see it you'll see what I mean. The good news is that it goes by pretty fast, and you don't have to recall it afterwards.

But the refrigerator episode, along with what follows, was far more damaging to the film, because it asks you to change your impression of Indiana Jones, and to accept a vague backstory about his time between LAST CRUSADE and now that feels completely at odds with how he was established as a character in the movies. Forget the television show, I don't want to be told that these things were hinted at there - the show is a separate entity than the films, and that sounds like weak justification to me.

Despite some pretty large problems (and I haven't even talked about the somewhat iffy script), I'm going to go back to my original thought. There is a lot of fun here. You can't dismiss the entire film (or claim "they killed my youth" a la the STAR WARS prequels) based on those shortcomings because there are simply too many things here that do work, and that are fun, and that pay perfect homage to the films that came before. See it for Marion. See it for the motorcycle chase. See it for a definition of quicksand. See it for Harrison Ford, who ably steps back into the old leather jacket and shows us a hero that is both all too human and larger than life.

See it because it's a damn INDIANA JONES movie, and you want to remember those days in your backyard, reaching for the idol with the bag for your recorder filled with dirt.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

(this is a quick and lazy review - I saw this movie a week ago and forgot to write it up)

I did a quick check of Judd Apatow movies (both as a director and as a producer) over the last few years. Here's what it boils down to: ANCHORMAN, 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN? Loved 'em. SUPERBAD and WALK HARD? Liked 'em. TALLADEGA NIGHTS? Okay (thank God for John C. Reilly). KNOCKED UP? Sorry, I hated it. And having never seen an episode of How I Met Your Mother, Undeclared or Freaks and Geeks I had no opinion of Jason Segel. Well shame on me, because FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL may turn out to be my favorite of the bunch, thanks in no small part to a great script and performance by Segel.

The bones of the story may be a cliche from a hundred other movies - girl breaks up with boy, boys meets new girl, things get complicated - but Segel brings enough warmth and laughs to make it seems fresh. He's helped by an amazing cast, which is the true strength of any Apatow production. Every single cylinder fires. Kristen Bell, who in an alternate universe is still doing Veronica Mars and is coincidentally married to me in a polygamous relationship with my wife takes a huge left turn from her normal roles to play the title character, and it's to her credit that by the movie's end we see her in a different light, even if we're not rooting for her. I've never really liked Mila Kunis in anything I've seen her in. But here it's like someone replaced her with the HAWESOME version of Mila Kunis, because she is absolutely fall-in-lovable as the "new girl" Segel's character, well, falls in love with. Paul Rudd again proves he's the go-to guy in comedies, and Jonah Hill basically does what he does, and since it's used sparingly in SARAH MARSHALL it works fine.

Crap. I forgot to mention that that guy Kenneth from 30 Rock is in this. And he is frickin' hysterical.

I wish I could go into detail about all the other great roles played by the hotel staff, but then I wouldn't have room to talk about Jason Segel and his penis. Because that seems to be what everyone talks about when talking about this film. So I knew going in there was going to be full-frontal from a CBS sitcom star. And I still laughed out loud when it happens. Besides writing a pretty tight script, Segel's performance works on multiple levels, fleshing out (sorry) what might have been a paper performance in the hands of someone else. Yes we root for him to find ultimate happiness, but our perception of him also changes as the film runs, and maybe find he's partly to blame for the breakup.

All this plus Muppets and a rock and roll musical about Dracula. FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL was a crap-load of fun and a definite recommendation for anyone looking for a good comedy that doesn't involve Harold or Kumar (but does feature another member of How I Met Your Mother).

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

(this is a quick and lazy review - I saw this movie a week ago and forgot to write it up)

I did a quick check of Judd Apatow movies (both as a director and as a producer) over the last few years. Here's what it boils down to: ANCHORMAN, 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN? Loved 'em. SUPERBAD and WALK HARD? Liked 'em. TALLADEGA NIGHTS? Okay (thank God for John C. Reilly). KNOCKED UP? Sorry, I hated it. And having never seen an episode of How I Met Your Mother, Undeclared or Freaks and Geeks I had no opinion of Jason Segel. Well shame on me, because FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL may turn out to be my favorite of the bunch, thanks in no small part to a great script and performance by Segel.

The bones of the story may be a cliche from a hundred other movies - girl breaks up with boy, boys meets new girl, things get complicated - but Segel brings enough warmth and laughs to make it seems fresh. He's helped by an amazing cast, which is the true strength of any Apatow production. Every single cylinder fires. Kristen Bell, who in an alternate universe is still doing Veronica Mars and is coincidentally married to me in a polygamous relationship with my wife takes a huge left turn from her normal roles to play the title character, and it's to her credit that by the movie's end we see her in a different light, even if we're not rooting for her. I've never really liked Mila Kunis in anything I've seen her in. But here it's like someone replaced her with the HAWESOME version of Mila Kunis, because she is absolutely fall-in-lovable as the "new girl" Segel's character, well, falls in love with. Paul Rudd again proves he's the go-to guy in comedies, and Jonah Hill basically does what he does, and since it's used sparingly in SARAH MARSHALL it works fine.

Crap. I forgot to mention that that guy Kenneth from 30 Rock is in this. And he is frickin' hysterical.

I wish I could go into detail about all the other great roles played by the hotel staff, but then I wouldn't have room to talk about Jason Segel and his penis. Because that seems to be what everyone talks about when talking about this film. So I knew going in there was going to be full-frontal from a CBS sitcom star. And I still laughed out loud when it happens. Besides writing a pretty tight script, Segel's performance works on multiple levels, fleshing out (sorry) what might have been a paper performance in the hands of someone else. Yes we root for him to find ultimate happiness, but our perception of him also changes as the film runs, and maybe find he's partly to blame for the breakup.

All this plus Muppets and a rock and roll musical about Dracula. FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL was a crap-load of fun and a definite recommendation for anyone looking for a good comedy that doesn't involve Harold or Kumar (but does feature another member of How I Met Your Mother).

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

If there's a overlying theme to the issues in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, it's that the potential was there for so much more. The fact that the film is a light, enjoyable confection almost feels besides the point. Yes, I left the theater happy. Yes, the long awaited fight scene between Jackie Chan and Jet Li is great. But I couldn't help feeling that with only a few changes this could have gone from an enjoyable confection to a great modern fantasy adventure film.

Michael Angarano plays Jason, the scrappy young hero obsessed with kungfu a la the Shaw Brothers and Bruce Lee, making frequent trips to his local back alley Chinese antiques shop to pick up bootleg films and make friendly conversation with the wizened proprietor (played by Chan in one of two roles). Of course he doesn't actually know any kungfu. When forced by some thugs help rob the shop, he comes to possess a magical staff that belonged to the fabled Monkey King (played by Li in one of two roles). He takes a nose-dive off the top of the building trying to escape and falls square into ancient China, where he bands together with a drunk immortal (Chan), a traveling monk (Li), and a young woman thirsting for revenge (insanely beautiful Yifei Liu) in order to return the staff to the Monkey King and restore order to the Three Kingdoms.

That's it. Shades of THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE NEVERENDING STORY filter what boils down to a modern US-friendly retelling of Journey to the West. Jackie Chan looks like he's having more fun in an American movie than he's had in years, especially when tossing out some fan favorite Drunken Boxing. The fight choreography by the legendary Woo-ping Yuen is amazing and plays with a lot of classic martial art forms and movie moments. Everything is beautiful and there are plenty of good laughs, so what's the problem?

Well, let's take 'em one at a time, starting with the bookend scenes that take place in the modern world. Do you remember the bad guys from Jackie Chan films like RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, where it's obvious that the inner city "hoods" are so unrealistic as to be laughable? Same problem here - I thought the main villain was going to break out in a number from WEST SIDE STORY at any moment. I know it's too much to ask, but I would had loved to see a these scenes done Scorsese-style, circa TAXI DRIVER: the grit and dirt of a more realistic portrayal would have been a much better contrast to the beautiful dream-like quality of the scenes in China.

Rob Minkoff's last directing job was the Disney adaptation of THE HAUNTED MANSION starring Eddie Murphy. Does this fill you with confidence? There's no personality to the directing at all. That may not be a huge hurdle when you're basically letting effect and spectacle tell the story, but when you have two of the most popular action stars in the world fight together for the first time, you want to make those scenes sing. Instead all the fight scenes, while brilliantly choreographed, are filmed with the typical Hollywood polish that doesn't allow the grandeur and grace of the movements to show through. I've yet to find a Western director who could really film a martial arts sequence (maybe the Washawskis or Luc Besson?) with the same passion that Ang Lee or Yimou Zhang demonstrated in their modern wuxia films.

I don't want to make too much of a deal about the script, except to say the first words that come of Jet Li's mouth are "No, FOOL!" 'Nuff said.

Understand: NONE of this hampered my enjoyment of THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. Jackie Chan displays a charm and warmth sadly missing from such dross like RUSH HOUR 3 and ably holds his own in the fight scenes, showing more chops then most people half his age. Sure, in a perfect word this would have been co-directed by Martin Scorsese and Yimou Zhang, but when you're working against films THE TUXEDO and AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS, I'll take the lightweight fun of THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM any day.

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

If there's a overlying theme to the issues in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, it's that the potential was there for so much more. The fact that the film is a light, enjoyable confection almost feels besides the point. Yes, I left the theater happy. Yes, the long awaited fight scene between Jackie Chan and Jet Li is great. But I couldn't help feeling that with only a few changes this could have gone from an enjoyable confection to a great modern fantasy adventure film.

Michael Angarano plays Jason, the scrappy young hero obsessed with kungfu a la the Shaw Brothers and Bruce Lee, making frequent trips to his local back alley Chinese antiques shop to pick up bootleg films and make friendly conversation with the wizened proprietor (played by Chan in one of two roles). Of course he doesn't actually know any kungfu. When forced by some thugs help rob the shop, he comes to possess a magical staff that belonged to the fabled Monkey King (played by Li in one of two roles). He takes a nose-dive off the top of the building trying to escape and falls square into ancient China, where he bands together with a drunk immortal (Chan), a traveling monk (Li), and a young woman thirsting for revenge (insanely beautiful Yifei Liu) in order to return the staff to the Monkey King and restore order to the Three Kingdoms.

That's it. Shades of THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE NEVERENDING STORY filter what boils down to a modern US-friendly retelling of Journey to the West. Jackie Chan looks like he's having more fun in an American movie than he's had in years, especially when tossing out some fan favorite Drunken Boxing. The fight choreography by the legendary Woo-ping Yuen is amazing and plays with a lot of classic martial art forms and movie moments. Everything is beautiful and there are plenty of good laughs, so what's the problem?

Well, let's take 'em one at a time, starting with the bookend scenes that take place in the modern world. Do you remember the bad guys from Jackie Chan films like RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, where it's obvious that the inner city "hoods" are so unrealistic as to be laughable? Same problem here - I thought the main villain was going to break out in a number from WEST SIDE STORY at any moment. I know it's too much to ask, but I would had loved to see a these scenes done Scorsese-style, circa TAXI DRIVER: the grit and dirt of a more realistic portrayal would have been a much better contrast to the beautiful dream-like quality of the scenes in China.

Rob Minkoff's last directing job was the Disney adaptation of THE HAUNTED MANSION starring Eddie Murphy. Does this fill you with confidence? There's no personality to the directing at all. That may not be a huge hurdle when you're basically letting effect and spectacle tell the story, but when you have two of the most popular action stars in the world fight together for the first time, you want to make those scenes sing. Instead all the fight scenes, while brilliantly choreographed, are filmed with the typical Hollywood polish that doesn't allow the grandeur and grace of the movements to show through. I've yet to find a Western director who could really film a martial arts sequence (maybe the Washawskis or Luc Besson?) with the same passion that Ang Lee or Yimou Zhang demonstrated in their modern wuxia films.

I don't want to make too much of a deal about the script, except to say the first words that come of Jet Li's mouth are "No, FOOL!" 'Nuff said.

Understand: NONE of this hampered my enjoyment of THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. Jackie Chan displays a charm and warmth sadly missing from such dross like RUSH HOUR 3 and ably holds his own in the fight scenes, showing more chops then most people half his age. Sure, in a perfect word this would have been co-directed by Martin Scorsese and Yimou Zhang, but when you're working against films THE TUXEDO and AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS, I'll take the lightweight fun of THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM any day.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Happening (2008)

You can't glance sideways without finding someone extolling how horrible THE HAPPENING is on the Web. Cries of rage mix with clamoring to burn M. Night Shayamalan in effigy. Is the movie is that bad? Or is it that past efforts like THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE compel us to expect more from the heralded "New Master of Suspense"? The were a few (very few) people who defended it. Roger Ebert gave it 3-stars and admired its quiet, deliberate pacing. And some guy from a men's website called Mansized (?) called it a "minor classic" which may be a little much, but the site's called "Mansized" so, there you go.

I wouldn't call THE HAPPENING a horrible movie, but it is a bad movie, and it's a maddening movie, because Shayamalan is incapable of making a movie completely devoid of value (yeah, I liked LADY IN THE WATER) and it's those fleeting moments in this film that make you so frustrated, because the rest of the movie sits there like a rock.

In brief: An "event" begins early in the morning in Central Park. People space out in the middle of whatever they're doing, walking the dog, playing in the park, reading a book. Then, slowly and very deliberately, they find the easiest available method and kill themselves. Mass suicide, and over the course of the day it gradually expands to envelop much of the Northeast. What's happening? Why? The movie follows a high school teacher and his wife as they attempt to flee Pittsburgh and find a safe haven from the inexplicable threat.

The scenario, and the explanation behind it is a great hook for a story, and if you're one of the few people left unaware of the "secret" I won't ruin it for you here. Besides, Shayamalan ruins it within the first 15 minutes of the film, thanks to a screenplay that repeatedly beats you over the head with its message. In a bizarre turnaround from the usual "trick ending" that seems to have been a staple (for better or worse) of Shayamalan's previous work, the audience is instead bludgeoned with the explanation multiple times throughout the movie. Was the thought process that the explanation was so unbelievable the audience wouldn't buy into it until it was too late?

Much of the wonder and merit of his earlier films come from the quiet, intimate moments between characters. The relationships and motivations of the characters is what allows us to buy into whatever conceit Shayamalan is selling (i.e. ghosts, invincibility, aliens, etc) - the only reason SIGNS turned out as good as it did was for the wonderful character moments. My wife will still say that she leaves half-empty cups of water around the house because "they're contaminated." In THE HAPPENING we get none of that subtle magic, we're instead treated to bland, rote conversations and flabby exposition, which is weird when you consider the movie is less than 90 minutes.

Mark Wahlberg plays Elliot, the teacher on the run and he does the best he can saddled with inane dialog and wearing a worried, helpless look the entire time. I don't fault Wahlberg for this, anymore than I fault John Leguizamo, who plays Elliot's best friend, a fellow teacher who along with his eight year old daughter Jess is separated from his wife and is desperate to get to her. He's probably is the best thing in the movie, which is a shame since he's only in a handful of scenes. I think Zooey Deschanel is cute as a button, but lifeless in the role of Elliot's wife, a woman with trouble expressing her feelings. You know this becuase she says "You know I have trouble expressing my feelings." I'm not asking for Shakespeare here, but Shayamalan is capable of better than this.

Well, maybe the story and dialog aren't that great. At least we can fall back on some wonderful visuals, right? I mean, if nothing else we've seen countless evidence that the guy can frame a scene, can't he?

Hello?

There ARE some truly eerie moments in THE HAPPENING. The opening scene that sets the stage for how the threat manifests itself is classic reminiscent of later Alfred Hitchcock. Early in the film is an uninterrupted take following a series of deaths tied to a pistol. Everyone is filmed from the knees down, and it's beautiful in how it leads you along an inevitable path from which you can't look away. The ending, although telegraphed from miles away is still effective because it's such an odd visual. And the pacing of the film, the constant quiet, is a nice contrast to what's usually out in the market as a "horror" film. Everything else? Shocking. Poor camera choices, weird framing that does nothing to expand or highlight the story, and a lack of any real menace or threat to make us care about the protagonists.

And I think that is what's making everyone so angry - the seeds of a disturbing film are all in place, there are small moments of beauty (e.g. somewhere someone already mentioned this, but there's an amazing moment with Leguizamo when he leaves his daughter with Wahlberg and snaps at Deschanel, "Don't take my daughter's hand unless you mean it.") and small moments of menace, but the rest is so ineptly handled you want to kill someone because now this conceit is ruined for a better person to try.

I don't think I'll ever count M. Night Shayamalan out as a filmmaker, I just wish he would have taken the time and craft to make this the classic it should have been.

The Happening (2008)

You can't glance sideways without finding someone extolling how horrible THE HAPPENING is on the Web. Cries of rage mix with clamoring to burn M. Night Shayamalan in effigy. Is the movie is that bad? Or is it that past efforts like THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE compel us to expect more from the heralded "New Master of Suspense"? The were a few (very few) people who defended it. Roger Ebert gave it 3-stars and admired its quiet, deliberate pacing. And some guy from a men's website called Mansized (?) called it a "minor classic" which may be a little much, but the site's called "Mansized" so, there you go.

I wouldn't call THE HAPPENING a horrible movie, but it is a bad movie, and it's a maddening movie, because Shayamalan is incapable of making a movie completely devoid of value (yeah, I liked LADY IN THE WATER) and it's those fleeting moments in this film that make you so frustrated, because the rest of the movie sits there like a rock.

In brief: An "event" begins early in the morning in Central Park. People space out in the middle of whatever they're doing, walking the dog, playing in the park, reading a book. Then, slowly and very deliberately, they find the easiest available method and kill themselves. Mass suicide, and over the course of the day it gradually expands to envelop much of the Northeast. What's happening? Why? The movie follows a high school teacher and his wife as they attempt to flee Pittsburgh and find a safe haven from the inexplicable threat.

The scenario, and the explanation behind it is a great hook for a story, and if you're one of the few people left unaware of the "secret" I won't ruin it for you here. Besides, Shayamalan ruins it within the first 15 minutes of the film, thanks to a screenplay that repeatedly beats you over the head with its message. In a bizarre turnaround from the usual "trick ending" that seems to have been a staple (for better or worse) of Shayamalan's previous work, the audience is instead bludgeoned with the explanation multiple times throughout the movie. Was the thought process that the explanation was so unbelievable the audience wouldn't buy into it until it was too late?

Much of the wonder and merit of his earlier films come from the quiet, intimate moments between characters. The relationships and motivations of the characters is what allows us to buy into whatever conceit Shayamalan is selling (i.e. ghosts, invincibility, aliens, etc) - the only reason SIGNS turned out as good as it did was for the wonderful character moments. My wife will still say that she leaves half-empty cups of water around the house because "they're contaminated." In THE HAPPENING we get none of that subtle magic, we're instead treated to bland, rote conversations and flabby exposition, which is weird when you consider the movie is less than 90 minutes.

Mark Wahlberg plays Elliot, the teacher on the run and he does the best he can saddled with inane dialog and wearing a worried, helpless look the entire time. I don't fault Wahlberg for this, anymore than I fault John Leguizamo, who plays Elliot's best friend, a fellow teacher who along with his eight year old daughter Jess is separated from his wife and is desperate to get to her. He's probably is the best thing in the movie, which is a shame since he's only in a handful of scenes. I think Zooey Deschanel is cute as a button, but lifeless in the role of Elliot's wife, a woman with trouble expressing her feelings. You know this becuase she says "You know I have trouble expressing my feelings." I'm not asking for Shakespeare here, but Shayamalan is capable of better than this.

Well, maybe the story and dialog aren't that great. At least we can fall back on some wonderful visuals, right? I mean, if nothing else we've seen countless evidence that the guy can frame a scene, can't he?

Hello?

There ARE some truly eerie moments in THE HAPPENING. The opening scene that sets the stage for how the threat manifests itself is classic reminiscent of later Alfred Hitchcock. Early in the film is an uninterrupted take following a series of deaths tied to a pistol. Everyone is filmed from the knees down, and it's beautiful in how it leads you along an inevitable path from which you can't look away. The ending, although telegraphed from miles away is still effective because it's such an odd visual. And the pacing of the film, the constant quiet, is a nice contrast to what's usually out in the market as a "horror" film. Everything else? Shocking. Poor camera choices, weird framing that does nothing to expand or highlight the story, and a lack of any real menace or threat to make us care about the protagonists.

And I think that is what's making everyone so angry - the seeds of a disturbing film are all in place, there are small moments of beauty (e.g. somewhere someone already mentioned this, but there's an amazing moment with Leguizamo when he leaves his daughter with Wahlberg and snaps at Deschanel, "Don't take my daughter's hand unless you mean it.") and small moments of menace, but the rest is so ineptly handled you want to kill someone because now this conceit is ruined for a better person to try.

I don't think I'll ever count M. Night Shayamalan out as a filmmaker, I just wish he would have taken the time and craft to make this the classic it should have been.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Woods (2005)

Lucky McKee hit a quirky little triple with his debut pic MAY, a small independent horror movie about a lonely girl that decides if you can't find someone to love, make someone to love. His next film, THE WOODS, languished in studio Hell for an eternity, eventually worming its way onto DVD a month ago. While not as fresh as his previous film, McKee inject a lot of atmosphere and disturbing images into a story that doesn't quite make sense to make THE WOODS a worthwhile diversion.

From what I can recollect of the plot, Heather (played by Agnes Bruckner) is a bad girl sent to an isolated boarding school for something involving both a fire (that's never really explained) and pissing off her uptight mother. Once there she is ostracized by her peers, discovers she has mysterious telekinetic powers, and that there's something not quite right with the staff.

The boarding school is headed up by a prim and proper Patricia Clarkson, who apparently is a witch or human manifestation of the evil spirits of woods. 100 years prior she, along with her sisters, were persecuted by the very same school and responded by chop chop chopping off the head of the former school mistress. They're looking for young girls with special "gifts" that will enable them to initiate something mean and nasty. Again, I was never quite sure what the goal was - it might have been something about resurrecting the dead girls from 100 years ago or waking the spirits in the woods...who knows?

The effects are good - nothing spectacular but they do what they're needed to do. The acting all around is good, especially Clarkson, who doesn't have a whole heck of a lot to do but makes the most of it. The school staff in general is full of so many tics and tremors that it lends to a sense of restlessness and anticipation whenever they're on screen.

If you get past the convoluted plot, there are plenty of great images, sound effects, and sense of dread to appreciate. And if you can't take any of that, either, you get Bruce "I'm frickin' Ash" Campbell playing a supporting role as Heather's loving father. What's not to like?

The Woods (2005)

Lucky McKee hit a quirky little triple with his debut pic MAY, a small independent horror movie about a lonely girl that decides if you can't find someone to love, make someone to love. His next film, THE WOODS, languished in studio Hell for an eternity, eventually worming its way onto DVD a month ago. While not as fresh as his previous film, McKee inject a lot of atmosphere and disturbing images into a story that doesn't quite make sense to make THE WOODS a worthwhile diversion.

From what I can recollect of the plot, Heather (played by Agnes Bruckner) is a bad girl sent to an isolated boarding school for something involving both a fire (that's never really explained) and pissing off her uptight mother. Once there she is ostracized by her peers, discovers she has mysterious telekinetic powers, and that there's something not quite right with the staff.

The boarding school is headed up by a prim and proper Patricia Clarkson, who apparently is a witch or human manifestation of the evil spirits of woods. 100 years prior she, along with her sisters, were persecuted by the very same school and responded by chop chop chopping off the head of the former school mistress. They're looking for young girls with special "gifts" that will enable them to initiate something mean and nasty. Again, I was never quite sure what the goal was - it might have been something about resurrecting the dead girls from 100 years ago or waking the spirits in the woods...who knows?

The effects are good - nothing spectacular but they do what they're needed to do. The acting all around is good, especially Clarkson, who doesn't have a whole heck of a lot to do but makes the most of it. The school staff in general is full of so many tics and tremors that it lends to a sense of restlessness and anticipation whenever they're on screen.

If you get past the convoluted plot, there are plenty of great images, sound effects, and sense of dread to appreciate. And if you can't take any of that, either, you get Bruce "I'm frickin' Ash" Campbell playing a supporting role as Heather's loving father. What's not to like?

Diary of the Dead (2008)

There are few movies that can be said to have changed the face of modern horror. TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. HALLOWEEN. The number drops even lower when you consider the impact of a franchise on modern horror.

But how often is it that the second or third film in a franchise continues to change the way we think, view, and more importantly film horror? If George A. Romero and his series of classic DEAD films don't immediately spring to mind, chances are you may be a shuffling, mindless ghoul yourself.

The history of the series, the social commentary that inhabit them, and the frustration and challenges that each film underwent to come to life make up a story in and of themselves. The fights over ownership of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and the abomination of the anniversary edition complete with "newly shot footage" (all done without Romero's participation or consent). The long struggle to bring the fourth film (originally titled TWILIGHT OF THE DEAD) out of development Hell and into reality as LAND OF THE DEAD, a film I still say stands proudly along the others, even if it sits a little lower. So when rumors started to float about another DEAD film, one that would be completely independent of studio control and that would invite the guerrilla spirit of the first film, I was in 100%. The Man had a plan, and he was going to take things in an entirely new direction. Witness the initial outbreak from the glass eyes that dominate the cultural landscape, where nothing is real unless you see it on TV. Skewer the media, comment on America's growing obsession with voyeurism as a means to distance our selves from reality, and maybe scare the pants off us in the bargain.

Well, DIARY OF THE DEAD tries really hard to do all those things, but unfortunately falls flat because of one gigantic issue that, try as I might, I could not see past.

This is some of the worst acting I've ever seen.

The story is edited together by survivor Debra from the footage shot by her asinine boyfriend Jason, a film student shooting a no-budget horror film with his friends/classmates for his senior project. At the outset you're told through narration that this is going to look like a movie, it's even cued with music because the intent is to scare enough people to wake them up to what's happening across the country. It's a great concept, and interspersed throughout the "edit" are clips from television, radio, and Internet broadcasts that Romero uses to expand and color both the world the characters are inhabiting and to highlight the social commentary. And it's all great stuff, but unfortunately it's background to the main story of these film students trying to get across Pennsylvania.

And brother, you have never seen performances this hackneyed and boring.

Some of the blame does fall on Romero's script, which has plenty of brilliance but is also saddled with silly cliches and character quirks that drag everything down. The professor, always looking for the next drink while offering insipid observations that hit the ground like a dead bird. Who also, it must be noted, was apparently a soldier and an archery champion if you're to believe his actions. There's a southern belle who actually screams "Don't mess with Texas" at one point. And I hesitate to even mention the deaf Amish farmer, except to say that for some reason I found him to be one of the more endearing characters in the film. Everyone plays a "type" of role instead of embodying a character. I know our country's youth is supposed to be jaded and desensitized to violence thanks to video games and Sylvester Stallone movies (BTW, I really liked RAMBO - just sayin'), but the zombies exhibit more personality than the living.

I hate that DIARY OF THE DEAD is as bad as it is, because there are some excellent ideas and sequences that, had they been better acted, would have been wonderful. There's a town everyone's abandoned except for a black militant group, who explain that if this is what it took to give them a chance, they're going to take every advantage of it. There's the constant murmurings from the radios and televisions sets, including a great cameo by Romero in a bit that captures our fears of how the Media really operates. Even the main argument between the leads about choosing to film events instead of actively participating in securing their survival is inspired, but fails because we don't care one bit about the people having the argument.

DIARY OF THE DEAD is a huge disappointment, a great concept that is killed in it's execution. I checked imdb.com and found that Romero is already working on a sequel. Let's hope that whatever comes out fixes the gross errors of judgment inherent in this one.

Diary of the Dead (2008)

There are few movies that can be said to have changed the face of modern horror. TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. HALLOWEEN. The number drops even lower when you consider the impact of a franchise on modern horror.

But how often is it that the second or third film in a franchise continues to change the way we think, view, and more importantly film horror? If George A. Romero and his series of classic DEAD films don't immediately spring to mind, chances are you may be a shuffling, mindless ghoul yourself.

The history of the series, the social commentary that inhabit them, and the frustration and challenges that each film underwent to come to life make up a story in and of themselves. The fights over ownership of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and the abomination of the anniversary edition complete with "newly shot footage" (all done without Romero's participation or consent). The long struggle to bring the fourth film (originally titled TWILIGHT OF THE DEAD) out of development Hell and into reality as LAND OF THE DEAD, a film I still say stands proudly along the others, even if it sits a little lower. So when rumors started to float about another DEAD film, one that would be completely independent of studio control and that would invite the guerrilla spirit of the first film, I was in 100%. The Man had a plan, and he was going to take things in an entirely new direction. Witness the initial outbreak from the glass eyes that dominate the cultural landscape, where nothing is real unless you see it on TV. Skewer the media, comment on America's growing obsession with voyeurism as a means to distance our selves from reality, and maybe scare the pants off us in the bargain.

Well, DIARY OF THE DEAD tries really hard to do all those things, but unfortunately falls flat because of one gigantic issue that, try as I might, I could not see past.

This is some of the worst acting I've ever seen.

The story is edited together by survivor Debra from the footage shot by her asinine boyfriend Jason, a film student shooting a no-budget horror film with his friends/classmates for his senior project. At the outset you're told through narration that this is going to look like a movie, it's even cued with music because the intent is to scare enough people to wake them up to what's happening across the country. It's a great concept, and interspersed throughout the "edit" are clips from television, radio, and Internet broadcasts that Romero uses to expand and color both the world the characters are inhabiting and to highlight the social commentary. And it's all great stuff, but unfortunately it's background to the main story of these film students trying to get across Pennsylvania.

And brother, you have never seen performances this hackneyed and boring.

Some of the blame does fall on Romero's script, which has plenty of brilliance but is also saddled with silly cliches and character quirks that drag everything down. The professor, always looking for the next drink while offering insipid observations that hit the ground like a dead bird. Who also, it must be noted, was apparently a soldier and an archery champion if you're to believe his actions. There's a southern belle who actually screams "Don't mess with Texas" at one point. And I hesitate to even mention the deaf Amish farmer, except to say that for some reason I found him to be one of the more endearing characters in the film. Everyone plays a "type" of role instead of embodying a character. I know our country's youth is supposed to be jaded and desensitized to violence thanks to video games and Sylvester Stallone movies (BTW, I really liked RAMBO - just sayin'), but the zombies exhibit more personality than the living.

I hate that DIARY OF THE DEAD is as bad as it is, because there are some excellent ideas and sequences that, had they been better acted, would have been wonderful. There's a town everyone's abandoned except for a black militant group, who explain that if this is what it took to give them a chance, they're going to take every advantage of it. There's the constant murmurings from the radios and televisions sets, including a great cameo by Romero in a bit that captures our fears of how the Media really operates. Even the main argument between the leads about choosing to film events instead of actively participating in securing their survival is inspired, but fails because we don't care one bit about the people having the argument.

DIARY OF THE DEAD is a huge disappointment, a great concept that is killed in it's execution. I checked imdb.com and found that Romero is already working on a sequel. Let's hope that whatever comes out fixes the gross errors of judgment inherent in this one.

Leatherheads (2008)

George Clooney's LEATHERHEADS falls into the same category as fun films like THE IMPOSTERS and (very specifically) THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, recalling the (largely forgotten) screwball comedies of the 30's and 40's. And while it doesn't reach the dizzying heights of those films made famous by the likes of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, it gets a lot right, and comes off as a refreshingly pleasant comedy, a nice alternative to the glut of Apatow-influenced movies that have been playing as of late.

Not that there's anything wrong with those comedies. But with seemingly six such films coming a month, something that plays by an older set of rules feels like a breath of fresh air. And 90% of this credit should go to Clooney, who knows how to milk comedy out of ordinary moments without having to always play it over the top. The opening scene is fantastic and, as noted elsewhere, probably displays the finest cow acting outside of TOP SECRET! I've ever seen. As Dodge Connolly, the star of the Duluth Bulldogs, a professional football in 1925 that's in danger of going under, Clooney gets to play the Cary Grant role to the hilt, complete with the snazzy one-liners and the wonderful facial expressions, especially during any scene involving getting punched or tackled.

Both John Krasinski and Renee Zellwegger as the other two thirds of the obligatory love trinagle work their roles well. Krasinski in particular uses the boyish charm from The Office to great effect in a role that changes over the course of the movie. Zellwegger stays away from the obvious tough girl reporter imitation that Jennifer Jason Leigh used in HUDSUCKER and instead just plays it straight with a hint of sarcasm and confidence. But the real joy is in the supporting cast, made up of Coen Brother alumni like Stephen Roont (great in every role he takes) as the drunk reporter and Wayne Duvall as the coach of the Bulldogs. Clooney obviously learned a lot from his time with the Coens, and LEATHERHEADS benefits by wisely giving many of the best moments to the supporting cast instead of completely focusing on the stars.

The football scenes are played for laughs, not authenticity, so if you're looking for a fond, historical view of how football worked in the early days, this probably isn't going to do it for you. Most of the funny moments are in the trailer, but there's enough left to provide some good laughs and surprises, especially with the pivotal final game that manages to tie everything up in a neat little package.

It may seem like an odd fit for Clooney following on the heels of both GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK and MICHAEL CLAYTON, but as a throwback to the movies I grew up on LEATHERHEADS was a nice afternoon date with my wife.