Monthly Archives: February 2010

Kerrigan

 

Olympic Divas     For the casual Olympics fan, it’s a letdown that the Lindsey Vonn-Julia Mancuso feud has sputtered out.  The last time we had this much fun was back in 1994 when the Queen of Catfights broke out between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.   That episode worked out well for both ladies:  Kerrigan got to host Saturday Night Live, and Harding got to make a sex tape.

 

Mancuso

 

*****

 

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Something’s Fishy   Imagine that — turns out they call them “killer whales” for a reason.

Why is it that every time we read about a dog, often a pit bull, bumping off some human, we always learn that the dog was later euthanized, but this whale, supposedly responsible for several deaths now, goes on with the show?  Gee, could big money be involved?

 

*****

 

39 Steps

 

The 39 Steps     You’d think that the British, of all people, would know better than to mess with the films of native son Alfred Hitchcock.  Didn’t they see Christopher Reeve’s sleep-inducing Rear Window, or Gus Van Sant’s pointless remake of Psycho?

But this “Masterpiece Classic” fares much better than those other duds.  It’s not Hitchcock, but it is fairly entertaining.

 

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Invention

 

Let’s take a look at the ledger for The Invention of Lying, a better-than-average romantic comedy, but also a movie that lacks the courage of its convictions:

On the plus side, the movie has ambition.  Ricky Gervais tackles religion, societal values, and other Big Questions with wit and charm in a story about a fantasy world in which nearly everyone speaks the truth.  The comments people make to each other are biting and very funny.  Also, Rob Lowe is an underrated comic actor; every scene he appears in adds spark to the proceedings.

On the negative side, Gervais (who cowrote and co-directed) undermines his own premise.  Gervais is saying we shouldn’t “judge a book by its cover,” yet his attraction to the female lead (Jennifer Garner) is apparently based solely on her looks.  Why else would he crave such a vapid, shallow woman?  And, after raising provocative questions about the very nature of existence, The Invention of Lying wraps up with a standard Hollywood ending, church scene and all.

I give the movie high marks for its clever humor — usually in the form of deadpan asides made by bit players — and for the charm of its cast.  But I’d be lying if I said it was a masterpiece.       Grade:  B

 

Directors:  Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson  Cast:  Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Louis C.K., Tina Fey, Christopher Guest, Jeffrey Tambor, John Hodgman, Jonah Hill, Stephen Merchant  Release:  2009

 

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HurtLocker

 

This isn’t a “review” so much as a concurrence.  I completely agree with Seth Colter Walls’s assessment of this film in the February 1 edition of Newsweek.  For what it is (a modern-day Western), The Hurt Locker does a fine job.  Kathryn Bigelow’s suspense flick pushes all the right buttons, and the bomb scenes are first-rate.  Thus, I rate it 90 percent.  But it doesn’t rate any higher than that, just as it doesn’t deserve a Best Picture Oscar, because that’s all it is:  a suspense flick.

Jeremy Renner is fine as the protagonist, but Bruce Willis could have pulled off this role.  Or Chuck Conners (The Rifleman, remember him?).

People are placing much importance on Hurt Locker because it’s set in wartime Iraq, and therefore it must be a “serious” motion picture.  Hogwash.  Hogan’s Heroes was set in a Nazi P.O.W. camp, but I don’t believe it racked up Emmy Awards.  So enjoy Bigelow’s movie for what it is, a well-crafted, yet ultimately forgettable, nail-biter.     Grade:  B+

 

Director:  Kathryn Bigelow  Cast:  Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Bryan Geraghty, Evangeline Lilly, David Morse, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce  Release:  2009



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Para1

 

So I went to Blockbuster today and, in honor of Valentine’s Day, rented Paranormal Activity.  The clerk at the counter looked at my DVD and said, “Can I ask you, are you renting this because you think you might like it, or just out of curiosity?”  I told him I suspected I would be disappointed in it.

“Yeah,” he said, smiling coquettishly.  (OK, so it wasn’t coquettish, I just like that word.  Did I misspell it?)  He told me it wasn’t very good.  I told him he could probably be fired for discouraging customers.  He sprang out of a slouch and informed me that, to the contrary, Blockbuster encourages employee honesty — good or bad — in movie recommendations.  I was surprised by that.  Good on you, Blockbuster.

So now I was twice warned, most recently by this would-be Tarantino at Blockbuster, and the first time ten years ago when I made the mistake of taking my two prepubescent nieces and their friend to The Blair Witch Project.  That movie, for the uninitiated, was another ultra-low-budget horror flick with amazing word-of-mouth.  The scariest thing about Blair Witch turned out to be the distinct possibility that someone seated behind you might at any moment puke down the back of your seat in reaction to the hyperactive, herky-jerky cinematography.  That was scary, and so were the horrifying closeups of the female star’s nostrils.

So how did Paranormal Activity stack up?  I was pleasantly surprised.  The acting was fine, although the characters weren’t particularly sympathetic as written (she’s a bit shrewish; he’s a bit wimpy).  Most of the special effects could be accomplished with a ball of string, and perhaps were.  But for such a low-budget piece of filmmaking, there are some genuine chills, and I thought the ending was a hoot.

Would I watch it again?  Probably not.  But hey, Blockbuster dude, it was much better than Blair Witch.     Grade:  B-

 

Director:  Oren Peli  Cast:  Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong, Ashley Palmer  Release:  2009

 

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Zombie

 

Zombieland starts out well.  Our hero (Jesse Eisenberg), surveying a sterile, vacant parking lot, informs us that we are in Garland, Texas, which he tells us was pretty much a “zombieland” before a mysterious virus actually zombified mankind.  He is spot-on with his analysis.  I lived in Garland, Texas, in the 1980s, and I recall the city council once asking a public relations expert about how to make the bland Dallas suburb into a “sexier” destination.  The expert’s advice apparently didn’t take, because Zombieland chose to single out poor Garland for abuse.

As I say, the film begins promisingly, for us if not for Garland.  But then, despite a good cast, it quickly degenerates into a series of clichés.  Eisenberg plays yet another golden-hearted loser, unlucky at love but a whiz at computer games; Woody Harrelson pops in as the stupid macho man we are expected to laugh at — and admire — as he mentors the kid; two thinly drawn female characters are introduced, I suppose so that teenage girls will more likely see Zombieland with their boyfriends.

The laughs are cheap.  I guess it’s mildly amusing that Harrelson’s tough guy has a weakness for Twinkies, but is that such a funny gag that it must be repeated, over and over again?

The special effects … sigh … are fine.  This is the problem with Hollywood movies today:  The acting is usually quite good, the direction is accomplished, the set direction and cinematography are a wonder to behold, and the special effects make you gasp.  See anything missing from that list?  Only the most important element — a memorable story, devoid of clichés.

Zombieland, like most of Hollywood’s output, is a diverting enough way to spend two hours.  But it’s also as forgettable as a parking lot in Garland.      Grade:  C

 

Director:  Ruben Fleischer  Cast:  Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Amber Heard  Release:  2009

 

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Shutter2

 

Back in 1980, critics’ darling Stanley Kubrick delighted Stephen King fans (if not King, himself) by choosing to film The Shining.  Kubrick hadn’t ventured into horror before, but the resulting movie is now considered a classic of the genre.  Somehow I doubt that, 30 years from now, film historians will be as kind to acclaimed director Martin Scorsese’s foray into horror, Shutter Island.

This is not a bad movie, just a lethargic one.  As you might expect from Scorsese, it looks gorgeous, it has a grade-A calibre cast, and no production value has been spared.  But its twist is nothing new, its psychological “insights” are cliched and, well, put it this way:  If you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, there’s nothing here to surprise you.  Oh, and The Wizard of Oz was scarier.

This is all a shame because the trappings of something fun are all here:  a spooky island with a menacing mental hospital; a vicious storm that knocks out the power; hospital staff members who are as creepy as the inmates; hints at horrible doings in the past and horrible doings to come.

But Scorsese seems to coast through all of it.  He has no fun with the material, and so neither do we.  I used to criticize Scorsese for rarely venturing out of his comfort zone, which is the gangster picture.  But after this misfired attempt at horror, maybe gangsterville is where he should stay.       Grade:  B-

 

Director:  Martin Scorsese  Cast:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Mark Ruffalo, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Max Von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson  Release:  2010



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District1

 

It must suck to be a professional film critic these days.  The critic goes to college, learns about Bergman and Hitchcock and Ford … and then spends 90 percent of his career reviewing junk aimed at 14-year-old boys.  So when the film critic catches sight — just a glimpse! — of something adult or meaningful in a movie, he tends to go overboard with praise.  I can think of no other explanation for the absurdly high rating accorded District 9 on rottentomatoes.com.

The movie does begin well.  Here we have a science-fiction film that appears to actually say something about illegal immigration, or apartheid, or some other social issue, with an analogy that shows mankind’s shabby treatment of predator-like aliens who become stranded in South Africa.

But producer Peter Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp haven’t forgotten who butters their bread — those aforementioned 14-year-old boys.  And so District 9 quickly devolves into a routine chase movie, a shoot ’em up with jerky special effects.

Was the ending supposed to be poignant?  I was just happy that the damned thing was finally over.     Grade:  D

 

Director:  Neill Blomkamp  Cast:  Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Mandla Gaduka, William Allen Young, Vanessa Haywood, Kenneth Nkosi, Devlin Brown  Release:  2009



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Jackson

 

According to the blurb on the DVD of this documentary, This Is It offers a “raw and candid” look at the legendary Michael Jackson as he rehearsed for, alas, his never-to-be final concert tour.  But here is the “raw and candid” footage we actually get of Jackson’s rehearsals:  Every five minutes or so, Jackson mutters a few incomprehensible comments to his director from the stage; in brief interviews, numerous dancers and crew tell us how much they adore Jackson; he dances a lot, and sings portions (never the entirety) of his hit songs.

I don’t believe I can be accused of being anti-Jackson because, whatever his politics and personal life might have been, I was a fan the minute he and his nappy-headed brothers (hello, Don Imus) burst onto the scene in 1969, bubble-gum rocking their way into my 12-year-old soul.  Hell, I even liked young Jackson’s love song to a rat, the unjustly neglected “Ben.”

But this documentary reeks of exploitation.  Jackson was a perfectionist.  There is a reason professionals rehearse; they want audiences to get the best possible final product.  This mishmash will appeal strongly to die-hard Jackson fans and wannabe choreographers, but for the general Jackson fan, this ain’t it.       Grade:  C-

 

Director:  Kenny Ortega  Featuring:  Michael Jackson  Release:  2009



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Vanishes

 

I’ve been visiting The Internet Movie Database for years, but only recently did I discover the wealth of free movies on the site.  The bad news?  If you can’t stomach “old,” black-and-white flicks, there isn’t much for you.  The good news, of course, is that there’s a lot for the rest of us.  If you like Hitchcock, and if North by Northwest whets your whistle, check out The Lady Vanishes, which is playful Hitchcock from 1938 that shows that the master was on his game well before David Selznick lured him to Hollywood.  Go here and watch it free.

 

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Head

 

The Grouch recently spread his bile to rottentomatoes.com, where he does his best to trash movies new to the screen and new to your TV.  (Actually, some of the reviews are quite positive.)

Check out what the Grouch has to say at the grouchyeditor page on Rotten Tomatoes.

 

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