Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Last Exorcism" full of spooks

The Last Exorcism (2010) 
88 min., rated PG-13.

The horror-movie craze of demonic possession and exorcisms first started with "The Exorcist" and it probably won't end with "The Last Exorcism," despite such claims by its title. This faux-documentary horror film, lumped into the "found footage" subgenre, has the disadvantage of being a successor to "The Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity," but it still delivers its own cool, scary goods through a convincing "this-is-real" illusion. 

From a script by Huck Botko & Andrew Gurland, director Daniel Stamm's film introduces Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), an evangelical showman-minister who has conducted bogus exorcisms for a quarter of his life. Living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife and son, Cotton has long lost his faith and knows demonic possession is a total sham, but hey, performing an exorcism supports his family and pays the bills. With a documentary crew—producer/director/boom operator Iris (Iris Bahr) and cameraman Daniel (Adam Grimes)—following him behind the scenes, he answers one last exorcism request that takes him to a farm in Ivanwood. There, naïve, home-schooled teen Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) has been acting strange and her family's livestock keeps getting slaughtered. Her widowed father, Louis (Louis Herthum), just wants his little girl cleansed of the evil that has taken over her body, but her young brother, Caleb (a creepy Caleb Landry Jones), tells the reverend and his crew to leave. Cotton does his thing, claiming Nell to be possessed by a demon called "Abalam" and then "performing" the exorcism (complete with an hidden iPod playing evil groaning sounds and installed smoke puffing out of his crucifix). Once Cotton and his crew get sucked into the Sweetzers' problems, whatever's going on is definitely not a crock and they get way more than they bargained for. 

Before the Scary Stuff goes rampant, "The Last Exorcism" begins with a dry sense of humor and amusing observation of religion and Louisiana color. First off, the performances are key. Fabian is perfectly charismatic without actually being arrogant, not only turning up the "fire and brimstone" act as part of his job but also portraying a conflicted man who's faithful in his skepticism. Bell is extraordinary, innocent and empathetic one moment and then eerily "someone else" the next. Although she's not asked to vomit up any pea soup or crab-walk down the stairs, her possession scenes are disquieting. Watching Nell's neck twist and her body contort is a freaky sight, but even merely a shot of the girl standing still at the end of a hallway, perhaps a visual cue to "[REC]" and its U.S. remake "Quarantine," is chilling. Because of these two performances mainly, the film never careens into unintentional parody. 

Director Stamm instills a sense of dread with silence and deliberate pacing, amping up the tension, which at times can get so taut that it's guaranteed you'll be covering your eyes or holding your breath. Despite a few shrieky music cues that tell our spines when to tingle, the film can still be startling and frightening. It's also surprisingly intense for a film that garnered a PG-13 rating, and producer Eli Roth must've overlooked the production pretty closely to make sure some blood made the final cut. For instance, the handhand camera is used to bludgeon a cat. Where the film ends up going in the last five minutes offers some disturbingly gutsy revelations, but the finale is kind of a bummer. Though ending on an abrupt, anticlimactic note not unlike "The Blair Witch Project," that doesn't erase "The Last Exorcism" from being an effective, generally understated spooker. Getting released at the end of "dump month" August, this is a shocker in the best sense of the word.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

"The Switch" is more than just another baby-daddy rom-com

The Switch (2010)
100 min., rated PG-13
Grade: B

With the terrific The Kids Are All Right out right now and Jennifer Lopez's mediocre The Back-up Plan earlier this year, another preggers-sperm movie wasn't exactly on anyone's wish list. But life is full of surprises, and The Switch ends up a pleasant surprise.

Jason Bateman is Wally, a neurotic Wall Streeter whose BFF, Kassie (Jennifer Aniston), decides to have a baby without a husband. Oh no, raising a baby the 21st-century way! When she finds the perfect sperm donor (not Wally) in a rock-climbing Michigan stud (Patrick Wilson), she throws an “insemination party” (yes there is such a thing, apparently), an inebriated Wally switches the specimen in the bathroom with his own. Seven years later, Kassie's son Sebastian shows some quirks and tics that he characteristically has in common with Wally. Will he keep the switcheroo a secret and that he is the baby daddy?

The setup sounds sitcommy, indeed, especially when it comes from a short story entitled “Baster,” (as in turkey baster, as in sperm), but it's filled in with a lightness and reality by directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, the duo behind the Will Ferrell comedy Blades of Glory of all things.

Aniston flaunts her usual perky likability with a sexy single-mom appeal, but she's more of a day player in this one. This is Bateman's movie: He's quite prickly for a leading man and doesn't care about being liked, but he's so naturally funny and emotional. Bateman has the comic invention to make puking in a garbage can funny again. And he and little Thomas Robinson, with an adorably google-eyed face, even have more chemistry than Bateman and Aniston do that The Switch is practically an out-of-body switcheroo picture.

Jeff Goldblum spikes up the the side role of Wally's wisdom-dropping stockbroker partner and steals every scene he's in as Jeff Goldblum tends to do. And Juliette Lewis fulfills the wacky gal pal role.

The Switch has some fresh laughs and occasional wit in the dialogue but actually ends up more touching than you'd expect. Despite its desire to produce a conventional rom-com ending, this Jennifer Aniston rom-com should win you over rather than plague you with morning sickness.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"Piranha 3D" bloody, topless, campy fun

Piranha 3D (2010)
88 min., rated R.

If you're going to remake the fun, tongue-in-cheek Roger Corman-produced "Jaws" spoof from 1978 (let alone in 3-D conversion), "Piranha 3D" is the way to do it. You want subtlety? Look some place else. It's shameless trash that knows it and makes no bones about what it's trying to be; it just goes for it. What's "Piranha 3D" about you ask? How quaint. Easy: it's a wild Spring Break party in Lake Victoria (played by Lake Havasu), where a quake rattles the underwater floor and unleashes schools of prehistoric, killing-machine piranha! This is an August popcorn movie, not high art, so that's all you need to know. 

Elisabeth Shue, as the local sheriff, and Ving Rhames, as her deputy, want to shut down the lake, while her teen son (Steve McQueen's grandson Steven R. McQueen) and hammered, bare-breasted extras become a buffet for the fishies. The random cast of familiar faces is gung-ho and straight-faced, with Richard Dreyfuss turning in a cameo off the top as an in-joke to "Jaws" (notice the song he's singing) and Christopher Lloyd (what a sight for sore eyes) shows up as a wacky scientist who gives Doc Brown exposition and warnings of doom. The first half hour is an unevenly paced wind-up, with some deaths thrown in without setup, but after four or five margaritas you won't really care. The rest delivers a no-holds-barred, awesomely funny, unapologetically violent Grand Guignol of carnage, packed with jolty, gory guffaws, just the way expectations would have it. 

For what is pretty much Syfy Channel schlock in a "Jersey Shore" episode, director Alexandre Aja never holds back on his hard R-rated servings of jiggling T&A and outrageous gross-outs: a topless parasailer dips into the water, jugs afloat, and emerges a torso, while another gets her hair caught in a speed boat motor. Basically any swimmer ends up looking like a sulfuric acid victim. A smarmy, obnoxious “Girls Gone Wild”-style producer (Jerry O'Connell) meets his fate in the worst way and an over-excited wet T-shirt contest host (Eli Roth) loses his head in a hideous fate. For further understanding of how seriously we're supposed to take this, we even get a little slo-mo underwater ballet between naked supermodel Kelly Brook and porn star Riley Steele, cued to the opera tune “Flower Duet.” 

So how is "Piranha" in the 3rd dimension? The 3-D leaves some of the underwater killings murky, but takes advantage of perfectly gimmicky and gratuitous duck-your-head! shots (including overboard vomiting, boobs in your face, and a severed, chewed-up penis projecting at your face right before becoming fish food). Bloody but not without a sure sense of fun and gleefully knowing without feeling like self-parody, "Piranha 3D" is the way to end the summer: the gnarly kind of guilty-pleasure cheese that's a dumb blast. And the sequel-setup ending's a hoot. 

Grade: B +

Boisterous "City Island" has honesty and laughs

City Island (2010) 
104 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

Writer-director Raymond De Felitta's likable human comedy-drama acquaints us with the Rizzos, a boisterous party of four City Islanders residing in the New York fishing village on the outskirts of the Bronx. In "City Island," Andy Garcia is Vince, a prison guard, er sorry, corrections officer who secretly takes acting classes in Manhattan without telling his wife or kids, saying he's going to play poker. While his shrewish wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), thinks he's actually having an affair, Vince also has another secret: he brings home one of the parole-released prison inmates (Steven Strait), his grown son from a previous marriage. Basically every family member harbors a secret and all of them smoke cigarettes on the sly. 

De Felitta's script has its share of contrivances and broad characters (the son has fatty fetishes, the daughter back from college is a stripper). But De Felitta gives "City Island" a bright look and a breezy pace with nicely written dialogue and engaging performances that don't exactly cross the line to caricature. Andy's real daughter, Dominik Garcia-Lorido, as daughter Vivian isn't bad, but Ezra Miller as Vince Jr. is an irreverently funny young actor. Vince's acting audition with casting directors for a Scorsese picture is invaluable. All the plot strands do come together in a messy climax on the street, but it never turns into just a screaming match of family dysfunction as real-life secrets and misunderstandings bubble to the top, telling us “Life is very messy.” Emily Mortimer co-stars as Vince's acting-class partner (they begin a platonic relationship), and Alan Arkin more or less has a cameo as the acting coach but is amusing when he condemns Marlon Brandon's acting pauses.

"City Island," far more enjoyable than Derick and Steven Martini's dysfunctional-family melodrama "Lymelife" from 2008, is closer to a sitcom but it's still honest and easier to connect with the Rizzos. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Self-absorption never overwhelms gorgeously shot "Eat Pray Love"

Eat Pray Love (2010) 
133 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

Maybe not the most logical path toward enlightenment, but food, meditation, and kisses never looked so appealing. "Eat Pray Love," based on New York travel writer Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir of appreciation of life, adventure, and self-discovery, isn't so much “Me Me Me” with Julia Roberts around. 

After realizing she's lost the zest in her life after a painful divorce (with Billy Crudup) and a rebound relationship with a charming young actor (James Franco), the restless and dissatisfied Liz ships off on a yearlong odyssey to find her inner balance. Four months each, she stops in Rome (rekindling her appetite for Italian cuisine and wine without calorie counts), India (praying at the ashram of a guru and petting elephants), and Bali (love with an attractive Brazilian divorcee played by Javier Bardem). So call it “Chicken Soup for the Narcissist's Soul” or identify with Gilbert's solitariness, Roberts doesn't make the protagonist overly self-absorbed because she's one of the most engaging and naturally likable Hollywood sweethearts; instead we envy Gilbert and it's a winning performance. 

TV veteran Ryan Murphy shoots "Eat Pray Love" with sensitive, easygoing direction, inviting us on a beautiful travelogue of authentic and eye-filling locations. Flowing at a breezy pace, the film captures Gilbert's moments of sorrow, joy, and wry humor. The Italy section is the most enjoyable: A lot of mouth-watering food porn, letting us in on the delicious delights of Roberts twirling noodles with her fork and slurping them down with her perfect teeth, as well as a whole pie of pizza. Yum! 

Murphy and Jennifer Salt's script sprinkles Gilbert's truism-filled prose into her voice-over, although they never make satisfactory reason for why she's so unhappy with her former loves that would've benefited from more context and urgency. No matter, this is the first movie in a long while to give us such an independent, free-thinking heroine and not set feminism back four decades. We learn you don't have to love a man to love yourself, even though Liz does finally check 'love' off the list. Character actor Richard Jenkins gives a tender performance as a wise hippie Texan, whose grim story that brought him to India (shot in a single long take) moves us more than Liz's navel-gazing herself. 

Though an often draggy, verbose escape, "Eat Pray Love" will satisfy those in need of an indulgent vacation—and what nice company it is with a pretty woman like our Julia. She is a real movie star.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Animal Kingdom" grips you tight

Animal Kingdom (2010)
110 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

Mate, if you thought the Sopranos were a seriously screwed-up family, then you haven't met the Codys until now in "Animal Kingdom," a gripping, well-acted, beautifully constructed Australian crime drama. Right off the top, Melbourne 17-year-old Joshua "J" Cody (newcomer James Frecheville) sits on the couch next to his passed-out mother, who's dead from a heroin overdose when the paramedics come. From there, he reaches out to his grandmother, a dimunitive, overly doting woman known as Smurf (Jacki Weaver) who's also the household den mother of her three adult cubs who commit heinous crimes. The leader of the family is Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), who's initially in hiding from the cops. Thrust into the crime universe, J. knows his uncles are crooks and sometimes becomes an accomplice to their seedy dealings, but his honesty to a detective (Guy Pearce) might just keep him safe. 

This is such an impressively assured film that you'd never guess it was writer-director David Michod's feature debut. The pacing might feel too sluggish for moviegoers expecting a whiz-bang action thriller but the methodical, slow-burn pacing is perfect, and the violence never gratuitous but integral to this harsh, tough world. 

Surrounded by such complex, colorfully drawn characters, Frecheville is the most sensitive and subdued, but as reticent as he is playing J., he becomes the emotional core. His emotional breakdown is powerful after his girlfriend is put at risk. The great Weaver is frighteningly sweet and truly chilling as Smurf, an old matron who has nothing without her sons. "Animal Kingdom" is a realistically gritty film that grabs you and captures the gray areas of morality and survival of the fittest which most Hollywood action pictures do not dare touch. 

Monday, August 9, 2010

Basically taut "The Strangers" full of dread

The Strangers (2008) 
85 min., rated R.

If you were alone at night and heard a knock at the door, "The Strangers" plays on that fear for 85 minutes with an unbearably creepy dread. James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) arrive at his family's summer ranch in the country for an awkward rest of the evening, after she turns down his marriage proposal. Suddenly there's a knock at the door at 4 a.m., and not long after that encounter, three masked attackers invade the house and start harassing the rocky couple. 

This scary, taut-as-a-rope little suspense number is ultimately pointless, but if you're not a resolution man, "The Strangers" is proof that you can still earn scares without all the gratuitous blood and gore (good riddance!) and slick, jittery editing by cutting it down to back-to-basics suspense of the '70s era. First-time writer-director Bryan Bertino sustains a fever pitch with a minimalist, chamber-piece approach. The cinematography is moody and shadowy, there's a quietly terrifying long shot of the burlap-bag masked stranger watching Tyler from the background, and the use of a skipping record player in one scene is effectively eerie. 

The leads acquit themselves adequately, not behaving as stupidly as most slasher-movie characters always do. Sure, one of them twists an ankle and, at one point, a door is left wide open, but you might do the same in a life-threatening situation. The strangers' doll-face, pin-up girl, and burlap-sack masks are hard to forget and never come off until the end, and, even then, we wisely never catch a peek. Almost always ahead of James and Kristen and having the upper hand, they even appear to be a bit supernatural. In one mordantly clever touch, Tyler asks the overused question, "Why are you doing this?" and one of the strangers simply replies with "Because you were home." 

It's refreshingly spare and well-made, from a horror movie aspect, but finally let down by a cheap, anticlimactic "boo!" scare for an ending. A typical gimmick, "The Strangers" claims to be "inspired by" true events with an opening title card letting us know already of the couple's fate, much like "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." On the face value of the premise, it's not unlike "Straw Dogs," "Funny Games," "Vacancy," or "Them," and perhaps the "true events" echo a bit of the Manson Family murders. True or derivative, the film still knows how to keep you on edge. 

"Race to Witch Mountain" races without much charm

Race to Witch Mountain (2009)
99 min., rated PG.
Grade: C

 Since Disney's on a roll, remaking almost every live-action Disney-Buena Vista classic ("That Darn Cat," "The Parent Trap," "The Shaggy Dog," "Freaky Friday"), why not a “re-imagining” of the charming "Escape to Witch Mountain" from 1975? Remember the crusty old companion Jason from the original? 

Well, it can be assumed that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a modernization on that character, playing skeptical Las Vegas cab driver Jack Bruno. He's a brooding ex-con threatened by a pair of goons right before toeheaded twin aliens, Seth and Sara (Alexander Ludwig, AnnaSophia Robb), who have special telekinetic and telepathic powers, appear in his back seat with a wad of cash and ask Jack to take them to the desert. Tracked by some evil government agents in black, Jack will have to outmaneuver them and deliver Seth and Sara safely to Witch Mountain. 

Now Johnson may get a bad rap in the acting department, but lay off, he has high-wattage charisma and a goofy charm, kind of like a meathead Brendan Fraser. Not going over so well are the miscast Tom Everett Scott and David Marquette as agents. Most fun is Kim Richards, the child star of the 1975 original, in a small role as a helpful, friendly waitress. "Race to Witch Mountain" is a benign, speedy race to the finish-line, but a rather joyless kiddie action movie with a lot of frenetic action. 

Predictable "Obsessed" has too few guilty pleasures

Obsessed (2009) 
105 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C 

You don't even have to watch the trailer (which spells it all out anyway) to know that the mundanely titled "Obsessed" is a predictable gloss on "Fatal Attraction," "The Crush," "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," "Disclosure," "The Temp," and many more where those came from. If you've never seen a movie before, then everything in "Obsessed" may surprise you. But doesn't Lifetime play these kinds of stalker movies for free? 

Sultry blonde Ali Larter plays Lisa, a hot office temp who isn't even off at the twenty-second floor before she's already set her voracious eyes on Derek (Idris Elba), a Los Angeles asset broker. He's attractive, intelligent, happily married to the former lead singer of Destiny's Child, er Derek's former assistant Sharon (Beyonce Knowles), and with a baby son—the perfect man—and would give Denzel Washington a run for his money. And they've just moved into a stately, affluent house with a creaky attic and a chandelier with a glass-top table set directly beneath it (this is called foreshadowing people!). Slinky Lisa flirts with Derek, listens in on his calls with Sharon, nearly rapes him at the work Christmas Party in the men's bathroom stall, gives him a lingerie peep show in the parking garage, among other things that a skinny, psychotic bee-yotch would do. Oh no she didn't! Derek knows she's a delusional, completely off-her-rocker homewrecker and stalker, but no other white person sees it that way, of course. And when Derek doesn't want her, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned!

This month's psycho-thriller has too few guilty pleasures to make it trashy fun (what, there's no oral sex in the elevator?). And if you can't piece together the blanks that Steve Shill's blatantly obvious direction so generously telegraphs, the climactic slug-it-out cat fight right out of "Dynasty" won't be totally foreseeable. But there is some over-the-top, crowd-cheering entertainment value in watching a zinger-spoutin' Knowles kickin' some crazy white girl ass, in stiletto boots no less ... you go girl! Larter gives her stock psycho Lisa a credible craziness and alluring sex appeal that would make any man with a beating heart give in to temptation. 

Elba is acceptably cast, and Knowles' sass is more than welcome as the diva-housewife but you wonder why she took this project and also executive produced it. Speaking of, what is such a smart and talented actress as Christine Lahti doing here in a throwaway role as a police investigator? Production values are slick, but James Dooley's overripe music cues hiss, crash, and are supposed to have us in suspense, and a freeze-frame conclusion cued to Beyonce's ending credits song “Smash into You” suggests the movie to be more dramatic than it really was. 

One half-hour episode of VH1's “Rock of Love” with Brett Michaels and his entourage of tattooed sluts contains more surprising trash than all 105 minutes of "Obsessed." 

Sunday, August 8, 2010

"The Ruins" a tense and squirmy nightmare

The Ruins (2008) 
91 min., rated R. 

"The Ruins" is only stock in its advertising and initial setup that of "Wolf Creek" and "Turistas," where American travelers become the hunted in a foreign land. Otherwise, don't look for any sightseeing hot spots in this intense, squirm-inducing horror flick. Off the top, a woman cowering in a dark hole, screaming bloody murder for help, sets the bleak tone for the nightmare that ensues. Lounging around the hotel pool with margaritas, four twenty-somethings—best friends Amy (Jena Malone) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey) and their boyfriends, Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Eric (Shawn Ashmore)—are on an exotic vacation in Mexico. They meet a friendly German traveler named Mathias (Joe Anderson) and idiotically decide to head out to an archeological site in the jungle where his brother has gone missing. The site is, naturally, off the map, which should be a tip-off to these American kids, but nope. Once they step foot in the area around an ancient Mayan temple, they are cornered by tribesmen with arrows and guns who refuse to let them leave. Worse, they must stay atop the ruins with no-service cell phones, a dwindling supply of food and water...and some sort of carnivorous vine that attacks and infects the five friends. At least it's not a psychotic psycho knocking them off one by one, right?

Move over "Little Shop of Horrors," this is the Killer Plant Movie if there ever was one. Based on a page-turning novel by Scott Smith ("A Simple Plan"), who wrote the screenplay himself, and directed by Carter Smith (no relation to the author/screenwriter), "The Ruins" keeps the novel's queasy, disturbing vision intact most of the way. It plays out more grimly and a lot less ridiculous than it reads, while delivering viscera and bloody gore, as well as a bit of paranoia and the ugly side of human nature to post a threat and mount the tension. Part of the reason for that is the film has the courage of its own convictions for a contemporary R-rated horror film without watering down any of the characters' demises and doesn't exploit gore just for gore's sake like the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies.

The characters aren't particularly deep or always as intelligent as one would like them to be, but the "villain" is quite threatening and the plot carefully keeps things simple enough to not get bogged down in silly exposition. For a film like this, the acting is also quite unexpectedly strong. Out of the attractive cast, Jena Malone and a particularly courageous Laura Ramsey act with emotional intensity and empathy. Kudos to the effectively icky sound effects and realistically gruesome makeup, with an amputation and self-inflicting cutting as gross-out set-pieces, but some of the distracting CG enhancement could have been lessened. A bigger criticism is the ending. Instead of furthering its unsparing vise-like grip, the film ends as an anticlimax with a last shot that's just a cheap setup for a sequel that will probably never come. Nevertheless, "The Ruins" should satisfy those looking for dark, solid shocks and thrills, and perhaps a reason to never be a botanist.

Grade: B

"Twilight" series not as bad as word-of-mouth

Twilight (2008)
122 min., rated PG-13. 
Grade: B 

"Near Dark" meets a Harlequin romance better than it has any right to be in "Twilight," the eagerly anticipated adaptation of the ever-so-popular young adult series. Sullen adolescent Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) moves from Arizona to the misty town of Forks, Washington and meets the smoldering, fangless Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), all the way from Alaska, whom she thinks is the cat's—er, bat's—pajamas. Yes, Edward is, say it aloud, a vampire! When it comes to Bella, Eddie is a lover, not a biter. It turns out Edward and his family aren't into human snacking; they're “vegetarians” rather, but there is another pack of bloodsuckers getting a nose-full of Bella's savory scent that may want a taste. 

Surprisingly low-key and entertaining, whether or not you're a drooling teenage girl or if you've read Stephenie Meyer's books. On its side are a leavening, sly sense of humor against the otherwise gravely serious tone and rapturously crisp photography in Oregon and Washington State that you can almost smell the wet trees. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, it's decidedly more indie film than big Hollywood blockbuster, and bravo to that; she visualizes the vampire culture better than imagined (the way Edward sparkles like a diamond in the sunlight and when his family plays a game of baseball during a thunderstorm). Stewart gives an earnest, mature performance as Bella, Pattinson is perfectly cast and dreamy as Edward for his magnetic physical features—pasty face, pouty red lips, and wavy big "Lost Boys" hair—while his delivery is occasionally stilted, but together both actors sell their soft-focus romance with chaste but subtly heated chemistry. Hardwicke captures their virginal yearning. Supporting characters get the short end of Melissa Rosenberg's script, as fine actors make the most of underdevelopment. Peter Facinelli feels questionably cast as Carlisle, Edward's father figure, but Anna Kendrick stands out as Bella's spitfire friend Jessica. Watch for Meyer, the author herself, making a quick cameo as a counter customer in Forks' diner. 

Detracting from what the film does get right are the cheesy special effects of Edward monkey-climbing up trees and some groan-inducing dialogue (“You're like my own personal brand of heroin” springs to mind), with even one of the more famous lines from the book (“And so the lion fell in love with the lamb...what a stupid lamb...what a sick, masochistic lion.”) probably reading better on the page of Meyer's flowery prose than hearing it on screen. The ending comes somewhat abrupt, although it is meant to be a cliff-hanger, since not unlike the "Harry Potter" franchise this too will continue as a film event with its book's follow-ups. In its own angsty teen soap-opera sort of way, "Twilight" mostly lives up to the appeal.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)
130 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

Swooning, starry-eyed “Twi-hard” fans who've read all four books at least twice will only care about taking sides between Team Edward or Team Jacob (whose mascot, respectively, smolders before being off-screen for a sizable hour and gives Cher her wig back to perpetually be seen running around with a crew-cut, shirtless). But let's save a review of the weird, worldwide phenomenon for another day because this review is solely about the movie, "New Moon," or our preferred title, “Twilight 2: Electric Boogaloo.” 

Having just turned 18, Bella (Kristen Stewart) spends her birthday with her sparkling, 109-year-old vamp boyfriend, Edward (trembling Robert Pattinson), and the Cullen clan, ending in a close-call with Bella's blood-dripping finger and one of their fellow vamps. So Edward decides to keep his distance, pack his hair gel and suntan lotion, and leave town. This leaves Bella in months of despondence, bad dreams, and all-around sullen angstiness, until she turns to long-haired tribal friend, Jacob (Taylor Lautner, now ripped and muscly for the part), with a hairy secret of his own. And no, he's definitely gone through puberty, so keep guessing. Bella baby also becomes an “adrenaline junkie,” trying out motorcycles and jumping off cliffs. Meanwhile, vampy, ginger-headed baddie Victoria (Rachelle LeFevre) is also still out for blood from Bella and Edward for killing her lover, and Edward heads to Italy to have himself put to death with the royal Volturi family of the vampire empire. 

Taking over for Catherine Hardwicke, Chris Weitz directs with a similarly melancholy, greyish mood and style. Among some beautiful imagery armed with a mopey but resonant music soundtrack, there's a nice, dizzying visual touch where Weitz moves the camera 360-degrees around Bella three times to show the seasons changing outside her window as autumn turns to winter. But the CGI werewolves—no, they look more like wolves on 'roids—look just fake. This time, Melissa Rosenberg's screenplay attributes to "New Moon" being a fleck better than "Twilight": a lot more glacially paced and not as focused but comparably more affective. The angsty Degrassi-ish melodrama still gets laid on with a trowel. Here, at least, the eye-rollingly overheated purple prose from Stephenie Meyer's series is cut down to normal English, and instead conversation from Bella to Jacob reads like this: “You're buff.” 

Stewart sulks, bites her bottom lip, and contemplates with her face, but we don't get “I wasn't interesting. And he was. Interesting...and brilliant...and mysterious...and perfect...and beautiful.” The lead actors slip into their roles with ease and give intense, self-serious performances. Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning, as Aro of the Volturi coven and Jane, his deadly, pain-inflicting little pixie, give delicious if very small parts. "New Moon" ends on another cliff-hanger, but readers will already know what they're in for in "Eclipse."

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010)
124 min., rated PG-13. 
Grade: B

Bella (Kristen Stewart), about to graduate high school, lessens her moody lip-biting and contemplates marrying Edward (Robert Pattinson), her chivalrous, blood-quenching knight, while Daddy Police Chief (Billy Burke) still doesn't approve of the odd boy. And poor, lovesick Jacob (Taylor Lautner) has deeper-than-friendship feelings toward Bella, who supplies her with more heat than Eddie would ever provide. Meanwhile in Seattle, a newly transformed pack of vampires called “newborns” are on a rampage, headed by Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard taking over), as the Volturi overlooks the damage. Bella also has a lot of love-searching to sleep on: will it be the cool, emo vampire or the hot, shirtless werewolf? Twi-hards (or Stephenie Meyer's 'tween readers) can already answer these questions but will be out for blood to see how the smoldering romances translate on screen...and if legal hunks Pattinson and Lautner take their shirts off. 

At this point there'll be no crossover appeal to non-fans, but "Eclipse" is about as good as the previous "Twilight Saga" films, taking itself most seriously with less-cheesy effects and more soap-opera sudsiness. All three of the leads are maturing as actors, Pattinson and Lautner (turning into a brick shithouse-built Matt Damon) also minifying their posing and fully invested in their own characters. Stewart really comes into her own here, with the camera capturing exactly what she's thinking, and her Bella finally thinking for herself rather than being defined by her male-monster gazing. The Cullen clan get more time and some deserved flashback backstory, especially Nikki Reed's Rosalie (who finally lets us in on why she's so cold towards Bella). Their new boss, director David Slade, doesn't really have the scope to be an action director for the vampire-running scenes, most of them too blurry to make out. Too much woozy, shaky-cam work with confined, extreme close-ups gets us into the pores of every actor on screen. However, the big battle between the allied Cullens and Quileute wolf tribe vs. “newborns” is thrilling and surprisingly more graphic than its PG-13 entails. 

There's a dry comic self-awareness to go with the melodrama, like Jacob and Edward's feuding: “I'm hotter than you,” then “Does he ever wear a shirt?” and Burke's father has a funny exchange about safe-sex with Bella. More talk and less action isn't necessarily a bad thing, as every other scene seems to be Edward's marriage-proposal to Bella, but all of them are emotionally tender and sexy, albeit promoting abstinence and denouncing premarital sex (all teenage girls, listen to Edward). Can't wait to see how the director for the very last movie, "Breaking Dawn," will depict Edward giving Bella a C-section with his fangs...oops, was that a spoiler?

Over and - underrated: Critics loved it, I didn't. Critics panned it, I enjoyed it.


Natural Born Killers (1994)
119 min., rated R
Grade: D +

In "Natural Born Killers," a disappointingly empty, self-indulgent satire on America's infatuation with violence and miscreants on television, Oliver Stone is saying that we're the sickos. News update: the serial mass murders of glorified fugitive lovers Micky and Mallory (Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis) turn them into media darlings. 

Oliver Stone's excessive, masturbatory filmmaking style—blending all types of film stocks, color filters, animation, tilted angles, and flashy MTV-style techniques—is artistically interesting up until a point that which is utterly annoying. Stone feeds on outrage, like ours, as we watch this gonzo, hectic, and redundant mess become an assault on the senses and the pompous director hammer home his satirical points with a bludgeon to the head (OK, OK, we get it already!). 

Quentin Tarantino wrote the story, inspired by the Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate killing spree from the 1950s, and amid some cleverly disturbing touches by Stone and Co., there's a satirically brilliant “sitcom” bit of Lewis' hostile family life with a manipulated laugh track. Harrelson and Lewis are convincing and frightening, and yet very broad, as the celeb-lovebird-killers, but the rather good supporting cast (Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Sizemore) does an awful lot of chewing the scenery like there's no tomorrow—who drank the Kool-Aid? 

When it's all over, "Natural Born Killers" is much ado about nothing. It's the kind of movie that keeps waving its arms at you, trying to get your attention but ultimately failing.

Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
101 min., rated R
Grade: C

It's saddening to say, but true, Mike Nichols (yes, that Mike Nichols) gives us a glossy, mostly hollow geopolitical satire, based on a true story from "60 Minutes" producer George Crile's 2003 book, and it just feels like a grossly overrated calculation for the big Oscar season. 

Based on “60 Minutes” producer George Crile's 2003 book, Charlie Wilson's War tells the true story of boozing, womanizing Texas Democratic congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks). Wilson conspires with a Houston Bible-thumping socialite/conservative (Julia Roberts) and a hot-tempered CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to arm and train Afghanistan's Mujahideen army in order to defend against the Soviets, circa the early '80s, orchestrating the largest covert operation in U.S. history. 

Director Nichols' noncommittal decision on whether he was making an incisive cautionary tale or a light comedy awkwardly results somewhere in the middle, without making effective imprints as either: it's supposed to be topical entertainment about foreign affairs. Aaron Sorkin's dialogue has snappy wit and the subject matter thought-provoking, however. Hanks is charismatic all the time, but it's hard to buy him in a hot tub with hookers. Roberts is miscast and slides past character into caricature as the sassy Joanne Herring, with only a handful of scenes to play dress-up in a blonde bouffant and meticulously pluck her eyebrows. Amy Adams is underused as Wilson's assistant, but Hoffman is a howling standout as the crude Gust Avrakotos, stealing every scene he's in. 

There's a more hard-hitting movie to be made on the subject, but "Charlie Wilson's War" is merely a puff piece. 


Parents (1989)
82 min., rated R
Grade: B

Actor Bob Balaban's feature directing debut happened to be quite undervalued: a strange but clever black comedy that deftly parodies the “Father Knows Best” perception of '50s suburban family life and the horrors of childhood.

In Parents, Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt are hilariously sinister as the highly traditional, perfectly chipper “parents.” As their alienated young son wonders what his folks' leftover meat was to begin with, Quaid with his golly-gee-willikers grin replies, “Before that, they were leftovers-to-be.” And what is going on down in that basement?

The production décor is campy and gives the film a sense of humor about itself, while the material is more deadpan and unsettling.

So morbidly amusing, Parents leaves you to either imagine the parents as murderous cannibals or that their son is hallucinating, seeing food on the table as human flesh. And that vegetarianism is probably the way to go.

I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007)
97 min., rated PG-13
Grade: B

With the talent behind and in front of the camera, it's surprising a sweet and funny picture like I Could Never Be Your Woman would go directly to DVD.

This is an appealing romantic comedy about a fortysomething TV show writer/producer (Michelle Pfeiffer, in a very winning performance) hiring a cut-up of an actor (Paul Rudd, who's in perfect comic form), twenty years younger than she, for her disposable teen show as the ratings begin to slip. He likes her and she likes him, but Pfeiffer can't decide if their age difference is an insurmountable obstacle or not. Meanwhile, her daughter (Saoirse Ronan) is going through puberty and is determined to capture the attention of a male student crush.

Writer-director Amy Heckerling's dialogue is sharp and tart, the stars share a nice chemistry, and young Irish actress Ronan hits every note right on (that includes her American accent) as a curious adolescent.

If there are any major flaws, it's Tracey Ullman as Mother Nature, Pfeiffer's conscience, an occasionally obnoxious and unnecessary character, while Sarah Alexander's kind-of villainess—Pfeiffer's conniving secretary—is a one-note bimbo. 

These are desperate times for a good romantic-comedy, but it'd hardly be desperate to see I Could Never Be Your Woman.