Friday, February 26, 2010

"Cop Out" lame and lamer

Cop Out (2010)
107 min., rated PG-13
Grade: D +

Cop Out looks like every interracial buddy-cop movie ever made, Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys, and in the early going feels like a spoof of them.

Even an early scene with Paul (Tracy Morgan) as the motor-mouth NYPD partner to Jimmy (Bruce Willis) making a “homage” to Heat, Training Day, Die Hard (hah, guess who was in that one?), and etc. feels like a Kevin Smith movie.

Too bad he didn't actually write or doctor the script. That would be the work of writers Marc and Robb Cullen, while Smith gets his first for-hire studio gig as director and editor.

Paul and Jimmy get suspended by the captain (oh, we've never seen that before), but that's okay because they still chase down Latino gangsters and go searching for a valuable baseball card of Jimbo's so he can sell it to pay for his daughter's big wedding. Somehow a missing Mercedes and a beautiful Spanish chica get thrown in as well, and Paul thinks his wife (Rashida Jones) is cheating on him.

Seann William Scott has the excruciating Joe Pesci sidekick role as a drug-addicted burglar who repeats everything the dicks say.

Morgan and Willis should seal the deal, sounding like great comic foils on paper and looking it on the poster. But Morgan never stops yelling or comes up for air and Willis looks bored throughout this overlong blooper reel, which also criminally wastes a good cast.

Cop Out might've worked as a foulmouthed parody of its genre had Smith written it, but he has no business directing this obnoxious and unfunny timewaster. Harold Faltermeyer's annoying Beverly Hills Copish synthesizer score is the cherry on top.

As the controversial original title “A Couple of Dicks” and Smith's name almost made Cop Out sound promising, all we have here is a cop-out of a movie.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Shutter Island" proves Scorsese's still got it

Shutter Island (2010) 
138 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Adapted from another novel by Dennis Lehane ("Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone"), Marty Scorsese's "Shutter Island" is like an overripe Hollywood noir from the '50s. It's 1954, and Edward “Teddy” Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, with a Bostonian accent), a widowed U.S. mahshall and his pahtner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), take a ferry to Shutter Island, a rocky fortress off the coast of New England that houses Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Alcatraz, eat your heart out: this forbidding place holds over 66 violent psychopaths as its patients. The two pahtners are investigating the disapperance of a patient, murderess Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), in there for drowning her children, who has somehow escaped her locked cell. Teddy has a lot of baggage, haunted by his dead wife who was killed by one of the inmates and when he liberated a Dachau concentration camp as a WWII soldier. Realizing the investigation points to a 67th patient, this leads to Teddy and Chuck going to Ward C, as a hurricane hits the island, where supposed government experiments with psychotropic drugs are being conducted on the inmates. So are the doctors brainwashing their patients "Titicut Follies" style? Or is nothing what it seems? 

With material this pulpy and Gothic, Scorsese puts us through the fevered psychosis of an obsessive mind, with dreams, flashbacks, and hallucinations that slow down the propulsion that's needed in a mystery-thriller. From the opening frame, we feel a mood of doom, in overcast tandem with atmosphere and that portentous, bombastic "Jaws"-like score from composers John Cage and John Adams. 

Scorsese calls upon his go-to protege for four projects, Leonardo DiCaprio, who turns in an urgent and complex performance. There are fine bit parts by Mortimer, John Carroll Lynch, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Jackie Earle Haley, Ted Levine, and Elias Koteas. Williams appears in flashbacks and hallucinations as Teddy's late wife, and she brings a poignant vulnerability. But screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis and Scorsese may've found a better use for these actors without just using them as voice boxes for exposition. The film unfolds with darkly haunting, disturbing layers like pieces of a puzzle picture, and the insanely rug-pulling Big Reveal hangs together, but it's frustratingly derivative and not really a Big Deal. Skillfully made and mostly gripping, "Shutter Island" proves Scorsese is still that professional filmmaker. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Absurd "Law Abiding Citizen" trashy guilty pleasure

Law Abiding Citizen (2009) 
108 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

"Law Abiding Citizen" is not only one of those "Death Wish" formula revenge-thrillers that ham-fistedly speechifies how vigilantism is acceptable and our legal system corrupt, but it's also "Saw"-lite. 

Mush-mouthed Gerard Butler, talking out the side of his mouth to quell his Scottish drawl, stars as Clyde Shelton, a brainish inventor who experiences a home invasion. Not even two minutes in, he answers the door expecting take-out but instead getting a bat to the head and held down to helplessly watch his wife and young daughter be murdered. Ten years later, he's out for blood, but not just the killer who got off free after testifying against his accomplice but against the entire judicial system. Enter cocksure Philly prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), who was too soft in cutting a deal with the killer. Clyde is in Charles Bronson mode with the Jigsaw killer's Rube Goldberg traps, turning his vengeance into a game: he somehow takes out the whole system from inside solitary confinement. So does the not-to-be-messed-with bad mutha have an ally on the outside or is he just a superhuman genius? 

F. Gary Gray's dutifully ludicrous movie never loses your interest, but you never know who to root for in Kurt Wimmer's script, so you just put your hands up, scrap all the legal/moral commentary bullcrap, set aside all of your suspension of disbelief, and go along with the plot-holey absurdity of the ride. One scene is completely reminiscent of "The Silence of the Lambs," when Clyde demands a better bed, a fancy dinner, and an iPod from Nick and the warden, and there's one abrupt, surprising shock, involving a cell phone and a mouthy judge, that'll send its audience out of their seats. 

It's trash—slick, sadistic, hypocritcal trash, but much of it guiltily entertaining in a take-the-law-into-your-own-hands-and-kill-'em-all kind of way, of course. 

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"Wolfman" delivers spooks, blood, and fog

It's a full moon -- cue the howl

The Wolfman (2010)
102 min., rated R
Grade: B

Despite a deferred release and troubled production, and still-uncharted news of Werewolf Women of the S.S. in the works, The Wolfman (now one word rather than two) is the right hokey-fun kind of B-movie popcorn picture.

It's a “nice” surprise in the name of bonecrunching werewolf transformations and blood-spurting beheadings. This reasonably entertaining reboot to the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. classic, more nostalgic of the vintage Universal monster movies than Van Helsing, redates the story back to 1891 in Blackmoor, England.

Benicio Del Toro plays American stage actor Lawrence Talbot, the prodigal son who returns to the manor of his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), when his brother disappears for weeks and his body later found mauled. Then during a gypsy camp attack, Lawrence is in fact bit by a werewolf and in return becomes one too when the moon is full. The beast is on, cue the howl!

Del Toro looks to be in a state of tupor, unlike an all-smiles Chaney, but is pretty solid as the hairy guy (he's brooding and damaged with daddy issues!), and a phoned-in Hopkins gets to be a Sir and enjoyably chews the scenery. Emily Blunt looks lovely as Gwen, Lawrence's brother's fiancee, giving sultry gazes, and Hugo Weaving is a more-lively presence as a Scotland Yard constable with mutton chops.

Lavishly produced and great-looking, this Wolfman has a classy, spooky Victorian look drenched in fog and full moons, matched well with an incessant Gothic score by Tim Burton's go-to guy, Danny Elfman. Atmospheric with some good scares but also gory, a lot of blood is gleefully shed and heads will roll.

Director Joe Johnston ably directs, some dull stretches aside, but keeps the pacing tight during the action. Writers Andrew Kevin Walker (Sleepy Hollow, go figure) and David Self keep the silver bullets, lycanthropy, and gypsy lore but leave the jokey gags to John Landis' An American Werewolf in London and goes for a more somber, coldly humorless tone.

Although some gallows humor would've been appreciated, it mostly works as a horror-period piece. Leave it to Rick Baker to do the make-up and effects of the transformation scenes, featuring twisting fingers and limbs; he did this well almost 30 years ago in London and it still holds up, without looking overly campy or CGI-laden.

We'll take a Chewbacca double over a springing computerized cartoon any day.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"Valentine's Day" stale but a little fun with huge cast

Valentine's Day (2010)
125 min., rated PG-13. 
Grade: C

A new year calls for the ultimate rom-com in the style of six degrees of separation, a star-stuffed but overstuffed marzipan that gives its date-movie audience what it wants. Shameless schmaltz-meister Garry Marshall directs, er, juggles a wildly huge ensemble pastiche of huggable, attractive big names with a spoonful of sugar in "Valentine's Day," starring everyone in the industry that had a free day of shooting, except for Mr. Kitchen Sink. Who isn't in this movie? Like Paul Haggis' "Crash" with flowers and heart candies, the movie hopscotches around a sanitized L.A. on February 14th—a Christmas-sized holiday apparently in this world where everyone's in a tizzy—with a bouquet of crisscrossing stories. 

Take a deep breath. Reed (Ashton Kutcher) is a florist who pops the question to Morley (Jessica Alba); his best buddy, teacher Julia (Jennifer Garner), is in a relationship with philandering Dr. Harrison Copeland (Patrick “McDreamy” Dempsey); her friend Kara (Jessica Biel) is a “neurotic hot mess” agent who hates Valentine's Day but loves chocolate and may just find her real chocolate love in TV sports reporter Kelvin Moore (Jamie Foxx); her client is popular quarterback Sean Jackson (Eric “McSteamy” Dane) looking for love and a family; Queen Latifah's temp Liz (Anne Hathaway) has a budding relationship with her Midwestern boyfriend Jason (Topher Grace) but to pay off loans, she works as a phone-sex entertainer, speaking in fake Russian accents and snapping rubber band balls for bondage arousal. 

Phew, we're almost done. Holden (Bradley Cooper) and war soldier Kate (Julia Roberts), who's getting home for a day to see a guy, connect on a long plane flight; there's a surprising final whirl to both characters. An old couple (Shirley MacLaine, Hector Elizondo) discovers their 50-plus year marriage isn't as perfect as one of them thought, and they share a nicely sweet moment in front of a Hollywood Forever Cemetery drive-in showing of MacLaine's 1958 film "Hot Spell." Taylor Lautner and songbird Taylor Swift play a hot, vapid high school couple; Lautner gets an (intentional?) laugh when he says “I don't feel comfortable taking my shirt off in public” and Swift shows she's very comfortable playing a ditz. 

Moving right along . . . Carter Jenkins and Julia's niece, Emma Roberts, are another teen couple who contemplate having sex for the first time. And finally, a kid (Bryce Robinson) falls in love at an early age. Oh, and Kathy Bates gets all of two lines in, and George Lopez and Larry Miller walk off with the most laughs; sorry to forget you guys. 

As a sprawing mosaic of mostly intertwining love stories would require, "Valentine's Day" is episodic, but when one vignette begins to flail, it moves onto the next. Katherine Fugate should have literally cut a heart out of her script to trim the narrative flab and use only a few stories. Some work believably well (Hathaway & Grace, Cooper & Roberts, MacLaine & Elizondo), while others are clich├ęd and superficial. The problem with so much star power crammed into one movie is that some of the acting talent gets lost in the shuffle of this laundry list. Where's a traffic cop when you need one? 

Marshall does get likable performances out of his actors, but they might ham a little too often at the expense of lame material. Just think of the possibilities had they each been given more of a character to play, like the quality of Robert Altman's character-rich "Nashville." Also, why does Marshall use so many sloppy, unnecessary cutaways and rely on reaction shots? Cut to a remote control on a bed because it really advances the plot. Cut to a cute doggie so it will melt our hearts. Richard Curtis' "Love Actually" and last year's "He's Just Not That Into You" did intersecting stories about love with big stars more successfully, while this one is more gooey, fluffy, and manufactured. Overlong and vanilla, it has a handful of glibly fun, cute goodies to be watchable, and its cast is a tasty one. As long as you’re only looking for as much nourishment as a box of chocolates, "Valentine’s Day" is a frothy, pleasantly forgettable trifle. 

"Crazies" is plenty crazy and a remake done right

The Crazies (2010)
101 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

Stop now if this review seems to be overselling the jumpy, exciting, and scary rethink of "The Crazies," producer George A. Romero's own low-budget not-really-zombie horror movie from 1973 of the same name. It's crazier and moves quicker on its feet, proof that remakes can be done right even in a dubious business and that “torture-porn” is so 2007. A plane carrying a bioweapon called Trixie crashes and lets loose a dangerous virus that turns the townspeople, well, crazy of a bucolic Iowa town. You know there's trouble to be had when the town drunk walks onto the field of a baseball game with a shotgun. The gas-masked government plays a threat to the survivors too. Apocalypses and zombies, all the bases here have been covered on and on again before, particularly "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," but whatever. 

Timothy Olyphant is ironically cast as one of the sanest people on screen, the town sheriff. He and Radha Mitchell (as his doctor wife) add a levity and empathy to their characters, and Joe Anderson as the deputy does so much right with his flashier role. One quibble: sometimes the characters' actions do rely more on good, 'ol convenience than good, clean logic. 

Director Breck Eisner throws those cheap jump-out-at-you jolts a few too many (but will admittedly get you), and his direction is tight and more than assured, stocking plenty of bloody gruesomeness without wallowing in it and leavened where need be with deadpan comic relief. Eisner's DP, Maxime Alexandre, makes crafty use with his framing. And finally, no heavy-handed social/political commentary! Some standout set pieces hit the right scare and giggle beats: the local mortician going crazy on the sheriff with a bone-cutter, people strapped to tables and a “crazy” with a pitchfork, hide-and-seek in an abandoned diner, and one of the most suspenseful set pieces in a car wash that feels like a theme-park ride. 

Serving as the rare remake to outdo its master and one hell of a fun, relentless time for those who enjoy a crazy-good scare every now and again, "The Crazies" means business. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Let the Right One In" a keeper

Let the Right One In (2008) 
114 min., rated R.
Grade: A 

Lanky, lonely 12-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant, with a touch of androgyny), who's cruelly bullied at school, finds a companion in his peculiar next door neighbor, the pale, homely-looking Eli (Lina Leanderson), who's “12...more or less,” happens to be a savage vampire and has a fondness for the red stuff. Don't you hate it when that happens? This female Nosferatu has just moved into Oskar's apartment complex of the wintry Swedish town of Stockholm, along with an older man responsible to collect blood for her thirst. Eli smells funny, only comes out at night, doesn't wear shoes in the snow, and she'll only enter Oskar's apartment if she is asked in (hence the title). 

This is a grim, atmospheric, and tender Swedish import with English subtitles from director Tomas Alfredson, based on writer John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel “Let Me In.” Although giving the vampire lore some new, unique blood (and reminding us by the title that vampires can't enter a home without an invitation), "Let the Right One In" isn't purely a vampire tale, exsanguinatory and frightening at times as it is, but it's also a fable about the fears and social awkwardness of adolescence, and revenge, and it's a captivating film. 

Adapting from his book, screenwriter Lindqvist's storytelling strays a bit with a subplot about one of the townspeople being bitten, but it adds to the horror element of the film. The two young leads are outstanding, bringing the film a much-needed sympathy to their misfit characters' friendship. Adding to the melancholy but ultimately hopeful tone is the frozen, snow-covered setting of Stockholm, circa 1982, beautifully and hauntingly photographed with a palpable chilliness, as well as Johan Soderqvist's moody musical score. Many gruesome set pieces are brilliantly conceived and artfully shot from afar with subtle dread, particularly the bravura final confrontation between Oskar and the bullies in a pool. See it already. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

DVD: "Time Traveler's Wife" has less sap than expected

The Time Traveler's Wife (2009) 
107 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

First things first, you have to buy into the hokey basic premise of "The Time Traveler's Wife" to enjoy its own magically fanciful romantic-fantasy logic. 

Eric Bana plays Henry, the time traveler of the title who ever since he was a kid could just disappear from his own time, dropping his clothes, and appearing in a another time (naked, John Connor style), whether it be past or future. Rachel McAdams plays Henry's wife, Clare, who met full-grown Henry when she was only 6. When they finally meet as adults, she remembers him, but he can't remember her. That doesn't matter because they fall in love and Clare has to put up with Henry disappearing and reappearing at times in their lives. 

Directed by Robert Schwentke, "The Time Traveler's Wife" is melancholy, wistful, and gauzy, and that's probably the right combination for a film like this. Bruce Joel Rubin's screenplay doesn't really explain Henry's ability beyond stating that it's a genetic disorder he calls “chrono-impairment” not unlike epilepsy, so it's often confusing but doesn't get bogged down in plot. 

This is a sweet (not sappy) and credibly done adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's best-seller that could've potentially been creepy on the screen but is handled with grace and it's sincerely performed. There's a particularly touching moment when Henry “meets” his opera-singing mother, who is supposed to die in a car crash, on a subway. Bana gives an empathetic performance and McAdams, showing off her piercingly gorgeous eyes here, is radiant, and they sell this romance. By the end, we've been invested in Henry and Clare. 

Darkly layered "A Serious Man" Coens' most personal work

A Serious Man (2009) 
105 min., rated R.
Grade: A -

The piquant quality about any Coen Brothers film is that each of them are strikingly different, whether it be their last wacky trifle "Burn After Reading," or their masterpieces, the brutally funny "Fargo" and brutally tense "No Country for Old Men." Their fourteenth film, "A Serious Man," is Joel and Ethan's most personal and Jewish work, and it's much a labor of love rather than an exercise, an anomaly from their former works but not without its own, off-kilter sensibilities. 

Set in a cookie-cutter Jewish neighborhood in 1967, Minneapolis unfolds a “schlemiel story” about Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), an ordinary man who teaches physics at a local college. His wife (Sari Lennick) breaks the news that she's leaving him for a sleazy colleague, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). He supports his homeless, bathroom-hogging genius brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), who lives on the couch and gets into some gambling trouble. His son is more interested in F-Troop on TV and, about to have his Bar Mitzvah, smokes pot in the school bathroom. His daughter is mostly busy washing her hair. The neighbors are also hostile gentiles. He's also threatened to be sued for defamation of character by a Korean student, who tries bribing Larry for a passing grade. On top of all that, anonymous letters show up at the school's tenure commission accusing Larry of moral turpitude. Pretending to be optimistic, life is none too good for Larry, who goes looking for answers. Not even three rabbis can give him an answer, and Larry reaches his breaking point. 

A fictional Yiddish folktale opens the film, indirectly related to the plot proper, with a centuries-ago Shtetl couple being visited by a man who supposedly died three years earlier and the wife certain he's a Dybbuk (an evil spirit). It sets the mood for unease. The Coens paint a portrait of the American Midwest right after their "Fargo" and it seems this is almost revenge on their upbringing. The 'Bros paint their characters and their relationships with a mocking, deadpan contempt: nose-job-obsessed meeskites and soup-slurping mishpachas. But as an existential black comedy that satirizes the Book of Job from the Hebrew Bible, it's done with a delicate, wry touch. The cast of relative unknowns is pitch-perfect casting of fresh faces, with costume design adding sharply amusing character detail. 

Stuhlbarg, in his first lead movie role, carries it all on his shoulders in an arresting performance, and it's impossible not to feel Larry's exasperation. "A Serious Man" is a darkly funny, offbeat, multilayered fable, richly detailed with period music (Jefferson Airplane's “Somebody to Love” most memorable) and production design, and much verbal and visual wit. One of the rabbi's fables, “The Goy's Teeth,” about a dentist that finds Hebrew letters in one's mouth, has no point or ending, and in a way, the film is like that too. 

Like the poor schmuck, er, schlemiel Larry Gopnik, you'll be out of luck in finding a resolution in the film's ambiguous, philosophical conclusion, except that the Coens are basically saying, in a nutshell, “Life's a bitch, then you die.” Mazel tov Joel and Ethan! 

"Stepfather" remake has no real suspense

The Stepfather (2009) 
101 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C -

Yet another technically sleek albeit pointless horror-movie remake, "The Stepfather" doesn't have the guts for blood or style for suspense, especially when it's updating the fondly remembered 1987 thriller. After butchering his last picture-perfect family on Christmas day, nutjob David Harris (Dylan Walsh) charms his way into the lives of a Portland divorcee (Sela Ward) and her family, including her reformed bad boy son (Penn Badgley) back from military school. Badgley's not the only one suspicious of his new, smiling would-be stepfather—his real father doesn't trust him and the cat lady across the street says he looks like an America's Most Wanted fugitive—while dim Mom thinks he's too good to be true. 

Apparently making a living out of remaking '80s horror films into teenybopper night-outs like "Prom Night," Nelson McCormick is at the helm again and is more interested in jump scares—the “oh-it's-just-a-kitty” trick isn't dead yet, apparently—than rising the tension to a simmer. Every time the music gets quiet, and a shot goes on a few beats too long, we know we're in for a cheap "boo!" scare to make us lose our popcorn. Do these really still work on audiences? With the movie updating the two-decades-old premise for the age of the Internet, the Cell Phone, and CSI, it's even less plausible. 

Terry O'Quinn owned the “stepfather” role the first time around, and Walsh is serviceable, acting out an affable veneer with external anger. But he's a pussycat compared to O'Quinn and the performance is more ham-handed than threatening. Badgley is easy on the eyes but is so dour and too old to pass for a teenager. Ditto for Amber Heard as the hot girlfriend who only wears bikinis and undies. Competent enough as TV-movie-level fodder goes, but it's just another nail in the coffin of the horror-remake genre. Not even the title makes sense for this 2009 refurbishing, making it more of a remake of 2007's "Disturbia." Just rent Joseph Ruben's original instead. 

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"From Paris With Love": a crazed Travolta makes for brainless fun

From Paris With Love (2010)
95 min., rated R
Grade: B -

Far off from a James Bond picture as can be (that was From Russia With Love), From Paris With Love is a stupid, over-the-top action pic as subtle as a bazooka.

But was it really trying to be subtle?

The movie doesn't bother to make much sense or pretend to care about plot, although it does involve some Asian drug dealers and Middle Eastern terrorists. But what it does have is a bald-pated Monsieur John Travolta badassing his way through the role of Charlie Wax, a rogue spy who would rather blow up a suspect and just ask questions later. His hyperactive, gypsy-looking bad-guy chews up the scenery with such campy-cool gusto that he even comes with a bag full of energy drinks (you got a problem with that?) and a Pulp Fiction inside-joke about “royale with cheese.”

Wax and his new partner, a comparably uptight American ambassador's aid (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), tote around a vase full of cocaine from a Chinese restaurant (don't ask why) and deliver up a hefty body count (“26 bodies in 24 hours”) at the expense of director Pierre Morel's bloody shoot-outs and explosions.

From the Luc Busson arsenol of French excess, From Paris With Love is a wildly violent, indefensible guilty pleasure that offers no highbrow stimulus whatsoever, but isn't bad at what it does and goes down entertainingly quick before it gets too obnoxious.

Friday, February 5, 2010

"Sex and the City" too long but snappy and enjoyable

Sex and the City (2008) 
148 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

A bloated but ever satisfying screen adaptation of the stiletto-sharp, witty, insightful HBO TV series, based on Candance Bushnell's book, "Sex and the City" picks back up four years later after the season finale with the materialistic, fab four Manhattanites. And don't forget their Cosmos, sex talks, and Manolo Blahnik heels. 

In New York City where women are looking for the 2 Ls—labels and love—quippy columnist-cum-Vogue writer Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), our narrator, has hit 40 and is ready to take her longtime relationship with lova "Mr. Big" (Chris Noth) to the next level ... which comes with a big closet. The sexually uninhibited cougar Samantha (the very funny Kim Cattrall) is managing her beefy star lover, Smith, in L.A., visiting New York whenever she wants; the prim and perky Charlotte (an oft-mannered Kristin Davis) is stable and happily married to Harry with their adopted Asian daughter; and the cynical lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is frazzled over work, childcare, and her undersexed marriage with Steve. 

Now, coming from a non-fashionista who doesn't carry a $979 Louis Vuitton galliera, the movie version isn't quite a man's man night-out, but it's a pleasant surprise and will delight the female/gay/drag queen in all of us. In the hands of veteran series writer-director Michael Patrick King, this exclusive love letter “event” for fans and girl power is smart, funny, and sexually frank. Women are painted as real, strong, emotional creatures, not as shrews or control-freak harpies, which is a refreshing and (lately) rare quality in a Hollywood picture. "Sex and the City" still has enough fizz and snap in the zinger dialogue from the show and touching emotional arcs that ring true, especially Nixon's Miranda. Especially poignant is a New Years Eve sequence, cued to the lovely song “Auld Lang Syne.” 

The quartet of perfectly cast women effortlessly and comfortably get back into their likable characters, looking beautifully glossy and having inarguable chemistry again on the big screen. Allotment of screen time for each of the four isn't quite equal (Parker's Carrie mostly takes center stage and Davis's Charlotte is reduced to soiling her pants), but they all shine, and this is a great showcase for Parker's comedic and dramatic skills as an actress. Fashionistas will also be overjoyed by Patricia Field's expectedly flamboyant costume design. Newcomer Jennifer Hudson is also very likable and earnest as Carrie's sassy, saintly assistant, Louise, from St. Louis. 

While it does get a little soapy, the movie has as much substance as it does Louis Vuitton style, episodically dealing with love, heartbreak, depression, pregnancy, personal growth, and sharing wisdom about undying friendships and the sisterhood. Padding a superficial runway fashion show and hip wardrobe change montages into the 2 hours and 28 minutes, exactly why did the movie version have to be trotted out the length of a marathon, almost five episodes' worth? 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"Black Waters" so bad it's bad

The Black Waters of Echo's Pond (2009)
91 min., rated R.

Sometimes you wonder how certain movies ever get a major theatrical release rather than just getting dumped on Blockbuster shelves. Then there are movies that should never have been greenlit. The Black Waters of Echo's Pond, a ho-hum slasher movie by way of Jumanji, is boring, horribly shot, and cheap-looking goat cheese, and try remembering that awkward title a day after you see it.

After a hokey 1920s-era, fog-shrouded archaeological dig in Turkey where a weird-looking board game, resided by the Pagan god Pan, is unearthed, cut to eight obnoxious (but pretty) young people partying on the same island, now owned by a crusty caretaker (executive-producing B-movie stalwart Robert Patrick). One of them stumbles, literally, onto the ancient game whose truth-or-dare-type questions unleash all sorts of bitterness, jealousness, and slaughtering on each other. They keep saying they don't want to play the game anymore, but do it anyway...and probably should've played Monopoly instead.

Director/co-writer Gabriel Bologna can't get the slashing to begin soon enough, but it's never a good sign when you don't care who lives and who dies. Familiar faces like Halloween child Danielle Harris, James Duval (Frank the Bunny from Donnie Darko), and Electra and Elise Avellan (Grindhouse's crazy Babysitter twins) show up.

Black Waters could have been a spoof since it's not scary in the least or even adequately gory, but doesn't even entertain or have camp value on the level of made-for-Syfy schlock. At least the token slut takes off her top for a minute for a gratuitous nudity check, and the dopey dialogue and bad acting do afford some unintentional snickering.

But let's not and say we did.

Grade: D - 

Patchy "New York, I Love You" has lots of great moments

New York, I Love You (2009) 
103 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Following 2007's "Paris, Je T'aime," the latest collage of 10 vignettes about love, romance, and sex is "New York, I Love You," taking us to a new city but keeping the styles more unified. It's the second in an ongoing series of “Cities of Love” compilation films, continuing with Rio and Shanghai next year. Eight minutes each, the film is an enjoyable love letter to New York, without (surprisingly) the involvement of Big Apple hound Woody Allen. It's easy to call any anthology movie uneven. Naturally, "New York, I Love You" is patchy, some segments working better than others and not all of them coming together. And some come with oblique twists, while others are just slices of life. For some of the film, New York has an evocative atmosphere, that of a twinkling cityscape; other times it's a bit darker than that. 

In the first, directed by Jiang Wen, Hayden Christensen plays a pickpocket who pursues Rachel Bilson, who is having an affair with Andy Garcia; their exchanges in a bar are like a dance out of a David Mamet script. The lovely short film by Mira Nair stars Natalie Portman as a Hasidic woman confiding in an Indian diamond merchant; she is about to be married and has cut off all her hair. Shunji Iwai's involves a failed cartoonist (Orlando Bloom), who only knows her voice, meeting his secretary (Christina Ricci) for the first time; it's talky but sweet. Brett Ratner's segment goes down with ironic humor and a surprise, in which a neighborhood pharmacist (James Caan) coaxes a high school senior (Anton Yelchin) into taking his wheelchair-bound daughter (Olivia Thirlby) to the prom. Allen Hughes' sexy, nicely written piece about feeling, mood, and character when Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo as former hookups meet up at a bar. Shekhar Kapur directs the hauntingly sad story of a former opera singer (Julie Christie) and the disabled Russian bellhop (Shia LaBeouf) who serves her at an old but elegant hotel. (It's written by the late Anthony Minghella, to whom the project is dedicated.) 

Natalie Portman also writes and directs a sweet story about an African American (Carlos Acosta) spending time with his daughter, estranged from her mother (Jacinda Barrett). Fatih Akin's short about a gray painter obsessed with a young Chinese woman has visual interest but it's off-putting. Yvan Attal has a twist you won't see coming and gets strong performances out of Chris Cooper and Robin Wright Penn as a man and woman who meet and flirt over a cigarette outside a restaurant. In the last, written and directed by Joshua Marston, Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman are wonderful, both authentic and funny, as a bickering but loving old Brooklyn couple walking to Brighton Beach. Even if it all doesn't amount to much, cohesively speaking, the stories in "New York, I Love You" hold actual pathos from skilled actors. 

With such a sizable cast, it's to great surprise that it avoids being superficial meetings of movie stars acting together.

Monday, February 1, 2010

"Don McKay" dark fun with too many twists

Don McKay (2009) 
90 min., rated R.
Grade: B

The kooky, oddball Coen Brothers-esque neo-noir, "Don McKay" (alternately titled "Moment of Truth"), starts as a Norman Rockwell picaresque shaken up with a little violence and dark secrets, finally ending as Norman Bates. 

Both a serious and single man, the hapless, browbeaten school janitor of the title (Thomas Haden Church) receives a letter from his old flame Sonny (Elisabeth Shue), who claims to be dying and wants him to come back to his hometown after 25 years and comfort her during her final days. You just know going in that nothing is what it seems and that everyone's hiding something, maybe even Don himself. 

As writer-director, Jake Goldberger's feature film is crisp-looking and deliciously acted. The cast is a pleasure to watch: Shue is loopy, sensuous, willfully needy as the flytrap-blonde; Melissa Leo is a hoot as the disapproving, buttoned-down caretaker; and paying attention to the Coens' "Blood Simple," M. Emmet Walsh is amusingly cast as a cabby. 

Even as the silly, mechanical plot twists boil over and nearly crumble the whole enterprise, "Don McKay" is still dark, twisty fun.