Friday, April 30, 2010

Caustically funny "Please Give" wonderful piece of work

Please Give (2010) 
90 min., rated R.
Grade: A

New York, flawed people, upscale apartments, extramarital affairs: Is writer-director Nicole Holofcener (2006's "Friends with Money") the female Woody Allen? She even opens her film with a visually surprising mammogram montage cued to the Roches' version of “No Hands.” In "Please Give," the filmmaker's fourth feature film (with Catherine Keener), this low-key, piercingly observant slice of life explores realistic, complex, fragile characters rather than worrying about propellant plot. Kate (Catherine Keener) is a New Yorker who packages up furniture from dead people's apartments and sells them at her and husband Alex's (Oliver Platt) store for an expensive price. She wears her guilt on her sleeve when she walks down the streets littered with homeless people; so ashamed with guilt she'll give $20 to a poor man but not to her teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who's suffering self-esteem issues of her own with poor complexion and fitting into jeans. 

Ann Guilbert is hilariously on-point as Andra, a crabby 91-year-old tenant who's neighbors with the family, never playing it as a lovably dotty grandma cliché. Instead of a “Hello,” she answers the door to Alex with “You gained weight.” Once Andra dies, the family plans to combine apartments, expanding onto their well-to-do lifestyle. Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a shy radiology technician, is devoted to taking care of her crotchety grandmother, while her sister, the vain and tanning-obsessed Mary (Amanda Peet), thinks she's a mean old bag. 

"Please Give" observes guilt, inner crisis, and the grass being greener on the other side in devastating, caustically funny, subtle ways with somber (but not dreary) undertones and never judges the richly drawn characters, even if we do. One story element (Alex's fling with Mary after he starts getting facials at her spa) doesn't really ring true. But everyone in the cast is so dead-on and attuned to their characters that subplots like that don't feel as arbitrary as they just go along with the film's overall themes. "Please Give" is such a wonderful, naturally acted piece of work that Holofcener can joyfully call her own and add to her canon. 

Freddy's back for needless but not-bad "Nightmare" reboot

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
94 min., rated R.

One, two, Freddy's coming for you. Three, four, try not to snore . . . because Hollywood has run out of ideas but not money, and apparently you can't keep an infamous boogeyman down. After Leatherface, Michael, and Jason got rebooted, it was only a matter of time until their fourth party, Freddy, got reanimated. And from producer Michael Bay's corporate, soulless horror remake machine no less. In this glossy but empty “re-imagining” of Wes Craven's 1984 horror classic "A Nightmare on Elm Street," the story is pretty much the same nightmare. Springwood teens are dying in their dreams and then dying for real, all by the same murderer, Mr. Fred Krueger. He lures his sleepless, bags-under-their-eyes victims to his boiler room, so they need to stay awake with Red Bull, Ritalin, and shots of Adrenaline. In some way, these young people are all connected, dating back to pre-school, but their parents won't tell them the truth.

The deal-breaking question: is this darker, slicker reboot even necessary? No, not one bit; it's merely serviceable. The original "A Nightmare on Elm Street" stumbled upon an innovative idea, blurring the line between reality and fantasy, and created an iconic character. Then it spawned eight sequels. Craven achieved more of a primal, unsettling piece of horror to remember, even on a slovenly, much smaller budget. Samuel Bayer marks his directorial debut (after Nirvana and Green Day music videos) with professional, good-looking sheen, but this repackaging misses the point and unavoidably invites constant comparison. Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer's script feels haphazardly written and the visual call-backs to the original (which used practical effects) are decidedly less chilling. The classic moments of Freddy's clawed glove emerging from a bubble bath and a bloody body bag being dragged through the high school halls are reproduced albeit without much unease, but Bayer surely has a handle on the cool look for some of the surreal dreamscapes.

Twenty-six years ago, Robert England made the iconic Krueger all his own, giving him a homicidal glee. Jackie Earle Haley does a game job of subbing for England as the deadly dream reaper with scissorhands, fedora, and a Christmas striped sweater. His face sunken in under mounds of burnt-to-a-crisp make-up and his voice distorted, the actor looks more like a reptilian scarecrow and sounds like Lord Voldemort. More tormented and pervy, Haley's Freddy isn't very menacing and less of a cutup, although he does crack wise with the kind of bad puns that the series' sequels continued to thrive on ("How's this for a wet dream?" as Nancy sinks down into a goopy hallway). Save for pretty blonde Katie Cassidy as nightmare-plagued Kris (a variation on the original's Tina), the rest of the teens are anonymous dullards. Rooney Mara, a Twitter-generation Emily Blunt, is too sullen and one-note as the withdrawn Nancy, lacking any of Heather Langenkamp's resourcefulness. Kellan Lutz, Thomas Dekker, and Kyle Gallner will hopefully use this as a jumping-off point for their acting careers, akin to Johnny Depp making his debut in the original. 

Like most horror remakes, this gloss-over has more CGI (where Freddy leans out of the wall over a sleeping victim's bed), more needlessly spelled-out and sordid backstory (making Freddy a pedophilic gardener, not a child murderer), and less inventive kills but more cheap shock cuts with loud stings of music and Freddy popping out to cut someone. Make no mistake, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" hits its marks with jolty surprises and has some neat touches of its own. That final scare with Nancy's mother (Connie Britton) is a hoot, there's cute use of The Everly Brothers' tune "All I Have to Do Is Dream," and this time, the sleep-deprived teens can die even when up and about having a “micro-nap.” 2010's "A Nightmare on Elm Street" won't put you to sleep, but it's nothing to lose sleep over, either. Good night, Freddy. 

Grade: C +

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"It's Complicated" is actually simple but funny and smart

It's Complicated (2009) 
118 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

So starting an affair with your remarried ex-husband of ten years sure is complicated when you're Meryl Streep, but owning a bakery shop with a chocolate recipe she probably stole from Julia Child (wink wink), her lifestyle seems pretty easy. Sheesh, those rich white people and their problems! Specializing in middle-aged sexuality and mouth-watering, upper-crust decor that looks to have jumped off of Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook, "Something's Gotta Give"/"The Holiday" writer-director Nancy Meyers caters again in "It's Complicated," light, satisfying over-50 porn. Old people getting it on, how shocking! 

Meryl “of all trades” Streep plays Jane, a divorced mother of three grown children in Santa Barbra who gets along with her rat, fat ex-husband, Jake (Alec Baldwin), remarried to the much younger, bare-midriff Agnes (Lake Bell). Their rekindle “that old feeling” from their former ten-year passion when they get liquored up at a New York bar over their son's college graduation weekend and end up having an affair. Shame on you Meryl! It seems Janey is playing the little woman even at her age, or as she herself says, “I'm a bit of a slut.” At the same time, Jane is flirting with an architect who's helping her expand onto her already-beautiful home—reserved Adam (Steve Martin). In the end, “something's gotta give” with either Jake or Adam. 

All three watchable actors performing together is enough reason to see the film and to know that one can still find love/have sex after a divorce (and menopause). Streep, so game in playing a woman sneaking off to have an affair and some pillow talk but still covering up, makes 60 look sexy Smoking marijuana and skyping in some key comic gags, the versatile actress is comically loose to boot, having chemistry with both men and getting the chance to giggle a lot. She's having fun and so are we. Baldwin as the philandering Jake is naughty and charming, verging on the line of smarmy and lovable; and the eldest thespian, Martin, is a nice romantic foil even if he's not given much comedy to do. On the supporting side, John Krasinski lends his comic snap for many of the lines as Jane's son-in-law, Harley, who learns a little more than he wants to about his in-laws. 

"It's Complicated" is simple, not complicated, entertainment: even if it's rather longish and without much meat as most of Meyers' unapologetic “chick flicks” are, it's funny, it's tart, and it's smart. 

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lots of laughs make up for "Death's" familiarity

Death at a Funeral (2010)
90 min., rated R
Grade: B -

A 3-year difference is not nearly long enough to warrant a remake, but misanthropic director Neil LaBute faithfully reincarnates Frank Oz's sly, funny dark British farce of errors from 2007, almost shot for shot. Just different accents and skin tones.

That was then, with more subtlety, and this is now, a lot bigger, louder, and more effortful. Brits would say “Quite,” and the African Americans would say “Fo sho” that this Death at a Funeral is almost too faithful.

Working from Dean Craig's mostly-the-same script, a few name-dropping jokes are added to the dialogue and some recreated scenes are overwritten. But what worked then, works again on its own, thanks to the capable American cast rejuvenating familiar, too-soon material.

Before, it was in England following a stiff-upper-lipped family, and now it's set in Los Angeles with a just-as-nutty black family. The title funeral in honor of a patriarch is being hosted by Aaron (Chris Rock), the responsible son struggling to come up with his father's eulogy. Everyone else thinks Ryan (Martin Lawrence), the skirt-chasing author brother, should write it instead.

James Marsden steals the show as the high-as-a-kite Oscar, Aaron's cousin's fiancée; Alan Tudyk's chemically induced folly was hilarious, but Marsden uses some comic invention of his own. Rock brings an incredulous calm in the straight-man role, while Lawrence is irritating and phones it in, and Tracey Morgan is a riot, killing a hilarious “Louis Armstrong” line with a grin. Luke Wilson seems a little out of place as Zoe Saldana's weasely ex-lover. Only Peter Dinklage returns to his role as the former gay lover of the deceased.

By contrast with Frank Oz's droller handling of the material, director LaBute goes for more skittish visual emphasis in hopes that it will punch up the comedy. Most of the raucous laughs still register, same going for the scatological toilet joke involving a crotchety old uncle (Danny Glover), and there is some new outrageousness.

A whiff of “this is the same movie” lingers and every joke feels telegraphed, but at least this Funeral is more consistent than a Tyler Perry movie.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sharp "Joneses" keeps up the freshness, until soft finale

The Joneses look like the perfect family

The Joneses (2010)
96 min., rated R
Grade: B

The phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses” is the springboard for ad-man writer-director Derrick Borte's debut, The Joneses, a shrewd, offbeat satire about consumerism, conformity, and socio-economic superiority.

Here, the Joneses appear to be the picture-perfect modern family—father Steve (David Duchovny), mother Kate (Demi Moore), and teenage children Jenn (Amber Heard) and Mitch (Ben Hollingsworth)—when moving into a huge, luxurious home in a glitzy suburban neighborhood out of Stepford. As it turns out, they are a “pretend” family, or more of a team really (Steve the rookie and Kate the veteran), made up of self-marketing salespeople for the newest brands, toys, and products.

It's real product-placement, but within context!

In peddling their message of buy-to-impress, the Joneses surely keep up their popularity and sales percentages, and make people want to emulate them, but Steve starts to feel for the family, especially his fake wife.

Borte's film has conceived an ingeniously fresh premise and the fun goes far, even if it does take a third-act misstep when things turn sentimentally “real” and the Joneses have to start acting like an actual family.

The cast is quite good too; Moore, agelessly sexy and believable as a tough, focused business shark; Duchovny, charismatic and wry as the audience's conscience; and Heard and Hollingsworth are talented enough young actors to pull off the display-model act with personal character crisises. Lauren Hutton also co-stars as the “unit” boss who comes to appraise their work.

Although not as scathing as it could've been, The Joneses is such a breath of fresh air—for one, it's not a remake or in 3-D.

Outrageous "Kick-Ass" does just that

Kick-Ass (2010)
117 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

Why no one has ever tried to be a superhero in real life is the thought posed by the live-action comic book "Kick-Ass," also the fictional name of crime-fighting wannabe, Dave Lizewski. 

Brit Aaron Johnson plays Dave, a socially invisible high school Harry Potter crossed with McLovin, who is determined to be a hero that's s-s-super. Before the legend of Kick-Ass is born, Dave gets the Peter Parker story: dreams of being a superhero vigilante like Spidey, orders a green, yellow-striped wetsuit offline, and works up the cajones to hit the alleys and take on knife-wielding gangs. Of course, he lacks any discernible powers, which makes Dave, ahem, Kick-Ass so darn relatable and sincere. Plus he wants to snag the gorgeous Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), who thinks he's her gay BFF. After his alter ego spawns some merchandise and the media goes buzz, a father-daughter team of vigilantes, who are like a classic Batman and Robin, try getting Kick-Ass to join them to take down a crime kingpin (Mark Strong), but they're far too experienced for the dweeb. Then the bad guy's geeky son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, the real McLovin), assumes his own superhero persona, Red Mist, to help his dad. 

Nicolas Cage is very Cage-y as Big Daddy: nebbish behind his rimmed glasses and car-salesman stache, doing a William Shatner/Adam West voice, and loony as Nick Cage can be. But joined up with his daughter Mindy, going by the tag Hit-Girl and becomes a shooting target for her Daddy, who knew tiny Chloë Grace Moretz would be the real standout, and hero? One of the most outrageous child performances ever, even against Macaulay Culkin's psychotic Good Son, 13-year-old Moretz blends pig-tail pubescence and fearless potty-mouthiness with daring, plucky glee. Her Hit-Girl is like a younger dynamo version of Uma Thurman's Bride from the "Kill Bill" movies. Let's just say her shocking use of the word “cunt” and style for blade-slicing mayhem kicks ass. 

Starting out as a deconstruction of the superhero ethos and giving it the finger, "Kick-Ass" isn't as subversive for YouTube-age satire as it thinks it is, with a mocking, cynical tone and ironic sense of humor. But it's robustly entertaining, outrageously violent, and appropriately kick-ass. And, apparently, it's faithful to its comic book source material by Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr., being cut from the same cloth as "Sin City" (which gets self-referenced). Directed by Matthew Vaughn (of 2004's kick-ass "Layer Cake"), "Kick-Ass" smartly gets a deservedly hard R-rating with brutal violence, handled playfully against a soundtrack, that includes the Banana Splits and The Hit Girls' cover of “Bad Reputation,” and is just the right kind of outlandishly graphic over-the-top, bazookas and knife-throwing included. 

Now, it will help if your desensitivity to violence and blood-spurting is high. And sure, watching a little girl spouting off profanities and hacking off limbs isn't the most inoffensive entertainment, so on a morally responsible level, "Kick-Ass" won't sit well with unassuming audiences. Then again, how is it any more shocking than the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies combined? (Parents beware, don't take the kiddos.) But where it counts, on a colorful pop-art level for fanboys and Rodriguez-Tarantino-ians, it—all together now—kicks your ass!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Fey and Carell make for fun "Night"

Date Night (2010)
88 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B

"Date Night" is proof that Tina Fey and Steve Carell were the secret ingredients to make D.O.A. marital action-comedies like "The Bounty Hunter" work. Fey and Carell are a perfect match, a wit-off-the-tongue, engagingly hip-to-be-square couple. As on their respective TV sitcoms as “30 Rock's” Liz Lemon and “The Office's” Michael Scott, the leads are so compatible together and equally sly and smooth in their line delivery, physical comedy, and comic timing. (And this is Carell's best big-screen slapstick-comic work to date since "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and more consistent than "Get Smart.") 

In their star vehicle "Date Night," Fey and Carell are Claire, real estate agent, and Phil, accountant, with two kids in New Jersey. Yep, the Fosters are one of those boring couples who are worried their marriage has gone stale, so they head to the city on their weekly “date night” and try finding a table for dinner at a chic restaurant without a reservation. Claire and Phil hijack another couple's table and get mistaken for “The Tripplehorns” by some bad guys (Jimmi Simpson and Common), who are in desperate retrieval of a flash drive. Can you say "North by Northwest?" Along their ride of '50s-screwball mistaken identity and Jerry Bruckheimer-age car chases, husband and wife begin to see each other in a new light and renew their spark. 

Josh Klausner is credited for writing the screenplay, but it does seem like some of the funniest lines were ad-libbed by Fey and Carell. Director Shawn Levy shoots a lot of the thriller action in a gritty, "Collateral" style, but particularly a frantically clever car chase, it remains broadly silly that you never fear for Claire and Phil's lives—despite hanging off the side of a car or having a gun to their head. Even though the action plot is of the “who cares?” variety, "Date Night" is fleet-footed, entertaining, and frequently funny. Mark Wahlberg is a good sport playing a perpetually shirtless playboy/“security expert,” in a funny bit of self-satirizing his pre-actor Marky Mark days. More comic-gold cameos abound: James Franco and Mila Kunis as some trashy grifters, Ray Liotta as a mobster (you're surprised?), and for typical comedy relief, Kristen Wiig has a bit part as a slutty Jerseyite divorcing Mark Ruffalo. Fey and Carell single-handedly make "Date Night" an enjoyable night out. 

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dreary "After.Life" fails agenda

After.Life (2010)
104 min., rated R.
Grade: D +

“I can't be dead,” whines a tense schoolteacher (Christina Ricci), waking up under a sheet on a slab in a stately mortuary after a (fatal?) car accident. She's pronounced dead and prepared by a methodical funeral undertaker (Liam Neeson). Is she really a corpse running through limbo with Neeson her stage narrator from “Our Town” with Haley Joel Osment's sixth sense? Or alive and held captive by a really sick serial killer? 

Heavy on clinical ambience and clean visual precision (like Neeson's corpse preparations), Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo shoots her feature film debut, "After.Life," with a stylish preciousness for a blood-red-over-fleshy-white color scheme and a sleepy, almost pulseless pace. Moon-faced Ricci in a ruby slip looks as dead as ghostly white Wednesday Addams with baggage under her eyes, but has little to work with to make us care about her character. Liam Neeson proves he has soft-spoken, God-like vocals for sinister calm like Tobin Bell from the "Saw" movies. Justin Long looks as confused as we are as Ricci's sorrowful fiancée but gets to blow a gasket and backhand a young kid. 

This bizarrely dreary, muddled, portentous arthouse.psychological.horror hokum has unsettling ambitions, but it's too busy yanking our chain between dead-and-the-living philosophy and horror-movie morbidity. As it is, "After.Life" ends stuck somewhere in purgatory. And Ricci's naked body, post-"Black Snake Moan," on a morgue table should've been more fun and satisfying than it is.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Nasty, brutal "Collector" just another pointless torture-porn exercise

The Collector (2009) 
88 min., rated R.

If human suffering and disembowelment, cleverly coined as “torture-porn,” is the new “horror" or even remains in vogue for the already spit-upon genre, get us the hell out of here. Since the "Saw" movies have made a bundle, with "Saw VI" on its way around Halloween, "The Collector" is pretty much what you'd expect from the same guys—writer-director Marcus Dunstan and co-writer Patrick Melton—that wrote the last two in the series. Originally titled "The Midnight Man," this exploitative little exercise was originally intended to be a "Saw" prequel, but the producers dismissed the idea. Then again, a lot of people die in gruesome fashion via torture traps, so what's the difference? 

Handy contractor Arkin (Josh Stewart) is desperate to help his wife (with their little girl in tow), so she can pay off some loan sharks. Formerly a jewel thief, he decides to break into one of his wealthy client's country homes, thinking the owners are on vacation, but finds the house rigged like a booby-trapped chamber of Rube Goldberg horrors and the home's family held captive. There's a masked killer, who has elaborately installed deadly blades on pulleys, knife-studded chandeliers, a bedroom floor carpeted with acidic goo, a bathroom with hanging fish hooks, a staircase embedded with nails, and plenty of wires that when tripped will unleash something painful. Oh, and he also likes chaining his victims inside red boxes as collection items, so remember that for later. 

Too bad he's not interesting, just a prowling, unstoppable cipher dressed as the Masked Magician, with as many spoken words as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees and a backstory/motive completely left by the wayside. Don't worry if you don't understand how "the collector" could find all this time to set up his traps or why he's torturing this particular family; Dunstan and Melton must not have thought any of this mattered because nothing is explained. As Arkin, Stewart looks tired, but for good reason, and makes for a reasonably engaging hero who's faced with familial obligations and a moral dilemma. On screen long enough to show her breasts and get killed, Madeline Zima has surely grown up since "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" and TV's "The Nanny" as the besieged family's rebellious teen daughter. 

Moody and artistically made, with solid sound design but a heavy hand on symbolic spider imagery, director Dunstan's first film at least shows that there's a confident hand behind it. Before the collector actually comes to face Arkin, there is some sustained tension with Arkin hiding in different rooms and being careful not to set off the traps (love that overhead shot of both men separated by one wall). The premise is lean and mean, with a jolt of a home-invasion opening, but there comes a time when the film becomes all brutally cruel eviscerations. For the record, other repellent, gratuitous business includes the pulling of a tongue with a wrench, sewing up lips, and the burning-and-slicing of a pussycat that's bound to offend pet lovers. Sure, these moments will make one wince, but there should be more purpose than shock value alone. 

As it turns out, "The Collector" is just another pointless exercise in "can-you-top-this" sadistic torture and nothing else but an infuriatingly anticlimactic ending as icing on the bloody cake. Enter at your own risk. 

Grade: C -

Cage's go-for-it performance something to see in "Bad Lieutenant"

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009) 
122 min., rated R.

For the past few years, you may have noticed Nicolas Cage going insane in his fair share of awful paycheck movies. To refresh your memory, he pranced around in a bear costume, cold-cocked Leelee Sobieski, and delivered some howlingly bad lines with hilariously unrestrained gusto. But in "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans," a loose remake of the 1992 Abel Ferrara-Harvey Keitel cult film, Cage's great, go-for-it performance makes for one deliriously crazy, whacked-out hell. 

If you think you know corrupt-cop movies, you don't: New Orleans homicide detective Terence McDonagh (Cage) satisfies his Vicodin, marijuana, and heroine addictions after getting hooked on painkillers from suffering a back injury. Eva Mendes comes and goes as the nutso's equally doped-up prostitute girlfriend, Frankie, who's happy when she's high. Throughout William Finkelstein's screenplay, there's uninvolving plot business involving the murder of African immigrants and the investigation into a gang, but the movie is not concerned much with that. 

More than your standard cop-crime thriller, "Bad Lieutenant" (abbreviated from its overworked title) is an entertainingly bonkers character study of hypocrisy, corruption, and addiction that doesn't go in expected directions. Director Werner Herzog stimulates us with flamboyantly off-kilter visuals that mirror the one-man-show's unhinged mind, as he imagines some iguanas on a coffee table, shot in acid-head close-up, keeping the film just gonzo enough without turning McDonagh into Hunter S. Thompson. Cage must have become the Al Pacino of Troubled Souls, as his off-the-wall, hyper-manic man with a badge has to be seen to believe; he goes belligerant toward two older ladies, cutting the oxygen supply of one and screaming inappropriately at the other (“You're the fucking reason this country is going down the drain!”), or going insane in a pharmacy out of sheer impatience to get his fix. But Cage doesn't camp it up; the character calls for it. On-location shooting in post-Katrina New Orleans is spiked with local color and mood by Peter Zeitlinger's cinematography and Mark Isham's modern-noir score. 

General audiences won't know what to think, but because of Cage and Herzog outcrazing each other, "Bad Lieutenant" should pay off for more adventurous viewers, or if you're on narcotics, too.

Grade: B -

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"Clash of the Titans" occasionally fun cheese

Clash of the Titans (2010)
106 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

These Hollywood days, remakes of classic movies are usually condemned for being sacrilegious, but what about movies that weren't "Citizen Kane" to begin with? Like, say, "Clash of the Titans" remade from the pre-CGI, Harry Hamlin-starring schlockapalooza of 1981. In simplest terms, it was a solidly fun B-movie. This “re-imagining” (or whatever you kids are calling it now on your Twitter) is still a cheesy, hokey spectacle of Greek mythology and monsters, even if it threatens to take itself too seriously. But hey, it's adequately entertaining chaos. 

The demigod Perseus (Sam Worthington), God Zeus's mortal son, was lost and adopted by a fisherman and his family. But when mankind of Mount Olympus declares war on the gods, his adoptive family is killed by Hades, King of the Underworld. Further punishment to the citizens of Argos is issued by Hades: sacrifice their princess, Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), or he'll unleash the the fury of the oversized sea monster called the Kraken. With ten days remaining until an eclipse marks Release the Kraken! Day, Perseus assembles a band of rebels—with the alluring Io (Gemma Arterton) at his side to utter all sorts of exposition—to quest out and defeat giant scorpions, blind witches, and Medusa. 

Within this cacophony of glossy, crummy CGI, "Clash of the Titans" often conjures up some of that old-school drive-in movie awe. A scorpion battle is exciting and the effects-aided Medusa (played by Natalia Vodianova) is formidably realized with her slithering anaconda body and angry snake braids, even if Ray Harryhausen's charmingly outdated F/X of the original are missed in their whole herky-jerky stop-motion nostalgia. (The movie was retro-fitted in post with the new-fangled 3-D format, but it looks drearily blurry and wasn't worth the bother, so moving on...) Sam Worthington has the physicality, fury, stoicism, and crew-cut of an action hero like a baby Russell Crowe; he's a handsome stone statue without a personality (which technically would come in handy when looking at Medusa squarely in the eyes). Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes do expert hamming. As Zeus, Neeson speaks in a Batman voice and literally sparkles with the most gleaming suit of armor, and Fiennes snakes around and does his Lord Voldemort voice as Hades. 

Much can be mocked here, the serious, captain-obvious dialogue included, but were B-movies ever about credible acting or sparkling dialogue? What matters most is the action and those slimy, scary monsters! With your lowest expectations set, one might get their Kraken on with this silly, unpretentious ball of provolone. 

Friday, April 2, 2010

Tyler Perry should have his directing license revoked with "Why Did I Get Married?" and "WDIGM Too?"

Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married? (2007) 
113 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: D +

In writer-producer-director-star Tyler Perry's "Why Did I Get Married?," four black affluent couples take a week-long retreat to a snowy Colorado cabin to talk about their relationships and reaffirm their marriages. Janet Jackson is Patricia, the psychologist who has written a best-selling self-help book about her friends. 

Very few of these characters feel not like artificial, unpleasant stereotypes and not much makes sense or rings true either. Never would a flight attendant kick a woman off the plane (!) for being heavyset, nor would her husband be rude enough to stay on board with her slim, gorgeous friend (his mistress) and give her gas money to drive to Colorado by herself. And Tasha Smith as Angela, an uber-sassy, hard-drinking harpy, is nails-on-a-chalkboard obnoxious, when bickering at her clap-laden ex-pro football player husband, Marcus (Michael Jai White), is supposed to be funny. But the said heavyset woman, Shelia's story (Jill Scott), is heartbreaking and does merit hope as the central heart of the film. 

Used to grinding out mass-produced clunkers for African American crowds, media empire Perry's latest theatrical play-to-film translation is his most subtle picture with the absence of the loud, shotgun-toting Madea character. At least Perry is an underplayer at times when it comes to being generous to the women, while most of the men are written as dogs. But typically, this one still wildly swings back and forth between moods of over-the-top hysterics and soapy melodrama like a Menopausal woman. 

Preachy writing, ham-handed direction, and screechy performances without being insightful, all thanks to Perry; also casting himself as a pediatrician, the writer-director himself wrote and mouths phony, on-the-nose expository dialogue that lets us all know his friends' occupations. Mr. Perry, didn't you learn in Screenwriting 101 that it's all about showing, not telling! 

Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too? (2010) 
121 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C -

It's been seven months since Tyler Perry made his last feature, so why shouldn't the prolific and successful impresario try and make another mil? In "Why Did I Get Married Too?," a continuation of 2007's "Why Did I Get Married?," writer/director/actor Perry churns out another teeter-totter of broad comedy and wildly insane soap opera. Or what should've been called “Why Didn't I Figure Out the Original Question the First Time?,” those same colored friends from Atlanta take a tropical vacation in the Bahamas at their timeshare and their relationships are on even shakier ground than when we first saw them. 

Like most of writer-producer-director Perry's efforts, "WDIGMT?" doesn't add anything new and once the couples return to Atlanta, you'll get whiplash from the movie's mood swings. Yelling, ranting, sobbing, throwing things, revelations of Cancer and “he's cheating on her but not really” belong on “Jerry Springer.” (At least Louis Gossett Jr. and Cicely Tyson give nice cameos as a happy, long-married couple.) And speechifying about alcoholism, infidelity, trust, and spousal abuse would probably be more subtle, well hopefully, in Janet Jackson's psychologist-novelist's book. 

But while Tasha Smith plays her part of Angela for all it's worth and Jill Scott shines once more as the former long-suffering wife who has a new hunk of a husband, Jackson does prove herself in a strong, powerful performance. Her eyes are palpably painful during some of the more intense moments. But her arc is melodramatic and finally ridiculous with a “Fix it! Fix it!” line and resolution so trite and overly simplistic. Cue the “One Year Later” title card and we get an even more pat conclusion with a pointless star cameo. 

Although Tyler does give his characters a voice and allows us to sympathetize with the women, he's not yet quite a writer concerned with tone or belief in his story. "WDIGMT?" will undoubtedly be a hit on BET nonetheless.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Last Song" less pushy than last Sparks weeper

The Last Song (2010) 
107 min., rated PG.
Grade: C +

"The Last Song" is the latest prepackaged summertime romance from indefatigable sapmeister Nicholas Sparks. In hopes of branching out from her Hannah Montana persona, Disney Channel superstar Miley Cyrus plays Ronnie, a snappish, headstrong teenager. She and her kid brother are shipped off to the Georgia shore to stay with divorced Dad (Greg Kinnear) at his beach house. Ronnie is a brooding type but she's doesn't drink (Cyrus has got to keep her role-model image!), and tries giving up her piano-playing talents and her chance to study at Julliard. In a summer she'll never forget, she finds love with a shirtless volleyball player and part-time aquarium worker named Will (Liam Hemsworth). 

As a tailor-made vehicle for Cyrus, the young smoky-voiced singer-turned-actress shows she's more Britney Spears than Jennifer Lopez, not yet a movie star but has a natural presence and of course what would this be without some scenes to hear her sing (“Wow, you can really sing,” sweet-talks Will). Cyrus does a lot of pouting, snarling, and huffing at first, but then reduces the defensive attitude and eases into her first “grown-up” role with maturity. Kinnear is touching as the patient dad, Hemsworth fulfills the charming hunk role, Bobby Coleman is likably precocious as Ronnie's brother Jonah, and the turtles are cute. 

First-time director Julie Anne Robinson earnestly keeps the eye-rolling to a minimum and reigns in the material from being overly maudlin, maybe because author Sparks himself actually co-wrote the screenplay. "The Notebook" still remains the best adaptation of Sparks' works, but "The Last Song" isn't as pushy in its heartstring-yanking for this sort of sudsy melodrama (hey "Dear John"!). With the summer-loving of "Grease," minus everyone crooning merrily, and a third-act plot development drawn from "Beaches" and an obvious arson subplot mystery, Sparks' sixth screen version is still easier to sit through.