Archive for August, 2010

‘Takers’ take all right, but give nothing in return

Sunday, August 29th, 2010
Hayden Christensen in "Takers" A.J. (Hayden Christensen) launches into action as one of several efficient bank robbers in the action drama “Takers.”

“Takers” ranks as one of the most pretentious, ill-conceived and badly botched heist movies ever made.

“We’re takers!” shouts Gordon Jennings (Idris Elba), leader of a band of efficient and elusive L.A. bank robbers. “We take!”

They sure do.

They take the famous armored car robbery plot from “The Italian Job.” They take the messy hotel room shootout from “True Romance.” They take the final scene from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (plus the line “Who are those guys?”). They take the street gunfights from “Heat.”

They take and take and take!

And what do they give us in return?

A dour, soulless action movie riddled with dopey, expository dialogue, dislikable characters, horribly misplaced music (a sad cello playing during a violent shootout?) and a hyper editing style so cranked up and blurry that you can’t tell what’s going on in most of the action sequences.

This last criticism is particularly annoying when bank robber Jesse Attica (Chris Brown) leads cop Jack Welles (Matt Damon) on a dynamic street chase through L.A. and escapes by performing some of the best and boldest parkour moves since the French thriller “District B-13.”

But the sequence has been shot so tight and edited so quick that we never really see how magnificent these stunts are. “Takers” actually undermines its own quality. (Read more…)

Con-man minister seeks redemption in ‘Last Exorcism’

Sunday, August 29th, 2010
Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell in "The Last Exorcism" Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) tries to drive a demon from a country girl, Nell (Ashley Bell), in “The Last Exorcism.”

Frankly, I am getting really weary of horror movies mounted as first-person pseudo-documentaries shot with nausea-inducing hand-held cameras.

Still, if there absolutely must be another one to join the ranks of “Cloverfield,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Paranormal Activity,” the two “REC” movies and the granddaddy of them all “Cannibal Holocaust,” it might as well be Daniel Stamm’s earnest, surprising and well-acted entry “The Last Exorcism.”

It begins as a documentary about a con artist minister who seeks redemption by coming clean about his sham practice of pretending to exorcise demons — for a fee.

Then, the movie abruptly changes direction. And in the final reel, it changes direction again, and reveals what it’s really been about all along.

I did find the ending to be a slight disappointment, not just because it felt too abrupt and dramatically blunt. But because it duplicates the closing shot of another highly popular horror pseudo doc. (It’s OK to read further, there are no spoilers here.)

The Rev. Cotton Marcus (a spot-on performance by mostly TV actor Patrick Fabian) is apparently in bad need of redemption for his career of trickery that he gladly tells every secret to filmmaker Iris (Iris Bahr) and her ubiquitous cameraman.

He expresses disdain not only for himself, but for the ignorant churchgoers who fall for his dramatic incantations and carnival-show shenanigans, such as the spooky noises generated by his hidden sound system.

Then he gets a letter from a Bible-belt farmer, Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum), desperately imploring Marcus to exorcise his teen daughter Nell (Ashley Bell).

“The devil is inside my daughter!” Sweetzer proclaims. (Read more…)

Winning cast sells comic ‘Lottery Ticket’

Saturday, August 21st, 2010
Bow Wow and Loretta Devine in "Lottery Ticket" Kevin (Bow Wow) and his grandma (Loretta Devine) squeal when they win $370 million in the comedy “Lottery Ticket.”

Winning the lottery is one surefire way of getting ahead in the world without displaying a lick of talent, brains or hard work. That’s why it’s a favorite fantasy of so many – and why it’s hard for me to sympathize too much with actor/rapper Bow Wow as Kevin Carson, protagonist of the new comedy “Lottery Ticket.”

Kevin is a likable guy from the Atlanta projects who suddenly wins $370 million in the Mondo Millions sweepstakes, using lucky numbers he got off a fortune cookie.

One hitch: It’s Saturday of a Fourth of July weekend that will stretch through Monday, so Kevin can’t cash the ticket until Tuesday. He tries to keep it a secret, but unfortunately, he still lives with his terminally talkative Grandma (Loretta Devine).

Soon, Kevin’s life has taken a marked turn for the worse, or at least the more dangerous. He has all kinds of new “friends” and his real longtime chums – including Brandon T. Jackson as best bud Benny and Naturi Naughton as true-blue gal pal Stacie – are feeling neglected.

Teairra Mari as foxy Nikki appoints Kevin her newest cutie. The local pastor, slick Rev. Taylor, preaches a sermon about a new church project and it’s aimed straight at Kevin’s pew. The local loan shark, Sweet Tee (the always excellent Keith David), is happy to float Kevin a $100,000 loan and also to lend him a torpedo named Jimmy the Driver (Terry Crews) to look after his (their) interests.

And the most dangerous man in the projects – psycho ex-con Lorenzo (Gbenga Akinnagbe) – wants that ticket, and doesn’t care whom he has to bash to get it. (Read more…)

‘Switch’ characters deliver more than you’d expect from typical rom-com

Saturday, August 21st, 2010
Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston in "The Switch" Wally (Jason Bateman) and Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) deal with an inconceivable conception problem in “The Switch.”

“The Switch” could easily have been just another cheesy romantic comedy with gratuitous voice-over narrations and two standard musical montages where the lyrics explain exactly how the main characters are feeling – just in case the actors didn’t convey that.

But “The Switch” has been well-written by Alan Loeb (based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story “Baster”), who gives each character careful and specific motivations. Plus, the team of well-cast actors elevates the mediocre elements of the story into something meaningful, sincere and even joyful.

At the start, New Yorkers Wally and Kassie have been best buds for years.

He clearly would like to take their relationship out of the friend zone and on to something more romantic.

She clearly would not. He’s way too neurotic, she thinks, and he moans when he eats, and possesses the sartorial taste of a junior high school dweeb.

With her biological clock pounding, Kassie opts to become a mother by way of a sperm donor, a handsome, muscular, married teacher named Roland, a superb specimen of maleness. Kassie gets so excited, she throws a pregnancy party just before a doctor inseminates her.

But at that party, a despondent Wally gets blitzed on alcohol and herbal drugs, then accidentally (yeah, right) spills Roland’s contribution for the evening in Kassie’s bathroom.

Panicked, Wally replaces Roland’s reproductive sample with his own, but is too blitzed to remember anything the next morning.

Kassie becomes pregnant, moves to Minnesota, then returns to New York seven years later with her son Sebastian. Right away, we can tell he’s way too neurotic and moans when he eats. (Read more…)

‘Animal Kingdom’ a stark drama reeking of realism

Thursday, August 19th, 2010
James Frecheville and Jacki Weaver in "Animal Kingdom" After his mother’s death, Josh (James Frecheville, left) goes to live with his grandmother (Jacki Weaver) and gets sucked into his criminal family’s violent world in “Animal Kingdom.”

The title “Animal Kingdom” sounds like a film about survival of the fittest. And it is, except the animals are a dysfunctional family of Australian criminals in Melbourne who suck a quiet young lad named Josh (James Frecheville) into their world.

David Michod’s impressive, assured Aussie gangster drama begins with Josh sitting next to his mum, dying of a heroin overdose. He can’t quite focus on her because the exciting game show on the TV distracts him.

He eventually goes to live with his grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver), the queen of criminal enablers whose three sons dabble in everything from drugs to robbery and murder.

“Animal Kingdom” is a stark drama reeking of toxic realism. Josh remains a chilling blank slate, and he is unable to guess the danger he’s in, or the danger he puts his new girlfriend (Laura Wheelright) in just by dating her. (Read more…)

Dann chats with ‘Scott Pilgrim’ star Michael Cera, director Edgar Wright

Friday, August 13th, 2010
Michael Cera and Edgar Wright from "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" Actor Michael Cera, left, and director Edgar Wright get serious about their new movie “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”

It’s Cera vs. Wright!

Michael Cera is the star of the new frenetic action movie/romance “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Edgar Wright directed it, along with two earlier comedies “Hot Fuzz” and “Shaun of the Dead.”

I sat down with both at Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel for a brief chat.

DG. Mr. Wright, what led you to decide to treat the numerous action scenes in “Scott Pilgrim” as if they were musical numbers?

EW. In the books, when Scott Pilgrim destroys opponents, they explode into coins, just like in a video game. The only way I could think of to make that work in a film was to play it like a musical. In the same way in musicals where people break into songs or dance, here they break into fights.

A big fight scene in a Hong Kong action film is like a dance number. I used that as a cue for a way to structure the film. A lot of recent action films, particularly the Bourne films, are going for this rough-and-tumble realism. This is much more choreographed and stylized. Choreographing this with actors is more like learning ballet than it is a rough-and-tumble fist fight.”

DG. Mr. Cera, did you ever imagine you’d be a super action hero in a movie one day?

MC. No, I never thought about it. It wasn’t something that I ever dreamed about or anything. Besides, this movie is a lot more than that. (Read more…)

Stallone turns ‘Expendables’ into brain-dead bloodbath

Friday, August 13th, 2010
Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren and Sylvester Stallone in "The Expendables" Barney Ross (director Sylvester Stallone), right, gets the drop on Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), who has the drop on Ying Yang (Jet Li) in the action thriller “The Expendables.”

What’s up with Sylvester Stallone’s face?

The star, co-writer and director of “The Expendables” looks as if he’s had his head reconstructed with Silly Putty, and his eyebrows have been embroidered on to his skull by an inebriated seamstress.

Maybe it’s just the soldier-for-hire he plays. If he runs out of bullets, he can always scare his enemies away.

But I digress.

“The Expendables” will go down in Hollywood history as the greatest waste of testosterone ever splattered on the silver screen.

This ridiculous, brain-dead and viciously violent mercenary action film assembles the largest group of major tough guys ever to escape from the 1980s with their AARP cards intact: Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke.

Hey! What happened to Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme? Too busy to stop by for a roundhouse kick or two?

Before “Terminator” and “Die Hard” fans start drooling, it should be noted that the Governator and Willis appear in “The Expendables” for about as long as you see them in the coming attraction trailers.

After trading quips, Schwarzenegger and Willis wisely disappear for the rest of the movie before it deteriorates from nostalgic cuteness into chaotic schlock. (Read more…)

‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’ blasts along on sheer spectacle

Friday, August 13th, 2010
Michael Cera and Satya Bhabha in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" Scott (Michael Cera) puts a slammer on the jaw of villainous Matthew (Satya Bhabha) in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”

Throw away your Ritalin and prepare to be awed!

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” is no ordinary movie.

It’s a delightfully unhinged multimedia sensory assault, an in-your-eyes-and-ears romantic fantasy that combines comic books, video games, TV sitcoms, Hong Kong martial arts movies and old-fashioned soap operas.

“Scott Pilgrim” has been blindingly edited with strobe light speed, and every frame explodes with wit, imagination and pop culture verve.

It throws out so much razzle and dazzle that it eventually begins to frazzle. But just getting to this film’s point of diminishing returns is well worth the trip.

The story follows the hallucinogenic, wacked-out adventures of a 22-year-old Toronto lad named Scott (the laconically droll Michael Cera) who lives with his gay roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) and has fallen in love with a high school student named Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), even though they’ve never even held hands.

Scott often practices playing guitar for his indie-rock band in a small apartment.

Right away, you know you’re in a comic book-inspired alternate universe when cartoon graphics visually emphasize sound effects (think “Biff!” from the 1960s “Batman” TV show) and major items of importance on the screen receive identification arrows, as in the old “Dick Tracy” comic strip.

The plot kicks in when Scott meets his blue-haired soul mate, the enigmatic Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a sultry rebel with a checkered past. (Read more…)

Roberts’ sidekick steals the show in ‘Eat Pray Love’

Friday, August 13th, 2010
Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem in "Eat Pray Love" Liz (Julia Roberts) falls for a Brazilian tour guide (Javier Bardem) who nearly runs her over with his car in Ryan Murphy’s “Eat Pray Love.”

Before we get to Julia Roberts, we must first acknowledge the most stellar performance to be found in Ryan Murphy’s movie adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-seller about a woman’s search for truth and happiness.

It belongs to Richard Jenkins.

Yep, the same Richard Jenkins who was born in DeKalb and won an Oscar nomination for best actor after starring in the 2007 indie production “The Visitor.”

In “Eat Pray Love,” Jenkins plays a character called Richard From Texas, a cranky, middled-aged fussbudget who begrudgingly befriends Liz Gilbert (Roberts) in India.

She has come there seeking enlightenment after a lifetime of confusion, disappointment and restlessness.

Richard has also come to India seeking life answers. We don’t why. Not at first.

He takes Liz under his tattered wing and becomes her de facto life coach, propping up her saggy self-esteem, but harshly challenging her to stand up to her problems and face her inability to forgive herself and love.

Jenkins initially presents Richard as a grumpy shadow of the main character. But Richard harbors a dark secret.

When he chooses to reveal it, Jenkins conjures up a performance filled with so much pain and regret (“an ocean of regret,” as he puts it), that the film feels alive and vital.

When Richard leaves “Eat Pray Love,” the movie never quite recovers. Jenkins’ performance is so solid and meaningful, I would be shocked if he didn’t earn an Oscar nomination for it. (Read more…)

Nutty action comedy ‘The Other Guys’ never cops out

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010
Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in "The Other Guys" NYPD cop Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) torments his partner Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell) in the comedy “The Other Guys.”

Most of 2010’s movies have been so disappointing thus far that I hope I’m not overcompensating when I call “The Other Guys” a welcome riot of surprise, verbal jousting and big-budget, action-movie mockery.

“The Other Guys” is so unpredictably nutty that not even its TV commercials can properly capture the comedy’s off-kilter narrative architecture and breezy disregard for the conventions of a standard cop buddy movie.

There are scenes where the cast and crew seem to be making up the story as they go along, which feels incredibly exciting and free.

It’s only when the movie concentrates on its limp plot – about a Gordon Gekko-esque businessman’s attempts to steal billions – that “The Other Guys” slows to an unworthy anticlimax.

In the beginning, New York City has two macho super cops: Highsmith and Danson (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson).

Their derring-do exploits and death-defying Hollywood stunts – jumping from moving vehicles while miraculously dodging zillions of bullets and massive explosions – make them media darlings who are so revered, they never have to do boring paper work.

Two other of NY’s finest do: detectives Gamble (Will Ferrell) and Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg). Stuck at desks, the two are a comic contrast in styles. (Read more…)