Archive for September, 2010

Ryan Reynolds digs into emotional, one-man role in ‘Buried’

Friday, September 24th, 2010
Ryan Reynolds in "Buried" American driver Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) tries to dig himself out of a bad situation in the claustrophobic drama “Buried.”

“Buried” takes place inside a coffin.

No cutaways.

No flashbacks.

For 95 minutes.

Just an American truck driver buried in a coffin somewhere in Iraq. The only things in there with him are a crummy flashlight, an Iraqi cell phone and, for a while, a snake.

If you’re already turned off by this description of “Buried,” keep an open mind and understand that his movie, ingeniously directed by Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes, is the kind of daring, tight and riveting work of cinema that the late Alfred Hitchcock would have embraced.

In fact, Cortes cites Hitchcock’s works as inspiration for “Buried.” The master’s 1944 “Lifeboat” – shot in the confines of a small life boat – and his 1948 “Rope” – shot with one seemingly seamless, uninterrupted 80-minute take – served as a springboard for Cortes’ approach to making “Buried.”

Ryan Reynolds, who’s mostly known for working the realm of romantic comedies, quantum leaps into serious dramatic art as Paul Conroy, a driver ambushed by presumed insurgents and buried in a coffin until someone pays a ransom for his life.

“Buried” begins in total darkness as Conroy wakes up without first knowing where he is.

In this box, we see only what Conroy sees. Nothing more. And he can only see when his failing flashlight works, or when he opens a greenlighted cell phone, apparently left for him to contact people with ransom money.

Could any movie setup sound more visually boring than this? (Read more…)

‘Legend of the Guardians’ is one strange bird

Friday, September 24th, 2010
Jim Sturgess from "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) leads the owl brigade to the rescue in “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.”

“Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole” is one strange bird.

It’s an animated fantasy obviously intended for children, yet it depicts genocidal violence perpetrated by gladiator-like birds of prey locked in death matches high over fiery scenes of destruction representing hell on earth.

Director Zack Snyder doesn’t do his feature any favors, either. He nearly kills this magnificently animated movie by shooting it with bullet-time photography.

You remember bullet-time?

That showstopping device used in “The Matrix” where Carrie-Anne Moss leaps into the air, then freezes mid-kick while the camera swings around to her opposite side before she completes planting her boot into a guy’s face?

Bullet-time riddles “Legend of the Guardians” with owls flying past the camera lens, then freezing. In. Place.

Then zip!

They suddenly shoot out of the frame as if their booster rockets kicked in.

Snyder uses this cool device so often that it loses its cool. Then it just becomes distracting. And annoying.

It’s almost as if Snyder thinks kiddies can’t pay attention to the silver screen for very long, so he crams his movie full of slow-motion, speeded-up motion and bullet-time shots to arrest their attention.

That’s on top of the already arresting 3-D format that didn’t really need any help in holding viewers’ interest. (Read more…)

Greed isn’t good: ‘Wall Street’ sequel sells out

Friday, September 24th, 2010
Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), left, takes on a young Wall Street trader (Shia LaBeouf) in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”

In Oliver Stone’s sequel “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” financial uber-villain Gordon Gekko goes soft, the characters around him go soft in the head, and the director who hard-balled capitalism in his 1987 drama “Wall Street” has apparently misplaced his political Viagra.

“Money Never Sleeps” celebrates the return of Gekko, who won a best actor Oscar for Michael Douglas just for delivering his now-classic speech praising unregulated capitalism. (“Greed is good,” he says to room full of investors. “Greed works!”)

Stone attempts to capture lightning in bottle again by having Gekko – reprised by a much older Douglas, of course – address students with an update on the “Greed” speech.

He tells them that not only is greed still good, “apparently, now it’s legal!”

That’s it?

The original “Wall Street” cast Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox, a naive young stock trader who learns the worst from the best. He winds up in the hoosegow for illegal practices, but he still takes down his mentor the great Gekko by wearing a wire for the cops.

Gekko has served his time and gets sprung into the world like a financial Darth Vader, except his constant uttering of philosophical axioms (“It takes a fisherman to see another fisherman on the horizon!”) makes him sound like Yoda writing fortune cookie sayings for Wall Street restaurants.

As he did in “Wall Street,” Stone teases us with quick glimpses of Gekko, building up our anticipation to see how he’s weathered prison. (Read more…)

Dull ‘You Again’ revisits high school horrors

Friday, September 24th, 2010
Jamie Lee Curtis, Kristen Bell and Betty White in "You Again" A family (Jamie Lee Curtis, Kristen Bell and the immortal Betty White) star in the revenge-themed comedy “You Again.”

“High school was a horror movie!” Marni shrieks. “And this weekend was the sequel!”

Actually, if Marni could see her own movie “You Again,” she would realize high school was nothing compared to the horror that she’s giving us.

A listless, draggy, torpid revenge comedy, “You Again” throws characters of varying degrees of dislikeability on the screen, gives them inane things to say (“I’m so sorry I was evil!”) and stupid things to do. (A woman falling once is not funny. Falling down twice? Really not funny.)

“You Again” is also a dishonest movie that doesn’t make any effort to keep track of its own history. One key character, the beautiful Joanna (Odette Yustman), supposedly has seen the light, repented for being a bully in high school and become a better person.

No, she didn’t.

Joanna is a proven liar who clearly has continued her bullying ways. Yet, the ending to Andy Fickman’s comedy must ignore all this in order for it to make sense.

Kristen Bell plays Marni, who went through high school as a zit-infested, brace-wearing nerd subjected to intimidation and harassment by the beautifully evil Joanna.

Years later, Marni has come into her own beauty and evolved into a successful PR executive whose brother Will (James Wolk) is getting married.

To Joanna!

Or as Marni refers to her, Satan’s Spawn.

When Marni meets Joanna, she’s shocked. Joanna doesn’t recognize her from high school. Or does she? (Read more…)

‘Alpha and Omega’ no leader of the (3-D) pack

Friday, September 17th, 2010
Hayden Panettiere and Justin Long characters from "Alpha and Omega" The poorly animated “Alpha and Omega” features the voice talents of Hayden Panettiere and Justin Long as the lupine title characters.

Early this summer when I was a guest on the now-defunct, local CBS morning news show “Monsters and Money,” I was asked about the future of 3-D movies.

I said that the biggest danger to the current 3-D boom will come when the market gets flooded with cheaply made, poor-quality 3-D films and the term “3-D” will quickly become associated with mediocrity, or worse.

Here comes the beginning of that flood.

“Alpha and Omega” traffics in the sort of sophomoric storytelling and shortchanged animation we’d expect to see on a Saturday morning cartoon rush-job.

This isn’t to say that “Alpha and Omega” is a terrible motion picture with no redeeming values. (The 2008 3-D “Fly Me to the Moon” was far dumber with flatter, more lackluster animation.)

For a feature theatrical release, though, “Alpha and Omega” just can’t compete with the polish of a Pixar picture, or other more sophisticated animated productions from DreamWorks SKG.

This movie comes from Crest Animation Productions, an India-based company with a satellite office in Los Angeles.

The press notes brag that while most big-budget animated movies take an average of three years to create, Crest managed to make “Alpha and Omega” in half the time.

Uh, did Crest ever think there might be a good reason those other animated movies took three years to make? (Read more…)

Give this teen sex comedy an A for effort, at least

Friday, September 17th, 2010
Emma Stone in "Easy A" Olive (Emma Stone) narrates her own version of how she earned a scarlet letter in the high school comedy “Easy A.”

Emma Stone possesses soft, come-hither eyes that could drink in the oceans, a sexually playful, raw, husky voice that could melt icebergs, and a feminine fragility that summons forth the protector in males.

“Easy A” fulfills the promise that this remarkable young actress showed in the horror/comedy “Zombieland.” She single-handedly carries her sassy new high school sex comedy with crates of confidence, charisma and charm.

In “Easy A” (also one of the smartest, cleverest titles in recent years), Stone tosses out a career-making performance fraught with conflicting emotions, torn loyalties and adolescent confusion, all built upon a foundation of Christ-like good will toward men.

Stone’s seemingly effortless performance does wonders to cover the sins of the movie, such as a weak, tentative use of her character as a Christ symbol, the ridiculous overuse of the word “awesome!” (nine times) and a blatant pandering to 1980s nostalgia at the cost of the story’s unnecessarily sacrificed originality.

Stone plays Olive Pendergast, a high schoolgirl who narrates her story via a streaming broadcast from her computer. She lays out everything that has happened, complete with chapter titles.

One day in the restroom, Olive’s best pal Rhia (Aly Michalka) pushes her hard to find out what she did on the weekend. To shut her up, Olive tells a white lie: She lost her virginity to a college guy.

Faster than you can run around the campus with a super-speeded-up camera lens, rumors spread that Olive has become a woman.

This works well thematically for Olive, who’s studying Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” in English class, taught by the cool Mr. Griffith (Thomas Hayden Church). (Read more…)

True grit: Affleck makes tough but tender ‘Town’ his own

Friday, September 17th, 2010
Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner in "The Town" Two pals (director Ben Affleck, left, and Jeremy Renner) pose as cops to rob Fenway Park in the crime drama “The Town.”

“The Town” is a slickly constructed heist thriller that dares to suggest that a person born in violence and brokenness can yearn for something better and can muster the strength to break the cultural and familial chains that have kept him a prisoner all of his life.

Yet, just like breaking up, breaking away is hard to do.

This impressive crime drama – directed with assured style and unexpected humor by star Ben Affleck – deftly balances an empathetic character study with the obligatory genre elements of cat-and-mouse game, car chases and lots of guns blasting away.

A harrowing car chase through the narrow streets of Boston is the showcase sequence in “The Town,” with Dylan Tichenor’s pulse-pumping editing every bit as tight as the tiny alleys negotiated by getaway cars and police cruisers.

One of the toughest denizens of this world is Doug MacRay (Affleck), a working-class guy in Charlestown, Mass., a piece of turf that we’re informed has spawned more bank robbers and armored-car plunderers than any place else in the country.

MacRay works as part of an elite team of local robbers who hit both banks and armored cars with impunity.

They strike with split-second accuracy. They know how to cover their tracks with bleach and fire. They know not to do anything that might compromise their capitalistic enterprise.

Until the day when MacRay, his lifelong pal Jim Coughlin (“Hurt Locker” star Jeremy Renner) and their team put on masks, storm a bank and force a pretty executive to open the safe.

Coughlin insists on taking the woman, Claire Keesey (a charismatic, fresh-faced Rebecca Hall), hostage just in case, although he releases her unharmed.

Worried that she might be able to identify the robbers, MacRay pretends to be a regular guy at a Laundromat. Just to, you know, check up on her. (Read more…)

‘I’m Still Here’ mockumentary plays audience for chumps

Sunday, September 12th, 2010
Joaquin Phoenix in "I'm Still Here" Actor Joaquin Phoenix takes the microphone to reinvent himself as a hip-hop musician in Casey Affleck’s “I’m Still Here.”

If Casey Affleck’s new movie “I’m Still Here” had been a genuine exploration of Oscar-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix’s wacked-out journey to become a white hip-hop star, it would have been a shocking, revelatory glimpse into the painful limits that a real artist will go to find personal fulfillment.

But “I’m Still Here” is a wax job, a fake, a put-on, a sham.

Some scenes appear to be real documentary footage cut in with the hocus-pocus. But for the most part, signs of directed fiction are all over this project.

First, nobody objects to having Affleck’s camera around 24/7 recording every intimate detail of their lives.

Nobody demands the camera be shut-off or refuses to talk (although Sean Combs at least asks Phoenix why he brought a camera crew to his apartment late at night before he lets them in).

Whole scenes scream “set up.”

In the most obvious one, Affleck’s night-vision camera captures — in a happy accident of good timing? — a disgruntled “assistant” named Anton pulling down his pants to defecate on Phoenix while he sleeps in his bed.

Phoenix’s assistants (well-endowed males with apparently no qualms about full-frontal shots) don’t get last names. A Newsweek “journalist” gets no name at all. (Read more…)

‘Going the Distance’ proves not all can follow the Judd Apatow formula

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010
Justin Long and Drew Barrymore in "Going the Distance" Garrett (Justin Long) meets Erin (Drew Barrymore) in a bar in “Going the Distance,” a romance about faraway lovers.

Erin and Garrett have been separated for too long while working in different cities, so they decide to indulge in some phone sex.

But after thrashing out the embellished details of their fantasized tryst – car vs. elevator? – the two long-distance lovers finally cave to frustration.

“This isn’t really working!” Erin confesses.

Neither is “Going the Distance,” a romantic comedy surprisingly light on romance and fun, but heavy on the sort of randy vulgarity that falls way short of riotous humor.

Documentary film director Nanette “American Teen” Burstein directed “Going the Distance,” and she follows the formula of producer/director Judd Apatow in his string of successful comedies (“Superbad,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” plus others).

Her movie proves it’s not all that easy to duplicate Apatow’s ability to find the right balance between empathetic characters and wince-inducing, gross-out gags.

Garrett (Justin Long) meets Erin (Drew Barrymore) at a video game in a New York bar soon after being dumped by his girlfriend. They chat. They flirt. They bond.

He works as an assistant in a record company. She serves as an intern with the fictional New York Sentinel newspaper.

With Erin scheduled to jet back to her San Francisco home in two weeks, Garrett proposes a long-distance relationship, and she accepts.

So, the couple embarks on a naive quest to date by Skype, until the impersonal grind takes its predictable toll on the two and forces them to reconsider their options. (Read more…)

Over-the-top ‘Machete’ cuts through grindhouse conventions

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010
Danny Trejo in "Machete" Danny Trejo plays “Machete,” a legendary ex-Federale with a deadly attitude, originally created for a fake movie trailer.

“Machete” is a deliriously daffy tribute to the over-the-top, 1970s grindhouse features flooded with excessive nudity, sex, violence and hilarious tough-guy dialogue.

Its villains include a cruel Mexican drug lord, a corrupt U.S. senator and a militia commander who shoots illegal immigrants for sport – to protect America, of course.

Its un-young hero, Machete, apparently can’t be killed and never needs Viagra.

The women are sexy all of the time, naked some of the time, and when they actually wear something, it tends to be stiletto heels and leather halter tops or else a nun’s habit.

But we’re getting ahead of the story.

Character actor Danny Trejo plays the title character, a dedicated Mexican Federale who, in the opening sequence, disobeys orders to stay put and charges into a drug lord’s den to rescue a kidnapped woman.

Torrez, the “Mexican drug lord,” is played by paunchy former action superstar Steven Seagal. (Oh, that must be why he didn’t have time to star in “The Expendables.”)

After Machete has already sliced through Torrez’s henchmen like a lawn mower through crabgrass (he performs a monumental quality kill by cutting three heads off with a single stroke!), Torrez captures Machete and executes his wife in front of his eyes.

We don’t see all of it, because a really bad and clumsy edit deletes the throat-slashing moment.

This is part of the “Machete” appeal. (Read more…)