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How much of a surprise is "Cabin in the Woods"? Well even its fairly
basic title masks a much more elaborate and smart horror film, one
where writer-director Drew Goddard (writer of another awesome horror
film "Cloverfield) and his writing partner Joss Whedon (one of the
great geek kings, both for creating "Buffy" and currently directing
"The Avengers") have tweaked and twisted the genre to do as they
It starts off predictably enough with college kids heading off to a relative's cabin for a weekend of fun. Smart-girl Dana (Kristen Connolly), her bland possible love-interest Holden (Jesse Williams), sex-pot friend Jules (Anne Hutchison), Jule's jock boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth), and the lovable pothead friend Marty (Fran Kranz) all pile into the RV and on the way up meet the creepy old gas station attendant who warns them about the cabin. Fairly straight-forward horror so far, right? But why does there seem to be a force-field around the cabin? And who are these big brother scientists (played with both seriousness and harsh humor by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) who seem to be watching them, modifying the things around them, pushing them to make choices? The desensitization toward violence and bloodlust of the scientists will remind you a lot of "The Hunger Games" but "Woods" is actually laying in wait to unleash a wild and crazy mash-up of horror clichés that pull the audience one way then another and, by God, I sat there with a smile on my face the whole time, waiting to see where Whedon and Goddard were willing to take me next. Plus it's sexy, it establishes a terrifying mood, it's eccentrically funny (Kranz is right there with Jenkins and Whitford in the laughs department), and the blood is here and then some. It has all the horror movie conventions, yet does something unique by subverting where you think the plot, the characters, and basically Whedon and Goddard are choosing to go.
So now we have a movie that wants us to laugh at the disabled. Can this year get more depressing? "Dinner for Schmucks" is a painful remake of French film "The Dinner Game". Steve Carell plays Barry, a taxidermist who likes to present dioramas of dead mice. Tim (Paul Rudd) needs to bring an idiot to his boss' dinner of laughing at idiots and Barry fits the bill. Before that even starts, Barry sets off a wave of destruction that is at best smirk-worthy, at worst just plain dumb. From Barry's doing, Tim's apartment and relationship with his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostack, playing an art dealer working with a guy who seems to be ripping off Russell Brand's Aldous Snow) are ruined, a crazy ex (Lucy Punch) is back on his tail, and the IRS wants to audit him. This was all done accidentally, of course, because Barry is really just a simple-minded guy. In all honesty though, the guy is mentally ill. He shouts when he talks, has no idea what to do with a woman (he even tried to find his ex-wife's clitoris under the sofa), he takes the phrase "stay in the chair" literally, and he lets himself be swayed by the "mind-control" of his equally-mentally ill boss (Zach Galifianakis). Tim meanwhile is made to look like a jerk even though the movie claims he's a nice guy, and yet, there is nothing likable about Tim, nor is Barry-the-manchild anything but a destructive force. Director Jay Roach has the unenviable task of turning this into a sweet buddy comedy but in the end, you just want Tim and Barry to get away from one another. And then comes the dinner, where the blind and other disabled people are ridiculed. That "Schmucks" claims to be a "good-natured" comedy is really the biggest laugh here.
Another summer, another "Shrek." This time Shrek (Mike Myers) is unhappy with the monotony of marriage and fatherhood and goes to Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn), who promises to magically give Shrek a day in his old ogre lifestyle if Shrek willingly gives up a day in his childhood. What Shrek doesn't know is that Rumpel has been after the throne to Far Far Away ever since Fiona (Cameron Diaz) was locked in the tower and Shrek signing his life away is the perfect opportunity for the crazy little dwarf to take power. Not only that but since Shrek technically never existed, nobody remembers him, not even Donkey (Eddie Murphy) or Puss (Antonio Banderas), the kingdom has been ravaged by Rumpel, and Fiona has given up on finding a knight in shining armor and become one herself. This all amounts to some harmless stuff for the kids basically, which is kind of sad since the first two were such clever fairy-tale satires. This fourth and last installment in the series plays out predictably, relies on the same stale themes (love conquers all, life was never meant to be a fairy-tale), goes for the easy jokes (poop, pee, belch, and Puss has let himself go for the fat gags), and also relies way too much on characters with funny voices or who sing and dance to pop culture songs. This is also the first in the series to be presented in 3-D but the unremarkable action doesn't even come close to warranting a 3-D viewing. While not as bad as "Shrek the Third", "Shrek Forever After" nevertheless feels something like a direct-to-DVD knock-off that might excite kids looking for some mild entertainment, but I think even they'll notice that Shrek has lost a step.
"How to Train Your Dragon", or as I like to call it "That Viking is out of my League", is the second film in as many weeks where Jay Baruchel plays a scrawny nerd looking to find himself. It also happens to be infinitely more entertaining. He voices Hiccup, a hapless young Viking living in a village overrun by flying dragons. He longs to be like his great dragon-killing father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), and charm the likes of the beautiful Astrid (America Ferrara), with whom he is enrolled in dragon-battle training. While dragon-killing isn't for him, he soon finds a particular knack for dragon-whispering, subduing the beasts with his wits and even making a friend in one that he names Toothless. He soon realizes the reason for why the dragons are attacking and tries to convince dad that the winged creatures really aren't so bad afterall. Directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois have created a tremendous 3-D experience, setting the bar for animated 3-D much like "Avatar" set it for live-action. The dragon battles are thrilling and the flying scenes between Hiccup and Toothless soar with joy and pulse-pounding danger, and are magnified perfectly by John Powell's fantastic musical score. And at its heart this is a movie of friendship and learning to follow your own path, both movingly portrayed by Sanders and DeBlois' screenplay. The animation looks great, from the large, bushy-haired Vikings to the comically goofy looking dragons. The voice cast is also well-matched. Baruchel has a wheezy comic charm, Craig Ferguson gets the best lines as the village blacksmith, and who better to voice a Viking than Gerard Butler. "Dragon" is as heartfelt as it is impressive to look at, a family film perfect for all ages.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Paris Hilton got there first but Jude Law proves this material is just as bad with an A-list actor. Based on Eric Garcia's novel "Repossession Mambo" (and Hilton's off-key musical "Repo: A Genetic Opera"), "Repo Men" (scripted by Garcia and Garrett Lerner) takes place in a not-to-distant future where bodily organs are scientifically created and sold for a hefty price. Law plays Remy, the man assigned to surgically take those organs from you if you miss payments. It's grisly work, but he and his partner Jake (Forest Whittaker) see it as any other job benefiting society. Only Remy has a change of heart (in mores ways than one) after a freak accident and he decides to help a cocktail singer named Beth (Alice Braga), whose parts are almost all synthetic. So is the movie. Any ethical issues are put on the back burner for a straight-forward and predictable chase where Remy butts heads with Jake and his boss (Liev Schreiber) and participates in a lot of generic gun and knife battles. The blood and gore is infinite and this is another crappy-looking future complete with grime and the heartlessness of science. Neither is surprising or fun to look at. And the direction from first-timer Miguel Sapochnik shows its cracks, from the poor shifts from vicious action to playful comedy, to dragging it out way too long; but I doubt even Kubrick could have handled one bizarre interlude between Law and Braga where both must stuff a scanner underneath each other's skin to process their organs (don't ask!). Law makes for a bland action hero and the only one who seems to be having any fun here is Whittaker. This all leads to a twist ending that only thinks it's being clever.
"She's out of My League" is a solid 7, a romantic comedy that scores a few good laughs and does a nice job of being convincing. Jay Baruchel (Tropic Thunder) stars as Kirk, a pathetic dork with the build of Woody Allen who works a menial job in airport security. Through a cell-phone mishap, he winds up at a party being thrown by Molly (Alice Eve), a 10 on the very attractive scale. He knows she's way more attractive than him and she knows he's normally not the guy she would usually date but Molly looks deep down and sees Kirk for the nice, unthreatening guy he is and they hit it off. There are some funny moments here. Kirk's family is especially demeaning to him (they even embrace his bitchy ex-girlfriend as one of their own) and his friends are clueless match-makers, which leads to a very funny man-scaping scene between Kirk and one of them. What works best in "League" is just listening to people talk though. Kirk's friends (played by Mike Vogel, Nate Torrance, and T.J Miller) are identifiable idiots, too wrapped up in over-thinking things like the rating scale (both their number and womens) and Disney fairy-tales to really understand women. Their scenes with Kirk are enjoyably like a crude, vulgar, sexual "Breakfast Club". The way the scrawny, nervous, and unconfident Baruchel interacts with the beautiful and engaging Eve is also very likable and they do a nice job of handling the ups and downs of forming an honest, meaningful relationship (an almost foreign concept in today's star-packaged romantic comedies). The way they finally handle the elephant in the room is also very effective. This is feel-good stuff, but it works.
Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass re-team and they brought their shaky, hand-held camera with them. It's Jason Bourne in a non-Jason Bourne movie, but it stands right up there with those films. Based on Rajiv Chandrasekran's book, it takes place during the early days of the Iraq war. Damon is Army Chief Roy Miller, baffled by poor intelligence that has so far led to squat in the WMD department. He soon finds himself in the middle of two opposing agendas. Aided by CIA Chief to Baghdad Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) and hindered by Special Intelligence Coordinator, Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), Miller soon must go off the grid in order to find "Magellan", an Iraqi official who may or may not be providing false intelligence. Amy Ryan also shows up as a journalist in Judith Miller clothing. Lensed by the always hyperactive Greengrasss, "Green Zone" is a raw and breathlessly plotted thriller that captures the chaos on the ground, the intensity of every mission, and the suspense waiting in every Baghdad back-alley, bunker, etc. The action is immensely entertaining, especially the final nail-biting fire-fight. Of course we know about the WMD's now but Brian Helgeland's screenplay is still loaded with intriguing Iraqi politics, and questions about responsible journalism and governmental deception that still resonate today. Matt Damon again proves himself a bourne action hero and he anchors the movie with a determined and intelligent performance. Kinnear, as the slick politician who won't let anything interfere with bringing change to Iraq, and Gleeson, as the gruff CIA chief who thinks this change stuff is a bunch of crap, are both terrific. Khallid Abdalla also turns in strong work as an Iraqi citizen eager to do what's right for his country. "Green Zone" is first a great action flick, but with a strong story to boot.
Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" is actually a sequel of sorts (think Steven Spielberg's "Hook", only much better) which again sees Alice go down the rabbit hole but imagines it in a completely different way. Linda Woolverton's script is like a blending of Lewis Carroll's books with "Lord of the Rings", which is actually a bit like "Chronicles of Narnia", only much darker and more eccentrically fun. Enough with the comparisons! What I'm trying to say is "Alice in Wonderland" brings an excitement to the fairytale that I've not seen in a long time. Mia Wasikowska does a superb job as Alice, now a teen being forced into marriage. She runs off and falls down the rabbit hole and into a strange world of talking rabbits, caterpillars, and Tweedle-dees and Tweedle-Dums. There are also dangerous creatures as well, like a humongous dragon that Alice is prophesized to fight in order to save wonderland. The evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has taken over wonderland from her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and plunged it into darkness. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) has taken this especially hard and gone a bit loco (more so I guess). Is this all a dream? Has Alice been here before? Alice eventually must learn to come into her own as a hero and help the white queen and the other creatures beat the Red Queen or all will be lost, starting with their heads. This is thrilling stuff made predictably better by Burton and his production team. This is a wonderland scorched black by evil that still manages to keep a Gothic beauty (the make-up and costume design is perfect), a disturbing darkness (the red queen's castle is surrounded by a lake filled with dead heads) and eccentricity (the red queen's abnormally huge head and little body was a favorite of the characters). The cast is also game. Depp gives a surprisingly sweet-natured performance that erratically shifts into a crazy little giggle or Scottish accent on occasion, but he is wisely made a supporting player here. Wasikowska is the real find, as the conflicted and spirited Alice, probably one of the best female heroines to come around in a while. Hathaway is pure elegance as the white queen and Bonham Carter seems to be having the most fun as the queen of mean. It's also nice to see Crispin Glover, doing what he does best as the red queen's sinister henchman. Burton again makes the fairy-tale his own. I loved it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Wolfman" is a perfect choice for updating. So much of the 1941
flick rested on good production and make-up design and now we have this
lush remake from director Joe Johnston and screenwriter Andrew Kevin
Walker. The plot comes up a little short but for the most part they've
created an awesome-looking film that also comes in just right in the
Benicio Del Torro takes over for Lon Chaney jr. as Lawrence Talbot, returning to his London home many years after the suicide of his mother. He is reunited with his estranged father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), and with his brother's grieving fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). There have been many killings in the village and most of the mutterings among the villagers are of a lunatic let loose in the forest. Lawrence soon comes face to face with this evil as it attacks him one night, leaving bite marks before escaping. The attack leaves the villagers very wary of Talbot and even Scotland Yard Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving) takes a considerable interest in him as a suspect. Of course none manage to stop him before turning into a werewolf on the prowl. As Lawrence tries to control the beast within himself, he learns of a terrible secret about his family that could put Gwen in danger.
Even the original was meagerly plotted at only 70 minutes. This "Wolfman" hovers around 95, wisely excising more of the meaningless talk (about Lawrence possibly be deluded, and lycan mythology), changing some plot points around (I liked the family dynamic introduced at the mid-point), and still keeping most of the better drama in-tact. Essentially the movie is a creature-feature-actioner (there is even a final showdown between two werewolves) but when you have production values, scares, and excitement like this, that's hardly a bad thing. Johnston nails the atmosphere just right, dark, dreary and foggy and with very ominous shots of the moon. The film has a quick pace and is helped out mightily by Rick Baker's phenomenal make-up effects, Danny Elfman's haunting score, and a bloody good time where heads, arms, and so on are ripped from bodies. The creature effects, from the transformation to the carnage, is a lot of fun and exactly what people want to see from a flick like this. Benicio plays the tormented hero perfectly, wearing the emotional and psychological strain of being cursed all over his face. Blunt holds her own pretty well in an unfortunately underwritten love story and Hopkins is as sly as ever as Sir John Talbot. Flawed, but a howlingly good re-boot
He brought us the theory of evolution but director Jon Amiel's take on Charles Darwin doesn't evolve into much. "Creation" stars Paul Bettany, complete with receding hairline, as the author of "Origin of a Species", a reclusive man struggling to write the book that so defines us all. He grapples with the ideas of "ridding the world of God" as one colleague puts it, as well as with the balance of nature and survival of the fittest. All this is given all the more relevance because at the time he was writing the book, he was also dealing with the death of his young daughter (Martha West), putting his faith in God into question. When the movie really takes on the Darwin theories, it has something that you wish Amiel and screenwriter John Collee (adapting from a biography by Randall Keynes) had stayed with. Instead it mostly centers on a glum and moody melodrama where Darwin is continually haunted by dreams of his daughter and begins to separate himself more and more from his other children and wife (Jennifer Connelly), who also happens to be his cousin. The drab set and costume design is very good, as is Bettany, who runs the gamut between fatherly love and tortured despair, but the movie is really just a slow slog through the author's guilt.
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