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2012 (2009/I)
9 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
The End of the World: The New Family Therapy?, 24 December 2009

Who knew the end of the world could be such a bummer? In "2012," the first and certainly not the last big-studio bid to cash in on the supposed coming apocalypse, Roland Emmerich once again lays waste to Earth and its assorted famous landmarks, but this time it's with a touch of exhaustion, an almost routine finality. Maybe it's middle age (it's his first apocalypse since he turned 50). Or, maybe, it's because to a consummate destroyer of worlds (four doomsdays and counting), the true end of days is really just the final dreary step. Few images, after all, beat that of the California coast crumbling into the ocean like a sinking aircraft carrier, or of the subsequent barrage of flaming volcanic rock that pummels the earth when Yellowstone finally goes kaput, blowing its literal top and the audience's already torpid movie-going mind.

Both of those sequences are given high prominence in "2012," though neither is predicted by the end of the Mesoamerican long-count calendar, from which this movie takes its name if not much else. Weaving escapist fantasy into scientific fact has long been the prerogative of high-concept vehicles like "2012," which omit most of the finer factual details (the Mayans never actually wrote of the end of the world, for starters) to make their own pseudoscientific conceits appear frighteningly plausible. That may explain why "2012" takes a nominally more scientific approach to the cataclysm (neutrinos, crust displacement, blah, blah, blah), though even Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the president's scientific adviser, seems to know that it's all one big joke long before Woody Harrelson, as some sort of apocalyptic hippie fanatic, can pop his eyeballs and declare, "It's the apocalypse, man!"

Mr. Harrelson's character doesn't figure much into the story beyond the usual wise fool archetype, though at least his bug-eyed mugging gives oomph to what is otherwise a pretty unremarkable disaster flick. The real selling point of "2012" is, of course, the annihilation of our planet and most of our species, and, if nothing else, the destruction here can hardly be called boring. That's to be expected, seeing that Mr. Emmerich is certainly an old hand in the industry, having already vaporized, trampled, flooded and frozen the planet solid, not to mention raked in a collective ten-figure sum at the domestic box office. Considering the worldwide scale of "2012" and Mr. Emmerich's incurable tendency to one-up himself, it's also no surprise that here he works so relentlessly to cover all his catastrophic bases, from the pulverization of the Vatican to the inundation of D.C., to the purely extraneous sight of a cruise ship keeling over, Paul Gallico-style, upending the galley and its many digitally- rendered flailing human bodies.

But, seriously, what's the point anymore? Like most apocalyptic trifles, "2012" trades on the doomsday scenario to stake the usual forgettable claims at the resilience of the human spirit (and the American nuclear family) but mostly it just wants to watch the world burn, sometimes literally. The human race is ending, after all, and if that end never really resonates in "2012," it's because not even Mr. Emmerich seems interested in examining it beyond the visceral level. Although he duly taps his emotional well by occasionally bringing you close to the calamity – the tiny human bodies tumbling from a collapsing freeway are certainly frightening – it's hard to feel awed by or even care at all about any of it when all the man wants to do (and wants us to do) is have a good time.

"2012" is a pretty much a romp, then, and, for its first ruinous hour at least, a reasonably satisfying one. The sturdy B-movie screenplay by Mr. Emmerich and Harold Kloser actually picks up in 2009, giving time to introduce a few of the leading men and women who will figure into the imminent end, some of them likable (Mr. Ejiofor), others abhorrent (Oliver Platt as a blustering government bigwig), most of them just plain boring. Three years later, as the cracks in the Earth and the story become wider and more worrisome, more people come into play, in this case an everyfamily (John Cusack, Amanda Peet and their two burdensome children) we're meant to follow while modern civilization crumbles around them, in increasingly spectacular ways.

But the spectacle wears off and the movie soon drags, done in when Mr. Emmerich's exuberant flair for devastation gives way to his seriously underwhelming affinity for family soap operatics and teary moments of worldwide harmony. Part of the problem with movies like "2012" is that even with the latest brand of pricey computer-generated effects at their disposal, such wizardry tends to undercut itself when you stop and realize that almost none of what you're seeing is really there, really happening. Mr. Emmerich is not entirely to blame, of course, though it's nonetheless a wonder that after three stabs at destroying the planet, he still can't avoid the disconnect between human tragedy and worldwide destruction that runs through "2012" like a fissure and keeps even its most realistic-looking disasters from ever feeling remotely real. Which may make it the perfect tonic to this particular ploy of the paranoia market.

Saw VI (2009)
3 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
The Sixth Stab at "Saw"; Alas, More Puzzle Pieces Remain, 24 December 2009

It is, perhaps, a testament to the fatigue of the "Saw" franchise that of all the narrative wrinkles that emerge in "Saw VI," the movie's biggest surprise (and maybe the most welcome one) is that it's not in 3D. (That's being saved for "Saw VII," according to current production rumors.) Alas, the creaking story lines and extraneous flashbacks remain stubbornly in place, threatening to suffocate even the movie's characteristic avalanches of spurting blood and flying chunks of flesh. The blood does spurt – and liberally, as do the chunks of flesh fly – but they seem like little more than afterthoughts this time around, racing across the screen in the usual whirligig, rapid-fire edits, though, at a slimmed-down 91 minutes, in record time.

That any sense can still be made of the clutter this far into the proceedings is the sole triumph of this moderately clever, ludicrously protracted franchise. As resilient as cockroaches and just as repulsive (and disposable), these movies trade on the seemingly abhorrent idea that humans will pay to watch other humans suffer, which might be depressing if the filmmakers were actually attempting to stake a claim on seriousness here. Instead the bloodshed is dispensed smoothly, remorselessly, leaving little time for tears or even shivers of guilty pleasure. It doesn't help that the director, Kevin Greutert (previously the series' editor), scarcely seems to know what he's doing behind the camera, though at least he feels possessory enough to adorn the opening titles with the credit "A Kevin Greutert Film," an adjunct that really just makes it that much easier to shift the blame.

There's really no point in discussing what's new in "Saw VI," largely because what's most interesting about its story is also not at all new. Roman numerals notwithstanding, this latest bloodbath offers up the same old masochistic butchery as its predecessors, if perhaps slightly more of it (it certainly stretches its R rating). The sobering paradox of the franchise is that while the producers have collectively honed their penchants for bloodletting, showing us more than ever before in extreme close-up and excruciating detail, they have also as a result seriously blunted the effectiveness of their own tactics and, in the process, lost sight of the sole reason we devoured these movies in the first place. Namely the human need to experience suffering beyond our own comfortable world, the need to be moved and shaken in ways that make us squirm and shudder and peer through our fingers at the screen, afraid to witness something that is now no longer there.

3 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Leviathian Redux: 10 Prisoners Shoot-'Em-Up in the Jungle, 14 December 2009

The war of all against all is on (again) in "The Condemned," a bloody, thoroughly reprehensible entertainment that updates Richard Connell's classic short story "The Most Dangerous Game" for this generation's newest batch of warmongers. Pumped up with guns, wrestling stars, flying fists and oozing blood, though lacking even a shred of reason or sanity, this latest specimen of the humans-versus-humans variety might have amounted to a brutishly effective genre flick if the film-making weren't so inept and the movie didn't insist upon wearing its moralistic tones on its bloody, tattered sleeve.

The sleeve here mostly belongs to the director, Scott Wiper, who also helped cobble together the screenplay with Rob Hedden. Though it's doubtful he's entirely to blame – the movie's production company, WWE Films, is responsible for 2006's "See No Evil" and "The Marine" – you have to wonder what he was thinking when he coughed up this mess and decided to sell it as entertainment, much less a think piece on Hobbesian philosophy.

Then again, maybe he wasn't thinking, which certainly befits the film's brainless approach to cinematic violence. That would also explain why the movie's nominal star, professional wrester "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, recites his few lines with all the finesse of the corpses that inevitably pile up amid the fistfights and gunplay. He plays Jack Conrad (I can only hope his initials are coincidental), an innocent ex-con purchased by a sleazy television producer, Ian Breckel (Robert Mammone), and sent to a deserted island to do battle with nine other inmates, with the last man standing promised a clean slate. The gimmick is that the resulting bloodbath is all overseen by Breckel and his cameras, recorded and broadcast online to that infernal percentage of the populace (i.e., us) who take pleasure in such literal schadenfreude. That idea certainly leads the film into thornier moral territory, though as it happens the movie's simplistic screenplay makes precious little reference to it, with most of the dialogue consisting instead of the usual breathless, monosyllabic pleas: "Stop!" "Run!" "No!"

Which is, in the end, pretty much about as deep as 'The Condemned" cares to venture, lest it dissuade its target demographic with any emotional substance or decent screen writing. In that regard the movie arrives at something close to failure, largely because it suffers not from a deficit of realism but from a deficit of capable film-making. It's loud. It's cheap. It's ugly. And unlike many a Hollywood action flick, which deliver the goods smoothly and efficiently, it's been badly filmed and edited — shot with a grainy hand-held and spliced in awkward, uneven cuts — in a transparent bid to emulate the gritty horror of real modern warfare.

No such weight or horror is evident in "The Condemned," which sells its succulent helpings of bang and boom alongside a rather unhelpful sense of humor, clearly to stake a claim to its intended male teenage audience. Considerably less emphatic and far sillier than many others of its ilk, the movie is so eager to showcase its lighter side that often inexplicably sidelines the action and emotions in place of goosy, empty one-liners. "Sounds like you had a hard life," Conrad growls to an imminent victim, a gun clutched in his bulging arm. "Good thing it's over."

Which is funny because, like, he gets to shoot the guy in the head right after that. Rather less amusing is the movie's preachy attempt to emphasize the virtues of decency and the brutish nastiness of warfare, an implication roundly undercut by the enthusiasm with which it stages its multiple scenes of brutality. When a technician reprimands Breckel for the ethics of his enterprise — "It's just a little hard to watch," he protests — you know that neither the movie's filmmakers nor the audience watching it believes him for a second.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Tragic, harmless and ultimately superficial entertainment, 23 September 2009

Gilded in sanctimony and eager to please, "Lars and the Real Girl" lacks a single dishonest or treacly moment, which isn't to say it has many especially good ones. Mostly it's a movie about redemption, which means it wants you to know that there are at least a few do- gooders left in the world, particularly in the decidedly do-bad town of Hollywood. That is, of course, not big news. Movie producers have always hoped to turn their image of commercialistic hounds into earnest, wholesome philanthropists, which might explain why this movie tries harder than most to bring the mood up, up, up, rescuing moviegoers from yet another season of teary-eyed tragicomedies and turgid bummers of nominal uplift. There may be do-gooders in this world but there are also do-betters, and viewer, they are sitting right beside you.

Set in a chocolate box Midwestern town, "Lars and the Real Girl" is more obviously a feel- good movie, however earnestly it tries to put a tear in your eye and a lump in your throat. Directed by Craig Gillespie, who cut his teeth last year with "Mr. Woodcock," the movie follows Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling), a goofy recluse in familiar state of suburban confinement, stuck in an anonymous town scattered with cozy farmhouses and a lonely clapboard church, along with an upright townsfolk who mainly love, smile, and pray. Everyone knows everybody and everybody's business, along with their pasts, their quirks, their caged emotional tigers and locked-away secrets.

It's all give and very little take, in other words, particularly by Lars's compassionate sister- in-law and brother, two exceptionally fine performances by Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider. The big idea here is that this story is about selflessness, meaning that when Lars, a sensitive loner with funny boots and a twitchy grin, buys a life-size sex doll named Bianca and introduces her to the town as his new girlfriend, the neighbors turn their attention outward and open their hearts and church doors to them both. They're not desperate, though they may very well be popping Prozac.

That's pretty much the gimmick, anyway, or what passes for its story. Neither a drag nor a masterpiece, the undernourished screenplay by Nancy Oliver does an adequate job of swatting away the logical glitches (Bianca's in a wheelchair, you see), but it never finds a suitable groove for its characters or their emotions, never mind any cohesive psychological subtext. No stranger to comedic dysfunction (she regularly wrote and produced for the HBO series "Six Feet Under"), Ms. Oliver dabbles lovingly in the pleasures of townsfolk camaraderie, mainly because she knows how to wring as many tears and nominal laughs as possible from her characters and their assorted idiosyncrasies.

Mr. Gosling is always a welcome screen presence, and if this had been a story about Lars's deep psychological scars, rather than the filmmakers' high-minded flirtations with nobility, it might have been easier to fall for "Lars and the Real Girl." Instead, the film is a cumbersome vehicle that saddles Lars with a condition that seems largely detached from any other purpose than to wheedle shining tears and promises of moral betterment from its audience. It embraces magnanimity and smiles down at squalor and self-interest from atop its pretty little pedestal, and as such it serves as little more than audience bait; it never raises the temperature, wags its finger, scolds or sneers, which means that neither its utopian context nor the performances behind it are inherently interesting on their own terms.

Self-improvement has long been one of the subterfuges of American cinema, of course, and one of the pleasures of this movie is how willingly it provides that cause for hope, an opening for the light to shine through. Though there's something admittedly uplifting to that notion that makes it hard to dismiss (try telling it to Barack Obama, for starters), you have to wonder whom all this improvement is actually for. Is it for Lars? For the town? For Hollywood? For us, the audience, who—as this film periodically suggests—maybe should serve others a little bit more, eat for ourselves a little less?

To be honest, I haven't a clue. Certainly this kind of choir-preaching seeks to elevate the movie above its moralistic impulses, but it does strangely little for the film's narrative appeal. Mr. Gosling, for his part, knows how to tug at your heartstrings and tickle your funny bone, and his intentions are certainly honorable if not especially complex. But here he seems cursed by complaisance, and as such finds himself creating a barely sympathetic sad sack of a character rather than an actual flesh-and-blood man—a doll of a kind, but with a brain.

Hitch (2005/I)
A Generally Uninspired Love Story, 20 September 2009

There is no cure for heartache like love, or maybe just a one-night stand, in "Hitch," a gauzy and serviceable drag directed by romantic comedy connoisseur Andy Tennant ("Sweet Home Alabama"). That at least is the prognosis of Alex Hitchens a k a Hitch a k a Will Smith, a suave New York bachelor who struts his stuff and thankless talents about Lower Manhattan, instructing desperate loner guys how to woo pretty girls. There is no love but narcissism and certainly no satisfaction (or salary), but Mr. Smith seems to be having a grand old time, wearing and owning that familiar lovable goofy smile.

Written by newcomer Kevin Bisch, "Hitch" makes the most of that lovable goofiness, if not an especially interesting story out of it. As yummy as cotton candy and just as vaporous, the programmatic screenplay more or less follows Albert (Kevin James), a hapless meathead who invokes the help of Hitch to snag the girl he lusts after, a bosomy babe named Allegra (Amber Valletta).

Stuff happens — backs are waxed, dance moves are taught, and a gay encounter is hastily averted, along with, effectively, the homosexual tendencies of the main characters. (Whew!) That may make "Hitch" no more exciting than the average marshmallow that tends to float in and out of cineplexes these days, but part of the appeal of movies like this one comes from its lack of unfamiliar surprises, its willingness to remain in the warmth and safety of formulaic inspiration while other, more ambitious projects reap the benefits – and sometimes the drawbacks – of venturing out into the unknown.

That reluctance grips the film like a vise, holding fast even when Hitch unexpectedly falls for Sara (Eva Mendes), a gossip columnist who at first seems impervious to Hitch's smooth- talking tricks. As it happens, not even this turn of events – the love doctor? infected? – can gather enough momentum to keep the story afloat, but it at least helps prove that Hitch, much like the actor behind him, is one step above your average lady-killer (which I'm sure is the whole point). Affable and charming rather than smarmy and manipulative, Hitch never takes cruel or callous advantage; he'll always choose the tenderness of a real relationship over the meaningless lust of a one-night stand. That good-natured vibe serves Mr. Smith nicely, even when Mr. Bisch's chivalric tendencies border on the saccharine: "'Hit it and quit it' is not my thing," Hitch explains, a twinkle in his eye and a lump of gold in his heart.

But there's always a hitch, and one of the problems with "Hitch" is that it tediously, systematically goes off without one; it doesn't tease you, enchant you, make you guess and wring your hands, much less dab your eyes or tickle your funny bone. At no point does it run off the tracks, but neither does it go anyplace interesting or new. Instead, it just putt, putt, putts along, riding on the lonely highway of Mr. Tennant's smooth and capable direction. It's competent, or at least competent enough to make the better of its lackadaisical screenplay. It just isn't very good.

Neither subtle nor revelatory enough, "Hitch" instead emerges as an exemplar of a familiar kind of Hollywood cookie-cutting, thanks largely to Mr. Bisch's reductive screenplay, which lacks both the confidence and creative nerve this sort of chestnut needs to get off the ground. It's a generically banal if wholly high-minded romance flick. It's dumb, it's flat, and the scenes lack snap or wit, which no amount of talent can provide. And unlike "Sweet Home Alabama," Mr. Tennant's last submission to the genre, it also lacks Reese Witherspoon. That's turns out to be especially calamitous, because with the exception of Ms. Mendes, an amiable and underused comic actress, the supporting performances are surprisingly bland. Ms. Mendes, for her part, does her best to charm her audience and pick through the muck with grace, even as the filmmakers reduce her character to assorted platitudes and pratfalls.

Throughout much of "Hitch" Mr. Bisch dabbles periodically in the stormy and delicate emotions of love, its pleasures, its romps and roiling passions and, most of all, in its heartbreaks, but he tends to avoid tapping into deep wells of emotion. That's to be expected, since Mr. Bisch has yet to learn the true crafts of his trade — namely that true love is not concocted, facilitated, or, worse, prescribed — though here he at least manages to keep his efforts modest and the audience's tender heart unscathed, if unmoved at all.

But the heart has its needs, and although Mr. Smith willingly provides the goods — narcotics, mostly — he rarely extends his character beyond the traditional assortment of platitudinous set pieces, teary revelations and cloying matchmaking aperçus. "Any man has a chance to sweep any woman off her feet; he just needs the right broom," he recites graciously near the movie's opening, at which point we're supposed smile at his chivalry and reach for our tissues, not just retch.

3 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A Bad Movie in 3D. Go see it!, 20 September 2009

Another manicured crop of pretty young things meets their untimely end in "The Final Destination," the latest and ostensibly the last installment in the multimillion-dollar horror franchise about a bunch of CW teens who match wits with the Grim Reaper. Though it's absent any numeral appendage, this is the fourth film in the seemingly immortal series, and, in a rare case of Hollywood precluding its own brainchild, producer Craig Perry has announced that there are no new iterations underway. That's a bit of a shame, because once you get past the movie's usual detractions (sure, it's a bad movie, but so is "Halloween II"), "The Final Destination" is kind of fun.

The basic premise, modified only in name since its original outing, hardly needs repeating. This time around, after one pretty young thing, Nick (Bobby Campo), inexplicably has a premonition that saves himself and his friends from a freak accident at a racetrack, he learns that death can never be completely outrun and so proceeds through a series of elaborate set pieces all fastidiously prescribed by the demonic hand of fate, blah, blah, blah, nail gun, gasoline, chain-link fence.

What follows is unholy nonsense made reasonably gratifying by the clever Rube Goldberg set-ups that are the franchise's enduring signature. Though the prosaic screenplay by Eric Bress supplies a few lines of juicy exposition ("We stayed up late Googling premonitions"), it's mainly an excuse to link together a increasingly nasty and intricate string of death sequences while the director, David R. Ellis (who also helmed the underrated "Final Destination 2") capably guides us through the mayhem. Lest you think death need be feared, Mr. Bress meanwhile adorns his script with ghoulish sense of humor, as in one shamelessly funny sequence – involving the ironic comeuppance of a rednecked racist set to War's "Why Can't We Be Friends?" – which proves that while Death may be a glutton for bloodshed, he's certainly no bigot.

The sometimes-clever, sometimes-obtrusive 3D effects in "The Final Destination" improve things significantly over its increasingly uninspired predecessors, and they are the sole reason to see this fast, freakish, often absurdly entertaining movie. At their best, they work by adding a staggering degree of depth perception to the picture without making your head spin, especially when an object – a car tire! a screwdriver! anything! – can be hurled into the center of the frame, usually making for a whole lot of ducking and squirming.

But the 3D is mainly on hand to distract from the movie's pitiful lead performances and embarrassment of a screenplay, as well as, inadvertently, to draw attention to a distinct disconnect between the film's impressive digital technology and its living human components. The 3D effects and high-definition picture quality in "The Final Destination" are beautiful, striking reminders of what technology can do, filling the screen with images so crystalline, so substantial – indeed, so real – it's often hard to tell where they end and the movie theater begins. The humans are so one-dimensional, they might as well already be dead.

All in good time, my pretties.