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She's Out of My League (2010)
Romance comes from the most unexpected places. Despite dating sites that can match up people based on their "compatability" with a lot of questionnaires and computer programs, it's either there, or it isn't. But nowhere is it more unexpected than between Kirk (Jay Baruchel), a scrawny TSA worker and Molly (Alice Eve), a blonde bombshell with a successful party planning business.
There really isn't much of a story here; like the best romances, it's more about the characters than the plot. Speaking of, "romance" is the more prominent genre at play here. Although there are a few funny scenes, this isn't "The 40-Year Old Virgin." Jay Baruchel is probably the most likable geek out there. Michael Cera may have cornered the indie crowd, but Baruchel is less alienating. And it helps that he has immense chemistry with his co-star, Alice Eve (sporting a flawless American accent). They're both nice people, and to the surprise of everyone, especially themselves, they fall for each other. And we believe it.
Jim Field Smith tells the story well; he trusts the characters enough to carry the movie instead of force-feeding us comedy where it isn't needed. This is a very cute film with a hearty laugh or two sprinkled along the way.
Clash of the Titans (2010)
Cool to look at, but that's about it
In the old days of Hollywood, the spectacle was a grand, rousing story filled with enormous battles, a dastardly villain and a hero that everyone could get behind. Nowadays, it's grand and enormous, but it fails to really be rousing and draw us into the story because there's no one to really care about.
"Clash of the Titans" takes place in a time of gods and man, of heroes and myths. Zeus (Liam Neeson) created man so their continued prayers could give the gods immortality. The problem is that the gods are screwing the humans over, and they're sick of it. When the citizens of Argos destroy a statue of Zeus, Zeus allows his brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes) to get the humans respecting them again by any means he sees fit. Hades gives the King of Argos an ultimatum: either sacrifice his daughter Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), or have his city destroyed by the Kraken. But while Hades has his own plans set it motion, the gods watch nervously as Perseus (Sam Worthington), the mortal son of Zeus, journeys to find a way to defeat the Kraken and save both Argos and Andromeda.
The film, an update of the notoriously cheesy 1981 original, is loaded with special effects. For that part of the film, it works. Visually, the film is meticulously detailed and always cool to look at. Even better is the fact that we can actually see the action scenes. Louis Leterrier does not use the shaky cam to obscure what happens in the fight scenes, and apart from a few minor missteps in the beginning, the action scenes are clear and easy to follow.
Unfortunately, the acting department is where it fails. It's not that the actors are bad, it's just they're all the same: gruff, growly and brooding. Had there been a little time for character development, this could have been a worthy successor to "Lord of the Rings" (in fact, there are scenes where it is trying to be). Alas, it's just all glitz and flashy visuals.
Maybe it's just me, but I think if a human being is ripped in half or decapitated (regardless of the amount of blood shown), I think that deserves an automatic R rating. Had the roughly 10 seconds of footage been edited out or redone, this would be a bona-fide PG-13 movie. But as it is, it should have been rated R. Likewise, the images of some of the breasted creatures were covered up, despite being uncovered in the drawings from Ancient Greece. Go figure.
My rating: rated R for fantasy action/violence throughout including some intense images, and brief language.
The man behind the controversy
The theory of evolution has been a lightning rod of controversy ever since Charles Darwin published "The Origin of Species" 150 years ago. I guess it was only a matter of time that the film industry made a biopic out of his life. Pity it wasn't better.
Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) is on the brink of discovering the most revolutionary idea in the history of mankind. But such an idea could not arise without controversy, and the idea that life changes over time instead of being created by God drives a wedge between himself and his devoutly religious wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly).
The film is the merging of two stories: Darwin's struggles with his faith and science, and the stress that the death of his eldest daughter, Annie (Martha West) has taken on their marriage. They're not merged particularly well, but it does keep the story moving.
Being vehemently opposed to creationism and intelligent design (which is more or less the same thing under a different name), I wanted to like the film more than I actually did. The film certainly has a lot going for it; Paul Bettany has never been better, and it has Jennifer Connelly (which speaks for itself), and the direction by Jon Amiel is superb. Unfortunately the film is saddled with a clunky and uneven screenplay that loses focus quite often.
"Creation" had a tough time getting distribution in the US. It's another case of the Christian Right trying enforce their beliefs on everyone else through censorship, but I'd be more angry if the film was of better quality.
Finally...a movie that isn't afraid to get down and dirty
Typically in a mainstream movie where the protagonist is supposed to be a bad guy or an anti-hero, all we get is someone who grumbles and/or shouts a lot to make them seem more "intense." Or if they're feeling really reckless, have him commit some actual crime, like hit someone when he's not supposed to. But it's all token stuff that no one would really bat an eye at in a movie, so in the end it comes off as looking like a poser. That doesn't happen here.
The trailers make this out to be like another Mel Gibson movie; light, jokey and harmlessly mischievous. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a dark, brutal and violent movie. Not for the faint hearted.
This is a noir/revenge movie. Porter (Mel Gibson) is a low rent criminal whose wife (Debra Kara Unger) and partner, Val (Gregg Henry) betray him and steal his 70 grand from a score that the three of them took down. But Porter isn't dead, and he wants his money.
"Payback" is actually two movies rolled into one. The first half is a film noir, but unfortunately it's pretty bad. It's painfully slow, and the acting is embarrassing. Everyone just grumbles hammily, and no one seems comfortable in this kind of movie. The worst offenders are Gibson and William Devane, who plays one of the crime bosses. Devane is especially bad, if only because he was so creepy in "Marathon Man." It's not until the second half when the film finds its groove and becomes a full blown revenge movie. That's when it really takes off. Unfortunately it takes the better part of an hour to get there, and the movie is only 100 minutes.
Apart from Gibson and Devane, the acting is solid, but unspectacular. They do more or less what they are expected to. Special mention however has to go to Maria Bello and James Coburn. Bello is terrific; she's the lone ray of sunshine in the midst of crooks, psychos and endless violence. We can really feel for her, and she has great chemistry with Gibson. James Coburn is actually quite funny, something that's in very short supply in this world. Sadly he's only in three scenes. David Paymer, who is usually very reliable, is pretty annoying, and Lucy Liu is more over-the-top than she should be as a dominatrix.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland has a knack for atmosphere, but not pacing. The first half of the movie is so long and dull that it threatened to put me to sleep. And despite the fact that the second part of the movie watchable, it's not good enough to justify watching it.
My rating: Rated R for Pervasive Strong Brutal Violence and Language.
"The Vanishing" is what gives foreign films a bad name to the masses. It has a great premise, but the execution by George Sluzier turns a potentially intelligent and scary film into a 100 minute snoozefest.
The premise is top notch. Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and his girlfriend, Saskia Wagter (Johanna ter Steege) are going to France for a vacation. Their trip is cut short when Saskia vanishes at a gas station without a trace. Rex is obviously devastated, but after three years pass with no sign of her, he still hasn't given up the hope of finding her. This is probably because he is being taunted by the man who kidnapped her.
The film gets off to a decent start. The first twenty minutes are littered with effective red herrings and good character building scenes. But once Saskia disappears, the film comes to a dead halt. The film is pretty short, but it seems to take forever. Part of the reason is because director George Sluzier inserts long pauses between the dialogue. Nothing much happens in these instances, and all they did was threaten to put me to sleep.
The acting is fine, but none of the actors have much to work with. We understand these characters, but Sluzier spends the middle portion of the movie repeated what we already know about the characters. This is especially irritating because each of the characters traits can be summed up in one word. Even worse, is the pretentious psychobabble that happens at the end. This is a long and extended sequence between the two main characters and should have been the climax of the movie that everything before it built up to. But the movie is lifeless and the movie thinks its being insightful when it's really just stating the obvious.
I really hate minimalist movies. They're boring and pretentious. It represents an ego trip for the wannabe hip director to impress critics. Here's a helpful hint: impress both audiences and critics by telling an engaging story about characters we actually care about.
The Notebook (2004)
Hate to admit it, but I love this movie
Let me be upfront and say that I am a guy. This is not my kind of movie. I don't do sudsy melodramas, which this most definitely is. I don't like chick flicks either, which this also is. I don't care if this is a well made movie. Doesn't matter. End of story.
Okay, fine. I liked this movie. A lot. It may be one of the most manipulative good movies out there, but if it works, who cares? This is plain and simply a wonderful movie.
Based on the Nicholas Sparks' novel of the same name, "The Notebook" tells two stories. One is of a summer fling between mill worker Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) and rich girl Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams). The other is of an elderly man named Duke (James Garner) who is reading this story to a present day Allie (Gena Rowlands, mother of director Nick Cassevetes). But how are these two stories connected.
The answer is of course fairly obvious, and the movie wisely doesn't try to hide that fact. The film's real focus is the romance between Noah and Allie, and everything that comes between them.
The film works because of the strong performances and the equally strong direction. To say that Ryan Gosling is an unconventional leading man in this kind of a film is an understatement. Gosling burst onto the film scene in a riveting performance as a Jewish neo-nazi in "The Believer," and went on to play two other creeps and killers before landing this role. Gosling stays true to form and does not approach the role in a conventional way. He's not a model and doesn't pretend to be, but his subtle free spirit energy works, and makes him quite literally impossible not to like. Rachel McAdams is equal to him. She's a rich girl that spurns off his random advances, but Noah doesn't stop, and when she finally humors him, she realizes that, gosh darn it, she actually likes the guy.
Gosling and McAdams are supported by a strong cast of noted character actors. James Garner couldn't possibly be more endearing, willing to give up everything to be with Allie, who is slipping further and further into dementia. Likewise, Gena Rowlands is terrific as the elderly Allie, who is revisiting this story for the first time. Joan Allen is wonderfully wicked as Allie's conservative mother, who is trying to keep Allie from seeing Noah. It's a clichéd role, but Allen imbues it with so much life that the character becomes just as three-dimensional as everyone else. James Marsden is surprisingly good as Allie's new lover, rich boy Lon Hammond. Unlike many romantic complications, he's actually likable (in fact, one could make the argument that he's more likable than Noah at times). Marsden's range is quite limited, but this is his best performance. Sam Shepard is also on hand in a small role as Noah's father, but it's a good performance nonetheless.
Nick Cassevetes has done the impossible: he's made a weeper that will appeal to those who don't prefer to watch movies with a tissue at hand. He does this by taking the melodrama as far as it can go without going overboard, and by establishing a nostalgic tone for the film. Watching the movie is like watching old home movies and revisiting fond memories of the past. The film is photographed by Robert Fraisse, who gives each beautiful shot its dreamy tone.
Sometimes guys must be dragged by their girlfriends to see romance movies. Although they may put up a fight to see this one, they will probably like it as much as I did (whether they will admit it is open to question).
Kate & Leopold (2001)
Of all the film genres, the one where chemistry between the actors is the most important is the romance. The goal of the romance is to get the viewer to want the characters to be together, but too often actors are matched based on their box office profitability, not whether they can make a connection between them. But every so often, a movie comes along that actually picks actors that work well with each other. This is one of them.
In 1876, Leopold (Hugh Jackman), the Duke of Albany, is being pressured to marry for the sake of bringing cash to his name. But the arrogant and proper Duke wants to wait for love. At the dance where he's supposed to choose a wife, he sees something strange. A man (Liev Schrieber) has been taking pictures of him all day with a tiny little camera. Leopold follows the man, and ends up in 2001. While there, he meets, and subsequently falls for, the man's ex-girlfriend, Kate McCoy (Meg Ryan).
This is not a departure for Meg Ryan in the least. The blonde actress has made a career out of these kinds of movies, and while she's ventured elsewhere a number of times, this is where she's always been home. What's surprising about her performance in this movie is that she's a little flat, and is outshone by her co-star, Hugh Jackman, who is positively irresistible. Cultured, sweet and polite, Jackman dominates the role and walks away with the film. Jackman is a great actor, but this is easily his best performance. Schrieber and Breckin Meyer, as Kate's brother, provide comic relief, but this is Jackman's show.
This is a solid, but overlong romance. It has all the requisite elements: likable characters, good humor, and smoldering chemistry between the leads. But it's way too long, and the film loses a lot of its vitality whenever Jackman isn't around.
Still, if you're looking for a good date movie, "Kate & Leopold" is a great option.
Creepy, but nonsensical
I am at a loss for what to rate "Below." It does what many horror/thrillers fail to do: generate suspense and general creepiness. On the other hand, it makes absolutely no sense.
This is a ghost story (although the horror elements are inadequately melded onto the "U-571" ripoff story). The USS Tiger Shark has located a sunken British hospital vessel in the Atlantic Ocean. The submarine takes in 3 survivors, including a woman named Claire (Olivia Williams). The addition of a woman on board makes a lot of the men nervous because of naval superstitions of having a woman on board a navy ship being unlucky. Indeed, mysterious things start happening, and the body count begins to rise, Claire and another sailor, Odell (Matthew Davis) begin to think that the ship is cursed.
The story is not that complicated, but by trying to play with our minds and making us wonder if we saw what we thought we did, director David Twohy goes into Paul McGuigan territory: presenting key elements of the story with extraordinary subtlety and filler with the impact of an atom bomb. Needless to say, this is not the way to tell any story, much less a ghost story.
The acting is surprisingly effective. Matthew Davis has been previously relegated to supporting roles in dumb teen flicks, but he handles a headlining role with ease. Bruce Greenwood is terrific as always (even in the worst roles, Greenwood still manages to impress). Olivia Williams adds a dose of class to the proceedings, and she never goes over-the-top when she gets scared. "Hangover" fans will delight in seeing the star of that movie, Zach Galifianakis, in an early role here (and still acting just as weird).
I'm tempted to recommend the film solely on the basis that it gave me the creeps but by the end of the film I was so frustrated and lost that it didn't work for me anymore. It's a huge mess, but it's a creepy mess.
Boys Don't Cry (1999)
Shocking, Brutal, Powerful
I've been sitting here for about twenty minutes deciding how to start this review, and I can't think of one. Maybe it's just best to describe what the film is like. "Boys Don't Cry" is an absolutely riveting film. It held my absolute attention from frame one, and as the end credits rolled, I sat in my chair completely stunned.
A young man saunters into a bar and starts chatting up a girl sitting two seats away from him. He tells her his name is Brandon, and she appears to like him. After a burly man starts getting fresh with her, he steps in, and a brawl ensues. Brandon makes quick friends with the girl, named Candace (Alica Goranson), and her friends. But this charming, sensitive young man is hiding a secret: he's biologically female.
This film is based on the true story of Brandon Teena, a trans man who was brutally raped and later murdered by John Lotter and Tom Nissen, two men he considered his friends. As told by co-writer/director Kimberly Peirce, it is a fiercely compelling and devastating story.
Much of the reason why this film works so well is because the performances are superb. Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made some serious blunders in who they give their awards, this is not one of them. Swank is nothing short of incredible. I've seen "The Year of Living Dangerously," where Linda Hunt portrayed a male character (and won an Oscar for it). Hunt was terrific, but prior knowledge inhibited me from completely buying into the character. Somehow Swank manages to overcome this, and it took about ten minutes for me to stop seeing "Swank playing a guy" and just see Brandon Teena. But the physical transformation isn't the only reason why she's so good. Swank embodies the character completely to a degree that I've never seen before. Brandon is not a rocket scientist, and unquestionably naiive. He knows what he wants, but he fails to really think about the possible consequences of trying to pass himself off as a man. In fact, his penchant for trouble and his naiveté actually present the possibility of a personality disorder. Nevertheless, Brandon is a tender and romantic soul whose sensitivity makes the girls swoon over him. This is probably one of the most complex characters ever to grace the screen, and Swank creates a person who is startlingly real. This is not just a breakthrough performance; this is a performance of a lifetime.
Swank walks away with the film, but the other actors are also great. Chloe Sevigny is great as Lana, the girl who becomes romantically involved with Brandon. The development of this subplot is rather rushed, but the performances by Swank and Sevigny make it work nonetheless. Lana is a wounded soul who desperately wants to escape her life of boredom and reprehensible men, and Brandon is her escape. It's a low-key performance, but it works very well. Peter Saarsgard is an actor who plays facets of himself, but "Peter Saarsgard as a psychopath" works as John Lotter. He seems like an okay guy, but there is always the potential for violence whenever he's around. Unfortunately, Brandon never realizes this, or perhaps he is so desperate for his transformation to work that he ignores it. Alicia Goranson is very good as Candace, who's even more naiive and simple-minded than Brandon, and Jeanetta Cunningham is excellent as Lana's alcoholic mother.
The film is expertly told by Kimberly Peirce. It's not flawless (as I said, the Brandon/Lana romance is a little rushed, there's a "dream shot" that is ill-placed, and one of Brandon's crimes is confusing), but it is always compelling. She has a keen eye for establishing the setting. This is small town Nebraska, where there is nothing to do but get drunk every night and go to work to pick up a paycheck so you can drink some more. This enhances the story by creating a place where this all can happen. Boredom and a lack of education have given birth to a place where something this horrifying can occur.
This is not an easy film to watch. But for those who venture into this film will find a film that is absolutely unforgettable.
Not Another Teen Movie (2001)
Some big laughs
I don't pretend to be well versed in the kinds of movies that "Not Another Teen Movie" lampoons. I haven't seen any of John Hughes' teen-oriented movies, but some of the big ones from the nineties have made it on the ever-growing list of movies that I have seen. Still, like "Scary Movie," which started the spoof craze (that has LONG since worn out its welcome) the humor is such that one doesn't have to view every movie that is skewered by the film.
"Not Another Teen Movie" takes potshots at a slew of teen movies, but the story (if you can call it that--it's really just a clothesline to string the gags) mainly follows the plot of "She's All That." Jake Wyler (Chris Evans) is the most popular guy in school. After being unceremoniously dumped by his equally popular girlfriend, Priscilla (Jamie Pressly), he makes a bet with his friends that he can turn any girl into the prom queen. The selection is of course Janey Briggs (Chyler Leigh, who is surprisingly on-target in her portrayal of Rachel Leigh Cook in "She's All That"). Of course, they fall for each other (duh!).
Like all saturation comedies, the humor is hit and miss. Some of the stuff is funny, others don't work or are a bit too obvious. Even during the dead spots between the big laughs, there are always some clever asides that are amusing.
None of the actors are big names (Mia Kirshner and Lacey Chabert made their names later on), and for the most part, it's not hard to see why. Chris Evans is one of Hollywood's big "why's?" He has little to no talent, yet he's making big money. Whatever appeal he may have is not on screen in this movie. He's more wooden (in a bad way) than the Freddie Prinze Jr., whom he's parodying, and he's too fatuous to be funny, even for a satire. More impressive is TV actress Chyler Leigh. She's one to watch. Mia Kirshner is solid, but not as deliciously evil as Sarah Michelle Gellar in "Cruel Intentions" (special note about this reference-it points out how twisted the plot of "Cruel Intentions is). Eric Christian Olsen is annoying (Olsen CAN act, but just not in comedy). Special appearances from Randy Quaid and Molly Ringwald are good.
The problem with the movie is two-fold. The film lacks focus and director Joel Gallen makes some of the gags far too obvious. Admittedly, the point of the movie isn't to tell a story, it's to rip other stories to shreds. Be that as it may, the film seems more like a series of comic set-pieces than an actual movie, something that didn't occur with the much funnier and successful "Scary Movie." The other problem is more serious because it ruins many of the potential jokes. A degree of exaggeration is key for humor, but even that has its limits. Unfortunately, Gallen doesn't recognize this. Then again, with someone who's background is in MTV, I guess that's to be expected.
It's no classic, but there is enough stuff to make it worth a rental.