Sunday, April 29, 2007

Great Fun: The TV Set

The TV Set
Directed by Jake Kasdan
Released April 6, 2007

David Duchovny stars as writer/producer Mike in this hilarious and amusing satire of the TV industry. His creative vision of a dramedy series "The Wexler Chronicles" gets a little more than blurred after the influence of stifling executives and a dreadful lead actor. The film is fresh and funny, very reminiscent of its filmmaking industry counterpart "For Your Consideration," from last year.

Duchovny gives a less-than-enthusiastic but appropriately disgruntled (and bearded) performance as Mike, whose dream is slowly ripped away from him as the film progresses. Sigourney Weaver plays great evil as the extremely selfish and uncaring TV executive who wants to dramatically alter the storyline, and title, of "The Wexler Chronicles." Judy Greer is obnoxious and not quite great in a role that does not necessarily fit her talents. Fran Kranz and Lindsay Sloane are very funny as the leads of the film, as the terrible actor and overconfident Zach, and as the far-too-flirtateous Laurel, who realizes the mistake she made in trying to seduce her costar, respectively. The best performance award goes to Ioan Gruffudd, who gets a chance to showcase his talents, unlike in "Fantastic Four," as conflicted British import Richard McAllister. Overall, the film is nothing excellent, but a great story about the art of trying to make great television.

B+

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Unfinished: Jawbreaker

Jawbreaker
Directed by Darren Stein
Released February 19, 1999

I hesitate to write this review, since I make it a policy not to review films that I have not watch in their full forms. "Jawbreaker" ranks among the few films I have ever turned off in my life, due either to extreme fatigue and disinterest ("Domino", "The Limey") or unbearable content ("Batman & Robin," "Red Planet," "The Dukes of Hazzard"). This film falls under the latter category.

The story begins with a prank kidnapping of a popular high school girl on her birthday by her three best friends. To make sure she does not scream, they shove a jawbreaker candy in her mouth and throw her in the trunk of their car. When they pop open the trunk to surprise her, they are horrified to discover that she has choked to death on the jawbreaker. As they scramble to cover it up, they are discovered by the unpopular Fern Mayo. To keep Fern quiet, heartless Courtney Shane makes her into one of the most popular girls in school.

I cannot say much more than that, because I turned it off midway through. The movie is so empty on plot and everything happens much too easily. While that may be the effect hoped for, the film comes off as a sloppily assembled and wholly obnoxious drawl. Everything is treated too lightly, and the manipulation and framing Courtney orchestrates is far too easy.

Watching this film, I truly realized how much I despise Rose McGowan, who is terrible as evil villain Courtney. She was less than good in "Grindhouse," but in this film, she is just dreadful. Her cohorts are not much better. Two actresses who would later to go on to be great star as Marcie, the dumbest of Courtney's lackeys, and Fern. Julie Benz, who is unbelievably bad as Marcie, starred in an amazing role this past season on "Dexter." Judy Greer, whose character is written terribly to begin with, has gone on to be pretty much the best thing about nearly everything she has starred in ("Arrested Development," "13 Going on 30," the list goes on).

This film is unspeakably awful, and words cannot describe the level to which it is annoying. I could not bear to finish it, and as such will refrain from giving it a grade. All I recommend is that you stay away.

Second Time Around: Thank You For Smoking

Thank You For Smoking
Directed by Jason Reitman
Released April 14, 2006

Aaron Eckhart finds a fanastic role as tobacco lobbyist in this witty, very tongue-in-cheek comedy. The film is set up very strategically, and each scene is hilariously funny and well-produced. A film about a man advocating smoking cigarettes would hardly be expected to be as good as this, and Jason Reitman's screenplay, as well as Eckhart's lead performance, was criminally robbed of an Oscar nomination. This film is excellent and certainly worth seeing. Watch for fun bit performances by Adam Brody and Rob Lowe.

Devoid of Development: In the Land of Women

In the Land of Women
Directed by Jon Kasdan
Released April 20, 2007

Adam Brody stars as Carter Webb, a young soft-core porn writer (??!!) facing a mid-life crisis of sorts after his celebrity girlfriend dumps him. He decides for some reason to move in with his elderly and generally senile grandmother in Michigan, where he meets not one but two attractive women: Sarah Hardwicke, a mother of two recently diagnosed with cancer, and her daughter, Lucy, an angsty teenager. Where will he go from there?

"In the Land of Women" is possibly the most underdeveloped film I have seen in years. The explanation for Carter's attraction to either of the women is never given, and their relationships move far too quickly to be described logically. Both Sarah and Lucy are generally empty characters, who have few interesting personal qualities to offer. Lucy's younger sister, Paige, is a faux-mature character who is unstoppably obnoxious and preachy to an unbelievable level. Carter himself is only mildly intruiging, and his occupation as that of a porn writer does not go along with any others aspects of his character. Carter's grandmother adds nothing to the film, and the humor related to her is random and makes little sense as it is placed in the film.

Adam Brody gives possibly the most effortless performance ever as Carter, and while he is not bad, the role is written simply and he does stand out in any way. Meg Ryan is more than mildly annoying as Sarah, a character who is supposed to be extremely sympathetic. Kristin Stewart, a cross between Missy Peregrym ("Life As We Know It," "Heroes") and Evan Rachel Wood, is unenthuiastic and does not take the writing of her character to an interesting level. Makenzie Vega cannot be faulted for the poor crafting of her character, that of younger sister Paige. And Olympia Dukakis has taken a boring and unsubstantial role as the grandmother.

C-

Clumsily Made: Disturbia

Disturbia
Directed by D.J. Caruso
Released April 13, 2007

"Disturbia" is the story of Kale, a token troubled youth whose father's untimely death has motivated him to do things like punch his teacher in the face, putting him under house arrest. Bored and with little to do, he begins to spy on his neighbors. He discovers two wildly opposing attractions - a beautiful girl next door who he can obsess over, and a potential serial killer on the other side. How can he reveal his neighbor's guilt without leaving his house?

The premise is extremely interesting, very much like that of "Rear Window" (which I have yet to see). Unfortunately, the product is very disappointing. Kale is a compeletely unsympathetic character, obnoxious from the start. His friend Ronnie provides nice but uneven comic relief. His neighbor is unbelievably seductive, yet contains no trace of personality. The evil neighbor is too villain-y, and his character is very undeveloped. The jump scenes are not scary because we first see the evil neighbor, then discover where he is standing, as opposed to having him pop out and scare us.

Shia LaBeouf does a decent enough job portraying an unlikeable juvenille delinquent whose appetite for adventure is a bit too large. Sarah Roemer displays hardly any trace of acting ability, though the role, as it is written, requires little from her. Carrie-Anne Moss, as Kale's mother, is one-dimensional and does nothing to enhance an otherwise throwaway role. Aaron Yoo, as comic relief friend Ronnie, is fun but not terribly believable. David Morse, as the evil neighbor, has done much better in previous roles and the less-than-stellar writing is much more at fault than his performance skills.

I have much to say about the film's ending, but in keeping with my tendency to review TV episodes with spoilers but leave film reviews spoiler-free, I will encourage anyone who has seen to the film to contact me to discuss further. The main problem, besides a generally simplistic structure, is that Kale is rarely alone, and thus the suspense is hardly there. More relevant, however, is the fact that his condition, unlike that of the protagonist of "Rear Window," does not keep him confined to his home. Rather, if he leaves, he will set off an alarm and the police will arrive. Nonetheless, the confines of his situation are unstable, and the film suffers.

C-

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Funny But Random: The Ten

The Ten (Advance Screening)
Directed by David Wain
To be released August 3, 2007

"The Ten," from NYU alum and "Wet Hot American Summer" director David Wain, is an extremely funny but altogether scatterbrained comedy. The film is very much like "Summer" but even less linear and a film that could have worked so much better if tied together in a more believeable way. The point is to be absurd, yet the film's funny moments could have been amplified and put to better use if the script was more conscious of a cohesive plotline.

Wain has amassed a remarkably impressive cast, though their roles do not necessarily do justice to their acting abilities. Gretchen Mol, a breakthrough in last year's "The Notorious Bettie Page" and who delivered an excellent performance in this year's "Puccini for Beginners," is wasted as an eager young woman who travels to Mexico and meets a suspiciously talented man named Jesus. Liev Schreiber, on the other hand, excels in his scenes as a police detective and a jealous neighbor. Paul Rudd does a respectable job hosting the whole show.

The film is composed of ten short films, each framed by Rudd's narration. Some are wholly preposterous, though wildly funny, while others are pretty well-written. Each centers around inspiration from a different commandment. Two standouts include warring neighbors who covet each other's excessive purchases of CAT Scan machines and a group of men who spend their Sundays at home reveling in their nakeds instead of going to church. Overall, the film is heavily uneven, but a good deal of fun to watch.

C

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hilarious: Knocked Up

Knocked Up (Advance Screening)
Directed by Judd Apatow
Save the due date: June 1, 2007

From the creator of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" comes a fantastic new comedy about a one-night stand that turns into something much more. Fortunately, this film is far more even than "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and even funnier. It is surprisingly well put together, reminiscent of the recent "Wedding Crashers," and even though its running time is even longer (132 min), it does not feel too long and keeps the laughs going all the way through.

Katherine Heigl ("Grey's Anatomy") stars as rising E! News reporter Alison who has a one-night stand with unemployed web site concept developer Ben, played by Seth Rogen, one of Steve Carrell's pal from "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Heigl is great, and has a knack for comedy which she has only some opportunity to showcase in the medical dramedy show. Rogen is able enough in a role that is not too difficult, but he makes Ben both extremely dumb and immensely likeable at the same time. Leslie Mann, playing Alison's sister, is fun, but it is Paul Rudd, as her disgruntled husband Pete, who truly steals the show. His performance is constantly funny. Ben's entourage, an assemblage of goofy actors, is also memorable.

The real strength of "Knocked Up" is its commitment to making every single moment funny. Over a dozen celebrities appear in cameo roles which sparkle with fun humor, but they appear for only a minute so as not to steal the show from the stars. B.J. Novak ("The Office") and Tim Bagley ("Will and Grace") are among the best of these well-utilized cameos. The film charts a somewhat predictable course, but the ride is great fun and this film is highly recommended (obviously it is a bit vulgar, but it is great). In theatres June 1st.

B+

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Lacking the Thrill: Fracture

Fracture (Advance Screening)
Directed by Gregory Hoblit
To be released April 20, 2007

Anthony Hopkins stars in this drama/thriller as Ted Crawford, a man who finds out his wife is having an affair, and shoots her. He is arrested and seemingly undeniably guilty, but things are not as they seem. Hotshot attorney Willy Beachum takes the case, confident it will be quick and easy to solve, however, he is in over his head as Crawford continues to mess with his mind.

"Fracture" is a competent enough drama, but as a thriller, it falls short in that it is never truly engaging. There are a great number of humorous moments, which makes for an enjoyable viewing experience, but it gets in the way of a truly gripping storyline. Hopkins is great in his effortless performance as Crawford, and Ryan Gosling is certainly having a lot of fun as Beachum. Overall, the film is a fun enough and fairly clever drama, but it does not truly engage the viewer as a great thriller.

B

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Good Time: Grindhouse

Grindhouse
Directed by Robert Rodriguez & Quentin Tarantino
Released April 6, 2007

"Grindhouse" as a whole is an amazingly entertaining and hilarious ride that is heavy on the gratuitous gore but equally heavy on the laughs. It is composed of Robert Rodriguez's film "Planet Terror," Quentin Tarantino's film "Death Proof," and a number of fake trailers, including one outrageously funny fake ad starring Rodriguez's go-to-star Danny Trejo for an action film called "Machete." The entire film experience clocks in at an unbelievable 3 hours and 11 minutes, but it is well worth the time.

"Planet Terror" is actually the better of the two, a dead-on parody of zombie movies with just enough Rodriguez (and Tarantino for that matter) thrown in. Bruce Willis and Tarantino himself make amusing cameos in the gloriously bloody tale of a band of survivors fighting to kill as many zombies as possible. Naveen Andrews and Freddy Rodriguez are notable in the film, but major credit should be given to two other actors. Marley Shelton does her very best as Dr. Dakota Block, on the run from her orginally psychotic and now possessed husband, and the casting of Michael Biehn ("The Terminator", "Aliens") as the sheriff is genius and a nice in-joke to cult science fiction fans.

"Death Proof" starts out very slow and is very much less exciting than Tarantino's other films. There is a LOT of talking, which is great and all, but the film fails to really go anywhere until one crucial scene where it gets fully launched. The film does not really pick up until its hilarious final ten minutes, but it is entertaining enough to sustain interest, to a point. Zoe Bell, a stuntwoman who has worked with Tarantino, makes her major acting debut playing herself and the film is very much a parody of Hollywood stunt life comparable to Rodriguez's take on zombie movies. Bell does an impressive job, and Kurt Russell is at times laugh-out-loud funny as a crazed stuntman.

Planet Terror: B+
Death Proof: B-
The "Grindhouse" Experience: B+

Saturday, April 14, 2007

No Good: Black Book

Black Book
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Released April 4, 2007

Going in, I knew that a Holocaust film from the director of "Showgirls" and "Starship Troopers" was going to be a gamble. As it turns out, I should have expected the worst and perhaps I would have been pleasantly surprised. What should be a compelling resistance drama comes off instead as a campy adventure thriller which does no justice to the individuals on which the characters in the story are based.

"Black Book" is a poorly done revenge story about a Jewish woman, Rachel, whose family is killed while they are trying to escape the occupied part of Holland. Rachel dies her hair blond and becomes Ellis de Vries, an active member of the resistance who is later forced to get close to a Nazi officer in order to help several captured members of the resistance. The plot is a continuing story of betrayal which twists and turns throughout, but not in a clever way, rather, gets more and more confusing and nothing is ever really sorted out.

Carice Van Houten stars as Rachel/Ellis, and in part due to the sloppy nature of the writing, she comes off as annoying and completely unsympathetic so that it is hard to feel sorry for what happens to her outside of what she can't prevent (that is, obviously her family being killed and the persecution she faces is terrifying, but that sustains itself on its own without any help from Verhoeven's less-than-able directing skills). The rest of the cast is hardly notable, and one of the villains (I will not reveal who, due to the twisty nature of the film) is by far the corniest villain I have seen in a while. The one standout is Sebastian Koch as the sympathetic Nazi officer who Ellis seduces, and he is the only one of the cast I have seen before, in another great performance as Georg Dreyman in this year's "The Lives of Others."

Mostly, the film suffers because of Verhoeven's direction and the unexceptional writing. As I mentoned before, the film is based on true events, and I give no credit to the director or the writer for the true events that occured and the powerful and disturbing nature of those events as played out on screen. The problem I have is with what Verhoeven chose to include in his film. It seems clear that Verhoeven, making his first film in his nature language in over twenty years, has not matured from the days of "Showgirls" (which I have not seen, but can imagine what it is like) and "Starship Troopers). There is a great deal of gratuitous male and female full-frontal nudity that is just unnecessary, especially in this kind of film because it is done merely to spice up the film, and Verhoeven shows us much more than we need to see. We can infer that someone will die if a firing squad is aiming at him without actually seeing him get riddled with bullet holes, and that someone in a nailed-shut coffin will suffocate without actually hearing him breath his last breath. All in all, an immature film and major disappointment.

D

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Foreign Cinema is Great: After the Wedding

After the Wedding
Directed by Susanne Bier
Released March 30, 2007

This film, from Denmark, is the fifth and final 2006 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film to be released in the United States, and it certainly merits a place among the competition. Bier's film is fresh and fascinating, the story of Jacob, who travels from India to Denmark to try to get funding for an orphanage but enters into a new world he never expected to find. Its opening minutes draw you in yet keep you distanced with disjointed shots edited in with stark close-ups of eyes and faces. The film also gets better as it goes along - it is very interesting from the start but truly great as the plot unfolds.

The performances in "After the Wedding" are excellent. Rarely have I accumulated so much information from a few mere glances between actors. Mads Mikkelsen, fresh off his turn as the bloody-eyed villain in "Casino Royale," brings a real human component to Jacob, able to act at the same time close and distant. Rolf Lassgard, as the rich and much-loved Jorgen, is stunning and infuses his character with a likeable yet intimidating aura. Sidse Babett Knudsen, as Jorgen's wife Helene, conveys so much yet has so few lines. But it is Stine Fischer Christensen, as Anna, who truly has a breakout role (this is only her second feature-length film) and conveys a great youthful excitement in her already well-written character.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Third Time Around: Children of Men

Children of Men
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Released December 25, 2006

Rarely is it that I see a movie three times, even rarer is it that the film holds up. I first saw this film in theatres in January, then again in theatres in February, and now on DVD. Some of the scenes lose a bit of their shock value on the small screen, but the camerawork and art direction are still as dazzling. Clive Owen's performance, which I liked to begin with, grows on me more and more each time. And I still admire the excellent performances, however minimal, from Michael Caine, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Peter Mullan as the crazy Syd. The opening scene is shocking and so well done, and the film is terrifying and brilliant. Highly recommended for anyone who has not yet seen it.

A

Sunday, April 1, 2007

How Unfortunate: First Born

First Born
Directed by Isaac Webb
Released direct-to-DVD March 20, 2007

My only reason for renting this film, currently on the shelves at my local Blockbuster, is that I worked two summers ago for a month as an intern at Elevation Filmworks in New York City while Elevation was making this movie. I was extremely curious as to how it would turn out and when it would be released. A few months ago, the news came out that it would be put on DVD without a theatrical release, which I knew couldn't be a great sign.

And unfortunately, the movie is awful. Its quality implies a different kind of film, one which was destined for a DVD-only release (though other such films, like 2005's "Havoc" starring Anne Hathaway, certainly have far better production values). The first is terribly slow, even though it runs only 1 hour and 35 minutes (though the DVD package said 120 minutes??). It is supposed to be a sort of horror/thriller about a woman whose life takes a turn for the bizarre and freaky after she becomes pregnant and moves out of New York City, but it simply succeeds in being a bit too creepy. Most of the time a "jump" scene will be a preceded by a direct shot of whatever the audience is not supposed to see coming so that it is hardly frightening. Elisabeth Shue, great in movies like "Back to the Future II" and "Leaving Las Vegas," is sadly not very good at all, and there is little interesting to say about the rest of the cast. If you watch this movie, just be aware that it is a direct-to-DVD film, which looks and feels a bit too much like there was never any hope to release it in theatres.

F

(But fast-forward to the credits, and I'm in them! See screen shot above)