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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (**)


The only reason to ever sit through Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and indeed the sole reason it should be preserved in the Smithsonian, is to gaze at the stunning, physical perfection of 25 year old Angelina Jolie, who threw herself into the role with aggressive aplomb. Otherwise, this movie is an epic disaster. A shit script is directed with frenzied incompetence by Simon West. West directs Jolie into a collection of video game action hero poses, as if he was perpetually shooting the movie's poster. Meanwhile, West failed to shoot the movie itself in any coherent manner. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is also notable for Daniel Craig in a supporting role as Lara's lesser male rival and counterpart lickspittle five years before he became an international mega stud as James Bond, back when he was just That Ugly British Guy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Hurt Locker (***1/2)


"I hate this place. It's horrible." That seems to be the prevalent sentiment about Iraq from our fighting men and women. And most moviegoers. In The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner doesn't hate Iraq, at least because it allows him to do the one thing he loves most: get his kicks by defusing bombs. The Hurt Locker centers around the Marines' bomb technicians, who, in a country where everything is dangerous, have perhaps the most dangerous of all missions: to head towards the bombs left behind by Iraqi insurgents and shut them down while everyone else runs the opposite direction. Renner is part of Bravo Company along side squad sergeant Anthony Mackie and technician Brian Geraghty. They are all refreshingly real people, screwed up in different ways by the many months of their assignment in Iraq. Geraghty in particular is excellent in portraying his fear of dying in the desert as he watches his fellow soldiers die often senseless deaths. The Hurt Locker strives for gritty, shaky cam realism. This is a movie about defusing bombs were the bombs don't have red digital timers ticking down, if you can believe that. The characters, Renner especially, struggle against the macho action hero mentality movies and video games ingrain in American males. His attempts to go beyond their mission and attempt macho heroics end badly. Renner goes on a side mission to avenge what he believes is the murder of a young Iraqi boy he defended and this is the only sequence of The Hurt Locker that seems inauthentic. There's a bravura sequence where Bravo Company and a stranded squad are ambushed in the desert, where they have to resort to fighting with sniper tactics that's riveting. Ralph Fiennes, David Morse, Evangeline Lilly, and Guy Pearce also make brief but welcome appearances.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Moon (***)


Incorporating elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, Moon is an intriguing science fiction-based drama about a man on the moon. In some unspecified time in the future, 2/3rds of the world's energy will be supplied from solar fusion-infused moon rocks, harvested into Helium-3. There is a man on the moon, alone, providing maintenance and overseeing the harvesting. His name is Sam Bell, he lives in a cold, functional, well-appointed space station. His only company is an artificially intelligent computer called Gerty (voiced in both an eerie and cheery manner by Kevin Spacey). In three years, Sam's contract with the Lunar corporation expires and he gets to go home to Earth to see his wife and young daughter. Saying more would be spoiling the pleasures of Moon. Sam Rockwell is an excellent one man show (so to speak) as Sam Bell, a tricky role where he is on the screen in every scene and literally talking to himself. But if you believe, they put a man on the moon, a man on the moon. A man on the man on the moon.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (***)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince brings us back to the magical world of Harry Potter, but it ain't what it used to be. The menace of Voldemort has been building steadily for the last couple of movies and by this sixth go-around, it seems most of the color has been drained from the world. There's a storm coming. Looking up into the perpetual cloudy skies and seeing a skull face in the clouds seems to be an everyday thing. Even Hogwarts itself, once a warm and inviting stronghold of wonder and whimsy, has become a gothic fearscape of sinister angles and foreboding shadows. With the ominous dread creeping across the world, it's no wonder all the students of Hogwarts want to do is snog.

Yes, lust is in the air at Hogwarts, and love, too, but that's really at least one more movie away. Harry Potter and his wizard chums are now sixteen years old, maturing, increasingly attractive, and they all rather fancy each other. Harry wants Ginny Weasley. Hermione wants Ron. Lavander Brown wants Ron. Cormac McLaggen wants Hermione. Ron wants Harry (well, not really, but the way those two cuddle up next to each other in their bedchambers, one can't help but wonder.) You'd need a scorecard to keep up with it all, much to the chagrin of the teachers at Hogwarts, all of whom seem to roll their eyes at the openingly throbbing loins of their young charges.

The most amusing moments of The Half-Blood Prince are the moments of teen lust gone awry straight out of Archie Comics, such as when Ron eats enchanted love chocolates meant for Harry and falls in lust with its sender. This leads to Ron being poisoned and hospitalized, where his semi-conscious spouting of Hermione's name is all Hermione needs to validate her unrequited love, which in turn shatters the hopes and dreams of Lavander, the girl Ron was snogging for no reason other than, well, a young Quidditch stud's gotta snog someone. This teen drama plays out right in front of their bemused professors Snape, McGonagall, and Dumbledore. Dumbledore seems especially interested in the days of their lives, quizzing Harry about whether he and Hermione are sharing bedknobs and broomsticks and, like us, finding himself a little disappointed in the answer.

Dumbledore has more pressing matters in mind and, as in the book, the main action of The Half-Blood Prince involves Dumbledore and Harry going on psychedelic trips down memory lane to unlock the mystery of Tom Riddle, the creepy little boy who would become Lord Voldemort. Notably absent are references to Tom Riddle's parents, which are interesting but not necessary, as what the movie is primarily focused on is introducing the horcruxes, seven enchanted items within which Voldemort hid pieces of his soul. Destroying the horcruxes, which is to become the Holy Grail quest for the remainder of the Harry Potter saga, means destroying Voldemort once and for all.

The mystery of the horcrux is hidden in the mind of Slughorn, the newest professor at Hogwarts, who once taught Tom Riddle, and has a thing for collecting students of high achievement as personal trophies. Harry's mission this year is to buddy up with Slughorn and somehow extract the memory from his mind, which Harry royally bungles. Luckily, Harry has his old friend Hagrid ready and able to get Slughorn right pished, so Slughorn voluntarily and guiltily surrenders his memory. What didn't quite make sense was why this memory was worth all the trouble. Dumbledore seemed to know what the horcruxes were anyway. He already had two from previous movies and had a line on finding a third. It seemed like all Dumbledore really needed was the word "horcrux", maybe so he knows what to call the things Harry would have to collect when his master plan kicks into gear.

There's all this other stuff going on as well in this busy movie. Harry and Draco Malfoy still loathe each other on sight. Harry spends a lot of his free time shadowing Malfoy around Hogwarts, overhearing incriminating bits of sinister confessions of misdeeds and doing nothing about it. Malfoy is able to spend the many months of the school term wandering around Hogwarts alone throwing birds into a cabinet, all part of his super-secret mission given to him by the Dark Lord himself. No one even feigns surprise when Draco reveals himself to be Dumbledore's would-be assassin.

Meanwhile, Harry discovers a mysterious book that turns him from a perpetual C-student into the hottest young academic prospect in Hogwarts. Harry Potter suddenly becoming a wizard at wizardry doesn't seem to cause any of his teachers, who know his mediocrity better than that, to raise an eyebrow, but it briefly annoys Hermione, until the subplot of who the "Half-Blood Prince" is stopped cold for a good hour. Snape suddenly blurts out, "I'm the Half-Blood Prince!" at the end. Oh right, that was a mystery of some sort, wasn't it?

The best moments in The Half-Blood Prince are the entertaining little character touches and action spectacles deviating from what's in the book, such as when Hermione smacks Harry on his swelled head with rolled up parchment for bragging about being the Chosen One. Harry is hit on by an attractive waitress in a diner at the start of the movie and even Dumbledore offers his regrets that he couldn't allow Harry to pursue that course of action. "I'd like to let you hit that Harry, but the book says we have a lot of walking down memory lane to do." The attack on London that opens the movie, to no consequence that the movie deals with, is a great visual, as is the all-new sequence of the Death Eaters' torching the Weasley house.

Other changes seem to undercut what would otherwise be more important, crowd-pleasing developments. In the book, Harry wins a Quidditch match, sweeps Ginny off her feet and kisses her in full view of his Gryffindor mates. The movie has their first kiss as a secret rendez vous, establishing that their destined future together will see Ginny as the one who wears the pants in the Potter family, bossing the Chosen One around, and Harry will like it. By not showing the students attending any classes besides Potions with Slughorn, the boiling-over tension between Snape and Harry is completely undercut, relying on their dislike for each other from previous movies to fuel Harry's rage when he sees Snape do what Draco couldn't.

As a visual spectacle, The Half-Blood Prince lets us down at the most important moment: when Harry and Dumbledore go on a mission in the Inferi cave to retrieve the third horcrux. The muted color palate and murky visual effects rob us of much of the terror of the Inferi, zombies living in a bottomless lake guarding the horcrux. The movie relies on the Boo Machine of a hand darting out of the water at Harry for its primary scare, but when the Inferi emerge from the lake, they look like unfinished animatics of Gollum from Lord of the Rings. There's a nice shot of Harry being pulled into the depths of the lake, but otherwise, this was supposed to be the pulse-pounding sequence of the film and it doesn't deliver. The sequence is totally underwhelming compared to what we've been treated to in the past: the battle in the Ministry of Magic in Order of the Phoenix or Harry's trials against the dragon and the mer-people in The Goblet of Fire.

Everyone by now knows this is the chapter in the Harry Potter saga where Dumbledore takes the long dirt nap. The entire story builds towards Dumbledore's master plan that he has to die in order to set Harry on the course to accomplish his great mission. Of course, having read all the books, we know what Dumbledore meant when he urged "Severus, please". We know this is coming, we're steeled for it, but it's the movie's job to bring forth all the emotion of Dumbledore's ultimate sacrifice. This is the pivotal moment, the privotal death in the Harry Potter universe, and it plays as an afterthought. There's little emotion, little outrage, virtually no sadness. As with Sirius Black's underwhelming death in the previous film, Dumbledore's death is limp and inert. The students gathering over the corpse of their beloved headmaster weren't nearly as emotional as they were when Cedric Diggory died in The Goblet of Fire. (And boy, would the ladies of Hogwarts like to meet Cedric now that he's a vampire.) In addition, we weren't shown the magnificent funeral for Dumbledore, where all the magical creatures in the Hogwarts forest and lake paid the great wizard tribute. No tears for Albus Dumbledore, though. Everyone at Hogwarts must have already read book seven.

By now, Harry Potter movies have an established level of quality to be expected. The Half-Blood Prince meets that level but nothing more. This is a servicable adaptation with a few novel twists and entertaining tidbits, but otherwise, it's more of the same from what was established by director David Yates in The Order of the Phoenix. The Half-Blood Prince is two hours and forty minutes in length and the audience feels every bit of it. Scenes are stitched together like patchwork and there's practically no forward momentum driving the movie's story.

The young actors we've watched blossom in these roles, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint (who is the MVP for comedy this time around) retain and build on their considerable charm while the older guard remain venerable and reliable, with Michael Gambon delivering his finest work as Dumbledore. Odd British humour is mixed in with the gloom and doom, welcome bursts of action are thrown in, familiar Potter universe characters show their faces and wave hi to the camera to remind you they're still around, and it's all well and good. But not magical.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Awake (**)


A man receiving a heart transplant undergoes a phenomenon called anesthesia awareness where he doesn't go under, remains conscious during his procedure, and experiences the procedure going horribly wrong. Awake makes that man Hayden Christensen, a callow billionaire mama's boy who has Jessica Alba as his fiance. To its credit, the cinematography is lush and Awake has some surprising tricks up its sleeve. But then the filmmakers puts the screws on the audience where we learn the first act doesn't play fair with what we were shown. Not only is nothing and no one what they initially appear to be but on top of the main murder plot, Awake then piles on a totally extraneous second murder mystery in flashback where apparently a ghost can literally have a heart to heart with a consciousness trapped in anesthesia awareness. Alba both looks fantastic and takes some interesting turns with her role. The cast, including Terrence Howard and Lena Olin, does what they can with the unbelievable hogwash that goes on in the second half of the movie. Apparently surgeons who don't work at a hospital can just come in and do whatever they please if called by billionaires who suspect something's not on the up and up. Maddening to watch a movie blow it the way Awake does.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Red Dawn (**)


25 years later, with the Cold War long over, Red Dawn remains bleak and grimy. The famous "Wolverines!!" battle cry belies the agony the teenagers endure when they are forced to hide in the Rocky Mountains and become guerrilla rebels named after their high school football team. Each member of the Wolverines is thinly sketched with little character development outside of basic traits to crudely identify each character. (Patrick Swayze is the leader, Charlie Sheen is the hothead, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey are girls, etc.) The most interesting person in the movie is the Cuban general who lead the initial invasion, bristled in his role as a policeman for their occupied Colorado town, and came to identify and respect the Wolverines as rebels fighting for their homes. Most of the memorable stuff happens in the first half, including C. Thomas Howell drinking the blood of a deer. The second half of Red Dawn sees the Wolverines growing more and more desperate and doomed despite their early successes in guerrilla warfare. The tragic events of the third act seem logical and inevitable but leave a mostly unsatisfying impression.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Knowing (*1/2)


Evil numbers = disaster. Evil numbers = death. Evil numbers = the end of the world. Dude, Hugo Reyes would hate this movie. I'm not too fond of it either. Nicolas Cage plays an MIT professor scrambling to unravel the mystery of a piece of paper covered by numbers written by a little girl and unearthed from a time capsule buried 50 years ago. There are also men in black coats who appear out of nowhere called The Whisper People who must be second cousins twice removed from the Strangers in director Alex Proyas's Dark City. Knowing flogs the old movie chestnut of When A Man Knows The End of the World is Coming and No One Believes Him, He Must Then Behave Like a Complete Lunatic. The movie's set up is decent and intriguing but by midpoint senseless action and the Idiot Plot kicks in. Some of the CGI is staggeringly bad, especially the truly awful sequence where a subway train derails in downtown NYC and demolishes a subway station. The ending is a crock. On the plus side, there's some nice location shooting in Boston. Except for when Rose Byrne and Cage park their cars in the Copley Garage and emerge at the Museum of Science across the Charles River in Cambridge. I hate shit like that.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Highlander: Endgame (**)


Though a terrible movie by objective standards, Highlander: Endgame stands as the second best Highlander movie ever made. The cinematic coming out party of Adrian Paul, bringing TV's Highlander Duncan MacLeod to the big screen after 5 seasons, is typically sabotaged by a typically rotten script and a typically incompetent director. I like to think that if Highlander: Endgame had a better script and director, Paul could have had a breakthrough in the way the late Brandon Lee would have had from the first Crow movie. For Highlander fans, Endgame is a frustrating yet fun hodgepodge of items and characters from the series and the original movie. Dragon's head katanas? Check. JVC sign (standing in for Silvercup) on the rooftop? Check. Bonnie Heather in flashback? Check. Joe Dawson and Methos? Check. "Bonnie Podmore" playing at the end? Check. Sex scene with the girl riding MacLeod cowgirl? Oh yes, check. Kell, the villain, was yet another over-the-top Kurgan proxy played by Bruce Payne. The cameo from 'special guest star Edge' of the WWF totally reeked of awesomeness; he SO stole the movie in the most important scene. Visibly long in the tooth as he was, it was still a joy to see Christopher Lambert portray the supposedly-eternally 35 year old Connor MacLeod one final time. Sadly, Endgame rendered the once mighty Connor as an inert has-been counting the minutes to his own death. Connor and Duncan MacLeod share several extended sequences, including their final sword fight that ends with the immortal line, "I love you, Connor." Aw. Duncan was speaking for the fans as well. Right back at you, Highlander.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Fanboys (*)


Watching Fanboys in the summer of 2009 post-JJ Abrams' mainstream reinvention of Star Trek, makes Fanboys seem even more anachronistic. A strictly amateur hour (and-a-half) love letter to Star Wars and Star Wars fans by Star Wars fans, Fanboys is about four geeks in 1998 who set off on a cross county journey to break into the Skywalker Ranch and steal a copy of The Phantom Menace and watch it before anyone else. This is presented as a noble pursuit. Two of the actors are decent but the other two, the Screech-like super nerd named Windows and the fat, hairy one named Hutch are unwatchable. The Hutch character is especially repugnant; even worse, he's not funny. Fanboys mines every Star Wars joke and reference under the twin Tatooine suns to no end that's actually funny. Cameos by famous and not-so-famous faces like William Shatner, Seth Rogen (in a challenging dual role, both just awful), Bill Hader, Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes (of course), Jamie King (as a Vegas escort, naturally, what else are attractive girls to Star Wars geeks?), Ray Park, Danny Trejo, Ethan Suplee as Harry Knowles, and Darryl and Roy from The Office make you wonder why they all agreed to be in this piece of garbage in the first place. The road trip itself is a collection of asinine Star Wars jokes and asinine events where Fanboys pretends its unaware that Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back exists. The geeks (and a slumming Kristen Bell, hired mainly because 1) she's a girl and 2) she's a girl who was willing to wear the Princess Leia slave bikini) have to strip in a gay biker bar and engage in TWO totally retarded arguments and brawls with Star Trek fans. Yeah, about Star Trek, funny thing is right now, more normal people have good things to say about Trek as an entertainment property thanks to JJ Abrams and company. Post-prequels, Star Wars is now even more of a fringe, marginalized, sorry-ass geek affectation.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Public Enemies (**1/2)


A stylish, overlong letdown from Michael Mann about the Federal government's "first war on crime" targeting Pretty Boy Floyd (not Mayweather), Babyface Nelson, and Public Enemy Number One John Dillinger. None of the bank heists depicted have even a fraction of the pulse-pounding energy as the heists in Heat. The most interesting stuff in the picture is the background stuff involving J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) attempting to validate his plans to expand his Bureau of Investigations into what will become the FBI by capturing the notorious bank robbers. Meanwhile, the high public profiles of Dillinger and his ilk become a liability to the nationalizing gambling and crime syndicates that once gave them save haven. The life of a bank robber never comes off as exciting as Johnny Depp would have hat check girl Marion Cotillard believe as he whispers macho sweet nothings in her ear. Nor is Depp himself, complete with disappearing pencil-thin mustache, as charming as Clark Gable, whom Dillinger is shown to idolize. Even with the film's 2 1/2 hour length, we barely get to know any of the characters, especially not Christian Bale as steely lawman Melvin Purvis. At least Bale never screams at anyone.