Friday, November 30, 2007

Movies opening this week

Awake (Hayden Christensen, Jessica Alba, Lena Olin, Terrence Howard, dir. Joby Harold)
For a movie that was on the shelf for a couple of years, released on one of the deadest weekends of the year and not screened for critics, this wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been. The main hook, that Christensen's character is conscious but paralyzed during open-heart surgery, is incredibly disturbing, even if a cursory look at Wikipedia indicates that Harold may have exaggerated the experience a bit. The film achieves some real moments of horror when we watch Christensen helpless on the table as the surgeons cut into his skin and saw at his ribcage. These are fairly brief, though, and even though the movie is less than 80 minutes long, the visceral horror is padded out with a dumb murder-plot storyline that's incredibly far-fetched and gets only more ridiculous as the movie goes on. This is more of a thriller than a horror movie, and while its fleeting attempts at horror are effective, it's decidedly less than thrilling. Wide release

Holly (Ron Livingston, Thuy Nguyen, Virginie Ledoyen, dir. Guy Moshe)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Sometimes these tiny movies that open in like four cities end up playing here, and I never understand why. Is there really a big audience in Vegas for morose message movies about underage prostitution? Bigger than, say, in Minneapolis, or Atlanta, or somewhere like that? I mean, I guess it's nice that small movies open here, but when we get some exclusive, it's usually boring stuff like this rather than something really innovative and different. Oh well. Opened limited Nov. 9; in Las Vegas this week

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

2007 catch-up, Part 3

Still rushing to watch as many of this year's notable/interesting releases as possible before list/awards deadlines.

Crazy Love (documentary, dir. Dan Klores)
Another of this year's acclaimed documentaries about weird human-interest stories, but this one less stylish and entertaining than The King of Kong and less thought-provoking than My Kid Could Paint That. It's likewise one of those stories where you can just get out of the way and let it tell itself, and Klores pretty much does just that. He uses a basic talking-heads-and-archival-footage format to tell the story of the rich New York lawyer who hired hitmen to blind his girlfriend with acid, spent 14 years in jail and then ended up marrying her. Just that short summary points to how nutso this story is, but Klores often makes it sort of dull, and spends too much time on mundane details in the first half-hour. The movie really picks up toward the end when the couple, previously interviewed separately, are finally seen interacting, and you get the sense of how screwed up and yet totally normal their dynamic is. Still, Klores never goes as deep as one would hope into the story, although that may be the fault of his interviewees as much as his own, and this bizarre story comes off as a little more banal than it should.

The Namesake (Kal Penn, Tabu, Irrfan Khan, dir. Mira Nair)
Compressing a novel that covers something like 30 years into a two-hour movie is a tough task, but Nair pulls it off better than the makers of Love in the Time of Cholera (and better than she herself did in Vanity Fair, which I actually sort of liked, unlike every other person who saw it). There's still a rushed feeling at times, and the sense that no scene occurs that doesn't depict a significant moment in the characters' lives (if someone goes to the hospital, it's either to die or to give birth). The story, while largely predictable, is affectionate and warm, a mostly balanced depiction of the immigrant experience over two generations. The main character's parents get as much screen time as he does, and their story is often more interesting. Penn, best known for comedic roles, does a decent job, but Tabu and Khan are excellent as his Bengali parents, aging convincingly with minimal makeup. Tabu's performance especially holds the movie together when it threatens to slip into a collection of immigrant-family cliches.

Private Property (Isabelle Huppert, Jeremie Renier, Yannick Renier, dir. Joachim Lafosse)
This Belgian domestic drama is a little aimless but has some nice character work and good performances. The tension between Huppert's divorcee and the Renier brothers as her sons, the most ungrateful children of all time, is really effective, so much so that many of the family-squabble scenes (shot often in long, static takes) are fairly uncomfortable to watch. It did bug me that this movie engaged in one of my pet peeves about indie dramas, with (spoiler alert) the tensions all coming to a head with the sudden, random death of one of the main characters. It just seems like a cheap and overused metaphor to me, a device to convey strong emotions when the writing and acting apparently aren't enough. To be fair, it's not that egregious in this movie; it's left ambiguous as to whether the character is actually dead, and the movie's final moments are rather touching. Still, it's an unnecessary and lazy bit of storytelling that annoys me whenever it arises.

Monday, November 26, 2007

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, season three

The recently concluded third season of FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is definitely the most popular, although I don't think the ratings are exactly spectacular. But after being almost entirely obscure in its first season and only slightly less so in its second (despite the presence of Danny DeVito), it's become the go-to cult comedy hit, right behind 30 Rock in blogosphere and message-board popularity (this is based entirely on anecdotal evidence and is possibly in no way accurate). FX promoted the hell out of this season, and finally released the first two seasons on DVD; although they haven't announced a fourth-season pick-up, it seems far more likely than it was in the past.

And yet this was easily the show's worst season, one in which it really seemed like they were running out of ideas, in which the already ridiculous characters each became simply exaggerations of their one defining trait, and one in which DeVito's character was revealed to be entirely useless. It was also still very funny, and more daring than just about any comedy on TV, but I can't help but think that in the network's zeal to have more of the show that everyone's talking about, they've diluted what made it worth talking about in the first place.

The seven-episode first season was basically put together by actor/writers Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day on their own, and the 10-episode second season had only two episodes with contributions from other writers. But this season's 15 episodes were penned by a variety of writers (still including the three stars), and it really seemed to me that the increased number of episodes stretched the show's creative resources too thin. The initial appeal of the show was in how it broke so many different taboos in each episode, but now that most of the obvious appalling ground has been covered, all that's left is for the plots to become more and more ridiculous, the characters less and less human. At first, they seemed to be clever exaggerations of the worst in human nature, but now Dennis' vanity, Mac's competitiveness, Dee's insecurity and Charlie's simple-mindedness have been distorted to the point of distraction. (Although admittedly I will never find Charlie's illiteracy not funny.)

Last season's development of narrative continuity was a welcome change, but this season the dynamic between DeVito's Frank and his pseudo-children Dennis and Dee was basically abandoned, and he just became another one of the gang, and thus entirely superfluous. After discovering at the end of last season that Frank wasn't their actual dad (and that he probably was Charlie's), Dennis and Dee seem to have just decided to treat him like some guy they met, and the possibility of his relationship to Charlie was never really developed. Still, there were plenty of recurring characters and nods to past storylines, most of which paid off well (the McPoyles are best in small doses, but I was happy for the returns of The Waitress, Mac's dad and Stephen Collins as Dennis and Dee's real father, the only good person ever to appear on the show).

If FX does bring the show back for another season, I hope they'll reduce the order to a more manageable number, and that the creators will find a compelling new ways for the characters to relate to each other rather than just stand around in the same place reacting to the plot of the week. The early episodes were so funny as much because of their surprising newness as anything else, but like any show whose novelty wears off over time, Sunny needs to find a way to sustain itself long-term with more than just increasingly desperate attempts at shock. From this season at least, I'm not sure if they'll make it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

2007 catch-up, Part 2

Still working on catching up on some notable and/or overlooked 2007 releases as the list-making and awards-giving deadline approaches.

Diggers (Paul Rudd, Ken Marino, Maura Tierney, Ron Eldard, Josh Hamilton, dir. Katherine Dieckmann)
This simple, laid-back dramedy, written by former State member Marino, is charming and low-key, and actually more entertaining I think than the more broadly comedic recent efforts from State alums. It's not particularly original, but as a character study of thirtysomething clamdiggers in 1976 Long Island, it nicely sketches the arrested man-child persona in a believable, charming way, and unlike a lot of movies of this type, doesn't shortchange the female characters (having a female director probably helps). Tierney in particular is excellent as a woman who's just as rootless as the male main characters, and her arc is equally compelling. There's nothing revelatory here, but there are a lot of nice, satisfying moments, with an ending that's sort of predictable but still touching.

The King of Kong (documentary, dir. Seth Gordon)
There's been a bit of outcry online over the recently released Academy shortlist for the Best Documentary award, in large part because this film was left out, and I can see the validity of that (the list is also very heavily skewed toward political films, as if that's the only function of documentaries these days). It's also not surprising that Gordon has a narrative version of this film in the works, because it's got a very Hollywood hook, with the likable underdog taking on a cocky, condescending champion, in this case in the realm of competitive classic videogaming. It'd be enough for Gordon to just step back and let the story tell itself, but he manages to jazz it up a little with a few bits of visual flair and some creative editing. And he makes great use of cheesy "fight of the century" anthems from other sports-underdog movies. The movie doesn't have much to say, but it's a great character study of a weird and dedicated subculture, and incredibly entertaining.

Tears of the Black Tiger (Chartchai Ngamsan, Stella Malucchi, Arawat Ruangvuth, dir. Wisit Sasanatieng)
This weird, psychedelic Western/melodrama was made and released in Thailand seven years ago, but only made it to U.S. theaters this year, already armed with a cult following. I can't say I quite understood it - I think there are references and homages to elements of Thai pop culture with which I am completely unfamiliar - but it was entertaining in its own bizarre way. Completely, purposely fake - with exaggerated colors, obvious sets standing in for outdoor locations, and completely impossible stunts - it's a hyper-stylized parody of both macho Westerns and weepy melodramas. It's also quite macho and weepy on its own, and sort of exciting and even touching at times. The kind of movie that if it didn't exist, it would be invented as some sort of backstory in a Quentin Tarantino film.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Movies opening this week

August Rush (Freddie Highmore, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Robin Williams, dir. Kirsten Sheridan)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Various scheduling issues kept me from seeing this week's other modern fable, Enchanted, but all indications are that it gets right everything this film gets wrong. It's not easy to strike the right balance between the realistic and the fantastic in a movie like this, and while I give it credit for trying, the result is a definite failure, sappy and lifeless and unexciting. I'm happy to see Keri Russell getting more mainstream roles after the obscurity she languished in for a while post-Felicity, though. Wide release

Hitman (Timothy Olyphant, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko, dir. Xavier Gens)
I was glad that our video-game critic also hated this movie, since video-game fans tend to get defensive about bad reviews of video-game movies. I have nothing against video games - I haven't really played any since I was 12, but I think they're an entirely legitimate form of entertainment and even art. If you like the Hitman video game, you should probably go play it rather than seeing this movie, which is incoherent, poorly written and really very boring. It's so cheap-looking that I'm sort of surprised it didn't go direct to DVD; the story, the cast, the direction and the subject matter all scream "Blockbuster original." Wide release

The Mist (Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Toby Jones, dir. Frank Darabont)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
Some reviewers have praised the bleakness of the changed ending to this film, but it really bugged me, and not just because it altered the source material (which is decent but not exactly Stephen King's best work). It just seemed like such a cheap shock tactic, and while I like movies with dark worldviews and am impressed that a major studio film can get away with such a downer of an ending, it just was so jarring that it negated a lot of the character work that went before it. Other than that, though, I think this is a good horror movie, suspenseful without being gory, and a fun bit of nostalgia for drive-in B-movies. Wide release

My Kid Could Paint That (documentary, dir. Amir Bar-Lev)
As I've said before, any documentary that is about an obscure and fascinating story rather than a political issue is okay with me, and this one certainly qualifies. Bar-Lev agonizes a little too much over the ethics of his movie when the question of whether or not his subject, a 4-year-old art prodigy, actually paints her own pictures comes up. His inserting of himself into the film is overly dramatic, and while the question is a valid one, it seems to sort of take over the last third of the film. Even so, this is a really interesting movie, and a story that demands a follow-up a few years down the line (when the girl is a teenage drug addict whining that she peaked at age 4). Opened limited Oct. 5; in Las Vegas this week

Friday, November 16, 2007

Movies opening this week

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, dir. Sidney Lumet)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
I had been really looking forward to this movie, and it did not live up to my expectations. It's an okay heist thriller, but the whole jumping-around-in-time bit really breaks up the story in a bad way, and has become way overused in pseudo-hip crime pictures. The good performances make up for it a bit, but not enough. (I refrained in my review from sounding as pervy as all the lonely middle-aged male film critics and noting how good Marisa Tomei looks naked in this movie, but I'll say it here: She looks damn good naked, and she's quite naked in this movie.) Opened limited Oct. 26; in Las Vegas this week

Beowulf (Voices of Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Robin Wright Penn, dir. Robert Zemeckis)
Reviews for this film have been bafflingly positive, but I thought it was pretty much a mess. Sure, the 3D technology has improved a lot over the years, but no matter how cool it looks they are still doing the exact same thing with it - "Look! The sword is coming right at us!" - and it gets old after a few instances. And motion-capture technology has improved, too, but still falls right in the uncanny valley and, furthermore, seems a little pointless to me. Making characters who look exactly like actual actors is better than using the actual actors why? I realize the sets and creatures need to be computer-generated, but when you've already got dragons and sexy seductress-monsters, why not just make it all at least a little stylized? Take advantage of the capabilities of computer animation, maybe?

Technology aside (although that's clearly what people care about here), the story just doesn't work. Making an ancient epic relatable to modern audiences is tough anyway, but the writers (Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, no hacks) take an odd route here, turning Beowulf into an arrogant jerk who never quite gets his comeuppance, and adding an overtly sexual element that doesn't make much sense and only provides for a lot of silly moments. The first half of the movie is remarkably campy, with all sorts of dumb double entendres and a completely absurd scene in which Jolie's evil sexpot seduces Beowulf, stroking his very phallic sword slowly up and down while it pulsates, and finally, when he succumbs to her womanly wiles, explodes into a stream of liquid. I mean, really. I was honestly agape at the stupidity of this scene.

That's not even to mention the fight between Beowulf and the monster Grendel, in which the hero is naked (in apparent fidelity to the source material, okay), but since this is a PG-13 movie (completely unjustifiably, incidentally) they can't show his naughty bits. So Zemeckis goes to laughable lengths to hide them behind every phallic object imaginable, recalling the bit in which Austin Powers hides his member behind bananas and so on. I will concede that the final action sequence, with Beowulf fighting a dragon, is sort of awesome. But everyone calling this the future of movies is way off the mark. At least, I really hope so. Wide release

Love in the Time of Cholera (Javier Bardem, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Benjamin Bratt, dir. Mike Newell)
(Disclosure: This movie was produced by the people who own the company I work for.) I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel a few years ago, and it's such an immersive, otherworldly experience that this film completely fails to capture. Newell sticks fairly close to the events of the novel, but he loses so much of the spirit. Obviously, any adaptation would have to cut a lot out of the novel, and the little digressions have so much to do with creating the overall feel of the story. And it's always going to be tough to span 50 years with the same characters; Newell opts to use aging makeup, which is not particularly convincing and mostly just distracts from the story and the characters. But using different actors for different time periods would just have been distracting in a different way. Still, I can't help but feel that this ethereal, magical-realist novel might have been adapted successfully by a more inventive, magical-realist director, like maybe Julie Taymor, or Terry Gilliam, or Tim Burton. Newell is a competent journeyman, and he's made a nice little period romance here, but he hasn't even touched Marquez's genius. Wide release

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman, dir. Zach Helm)
I thought Helm's script for Stranger Than Fiction was clever, but not quite as clever as it thought it was, and Marc Forster's lively direction brought it to a higher level. Here, directing his own script, Helm shows his limitations with a story that has some cute ideas but ultimately goes nowhere. There's just no dramatic tension in the story of the Willy Wonka-esque owner of a magical toy store who decides to pass it along to his young apprentice. Portman is fine but sort of bland as the young woman who isn't sure she wants to take over the store (and definitely doesn't want her mentor to die a nebulous, G-rated death), and Hoffman is really irritating as the pointlessly oddball Mr. Magorium (he was much funnier, and much more restrained, in Stranger Than Fiction). Bateman's straitlaced accountant isn't a villain, but he doesn't really end up learning to appreciate magic, either. The whole movie sort of just sits there for a while, then ends. Kids might find all the magical toys amusing, though. Wide release

No Country for Old Men (Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
I am one of the few defenders of Intolerable Cruelty (I actually think it's one of the Coens' most entertaining films), but I don't have much good to say about The Ladykillers, and I'll at least admit that Cruelty is rather slight. No Country is, as nearly everyone has said, a powerful return to form for the brothers. I tend to prefer their dark dramas over their comedies (as much as I love The Big Lebowski), and this one ranks right up there with The Man Who Wasn't There and Miller's Crossing. It's incredibly bleak and intense, with a wonderfully creepy performance from Bardem as the psychopathic and emotionally detached villain. There are long, intricate dialogue-free sequences simply focused on the mechanics of evading someone who's chasing you, with meticulous attention to small details. There's also a surprising amount of humor, although like the rest of the movie, it's as dry as the ever-present Texas dust. The suspense is relentless until the extended coda, which at first seems a little anticlimactic but actually wraps up all the movie's themes nicely, showing how helpless all the characters really are, no matter how in control they think they might be. It's one of the Coens' most thematically rich films, a very effective genre piece and definitely one of the best movies of the year. Opened limited Nov. 9; in Las Vegas this week

Monday, November 12, 2007

TV update: returning shows

Just in time for the writers' strike to put a halt to new episodes of scripted series, my assessment of the season so far.

30 Rock (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30 p.m.)
Tina Fey has said that they've consciously decided to slow the pace of the jokes on this show, and indeed this season has not been the laugh-a-second experience that the first often was. But the jokes that do get delivered are as sharp as ever, and the characters have actually developed into interesting, fully realized people. Liz's pathological loneliness, Jenna's rank insecurity, Jack's need for corporate validation - these are all genuine and recognizable emotions, and the comedy now comes as much out of those as it does out of the show's ridiculous situations. The altered pace has taken a little getting used to, but this has settled into a groove as not only the funniest show on TV, but also one of the best.

Brothers & Sisters (ABC, Sundays, 10 p.m.)
I've always been sort of measured in my enthusiasm for this show (it's great to watch while folding laundry or washing dishes), but as time has gone on there's always been something to keep me watching, and I have come to care about the characters and be interested in what happens to them. This season so far has only deepened that interest, with a lot of strong plotlines along with the occasional cheesiness that's been present since the beginning. The addition of Rob Lowe to the regular cast has provided some good material for Kitty, although I have exactly zero interest in storylines that involve Lowe away from the rest of the core characters (as we got this week). I hope they aren't setting his character up to actually win the presidential election, since that would really take the focus off the core family dynamic; I actually think it would be more interesting to see him lose and still remain a part of the cast as Kitty's husband. I've also liked the shake-ups of Sarah's and Tommy's marriages; neither feels like a quick exit for the spouse characters, and Sarah's ongoing custody battle gives the show the chance to explore another important angle on modern families. And Tommy's hot young mistress is already a way more interesting character than his wife (who looks to be returning next week) ever was. I'm still not exactly wowed by this show, but it's solid and dependable, and rarely lets me down.

Friday Night Lights (NBC, Fridays, 9 p.m.)
There's been a lot of discussion online about one particular aspect of this show's second season, and while it's a shame that it's pretty much overshadowed everything else that happens on the show, that's part of why people are talking about it and criticizing it. But I'd like to say first that other than the certain unfortunate development, everything else about this season on FNL has been fantastic. The writers really painted themselves into a corner with last year's finale, set up to serve also as a series finale if the show didn't come back. They've taken their time rearranging the pieces, and it's to their credit that they haven't just put everything back to the status quo. Coach Taylor's return to Dillon from TMU has been difficult and problematic, and still isn't quite resolved. Although it was inevitable, the writers have done a good job of making it seem organic and not rushed; Taylor made a decision that wasn't right for him, and he has to fix it. Julie's evolution into a typically snotty teen has also been portrayed realistically and with great balance. She's still the good person we knew last season, but 16-year-olds make dumb decisions sometimes, and we're seeing her do that and then deal with the consequences. I think Lyla's conversion to Christianity and Jason's search for direction in his life have also been handled with real grace and subtlety.

And then there's the murder. Although certain aspects of its fallout - Tyra and Landry's complicated romance, and Landry's relationship with his father - have been portrayed well and are consistent with the tone of the show, the simple fact of what happened sort of negates any more subdued moments that follow. I don't see how the storyline can play out in a way that's both dramatically satisfying and doesn't do permanent damage to the characters. How can these people possibly go on to participate in other plotlines with this forever hanging over their heads? Landry's moments as Matt's conscience and comic relief are completely untenable now, and this past week's episode featured some sweet interaction between Tyra and Julie that recalled their Season 1 friendship, but I just couldn't get past the fact that this was a girl with a murder on her conscience. Even only getting a few minutes' worth of screen time each week, this storyline can really bring the show down. Overall, I think all the other wonderful elements (just the interaction between Eric and Tami alone makes the entire show worth watching) make up for it, but they really shouldn't have to.

Heroes (NBC, Mondays, 9 p.m.)
Ugh. This show's sophomore season has been pretty much an unmitigated failure, with disastrously slow pacing, boring new characters and storylines that are pale rehashes of last season (which was already often a pale rehash of superhero comics). I've never been wholly on board with this show the way so many others are; it's had a handful of very good episodes but is so beholden to stale cliches of superhero comics that it would never have lasted if the majority of its audience weren't completely unfamiliar with comic books. As someone who's seen those tropes played out many times, my patience for the latest iteration is relatively short, and it doesn't help that this season doesn't even have last year's moderately interesting twists. Creator Tim Kring has actually apologized for the bungled storytelling and promises improvements when/if the show returns from the strike. I'll believe it when I see it, but I will at least keep watching for now to give them the chance to show me.

My Name Is Earl (NBC, Thursdays, 8 p.m.)
This show has been slowly losing steam since the beginning of last season, but I stick around because every so often there's an inspired bit or a laugh-out-loud moment that reminds me of how much I once enjoyed it. I'm sort of amazed that the writers have kept Earl in prison for the entire season so far and show no signs of letting him out any time soon; it really limits the kinds of stories they can tell and moves the show far away from its original premise. Earl's list has barely been mentioned this year, and in order to tell stories that encompass all the weird and funny townspeople that they've created over the years (and who constitute one of the show's greatest strengths), they've had to resort to flashbacks, fantasy sequences and a whole hour's worth of fake Cops episodes. Yet to the writers' credit, they've managed to build up some new amusing characters within the prison, including the dimwitted warden played by Craig T. Nelson and Earl's new buddy Frank (Michael Rapaport). Every week I think it's time to give up on this show, and every week there's something amusing to keep me coming back. But only barely at this point.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Movies opening this week

Deep Water (documentary, dir. Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
At least three of my co-workers after hearing me describe this movie or reading my review of it told me what a fascinating story it sounded like, and it really is: The film's best accomplishment is simply letting the story be told, getting it out there in the most direct and compelling way possible. All the attention for documentaries in the last few years has gone to political films, but this movie blows most of those away, finding an amazing story amid a mostly forgotten event and representing it artfully and cinematically. That makes it worth ten Iraq documentaries, in my opinion. Opened limited Aug. 24; in Las Vegas this week

Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, Kevin Spacey, dir. David Dobkin)
This movie is just a complete mess, with a totally unsuccessful mix of Vaughn's already tired shtick (but way watered down for a PG rating) and heartwarming family bullshit. Vaughn is edging dangerously close to Ben Stiller territory by repeating the same character over and over again, and it's painfully obvious that this movie only exists because Vaughn said to some writer, "What if I played Santa Claus's brother? Go make that a movie." The plot is completely incoherent and riddled with pointless holes, and a waste of a surprising number of talented actors (Giamatti, Richardson, Spacey, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates). The most baffling thing here is the casting of John Michael Higgins, a man of normal height, as the lead elf, basically by using CGI to graft his head onto some poor little person. It's incredibly distracting and unnecessary. Was Peter Dinklage not available? Wide release

Lions for Lambs (Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Derek Luke, Michael Pena, dir. Robert Redford)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
It should come as no surprise that the screenplay for this film started out as a stage play; it basically still is a play, and one of the stagiest movies I've seen in a long time. It's certainly possible to make a movie about people sitting in a room and talking into something interesting, but Redford seems determined to block and shoot the film in the most obvious and least dynamic way possible. That just puts all the focus on the terrible dialogue, which no amount of decent acting (and the acting here is mostly just passable) can save. A lot of critics hated The Kingdom, writer Matthew Michael Carnahan's last film, but even if it was simplistic at least it was exciting and had characters who seemed like real people. This one easily gets a place on my worst movies of the year list. Wide release

Friday, November 02, 2007

Movies opening this week

American Gangster (Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Chiwetel Ejiofor, dir. Ridley Scott)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
This epic fairly screams Oscar, and while I don't think it's phenomenal I wouldn't be opposed to seeing it rack up some end-of-year awards. It's the kind of middlebrow prestige fare that I can get behind; it's ambitious and serious and generally non-pandering, and it's got good actors who aren't going overboard on the emotions to attract attention. It's derivative of plenty of things that came before it, but not in an insulting way, and it kept my attention for 160 minutes, so that's saying something. If this is our default Best Picture front-runner at this point, I'm okay with that. Wide release

Bee Movie (Voices of Jerry Seinfeld, Renee Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, dir. Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith)
My review in Las Vegas Weekly
My appreciation for Jerry Seinfeld has been somewhat tempered by the nonstop Seinfeld repeats that have diluted the power of his humor, but I do still think that his sitcom was mostly genius. Still, it's been a long time since he's put any effort into anything, and this movie is about as clever as his Superman short films/American Express commercials. Which is to say, not very. I don't know if semi-retirement or insane wealth have made him soft, or if he's just not all that funny anymore, but this movie had possibly fewer laughs than Over the Hedge, and a less coherent plot. Wide release

Wristcutters: A Love Story (Patrick Fugit, Shannyn Sossamon, Shea Whigham, dir. Goran Dukic)
I've been reading about this movie for a long time now, as it's been looking for a home since its 2006 Sundance premiere. It sounded promising back then, and I was looking forward to finally seeing it. It turns out to be a fairly conventional but entertaining love story, one that doesn't do quite as much with its unique setting (an afterlife populated solely by people who committed suicide) as one would hope. Although the central plot is a little weak, there are a lot of fun touches around the edges, including small roles for the likes of Tom Waits, Will Arnett and Jake Busey. Fugit and Sossamon are charming as the romantic leads, and the ending is unexpectedly sweet and upbeat. For a movie so superficially dark, it's actually quite heartwarming. Opened limited Oct. 19; in Las Vegas this week