Monday, May 31, 2010

REVIEW: Shrek Forever After

One of the greatest pleasures movies give me is when a film turns out to be much better than I had expected. Shrek Forever After rates as the year's most pleasant surprise. 

As I wrote earlier in the month, I had not been looking forward to the movie. I had always found the series overrated. I wasn't even planning on seeing the fourth film. However, when a friend I don't get to see very often suggested it, I changed my mind - and I'm very glad I did. 

As Shrek the Third had made woefully clear, DreamWorks had run out of ideas when it came to their cash cow ogre. Really, the only thing left to do was to start over - a fact the filmmakers recognized when they came up with the idea for this story - basically, Shrek's version of It's a Wonderful Life.

Feeling stifled by the monotony of domesticity, Shrek misses the days when the populace feared him - when he was free to growl and grouse. That the writers used this storyline, I think, is a canny recognition of the fact that Shrek was always more interesting when he was more of an ogre.

Shrek's feelings make him live bait for the devious Rumpelstiltskin, who wants to rule Far Far Away - and the only way he can do so is by making sure Shrek never rescues Fiona from the tower. So Rumpelstiltskin tells Shrek the ogre can have one day of his old life back in exchange for one day of his early life. However, the day Rumpelstiltskin takes is the day Shrek was born - leaving Shrek truly friendless. Nothing is as he remembers it. The only way to break the curse, is of course, true love's kiss - and that's never as easy as it sounds.

Thus wiping the slate clean, the filmmakers are free to reinvent Shrek's world, and they have a lot of fun doing so, breathing life back into the franchise. It's especially heartening to see Shrek trying to make Fiona fall for him all over again, and that's the key to this movie's success. The Shrek/Fiona romance has always been the heart of these movies, and having them start from scratch gives this movie an emotional pull that had faded from the series.

Not everything works. Donkey is given too little to do, and DreamWorks still falls back on its lazy, tired habit of making their soundtracks into a K-Tel record. But the pros outweigh the cons. Rumpelstiltskin,  terrifically voiced by DreamWorks story artist Walt Dohrn, makes for a great villain, plus it's fun to see Puss in Boots as a lethargic blob - and darn it all, that "big sad eyes" gag still works.

Perhaps the film worked for me because I went in with such low expectations. Maybe it worked because director Mike Mitchell has a way of taking stale material and making it fresh, as he did with Disney's Sky High. Whatever the reasons, Shrek Forever After allows the series to go out on a high note. To say it's better than the lifeless third movie is to damn it with faint praise - but is is the best film in the series since the first.


NOTE: I saw the film in 3D and liked the effects but didn't find them integral to movie, as I did with How to Train Your Dragon. If you can swing the 3D, great - if you can't, no great loss.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

DVD Catch-Up/What I've been watching

Since the theatrical slate is about as exciting as a bowl of bran flakes, I've taken to watching mostly the small screen lately. Here's a rundown of DVDs of movies I've seen, and other titles I've seen via the cathode ray tube (Yeah, I still have one of those.)

New DVDs

Edge of Darkness - Very solid police procedural that I believe was unfairly tainted by the cloud that hovers around Mel Gibson. Point blank, the man still holds the screen and does so very well here as a vengeful cop investigating the murder of his daughter. Solidly directed, as usual, by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) and well written by William Monahan (The Departed). GRADE: B+

Invictus: Decent yet somewhat lacking sports melodrama from Clint Eastwood. It suffers a bit from over-earnestness, and Eastwood errs in the sports sequences by playing too many shots in slow motion. The film benefits, as expected, from strong performances by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.  GRADE: B

Leap Year: Well, of course I liked it. It's Amy Adams. And no, had any other actress been in the lead I probably wouldn't have forgiven the extremely predictable plot, but my bias is my bias, so there ya go. Full review - GRADE: B

The Messenger: This drama focuses on a side of the military that is too little thought about, because to think about it too much is unbearable. The leads are two Army officers who have the grave mission of telling families their loved one has died in the line of duty. The performances are so poweful I wish the drama hadn't gone somewhat muted by the end, but it's well worth seeking out. GRADE: B+

Nine: When I saw this in December, I enjoyed the energy of the musical numbers, and - that was about it. The songs are well sung, but I didn't connect with the drama of Daniel Day-Lewis' tortured director at all. Hence, the film faded quickly from my memory. GRADE: C+

Small-screen viewing

Annie Oakley: No, no one sings "There's No Business Like Show Business" in this version, and to be honest, I didn't miss it all that much. George Stevens' 1935 drama about the Ohio sharpshooter.  Stevens' comedy rhythms are a bit awkward, and the plot is certainly hokey/dated, but it gets a ton of charm from its performances, most especially that of Barbara Stanwyck in the title role. GRADE: B+

Broken Embraces: Pedro Almodovar's latest, about the melodrama surrounding a blinded movie director doesn't live up to its early intrigue, with the third act being a bit rote, but there's enough fascination to make it highly watchable. I would have much rather seen Penelope Cruz Oscar nominated for this film than her unsurprising work in Nine. GRADE: B+

A Foreign Affair: Well of course I liked it, it's Billy Wilder. And I haven't met a Wilder movie yet that wasn't at least decent. This one, about a love triangle in post-war Germany isn't as fresh as the best Wilder, but the sharp performances by the ever-sultry Marlene Dietrich and the always delightful Jean Arthur make it hold up quite well all the same. Fun character actor recognition: the commanding officer in the film is Millard Mitchell, who would later play the somewhat dotty studio head in Singin' in the Rain. GRADE: A-

Red Cliff (extended version): John Woo's return to foreign language film isn't quite the return to form I hoped it would be. As expected, it's filled with dazzling camerawork, with exciting battle scenes, but Woo stacks the deck too much with the sprawling story. The drama, though solid, never leaves the conflict in enough doubt. GRADE: B

Seconds: Underrated, thoroughly engrossing and eerie paranoid thriller about a man who changes identities so completely that he gets a whole new face and, indeed a whole new life. Striking direction by John Frankenheimer and innovative camerawork by James Wong Howe power this movie, which dilutes only a little at the end with a somewhat  abrupt denouement. GRADE: A-

Summertime: This David Lean film isn't as strong as his early British movies (e.g. Great Expectations) or his later massive epics (e.g. Lawrence of Arabia), but it's kinda hard to miss with a romance fronted by Kate Hepburn, isn't it? GRADE: B+

Targets: I saved the best for last.  Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 thriller at first seems to be two completely different movies. One is about an aged star (Boris Karloff0 who is disillusioned with the movie business, and the other is about a crazed gunman who goes on Charles Whitman-like shooting sprees. Bogdanovich cleverly and chillingly dovetails the two plots; this is his second-best film, after The Last Picture Show. GRADE: A

Friday, May 21, 2010

Shrek is over? I'm over Shrek.

There was a time when I would be excited to see a new animated film, even if it wasn't by Disney or Pixar.

That time has passed. Shrek Forever After comes out today, and I just  ... don't really care.

I think a lot of people feel similarly after Shrek the Third played so flatly. Truth be told, however, I've thought this series was overrated from the beginning.

I enjoyed the original Shrek quite a bit but found much of its anti-Disney humor overly harsh and mean-spirited. It wasn't surprising, considering the main creative force behind DreamWorks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, has, um -  mixed feelings about the Mouse House. More importantly, the meanness felt out of place because the main core of characters - Shrek, Donkey and Fiona - was quite strong and endearing.

Still, DreamWorks' penchant for pop culture riffing was already starting to rear its ugly head. The film opened with the overplayed song "All Star," which immediately dated it, even in 2001. When the first Oscar for Best Animated Film was handed out the next year, Shrek expectedly won, but I think many would agree in hindsight that Pixar's Monsters Inc. would have been a better choice.

Three years later, Shrek 2 came along, and at first, I liked the sequel a little better than the original because some of the meanness had dissipated. However, the rampant pop culture riffing was still in place. The movie spoofs Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings and The Little Mermaid - and that's just within the first 5 minutes. DreamWorks seemed to think those gags were what made people fall in love with the first film, when it was, in fact, the characters. Puss in Boots was a great addition, but time hasn't been kind to the sequel, and it galls me to no end that it's the most financially successful animated film of all time.

Then came Shrek the Third, and even ardent fans of the series were disappointed. It wasn't terrible, it was strictly blah. The movie just sat there. I laughed out loud only once or twice. Sure, it made tons of money, but people often forget that how well a sequel performs at the box office greatly depends on how much people loved its predecessor. Shrek 2 made as much as it did because people loved the first film. Shrek the Third managed to cross $300 million because it had enough goodwill from Shrek 2.

I'm not at all convinced Shrek Forever After (or Shrek: The Final Chapter, whatever they want to call it) will get close to $300 million. Even if it's better than the third film, I think its momentum will stall because Shrek the Third was so underwhelming.

Alas, the reviews are not encouraging so far. At this time of writing, it has a mediocre 57 score on Metacritic - about even with Shrek the Third. That's not nearly enough to convince me to see it. Even if I do, it will be more out of a sense of obligation (or boredom) than anticipation.

It goes without saying that I'm all over Toy Story 3 next month. But I'm also more interested in Despicable Me. Heck, even Legend of the Guardians, the Happy Feet-like movie with the owls, looks more intriguing to me, especially since Zack Snyder (yes, same guy who made 300) directed it.  Even if the owls don't mingle with zombies or burly Spartans, we might be in for a treat.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The classic movie series closer to home - Victoria!

The Ultra Cool Film Series in Dayton has unveiled its lineup of classic films for the summer, and as ever, the lineup is quite good, with one particular eyebrow-raiser.

The Music Man, July 2-4: This is playing Columbus' classic series too, and I already cracked the obvious Beatle joke in my post about it. So this time I shall merely say it will be fun to see a musical whose set I toured, on the Warner Bros.' lot in Burbank several years ago.

Psycho, July 9-11: The first time Victoria played this years ago, it was one of the few films that didn't get applause at the end. I like to think that's because it still creeps people out.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, July 16-18: Very fun film, although I think it's a touch overrated. The best thing about it, aside from the two leads, is the terrific cinematography by Conrad L. Hall, who also shot American Beauty and In Cold Blood, among many others.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, July 23-25:  So it seems Victoria is on a Paul Newman kick. I saw this for the first time recently and liked it quite a lot. It's no Streetcar Named Desire, but it's still fine.

My Fair Lady, July 30-31, Aug. 1: Not seeing it in Columbus. Not seeing it in Dayton. Unless I need a plush place to take a nap.

Animal House, Aug. 6-8.: I find this booking terribly funny for two reasons. First, I'm sure it's a complete coincidence and all, but the timing is more than a little ironic, what the news of the Miami University sororities lately. And this may be the first time in many years that this theater has played a film that has the word "tits" in it. I say "may be" because Victoria used to play cult films in the 70s.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Aug. 13, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Aug. 14, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Aug. 15: So it seems that Victoria is on a Karen Allen kick. She was in Animal House and of course, she is in Raiders too.

Casablanca: Aug. 20-22: "I've often speculated why you don't return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator's wife? I like to think you killed a man. It's the Romantic in me." Bogie and Ingrid Bergman are great, but Claude Rains has all the funniest lines. 

Fiddler on the Roof, Aug. 27-29: Oscar trivia time: John Williams' first win was NOT for a Steven Spielberg film, but for his adaptation of this score.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Jim Henson left us 20 years ago, but ....

... are the Muppets coming back? All the signs say they are. And that's something wonderful to ponder this week of all weeks. It was 20 years ago on May 16 that Jim Henson passed away suddenly from respiratory illness.

It was the celebrity death that staggered me the most. Yes, even more so than John Lennon's or George Harrison's. Much as I may not have wanted to admit it, George's death from cancer was sadly inevitable. And John Lennon's death, though surprising, didn't floor me in 1980 - for better or worse, that was what truly launched my Beatlemania.

Jim Henson's passing, on the other hand, stunned everyone. Not only was it a bolt from the blue, but it felt like a piece of my childhood had fallen away. I was crestfallen. When Fred Rogers died several years later, one tribute used a powerful pair of sentences: "Some people should simply not be allowed to die. Fred Rogers is one of them." I thought that would have applied equally well to Jim Henson.

And while few seriously believed the Muppets would die with Henson, for awhile, the decline in quality after his death was alarming. Consider this recap of all the Muppet theatrical films pre- and post-Henson. (This list does not take into account the two fun Sesame Street movies, or side projects like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.)

The Muppet Movie: The first, and by far the best of the Muppet pictures. It earns a place in immortality on the strength of "Rainbow Connection " alone. GRADE: A+

The Great Muppet Caper: It's not really a sequel to The Muppet Movie, but it felt like one, in that the second time just wasn't as funny or as inspired as the first. GRADE: B

The Muppets Take Manhattan: A rebound - not quite up to Muppet Movie, but still greatly entertaining. That doesn't seem so surprising now, considering it was Frank Oz's solo directing debut, and he went on to have an impressive directorial career. GRADE: A-

The Muppet Christmas Carol: This was the first movie made after Jim's death, and it seemed the Muppets were still in great shape. This is my second-favorite Muppet movie, aided greatly by Michael Caine's Oscar-quality (no, really) work as Scrooge. GRADE: A

Muppet Treasure Island: The decline begins. It was fun overall, and Tim Curry made an ideal long John Silver, but the movie simply wasn't that amusing. Fozzie in particular is wasted. GRADE: B

Muppets from Space: An inspired idea (is Gonzo really an alien) gets fairly lackluster treatment. It's watchable enough, but there's one comedic misfire after another. The Muppets performing against the Commodores' original recording of "Brick House" felt wrong, and I remain mystified as to why they failed to crack the obvious Pigs in Space joke. The DVD commentary is much funnier than the film itself. GRADE: C+

Some TV specials followed, some better than others, but the absolute nadir of the Muppets was their profoundly misguided Wizard of Oz, filled with dull tunes and lame jokes that not even Fozzie would crack  on his worst day. The state of the Muppets looked quite dire.

And then, slowly but surely, the Muppets began making a comeback through a series of very clever and funny web videos, culminating in the mega-popular take on "Bohemian Rhapsody."

And later this year, a new theatrical film is slated to go into production. Cheekily called The Greatest Muppet Movie Ever (and I hope that title sticks) it's being written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, who co-wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall. That may sound surprising, but it makes complete sense if you recall that movie ends with a puppet show.

My favorite quote of Hensons's was always this: "When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better for my having been here."

I feel more confident than I have in a long time that the Muppets will once again hold true to that.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Oeuvres: Ridley Scott (including Robin Hood)

Few would dispute Ridley Scott's eyes. It has often been said, and justly so, that he has one of the best eyes in the business. When he's on his game, he's one of our greatest directors. But too often lately, he's been somewhat off - resulting in frustratingly inconsistent, sometimes dissatisfying movies  - including his latest.

ALIEN: It's really more of a horror film than a sci-fi movie, but whatever genre you place it in, it's a classic. GRADE: A+

BLADE RUNNER: And so begins the phenomenon that has salvaged and dogged Scott throughout his career: the director's cut. The original cut of this film still holds up because the overall though behind, and look of the movie, are so enthralling. However, the re-cuts thoroughly trump it because they lose the dull narration and the dopey "happy ending."  ORIGINAL: B+ RECUT: A

LEGEND: To be honest, it's been so long since I've seen this film, that I remember very little about it. What I do recall is that it was cool visually and ... not much else. GRADE: Incomplete

THELMA & LOUISE: The first film that truly proved Scott could work on a more intimate scale, even while maintaining his penchant for eye-filling vistas. GRADE: A

G.I. JANE: Features a tough performance by Demi Moore and some decent action scenes, but a story barely worth remembering. GRADE: C

GLADIATOR: Fun? Yes. Exciting? Yes. Magnetic performance in the lead? Indeed. Great visuals? As always. Best picture of the year? NO!  GRADE: B+

HANNIBAL: No, it isn't Silence of the Lambs, and that just as often works for the picture as it does against it. The story is awfully absurd and overstated,  but it has emotional pull regardless. It's fascinating in both the ways it does and doesn't work.  GRADE: B

BLACK HAWK DOWN: Taken strictly as a piece of you-are-there verisimilitude, there simply isn't a better combat picture. GRADE: A

MATCHSTICK MEN: Scott's  best small-scale film benefits from sharp writing and an outstanding performance from Alison Lohman, even if it does feel a touch gimmicky in the end. GRADE: B+

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN: Never has a directors cut helped a film more than this one. The theatrical cut was ambitious but emotionally hollow; the director's cut restores entire plotlines and fleshes out characters, making it twice the epic Gladiator ever was. THEATRICAL CUT: C+ DIRECTORS CUT: A

A GOOD YEAR: Scott is a great director  - but not of comedy. One could be forgiven for thinking that he and Russel Crowe indulged too much in wine country while making this less than memorable puff -piece. GRADE: C

AMERICAN GANGSTER: Directed by Scott and starring Crowe and Denzel Washington and written by Oscar Winner Steven Zaillian, this should have been a home run - but it takes way too long to get going. Double at best. GRADE: B+

BODY OF LIES: Directed by Scott and starring Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, and written by William Monahan (The Departed) , this should have been a home run - but too much of a been there.done that feel made it a single at best.  GRADE: B-

ROBIN HOOD: That I have relegated Scott's latest film to a brief summation in a career retrospective speaks volumes about how little impact it had on me. Individually, the performances are fine, but Crowe and Cate Blanchett never truly spark. Scott's visual command produces decent action scenes throughout, but the storytelling wavers, with the screenplay being a hopeless muddle. The project started out as a version of the Robin Hood tale told from the sheriff of Nottingham's point of view - then morphed into a Robin Hood origin story along the way. The focus got lost in the translation. GRADE: C+

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

DVDs - Confirm/Ignore

Hmm. Considering the title, one wonders if I've been spending TOO much time on Facebook of late. Probably have.

But I'm only a few sentences into the post and already I'm digressing. I had gotten away from doing DVD posts largely because I'd found them a bit of a chore. And last month was pretty dull for releases. However, I did want to alert you to/remind you of titles I think are worth checking out - or not.


Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: The script never quite takes hold the way it should because the crime Nicolas Cage's titular lieutenant is investigating never really registers. Perhaps it's too much of a McGuffin that way. Still, it remains compulsively watchable, thanks to Cage's live-wire performance and director Werner Herzog's excellent atmospherics. GRADE: B

An Education: Find out why Carey Mulligan would have an Oscar if I were the only one voting. Full review: GRADE: A

It's Complicated: Pretty decent at male/female relationships. not as deft with fall-down comedy. Pretty typical Nancy Meyers, really. Entertaining, if not exceptional. Full review: GRADE: B

The Imaginarium of Doctor Paranassus: It's not QUITE a return to form for director Terry Gilliam; the sequences in the "real world" tend to fall flat. But when it goes into the imaginarium, and Gilliam lets rip with his visual flair, the movie is a feast for the eyes. Full review: GRADE: B

The Lovely Bones: Not the excellent film it could have been, but not the grave misfire some made it out to be *cough* Ebert * cough*. The tone is too inconsistent for the film to hold together very well, but Saoirse Ronan's haunting work in the lead, plus some imaginative direction, make it a fascinating mess. Full review: GRADE: B+


Avatar: Some might be surprised to find this hear. After all, I did put it on my ten best list, and I'm really tired of all those glib Dances with Wolves/Ferngully put-downs. I still love the film - but I do not love movie-only discs. I'm waiting for the deluxe set. BTW, I was meaning to ask - how does this play in normal 2D? I never saw it that way.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel: OK. this is a little unfair. I haven't actually seen this movie, but I'm still putting it here because I cannot stand that STUPID title!

Sherlock Holmes: It's a mystery fit for the great detective: A movie that's faintly entertaining, yet fairly forgettable at the same time. It was decent enough while I watched it, but it hardly stayed with me at all. Guy Ritchie's typical sensory overload couldn't mask the fact that neither the story nor the characters were particularly compelling. Full review: GRADE: C+

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The director non-grata list: new member Noah Baumbach

If I seem to be surly when writing this post, you would be correct. There are a number of reasons, but one of them is movie-related.

I had the misfortune of seeing Greenberg this past weekend. Usually, I'm proud to be of a (sir) critical bent, but there is at least one film every year for which critics go bananas, and then I end up slipping on their peels. This year, it's the well-reviewed Greenberg.

I shouldn't have been surprised at this. In fact, I wasn't really surprised at all. I had seen a previous film by writer-director Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale - which I hated. That movie was filled with pretentious, condescending, holier-than-thou twits whose company I could not wait to leave. That's the title character of Greenberg (Ben Stiller) in a nutshell.

Most critics disagree with me. They loved The Squid and the Whale, and they loved Greenberg as well. And in a small sense, I could see why - these are the sort of self-consciously hip films filled with intense emotions that pass for emotional authenticity in a landscape dominated by Bigger, Dumber movies. Baumbach's dramatic and visual styles also echo American filmmaking of the 70s, for which so many critics carry a torch.

Hey, I wish American movies had more depth of feeling  too - just as long as the feeling isn't one of arrogant self-righteousness, like most of Baumbach's characters. Baumbach knows this - he makes a joke out of it by having Greenberg  be a serial complaint writer. He grouses to everyone from Starbucks to a pet cab conpany for daring not to make everything JUST as it should be for him.

Problem is, Greenberg spends the entire movie moaning and groaning about this, that and the other with precious little indication he's ever going to change. Spending a couple hours with this schmuck is akin to being Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade and having to listen to M. Emmet Walsh's BS all day long. I can understand why a number of Greenberg screenings have seen walk-outs.

And yet, I wasn't totally down on Greenberg, and the reason for that is Greta Gerwig. She's a very charming and skilled  actress who plays a much younger woman that Greenberg fancies, but - surprise, surprise - Greenberg can't commit. Gerwig conveyed  empathy. vulnerability, winsomeness - basically the antithesis of everything Greenberg conveys. Had the movie been more about her, I might have actually liked it. Because of her, I consider this movie marginally more tolerable than The Squid and the Whale.

That may sound like faint praise in this context, but still,  Grenberg sealed this deal:  If a film is written and directed by Noah Baumbach, I'm not buying a ticket. He joins Stephen Daldry in the Directors Whose Movies I Will No Longer See Club. After that suffocating overdose of self-importance called The Reader sucked the life out of the theater, I vowed never again for any of Daldry's movies. The double whammy of that film and of The Decades, I mean The Hours made him dead to me. My best friend Scott Copeland offered the best slam on The Reader by writing that "it managed to make copious amounts of Kate Winslet's nudity boring."

I remember at the end of The Reader there was a dedication to producers/filmmakers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella - and I remember adding in my head " ... either of whom would have made a much better film than the one I just watched."

Neither Buambach nor Daldry has made a film as wretched as Bad Boys II, but loathe as I am to give any credence to my favorite whipping boy, Monsieur Bay, at least his frenzied incompetence keeps me alert and awake!

Not that I'm going to go see Transformers 3 now that I don't have to do so!

Friday, May 07, 2010

REVIEW: Iron Man 2

I'll cut right to the chase. Iron Man 2 delivers. Not as much as the first Iron Man did, granted, but it delivers more than some critics and irritable fanboys might have you believe.

I was not quite as high on Iron Man as so many people were. I thought the movie suffered from a weak villain, which led to a draggy third act. This time, the villains are still weak, and this time the story problems have shifted to the second act. Iron Man 2  is not unlike Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that way - good beginning, mediocre middle, great ending.

Many sequels often move faster than their predecessors, because they don't have to worry so much the exposition of setting up the hero's world. Since Marvel is bent on making their Avengers movie, that means extra setup creeps into this film, which is part of what slows down the second act.

What truly bogs down the mid-section, though, is this series' persistent inability to find a truly compelling villain. This movie offers two nemeses: Whiplash (Mickey Rourke)  the disgruntled son of a former Stark partner who helped invent the Iron Man techology, but got no credit. The other is Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a smarmy suit who is the chief of a rival weapons company that wants to create rival Iron Mans.

That neither villlian works very well is not the fault of the actors. They play what writer Justin Theroux wrote, and they play it well. The problems are, that Rourke is given too little to do, and Rockwell too much to do. When Whiplash is introduced, he is a genuinely threatening presence. Then the movie makes the mistake of locking him down in a lab for most of the movie, forcing Hammer to the center. But Hammer is more sniveling and annoying than he is intimidating. He's basically your classic wuss who thinks he's a bad-ass, and not even an actor as skilled as Rockwell can make that tired characterization work.

Most of the good guys redeem the cast. As expected, Robert Downey Jr. is once again aces  in the lead role, playing it with more gravitas this time because Tony has found that the technology that makes him Iron Man is also killing him, leaking toxins into his blood. Alas, Gwyneth Paltrow is a bit misused this time as lovestruck PA Pepper Pots, because the back-and-forth between her and Tony is more bickering than bantering. 

Scarlett Johansson makes up for that with the addition of her character. I'd rather not give too much away, so let's just say she's fun to watch in a fight. And I'm rather glad that things didn't work out for Terrence Howard to return to the role of Stark's best bud/fellow hero James Rhodes - Don Cheadle plays the part with much more energy.

Jon Favreau returns as director, and he indulges a little too much, with some pointless POV shots and an overly enlarged role for himself as one of Stark's lackeys. But he handles most of the action with his usual aplomb. 

So Iron Man 2 isn't a film for the ages. But that's OK, Reaction to comic book movies tends to dwell in abssolutes: they either RULE! or they SUCK! Iron Man 2 does neither.  Inevitably, the sense of discovery  that came with the first film is mostly gone. But the sense of fun is still there, even if it is a bit diluted. After all, it IS a sequel.


Wednesday, May 05, 2010

August Summer Movie Preview: Cooling down, wrapping up

August doesn't exactly end the summer with a whimper, but it doesn't end with a real bang either.


THE OTHER GUYS: I have long made my feelings about Will Ferrell clear in my writings. He's not just nails on the blackboard, he's a meat thermometer through the ear. His frequent collaborator/director Adam McKay is more talented than Dennis Dugan, for instance, but that's a bit like saying Wendy's is better than McDonald's. They're both still junk. PROSPECT: C

STEP UP 3D: Ya know, I could be a real smart-aleck here, but that's just too easy. Classic fish in a barrel. Suffice it to say I won't be seeing any new movies in the theater this weekend. PROSPECT: D


EAT, PRAY, LOVE:  Three things make this particularly interesting to me - in descending order of obviousness: 1) Julia Roberts, 2) Writer-director Ryan Murphy, the force behind my new favorite show, Glee and C) Murphy had the good taste to hire the best American cinematographer, Robert Richardson, who most recently shot Shutter Island and Inglorious Basterds - meaning  this will look several cuts above your average "chick flick." Sold. PROSPECT: A

THE EXPENDABLES: Good Sylvester Stallone movies come along once in a couple blue moons. Given the cast alone, this just might be one of the blue moons. PROSPECT: B

SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD: From the director of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. That's enough to sell me right there. Then there's the trailer.

Double sold. PROSPECT: A

AUGU ... ah, ya know what? The last two weeks of August are rarely worth it, I'm just gonna stop now. If you really wanna know the rest of the roster, or you need a substitute for Nyquil, click here.

July Summer Movie preview: Inception and Schmucks

If this lackluster summer movie season has a best month to it, it has to be July. The last week aside, most of the offerings sound halfway decent - or even better.


THE LAST AIRBENDER: Many people absolutely swear by the Nickelodeon show (which has another A-word that couldn't be used because some one else *ahem* co-opted it). And it's not just kids. Adults quite like it as well. I am not familiar with the show, but I am willing to give the film a shot. Yes, the quality of M. Night Shyamalan's movies has been in freefall - but I have a feeling he'll bounce back. Could just be that I'm really hopeful I'll see it with my favorite young artist. PROSPECT: B

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE: Shoot, I never even got around to New Moon. But I guess I gotta catch up, now that they've handed Breaking Dawn to a quality director, Bill Condon (Dreamgirls). This one is directed by David Slade, who has a mixed resume. Hard Candy, Ellen Page's breakout movie, has a good reputation. His previous vampire flick, 30 Days of Night? Not so much. PROSPECT: C


DESPICABLE ME: Universal has been very smart in selling this movie, not really revealing exactly what it's about - which only makes the picture seem more tantalizing. Take this teaser, for instance.

Now that piques my interest. PROSPECT: B

PREDATORS: Ordinarily I would dismiss this project out of hand, considering what schlock Alien vs. Predator was. (Never even bothered with the sequel.) Since Robert Rodriguez is at least producing, however, I will give it the benefit of the doubt. PROSPECT: B


INCEPTION: Not only has Christopher Nolan not missed yet, he hasn't made anything less than a Grade-A film. (That's without seeing his debut, Following). I have a very strong sense this movie will blow people's minds and be bigger than anyone expects. This is the summer film I most want to see yesterday. PROSPECT: A+

THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE: On the one hand, part of me is curious as to just what the hell this movie is; it's hard to gauge the tone by the trailer. And on the other hand, a larger part of me is discouraged that a generation of kids will know the Sorcerer's Apprentice not as a classic Mickey Mouse short, but as a noisy adventure flick. Between this and Prince of Persia, ol' Jerry Bruckheimer's judgement seems a bit foggy these days. PROSPECT: C


DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS: The premise and the cast of Paul Rudd and Steve Carrell seem promising, yet for reasons I can't define, this seems like a movie other people will find hilarious, while I find it merely amusing. Perhaps I'm wary of leery of humiliation-based comedy. We shall see. PROSPECT: B

RAMONA AND BEEZUS: One of Beverly Cleary's books makes it to the big screen for the first time, I believe. I just hope it's more Bridge to Terabithia and less Diary of a Wimpy Kid. PROSPECT: B

SALT: I want to like this picture. The director, Phillip Noyce, has done good work, and I'm curious to see how Angelina Jolie fares in a role once set for Tom Cruise. Yet every time Jolie goes the action route (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Wanted, etc.) I find the results lacking. Jury's out on this one. PROSPECT: B


BEASTLY: This new take on the "Beauty and the Beast" mythos could be good, but I have to agree with IMDB's buzz: "looks like a super-sized episode of Gossip Girl and Smallville." Meh. PROSPECT: C

CATS &  DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE: The original was OK, but an overly juvenile approach kept it from being the riot it could have been. I don't expect better from the sequel. PROSPECT: C

CHARLIE ST. CLOUD: Zac Efron reteams with his 17 Again director in a story about Efron working in the cemetery where his younger brother is buried. Sounds just ... odd. No read. PROSPECT: C

Monday, May 03, 2010

June Summer Movie Preview: Anything 'sides the Toys?

June is usually a little hotter than May, but not at the movie theaters this year. In fact, it's second verse, same as the first. Only one-must see movie, a few decent attractions, and a whole lotta meh - or worse.


GET HIM TO THE GREEK: Jonah Hill and Russel Brand star in a movie by the same guys who made Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which I quite liked. Good enough for me. PROSPECT: B

KILLERS: The good news: Katherine Heigl can be a winning screen presence. The bad news: Her last movie was the cliche machine The Ugly Truth, which was directed by Robert Luketic - just like this movie. One can only hope Luketic is in Legally Blonde mode. PROSPECT: C

MARMADUKE: A CGI dog movie based on a lame comic strip and directed by Tom Dey, the man who badly made the likes of Shanghai Noon, Showtime (so I've heard)  and the aptly titled Failure to Launch?  Oh HELL no! Put this  movie into the CONE OF SHAME! PROSPECT: F

SPLICE: When I saw the trailer for this, I thought it looked like a remake of It's Alive. Then I realized it had Sarah Polley in it. Last time she was in a horror flick, it turned out pretty well: The Dawn of the Dead remake. PROSPECT: B


THE A-TEAM: I thought the original show was stupid (not in a good way), and this is directed by Joe Carnahan, who made the repugnant Smokin' Aces. Only Liam Neeson's presence saves this from an F. Unless Carnahan shows massive improvement, the only reason this movie will succeed is because of people's misguided nostalgia for the 1980s. PROSPECT: D

THE KARATE KID: Now here's something from the 80s I liked. Jackie Chan is a great performer, and Jaden Smith (son of Will) has screen presence. But behind the camera is (drum roll please) ... Harald Zwart!  (Insert puzzled utterings of "Who?")  HIs last credit was the sequel to the Pink Panther remake. Woo fricken' hoo. Directors matter, folks. PROSPECT: C


JONAH HEX: Ladies and Gentlemen, the movie no one is going to care about because it's competition is going to KILL it. Ironically enough, the director, Jimmy Hayward, was a Pixar animator, but the movie went in for reshoots under Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend). Uh-oh. PROSPECT: C

TOY STORY 3: I trust no explanation is necessary. PROSPECT: A+


GROWN-UPS: So last year Adam Sandler makes a movie that actually has a brain in its head (Funny People), but the masses don't like smart Adam Sandler movies, so it's back to the same ol' Dennis Dugan- directed dreck. D'oh. PROSPECT: D

KNIGHT AND DAY: Now here's the summer's real curio. A lot of people are still leery of Tom Cruise. I am not one of those people. Sure, the guy's nutty sometimes, but he never became a bad actor - And I think people lost sight of his talent more than Cruise lost sight of himself. The one thing that does bother me a little here is, it has the air of Mission Impossible - With Jokes! But again, directors matter. The helmer is James Mangold.  He's not an auteur, and he's had only one really big hit, Walk the Line. But he's a good actor's director, and he has good action chops too, as 3:10 to Yuma showed. I'm cautiously optimistic. PROSPECT: B

Sunday, May 02, 2010

May Summer movie preview: Iron Man, Shrek, Prince of zzzz.

Is it just me or does summer seem a little chilly this year?

Oh, sure, this summer offers some tantalizing prospects at the cinema, but 2010's slate is rather lacking in "Wow, my life depends upon seeing that" attractions. May is a good example of this.

I'll be previewing summer movies throughout the week, essentially doing one day a month. I cannot do advanced screenings anymore, but I will see Iron Man 2 at the first available opportunity and hope to review that over the weekend.

Note: I may not cover every single title coming out. If I can't find much to say about a particular movie, why waste my energy and your time?

As usual, every movie gets a prospect grade.

A: I will die if I don't see it.

B: I will see it, but will not die if I don't.

C: Not dying to see it, won't kill me if I do.

D: This movie may be hazardous to my health.

F: This movie will kill me.


BABIES: Cute-looking documentary about, well, ya know. Looking to be the March of the Penguins of the infantile set. PROSPECT: B

IRON MAN 2: I covered this in this post last week. I'm excited to see it  like everyone else, but I'm going in with tempered expectations. Just as it's ill-advised to go in to a film prepared to hate it, it can also be dangerous going in prepared to love it. PROSPECT: A-

MAY 14

JUST WRIGHT: Sports romance with Common and Queen Latifah seems appealing enough, but I'm not getting much of a buzz from it. PROSPECT: C

LETTERS TO JULIET: The presence of Amanda Seyfried in the lead automatically makes this interesting to me. She's a talent who is increasingly landing on people's radars. Note of caution: The director, Gary Winick, has made movies as winning as 13 Going on 30 and as allegedly awful as Bride Wars. PROSPECT: B

ROBIN HOOD: Normally I would be thrilled at seeing a new Ridley Scott movie, yet I can't escape the feeling this is just Gladiator in the forest.. And I wasn't that big a fan of Gladiator. Good movie, but if that film deserved Best Picture, I'm Friar Tuck.  PROSPECT: B

MAY 21

SHREK FOREVER AFTER: I have a feeling this will be better than the tepid third movie, and yet will be the least successful movie of the series. Why? Well, can you think of anyone above the age of 6 who really LIKED Shrek the Third?  This will be much like what happened to Back to the Future III - people who saw it liked it better than the second, but the second turned so many people off, they lost interest. This movie had jolly well better improve upon the last one. I'm thinking my B- review was charitable. PROSPECT: B-

MACGRUBER: I just don't get the buzz for this movie, largely because I just don't get SNL these days. By my reckoning, that show hasn't been funny since the mid 90s. As is so often the case, the show has talented players, but saddles them with lame shtick. PROSPECT: D

MAY 28

SEX AND THE CITY 2: I liked the first one well enough, but since journalistic obligations no longer require me to see this,I think I'll pass this time, thanks. PROSPECT: C (Opens Thursday, May 27) 

PRINCE OF PERSIA: Maybe it's my aversion to video games, but I just cannot muster up interest in this hyperactive-looking thing, which really looks rather ridiculous, right down to the choice of director. Because when I think of big, sprawling action, I think the of director of Four Weddings and a Funeral. (Yes, I know, he did Potter 4 and did it rather well, but that don't make him an action director) PROSPECT: C