Friday, August 27, 2010

The Last Exorcism

In the Deep South, Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) is a well-known preacher who began working in the ministry as a child and performed his first exorcism while still an adolescent. Now as an adult he often receives impassioned pleas from those seeking relief from demons. But Cotton, who has perfected the showmanship aspect of his sermons, is facing a crisis of faith.

After reading about exorcisms that resulted in the death of children, he determines to expose these acts as fraud. To do so, the religious shyster (with all the saintly sincerity of an unscrupulous used car salesman) decides to accept one last invitation to reclaim an innocent soul. While doing so, he plans to expose all his tricks of the trade to a documentary film crew he is bringing along.

With a smirk on his face, Connor drives with his sound specialist (Iris Bahr) and a cameraman to the Louis Sweetzer farm where he is greeted by a distraught father (Louis Herthum) with strong fundamentalist beliefs. In an emotional voice, Louis recalls the recent death of his wife and the impact it has had on their family. He also introduces the trio to his son Caleb (Caleb Jones) and his teenaged daughter Nell (Ashley Bell). He accuses the innocent looking young girl of killing and disemboweling the family’s farm animals and presents her bloody clothes as evidence of her deeds. Nell, on the other hand, has no recollection of the nightly activities she is supposedly involved in.

Employing a few slight-of-hand tricks to convince Louis of his power, Cotton finally agrees to execute an exorcism but only after he has personally prepared the bedroom where the event will happen with props that will help simulate a departing devil. With the camera rolling, the purging takes place. And by nightfall the team has left the farm and settled comfortably in their hotel rooms five miles away. Then Cotton wakes in the night to find Nell standing beside his bed in a blood splattered nightgown. Wide-eyed and unresponsive, the girl looks more possessed than ever.

If the erratic movements of the handheld camera haven’t begun to bother you by this point in the film, the increasing gore might. Taking a knife, Nell slashes open her brother’s face. (The act takes place off screen although Caleb’s blood soaked mouth and clothes are seen as he tries to stop the bleeding.) Lashing out like a wild animal, Nell also becomes increasingly demonic as the plot continues, contorting herself into strange positions and breaking her own fingers. Throughout the production, the moviemakers maintain the notion that this is a factual film, much like producers promoted the reality of paranormal activity in The Fourth Kind).

Unfortunately, the script does little more than further the negative stereotypical portrayals of religious believers as fanatics and Southerners as illiterate, incestuous and superstitious. Using the simple tactics of camera angles, scary sounds and darkened sets rather than an excess of complicated computer generated special effects, the movie manages to create a sense of suspense. However the focus on satanic rituals may disturb some young viewers or spark a curiosity in the occult among others.

Though this film is titled with the promising adjective "last", a sampling of similar type horror movies (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Haunting in Connecticut, Dark Water and The Skeleton Key) already on DVD shelves, proves it might be too optimistic to hope that this is truly The Last Exorcism we’ll see.

Takers Review

The cops and robbers genre has been around for a long time—though in the early days it often involved a sheriff and gun-slinging outlaws. But movie figures who are sworn to protect and to serve are having a hard time of late. No longer are they the heroes wearing the white hats and restoring justice. It is the felons who get away with the money, the murders and most often the girl.

Following the formula for films like Oceans Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen, and The Italian Job, Takers features a cast of men who feel no remorse over lining their pockets with currency from other people’s savings accounts. (They do, however, donate ten percent of their haul to charity—presumably as a way to give back to the community after ripping off individuals who earn their livelihood in a more socially acceptable manner.) Living in luxurious homes, they use the piles of bills they have stashed away to imbibe in the best liquor and cigars, drive expensive cars and outfit themselves in top-of-the-line suits.

To put it simply, there is nothing shabby about the everyday life of these thieves.

But greed can get to even the most charitable of crooks. The day after they make off with bags of loot from a California bank, Gordon (Idris Elba), John (Paul Walker), A.J. (Hayden Christensen) and brothers Jesse (Chris Brown) and Jake (Michael Ealy) are unexpectedly visited by an old team member who had his sentence shortened for good behavior. While Ghost (Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris) may have been the model inmate, he is far from reformed. With next week’s armored car route in his hands, he proposes a new heist with a $20 million payoff.

Compared to these high living criminals, LAPD officers Jake Wells (Matt Dillon) and his partner Eddie Hatcher (Jay Hernandez) are a sorry sight. Eddie lives in the suburbs with his wife (Zulay Henao) and their young son (Harrison Miller) who is facing serious medical issues. Jake is a rumpled, short-tempered workaholic devoted to justice. He gets a bad rap when he follows up on a lead in the robbery on the day he is supposed to be spending quality time with his daughter (Isa Briones).

Yet in reality the police do little more in this storyline than keep George and his gang from publically flaunting the source of their funds. The real conflict comes when a group of badder rogues attempt to steal the hot money from the bank robbers. The result is endless exchanges of gunfire. (For apparent artistic purposes, the director accompanies one lengthy hotel room shootout scene with strains of violin music and millions of feathers from perforated pillows drifting gently through the air.) The only thing that outnumbers the barrage of bullets is the constant use of scatological slang and profanities that are teamed up with frequent portrayals of smoking and alcohol use. A brief, shadowed depiction of male buttock nudity is also shown when a man enters a pool where two women wait for him.

Although there is some collateral damage along the way, these criminals not only glamorize robbery, murder and the destruction of public property but they do it with a sense of entitlement—as if all that cash was due them. But then what can you expect from a group of guys who admittedly revere Genghis Khan as their historic hero.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Last Song Review

Miley Cyrus fans will likely weep their way through this teen tearjerker. Other audience members, however, may be less than smitten with the The Last Song.

Despite the number of Nicholas Sparks’ novels that have been tailored for the big screen, this is the first time the author has penned the screenplay as well. Unfortunately too many of the scenes in this adaptation suffer from awkward or unbelievable dialogue and others, which appear to have some potential, are shoved on the screen and then yanked off before the characters or circumstances have time to develop. It takes some consummate acting skills to give life to these clumsy lines and regrettably Miley Cyrus is not a consummate actress—at least not yet.

Learning her trade on the preteen sitcom Hannah Montana required nothing more than a limited number of exaggerated emotions, namely sad, happy, angry. While this works for the show’s target audience, it never allowed Miley to practice portraying more subtle or complex feeling. Just like Hannah, her character Ronnie in The Last Song is either cheerful, cheerless or cheesed off, and it is usually the latter. Thankfully, Miley’s younger costar, Bobby Coleman, puts in several emotionally touching performances that help redeem the script.

In the story, Ronnie is a defiant, sulking teen who wears a scowl that would scare off a pit bull. Forced in the back seat of her mother’s (Kelly Preston) SUV, she and her little brother Jonah (played by Coleman) are hauled off to spend the summer with their estranged father (Greg Kinnear) in a Georgia beach town. While I can think of worse places to be dumped, Ronnie is still seething over her parents’ divorce and appears to want some kind of blood sacrifice to atone for their decision to separate. Even though she has exceptional talent and years of musical training, she also punishes her mom and dad by refusing to sit down at the piano or accept an invitation to Julliard.

After arriving on Tybee Island, Ronnie has an accidental run-in with one of the local boys. While she is pushing through the throng at a shoreline carnival, Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth) unintentionally bowls her over during a beach volleyball game. Maintaining the same "I’ll forgive when I am ready" attitude that she uses with her parents, Ronnie refuses to graciously accept his apology. Undeterred by her rudeness, Will continues to try and engage the glowering girl every time he sees her in the small town. Eventually he wears her down with a long and lingering kiss on the beach. But the rest of the film is spent watching Ronnie boomerang between professions of love and loathing for the young man. Her ever-changing attitudes make it difficult to feel any real affection for the troubled teen.

On the other hand, Ronnie makes a few good decisions that most parents will appreciate while watching this film with their preteens. Given a chance to consume alcohol at a late night make out session on the beach, Ronnie rejects both alcohol and some advances from an inebriated partygoer. As well she refuses to be involved in stealing from a street vendor. Later she helps a girl in an abusive relationship find the courage to get out. Audiences will also see more than one lip lock between Ronnie and Will, yet there isn’t even a hint of more intimate relations. And Ronnie finally exhibits some maturity when a family tragedy befalls them. Ultimately she even takes her eyes off her own problems long enough to help someone else.

In a similar fashion, viewers will have to look past this film’s flaws and lock on those few redeeming qualities in order to appreciate this story. Otherwise this summer romance barely earns a passing grade even for Hannah Montana fans who are ready to watch their favorite sitcom star grow up.

Nanny McPhee Review

To say the Brown children misbehave is an understatement of magnificent proportions. These seven motherless children are down right naughty.

Sneaking down to the kitchen, they whack the cook (Imelda Staunton) over the head with a frying pan before tying her up and ransacking the kitchen. They drive their seventeenth nanny screaming from the house after pretending to eat the baby, and one brother routinely decapitates dolls and teddy bears with his guillotine.

The situation is so bad the local employment agency refuses to answer Mr. Brown's (Colin Firth) inquiries for more help.

Fortunately, Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) doesn't work for the agency. Arriving unbidden on the family's doorstep, the bulbous-nosed woman with the warty chin and black attire immediately takes measures to restore peace.

Given the challenge of a new victim, Simon (Thomas Sangster) and his siblings assume they can run off this hired help as easily as the others. They introduce themselves with bogus names (body parts and bathroom terminology), intending to rattle her. But Nanny McPhee, unruffled by their rude humor, insists on proper manners and uses her magical touch to enforce them. With firm but tender composure, she ensures the rowdy offspring experience the consequences of their choices

 Knowing she can only stay as long as she is needed, Nanny McPhee promptly goes about establishing calm in the chaotic household by helping the children deal with the loss of their mother and their father's lack of attention. When their stuffy and bossy Aunt Adelaide (Angela Lansbury) arrives for tea, she also helps the brood use their heads to solve a familial dilemma.

However, even she can't interfere with matters of the heart. So when Mr. Brown--a mortician who talks to his deceased clients--presents Mrs. Quickly (Celia Imrie) as a possible stepmother, the children are left to their own devices to scare her off. Unfortunately, in an attempt to shield the bawdy widow from his children's nasty pranks, the father's actions are misconstrued as overt sexual advances.

In addition to playing the robust nursemaid, Emma Thompson penned the screenplay based on the Nurse Matilda series. Over and above the rambunctious progeny, her characters include two comical funeral assistants and Evangeline (Kelly Macdonald), a self-conscious scullery maid. While the outcome is predictable, the colorful sets and inevitable food fight will likely entertain older children.
Whether or not Nanny McPhee sparks another reading frenzy like Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia, her insistence on civility and her corresponding kindness demonstrates it's not necessarily bad to carry a big stick as long as you have an equally big heart.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Vampires Suck Review

Since the book release in 2005, Twilight has had a polarizing effect on the general public despite spending over 91 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. The first film debuted in 2008 in sold out theaters and grossed over $392 million worldwide. But not everyone bought into the craze. So considering the phenomenal success of the Twilight franchise, it is amazing it has taken the writing team of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg this long to lampoon the vampire trilogy for the sake of those who dislike the glittery image of Edward. What recent film series is riper for the ribbing?
Jenn Proske plays the brooding and angst-ridden Becca Crane with the same stammering, incomplete sentences and constant hair tucking that the Belle Swan character has become known for. The other cast members, Matt Lanter as Edward Sullen, Diedrich Bader as Becca’s father Frank and Chris Riggi as the shirt-sluffing Jacob, recreate their more famous counterparts with a certain amount of comedic precision. And the script doesn’t miss the opportunity to poke fun at some of the more unexplainable points of the original story. Why, in fact, does the morose new girl at school attract so much attention from not one but two boys?
Unfortunately the scriptwriters, best known for the crass humor in Date Movie, Scary Movie, Disaster Movie and Meet the Spartans, let the real possibilities of this parody slip through their fingers. Rather than penning an original storyline that could stand on its own while taking jabs at the series, they randomly pluck lines and scenes from the trilogy and slap them together with excessive, farcical violence. The scenes portray characters being beheaded, impaled with a pitchfork, hit with a shovel and pierced in the head with a spiked bat. Unending crude sexual innuendos and comments are also included, along with some male buttock nudity and inappropriate comments from a father to his daughter.
Using up all their good gags and one-liners in the first 40 minutes, the plot lags during the final act as Becca strives to stop Edward from exposing himself (literally) to the evil leaders of the vampire underground (Mike Mayhall, Ken Jeong, Bradley Dodds) and the entire crowd at her high school prom. But by that point in the movie, any reason to engage in this overwrought attempt to mock the undead has long been sucked dry.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Expendables Review

Well the Summer 2010 movie season is winding down. As usual we’ve had a couple of hits (Toy Story 3, Inception), misses (The Last Airbender, Jonah Hex), and a whole lot of in-between. This downhill side of summer now brings us to Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables – a promised testosterone fest that many have been looking forward to as a throw-back to the good old days (1980s) of macho, cigar-chewing tough guys (with a soft spot for women in danger) who have endless gun magazine clips and cheesy but funny throwaway lines of dialog.

The question of course, is whether Sly and the gang deliver just that?

The film opens with what’s come to be the standard, introduction-to-the-team action set piece. It’s a hostage rescue situation and the nice thing about it is that it’s very effective at establishing both who the characters are when it comes to dangerous situations and what we can expect from the rest of the film. The action and violence factor is made clear right up front in a satisfying sequence where the team takes down the bad guys without backing down even a fraction of an inch.
The team:
  • Ross (Sylvester Stallone), leader of the Expendables
  • Christmas (Jason Statham), Ross’ second-in-command
  • Yin Yang (Jet Li), Chinese martial arts master
  • Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), a borderline psychotic Swedish sniper
  • Hale Caeser (yeah, I know, played byTerry Crews), heavy weapons specialist
  • Toll Road (Randy Couture), demolitions expert
Home base for the team is a warehouse that former Expendable, Tool (Mickey Rourke), calls home. Rourke is the philosophical anchor of if not the team, then Ross, who leads it. They’re good, long time friends and it’s Tool who Ross turns to when he’s struggling with a decision. Jensen seems to be enjoying killing now – he’s been in the game too long and can no longer be trusted, and Mickey warns Ross that will happen to everyone who stays in the business too long.

Ross is looking for one more job, and this is where Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger make their cameo appearances. Willis is effective as Church – apparently a CIA higher up who needs a job done in a foreign county, but needs it done off the books. Arnold comes in as an old rival to Ross, and while it was amusing to see the banter between the three characters, Arnold’s cameo felt completely superfluous and the film would have been had he been left out.

The mission is to overthrow a South American dictator, but once the team gets there they find things to be much more complicated than they had anticipated (or been told about). Ross meets their contact there, a lovely young woman named Sandra and played by Giselle Itié. She’s afraid but overcomes her fear for love her country and people. Things go wrong and the team has to escape – in a pretty awesome action scene involving their cargo plane and of course some really big explosions. 
Ross was forced to leave Sandra behind and it eats away at him – he has to decide whether to save himself or attempt a suicide mission to rescue her (one guess which he picks).
So enough about the story… is the movie any GOOD?

Well, that will depend on you. The Expendables is a movie that I already know is going to split people down the middle.

If you’re looking for anything more than a macho throwback to 80s action movies you’re going to be very disappointed. If you’ve been looking forward to blood, brutal hand to hand, thousands of bullets flying and tons of explosions then you’ll be one happy camper.

Me, I’m somewhere just north of the middle.

I get what Stallone was trying to accomplish here – I just don’t think he quite managed to do it as well as it could have been done. For one thing, while I’m not privy to early incarnations of the script, it seems evident that it was supposed to have more of the aging action stars thing happening than what ends up in the finished film. Among the actors that were approached to appear in some roles that ended up being filled by younger actors were Jean-Claude Van Damme, Wesley Snipes, Kurt Russell (Chuck Norris and Carl Weathers would have made fine additions as well). Instead younger (mostly non-) actors were chosen: Steve Austin (who plays bad guy Eric Roberts bodyguard), Randy Couture and Terry Crews.

The three younger actors mentioned don’t get a lot of dialog, and honestly that’s something I’m thankful for. They’re in the film to look and act tough, and at that, they are pretty damned good. There was one scene where Terry Crews waxed poetic about his uber-gun and it was a pale shadow of Jesse Ventura’s description of “Old Painless” in Predator. Was Ventura a great actor in that film? Of course not – but that leads me to another point…

One of the hallmarks of those bodybuilder-filled action movies from 25 years ago were the throwaway one-liners:
“I’ll be back.”
“Yippee Ki Ay Mother F****r.”
“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
“Hasta la vista, baby.”
“I ain’t got time to bleed.”
“Stick around.”
You get the picture.

With the exception of the aforementioned scene with Stallone, Arnold and Willis, most of the humor in the movie falls flat. You keep waiting and hoping for a witty or even cornball quip that might put a smile on your face – but it just doesn’t happen. Most of the dialog is just plain weak. There are a few decent moments that shine through – in particular a scene where Mickey Rourke is thinking back to the event that changed the course of his life… powerful stuff for a movie like this. There are also a couple of scenes between Statham and his girlfriend that manage to convey some depth of character for the man – and a fight scene on a basketball court related to that which manages to seal the emotional tie between him and his young lady (go figure). I would have liked to have seen a little more screen time from Jet Li, but at least he got more than the professional fighters in the cast.
But other than those and a few scattered moments (usually between Stallone and Statham) the conversations never really seem to click.

Due to that, a lot of the movie feels like waiting around for the next big action set piece or the next hand to hand combat sequence. With the exception of some jarring in-close camera work (which to my recollection is thankfully the exception and not the rule) those scene are most DEFINITELY worth waiting for – and are what this movie is all about.

The fight scenes are brutal, with lots of bone-breaking and blood shooting and splattering. They go on for a while and for the most part allow you to see what the heck is going on (although some of them are a bit to WWF-ish). The big action sequences are pretty amazing as well – the escape from the South American country, both the car chase scene but especially the flight out of there. Damn sweet for action fans. There’s also an over-the-top action sequence combining gun battles, hand to hand, massive explosions, collapsing buildings and a river of fire at the end. ‘Nuff said.

For me, it was great seeing a bunch of guys being guys. Especially the older actors, who were obviously raised before they started putting estrogen in the meat supply. No emo guys here, and even when being introspective they’re muy macho.

So if you’re looking for a guy’s movie that’s heavy on the action and you don’t mind if it’s missing a lot of everything else, The Expendables is for you. So now you’ve been warned: If you’re expecting more from this movie, don’t come crying to me because it lacks emotional depth and character development.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Charlie St. Cloud Review

Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron) is riding on the crest of success after he and his younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) win a local sailing race. It is quite an accomplishment since the boys live in relative poverty with their single mother (Kim Basinger). The victory results in a scholarship and Charlie is Stanford-bound. But a trip to a celebratory keg party on the night of high school graduation ends badly when a drunk driver plows into the siblings. Sam is killed at the scene and Charlie flat-lines in the back of an ambulance until a persistent paramedic (Ray Liotta) revives him.

Though Charlie is physically alive, he is a long way from living. Deferring his scholarship, he isolates himself in a job as a caretaker in the cemetery. Every evening as the sunset canon fires at the yacht club, he leaves work and rushes to a secluded spot in the graveyard where he meets his dead brother to play a game of catch.

With his life on pause, he refuses to leave town even after his mother moves on. While most of the community understandably thinks Charlie is crazy, the sober and reclusive young man intrigues one woman.

Tess Carroll (Amanda Crew) is also a sailor. Days away from the start of a solo trip around the world, she sets out from the local harbor to test her boat on stormy waters. When she fails to return, Charlie realizes he must forgo his nightly ritual with Sam if he wants to join the search.

In so many ways, Efron plays the perfect adolescent heartthrob, with a handsome tousled look, a wounded spirit and an aura of mystery about him. His character even has two teenaged store clerks swooning over him. Yet the script (that includes a scene of sensuality which fortunately skips most of the sexual details) seems like a more grown up storyline for the actor who appears to be transitioning away from his roles in High School Musical and 17 Again.

Still, this love story is often sideswiped by alcohol use, surreal occurrences involving spirits and the repeated depiction of the car accident that may be disturbing for others. As well, the script is often confusing as filmmakers try to construct a happy ending with a combination of the dead and living.

So while many of Efron’s fans will be swept away by his latest screen appearance, parents may find this movie enters rough waters when it comes to younger family viewers.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World Review

Michael Cera seems to have found a niche for himself playing wimpy, teenaged doofuses in films like Juno, Year One, Extreme Movie and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. His latest character, Scott Pilgrim, doesn’t stray far from this stereotypical role.

Scott, a jobless, 22-year-old bass guitar player, shares an air mattress in a tiny apartment with his gay roommate and anyone else Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) brings home to cuddle with under the covers. Scott’s own romantic life is littered with broken relationships including one with his fellow band member Kim Pine (Alison Pill) and popular singer Envy Adams (Brie Larson). After his painful breakup with Envy, Scott resorts to dating a high school student from a Catholic academy as a way to restore his confidence in his own desirability. However, Knives Chau’s (Ellen Wong) ethnicity, religious affiliation and youth fuel recurrent jokes among the film’s older characters.

Then Scott lays eyes on the pink-haired Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Windstead) at a party. (In a surreal scenario, the mysterious woman skates through his dreams before he even meets her.) Too spineless to break up with Knives, Scott waffles between both girls until they uncover his deceit. That’s when Scott encounters the full fury of scorned love. But Knives isn’t the only one looking for a little revenge. Scott discovers that Ramona has seven former beaus whom he must fight before he can date her.

Set up like the levels of a video game, each encounter with an evil, super powered ex involves finding the chink that allows Scott to defeat him (or her, in the case of Ramona’s lesbian lover). A win results in points being tallied on the screen and a jackpot of coins raining from thin air. Bending the rules of reality further, the film’s stylized depictions of violence includes scenes of characters thrown through walls, stabbed with light sabers and tossed around a room. Luckily these combatants can also catch a second life, which allows the battles to linger on longer. Complete with descriptive graphics like “pow” and “thonk,” viewers get some visual stimulation to help them stay involved in this senseless, wandering plot.

Unfortunately, scriptwriters pad this story with ongoing homosexual jokes, crude terms for male anatomy, profanities and plenty of vulgar sexual innuendo. Scott’s biggest worries seem to be his lack of sexual activity and his need to frequent the bathroom. But parents may also be concerned with the young adult’s lack of responsibility. Consumed with his lust for Ramona, he lets down his band members, disregards Knives’ feelings and wallows in bouts of self-pity that he must be coddled and coaxed through. Every girl deserves better than that.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Inception Review

Computer hacking seems like child’s play compared to the criminal activities in Inception. Entering a person’s dream world by means of a special machine, these hackers manipulate and mine the human mind for information they can sell to interested clients for a hefty price. Unfortunately, this activity is hardly legal or ethical. And as a result of his part in it, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is unable to return to his wife (Marion Cotillard), children (Claire Geare, Magnus Nolan) and father (Michael Caine).

The prospect of going home improves, however, when a wealthy businessman offers Dom a new challenge. Rather than extraction, Saito (Ken Watanabe) wants the skilled mind reader to try “inception”—planting an idea in someone’s mind. The target is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), a young man who is about to inherit an energy empire from his dying father (Pete Postlethwaite).

Trusting in Saito’s ability to clear his past, Dom assembles a team of invasion experts (Dileep Rao, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Tom Hardy) along with newcomer Ariadne (Ellen Page) to help him maneuver through Robert’s REM state fantasies. Together they develop a plan that will allow them to delve into the sleeping man’s subconscious and bury the seeds of a thought. But going that deep poses risks for the team and Dom is reticent to reveal just how dangerous those hazards are. Only Ariadne suspects there is something precarious about the job when she discovers Dom’s frequent, solitary journeys to his own dream world.

For audience members who’ve only been given a few clues in the movie’s trailers, the opening scenes may feel baffling and disjointed. Like The Wizard of Oz, The Matrix and Click, this film has both real and dream states. In Inception, the script bounces viewers between both and it isn’t always clear which one the audience is in. Yet the production brings an interesting sophistication to the dream theme once the storyline begins to take shape, slowly revealing the motivations, subconscious fears and secret thoughts of these compelling characters. Artistically this film also offers strong acting, editing and digital settings that contribute to the jumbled feel of the dream world.

But while the concept (and lack of sexual content) may be intriguing to parents looking for an entertainment option for their older teens, Inception is riddled with ongoing depictions of violence. Trained assassins with rounds of ammunition infiltrate nearly every level of dreams. Refusing to leave even one shell in the chambers of their guns, they fire continuously on Dom’s team members as they descend lower and lower into a subconscious state. In the meantime, massive explosions, car chases and brutal fistfights are also shown, along with a suicide. Much of the action is non-graphic, yet there are still portrayals of bloody injuries, stabbings and close range shootings.

Although the non-stop adventure will keep many viewers engaged for the film’s full runtime (almost two and a half hours), others may find that the nightmarish consequences of Inception are enough to keep them laying awake at night—afraid to enter their own dream world.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Shrek Forever After Review

In what is officially billed as the final episode of the Shrek franchise, our big green hero (voice of Mike Myers) is working through a midlife crisis. It’s the same thing day after day… raising kids, putting up with tourists wanting to see your swamp, and keeping the outhouse running smoothly. All these gritty little details are weighing Shrek down to the point where he finally loses it during his kid’s birthday party. Wishing to be left alone to enjoy life as a grumpy ogre again, Shrek opens himself up to the temptations of an unknown enemy.

Years ago Rumpelstiltskin (voice of Walt Dohrn), a dealer of deception, had the King and Queen (voices of John Cleese and Julie Andrews) on the verge of signing over their kingdom to him in return for removing the spell that made their daughter Fiona (voice of Cameron Diaz) an ogre by night and a princess by day. Of course, Shrek’s rescue thwarted his plan leaving the menacing magician with nothing. Sporting a new offer in hand, Rumpelstiltskin (with the help of a few eyeball martinis) manages to convince the beleaguered father to sign a contract giving him a day away from all his worries in exchange for one "meaningless" day from his childhood. What Shrek doesn’t know is his signature will void the day of his birth.

Literally taking a page from It’s A Wonderful Life (one scene contains some exact lines from the classic Christmas movie), Shrek is propelled into a parallel universe where he no longer exist and ogres are treated as slaves. Trying to put things right, Shrek begins by attempting to convince his friends Donkey and Puss in Boots (voices of Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas) that he knew them in a past life. But if that is difficult, rekindling his relationship with his wife proves even harder. Fiona is now the head of a rebellion, and has no interest in the newcomer’s affection.

After a near-decade of character development, Shrek’s crusty outer layers seem to be giving way to a softer persona underneath. For some fans, this may be a disappointment. Yet from a family perspective, there has never been a more accessible Shrek. Other than the usual cartoon slapstick violence, along with diaper and outhouse comments, this fourth installment is devoid of the sexual innuendo and edgy humor that pervaded earlier movies. Thankfully there is still laughter, especially for those old enough to sympathize with the overloaded feeling years of kids, job issues and plugged drains can create.

It should come as no surprise that a happily ever after ending concludes this final tale from the land of Far, Far, Away. Still, the sentimentality seems justified. For most of us, the path of mortality leads through the young adult "I know it all" years, which segue into the mid-life experience of "I know nothing" compunction. Ironically Shrek, an imaginary character in a highly unrealistic world, is portraying a similar progression through his animated life’s experience. If the writers stay on this course, I’d love to see this ogre dealing with grandkids and prune juice.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Step Up 3D Review

Step Up 3D is a formula film, yet it is a formula that seems to be working for the movies’ producers. Their third installment in the dance franchise includes a sugary romance and plenty of moves designed to take advantage of the 3D technology. Rushing the screen, thrusting out their arms and throwing team members into the air, the characters push the limits of their dance floor as far as they can.

In the story, Luke (Rick Malambri), a gifted performer and aspiring filmmaker, assembles a group of New York hoofers known as the Pirates from off the streets. He brings them to an old warehouse his parents converted into a practice hall where dancers of all ilks could come together to perfect their art.

Now his parents are gone and the bank is eyeing the piece of prime real estate in downtown New York. Five months behind on his mortgage payments, Luke knows his only chance to keep the studio solvent is to win the upcoming World Jam dance competition. But first he and the Pirates have to qualify for the finals. With his camcorder in hand, Luke scours the city for some new talent to add to the troupe.

That’s when he meets NYU freshman Moose (Adam G. Sevani) who has just arrived on campus. (Moose first made his appearance in Step Up 2 The Streets.) Luke invites the new student back to The Vault where his company rehearses. Though Moose promised his parents he’d give up dancing in order to focus on his studies as an engineer, he soon finds himself practicing his art during every spare moment he can find. The time commitment impacts not only his studies, but more importantly, his relationship with his old high school friend Camille (Alyson Stoner.)

In addition to Moose, Luke lures the beautiful Natalie (Sharni Vinson who has an uncanny ability for tearing up) into joining the group just before their first qualifying battle. However, the Pirates’ rivals in the House of Samurai are eager to win the competition as well and are willing to stoop to just about any level to make sure they take home the title.

Although the storyline may be shallow and predictable, the performances are anything but. Combing the country for the nation’s best, the film’s casting crew has gleaned an ensemble of agile and athletic terpsichoreans who execute some truly amazing choreography directed by Jamal Simms. Their styles include a mix of Indian, popping and locking, robotics, ballet, tap and urban street moves, as well as some parkour-inspired training steps.

The production has the mandatory bad boy—Julien (Joe Slaughter) who leads the Samurai—yet there isn’t the same kind of rebellious, sulking individuals we’ve seen in past films. These characters dance because they love it and because they love each other. Forming a family of sorts, they bring out the best in one another by sharing their skills. The spirit of teamwork and dedication are positive messages in this movie, as is the importance of pursuing educational opportunities. Parents will also appreciate that the script focuses primarily on competition preparations with only brief scenes of kissing, some infrequent sensual dance moves and a smattering of language concerns.

While the film follows the underground dance culture, the imaginative and energetic choreography may inspire young viewers to step up and develop their own style of musical movement.

Our Wedding Family Review

If you can remember when Sidney Poitier had to break the ice with his white suburban in-laws in the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, then you’ll be able to guess what problem is about to erupt during Our Family Wedding. In this updated version the clash happens between Hispanics and African Americans.

The potential groom, Marcus Boyd (Lance Gross) has more than cultural and racial differences to bridge after he and his fiancée Lucia Ramirez (America Ferrera) return to their family’s homes in Los Angeles to announce their engagement. Their fathers, Brad Boyd and Miguel Ramirez (Forest Whitaker and Carlos Mencia), have already had a previous close encounter of the interracial kind when Ramirez’s towing company hauled Brad’s costly car away for a parking violation. Add Lucia’s mother Donia (Diana-Maria Riva) in the throws of a midlife crisis, and her Mexican grandmother (Lupe Ontiveros) who literally faints the first time she sets eyes on Marcus’s black skin, and you have a recipe for a mixed bag of racial tensions, uncomfortable jokes and tedious wedding plans. And all this fun happens before a goat eats Brad’s bulk-sized bottle of Viagra.

This movie should have had great family-viewing potential. Messages about racial harmony, and the importance of families and marriage are overriding themes. Unfortunately these positive elements are painfully developed through a non-stop series of difficult meetings and angry encounters. As well, we learn that Brad, a popular smooth-talking radio host, slept with countless women after his first marriage broke up. (We also see his imagination envisioning his ex being run over by a bus.) His best friend and lawyer (Regina King), truly the most levelheaded character in the script, tries to help him navigate his minefield of a life, but you have to wonder what motivates her to care for this playboy.
Non-explicit sexual discussions and infrequent profanities are among the content concerns. However, while bad words are few in number, they do include a sexual expletive and another crude term for sex, along with terms of deity. Family squabbles abound, racial slurs are heard and alcohol flows freely in some scenes. Finally, there’s the goat that takes a liking to Brad for a few seconds of animal awkwardness.

While the conclusion attempts to tie up every last string and ensure nobody leaves the wedding without a mate (or the theater without a smile) Our Family Wedding likely won’t leave you wishing for an invitation to the clans’ next shindig.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Other Guys Review

During the dog days of summer, cinemas usually host a variety of low-ball comedies that play best to audiences seeking a cool, relaxing place to rest their brains. In the case of this movie, you may need to go a step further and completely shutdown your cerebrum in order to survive.

The fact the film stars Will Ferrell (who also appears in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Semi-Pro) should be an immediate indication of what to expect. Here he plays a policeman named Allen Gamble, a nerd anxious to fit into the cop culture. This desire to be a real toughie instead of one of the wimpy "other guys" makes him a prime target for his coworker’s practical jokes and insults. He’s teamed up with a hot-tempered desk jockey, which begs the question: Why has Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg) been saddled with Gamble and office duty?

Desperate to get back on the streets and doing some exciting police work, Hoitz convinces his partner in law to go out on a call. Cruising in Gamble’s Prius (one of many in-your-face product placements), the impetuous act inadvertently leads the pair into a major crime investigation… and the ongoing wrath of their Captain (Michael Keaton).

The opening half hour fires off a fair number of reasonably funny lines, but the comedic bullets are quickly exhausted. Increasingly long scenes of stupidity, unwarranted action sequences and needless script detours hamper this movie’s artistic merit. Most parents will not appreciate the frequent sexual jokes, crude remarks and profanities. Nor are they likely to approve of the generous depictions of violence, including a suicide, all of which are played for humor.

Finally, if the names of Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson on the marquee are enticing you to still give this film a shot, all I can say is "buyer beware." Without spoiling what little “surprise” this movie has to offer, don’t expect to get your money’s worth from seeing these two celebs. Instead, you’ll find yourself stuck with the other guys for a very tedious two hours.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Twilight Saga: Eclipse Review

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse opened in the US with the largest domestic release in box office history according to Internet sources. Booked in 4,416 theaters, the third installment of Stephenie Meyer’s tale about a tortured teen who yearns to be a vampire beat out the previous record for cinemas set by Iron Man 2.

So what does a scowling, lovelorn high school senior (Kristen Stewart) have over a playboy billionaire in a high-tech armored suit (Robert Downey Jr.)? The Marvel Comic hero speaks to stereotypical male fantasies—fast machines, big toys that make noise, and a pretty girl at one’s beck and call. But Bella embodies the daydream of those females who’d love to have not one but two men fighting for their affections.

This film begins with a rash of mysterious deaths and disappearances in the Seattle, Washington area. Although the crimes baffle local police, Carlisle (Peter Facinelli) senses something sinister and surreal is behind them. After closer investigation, the Cullen family discovers an army of newborn vampires is ravaging the city in a kind of feeding frenzy. Unable to determine who is behind the birthing, the Cullens nonetheless take action to stop the vicious, bloodthirsty host from coming to Forks and harming Bella.

Unfortunately while they are training to take on the powerful enemies, Bella remains caught up in the love triangle between Edward (Robert Pattinson), Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and herself. Acting as if everything revolves around her, she flitters between her two love interests like a moth to a porch light. (And that’s not the only time her fickle personality surfaces.) Even when the vampires and werewolves are actively engaged in a brutal battle to save her from the advancing army, she is more interested in luring Edward into taking her virginity. Luckily, he is far more honorable than she deserves and refuses to lower his standards regarding virtue. His rejection of her petulant pleadings is the most redeeming thing this script has to offer. The other positive point may be the cooperation of the vampires and werewolves. Setting aside of their age-old feud, they work together to take on a foe that is more powerful than either of them. This agreement doesn’t result in friendship, yet there is at least a new level of respect for one another.

Still, the script remains plagued with implausible dialogue, excessive explanations and unwarranted melodrama. Depictions of violent decapitations, bloody injuries and fierce fighting are also less than family friendly. Yet Eclipse shows a glimmer of improvement over the first two films (Twilight and The Twilight Saga: New Moon) that parents will likely appreciate.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Review

Sorcery and science fuse together in this live-action adventure film that reunites Nicholas Cage and Jon Turteltaub, the star and director from theNational Treasure franchise. Cage plays Balthazar Blake, one of three sorcerers trained by Merlin the Magician (James A. Stephans). At Merlin’s untimely death by stabbing, Balthazar is given his master’s precious dragon ring and a charge to find the one person who can destroy the wicked Morgana (Alice Krige) when she is freed from the confines of a magical matryoshka doll.

Setting out on his quest, Balthazar roams the world for centuries. At last he stumbles upon an unlikely candidate in modern day New York City. At the time, Dave (Jake Cherry) is an awkward 10-year-old whose clumsiness results in a decade long imprisonment in a clay urn for Merlin’s wandering apprentice. When the magician is finally released, he revisits Dave who is now a geeky—and still awkward—physics major at NYU. Balthazar then reveals the young adult’s role in saving mankind from the forces of evil.

Dave is skeptical and only half-hearted about his training. He is even more distracted after he runs into Becky (Teresa Palmer) and becomes enchanted by the old grade-school flame. However when the villainous Horvath (Alfred Molina) and his apprentice Drake Stone (Toby Kebbell) kidnap Becky and threaten her life, the college student seriously concentrates on developing his sorcery skills.
With plenty of engaging action for older children and teens, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice feels like a video game with increasingly difficult challenges to overcome. While it contains few language and sexual concerns, the film’s theme of sorcery and witchcraft (including the possession of bodies, incantations and the raising of the dead), may be problematic for some family viewers. The young Dave also runs away from his class during a fieldtrip, ending up alone in a shabby shop where he meets Balthazar. There he is almost killed during an ensuing battle between two sorcerers. Stabbings, electrocutions, fire breathing dragons and needles used as weapons are other intense depictions of violence and peril.

Yet for audience members who have no problem with Harry Potter and his classmates at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, this story offers similar suspense and action. Combining his physics education with his recently acquired magical abilities, Dave embraces his new skills as a sorcerer’s apprentice to challenge the destructive forces of evil.

Diner For Schmucks Review

Tim (Paul Rudd) is bucking for a promotion at his asset management firm. Recognized for his ability to schmooze a wealthy new client into the corporate portfolio, he has a shot at moving up to the coveted 7th Floor if he is willing to play a strange game: Search for a schmuck and invite him to his boss’s (Bruce Greenwood) monthly "dinner for idiots." Whoever shows up with the biggest bozo wins the prize. For Tim, that means the big promotion.

Unlike the other executives where he works, Tim’s live-in girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) immediately recognizes the cruel intent of the activity. However her sharp criticism doesn’t deter the determined manager, especially after he meets Barry (Steve Carell), an IRS employee who lands on the hood of Tim’s Porsche while he is busy texting.

After recovering from the forced acquainting, the nerdy looking victim reveals his life’s passion of collecting and arranging dead mice in detailed dioramas. When he whips out a scene of The Last Supper, with Jesus and the apostles all being represented by taxidermically prepared rodents, Tim feels he has found the perfect dinner guest. Extending the invitation, Barry readily accepts—and even shows up a day early.

Barry arrives in the midst of a spat between the couple, and immediately integrates himself into Tim’s life. He creates complete chaos by inadvertently allowing a woman (Lucy Punch) into Tim’s home who has been stalking the corporate climber for three years. By the end of the night, Tim’s apartment is nearly destroyed, his Porsche is beaten and he’s facing a tax audit.

There are moments of genius in this script that are made truly funny by Steve Carell’s very capable performance. But sadly, the movie stoops to the lowest common denominator shared by far too many contemporary comedies to create laughs. Sexual jokes, innuendo and outright explicit discussions permeate many scenes. Partial female and male nudity, with explicit body parts barely covered, is briefly shown. Offensive language (such as profanities, a single sexual expletive and many terms of deity) is heard throughout. And the constant slapstick violence includes the dismemberment of a finger during a fight.

Content aside, the theme itself may present the greatest issue for parents. Reported to be far less cruel than the popular French film, The Dinner Game, upon which Schmucks is based, this production still begs the question: How do we perceive those around us who appear "different?" Thankfully, the final few minutes do attempt to reorient the audience perspective to view the rich executives as the nasty members of the club while the "idiots" claim their right to social acceptance. Yet it’s a weak excuse to justify laughing at marginalized members of society for the last two hours—or to alleviate the lingering guilt we may feel after chuckling at their expense.