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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 review

Previously, in the "Harry Potter" series ....

Young wizard Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), aided by his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), are on a quest to stop the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) revealed to Harry that Voldemort made himself more powerful by splitting his soul into seven pieces called Horcruxes.

Harry was expecting Dumbledore to help him find the Horcruxes, but in a shocking turn of events, Dumbledore was killed by turncoat Professor Snape (Alan Rickman).

Now Harry, Ron and Hermione must embark on the long, dangerous journey without the help of Dumbledore or any adult wizards.

The "Harry Potter" series gets more depressing as it goes along.

It gets more depressing for Harry because Voldemort keeps taking things from him - family, friends, and now even his school.

It gets more depressing for readers because the tone is much darker and there is much evil and death.

It gets more depressing for people who like beautiful images because the characters inhabit dark alleys and murky woods with grey skies.

And it gets more depressing for movie lovers because it is becoming more and more apparent that the later books in the series are almost unfilmable.

"Deathly Hallows: Part 1" is a two-and-a-half hour movie that covers half of the series' final installment. That means that at the current rate, the book will take five hours to cover. Yet, it still has the same glaring problems that have lingered around since the second or third film. That is, that the director tries to cover covers too little and satisfies nobody.

This unhappy grey area isn't director David Yates's fault, it would have been the same with any director. People don't want the movies spread out too much or they'll get tired of waiting. But fans don't want to get upset over glaring omissions. The compromise is a world where familiar characters dart in and out of scenes and highly anticipated scenes are disappointingly abbreviated.

I could point to any number of secondary characters (mostly members of the Order of the Phoenix and Ministry of Magic) and say that they could have been eliminated from the film because they barely contribute anything to the story. They may have had an impact in the book, but the scenes where they made an impact have been cut. As a result, many fan favorites have now been demoted to glorified bit parts.

The film is light on action, choosing to focus on the three main characters' emotional journeys as they search for the Horcruxes. At least it's worth noting that the characters don't spend as much time moping around contemplating the hopelessness of their mission as they do in the book.

But the film deprives us of what should have been a great action sequence. The book has an epic air battle where wizards transporting Harry (and decoy Harrys) on their brooms get into a dogfight with the bad guys.

In the film, Harry flies low and we miss most of the action. It should have been a defining scene for the film. Instead, the best scene comes at the end where inspiration comes from an unlikely source. A lot of kids at the screening I attended laughed somewhat cruelly at this scene, I found it touching.

"Deathly Hallows: Part 2" will come out next July. I'm optimistic that we'll get to enjoy the Hogwart's castle scenery again and the climactic battle scenes will get the attention and resources that they deserve.

I'm pessimistic that the film will once again suffer from overcrowding problems. Best case scenario, "Part 1" goes down as a necessary but overinflated prologue to a much better film.

Two stars out of five.

5:59 pm est          Comments

Morning Glory review

In "Morning Glory," our heroine takes on an opportunity that she might not be able to handle.

Our heroine shakes things up immediately by making wild changes.

Our heroine experiences a little beginner's luck.

Our heroine takes a gamble on a longshot, a has-been.

Our heroine initially fails miserably.

Our heroine is threatened with heavy consequences if she fails.

Our heroine is determined and works harder than ever.

Our heroine starts to turn things around.

Our heroine's success reaches great heights.

Our heroine might actually be ruined by all her success.

Our heroine realizes that things are perfect right where she is.

So go many stories. So goes "Morning Glory."

Our heroine's name is Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams). She takes over a struggling morning talk show called "Daybreak" on a fictional network. There are references to the show's longevity, but no mention of its history.

Apparently it's been an under-the-radar failure for over four decades. The show has two hosts, the long-disillusioned Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) and a slimeball named Paul.

Colleen greets Becky with a "you won't make it" lecture, Paul greets her by acting disgusting. She fires Paul. Hooray for Becky, she's smart, assertive, and brave. Or at least not as stupid as the producers who didn't fire Paul. Whatever, she'll take the praise.

It is up to Becky to find a new co-host. The longshot has-been that she chooses is Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford). He's a respected news anchor who Becky watched as a child. But he's only interested in hard news and "Daybreak" is lighthearted and carefree.

Becky finds a loophole in his network contract and he's stuck doing the show. The show is also stuck with him. He won't do witty banter, he won't do non-news features, and he won't use the word "fluffy." He also has a drinking problem, he brings a bad attitude to the show and his voice is a bad Clint Eastwood impression. Becky might be wrong about his charisma now, but he's been an on-air personality for decades. What's everybody else's excuse?

The ratings start to slip, probably because Becky is making the network actually pay attention to the show for once. Becky's boss (Jeff Goldblum, in a performance dripping with insincerity, as is Ford's) warns her that the show is about to be canceled. Already high-strung, Becky insists that it's time to "pull out all the stops." Instead of just reporting on a new roller coaster, a correspondent actually rides it. The animals on the zoology segments get more vicious. Even Mike chips in, getting an inside scoop on an arrest of a governor. Things are going so right, "The Today Show" might want to buy Becky's contract. Will she take a step up in her career or stay with her new family?

At the center of the movie is Becky's frantic disposition. It is sort of funny the first time we see her give a long, overachieving answer to a straightforward question because she's desperate to prove herself. But the movie thinks it's funny to have her act that way all the time, especially when she finds a love interest (Patrick Wilson). She gets the job because she's that way and she succeeds only after she puts even more pressure on herself. The film realizes at the end that it might have given us the idea that over-stressing yourself is rewarding, so it tacks on a message about how that lifestyle leaves you empty inside. It is too little, too late, and we're past the point of caring anyway.

If only "Morning Glory" was the film people want it too be. I was expecting a quirky workplace comedy using a puffball morning talk show as a colorful backdrop. But the film is just a look at unpleasant people who only succeed because they can't think of a good reason to fail. Like the Ford character, "Morning Glory" manages to drain the fun out of everything.

One star out of five

5:56 pm est          Comments

Megamind review
          “Megamind” is awfully deep for a kids’ movie.  It even has to be less deep at the end so kids can connect to it at all.  For the second time this year (“Despicable Me” being the first), the animated film follows a supervillain as he renounces evil and becomes an unlikely hero.  But more than that, the film explores issues such as labels, what it means to be fulfilled, and man’s nature to be good or evil. 

Megamind (Will Ferrell) and Metro Man (Brad Pitt) have similar origin stories.  Both were sent to Earth from distant, dying planets and are gifted with superhuman abilities.  Metro Man is raised by a rich family and looks like a handsome human.  Since everything he could ever want is given to him on a silver platter, his nature is to protect those doing the giving.  Megamind is raised in a prison and looks like an ugly blue alien.  Since people love Metro Man and hate him, he feels his destiny is to be the opposite of Metro Man.  He becomes a supervillain to preserve the polarity. 

The battle rages through the years, with Metro Man winning at every turn.  Every battle is the same:  Megamind breaks out of prison with the help of his minion Minion (David Cross), he kidnaps beautiful reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey), he teases Metro Man with an evil scheme, Metro Man beats him and sends him back to prison.  Except for one day when Megamind kills Metro Man and wins the feud for good. 

Everyone is shocked by this turn of events, not least of all Megamind himself.  Sure, his goal was to defeat Metro Man, but it was always about continuing the rivalry, not bringing it to an abrupt conclusion.  No matter, he now has Metro City all to himself.  He goes on a number of theft and vandalism sprees, taking anything and doing everything he ever wanted.  But is it really everything he wants? 

The feud gave Megamind a purpose in life, so he sets to creating a new superhero that he can fight.  He gets some superhero DNA from Metro Man’s tattered cape and transfers some of its powers to Hal, Roxanne’s shlub of a cameraman (Jonah Hill). Using a disguise, Megamind mentors Hal and transforms him into Tighten, the city’s new superhero. 

Megamind also uses a disguise to woo Roxanne.  It turns out that she wasn’t Metro Man’s girlfriend, and in fact never cared for his constant showboating.  She tells him that it’s our actions that define us, not our appearances.  He begins to fall for her as herself, not as Metro Man’s girlfriend.  He uses his powers to clean up trash around the city, and finds out he actually likes it better that way.  Why did he want it trashed in the first place?  Was it because he wanted that way or because he thought he should want it that way?  Maybe being bad isn’t really for him. 

Being bad is really for Tighten.  He may have the powers and DNA of a superhero, but he makes the choice to be a supervillain.  Once he learns how to use his powers, he uses them for his own gain.  He steals, causes devastation, and tries to take Roxanne by force.  He does these things to satisfy his own ego.  Few want to be evil, but it’s easy to fall victim to selfishness.  And it’s up to Megamind to save the day.  

The film loses its complexity in its third act.  It tries to condense its previously deeper themes into a simplified “don’t judge a book by its cover” message.  It is still extremely thought provoking for an animated kids’ movie, especially in comparison to the cinematic junk food that is “Despicable Me”.  If you take your kids to only one “Supervillain Turns Good” movie this year, make it “Megamind”. 

Three stars out of five

5:53 pm est          Comments

Paranormal Activity 2 review
             It helps to think of “Paranormal Activity 2” as a suspense movie rather than horror.  A horror movie is defined by its ability to scare you.  A suspense movie makes you think you should be scared.  Of course, horror movies use suspense and suspense movies use horror, but it’s best to let one aspect dominate the film.  There’s something redundant about making sure people are scared and delivering a perfectly proportional payoff.  “Paranormal Activity 2” can’t deliver traditional horror because if it did there would barely be a movie. 

The film starts as a California family is bringing home their newborn son Hunter.  They’re making a home movie to mark the occasion.  We meet dad Daniel, mom Kristi, daughter Ali, foreign nanny Martine, and the dog.  We also meet Aunt Katie and her boyfriend Micah, aka the characters from the first “Paranormal Activity”.  That Katie and Micah are in the movie at all is the biggest shock of all.  I was expecting basically a remake with the same things happening to unrelated characters.  Horror movies don’t usually carry characters over into sequels because most of them get killed in the first installment.  It turns out that the film is a prequel, so this will all be new to everyone. 

There’s more home movie footage when there’s a break-in at the family’s house.  Nothing is taken, but things are in disarray.  This inspires the family to install six 24-hour surveillance cameras, which makes up most of the footage for the rest of the movie.  It wouldn’t be believable for the characters to have a handheld camera every time something scary happens, so 24-hour surveillance is the way to go. 

Ever so slowly, weird things start happening.  Doors move a few inches when there’s no wind.  The pool cleaner gets removed from the pool at night.  Baby Hunter looks across the room instead of at his mother.  The dog barks at things that aren’t there.  The subtlety can’t last forever, but if the characters were quick to figure out they had a demon, they’d just get an exorcist and the movie would be over. 
            Most of the scares in the movie come from unexplained bangs, screams, slams, and other noises. Actually, even that isn’t true.  Some of the noises can be explained.  We’re startled by a scream in the middle of the night, but it’s just the baby being fussy.  But the point is that we were scared.  To use an example not from the movie, it’s absolutely terrifying to hear an explosion followed by broken glass.  Sure, you’re less terrified when you find out that some poor squirrel bit the wrong wire on your block’s transformer, and you think it lessens the impact of the original noise, but it really doesn’t.  And in this movie, we know that there’s still a demon at large. 

We think we have the demon figured out.  We think it will strike in the middle of the night when everything seems most peaceful so it can be a rude awakening.  Not necessarily so.  For every scene where tranquility is interrupted, there are several scenes where tranquility is just tranquility.  We think to ourselves, “Why is this scene in the movie if nothing scary is going to happen?  Something scary must be coming soon.  Why won’t something scary just happen so I can stop wrapping my arms around my head in a vain attempt to cover my eyes and ears simultaneously?”  That last one might just apply to me. 

“Paranormal Activity 2” does this precisely so we can’t figure the demon out.  M. Night Shyamalan loved to keep us guessing like this as well, especially in “The Sixth Sense” (1999) and “Signs” (2002).  “Paranormal Activity 2” isn’t the kind of movie where we’re going to get a payoff with a horrific special effects demon.  We have to settle for the suspense of living in fear of the demon’s actions. 
5:47 pm est          Comments

Red review

"Red" claims to have the best cast in the history of action comedies. There is truth to that.

The ads hypes Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren. That would probably qualify as the best cast right there, but that's not all.

It also has Richard Dreyfuss, Mary-Louise Parker, Brian Cox and Ernest Borgnine to hammer the claim home.

Maybe we didn't ask for Karl Urban and Rebecca Pidgeon, but their presence is certainly welcome.

So yes, the cast is most impressive. But does the film use these resources properly? Or does it try to coast by on star power, like so many ill-fated ensemble pieces. The answer is a little of both.

Willis and Parker get things off to a promising start. We meet Moses (Willis), a retired CIA agent. He is bad at nurturing an avocado, which means he is bad at retirement activities, which means he is bad at being retired.

His favorite activity is flirting over the phone with Sarah (Parker), a pension official stuck in a dead-end life. One night Moses wakes earlier than usual, which gives him time to stop an attack by an entire CIA tactical team with automatic weapons

Someone wants him dead.

Moses knows that whoever is following him will want to capture Sarah, so he captures her first. He finds out where she lives (having never met her before), goes to her place, meets her face to face and abducts her.

Willis and Parker have great chemistry during these scenes. Willis still has his classic "Die Hard" wit and Parker is hilarious as a hostage who knows she should hate being abducted, but really is just grateful to have some excitement in her life. Particularly funny are scenes where Sarah has tape over her mouth and we can follow her thought process without understanding the dialogue.

We meet the people behind the attack. Cooper (Urban) is an up-and-coming problem solver at the CIA. His icy boss, Cynthia (Pidgeon), wants him to take care of the Frank problem.

We see that Cooper has a loving wife and daughter, which hints that he'll do them right by proving himself a good guy by the end of the movie. Cooper pays a brief visit to the CIA records keeper (Borgnine), who remarks that Moses was an excellent agent. That's about it. The character is unnecessary, he exists solely so Borgnine could be cast in the role and the filmmakers would have the honor of working with him.

Moses and Sarah round up a ragtag crew of other RED (Retired and Extremely Dangerous) agents. Most interesting is Marvin (Malkovich), a former LSD test subject who is crazy, paranoid, dangerous, and usually right. He also is responsible for the film's best action sequences.

Professional killer Victoria (Mirren) is all-class except when she's unleashing lethal firepower. I wish the ads for "Red" hadn't given away the image of Mirren brandishing a machine gun because it would have been such a lovely surprise.

Ivan (Cox) is Victoria's jilted former lover. Joe (Freeman) is the wizened old friend with a few tricks still up his sleeve. Ivan and Joe are basically filler characters and not worthy of the talents of Cox and Freeman.

"Red" has a forgettable plot and the few compelling bits of action and dialogue come early and leave quickly. By the third act, you will forget that you are watching the same film that started with the inventive opening scenes, and things certainly don't pick up from there. The ensemble saves the film from being completely useless, but the film has uselessness in its soul. "Red" is an excellent example of a film where the actors are better than the material. But at least that's a compliment to the actors.

5:43 pm est          Comments

Secretariat review

There is an audience for "Secretariat" and it is people who have not seen a lot of other movies like "Secretariat." That is to say that it instantly draws comparisons to other, better films.

Of course "Seabiscuit" (2003) is going to be the first one that comes to most people's minds because it too is a story about horse racing in another era. There's also a strong hint of "The Blind Side" (2009) where a strong maternal character inspires a shy athlete and commands respect from a "boys club" in a sport. Of course, this is in addition to dozens of other "inspirational" sports movies. Not to mention numerous films where characters have to make comebacks or risk everything to follow their dreams.

Dedicated-but-bored housewife Penny Chenery (Diana Lane) takes over her family's farm after the death of her mother. Her folks raised racing horses, and she might not know much about the business, but she knows right from wrong. She makes an impact on her first day by firing the rude head trainer. She instead hires Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), a career loser who is nonetheless very talented. He's nearing a forced retirement, but wants to keep workin and he's in need of a comeback.

Soon Penny comes into possession of a newborn foal named Big Red, who is the farm's best chance at a future. He becomes something of a family member. Penny and her crew continue to call him Big Red although his official racing name is Secretariat. With help from Lucien, he becomes a champion racehorse and it looks like he's going to do well in the big-money races of the Triple Crown.

But there's a problem. Penny has to pay $6 million in property taxes on the farm. Should she sell the farm or her prized racehorse? No, she gets investors to buy shares of Secretariat's breeding rights. She asks for way more than what the rights are worth, with the stipulation that the money will be refunded if he loses a single Triple Crown race, which will make him and the farm worthless somehow. Everything is on the line.

It isn't a spoiler to say that Secretariat wins all three races because it is a matter of historical record. Although Secretariat needs to win all three, the film should have stopped after the Kentucky Derby, which comes first. The Preakness (second) is limited to a single scene where Penny's family watches it on television. The film tries as hard as it can to build suspense for the Belmont Stakes (third), but it can't do anything about the way Secretariat absolutely squashed the competition. The film should have ended with him getting a climactic win at the Derby to establish him as a winner, and then given us the other two races as a post-script. The filmmakers could have saved money not having to film two races, and we would have been saved about a half hour of our time.

The film has other troubling elements. We never get to see what goes into Lucien's training sessions, so we don't get a feeling for his methods. The whole character is little more than an excuse for Malkovich to wear funny hats and go on rants for comic relief. The announcers at the races don't talk about any horses except Secretariat - great for keeping us up with the action, bad for being impartial and believable. Perhaps most frustrating of all is that nobody ever gives anyone else a straight answer. Everybody talks in meticulously crafted poetic movie dialogue.

Admittedly, it's hard not to root for Secretariat and his team. The film gives us a painstaking look at Penny's struggle, and yes, it's tear-welling to see her finally succeed. But there are plenty of other films where we love to see an underdog succeed, and "Secretariat" doesn't cover any new ground. If you go in thinking you know exactly what to expect, you probably do.

5:40 pm est          Comments

Social Network review

"The Social Network" is an excellent movie, and you don't have to know anything about Facebook to enjoy it.

I want to make this point early because I want people to see the film and I don't want anybody to be alienated by the new-technology aspects of the film. The film is above all a rags-to-riches story, and Facebook is simply the product that makes it happen.

The film starts with Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) losing a friend. His girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara), is breaking up with him.

In anger, he throws together a misogynistic website where other students can rate the hotness of girls at the university. The website is illegal because he's hacking into unauthorized photo banks and causing the system to crash with the traffic it generates. This is to establish that Mark can throw together a genius idea on a whim, imagine what he can do when he's trying.

His stunt gets the attention of the well-to-do Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence), who allow Mark the privilege of making a similar website for them.

The Winklevosses obviously don't know what they're doing, so Mark decides to create the website for himself. He gets his friend, Eduardo (Andrew Garfield), to provide him with startup money in exchange for 30 percent ownership of the site. After several weeks in his rabbit hutch, Mark launches The Facebook, a site with many differences from the Facebook of today.

Eduardo is happy for the site's early success, but is worried that it isn't making money because it has no way of generating revenue. Mark schedules a meeting with whacked-out Napster creator Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), which isn't really what Eduardo had in mind. Soon Sean is in Mark's head with promises of success beyond his wildest dreams. Mark makes Sean a part of the Facebook company and Eduardo falls to the wayside.

Much of the movie concerns two eventual lawsuits, one from the Winklevosses for "stealing" their idea, one from Eduardo over a shady contract. Sequestered in rooms with his enemies, we get a feel for Mark's nonexistent social skills. He rarely gives a straight answer, instead opting to correct people, put over his own genius, offer smart-aleck remarks and act completely distracted.

It's easy to quip that Mark needs Facebook to make friends because he can't make any in the real world. Specifically, the Zuckerberg of the film is a character that will only be a friend to people who can offer him something in return. While he rarely bothers with blatant contempt, he is willing to disregard his enemies. He treats them like telemarketers - he's annoyed when he absolutely has to deal with them, ready to completely put them out his mind when he doesn't.

The film is written by Aaron Sorkin, whose screenplay supplies the film with rapid-fire dialogue and plenty of verbal intensity. The director is David Fincher, who makes the dialogue sound distinct crisp. There are a few scenes that take place at clubs or parties where there's a lot of background noise, but most scenes sound like they could be taking place isolated cavern, silence only broken by the words of the characters. He also directs a heart-pounding rowing race that will go down as one of the great sports sequences of all time despite featuring an unpopular sport.

"The Social Network" is not a film about computers or social networking. It is not a film where the main character gets rich and we watch as he goes on a spending spree. We don't find out what he does while he's on top of the mountain, or even if he enjoys it. Nor do we get more than a few courtroom scenes and on-screen epilogues pertaining to his fate. Fortunately, the story of "The Social Network" is so compelling that it hardly matters that the film is basically a long first act.

5:37 pm est          Comments

The Town review
             Scorsese has New York, John Waters has Baltimore, and Ben Affleck has South Boston.  With his directorial debut in 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone” and now with “The Town”, Affleck joins the ranks of acclaimed directors whose films show a love/hate relationship with their hometowns.  Sure Affleck depicts the neighborhood of Charlestown as a crime-ridden bottomless pit, but somehow it is never in question that he is extremely proud to call it his home.

            Affleck himself stars as Doug MacRay, a criminal who has a hate/hate relationship with Charlestown and would love to leave the town were his friends not keeping him there like an anchor tied to his ankle.  His best friend James (Jeremy Renner) did a nine-year bit for Doug in prison, Doug can’t just up and abandon him.  His boss The Florist (Pete Postlethwaite) flat-out refuses to let Doug leave knowing what he knows about his bank and armored car robbery racket.

            The robbery sequences are among “The Town’s” best.  The criminals get the job done and they do it efficiently, but they get their hands dirty.  Being realistic, the robbers don’t operate with any “Ocean’s Eleven”-style smoothness.  They handle most of their tasks with variations on “throwing things around”.  The only part of the job that requires calmness is getting cooperation from hostages, which Doug handles.  He’s far from charming, but at least with him you’re less likely to think that he’ll waste you just so there are no witnesses.             
                During a job, the gang takes Claire (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage.  They all wear masks, and she’s not supposed to know who any of them are.  They let her off at a beach once they’re in the clear; no harm, no foul.  They steal her wallet, so they know where she lives.  To check up on what she’s told the FBI, Doug (without the scary mask, obviously) follows her for a while, eventually befriending her and subtly asking questions about her recent traumatic experience.  She actually did see something, a telltale tattoo on the back of James’s neck.  James isn’t ready to waste Claire just yet, but he at least wants Doug to stop seeing her.  Too bad Doug has fallen in love with her.

            For the first time in a long time, Doug has a reason to actually want to stay in Charlestown.  Unfortunately, his criminal lifestyle is making his decision to stay harder than ever.  An FBI agent (Jon Hamm) swears he is this close to pinning all of the robberies on Doug and the gang.  Plus, The Florist is about to have the group pull a dangerous job at Fenway Park and even if they’re successful there will be a ton of heat on them.  Despite this, James and The Florist are as insistent as ever that Doug remain in Charlestown.  With so many personal and legal issues pulling him apart, will Doug finally be able to leave his neighborhood behind him?

            The look at Boston’s criminal underworld is intriguing, and even more so are the scenes where the FBI builds its case and interrogates the suspects.  The supporting players are all excellent, especially Renner, but also Hall, Hamm, Postlethwaite, and Chris Cooper as Doug’s convict father.  But the Affleck performance is troubling.  He keeps giving himself long, deeply personal monologues that tell us a lot about the character’s backstory, but don’t come off as natural and don’t belong in the conversations he’s currently having.             

           Affleck’s performance may throw off the “gritty reality” feel of the rest of the film, but at least the “gritty reality” is done well enough to be missed.  Once again, he proves that he can do a respectable job in the director’s chair, even if he belongs behind the camera and not in front of it.  Ben Affleck is going to be a great filmmaker someday.  With “The Town” he is at least close to great.
5:34 pm est          Comments

Resident Evil Afterlife review

There are two types of scenes in "Resident Evil: Afterlife."

One type is Alice (Milla Jovovich) shooting and stabbing the undead, the other is Alice shooting and stabbing the living. There isn't enough story or character development for a proper review, so I'm just going to fire off some random thoughts.

n Just about everyone alive in the "Resident Evil" world is working for the evil Umbrella Corp., which are responsible for the undead outbreak and are now in damage-control mode. Alice kills most of these employees, even though she's sworn to protect humanity. I know they're not her favorites, but they're still fellow humans and represent a large portion of the currently-living. Root, root, root for the home team, Alice.

• Umbrella has access to numerous city-wide bombs and explosives (Tokyo gets turned into a crater). You'd think they would want to use these precious weapons on the zombie hoards, but they use them to destroy their own facilities and cover their own tracks. I hate it when movie villains waste resources just to prove to us how evil they are. It makes them look impulsive and stupid and it makes me question how they ever got to become so powerful with these traits.

• Every single outdoor scene in the movie has a gray, ugly sky. Once again, a film sees a future that is so bleak that the weather is affected.

• Alice and some other survivors (people to be picked off one by one by the zombies) take refuge inside an abandoned prison. They still use their own guns and blades to fight off the undead. Just once I'd have liked to see them use a broken-off toothbrush shank that they found in a cell. It may not be useful for fighting off a zombie army, but it would be useful for giving the film some much needed variety in its killing methods.

• Wentworth Miller (TV's "Prison Break") plays a leftover Prisoner who can Break everyone out and get them to a safe haven. Miller was no doubt typecast, which means he's now kicking himself that he didn't choose a television role that would get him work in the "Twilight" movies.

• Characters have to swim through a flooded basement to get to some abandoned guns. This is, of course, a shameless attempt to recreate some of the video game's underwater levels. Most of the prison is in pitch darkness, but of course we can see the characters with relative clarity while they're underwater.

• There are a number of umbrellas in the film, some of which are those clear plastic ones that are shaped like the top half of a football. They go down far enough to cover your head and shoulders, where with a regular umbrella you'll lose coverage and get soaked if you tip it even slightly. I like these umbrellas. This doesn't really have anything to do with the movie, I just wanted to prove I like some things.

• Most of the monsters in the movie look like cheap special effects. This is why video games don't make good live-action movies. In the games, everything is rendered the same way, so the monsters don't look out of place in the game's world. In the movies, there are people and there are special effects and it's easy to tell the difference.

There is no reason for "Resident Evil: Afterlife" to exist. Nobody who isn't a huge fan of the games is going to want to see it, and fans of the game have seen all they needed to see in the franchise's first three installments (and at least the next one after). The film will only do well with people who are looking for an excuse to waste their time and money.

5:31 pm est          Comments

Machete review

It's not unusual to compare a feature film to its trailer. It's the best way to get a feel for the look and style of the film, sometimes for months at a time.

Trailers are created by professional editors, who usually make the film look better than it is. Sometimes they do this by giving away the best parts of the movie for free, sometimes they do this by throwing together scenes with several different characters and settings to make it look like the film is fast-paced and a lot happens. There is always pressure for the finished product to live up to its well-crafted trailer.

The pressure is really on Robert Rodriguez's "Machete" because it's been around in trailer form for more than three years. Rodriguez filmed the trailer to show before his half of 2007's "Grindhouse." He filmed the trailer, not the film. There was no film. There was never supposed to be a film. Fans liked the trailer, Rodriguez decided to make the film. Now we have the film.

Fans of the original trailer know that Machete (Danny Trejo) is an ex-federale who is hired by the mysterious Booth (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate a senator. Booth then double crosses Machete, who goes on a violence-filled revenge spree with the help of his priest brother (Cheech Marin). There's a steamy scene in there somewhere where Machete gets into a hot tub with Booth's wife and daughter. But it's mostly about the violence-filled revenge spree.

Three years later, the plot has more detail. The senator is played by Robert DeNiro. Booth's daughter is Lindsay Lohan. There's a storyline about border crossing and a network of undercover agents who help illegal immigrants into America. Luz (Michelle Rodriguez) runs the network, the evil Von (Don Johnson) shoots them just before they get to the line. Sartana (Jessica Alba) is a border patrol agent who at first wants to deport illegal Mexicans, but becomes conflicted when she becomes aware of the conspiracy involving Booth and the senator. And Steven Segal is a drug lord who forced Machete out of Mexico in the first place, and now wants him taken out for good.

The film does deliver on the trailer's promise to contain lots of blood and violence. Machete hates guns, but we get more than our fair share of shooting. One scene sees an internal organ removed, another sees a drawn-out crucifixion. Then there are slashings and pokings with a variety of unpleasant tools, including, obviously, a machete. If you hate violent scenes, stay far away from "Machete," and even if you don't hate them, keep your kids away.

There is a lot of violence in "Machete" to be sure, but there's a lot of everything. More accurately, there's too much of everything. Everything about the film is more drawn-out than it should be. The action scenes, while quick and crisp in the trailer, now seem needlessly deliberate and as a result are unpleasant. The dialogue, originally catchy and quotable, is now milked for so long by the cast that it loses all its appeal. Transitional scenes are particularly problematic. I know that all the scenes can't be blood-boilers (even if the trailer makes it look that way), but can the actors at least say and do things that make my blood run cold?

Nope, "Machete" is just a lukewarm mess. The film doesn't live up to its recent advertising and it certainly isn't worth the three-year wait from the original trailer. It was one thing for Robert Rodriguez to promise nonstop action and excitement when nobody was expecting him to deliver. It's another thing for him to let us down after he's promised to deliver (and we've paid our ticket prices expecting him to deliver). Many movies seem better as a three-minute trailer. "Machete" was better when it was only a three-minute trailer.

5:29 pm est          Comments

Last Exorcism review

Walking into "The Last Exorcism," it was only natural that I expected to see a complete rip-off of 1973's "The Exorcist." But I was wrong.

The film is in fact a complete rip-off of 1999's "The Blair Witch Project."

Both films are seen through the eyes of documentary film crews and more specifically shaky handheld cameras. But "The Last Exorcism" is so unconvincing as a realistic documentary that one gets the feeling that the filmmakers only used the format as an excuse to save money.

The film stars Patrick Fabian (a graduate of Cedar Cliff High School) as the Rev. Cotton Marcus. Marcus is a charismatic preacher who cares more about how he delivers his sermons than their actual content. He is also a professional exorcist Other professional exorcists have gotten sloppy and violent lately, and he is choosing this time to retire. He is going to do one "Last Exorcism" and show all of his tricks to the film crew so the world can see how fake the process is.

Marcus' attitude toward exorcisms (and the attitude of most exorcists) is that if a person is crazy enough to believe they are demon-possessed, they are crazy enough to believe that words from a preacher are enough to drive it out of their body, and thus they will be cured. Marcus throws in some homemade special effects to make it more convincing.

There's just one problem.

Nell (Ashley Bell), the girl he's supposed to exorcize, may actually be demon-possessed. And the demon isn't leaving because of Marcus's hocus pocus.

The best parts of the film center around Nell's actions, thanks mainly to Bell's truly terrifying performance. Nell twists her neck and back at sickening angles, and entertanment media has reported that it isn't special effects, but that Bell is actually limber enough to pull them off.

The most memorable scene in the film is one where she steals the crew's camera, takes it out to the family barn, and uses the camera to beat a victim in a white coat to death (the coat doesn't stay white for long, if you follow me). We get a magnificent first-person view of the proceedings.

Whatever scary good fun there might be during certain scenes, it is completely undone by the rest of the film. For example, the crew is stupid for filming absolutely everything. At one point, the cameraman is being chased, and he films the ground (carrying the heavy camera the whole time) as he runs away. The shot would have worked just as well if he put down the camera and the shot was of him running off into the distance. It's just so hard to be scared when you're yelling "Idiot!" at the screen.

Director Daniel Stamm inexplicably feels the need to have scary movie music playing in the background of scary scenes. Silence from isolation should be his friend (and our enemy) during these scenes, we don't need to be thinking about professional sound mixers adding in music. The whole point of the first-person camera style is to make the viewer feel that the story is happening to them. Scary music doesn't happen in the real world, unless you're at a tacky Halloween House, which is how the film ends up feeling.

I feel the need to comment on the film's PG-13 rating. How did a film this violent get the same rating as "Iron Man"? The film should have earned an R based on its gore and violence alone, not to mention a sexual term blurted out during the now-standard obscene tirade by the possessed girl.

The audience at the screening I attended had more than its fair share of preteen girls who were obviously very disturbed by what they saw. It's one thing to be upset by films that have business being upsetting, but "The Last Exorcism" is mostly too ridiculous and poorly made to warrant the respect that comes out of legitimate fear.

5:27 pm est          Comments

Nanny McPhee Retrns review
“Nanny McPhee Returns” 

By Bob Garver

             Why do the ads for “Nanny McPhee Returns” have to emphasize McPhee’s ugliness?   Going into the film, you’ll probably already be haunted by the character’s moles, splotches, unibrow, crooked nose, and prominent snaggletooth.  There’s no morality lesson about not judging people based on their looks, the film never treats her appearance as nothing more than a punchline.  I’m to understand that there’s a storyline reason for this look, McPhee’s face gradually improves as the children in her care learn lessons, so apparently it has something to do with her teaching methods. Unfortunately, I don’t know if this is because of a curse or what.  Perhaps they explained this in the original “Nanny McPhee” (2005), but the problem is I didn’t see it.  I was too put off by her ugliness.

            McPhee (Emma Thompson) takes care of five children in the film, all of whom are charged to the harried Mrs. Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  Mrs. Green has to work a full-time job, run the family farm, worry about her three kids, and take in their two snooty cousins while Mr. Green is off at war (he hasn’t written for a while…).  The siblings barely tolerate each other, and there’s an instant class feud when the cousins show up.  They’re all in need of some lessons, and the tough-loving Nanny McPhee is just the one to teach them.

            That is, if you can call what McPhee does “lessons”.  I call the first three lessons “bullying” and the second two “taking credit for what the kids do for themselves”.  The first lesson is about not hitting each other.  McPhee uses her magic stick to turn the tables and make the children hit themselves.  It’s the classic “Why are you hitting yourself?” stunt, but she’s using magic.  The kids eventually submit, and McPhee tells Mrs. Green that the lesson has been a success.  But the kids haven’t really learned to respect each other, they’ve learned to fear the stick.  The lesson the kids are taking away isn’t “don’t fight”, it’s “don’t fight while McPhee’s around”.

            McPhee later prevents the children from recovering prized piglets crucial to the future of the farm.  She uses the stick to give the pigs the ability to run fast, climb trees, and swim.  There’s actually an eye-catching but pointless sequence in which the poorly-rendered piglets jump into a synchronized swimming routine.  The plot comes to a screeching halt so the characters can gawk at what McPhee has done and the kids in the audience can be entertained by special effects.  At this point, why not?  They certainly aren’t being entertained by anything else the movie has to offer.  The piglets are eventually rounded up after the kids sacrifice Mrs. Green’s wedding veil, and McPhee proclaims another lesson learned.             

           Things start to look up and then a bomb lands in the family’s barley field.  The bomb could blow at any moment if not disarmed, the perfect test to see if the kids have learned the bravery lesson.  First of all, the kids would have stopped at nothing to save the field even before McPhee showed up.  Second, McPhee watches them completely from the sidelines, so she’s not doing anything resembling teaching.  And perhaps worst of all, Mrs. Green spends the scene pleading with the children to leave the bomb and run to safety.  She’s right to value their safety over the barley, the kids are too “brave” to agree.  The lesson should have been about knowing one’s priorities.

            McPhee’s last lesson is to have faith, which the film illustrates with wishful thinking coupled with denial.  The film has a predictably uplifting ending.  It’s good that it’s uplifting, but it’s great that it’s ending.  Nanny McPhee spends about ten minutes of the film having an ugly face, “Nanny McPhee Returns” spends two hours having an ugly soul.
5:21 pm est          Comments

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World review

If you've seen the trailers for "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World," you know the film's plot.

Loveable loser Scott (Michael Cera) falls head over heels for the beautiful Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). This does not sit well with Ramona's seven evil ex-boyfriends, who Scott must defeat one by one to win her heart.

Yes, it's a paper-thin plot, but just as a beautiful picture can be painted on a simple sheet of paper, so can the film take a simple concept and turn it into an incredibly interesting work of art.

There are two types of scenes in the film: fight scenes and scenes that focus on Scott and his relationships.

The relationship between Scott and Ramona progresses as expected, at least as far as falling in love and the subsequent hardship, not in that it's a series of evil exes coming between them.

A pleasant surprise is a storyline involving the relationship between Scott and his current girlfriend Knives (Ellen Wong). Scott wants to leave Knives for Ramona, but Knives is so hopelessly devoted to Scott that this proves to be tricky. I couldn't sympathize with Scott; I liked Knives way more than Ramona.

Cera handles these scenes of this with his usual mannerisms. This will no doubt annoy those who argue that Cera plays the same character in every movie, but it's hard to imagine Scott being played by anyone other than Cera. Scott will go down as a definitive Michael Cera character, while characters in lesser films will be seen as annoying, unwelcome retreads.

As far as the fight scenes, they are among the greatest ever committed to film. In trying to remember the last film that had such great sequences, I arrived at "Kill Bill Vol. 1" (2003). The fights in that film were brilliant, yet sickening.

"Scott Pilgrim" has extremely well-choreographed sequences, but is far less violent. There's still kicking, punching, flipping, falling and swordplay (and musical numbers, even "Kill Bill" didn't have those), but the film is almost completely bloodless. Enemies turn into piles of coins upon defeat. So if your kids can handle Mario, they can handle "Scott Pilgrim."

Speaking of Mario, the defining aspect of the film is the constant video game and comic book references. There are cheesy video game graphics and sound effects absolutely everywhere, even at the Universal logo at the beginning. Video games are something of an obsession for Scott, and sometimes I wondered if all the references are just in his imagination as he copes with what the world throws at him.

Knives shares Scott's video game passion and Ramona doesn't, yet another reason why Knives is more likable than Ramona.

The film is based on a comic book, and it never lets you forget it (especially during flashbacks), but it's a shame that the film only seems like a video game instead of being the first truly great video game adaptation in film history.

Perhaps "truly great" is too strong a term. The film has two failings that ultimately bring it down to the "pretty good" category. The first is the way the film pushes Ramona as a romantic interest instead of Knives. The second is its ending, which promises an eighth and climactic fight scene, only to bail completely as if director Edgar Wright just ran out of special effects money. Know this going in, so you don't accidentally insist on every scene topping the one before it. If you can look past these few minor caveats, "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" is one of the most fun movies of the year.

5:18 pm est          Comments

Other Guys review

We get three hilarious teams in "The Other Guys" - two on-screen, the other off.

Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson play a pair of hotshot cops who steal about three minutes of screen time, but are eliminated quickly. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg play a pair of cops who make up the rest of the movie. They have terrific chemistry and there's nothing wrong with them. But the best team in the movie is the fourth pairing of Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay.

McKay has directed Ferrell in all his best films - "Anchorman" (2004), "Talladega Nights" (2006) and "Step Brothers" (2008). The duo has never made a bad film and they aren't starting with this one. McKay has the good sense to cast Ferrell as the more subdued member of the team (he actually likes that they do paperwork all day) because Ferrell's performances lately have made him known for screaming and annoyingly broad acting. He gets laughs for losing his cool a few times in "The Other Guys," but at least he establishes that there's a cool to lose.

Mark Wahlberg is the other half of the team, and he turns in an enjoyable comedic performance as well. He's a career cop looking for excitement, but haunted by memories of a botched shooting. He claims to be a peacock who needs to fly (apparently they don't). Wahlberg isn't known for being funny (except for his rapping career, but that may have only been funny unintentionally), but based on this performance he certainly has a future in it.

The film is a "buddy cop" movie, a genre that the film has fun with and makes funny without actually spoofing. In other words it'll take cliches of the genre (say, the chief confiscating the weapons of the heroes) and you'll say "Ha! Look what they did with that" instead of "Ugh! Look what they did to that."

The film will go down as a funny buddy cop movie, not a painful comedy that tries to make fun of buddy cop movies.

The twist to the gun cliche is that Ferrell is given a wooden gun as punishment for misusing his real one. He manages to misuse this, too (the film actually comes up with several creative misuses), so he is given something even wimpier.

Ferrell takes Wahlberg home for a partners' dinner, where his wife turns out to be a refreshingly game Eva Mendes. Michael Keaton is terrific as the typically hard-nosed chief who has to work a second job. Keaton is having a good summer, first stealing "Toy Story 3" and now this.

The Ferrell/Wahlberg chemistry and handling of buddy cop conventions are the funniest things about "The Other Guys," which is good because they distracts from the mess that is the film's plot.

There's some bad business going on involving a professional investor (Steve Coogan), but the film jumps around in the details and I couldn't follow any of it. Unfortunately, things are made even worse at the end of the film when over the credits the film hastily presents information about Ponzi schemes and corporate bailouts. This is a poor decision, the film has no business being an "issue" film. There's also a subplot involving a rival cop team (Rob Riggle and Damon Wayans Jr.) that goes absolutely nowhere. But there are scenes involving Coogan's bribes and a fight between the teams at an inappropriate location that make up for the storylines' shortcomings.

There's really nothing that "The Other Guys" does that's fancy, it's just a funny, familiar movie with some funny performances. I won't remember it at the end of the year, but I walked away grinning. That's all the film asks from people. I want to show this film to the people who made "Dinner for Schmucks" and ask if it's really so hard to perform at this level.

5:15 pm est          Comments

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