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When I’m telling the story of my life to my grandkids, it is highly probable I’ll leave out the time I watched a movie for the twenty seconds Jessica Alba was in it.  Where does that rate on the Moments I’m Not Proud Of scale?  Maybe a little better than the week one thinks was probably spent in a Taiwanese crack den, but can’t really remember.  And a little worse than realizing the total hours spent on Guitar Hero may have reached triple digits.

The story (by Leora Barish and Henry Bean (the team behind, um, Basic Instinct 2)) is actually kind of interesting.  Taking place in the near future, there’s an island just off the coast (some generic coast of some generic city) that has been turned into a prison.  When the prisoners revolt, taking the guards and their families hostage, the (evil, naturally) corporation running the jail decides the best response is to just forget the place ever existed.  Now fast forward about twenty years.  Three people on the island jail manage to escape.  Two make it to civilization.  One of whom is the lovely Audie England (the clip below is from some movie called Free Enterprise, but rates decently on the unintentional comedy scale):

Through some deus ex machina, she ends up with a sweet crib and a job waitressing at a bar.  But at the same time, the corporation, determined to continue covering up what happened at the island, begins a hunt for the escapees.  For reasons not entirely clear, the mayor appears to be tied up in the mess.  And the only person entrusted to undertake the manhunt is someone in the town’s prison (Billy Wirth).

Anyway, Wirth is promised his freedom if he finds the escapees.  It isn’t long before he starts circling Audie England.  Now, the rest of the plot more or less follows your standard thriller format.  Wirth falls for England, the other escapee strongarms England, she leads Wirth to him, and there’s a climactic four way shootout with the three of them and someone from the corporation, as Wirth struggles to figure out what he thinks is the right thing to do.

Well, a standard plot with three exceptions.  Wirth and England actually first meet in this totally insane virtual reality world.  The basic idea behind the world is you put on glasses, describe how you want to look, and then have any sort of wild and/or kinky sex with an anonymous stranger you desire.  Wirth and England choose the scenario which takes place on a train, and which inevitably starts with them (or, at least, different actors playing romance novel versions of them) staring at each other and then walking slowly toward the same room.  It felt like ten minutes of the movie is devoted to this kind of odd and incredibly boring footage.

Second, Morgan Fairchild has an inexplicable cameo as the owner of the bar where England works.  I think she’s tied into the whole corporation coverup thing, but really, it is just a cheap excuse to be able to put her on the cover of the DVD box.  And third, the ending actually turns out to be a little discordant with the rest of the movie.

I actually think the story would make for an interesting tv show.  Something J.J. Abrams-ish, light futuristic sci-fi, nebulous corporation pulling strings, that jail on the island could be a source of new characters / counterpoint to the society on the mainland, you could soup up the virtual reality angle.  To me, shoehorning the ideas into a movie forced them into something substandard.

Leora Barish’s script is awkward, to be kind.  Explanations for why things happen are optional, apparently.  In a similar vein, the flow of the movie feels off as it jumps from scene to scene, offering little in the way of solid connections.  Not that I’m saying there’s an issue with believability, since we all know that isn’t my schtick, more than the movie seems to be in such a hurry to get to the next plot point, the film sometimes glosses over how it got there.  It is also incredibly jarring that once the people escape from the jail island, we never revisit the place.  I’m fine with the film making some sort of point about it, but then I think there needs to at least be an implicit reference to the fact that everyone is cool with leaving every to continue fending for themselves on the island, a place where there is no food, and a new generation of people are being born in captivity.

Oh, and yeah, the twenty second flashback Jessica Alba is in?  She’s an age more appropriate for Brian.  And has like one line.  Good times.

The trailer (couldn’t find an embeddable one) is worth watching if you don’t plan on seeing the movie, because it lies and give away most of the ending.

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In The Eye, Jessica Alba plays a blind violinist who receives a eye transplant of some sort.  Fortunately, the transplant is a success and she can see for the first time in years.  Unfortunately, the previous owner had the ability to see some supernatural things.  Which, disturbing to those with sight, must be doubly so for someone who has been blind for so long.  And convenient to the plot, since someone just regaining her eyesight isn’t likely to be believed when she complains of seeing things she shouldn’t.

I’ve seen plenty of terrible movies in my likely misguided quest to see all of Jessica Alba’s movies.  I’m happy to admit it.  The Eye, though, isn’t one of them.  Perhaps the highest praise I can bestow upon it is that it manages to never go quite over the top.  A little scary at times, Sebastian Gutierrez’s (Snakes on a Plane) script maintains (based on a 2002 Asian movie) a pretty solid pace, not getting bogged down with long-winded explanations, piled-on backstory, or unnecessary scenes.  Sure, the movie feels like a middling episode of The Twilight Zone.  But that’s not entirely a bad thing.  The world needs more Twilight Zone.  Though, unlike most episodes of the Rod Serling masterpiece, The Eye has some trouble with the transitions between acts.  They seem unnecessarily jarring and harsh.

Parker Posey shows up in the movie.  Not entirely sure why.  Well, I assume it is to give the movie some street cred.  Plus, imdb lists the movie as an indie, which was probably draw enough for Ms. Posey.  Alessandro Nivola has a fantastic imdb page.  Face/Off, Jurassic Park III, Junebug, Goal!, and Grace is Gone?  Golden Grouch hero!  Granted, to me he is just about the epitome of generic dashing leading man sure to not overshadow the bettr paid leading lady.

And the lovely Miss Alba.  Or is it Mrs. Warren?  I realize I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think she’s a bad actress, just been forced into an unfortunate series of roles.  The Eye adds some evidence to my theory, I think.  Not advocating any hardware or anything, but like I mention above, the movie never goes over the top.  A blind violinist who sees supernatural things surely would become something ridiculous if played by another actress, but Alba does a perfectly adequate job.

So, a serviceable movie.  Not too scary, but some chill-inducing moments.

Anyone else feel that David Fincher makes generally solid movies that get vaguely disappointing about three-quarters of the way through?

The Game stars Michael Douglas as a wealthy, cold-blooded businessman with father issues.  Sean Penn is his kid brother who ascribes his newfound direction in life to his participation in a sort of real life LARP.  (Feel free to insert your own U of C joke here.  I know I did!).  Penn gives a gift certificate to this game, run by a mysterious company, to his brother as a birthday present.  Douglas soon becomes ensnared by the game, trying to figure out what is real, as the stakes quickly escalate.

The premise is compelling.  But the script, by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris, doesn’t entirely deliver.  The generally taut film could stand to have a heightened sense of suspense.  The movie had aspirations to be a top notch psychological thriller, but instead settles for being your run of the mill thriller.  Which is fine, there’s value in that.  It is just a little disappointing that the film stops short of really interesting stuff, making do with more generic plot points.  I won’t include any spoilers, but I found the ending to be rather mundane.  Yeah, it wraps things up nicely.  But that’s not always the best way to end things.

I guess I’m just suggesting the movie could have gone to more interesting places.  Instead we are left with a perfectly servicable movie, but one which fails to offer any real insight or suspense.  As if the movie were constructed from a standard thriller template, with no feeling added.  Heck, I can think of two movies I enjoy more than this one that have “The Game” in the title.  But as my star rating shows, I wouldn’t say the movie is bad or not enjoyable.  Just kinda average.

Trailer after the jump: Read the rest of this entry »

Peter Morgan is truly a master of the horribly boring historical drama.  The Last King of Scotland is kinda tolerable, mostly due to the force that is Forest Whitaker.  The Queen, and I won’t back down from this view, is tremendously dull.  And now, The Other Boleyn Girl (based on the prior two titles, I might have laid some money down on this movie having “Prince” in the title).

Few people can make palace intrigue as uninteresting as Morgan does.  Somehow, the way Henry VIII plows through women, the importance of a male heir, the role of women in politics, and the whole creating the Church of England thing are all treated with the gravitas of an episode of Three’s Company.  The movie focuses on the Boleyn family, shifting Eric Bana’s Henry VIII to a supporting role.  Which is a perfectly justifiable decision.  Except that the king still plays such a central role in events, it seems indefensible to me to not grant his character any depth.  Worse, the depiction of Henry VIII is inconsistent (and not mercurial, I’d argue), tending toward any number of character traits.

Now, costume design doesn’t generally impact my thoughts on a movie.  Generally speaking, I could care less what the characters are wearing, and the vast majority of the time, I can’t even remember the costumes twenty minutes after I see a movie.  (A notable exception, obviously, is Paul Rudd donning the O’s jersey in the fantasy baseball draft scene from Knocked Up.)  Anyway, I bring up costume design because given the setting of the movie, the role seduction plays, and the two lovely female leads, I don’t think I was out of line in expecting, you know, some decolletage…a heaving bosom, maybe.  Now, I’m not saying they made Portman and Johansson unattractive, we all know that’s pretty much impossible.  But, I mean, nothing else was going on in the movie.  We couldn’t have had something pretty to look at?

The two female characters aren’t quite as poorly-written as King Henry.  They aren’t necessarily likeable or easy to relate to, but they at least make sense as characters.  And, as probably goes without saying, are made better by Natalie and Scarlett.  Though I’m really disappointed in them for choosing such a lackluster script.  Also, major props for posing the cinematic question: Scarlett or Natalie?  That, by itself, is worth is a star in my book.  Jim Sturgess is in the movie, meaning he’s, to this point, a part of my two least favorite movies of 2008.  So that’s something.

I liked Ang Lee’s version better.

Really, I only have one problem with Zak Penn’s script.  None of the characters have any depth whatsoever.  OK, maybe it is a big problem.  Every major character is a cariacture, or worse, not even developed enough to be a cariacture.

Tim Roth as a bad guy is inspired casting.  But what’s the point if he’s essentially treated as a rabid dog?  William Hurt is all kinds of awesome.  Too bad we learn everything we will about his character immediately upon meeting him.  Liv Tyler, well, her character was basically the same as that from That Thing You Do!, only less interesting.  And yes, any movie I’d write would probably have a role for Ed Norton.  But here, sure seems like all he gets to do is run.  And morph into the Hulk.

Granted, the special effects are cool, and the fight scenes aren’t half bad.  But so what?  Might as well just make the video game, if those are the highlights.

While movies recognized by the Oscars are generally released at the end of the year, that’s not to say movies released earlier in the year can’t be great as well.  None of us have seen as many first half 2008 movies as we might like, so our lists are certain to change.  But here are our top five movies (so far) released in the first six months of 2008.

John

1. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
2. In Bruges
3. The Bank Job
4. Kung Fu Panda
5. Recount

Jared

1. WALL-E
2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
3. Rambo
4. In Bruges
5. Get Smart

Adam

1. Iron Man
2. Wanted
3. In Bruges
4. Get Smart
5. WALL-E

Brian

1. Iron Man
2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
3. WALL-E
4. Glass: Portrait in Twelve Parts
5. The Bank Job

Since Signs, M. Night Shyamalan has come out with The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening, leading some to suggest that he’s lost his touch.  He certainly has fallen out of favor with critics (The Happening is 19% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (the movie grossed just over $60 million domestically and has a 5.4 on imdb).  So naturally, here’s where I’m going to defend him.

To me, The Happening masterfully created a constant sense of unease.  The characters never knew why things were unfolding as they were any more than the audience did.  There was just something wrong.  If there was genius in the plot of the movie, it was that there was no bad guy.  No one controlling things, no one to defeat.  Just varying degrees of panic.  And I think that’s what worked for the movie.  Every decision made by the characters could be a fatal one.  Each new character met is a desperate, yet ultimately unsuccessful, chance for any sort of information.  So this unease runs throughout nearly the entire movie.  The little bit of thrill of not knowing, where everything could be important, yet nothing is.  Where the answer to that ultimate question of “Why?” is constantly just beyond our grasp.

The Happening had plenty of flaws.  The dialogue got a bit hokey.  The plot structure was a bit odd and the ending was unsatisfying.  And I’m not sure the message or the way it was delivered was a big hit.  Just wanted to be clear on all that.  So, I’d like to suggest Shyamalan find himself a good writing partner.  Because I do think he has great ideas for stories, and a consistently excellent way of generating tension, he just needs some help ensuring his stories are told in an engaging manner.

The Protector is a decent movie, or at least I imagine it would be as an introduction to Tony Jaa.  A Thai martial arts flick starring Jaa, the film mostly takes place in Australia (presumably to fit in with the intention to market it in the U.S.,  and relates the story of…well…some bad guys steal an elephant and Tony Jaa has to go beat the tar out of them in order to retrieve his pachyderm.  Bear with me for a second, but the problem with the film, in my mind, was its struggle to have a coherent, somewhat intricate plot.  Because, let’s face it, martial arts movies don’t particularly need a twisty plot.  Give me someone awesome (e.g. Bruce Lee), and a reason, even of the flimsiest order, this someone awesome has for violence (e.g. a martial arts tournament, revenge for the death of a family member, or preferably both).  That’s it.

Anyway, and I’m guessing it is because The Protector was always, as far as I can tell, intended to be a statement that Thai movies could play in this country, it was decided to devote a significant chunk of time to a subplots such as the struggle within a crime family for power, police corruption, and something rather bizarre I don’t want to spoil, I’ll just say it was reminiscent of a scene from The Freshman (1990 version).  Oh, and elephants.  Lots with the elephants.  Somehow, though, no real love interest.  And, of course, since it was a martial arts movie, it all was terribly hokey.  And took away from the awesomeness that is Tony Jaa.

The martial arts were decent, or if you’ve never seen Tony Jaa, awesome.  The climactic battle was fun, but slightly disappointing.  There’s a cool tracking shot.  My favorite scene though, was an utterly ridiculous battle pitting Jaa against dozens of henchmen, which devolves into him taking roughly a half second against each one, breaking some bone/joint/tendon/ligament in increasingly cruel ways.  If you have anything like the sensibilities of a red-blooded male, you’ll laugh with glee at the insanity of it all.

As I’ve hinted at, I found The Protector a huge step back from Ong Bak.  Which may be the most jaw-dropping movie I’ve ever seen.  I dare you not to be awed by the first ten minutes.  And every ten minutes after that.

Trailer after the jump.  Oh, and be sure to check out the imdb trivia for at least one surprise. Read the rest of this entry »

I know the 2007 Oscar season is pretty thoroughly behind us and we’re in the middle of getting the site ready for the 2008 season, but something has been bothering me in the back of my head for a few months now and it’s gotten to the point where I just have to write something about it. That something is how much I hated Margot at the Wedding.

Brian said that The Savages showed “How to Out Baumbach Baumbach.” If Margot at the Wedding is any indication then that’s pretty easy.

I thoroughly disliked it when I watched it. As time grew so did my loathing. Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh play distant, selfish sisters. Jason Leigh’s Pauline is marrying Jack Black’s Malcolm. Kidman’s Margot comes for the big day even though her invitation was just a courtesy. Her odd son Claude comes along. Save for Claude, none of the major characters has a single redeeming feature that made me care one iota about them. They spend all their time together undermining each other and talking behind each other’s backs. And they don’t even discuss anything; they talk at each other instead of to, like two one-sided conversations that happen to occur in the same room, which is entirely unsatisfying.

So all we have are these horrible conversations that go nowhere supported by almost no story. At the end everyone still hates each other and nobody has grown. What is the point, besides boring me?

That’s all bad enough but there are all these creepy undertones to Claude and Margot’s relationship that made watching this film a truly distasteful experience. Claude’s a weird kid, but at least he’s aware enough to realize the rest of his family is severely messed up. Mother and son are close but in a completely unhealthy way: he’s overly-reliant on her, she domineers and manipulates him to use him as a tool to needle her sister. She shows no affection except to manipulate. And yet I’d describe their relationship as near-incestuous. I don’t know what Baumbach was going for but if it wasn’t “incredibly creepy” then he severely missed his mark. You really have to see the film to understand how unsettling these two are. Except don’t, because it sucks.

For a brief period I was surprised to be impressed by Jack Black’s performance. That period passed.

So let it be known that I just couldn’t leave 2007 before letting the world know how much I despised Margot at the Wedding.

The Spiderwick Chronicles was the other movie I saw on the flight back from Vegas.  Coupled with the fact that I’m not much for fantasy anyway, there’s probably no reason to post my thoughts on the film.  A few quick notes:

The cast is pretty interesting: Seth Rogen and Martin Short provide voices, and David Straithairn, Joan Plowright, and Andrew McCarthy all have supporting roles.  Mary-Louise Parker plays the mom, only solidifying her MILF status.  Freddie Highmore plays brothers in a dual role, for no apparent reason.  But one of them is named Jared, so it is fine by me.  Sarah Bolger plays his sister, and does she appeal to Brian?  You be the judge. Best of all is Nick Nolte’s cameo, which might make seeing the movie worthwhile, even though it is like thirty seconds.

Actually, that’s all I got.  I thought the story was a little half-baked, but that could probably have described my state on the plane back from Vegas.  Damn you, three card poker!

July 2008
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