Movie Reviews from the past month

The Break-Up

Romantic comedies follow the same old plot cliché of two people trying to form a relationship with hilarious happenings along the way (usually in the form of slap stick and cheesy jokes). What makes The Break-Up different is that it is about just that, a break up instead of a hook up. What makes it the same is that it has lame acting, tired dialogue, and weak direction.

Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston play Gary Grobowski and Brooke Meyers an on the rocks couple who rent the same condo in Chicago together. As with any break up, both parties think they are in the right, and refuse to relent in the face of other guys and girls they each parade in front of the former significant other. Brooke goes so far as to prance around naked sporting a recent “Telly Savalas” wax job, while Gary befriends and steals away her new boy toy via video games.

With humour like that, how could it go wrong?

Well there’s the lack of any discernable chemistry between Vaughn and Aniston, for one thing. They may be good off screen, but on screen it was just painful to watch. This was exceptionally prevalent in Vaughn. He’s shown time and time again his knack for comedy in Wedding Crashers, Old School and Swingers, so my only deduction for this unfunny anomaly in his filmography is the costar, Jennifer Aniston.

And Aniston. Why do you still play Rachel (Friends)? I realize that was the launching pad for your career, and you only quit playing her two years ago, but it’s time to move past that. These are feature films, not a television show, different kind of acting. Stretch your range a bit. Some people are still rooting for you to do well. Leave Rachel behind, and focus on what makes Brook be Brooke. And if you can’t find any difference between Rachel and a movie character, don’t pick the script.

When Peyton Reed hit the scene in 2000 with the surprisingly funny Bring It On, I must admit I had high hopes for him, as did many critics. It was a novice outing with a funny teen film as the first major studio film, in the vein of Cameron Crowe, Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater. And maybe those three respected filmmakers set the bar too high for him to reach. Since Bring It On it’s been a painful fall from grace, and this is just another low blow to his career.

I’d comment more on the writing, but it’s been a month since I’ve seen it, and I blocked most of the dialogue from my memory. But I do remember that it generally went “fault of his…fault of hers… she’s a bitch… he’s a bastard” only dragged out for an excruciating hour and 45 minutes. Throw in a few emotional breakthroughs and that’s the film in a nutshell.

Breaking the mold of an already faulty genre does not an instant classic make. It just means it’s an unusual addition to the faulty genre, rather than an exception. And Reed should have paid closer attention to the romantic comedies that Linklater (Before Sunrise), Crowe (Jerry Maguire) and Smith (Chasing Amy) made following their teen flicks. The devil is in the dialogue, and more attention should have been paid attention to it. Oh, and casting the right people for the parts, rather than the flavours of the month. That really helps too.

1.5 Stars

Nacho Libre

The Frat Pack has been exploding all over the place. Will Ferrell has had his starring vehicles. As has Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Owen and Luke Wilson and Jack Black. Jack Black beats Owen Wilson, Ferrell and freshman initiate Justin Long to the summer movie comedy throne with Jared and Jerusha Hess’ follow-up to Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre.

Nacho Libre is about a man (Black) who was raised in a Catholic run Mexican orphanage. He studies to be a monk and is employed as the resident chef, making food that would be considered cruel and unusual punishment in the American prison system. But while he enjoys his work, he still desires to achieve his life long dream of becoming a Luchador (wrestler). This goes against the teachings of the monastery, so he fights in near secrecy as Nacho Libre, donning a mask to conceal his identity. He hopes to fight in a title match, winning money for the orphanage to have better food and a mode of transportation to go on field trips.

This film is really intended to hit only a few specialized audiences. Kids who will watch anything thrown at them (it’s produced by Nickelodeon Studios), Jack Black fans, Napoleon Dynamite fans, and to a much lesser extent, wrestling fans.

Black runs this film. Where in his other films, like School of Rock and Shallow Hal, he had to rely on the supporting cast to really make the film, Nacho Libre could have been an hour and a half of just Black running around in tights, and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. But it serves for a very interesting paradox. While Black dominates this film, he doesn’t come off as completely overbearing, as one might have expected. It’s his film, but he’s oddly repressed enough to allow his Mexican co-stars (each making their American major film debut) Ana de la Reguera and Hector Jimenez show off their talent.

The heart of the film still beats with all the marks of the Hesses. It’s slow, simple and quiet. But not to the extent of it being bad. But again, you really have to have liked Napoleon Dynamite in order to fully enjoy this new venture. One can only hope that the two quickly learn that while the formula may have worked once (and now perhaps twice), it won’t work every time, and they explore their range of filmmaking.

The wrestling scenes, while far between and almost too short, are highly entertaining, and should make any wrestling fan let out even the faintest of laughs.

It’s an enjoyable film, but I’m afraid a bit too specialized, and my tastes are too broad to adequately suit it.

2 stars

Superman Returns

It’s been almost 20 years since the Man of Steel last saw the silver screen, and 10 of those (as well as a reported $40 million) had been spent trying to get this film off the ground. The project had many different people attached in that time, including Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, McG and Brett Ratner directing, and Nicolas Cage, Brenden Fraser and Ashton Kutcher all rumoured to play the Kryptonian. With all that talent and financial backing in the 10 year development stage, this was set to be the biggest movie of the year.

Brett Ratner traded Bryan Singer for directing duties on X-Men: The Last Stand, and Singer went for unknown Brandon Routh to don the cape and tights.

Superman Returns is about just that- Superman returning. We start with both Superman and Clark Kent returning from a five year absence (why no one put two and two together, I’ll never know) to a world that has radically changed, and Superman now ponders if he should have even come back. The love of his life, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) is now engaged and has a young child. Kent is barely able to get his job back at the Daily Planet, and, oh by the way, Lane won the Pulitzer for writing an article entitled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Of course trusty old Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been freed from jail, thanks to the absence of Superman at his appeals trial, and is up to his old tricks, only this time with the very same technology that Superman had been sent to Earth with from Krypton, which Luthor had stolen from the Fortress of Solitude.

Superman has never been a multi-layered superhero. He never had the brooding angst which made Batman such an interesting hero. Superman had all the powers that could make him perfect. He invincible to everything except a rare metal that very few even knew existed. And he stood for truth, justice and the American way. Very one dimensional. And what broke down here was that they tried to infuse internal dilemmas into a story that never really had any. Warner Brothers wanted another Batman Begins without realizing that Superman is NOT Batman. And the story suffered for it.

It also lacked the charm of the original film series. It fell victim to the 21st century and was too much action, not enough substance. All glitz and no glamour. The true appeal of Superman, at least for me, is concocting somewhat interesting stories out of this flat character. And I for one was not interested.
The principal cast is where it really begins to break apart. Brandon Routh makes a fine Superman, but just wasn’t there for Clark Kent. I didn’t buy him. He was almost too good looking to be believable as a loveable dorky reporter and a handsome superhero. Christopher Reeve was just perfect for it.

I really can’t say enough negative things about Kate Bosworth. I’ve never been too fond of her in the first place, but Lois Lane is just as iconic as Superman, so she had some mighty big shoes to fill. And she didn’t. When I was watching her, I felt like I was watching a bad imitation of all the Lois Lanes in the past, rather than watching Lois Lane. She lacked that inner spunk and naivety which made both Margot Kidder and Teri Hatcher shine in the role. And the thing is, Singer came oh so close to casting the right person. But instead of putting Parker Posey in as Lois Lane, she had squander her talent in the equally alliterative, yet less important role of Kitty Kowalski, Luthor’s female henchman.

But wouldn’t you know it, Kevin Spacey really came from left field and played a perfect Lex Luthor. And I think he did it right. He acknowledged Gene Hackman’s interpretation, but brought his own style to it, and played it a bit darker, a bit more megalomaniacal than Hackman’s. And he stands as the saving grace of the film.

Singer should have stuck with the X-Men franchise. I don’t blame him for leaving it for his dream project, how often does that get dropped into your lap. But he was better there, and I think he had more to work with, and less pressure to deal with. Superman was just too big for him.

He also faulted when it came to the construction of the film. He relied way too much on digital effects, what I dub the George Lucas trap. Plenty could have been done with set pieces and creative stunt work. But he opted to trust all that to a computer, and in the end he blurred the line between real-life and animation (pay attention to Superman’s face, it’s too perfect at times).

It accomplishes being a fun, entertaining film. But I have a feeling that that’s really not what they were aiming for. And since both the filmmaker’s intentions and the audience’s expectations were not met, it is ultimately and unfortunately a failure.

3 stars

A Prairie Home Companion

This is one of those films where you like it, but you’re not entirely sure why. It’s charming. It’s a charismatic film which draws you in, you recognize its faults, and you just want to keep watching, enjoying yourself.

A Prairie Home Companion is based on Garrison Keillor’s (he also plays a version of himself, dubbed just GK) public radio show of the same name. The show is performing it’s last show ever in the same live theatre it’s been performing it in for the past 30 years or so (no actual time frame is given, and I’m going to operate under the presumption that this is a fictional version of the show). The cast of characters that make up the show include Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), sort of like the Carters, only grown up. Two folk singing, joke telling cowboys Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), and a noir-ish security guard aptly named Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), who is on the lookout for a stranger known only to us as “Dangerous Woman” (Virgina Madsen). Lindsay Lohan, Tommy Lee Jones and Maya Rudolph round out the rest of the very large principle cast.

It would be too hard and too lengthy to discuss everyone’s performance in great detail, so I’ll try to stick to key points. Kline was just amazing. He hasn’t been this funny since A Fish Called Wanda and for my money, was the shiniest starriest (yeah, I can say it) person in the film. Streep and Tomlin’s shtick got to grating at times, and you wish they’d stop. But then again, I’m one of the few people in the world that isn’t really a fan of Streep (she’s a great actress, don’t get me wrong, just not my cup of tea), so that may have had something to do with it. Harrelson and Reilly seemed like they had been doing that act for years, and seemed perfectly at home on stage with each other (them doing the dirty jokes was classic). Jones was good in his brief onscreen appearance, cold as the ice he didn’t want in his glass of water, which played well off of Kline’s zaniness.

Robert Altman is one of those directors who are just master storytellers. He constructs his films in such a way that even if it isn’t the best or even really good; you’re still engrossed in what they’re saying. Cause you feel they’ve been doing it for so long and they’ve done it so well that you treat it as if it’s the most important thing you’ll ever hear, even if he’s just talking about a trip to the grocery store. Very few filmmakers are like that. I’d have to put Sidney Lumet and maybe Martin Scorsese in that category.

It’s a charming little film with a big cast that just clicks on many levels.

4 stars

The Lake House

It’s been 12 years since Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves saved a bus load of Los Angelinos from a mad man. Now they’re writing love notes in Chicago, the barrier of time be damned.

Bullock plays Kate Forester, a new resident at a busy Chicago hospital, who has to move out of the titular lake house to be closer to work. She leaves a note in the mailbox for the new tenant, which is picked up by Reeves’ Alex Wyler. But here’s the catch. For Alex it’s April 2004. For Kate, it’s April 2006. The two continue to exchange letters, and form an odd love affair. How is this possible? How does Wyler explain the situation to Forester before she becomes cognizant of it in her own timeline?

I’ve long been a fan of fiction centered on time travel, or the bending of the fabric of time. I think it’s interesting how they work in all the intricacies of it. This film kind of took liberties with that, to their credit, but unfortunately didn’t always make it work. There were some instances where the couple changes the past or future because of the letters, like the tree growing in front of Kate’s apartment building. But then they concede that time may be cyclical, i.e. the concept of fate and what not. Not to consistent with its theories, and that thing, above all else, bugged me.

It was fun to see these two together again, as they had an undeniable chemistry in Speed. Reeves, however, needs to stick to action films. While fun to watch onscreen, he is by no means a great actor. He’s barely any good, without being downright bad. Constantine exemplified this by providing us with the most unintentionally funny lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard. He’s a bit stiff in The Lake House, though does provide a better reading of his lines. And since I don’t really expect much of out Reeves, he can impress me with even a minimal amount of work.

Bullock returns to the “chick flick” genre that has brought her fame and fortune during the course of her career. And it seems to be where she’s most comfortable. Bullock appears to love romantic films, and slips into her various characters with the greatest of ease. But it by no means implies that she phones in her performance.

What shines for me is Alejandro Agresti’s direction. His meticulousness (despite the conflicting time travel theories) attention to detail and subtle visual clues (of which there are many) make this a beautifully realized film. While I’m still trying to figure out the mechanics of how that gorram mailbox worked, you don’t really care as you’re watching the film, it’s like an afterthought.

3.5 stars

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Captain Jack is back with William Turner and Elizabeth Swan in tow, while the East India Trading Company has warrants out for their (and former Commodore James Norrington) arrests. It’s double crosses and secret pacts abound on ye olde Black Pearl.

The entire cast returns from the first film as the nuptials of Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Swan (Keira Knightley) are interrupted by their arrest for the aiding of Cpt. Jack Sparrow’s (Johnny Depp) escape from custody at the end of the first film. Turner is then offered a deal. If he can get Sparrow’s famed compass which does not work and bring it to the conniving Cpt. Bellamy (Alex Norton) than both he and Swan will go free. He agrees and goes on a hunt for the elusive Sparrow. Sparrow meanwhile has had an unfortunate run in with famed pirate Davy Jones (Bill Nighy), to whom Sparrow owes his soul, and if he doesn’t make good on their deal of 100 souls for Jones’ half human/half sea-creature crew, then Sparrow will be forced into servitude. And as a bonus subplot, Turner is reunited with his long lost dad, Bootstrap Bill Turner (Stellan Skarsgard).

I must preface the rest of the review with the fact that I did like it, and it was a good film. I really enjoyed it.

It was a different film though. But in neither a good nor bad way. It’s a hard to describe sort of thing. The first film was a very tight film, with everything working together, and it was pretty character driven, with the action element. But director Gore Verbinski seemed to take it into a different direction with the second (and subsequent third) installment of the franchise. It was infinitely more action oriented, and since it is a companion piece it would be hard to fully appreciate or enjoy without third, which we have to wait just under 11 months to see (fyi, it’s been titled Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). Verbinski does set up the end to lead into the third one, with the shocking departure of one character, and the even more shocking return of another.

And to Verbinski’s credit, it is still a well crafted film. It’s got the swashbuckling grandeur that made the first one so enjoyable. It’s a true delight to see, because even with the human/shark hybrids wandering around the deck, you can’t really see any CGI, which itself is marvel in this day and age.

The performances of all involved were top notch. I could speak volumes on Depp as Sparrow or the chemistry between Bloom and Swan. But the two who really show cased their talent in this film were Nighy and Jack Davenport. Nighy was acting through both prosthetics and a computer generated beard of tentacles. But he was able to keep his very expressive face and every so often you could see a hint of Nighy peaking through the make up. And Davenport as the now-broken Commodore Norrington who has since been discharged from the Royal Navy and now travels about searching for Jack to get some of his former life back in order. We first see him on the pirate haven island of Tortuga. Davenport plays a pitch perfect moody and broken man, with inklings of Sparrow inside himself, which is why I believe he detests Sparrow so much. Norrington is starting to become a version of Sparrow.

The biggest annoyance I had with this film was the recycling of old jokes. A few at the beginning were just fine, I chuckled. But some just got beat to death. About halfway in I was sitting there thinking, “Alright, I get it, the goddamn rum is gone!” That removed me from the picture.

I can’t down vote a film just because of a minor annoyance like the repetition of jokes. Certainly not one which was an otherwise enjoyable experience, and was by no stretch of the imagination bad. But I have to take into consideration that they made it a companion piece with the conclusion a year away, instead of a stand alone film.

4 stars

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