Monday, December 31, 2007

Juno: Over-Cool. But Over-Cool is Still Cool.

Juno is too cool for its own good, but don't take that as a criticism; Rather, take it a a necessary warning that will allow you to enjoy it anyway.

I saw an interview with Juno's screenwriter (Diablo Cody) and director (Jason Reitman) a while back. These were two cool cats.

She was particularly cool; all inked up, dressed in an outfit that screamed SECONDHAND STORE at the top of its lungs. I was already on guard against "over-cool" before going into this movie, so it's pretentiousness didn't belly-punch me as hard as it otherwise would have. But it still gave my tensed-up gut a good wallop.

The first "over-cool" was the soundtrack. My ears are still angry with me. Honestly, I know I already used the word "pretentious" in this review, but I can't think of another word to describe it, and I don't have enough time to go to right now, cause I have a New Year's Eve party to go to. Nobody listens to this crap unless they want everyone overhearing them listening to it to think they're- well, cool. It was distractingly bad. But it DID effectively set the mood, which was borderline-playful, borderline-serious.

Complaint Number 2: the dialogue.

Some movies have cool dialogue, and they let you just sit back and notice it. This one was so overboard with it that you barely had time to notice anything else! Which is too bad, because there was a lot else to be appreciated in this smartly-written movie. Such as the phenomenal acting. Or the simple humanism displayed in the protrayal of everyone involved in this difficult teen-pregnancy situation.
The dialogue was brilliant and smart and hip, and WAY over the top in it's brilliant, smart hip-ness. It felt like the writer had a notebook of cool phrases and words she had compiled while eavesdropping on modern-day teenagers, and then constructed the screenplay around that.

But so what? It was entertaining to take in, and I'm way past the days when I go to the movies for realism.

Now when you watch a movie like this, to enjoy it, you have to check your politics at the door. Because whether you're pro-life or pro-choice, you're going to have your viewpoint get a little made-fun-of at some stage in the game. (Like the lone abortion protestor outside the clinic, chanting "All babies want to be borned"; countered moments later by the dirtbag attendant inside the clinic who deadpans the praises of flavored condoms to our teen protagonist.)

But when you're writing a "cool" movie, it's not cool to take a stand, even when your main character, by necessity, does just that. Some might call this a little cowardly; I might be inclined to agree. But this movie wants your money, not your vote. Maximum profits mean you have to appeal to both sides of the underlying issue.

As far as the acting goes, if you're looking for Oscar contenders, take your pick. My personal favorites were J.K. Simmons as Juno's Dad, Jason Bateman as the reluctant prospective adoptive father of her baby, and Allison Janney as her stepmother, who loves the teen she bickers with day in and day out. And Juno herself (Ellen Page), of course, carries the movie even better than she carries around her prosthetic gut.

I guess the bottom-line reason I liked this movie so much was because, despite the ridiculous vernacular used, the exchanges here were heartwarming and tender and realistic. This isn't YOUR family you're watching, this is the family that produced the odd-ball Juno, and I was convinced that they were real. They never condoned her pregnancy, but they never disowned their daughter, and they acted exactly like what I would have expected that family to act like. It was fun to watch, I never once felt preached to (which is especially commendable for a movie with a theme like this one), and I was able to sit back and watch realistic people cope with a tough situation, resulting from what they admitted were unwise choices.

I give Juno a 7 out 0f 10, and if Diablo Cody will change her name back to whatever her mother named her and write me a movie with maybe half the clever slang in it next time, she might just earn a 9. Honestly, ma'am, you had 3 movies worth of "cool" in that little notebook of yours, why did you go and waste it all on one single screenplay?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

I Am Legend: I Am Satisfied.

Are you in the mood for a thinking-man's movie, stacked with twists and turns and subplots and a surprise ending that blows you out of your seat?

You are?

Oh. Sorry, I can't think of anything to recommend to you this year.

But if you'd be satisfied with an adequate sci-fi thriller, heavy on special effects and action, and light-to-medium on thought and plot, then give "I Am Legend" your hard-earned nine dollars.

There have been quite a few movies this year that have left me feeling incomplete. "August Rush" felt like it ended about ten seconds to soon. "No Country For Old Men" seemed to waste its phenomenal acting and directing on a story that dragged me around rudely for two hours, only to dump me off a couple of blocks from where I started, but in a bad part of town.

I'm sorry, but that annoys me. Don't lure me into the theater unless you intend to tell me a story. And don't start telling me a story unless you have every intention to finish what you started.

You won't have that problem with this movie.

Will Smith stars as the Last Man on Earth, in a New York City overrun with the zombie-esque victims of a human-made supervirus. We follow him over the course of a couple of days, watching his lonely daily routine broken up by conversations with mannequins and his dog, violent run-ins with zombies, and medical research in his basement to find a cure for the super-virus. (Lucky for humankind, the last normal human alive is also a genius virologist. What are the chances, right?)

The plot is a simple-minded, point A to point B to point C kind of story. But they have fights with zombies and they blow up a lot of crap, so that makes up for what it lacks in smarts.

And it's not like the movie is completely devoid of intelligence. If you want something deeper than simple action out of your movie, it delivers on that level too. There's a classic Good-Vs.-Evil message here spelled out in the form of "Light dispells the evil-doers" and a Bob Marley soundtrack. (You'll find it, don't worry, it's not buried that deep.)

Bottom line, I Am Legend satisfies. It doesn't amaze or dazzle, and it isn't that deep-in-your-soul kind of satisfaction, but it delivers the 2 hours of entertainment you were looking for, without leaving you feeling like you got three-quarters of a good story followed immediately by the closing credits.

I give it a 7 out of 10. Maybe it only deserves a 6, but I like it when they blow crap up.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Golden Compass: Pointing The Way To Flop-ville

Before I say ANYTHING about the Golden Compass, I want to make it clear, in fairness, that I slept through about half of it. But that's actually part of my review: It literally put me to sleep.

A lot of my criticism about this atrocious film can be attributed to my disdain for fantasy films on general. For a long time, Fantasy was an avoided film genre, for the simple reason that it was nearly impossible to achieve the level of special effects you needed to make a fantasy film look good.

Oh, how I long for those days.... the days when they made up for the lack of style with substance. "Willow" and "The Dark Crystal" come to mind.

Now to be sure, there are some smart fantasy films coming out today, too... LOTR, the first Narnia film... DO NOT lump this fresh steaming turd in with THOSE films! Place it in the "Eragon" and "Beowulf" category instead.

I literally don't even know where to start, or where to go with this. That's ok too, because neither did the film. It was all over the board from start to finish. Characters appeared and disappeared, leaving you feeling empty, but leaving the impression they were somehow supposed to be important. At one point I woke up and saw the Coca-Cola Polar Bears wrestling. At another I emerged from my slumber to see what I can only assume to be the climatic battle scene (Don't all fantasy films end in a climatic battle scene?) being waged between a bunch of kids and what looked to me like the evil flying Monkeys from the Wizard of Oz. Or maybe they were Sun Tzu's army. I couldn't tell and didn't care. Everytime the tide seemed to turn against the kids, they'd look off in another direction and see someone or something sweeping in to save the day. After the third pack of reinforcements arrived just in the nick of time, credulity was strained, even for a fantasy.

Another complaint I had was the destestable little girl protagonist. I assume the filmmakers thought they were creating an adorably precocious character with her open defiance and brattiness. They weren't; they created a kid you hated. You really don't feel any desire for her to win deep down in your gut; you kind of want to see her get her come-uppance instead.

The problem with the main character, and indeed the movie, can be summed up in one particular exchange. The antagonist (Nicole Kidman) asks the little girl to give her the compass, and the little girl's answer is an angry, selfish "I don't want to!"

That's the motivation behind the girl, and the driving theme behind this atrocious movie. Nothing is done because of a pursuit of some higher good, or noble purpose; it's all about chasing after what you selfishly want to do. In this flaw, the anti-religious themes of the movie, and the book it's based upon, were barely masked, if they were at all.

Maybe Catholicism or Christianity wasn't mentioned by name, but everything you have ever learned as a Catholic or Christian was openly attacked. "The Magistrate" substitutes for your religion here, and thus your religion exists to control you; it seeks to hide the truth from you; it wants to stop you from doing what YOU want to do. Anyone who thought they could somehow slip this by the Christian parents who take their kids to see these movies really did think they were selling their product to a bunch of idiots.

Well, look at the box office returns, and tell me who the real idiots were. Rule number 1 of movie-making should be "Don't insult your target audience."

I give The Golden Compass a 1 on a scale of 1 to 10. It would rank a 0, but once again, I'm a man, and Nicole Kidman looked hot in that dress.

Dan In Real Life: No Oscars in Real Life.

Given its conspicuous Late-November release date, and given the fact that Steve Carell is taking the now-cliche' comedian-seeking-an-Oscar career path, I figured Dan In Real Life was going to be a winter Oscar contender in the vein of "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Sideways." So that's what I prepared myself for going into it.

Well, frankly, it's not an Oscar contender, but it's pretty damn good nonetheless.

Think of it as one of the better date movies you'll see this year, instead. Steve Carell plays an advice columnist who finds himself in an awkward situation at a family reunion. Hilarity ensues. Yeah, yeah, I know, it doesn't sound like much of a storyline, but it's decent, trust me.

There is an early plot twist thrown in, a lot of mildly-to-very funny moments, and just enough heart to leave you feeling all warm and squishy inside. But not enough heart to bring tears to your eyes, which is why Oscar will just give this movie a polite smile and slight head-nod as it passes it by on its way to weightier late-year fare. It's cliche', predictable, and at times almost ridiculously simple-minded, but it's a DATE MOVIE; that's what date movies are SUPPOSED to be.

Steve Carell is on his usual game, but doesn't do anything overly spectacular. (That's ok though; Steve Carell on his game is always entertaining enough.) The only other performance I can even remember enough to comment on is Dane Cook's adequate turn as Steve Carell's brother. He's nothing spectacular, either, but I guess it's good to see that he can supply a warm body to play "The Brother" in any other date movies Hollywood might want to make in the future. You can never have enough character actors.

I give Dan in Real Life a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, mostly because it made me smile in the end. Smiling's good, right?

Beowulf: Giving Ishtar a Run for its Money!

Every so often, a movie comes along that fills you with wonder. For me, this was just such a movie.

I wondered:

"Who greenlighted this movie?"

"Who saw the final product and said, 'yes, great, let's rush it to the theaters!'..?"

"Who convinced the top A-List actors of Hollywood to become involved?"

...and perhaps the most vexing question of all, "Who will stop this sort of thing from ever happening again?"

Beowulf opens with the human characters from Shrek drinking and chasing women around a midieval chamber. The noise of their merry reveling upsets a local Ogre from Lord of the Rings, so he magically appears in the Hall and tears these party-goers into bloody pieces. Naturally, the King assumes this will happen at every drinkin-and-fornicatin' party he throws, so he puts out a general call for a Hero to come kill that stupid Ogre. In the meantime, he's boarding up the party Hall, and throwing his Kingdom into a party-free funk.

Enter Beowulf, the Hero of Heroes. If you doubt his prowess or ability, just ask him, and he'll relate to you an exaggerated account of his many accomplishments. Early on, it's alluded to that (typical man!) Beowulf's one weakness is the pleasures of the flesh, and at least once in the past he failed to accomplish greatness because he went chasing after some half-human skirt, instead. Needless to say, that will once again prove to be his downfall.

I suppose Beowulf can be viewed as a cautionary tale about controlling our animalistic, carnal side. And, well, that's always a good message, I guess... but in REALITY, Beowulf is just an atrocious mish-mash of Shrek, Austin Powers, and the obligatory nude scenes from every single Angelina Jolie movie.
If it were just a wee bit more ridiculous, I'd be lauding it as the Comedy of the Year, but it's not ridiculous enough; it THINKS it's smart and sober and serious, and that's why it fails. It's hard to take a movie seriously when it features Anthony Hopkins' fat naked cartoon butt hanging out of his robes.

So my assessment? Ishtar now has competition for the title "Worst Movie Ever Made." On a scale of 1 to 10, I rate Beowulf a 2. It would be a 1, but I'm a guy and Angelina Jolie WAS almost naked, after all.....