Sunday, July 29, 2007

Pot for teacher: "Half Nelson"

OK, so the guy actually does coke and crack instead of pot. Still, I couldn't resist.

Today's discussion topic: Ryan Gosling.

It's hard to figure out how I feel about this guy. On one hand, it seems like he's been around a while and is generally annoying. Yet I have no basis for such an estimation, since (a) he really hasn't been in that many movies and (b) I had never seen one of his movies all the way through until "Half Nelson."

Yeah, it's kind of weird. I think I saw a scene or two of "Murder by Numbers," and I know I caught a bit of "The Slaughter Rule" -- heard it was filmed in Montana and was curious about the scenery -- but that's it. So why the annoyance? Beats me, especially since I now see what young Ryan can do.

You may remember Gosling as one of the also-rans in this year's Best Acting Oscar competition, where everyone played for second behind Forest Whitaker. In "Nelson," Gosling is a Brooklyn junior high school teacher who seems to get along with the kids well enough. Unfortunately, he gets along with what Sinny Crockett called "Bolivian nasal dust" even better. That's right, Mr. Dunne is a coke addict. Smokes crack, too. Even worse, one of his students catches him doing the deed. Not exactly what you want coming up at the next PTA meeting, is it?

The story revolves around Gosling's muddled life -- trying to inspire students while at the same time seeking comfort in drugs. He's pretty much a mess, and most of the world is moving on without him. Except, as it turns out, the student who caught him. She's got her own issues of being torn in a couple of different directions, and she and Teach become friends. Awwwww ...

It's really not all that sweet ... heck, it almost seemed real, if you didn't think too much about why on earth a 13-year-old black girl and messed-up white guy in his late 20s would hang around together. To the movie's credit, neither person really knows how to "save" the other. Instead, we see how their hearts are in the right place but the minds aren't as willing.

It's a tricky deal, especially for a movie that apparently was shot in only 23 days. Whoa. But Gosling is pretty solid -- from the classroom to the basketball court to the bars to his parents house. His character clearly is lost, which isn't such a great thing for a teacher. I might have liked to see more explanation for how the guy got to this point, but that's a quibble.

As for the title, well, you got me. I know what a half nelson is, but there certainly wasn't any obvious connection between the wrestling hold and this story. Maybe the teacher and the student are just stuck in the half nelson of life. Maybe being addicted to drugs is like having an arm pinned behind your head. Maybe a scene with Gosling dancing around in a singlet was left on the cutting room floor.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Understanding the dialogue? Waaaayyy overrated: "Snatch"

Actually, I expected worse. And the stuff that was hardest to comprehend? Well, that was by design.

This movie, to me, seemed to fly under the radar when it came out more than six years ago. A little surprising given the presence of The Notorious P.I.T.T. Then again, most of the other actors were limeys, and the director was a pre-Madonna Guy Ritchie. Too bad, in any case, since this is a fun little picture.

Our story bounces between two plot lines: A fixed boxing match -- or rather, series of matches -- and a diamond heist. In short, the big diamond starts being passed around right around the same time as the fixed matches start going haywire. I'd explain more, but it might get confusing. I know I had to work to keep up.

Fortunately, we get a lot of guys who came to play. Pitt is the most well-known, playing an Irish gypsy fighter who is pretty hard to understand, thanks to his bizarre accent (even for the U.K.). Jason Statham is part of the boxing thing, which is run by Alan Ford, who I have to assume is some bigtime British actor. Meanwhile, Benicio Del Toro, Dennis Farina, Vinnie Jones and classic "that guy" Rade Serbedzija are intertwined in the diamond heist.

All of these guys seem to be having fun, and Ritchie does a nice job bouncing around while providing narration by Statham when needed. True, some of the quick cuts and scene labels are overdone ... ah, hell, a lot of the movie is overdone. But it's not Bruckheimeresque or anything, just a little too hectic at times. I could handle that, especially since I was eager to see how all of this mess would come together and settle itself out.

Lastly, let's not forget the Pitt Principle. As I've said before, the guy is without doubt a leading man. But it's usually more enjoyable to see him working in an ensemble. It's even better to see him not taking himself seriously. Considering his accent, wardrobe and tattoos, that definitely was the case in "Snatch," and that made for an OK couple of hours. Not enough to forgive "Meet Joe Black," of course, but not bad.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

When a movie doesn't warrant much exposition on its own ...

... you get yet another roundup, this time of a few films I had never heard of but sounded intriguing for one reason or another.

I'd like to buy a Val, please: "Blind Horizon"

Now this was a weird deal. When I saw who was in this movie and how recently it came out (2003), I couldn't figure out why I had never heard of it. I mean, Val Kilmer may not be an eight-figure star, but he's not straight-to-cable ... yet. As it turns out, I'm not sure this movie was in theaters, at least in this country. Looks like some film festival thing.

In any case, the story has amnesiac Kilmer waking up in a small Southwest town after being shot in the head and suspecting that there's a plot to assassinate the President. Oh, and that he may be involved. Talk about a hangover.

While the plot sounded decent, what drew me to this was the cast: Kilmer, who usually breaks a sweat; Sam Shepard as the sheriff; Neve "Where Has She Been?" Campbell as Kilmer's wife; Amy Smart as a nurse/love interest; Faye Dunaway as a mysterious woman; and Noble "That Guy" Willingham as the deputy sheriff. Not saying these are all good actors -- yeah, I'm looking at you, Smart -- but I knew the names, which made me again wonder why I never heard of this movie.

Verdict: Could have been worse, but not anything great and downright silly in places.

If they had just stuck to funnel cakes: "The Funhouse"

We're going back a quarter-century for this one, a horror movie about kids who spend the night in a carnival funhouse. The whole thing is quite quaint, really. I mean, in this "Saw/Hostel" era of rampant gore, the idea that bad stuff could happen in a clapboard building with spiderwebs and skeletons and all that is pretty funny.

I'll confess that the No. 1 reason I watched this was that it was about 90 minutes long and in high-def. If it had been two hours, no way. But get a load of this: The director was Tobe Hooper of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" fame. As IMDB reveals, Hooper turned down the chance to direct "E.T." because he was working on "The Funhouse." Good call!

Yeah, this movie was kind of dumb and definitely dated. My apathy was such that when the DVR cut off the last couple of minutes, I wasn't upset at all.

The little engine that couldn't: "The Yards"

If I did hear of this movie when it came out, I must have forgotten it right way. Kind of surprising, since this cast is the best of the three movies in this post. Yes, even "The Funhouse!"

Mark "Planet of the Apes" Wahlberg is just out of jail in Queens and trying to work with his aunt's husband's company, which repairs and rebuilds subways cars. James Caan is the company head, and Marky Mark's pal Joaquin Phoenix is on the payroll. The Artist Formerly Known as Leaf Phoenix also is dating Wahlberg's cousin (Caan's stepdaughter), the incomparable Charlize Theron. (Her character is named Erica Stoltz. I might have gone with something else, unless this were a Cameron Crowe movie.)

Rounding out the cast: Ellen Burstyn as Wahlberg's mom, Faye Dunaway (again) as Theron's mom, and Steve Lawrence(!) as a crooked elected official. Not a bad lineup. Also, it turns out the director, James Gray, hasn't done much, but he did direct "Little Odessa," which wasn't bad.

Unfortunately, the story comes up short, or at least I was left wanting. Wahlberg plays the tough turned noble, but he didn't sell me. Phoenix was entertaining but nothing great. Even Theron, while giving us a boob shot from a distance, wasn't as luminous as she normally is. I mean, "Monster," man ... she was smokin'.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

And you thought he was mean when Spicoli trashed his car: "The Last King of Scotland"

Seriously, whenever I see Forest Whitaker start to get too Capital-A Actor, I think of his turn as Charles Jefferson in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." That's right, Mr. Oscar Winner ... and let's not even mention you playing a guy named "Balldozer" in "Vision Quest."

My Reason For Carrying On In This Cruel World and I took this movie with us on a family vacation over the weekend, and let me tell you ... you haven't lived until you've watched a brutal dictator do his thing while the in-laws are sitting on the next couch. Despite that, "The Last King of Scotland" was rather enlightening for me, a guy who knew a little about Idi Amin but couldn't tell you much other than it wasn't a name you wanted to pass on to your kid.

Our story -- inspired by real events, or something like that ... ugh -- follows a young Scotsman (James McAvoy) as he flees to Uganda following medical school. He lands there by chance, and by even more chance, goes from working in a village clinic to being the personal physician of the Ugandan president, General Amin his bad self (Whitaker). At first, this is all right. Amin is magnetic, presidential living is awesome and our hero is loving life. But then death intrudes -- namely the disappearance of anyone who opposes our man Idi, as well as the little problem of genocide across the country. Yeah, that'll take the bloom off the rose.

Even though you know all this will end up badly, the story is told well. Whitaker chews up the Amin role-- first presenting a passionate leader hailed as a hero, then revealing a madman bent on total control. McAvoy, whose character, I guess, is made up, is a good foil -- embracing this charismatic president before realizing he's a few shooters short of a bag of marbles.

I might have wanted to see just a bit more depth to Amin and a little more conflict with the doctor, but those are quibbles. Both actors were solid. Also good were Kerry Washington ("Ray," "The Fantastic Four") as one of Amin's wives, Gillian Anderson -- yeah, where has SHE been? -- as another doctor -- and Simon McBurney as a British diplomat.

"Scotland" isn't a masterpiece by any stretch, but by the final credits it seemed a decent tale with good acting, highlighted by old Forest as Amin. In retrospect, he was pretty easy on Lincoln High after the car wreck a couple of decades ago. I mean, none of those guys got dismembered, right?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Two perfect examples of why it's good to have a wife

Because seriously, I can't see how I would watch either of these movies on my own. And with one of the movies, that would have been kind of bad.

Not the first one, though.

More like nightmarez! (Ha ha ha ha ha ha): "American Dreamz"

I admit, the trailer looked mildly amusing. That, my friend, is how they get you.

Our story centers around an insanely popular "American Idol"-type program and the star host's desire to keep it fresh and funky. That means two things: (1) a showdown between America's sweetheart and an Arab guy, and (2) having the President of the United States as a celebrity judge for the season finale. As it turns out the Prez has his own issues, namely being a privileged dolt (sounds familiar) who suddenly realizes he doesn't know sh*t (still waiting for that to happen).

The host, of course, is Hugh Grant, and while I've liked his other roles with edge, i.e. "Bridget Jones' Diary" and "About a Boy," this is no good. Sure, he's perfect for the part, but the part sucks. Mandy Moore is better as the scheming girl from Ohio who wants to win it all, and some guy named Sam Golzari is OK as the Arab kid with a fondness for show tunes.

As for others, Willem Dafoe and Jennifer Coolidge aren't anything special, but Chris Klein is tolerable as Moore's doofus boyfriend. Finally, Dennis Quaid is the Commander in Chief, and he's goofy enough that the performance doesn't fall totally flat. Could have been better, though.

There are a few funny bits in this movie, but whatever thin thread of a plot exists simply unravels in a stupid finale. Even worse, that sh*tty "American Dreamz" -- "Dreamz ... with a 'z'" -- theme song has been in my head for days. Damn you. Damn you to Hell.

Hey, not just anyone can get into Members Only: "The Devil Wears Prada"

Obviously, I know all about high fashion. I mean, I've been wearing Jordache jeans forever. Still, I though, maybe I could learn something from this little movie about the hellish editor of a top fashion magazine.

I did: Meryl Streep ... she can act. Seriously, if you thought she was good in "Stuck on You" ...

Actually, the whole movie is somewhat entertaining. Whiny in places and utterly predictable throughout, and with more than a few one-note performances. But that's easy enough to accept when you also get another amazing turn by the best actress of my lifetime.

Streep is the dragon-lady editor, and Anne "Remember My Boobs From 'Brokeback?'" Hathaway is her new assistant, tortured equally by the boss and the senior assistant, Emily "I Was a Hot Lesbian in 'My Summer of Love'" Blunt. (Not nearly as hot here, and no nudity! Boo). Stanley Tucci, Adrian Grenier (yes, working outside "Entourage") and Simon Baker play the male stereotypes -- gay friend, boyfriend and stud-on-the-make, respectively.

The story is simple: How long can our heroine last at her job? Rather than recap the ups and downs, consider what I think was the best scene: As Streep and others try to put together an outfit and decide between two almost identical belts, Hathaway snickers. Streep asks what's up, and our girl Annie says, "Hey, they're the same."

Now, the good part: Streep shows how its not so simple -- and how fashion isn't so silly, but rather big, big business -- by noting the color of Hathaway's sweater. It's not blue or this or that, but cerulean, which was a big color a few years ago. Then it trickled down through the various levels of fashion, from the runway to the designers to the department stores to the bargain bins, where you bought it. So stick it up your butt, Princess Diaries.

I might not be a man's man, but I'm manly enough -- eat steak, play sports, scratch my balls ... all that. Still, it's kind of an awesome scene, and it surprised me a little. The rest of the movie isn't as good, but Streep comes to play, and that's rarely a waste of time.


That's all.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Yippie-ki-yay, mother ... wait a minute, what was I saying?: "Live Free or Die Hard"

Yes, I gave up a little piece of my soul to see a 50-something guy play action hero almost 20 years after he first scampered about an L.A. skyscraper. Let me explain.

Between a canceled tennis match and bad weather that delayed plans to install a screen door, I found myself with a little time Sunday, and the rare chance to catch a movie in an actual movie theater. Of course, this set into motion the great debate about what to see.

True, I had interest in "Sicko" and also thought "1408" could be good. There were other options, such as "Knocked Up" and "Ocean's Thirteen," but those were best saved for viewing with my wife. And the other movies also seemed like they could wait until they hit the small screen in my den.

That left the big, noisy stuff. I missed the second "Pirates of the Caribbean" installment, so the third was out. I decided I was too much of a grown-up to patronize the latest "Fantastic Four" movie or the "Transformers." (Besides, Gobots totally would kick their a$$.) So it was that "Live Free or Die Hard," co-opted from the New Hampshire state motto, won the big prize.

You know what? It wasn't too bad.

Oh, it's dumb. Really dumb. Fantastically stupid. I could fudge a little and talk about how the high-tech hijinks offer an out and somehow excuse the stunts that require -- nay, demand -- you suspend belief. But, no. Even with the computer whiz-bang, the action scenes that are this series' bread and butter are so ludicrous that laughing wasn't an option but a spastic reflex.

Our story has shaved-head Bruce Willis as NYPD detective John McClane, washed up again, dispatched to escort a computer hacker (Justin Long) to Washington in response to some strange sh*t going down with the nation's computer network. Turns out this hacker helped write some code that will make the digital age go kablooey, thanks to a surly young man (Timothy Olyphant) who turns out to be a former government defense/tech geek.

We see just how bad things can get -- for all the stuff connected to computers (pretty much everything) and for McClane and his little hacker buddy. While mayhem reigns with the nation's transportation and financial systems, bad guys try to kill our heroic duo at every turn. These attempts reach epic proportions, as you might guess, and the stunts are nothing short of amazing.

Did I say amazing? I meant absurd. My bad.

We get cars flipping every which way in a tunnel, then being used creatively to take down things in the air. We get bullets whizzing every which way. We get a tractor-trailer vs. a fighter jet. It's all rather loud, and some of it is kind of fun. Really, I laughed at some of the more creative stunts, admiring the chutzpah these guys had to put this stuff in a movie. I mean, come on ... don't you want us to try to believe some of this could happen?

The actors aren't a lot of help. Willis is game, I guess, and not as bad as I feared. But he's still 50-plus and we're asked to accept that he somehow holds up better now -- and under more punishment -- than in the first "Die Hard." Olyphant is largely wasted; the guy has been good in other stuff -- the best thing in "The Girl Next Door" ... well, other than Elisha Cuthbert's tuckus. Here, though, he's not nearly as menacing as his turn as the clenched-teeth sheriff in "Deadwood."

Long, who has been annoying audiences since the TV show "Ed," was surprisingly tolerable, or at least pulled off his role well enough. Sure, the incessant wisecracks were a bit much, but he and Willis played off each other all right. I mean, he brought more to the table than Maggie Q as Olyphant's lady/right-hand woman and Cliff "Why Don't I Have a More Ethnic Name?" Curtis as the FBI cybersecurity chief. A little better were Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the all-growns-up Lucy McClane and Kevin Smith -- finding his nearly-perfect role -- as another hacker.

Hey, there's no question this is a silly movie from the get-go. When I heard Willis was going through with it, I groaned as much as anyone. Aceepting that, though, I ultimately enjoyed this. It's not good, not by a longshot. But enjoyable? Sure. Amusing? Definitely. Outrageous? No doubt. So yeah ... I can't wait until Willis gives it another go in, what, 10 years? I can see it now. "When terrorists took over Del Boca Vista Phase III, they thought they were in control. They didn't count on ... John McClane. Bruce Willis ... in ... 'Die Hard With Arthritis!'"

Thursday, July 05, 2007

And then comes the disappointment: Three movies I could have missed

Truth be told, I knew one of these was an outright dog going in, and I had a pretty good idea that another wasn't much better. Damn you, HBO, for offering them up anyway.

The movie that made me think 'Elektra' wasn't so bad: "The Avengers"

Read the above line again. Yeah, this movie sucked that hard.

No way I would have otherwise paid money to see Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes do the veddy British spy thing. But I had to know if it was awful as everyone said it was. (And by everyone, I mean the critics who were paid to see this crap, since nobody else apparently did.) Guess what? It was.

Fiennes is John Steed, Thurman is Emma Peel and Sean Connery is mailing it in as a truly silly villain who can control the weather. Sadly, the talented Jim Broadbent is dragged into this mess as well. So is PatrickMacnee, the original Steed. Ironically, though, he plays an invisible man. Yeah, I wouldn't want to be seen in this mess, either.

Mercifully, the movie is but an eyeblink, edited from a longer version that tested horribly to a mere 87 minutes. That's still 85 minutes too long, of course. Yes, I admit that I don't mind looking at Uma in skintight clothes for a full two minutes. Sue me.

Again, a movie from Spain and not one mention of Spanish Fly: "Volver"

Seriously, you should ask for that in Barcelona. They laugh and laugh and laugh.

The title translates to "come back," which is appropriate since this movie is about a couple of sisters whose mom returns as a ghost a few years after her death. This comes to light when (a)mom's sister dies, and (b) one daughter's husband gets killed following a creepy intrafamily episode that we all see coming from a mile away. (Wait, this is a foreign film. From a kilometer away.)

The proceedings are guided by the esteemed Pedro Almodovar, whom the world loves but I think is, eh, OK. I'll confess to digging "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" (That bathtub scene ... woof.) "Talk to Her" was all right, too, I guess. But nothing he's done has made me waited with bated breath for his next movie, which I why I skipped this in the theater.

On the plus side, Penelope Cruz is tasty and voluptuous and not nearly as annoying as usual. Why, I think there was some bonafide acting here! Don't tell anyone from "Vanilla Sky."

Lower IQ: "Higher Learning"

I remember my pal Louie coming back from seeing this while we were in college and being visibly upset, and not in a "Do the Right Thing" kind of way. No, Louie -- quite correctly, as it turned out -- called out John Simpleton ... er, Singleton ... on this BS screed about racial politics on college campuses. It's so deep, man, only not.

(Sidebar: Some of this movie is spot-on, I admit. When I was in college, people tended to hang with those of their own color. Yeah, I had black friends, Indian friends, Muslim friends, Hispanic friends, etc. etc. But push comes to shove, I could count them on one hand, while the whiteys around me could fill a football stadium. So I won't argue the voluntary segregation theme. Just the part where your color means you're a Black Panther or a skinhead.)

The story, as it were, is about kids of different colors and sexes on campus, and how boys and girls and blacks and whites ... they just can't get along, yo. And this despite us all being Americans, y'all. In case you miss that, the movie opens and closes with shots of an American flag. Subtle.

The cast includes some talent that is misused, sometimes hilariously so. Check out Larry -- I mean, Laurence -- Fishburne as the professor with the (I guess) Jamaican accent. Ice Cube is the militant black guy, Jennifer Connelly is the lesbian, Michael Rapaport is the aimless whie guy who eventually thinks Hitler had some neat ideas.

In fact, the scene with Connelly and Kristy Swanson kissing almost made me include something here along the lines of "I can't totally reject a movie that shows Jennifer Connelly and Kristy Swanson making out." But they didn't mack for that long, and when I learned that extended scenes of them getting busy ended up on the cutting room floor, well, that did it. Dude, do not tease a brother like that.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Hail to the cheese: "The Sentinel"

Despite bad-to-fair reviews when this film came out last year, I briefly considered giving it a shot at the moviehouse. Some decent actors, a potentially intriguing story, etc. etc. Alas, the movie came and went before I had a chance to make good on my threat to lay down some hard-earned cash for a ticket.

Boy, was that a good thing. This movie kind of sucked. I mean, anything that makes "S.W.A.T." look good by comparison ...

Our story centers around an aging Secret Service agent who is framed for the murder of another government agent -- his pal, no less. Even better, the rest of the agency seems to think this guy wants to kill the Big Kahuna. That's right, the President. The nerve.

While this movie at times is a halfway-decent cat-and-mouse story -- well, cats and mouse -- it really never overcomes an ultimately weak plot and host of crappy performances by actors who seem like they're there just to pick up their paychecks. To wit:

Michael Douglas: Hey, I like the guy. Can't count the number of movies that he has made fun, i.e. "Romancing the Stone," "Wall Street," "The Game." I even liked "Falling Down." But Mike ... aren't you a little long in the tooth to be playing a Secret Service agent, even an older one assigned to the First Lady? Sorry, I just can't get past that.

Kiefer Sutherland: Good to see you branching out from "24." Instead of a government agent who alternates between barking orders and quiet menace, you're playing ... a government agent who alternates between barking orders and quiet menace. Genius! (Thank youuuu!)

Eva Longoria: I bet you thought she was just a pretty face and a tight ass. Well, you're wrong. She's a pretty face and a really tight ass. Seriously, if you've going to show up for work, try and bring something to the table, Mrs. Parker.

Kim Basinger: She actually could have been OK here -- right age, and still looking all right. But ever since I saw her play Eminen's mom and straddle a guy in her trailer ... well, that's not very presidential, ma'am.

David Rasche: Who? Why, "Sledge Hammer," that's who! That's right, the goof who talked to his gun, named "Gun," in a short-lived '80s sitcom now plays the Commander in Chief. He's not bad per se, but he also doesn't really have anything to do here. And dude, he's Sledge Hammer.

Martin Donovan: I don't think I saw this guy before "Insomnia" a few years back, and since then he's popped up a few times, from "Saved!" (the rockin' preacher) to "Weeds" (a DEA agent). Not a bad actor, and not bad here. But there's nothing to his character, so it's kind of a waste.

Like I said at the top, not a bad cast. But the actors are largely left going through the motions with a stale script and plot that, in the end, doesn't make much sense. One last quibble: The ha-ha thing in the credits by the director, Clark Johnson. He also plays the assassinated agent but is billed as "Clarque Johnson." This is after he listed his bit part in "S.W.A.T." as "Deke's Handsome Partner." Man, that's hilarious.

No, really. I'm dying here.