Monday, December 31, 2007

Quite frankly, Casper was creepier: "Ghost Rider"

Add another movie to the annals of those I would never pay good money to see yet don't mind giving a chance when on cable. You know, I've got to quit doing that, especially now that I've switched from digital cable to DirecTV. We've got three months of just about every premium movie channel, which means there's a lot of crap I should know better to avoid.

Case in point: I remember laughing out loud at the trailers for "Ghost Rider" earlier this year. Even for being based on a comic book, it looked pretty silly. And unlike, say, "Elektra," there's no visual delight in seeing a leather-clad Nic Cage stalk across the screen. Give me Jennifer Garner in a red leather corset instead. Anytime. In fact, how about right now? (Kidding, honey!)

Our story has everyone's favorite "Fire Birds" veteran playing an Evel Kenievel type daredevil bike rider who cheats death at every turn. How does he do it? Well, selling your soul to the devil helps. That's what Johnny Blaze did so the big D would cure his dad's cancer. In return, Mephistopheles has Blaze -- the Ghost Rider -- do his bidding, complete with flaming skull, long chain and badass chopper.

It turns out the Devil's son is proving to be a thorn in Dad's side. To keep the world from falling into darkness or some crap like that, the Ghost Rider has to take down Blackheart -- yes, the villain's name is Blackheart -- while figuring out how to control his own powers. And this tale wouldn't be complete without a love interest, played in this case by Eva Mendes' boobs. They turn in their standard eye-catching role. Oh, yeah ... the rest of Mendes is here, too.

I'll give "Rider" credit for some interesting casting. The Devil is played by Peter Fonda, which is curious but not entirely unsuccessful. He's kind of funny if a little too cute. As for Blackheart ... I had been wondering where Wes Bentley got off to after "American Beauty." Seriously, I know he's been in other movies, but can you name one of them?

Otherwise, we get some standard fare. Funny sidekick played by Donal Logue? Check. Crusty old sage played by Sam Elliott? Check. Man, this guy ... I love him, but is he going to be playing the same role until he's 105? What's that? He already is 105?

I'll admit that I don't like the supernatural/mystic comic book heroes as much as the classic guys who are just mutants or aliens. And sure, some of Ghost Rider is amusing. There's the interview with a punk woman who saw Mr. Hothead in action. In addition, Cage tries to be quirky and gets off a few decent lines, and there are some in-jokes that made me raise my eyebrows after learning about them.

Overall, though, this is pretty dumb. One interesting tech-geek nugget: The Ghost Rider's skull was computer generated from a three dimensional X-ray taken of Cage's actual skull. Yeah, that wasn't Cage's actual skull on screen. Hell, if he had pulled that off, it would made the whole cockroach-eating bit in "Vampire's Kiss" look like chump change.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Everybody's gone? Even DJ Jazzy Jeff?: "I Am Legend"

Ah ... the Fresh Prince jokes never get old.

My Radiant Moonbeam and I made a deal last weekend, swapping baby-watching duties so each of us could see a movie at different times Sunday. She went with "Juno," a perfectly respectable independent movie. I opted for "I Am Legend," which may not have won rave reviews but was supposed to look cool on the big screen. It did.

Some of you may remember an earlier version of the Richard Matheson book about the so-called last (non-vampire) man on earth. "The Omega Man" starred that great line-chewer, Charlton Heston, and while I used to think that movie wasn't bad, it also isn't very good. "I Am Legend," with Will Smith in the lead role, is an improvement but still not as good as a movie version of that book could be.

In the near future, a virus meant to cure cancer has instead wiped out most of the world's population. Left in a largely abandoned Manhattan is Big Willy Style -- the only known person immune to the virus -- and a bunch of "people" whom the virus turned into blood-craving subhumans who can't stand the sunlight. So yeah, it's probably a good idea for our man Will to keep those moonlight walks to a minimum.

Smith is hanging out in the former New Amsterdam because -- as a military scientist -- he thinks he can find a cure for the virus. Three years after almost everyone died, it's not going well. On the plus side, he can get any DVD he wants at the video store, and road traffic is light.

The extended setup of Smith's plight -- which comes right after the start of the movie -- is pretty cool. Through a combination of closed roads and CGI, we see a Manhattan left for dead and slowly returning to the wild. Cars are stacked up on some roads, while other have weeds sprouting from cracks. Central Park is overgrown, and deer roam Midtown streets. Most amazing of all: Nobody in line at the TKTS booth! Hell, I never thought I'd see that.

So yeah, that's neat stuff, and the whole psychological thing with Smith having only his dog for company is well done, too. The dog's a little more engaged than Tom Hanks' volleyball in "Cast Away" -- "Wilson!" -- although that makes for more warm-and-fuzzy than we really need. Smith, meanwhile, is his usual likable self, just with a hint more seriousness. Watching everyone die and dealing with bloodthristy wackos will do that to you.

After a few isolated action scenes amid the great emptiness -- physical and emotional -- the melodrama amps up a bit, with Smith busting out some "For Your Consideration"-type acting before getting a big surprise. That brings a new level of tension -- as well as some "Is there a God?" debate -- before the big finish. It's not faithful to the book, but it's better than "The Omega Man." And bonus points for not changing the title to "I Am Legynd."

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Less is Motown: "Dreamgirls"

People were surprised when this wasn't nominated for "Best Picture." They shouldn't have been. Hard for me to see how anyone can watch this without thinking, "And again, with the singing."

Our story follows the rise of a Motown singing group comprised of three women, guided by a ruthless manager and attached to a dynamic James Brown type. In relatively quick order, the girls go from backup singers to their own group -- complete with a dubious lineup change -- then through a sort-of breakup.

It actually covers a lot more ground -- some 20 years, it seems -- than I expected. That was a plus, as were the stage performances. What worked not so much for me was the singing in between those other songs, which makes "Dreamgirls" a full-fledged musical, I guess, but also stretched the movie out too long and made it weaker overall.

There's star power to burn here. Jamie Foxx plays the group's manager, who starts out as a car dealer and ends up as a bonafide a$$hole. (I know. What's the difference?) Eddie Murphy is the James Brown type, which was some inspired casting; remember, the guy could sing when on "Saturday Night Live." Danny Glover is Murphy's manager. Beyonce Knowles -- you know, as opposed to Beyonce Johnson or Beyonce Mason -- is the group's bombshell and eventual lead singer. (Think Diana Ross. It isn't hard.) Jennifer Hudson is the real singer who ends up shut out because, well, she's too fat to be the front woman. Not to be blunt, but hey, the movie is.

Like I said, we get some early Motown sound, then watch the Dreams crossover to the pop charts. After Hudson can't handle being behind Beyonce anymore, the group becomes even more famous, while Hudson drops off the face of the earth. It's all very poignant, or at least it would have been if people just talked a little more than they sang.

Maybe I'm harping on this a bit much, and it's not like I don't like musicals. I still thoroughly enjoy "Oliver!", and I thought "Chicago" was good. Heck, if you want to consider the category broadly, I could claim "The Wizard of Oz," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "The Producers" (the original) and "The Blues Brothers" as musicals I like. So don't go calling me uncultured, you d*cks.

With "Dreamgirls," though, the stage and studio stuff is so good that the other musical numbers -- you know, the parts where they otherwise would just talk -- pale by comparison and just drag the movie down. Cut some of that stuff, and this movie goes from two hours and 11 minutes to a shade under two hours and would have zipped along.

The performances are all solid; people raved about Hudson and Murphy, but Beyonce and Foxx are equally good in more subdued roles. As director, Bill Condon may not show the same mastery as with "Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh," but he's more than capable here. No, the big thing is those other numbers and the movie's length. Those keep this below "Ray" and even "Walk the Line" in my book. It's still ahead of "The Wiz," though.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Truck you, man!: "Duel"

Sorry for the lack of posts. Out of town over the weekend, as most of you know, and then out sick. Sure, I was homebound, but I didn't exactly feel like painstakingly handcrafting the fine prose you're used to seeing here. (What? These things take at least five minutes to write. Sometimes six.)

In my weakened state I managed to revisit a classic suspense movie that's mostly known for being the first full-length film directed by Steven Spielberg. Perhaps you've heard of him? "Duel" actually was made for TV but has hung around a lot longer than most of that ilk. It's no "V," but it's pretty good.

Our story is stunningly simple. Guy driving to a business appointment in SoCal, outside El Lay, comes upon a truck driver, passes him and soon regrets it. Why? Because the truck driver, whom we never see, apparently is psycho. How else to explain why he stalks poor Dennis Weaver, the aptly named Mr. Mann?

You'd think Spielberg couldn't get much mileage -- pun intended -- out of this. You'd be wrong, although it's fair to ask some questions. Namely ... why not just turn around and go home? Or why not wait this freak out in the diner? Still, Spielberg does a lot with a basic premise. Weaver's growing panic, increased internal monologue and madman cries -- "You can't beat me on the grade! You can't beat me on the grade!" -- contrast well with the villain's cool.

I'm not talking about the truck driver, but the truck itself: big snout, beady headlight eyes, rumbling engine, belching exhaust. All of that makes the truck something of a living creature, and the "FLAMMABLE" decals on the tanker trailer don't do anything to put us as ease.

While not perfect, "Duel" is impressive just for how much Spielberg does with so little. Weaver's good, too, but this is really about the storytelling, and it's not hard to see how at only 25, Spielberg was on his way to becoming one of the best storytellers in movie history. (This is where I'd make some kind of joke about "1941," but like I said, I've already been sick.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

But really ... Karl was the funniest of them all: "Duck Soup"

I vaguely remember seeing this long ago, possibly when my dad insisted on inflicting classic comedies on his unsuspecting teen children. Not sure how much I appreciated it then. But given that this is consistently considered a four-star movie, I figured it was worth another shot, especially after I had TiVoed it two or three times previously in the past year or so yet never got around to it, even though it's a mere 70 minutes long.

Our story has the four Marx Brothers playing some very different roles with a unifying theme of not taking themselves too seriously. The country of Freedonia is a mess, and its greatest benefactor insists on Rufus T. Firefly, in the form of Groucho Marx, becoming its leader. Groucho's brother Zeppo is a military officer, while other brothers Chico and Harpo are spies for a rival country, Sylvania. (Great TVs, man.) Firefly acts all goofy, the spies screw up, and a comic war erupts. Ho ho ho!

Actually, it's not hard to see why this is considered a landmark comedy. It came out it 1933, and while I wasn't around during The Great Depression -- I've only gone back there in my time machine on occasion -- I can imagine this screwball stuff was some welcome relief.

And I have to believe it was one-of-a-kind stuff. Bear with me. First, let's get the easy labels for the Marx Bros. out of the way:

Groucho = cornball
Chico = Italian
Zeppo = straight man
Harpo = a$$hole

(Seriously, watch this and tell me Harpo isn't a total d!ck. Forgot the whole wide-eyed mute thing. A d!ck is a d!ck, no matter what you do or don't say.)

In their respective roles, each of these guys -- well, maybe not Zeppo -- goes all out. Hell, I'm thinking they were the Trey Parker and Matt Stone -- you know, the "South Park" guys -- of their day, with nothing off limits. I can see the relentlessness of Harpo and innuendoes of Groucho pushing the envelope, while other stuff -- I'm thinking the infamous mirror scene -- is just funny.

No question that some kids today would watch "Duck Soup" and think it's a bunch of silliness, and not in a good way. But you, know, at 70 minutes it's worth learning a little bit about the foundations of modern comedy, be it rampant sarcasm or clever sight gags. And hell, it's not like Clooney, Pitt or any other actor these days is willing to paint a mustache on himself.

Monday, December 10, 2007

War, crime and "to blaaave"

Some new stuff, some old stuff, some stuff that hardly anyone has seen ...

What IS it good for? "Flags of Our Fathers"

Talk about a laugh a minute ...

Actually, this was a really good movie ... for about 90-95 minutes. I recalled this Clint Eastwood effort being the lesser of the two movies he did about Iwo Jima and Double-U, Double-U, Eye, Eye. But I have to say I was taken in pretty quickly -- that is, after the "Saving Private Ryan"-esque lead-in with the old guy going a little weepy.

Our story focuses on the story behind the guys who raised the flag at Iwo Jima -- possibly the most iconic image in the history of the U.S. military. First we get some hardcore war action -- interspersed with scenes of the "heroes" back in the U.S. of A. -- then we get more about the aftermath of that legendary photo. Let's just say it wasn't rah-rah all the way around.

Decent cast with -- as is usually the case with these glamour war movies -- too many actors to mention. So I'll single out one guy: Adam Beach as the American Indian marine who (a) wants no part of the glory and (b) sure as sh*t can't handle it. Not sure his performance is any great acting clinic, but I definitely bought his whole confused schtick, and that was enough to offset the way "Flags" awkwardly shifts into a rather different kind of storytelling in its last 45 minutes.

Bushier brows I've never seen: "The Underneath"

Seriously, if not Peter Gallagher, then whom?

This is a curious little movie that I not only saw in the theater but remember catching on cable or video a few years later. When it popped up on an HD channel recently, I gave it another go, in part because I noticed that Steven Soderbergh was the director. Can't say I remembered that before.

Soderbergh tackled this after the overrated indie crap "sex, lies and videotape" and before the criminally underrated "Out of Sight," and that's about right. Gallagher is a former lowlife who comes back to Austin, Texas, and finds himself planning an armored car heist. And oh-by-the-way, he now works for the armored car company.

This noir effort has a sufficiently oddball cast: Alison "I've Pretty Much Vanished" Elliott as Pete's ex-wife; everybody's favorite, William Fichtner, as her new guy and general bad dude; Joe Don Baker as the armored car company's boss; still-a-little-chunky Elisabeth Shue as Gallagher's other girl; and Paul "The Dad from Sixteen Candles" Dooley as his new stepfather. Not A-list names, I would submit, but still actors who know what they're doing.

Even with the excessive flashback action, this doesn't rise about such other low-key noirs as "The Last Seduction." Here, cleverness takes a backseat to camerawork, with shots showing one person in profile while the other is directly facing the camera. Still, not a bad movie if you can manage all the jumping back and forth in time. Now you can see where Soderbergh got the idea for "Traffic."

Only the best fairy tale ever!: "The Princess Bride"

Maybe I'm a big wuss, but this is one of those movies that seems to get better every time I see it.

The story? You know it, you love it. An old man reads his sick grandson a fairy tale about a beautiful woman (Robin Wright Penn), her boyfriend (Cary Elwes), an evil prince (Chris Sarandon) and a cast of goofy supporting players, including Mandy Patinkin as a swordsman, Wallace Shawn as a would-be criminal genius, Andre the Giant as muscle, Billy Crystal as a reluctant wizard and Christopher Guest as the prince's evil henchman.

Good stuff, and more funny lines that I can count. Some of the better ones:

Fezzik: I only dog paddle.

Vizzini: No more rhymes now, I mean it.
Fezzik: Anybody want a peanut?

Inigo: You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you.
Westley: You seem a decent fellow. I hate to die.

Vizzini: Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?
Westley: Yes.
Vizzini: Morons.

Humperdinck: Surrender.
Westley: You mean you wish to surrender to me? Very well, I accept.

Miracle Max: Have fun stormin' the castle!

Inigo: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

(And all together now ... )

Vizzini: Inconceivable!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

And here I was singing your praises

Maybe Danny B. isn't actually acting when he plays dimwits.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

I wish I knew how to quit Tru: "Infamous"

Ah, yes, another case of two similar movies that focus on the same person/event coming out around the same time, following such dynamic duos as "Volcano"/"Dante's Peak," "Tombstone"/"Wyatt Earp", "Without Limits"/"Prefontaine" and "Deep Impact"/"Armageddon." Only those movies didn't have some goddamn New York twinkletoes running around western Kansas. (Although there was always something fishy about Earp.)

"Infamous" was released about a year after "Capote," which you would think might have helped since "Capote" got five Oscar nominations and one win: the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a performance second only to "Along Came Polly." ("Raindance!") Alas, I'm not sure anyone actually knew there was another Truman Capote/"In Cold Blood" movie out there. But since I vaguely recalled the reviews being decent, and I'm a sucker for the ol' compare-and-contrast, I TiVoed this movie when it was on one of the HBOs recently.

The story is the same as before: Famous New York writer and social butterfly Truman Capote sees a newspaper story about the murder of a family in Holcomb, Kansas, and decides this will be his next story for The New Yorker. So this fish out of water -- blue whale, really -- goes to rural Kansas to find out more for what eventually becomes a book. Not only a book, but a new kind of writing that will both elevate the author and sort of ruin him.

At first, the very gay Capote tries to ingratiate himself to all the townsfolk, eventually winning them over with tales of the famous people he knows. Then, when two suspects are arrested, Capote meets them, ultimately spending all his time with the quiet, introspective one, Perry Smith. They develop, shall we say, a bond, which makes Capote's efforts all the more taxing, right up to the point where the murderers pay for their crimes.

Playing Capote is Toby Jones, a British actor who I had never seen before (although he apparently was in "Finding Neverland"). Of course, I would see him just a few days later in "The Mist." Here, he's plenty over the top, choosing to push the envelope with personality after Hoffman was more restrained in his demeanor and anguish. Hard to say how well it worked, given Hoffman's Oscar-winning turn is hanging out there. Absent that, I might have liked Jones more. As it is, he was a bit much to take seriously, and I couldn't tell if I should be laughing or not.

The rest of the cast is decent. Sandra Bullock is a nice little surprise as Harper Lee, Capote's friend and the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Jeff Daniels is OK as the guy investigating the murders. Daniel Craig -- who I didn't recognize with dark hair -- is better as Perry Smith. The smoldering was a bit uneven, but in the end I may have liked him better than his "Capote" counterpart. Playing smaller roles are Hope Davis, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sigourney Weaver, Isabella Rossellini and Peter Bogdanovich. None is bad, none is great.

Along with how each would-be Truman portrays the writer, the big different with "Infamous" is the storytelling technique. The normal unfolding of the plot is interrupted several times with faux interviews of Capote's friends, made to look like this is a documentary. At other times, such as when a character is reading a letter, the character who wrote said letter is shown talking directly to the camera. Overall, I guess this worked OK, but it was a little jarring and didn't do much to build drama like in "Capote."

In the end, that's really the deal here. Had "Capote" never come out, "Infamous" almost certainly would seemed better. It's still good, I think, but it was impossible to watch this movie without thinking of the other one. Jones was solid in a different way but didn't wow me as much as Hoffman, who finally got the Oscar he should have won for "Twister."

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Worse than monsters is how you can never find just the right windshield wiper speed: "The Mist"

So yeah, I managed to find a little time to get out to the movies last week. Piggybacked it on some errands ... you know, just to keep things copasetic on the homefront. Wait. I mean, I'm the boss of the house. Yeah. If I want to go see a movie, I'll damn well see a movie! (You're OK with that, right, honey? Honey?)

As I mulled over my choices, I somehow ended up at this glorified B-movie instead of something with a little more heft, i.e. "No Country for Old Men" or "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." The big reason was location; those two weren't showing anywhere near where I was shopping, and time was limited. I also really didn't know what either of those movies was about and how they had been received. Then again, if I had known then that Marisa Tomei shows her goodies in "Devil," I might have made a little more time. What can I say? George Costanza has good taste.

At the theaters near my house, I was left with "Beowulf" and "The Mist." My initial intrigue with "Beowulf" had long since worn off, and the movie just looked too goofy in the trailers. So I went with "The Mist," which had gotten a decent review in my local paper. Also, I vaguely recalled reading the Stephen King story of the same name long ago and thinking it was pretty good.

Our story starts out simple enough: A man and his young son are among several people in a Maine supermarket when a funky mist rolls into town, apparently carrying something deadly within its tiny drops. Put another way, people who end up in the mist don't make it out alive. This leads to folks holing up in the store and wondering just what in the hell is going on outside, especially as various otherworldly creatures start showing up.

That's the simple part. The more complicated aspect is what being trapped in the store with monsters outside does to people. Let's say it's not pretty, with some of the more reasonable folks -- as reasonable as you can be when crazya$$ sh!t starts going down -- butting heads with a religious fanatic whose case that a vengful God is behind all this gains weight over time. What seemed at first to be a plenty roomy supermarket gets smaller and smaller by the hour.

Fitting of the premise and its under-the-radar arrival in theaters, "The Mist" doesn't have many A-listers. Thomas Jane -- who I just realized has a Christopher Lambert thing going on, only more coherent -- is the dad. Andre "I was in 'Homicide,' remember?" Braugher is his jerk neighbor. Marcia Gay Harden -- an Oscar winner, mind you -- is the religious nut. Hall-of-Fame "that guy" William Sadler is a doofus. Other players include little Toby Jones as the store's assistant manager and all-around good guy, and Sherman from "American Pie" as a bagboy who really shouldn't have been so brave.

Not exactly "Ocean's Eleven," is it? Some performances are better than others. Jane is nothing too great, but give Harden credit for going balls-out. As for the guy guiding this crew, would you believe Frank Darabont? Not the first director I would have guessed when it came to horror/suspense, but it makes sense considering he's Stephen King's bud. Still, it's kind of odd that after "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile" -- plus the looked-really-bad "The Majestic" --he's helming a spook movie.

Not that Darabont did a bad job. Indeed, "The Mist" works best when the monsters aren't around, or at least before they strike. The tension in the store, the deadly silence when some of the crew venture out ... it's all handled well. Nothing amazing, but better than much of the cut-rate horror crap out there these days. And mad props to Frank D. for an ending I didn't see coming and that definitely doesn't get too touchy-feely after all the earlier carnage. That alone may have been worth the price of admission. Matinee, of course. Let's not get crazy here.