Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Definitely not a win-win: "Stop-Loss"

I vaguely recall this being described as an Iraq war movie that raised some good issues but wasn't a home run. And that's about right. It also continues the amazing trend of making me think Ryan Phillippe isn't so bad after all.

(Dude, the guy sucked in the '90s, even if "Cruel Intentions" was kind of fun. But since then ... "The Way of the Gun," "Crash," "The Flags of Our Fathers" ... not bad at all.)

Our story focuses on a group of guys in the sh*t in The Fertile Crescent. They go through some bad stuff in Iraq, then come home to a heroes' welcome. Yeah, parades and everything. Then comes the drinking and fighting, like good soldiers.

A couple of them, including Lil Ryan, are slated for discharge. Then he gets "stop-lossed" -- a term used when war conditions require you to keep serving. Doesn't seem fair, Phillippe says, especially after the stuff he's seen. Too bad, they say. Well, I'll just go AWOL, he decides. Uh-oh, we think.

Directed by Kimberly "I Will NOT Spell My Last Name Right" Peirce of "Boys Don't Cry" fame, "Stop-Loss" has one less cross-dresser but plenty of melodrama. There's a lot of moping around and PTSD issues and what-cost-war stuff and blather about loyalty. (I'm a veteran, can't you tell?)

But the three main guys aren't bad. Phillippe is a little much at times but earnest enough overall. Tatum matches him as his buddy who just might not be able to handle being out of the service. Gordon-Levitt is the haunted one who can't get over losing his friend in battle. None of these guys falls short.

Most impressive, though, was a woman: Abbie Cornish, who plays Tatum's fiancee. She totally nailed the girl back home thing and kept it real throughout. Attractive but not too thin or well-scrubbed, Cornish came across as the most real person in the movie.

Then I found out she was Australian. Wow. What is it with these women? Kidman could never totally bury her accent, but Watts has done all right. And now comes Cornish, who I could have sworn was a Texan. Well played, good lady ... well played.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Grate expectations: "Juno"




No, this isn't all that.

No, this wasn't Oscar-worthy.

No, this shouldn't mentioned in the same breath as "Little Miss Sunshine." Or, for that matter, "Junebug." Not unless you want a big fat backhand to the face.

Maybe if there hadn't been so much ranting and raving about this indie fave, I'd like it more. But we can't unring that bell, and after all the hype and then finally seeing it for myself, I must confess that "Juno" is OK at best.

It's a shame, too, because I like every actor in this movie. Every actor. Ellen Page was cute in the last "X-Men" movie and scary in "Hard Candy." Michael Cera is just a funny, cool kid in everything. J.K. Simmons is a true pro. Allison Janney is never boring. Jason Bateman has been awesome since "Silver Spoons" and "It's Your Move." (Haven't seen "Teen Wolf Too," but I'm sure he was robbed of an Oscar there, too.) Even Jennifer Garner has her merits. Hot, yes, but also funny in "13 Going on 30" and not even that bad in "Daredevil." ("Elektra," though ... )

So yeah, I like all these folks. And "Juno" isn't a bad story either, even if it's just a Lifetime movie without the drama. Quirky teen gets knocked up, decides to give it up for adoption, hijinks ensure. Simple enough, right? And with a full commitment to one direction, it could have kicked ass. Yet -- and this will sound weird -- "Juno" tries too hard and doesn't do enough.

Bear with me here, and think of this movie in light of two other recent movies with offbeat characters: the aforementioned "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Napoleon Dynamite." With the former, we had some messed-up people somehow co-existing and coming together as they underwent an odyssey. It wasn't pretty, but it was funny, and as oddball as things got, they still were believable. And things never felt over the top. That movie worked.

With the latter, you couldn't make up that cast of kooks, yet each person seemed genuine and earnest, and the story wasn't heavy at all. Nope, no serious issues in "Napoleon Dynamite." Just some goofy kids making their way through high school. Even if the awkwardness was amped up to 11, things never felt over the top. So yeah, that movie worked, too.

"Juno" didn't work, at least not as well as the hype would have you believe. First, I'm sorry, but the main character didn't seem like a real person. Whether it was the nonstop wit or the lack of seriousness with which she took her pregnancy, Juno wasn't convincing to me. The morose, mute high school kid in "Sunshine?" Yep, I bought that. The oddballs in "Dynamite?" Them, too, even if I've never seen a guy quite like Napoleon. But Juno -- and for that matter, Bleeker -- were neither normal nor -- for lack of a better term -- believably quirky. A fan might say that makes them unique, but I found the writing and portrayals forced and false. And again, I like these two actors.

The story also falls apart in a few places, mostly when it comes to how people handle Juno's pregnancy. (Or how she got pregnant in the first place. Why bother to ask that?) Her parents? Again, more wit than necessary, although Janney is pretty funny -- probably the funniest person in the movie. The adoptive couple? For her limitations as an actor, Garner was actually pretty solid, both at the start and when it came to the resolution. But Bateman? As much as I love him, I'm not sure he was right for the role, and his whole feng shui was off.

So yeah ... kind of a letdown here. I wish I hadn't heard anything before watching this, but I still think my BS detector is pretty good. And unlike other Oscar categories, I've now seen all five movies in the best original screenplay category. It's clear "Juno" rode the quirky wave and the feel-good story of a former stripper penning a screenplay.

Meanwhile, the other four movies -- "Lars and the Real Girl," "Michael Clayton," "Ratatouille" and "The Savages" -- all are better than this, and "Lars and the Real Girl" really was much more inventive and realistic. It's doubly shameful that both that movie and "Juno" deal with young people going through personal trials, and how the people who care about them handle it. While "Juno" falls short, "Lars" was something special. Yet no public love. Maybe if he had dated a pregnant sex doll ...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

And all this with no pay movie channels!

Well, maybe that's not surprising, considering these three movies. All have their merits, but they don't exactly make someone say, "I gots to get me that HBO!"

Fortunately, he later got a cooler car: "Marlowe"

Weird movie. When I think of Philip Marlowe, I think of black and white movies, Bogart, et al. I do not think of James Garner in the late '60s. Yet here's the precursor to Jim Rockford plying his trade in the summer of love. Go figure.

As usual, Marlowe stumbles onto a murder mystery that turns out to be connected to a lame case he already was working on. A couple of people end up with ice picks stuck in them, pointy side first, leading Phil to a TV star who wants no part of him. Things get tangled up from there until -- da-da-DAAAHH! -- all is revealed.

My only interest here was Garner, who is likable in almost anything. Good to see him do the private dick thing before Rockford, and it's clear that this movie had a hand in him landing the legendary TV role. I might have wanted to see a few more wisecracks, and I'll admit the story bored me in the second half, even with Rita Moreno looking pretty good.

Still, some good scenes here, including our hero's interaction with Bruce Lee and this great line to a thug who frisks Marlowe and rips his coat: "Does your mother know what you do for a living?"

I'd advise against a double bill with "Sphere": "Cube"

Since I hear that movie sucks. This one, on the other hand, is odd enough that I saw it for a second time recently, this time catching it from the start.

Not that it matters. The plot is simple: A bunch of strangers wake up inside some ... thing that is made up of a bunch of perfectly square rooms -- stacked above, below and on all sides of each other. They soon learn that some rooms are very, very bad. Down the road, they also learn why seemingly random people were thrown together into this mess. Hey, we all have a purpose in life.

So yeah, this is a movie about some kind of experiment, and I don't know ... I liked the lack of explanation and the whole "what's going on/let's figure this out" thing. You never know what's behind the next door, you don't know how long this will last, you don't know who can do what ... what can I say? It worked for me. Then again, I liked the "Resident Evil" movies.

Breezy does it ... for me: "Six Pack"

Yes! Words cannot describe my glee at seeing this movie pop up on Fox Movie Channel a couple of weeks ago. It's essentially "The Bad News Bears" meets "The Gambler," but that's not the point. This is: Diane Lane at 17 years old. Mercy. (And merci.)

I could wax on about Diane for a while. You know this. Yeah, yeah, "Unfaithful" was great. But my thing for her goes way back to the '80s. "Streets of Fire," "Lady Beware," "Knight Moves" ... love them all. I saw "The Outsiders" only in the last year or so, and still need to see "The Big Town" and "Vital Signs." Hell, even when she keeps her clothes on -- "Judge Dredd," "Murder at 1600," "The Glass House" -- she's worth watching. Why else would I suffer such dreck as "Must Love Dogs?" Love. Her.

What's that? The plot? Oh, OK, fine. "Six Pack" has Kenny Rogers as a washed-up race car driver who runs into six orphans -- Diane is the eldest and only girl -- who end up becoming his pit crew. Can Brewster Baker -- yes, i know -- find redemption on the track and love in his heart for these precocious kids? What do you think?

Save for the first-ever screen appearance of Anthony Michael Hall and bad-guy roles for "that guy" Hall-of-Famers Barry Corbin and Terry Kiser, this move is, um, not good. Even the racing scenes look crappy. But yeah ... Diane Lane as Breezy. Woof. Call me.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Then again, it IS the best ping pong movie I've ever seen: "Balls of Fury"

Unless I'm missing something. Heck, all I can recall by comparison is that "Friends" episode where we learn Chandler can play this magical game. His opponent? Wait for it ... Paul Rudd!

This trailer looked pretty funny last year, but I was sure enough that we were seeing only the best stuff -- and the reviews were lukewarm enough -- that I passed on a theater viewing. For $1.07 at the Redbox, though, it was just my speed for Saturday afternoon viewing while the little one napped. Had I spent any more cash or wasted a Netflix rental on this, I'd be rather annoyed.

Our story has a former ping pong prodigy (Dan "Who?" Fogler) now plying his trade in a pathetic stage show. He's recruited by an FBI agent (George Lopez) to infiltrate a secret ping pong tournament held by a crime lord (Christopher "Paycheck, please" Walken), who also is the guy responsible for our hero's father's death. To prepare himself, our hero trains with a ping pong master (James "That guy" Hong) and his comely niece (Maggie Q).

If this sounds like "Enter the Dragon," well, it is, except with paddles. Of course, "Balls of Fury" has more laughs. That's not to say it has a lot, just more than a straightforward Bruce Lee action movie. There's the title -- "Balls of Fury," hee hee -- a scene with Patton Oswalt as a goofy ping pong champ ("Tastes gooooood!"), the schtick with the pleasure slaves and ... that's about it.

I can't say I was disappointed by this movie because my expectations weren't high. And sure, there were a few other funny lines and scenes. But for a 90-minute movie, this sure felt long, mainly because a lot of stuff fell flat. Or maybe you think it's still funny to see so many people get kicked in the crotch.

Let us count the problems. First we have Fogler, who is a cross between Booger from "Revenge of the Nerds" and your generic fat-guy comic. Nearly every time I saw him -- and he's on screen most of the movie, I thought, "Jack Black out of your price range?"Not good. Second, Walken is so obviously here just for the cash and -- even more than usual -- doing his Walken thing that it's kind of sad. Third, Lopez brought nothing to the table. Fourth, for every clever line, there's another that gets repeated over and over ... and wasn't funny the first time.

But hey, Maggie Q looks good, and Thomas Lennon and Diedrich "Rex Kwon Do" Bader are both funny in limited roles. And ... yeah, that's it. Wow. Just thinking of when I saw trailers for both this and "Superbad" before a movie last year, and wondered which one would be funnier. Kind of silly now.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Quentin always did seem like a British name: "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels"

What's that? You're saying this isn't a Tarantino movie? Well, blimey.

You have to admit, Guy Ritchie's first well-known work owes just a bit to the QT as far as sharp dialogue, double-crossing characters, funky camera work and gratuitous violence. True, all those have been around for a long time in one form or another. But the way Tarantino brought them together in "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" was amazing, and it's clear Madonna's husband learned something from that.

Seeing "The Bank Job" motivated me to finally watch Jason Statham's first movie, which I had recorded months ago, back in the free movie channel days. Ah, good times. If you've seen "Snatch," you've got an idea of how "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" works. Statham is one of four blokes who get in a pinch after their bid to cash in on a high-stakes card game goes bad. That sets into motion a caper, which leads to other antics, which causes some chaos, and so on and so forth.

Other players include a bigtime gangster, his henchman, a couple of gun-stealing flunkies, a group of pot growers, a black drug dealer, another group of villains and the gangster's enforcer (Vinnie Jones, in his first acting role). I'll admit the first half hour to 45 minutes was spent just figuring out who everyone is. Hey, is that Sting? (Yes, it is.)

Once things get going, though, it's good fun. Yes, everyone is British or Cockney or something hard to understand, so there's no question I missed a few lines. But what I did hear was generally clever, especially some of the exchanges among our hapless heroes and most of what came from the black drug dealer, who had a nice afro to boot.

In all, a perfectly respectable caper movie, and would make a fine double bill with "Snatch." Just sit down with some fish and chips and a pint and have your English-to-American dictionary handy.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Now if Statham can make "The Transporter Job," things will be perfect: "The Bank Job"

Check out the guy's IMDb page, and you'll see I'm not joking. It's a miracle he can fit in any movies without one of those two words in the title.

Unlike "The Transporter" and like "The Italian Job" -- to which this movie is NOT related -- "The Bank Job" actually got decent reviews and turned out to be a good flick. Our story -- which is true, apparently -- has Jason Statham as Terry Leather, a small-time con trying to make a living in the early 1970s London selling cars when he gets a proposition from a beautiful woman. Yeah, nothing could go wrong there.

The woman (Saffron Burrows), an old friend of our hero, has a foolproof plan to rob a bank's safety deposit boxes. What she doesn't tell her buddy is that she needs to get something out of one of those boxes to get herself out of a jam with government agents. And that something is what's keeping a British black militant from being arrested and silenced. And it's not like the other boxes hold just family heirlooms, either. So when the bank job goes down, a lot of people get irate, and Statham's gang find themselves in a mell of a hess.

No other familiar names in the mostly British cast, but the movie was directed by Roger Donaldson, whose portfolio is rather diverse. Consider this sampling of movies from newest to oldest: "The World's Fastest Indian," "Species," "Cocktail" and "No Way Out," to name just a few. You know, nobody will confuse this guy with Scorsese, but when people read his obituary, a lot of them will say, "Hey, I've seen some of those!"

Anyway, Donaldson does a perfectly fine job of laying out the story and building the tension. You'd think the big question would be whether they pull off the caper or not. You'd think wrong, and it's fun to watch Statham not get played totally for a sucker, even though he and his mates are clearly in over their heads.

There's also some fun dialogue here and there, but the proceedings generaly are more serious than "Ocean's Eleven"-like. I mean, people die, and not pleasantly. All in all, a solid little thriller, and better than Statham's usual fare. Well, maybe I shouldn't say that until I've seen "Cellular" and "Crank."

Thursday, August 07, 2008

When Irish eyes are dying: "Miller's Crossing"

This has always been one of those "eh" movies for me in the Coen Brothers pantheon. The guys set the bar so high with their masterworks, i.e. "Raising Arizona" and "Fargo," that merely good efforts like "Miller's Crossing" always seem to pale by comparison. But it had been a while since I had seen their ode to mobsters, so I figured, "Why not?"

Our story: Gabriel Byrne -- in full brooding mode -- is the right-hand man to a Irish mob boss (Albert Finney) who gets into a tiff with an Italian mobster (Jon Polito). The beef: Polito wants a bookie (John Turturro) killed because of some slight (can't remember), but Finney won't do it because Turturro's sister (Marcia Gay Harden) is his squeeze ... even though she boinks Byrne now and then. So we got a war, loyalties tested and shifting and -- did I mention? -- it's Prohibition. As you might guess, hijinks ensue.

All of the actors are perfectly fine here, although the guy I probably liked best I haven't even mentioned: J.E. Freeman as Eddie "The" Dane, Polito's right-hand man and a grade-A hardass. He has some of the best lines not given to Turturro. After those two guys, Finney and Polito are pretty good, and Harden is all right, I guess. As for Byrne -- who's in almost every scene, it seems -- his limits as an actor really come to the fore here. I know he was going for subdued and cool, but I can take only so much "smolder, smolder."

That's kind of a problem in general with "Miller's Crossing," the Coens' first movie after "Raising Arizona" made them stars. They may have tried too hard here, splicing a mob picture with their own quirky schtick. While the look of the movie was fine and the story wasn't bad, the attempts at fun lines -- "What's the ruckus?" and people being told to "dangle" and women being called "twists" -- all fall flat. Just seems forced to me.

Still, I can't say this isn't worth seeing. A mediocre Coen Brothers movie is better than most other movies. Turturro alone is entertainment enough, even if we have to wait a while for him to show up. As laid back as Byrne is, Johnny T. is his terrific twitchy self. The scenes with him and Byrne are probably the best in the movie, and as much as I bagged on the dialogue, I'll confess that Turturro inspired me to add "Don't smart me!" to my list of favorite phrases.

Then again ...

This has always been one of my favorite lines:

Still haven't forgiven the Academy's snub of Rowdy Roddy, either.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

You know I'm not one for hyperbole

But this really may be the best movie line ever. (Warning: It's a wee bit crude.)

Apparently this was a joke that somehow made the final cut. And yes, it means I will have to see "Shark Attack 3" at some point.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The man, the myth, the Mitchum

While I won't confess to having seen every movie ever made, I'm a little surprised it took me this long to see much of Robert Mitchum's work. Until recently, the only films I had caught were "Cape Fear" and "The Night of the Hunter" -- both of which are worth seeing but not exactly a testament to Bob being a nice guy.

Thanks to TCM, though, I added another couple of movies to the list:

I must have missed the screen door slamming: "Thunder Road"

I knew this was a Mitchum movie because there's an episode of "Cheers" where Coach tells Sam that it's coming on TV, reminding Mr. Malone that they always watch Mitchum movies together. Beyond that, I had no clue about this one.

It soon became clear that this was something of a vanity project for Mitchum, who not only plays the lead but wrote the story and a song. He also got his son to play his kid brother, which is a little weird. But that's what happens when Elvis Presley turns you down for the part.

Mitchum is a moonshine runner in Kentucky ... or Tennessee; could never figure out for sure. Anyway, a big-city guy is muscling in on the family business, at the same time as federal agents -- yes, revenooers, as Snuffy Smith calls them -- are trying to run the shine guys out of business. There's a lot of business going on, people! Yet Mitchum remains cool, outrunning or running through bad guys as needed.

That's about it, and it kind of gets old after a while. I did like learning a bit about how these guys did things, but there never was that much tension, even as people were bumped off. While the movie gets props for not having a nice, neat ending, it still kind of peters out, and didn't really do much for me overall.

Noir you ready for this?: "Out of the Past"

This movie, on the other hand, got better as it went along, and ended up being pretty good the more I thought about it.

Made more than a decade earlier -- when Mitchum was only 29 or so -- "Out of the Past" takes a little while to ramp up, but after about a half hour things start to cook, and after an hour I was definitely interested in where this was going. It didn't hurt that Mitchum started dropping some cool lines, Jane Greer looked great as the femme fatale and a youthful Kirk Douglas was a fun villain.

Our story: Mitchum runs a gas station but is spotted by a guy who works for a mobster. As we learn in a flashback, Mitchum was once hired by the mobster to find a woman who stole from him. Mitchum does, but goes and falls for the girl. They go on the run, but that ends up badly, and Mitchum moves on to pumping gas. Back in the present, the bad guy tells Mitchum he needs to do something to make amends. Sounds like a trap, Bobby thinks, but he goes along for the ride.

As you can guess, there are plenty of twists and turns, and you've gotta work a bit to keep up. But it's not hard to try, given the actors and the story. And like I said, some good lines. I hesitate to list any here and ruin the discovery for yourself, but heck, like you'll remember them if you ever get around to watching this.

Actually, they're all here, so you can decide for yourself. Here are a few of the best, though:

"Oh, Jeff, you ought to have killed me for what I did a moment ago."
"There's time."

"Just get out, will you? I have to sleep in this room."

"Oh, Jeff, I don't want to die!"
"Neither do I, baby. But if I have to, I'm gonna die last."

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Black, drunk and super is no way to go through life, son: "Hancock"

I didn't mention this earlier, but "The Dark Knight" was the second superhero movie I saw that day. (Although Batman technically isn't a superhero because he doesn't have any superpowers. Nor was the Joker a supervillain. That's part of what makes that movie and its predecessor good vs. the guys who get exposed to radiation or come from another planet. But I digress.)

I started my movie-watching Monday -- took a comp day after working Saturday -- with "Hancock" shortly after noon. I admit to being more excited about this movie before the reviews came out, but I still was curious -- for the concept alone. The ever charming Will Smith is less than dashing here as an a$$hole who happens to have superpowers -- can fly, really strong, bullets bounce off him, etc., etc.

Rather than be a role model to people the world around, Hancock is a drunk who fights crime and saves lives only when he can drag his drunk a$$ off the ground (yet still tote a bottle with him). Heck, he doesn't even have a costume!

One day he pulls Jason Bateman out of the way of a moving train, and Bateman decides to return the favor by putting his PR skills to work on our (anti)hero. You see, Hancock, Jason says, people will like you if you make them miss you ... and clean up your act while waiting. Meanwhile, Bateman's wife (Charlize "I need to sit down" Theron) isn't so sure about all this. At least, that's what the many -- and I mean, many -- shots of her disapproving looks tell us.

It ruins nothing to reveal that Hancock does indeed shape up, and it really doesn't take long. Looking at my watch, I noticed we hadn't even used up an hour and was wondering what was left to say. Then comes a twist that turns the movie a little bit on its ear and opens a whole other can of worms. Oh, and Hancock isn't quite finished fighting crime yet, either.

To say more would reveal the twist, although I'll say this: While a few reviews referenced the twist, I think I would have seen it coming anyway. Peter Berg has never shown himself to be subtle as a director, and he doesn't let me down here. Also can't say I'm a fan of his camera work, since it seemed every other shot was one of those tight closeups on a person's face, meant to imply intimacy with thie person we're watching but really just getting too close for comfort. Hey, these are good-looking people! Let's see more of them! (But I'm sure his remake of "Dune" will rock. Yeah, really ... remake of "Dune." Oy.)

What else didn't I like? That's most of it. Undecided on the length, which at 90 minutes or so is short for this kid of thing. One reviewer said it was a rare case of him wanting a superhero movie to be longer because he wanted to know more. I'm not so sure. The way this was going, "Hancock" seemed plenty long enough. Only way I would have sat through more is if the story had been better. Maybe if they had thrown out the twist and stuck with the basic concept of an unlikable hero eventually finding religion, that would have been better. Maybe.

All in all, "Hancock" wasn't all bad. Far from it. The three leads are appealing, as usual, even if they could have used more to work with. There's some funny stuff. The special effects kind of sucked, but that's not what I came here for. It was more for Smith being a bad boy with badass powers.

Interestingly enough, Dave Chappelle was considered for the role before Smith signed on, IMDb says. Makes sense, since this seems tailor-made for a comedian with edge. Close your eyes and think back a couple of decades, and you'd see Eddie Murphy zooming around El Lay and swearing at kids. And now he's Norbit. The world can be cruel, kids.