Monthly Archives: March 2011

Review: Sucker Punch

sucker punch one sheetImagine a building where one side is a dark, dreary insane asylum populated by sadistic guards, doctors and attractive female inmates, and the other side is a popular brothel and speakeasy. Sounds like the heart of a b-movie exploitation film and that’s what Sucker Punch, the new computer-graphics filled cinematic graphic novel from Zack Snyder, turns out to be.

Unfortunately, the film is also painfully juvenile with a target audience of adolescent boys who define their world as being surrounded by bullies and beautiful, unobtainable girls “in real life”, and bad guys, dragons and demons to kill with various cool and hyper-aggressive weapons in their virtual, video-game-fueled lives. It’s no surprise that the women in the film are all costumed in fetishistic outfits with plunging necklines, bare midriffs, ├╝ber-short skirts and long stockings. They’re all very sexy but, unsurprisingly, there’s no actual sex in the film.
Sucker Punch starts out with a dark, moody sequence where late teen blonde waif Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is trapped in a gothic monstrosity of a house with her scary, leering stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). When she rejects his advances after her mom has passed away, he turns his attentions to her little sister, to which Baby reacts by finding a gun and shooting him. She misfires and her sister ends up killed and his revenge is to have her locked up in the home for the mentally insane.
And that’s where it switches from a delightfully creepy horror film into an incoherent genre mashup. Baby Doll meets the other babes in distress that become her posse: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). They’re all required to act out erotic plays in the speakeasy then entertain individual customers, through which we realize that all the women in Sucker Punch are victims of sadistic men, and that there are no bad women — or good men — in the entire narrative.
Sucker Punch is a mess. The storyline barely makes sense and the constant transitions from fantasy to “reality”, era to era, genre to genre, left me asking “WTF?” more than once during the movie. By the end it was just exhausting and while the effects were splendid, the storyline was too weak to sustain it. I can only recommend this for adolescent men who want to see their soft porn mixed with a strong dose of video game visuals and effects.

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Review: Limitless

limitless one sheetThere’s little worse for a film critic than watching a perfectly good idea for a movie be bungled in its adaptation to the big screen. Limitless falls into this category, however, with a brilliant concept that ends up so sloppy and poorly written that it made me want to open my laptop and start writing a new script.

The story is based on Alan Glynn’s novel “The Dark Fields” about a drug that rewires your brain so that instead of having access to the usual 20% of your neural capacity, you can utilize all of your brain. Every memory is eidetic, everything you’ve ever seen, heard, learned, touched, tasted can instantly be integrated into your experiences and, as Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) learns, you can master foreign languages in just a day or two and become an accomplished pianist in about the same time. Who wouldn’t revel in a drug that offered that capability?
Problem is, to make a movie you need drama, tension, good and bad characters and it’s the interplay between them that makes things interesting and engaging. In Watchmen, for example, the ultimate bad guy is the smartest man on Earth, because he’s smart enough to see the inevitable progression of man and society. In Limitless, they couldn’t decide whether to make it a morality play about Morra gaining abilities as “Enhanced Eddie” at the price of his humanity, or to simply let him be the protagonist overcoming a variety of increasingly ridiculous obstacles, which made for an awful confusing narrative.
The least coherent character in the film is his on-again, off-again girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) who dumps Eddie for being a do-nothing slacker at the beginning of the film, then finds him attractive once he starts taking NZT-48 (as the mystery drug is called), then dumps him when she realizes his newfound attitude is due to drugs. It’s a distinctly post-modern conscience.
With a stronger director and a tighter focus on the point of the story, Limitless could have been a splendid movie. It certainly had its fair share of excitement, interesting visual effects and attractive actors and shooting locations. But it’s a confection without any substance, a film without a narrative soul, and as such, ended up leaving this critic wishing for something that had a point to make and a more satisfying conclusion.

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Review: Paul

paul one sheet
Most modern comedies end up being so stupid that it’s painful to watch the actors embarrass themselves on the big screen. There are also comic actors who seem to have a string of box office successes even as their films are stupid and only barely entertaining. That’s why it’s a pleasure to see the terrific comic team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost skewer the alien conspiracy genre in the consistently funny Paul.

Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are comic-book geeks who have flown from their home in England to San Diego for Comic-Con, the ultimate nerdfest. In addition to best friends since childhood, they’re also collaborators — Graeme’s the artist and Clive’s the writer — on a graphic novel called “Jelva: Alien Queen of the Varvak”. What better way for two geeks to enjoy their first visit to the United States than renting an RV and going on a cross-country UFO road trip?
Just outside of Area 51, Graeme and Clive have a close encounter with a mysterious car that races ahead of them, then flips and rolls. They stop and are shocked to find Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), a smart-ass alien who has been held captive by the US Gov’t for almost sixty years. Reluctantly, they give Paul a ride and are quickly taken by his good spirits, snarky comments and bonhomie. 
But there are bad men on their trail!  The mysterious Men In Black, lead by the hilariously deadpan Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman), with his incompetent twit associates Haggard (Bill Hader) and O’Reilly (Joe Lo Truglio), and directed by the even more mysterious Big Guy (a delightfully geeky bit of surprise casting I won’t ruin here), and they’re dead set on capturing Paul and returning him for further research.
I really enjoyed Paul and found it full of great lines, sideways references to other films and insider jokes, funny situations and a story arc that kept the comic momentum going for the entire movie. I was already a fan of Pegg and Frost from their earlier work (notably Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead) but I think this is their best work to date. Just don’t be surprised by the never-ending stream of obscenities along the way on this Close Encounters-inspired lunatic road trip movie.

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Review: Battle Los Angeles

battle los angeles la one sheetAnother year, another unrelenting attack by hostile aliens on our planet. Who knew that Earth was such a valuable commodity?  As we’ve learned to expect from the genre, Battle Los Angeles is a lot of action loosely woven together by a semi-comprehensible storyline, a bunch of Marines and a few painfully insipid scenes where The Deeper Meaning of Being Human are discussed.

The film starts out with the invasion and there’s no question, the aliens are smart, aggressive and alarmingly effective. They’ve simultaneously targeted major cities throughout the world and standard military tactics are completely ineffective. When we humans are convinced that we at least have air superiority the aliens roll out lightning-fast fighters. Not good!
On the side of humanity we have a group of US Marines busy training at Camp Pendelton, including the troubled Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) who is ready to resign his commission after his previous mission went terribly wrong. Los Angeles is attacked and they need every warm body on the front lines, so Nantz, Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), Lockett (Cory Hardrict), Stavrou (Gino Anthony Pesi), Harris (Ne-Yo) and Mottola (James Hiroyuki Liao) all grab grenades, clips for their rifles and jump in a chopper. Booyah!
There’s much to like in this gung-ho military alien invasion Western with its video game sensibilities, including a believable alien enemy and a somewhat ambiguous ending that wasn’t as ghastly stupid as the recent alien invasion film Skyline nor as goofy as the common cold plague that afflicted the Martian invaders in War of the Worlds. Still, it’s a movie without nuance, the characters are all incredibly predictable, and the dialog ranges from adequate to daft, with a scene or two that will have you convinced you’re seeing a high school movie club production, not a major studio motion picture.
Sound like your kind of escapist movie during a week characterized by tsunamis and a terrifying series of explosions in a damaged nuclear reactor?  If so, then Battle Los Angeles is far from the worst movie in the cineplex right now, and if you can just enjoy it for what it is, you might be surprised how entertaining it is.

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Review: Red Riding Hood

red riding hood one sheetIt’s not easy to turn a fairy tale into a movie, but when you decide you want to create the next teen horror-romance franchise, you’re got quite a challenge ahead of you. Even the blockbuster Twilight movies have varied quite a bit in quality and tone, but nothing will prepare you for the ghastly OMG! mess that is Red Riding Hood.

The film is set in Daggerhorn, a picturesque medieval village complete with rough-hewn wooden houses and a town square covered in sand and complete with strange totems intended to ward off the evil that is The Wolf. It never looks like anything other than an elaborate sound stage, however, and even in the midst of snowfall, the inhabitants continue to be dressed in lightweight clothes and dancing shoes. Boots? Coats? Apparently they weren’t invented yet.
The story centers around the lovely Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), who has an obvious Twilight-like choice to make between her long-time heartthrob Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) and Henry (Max Irons), the blacksmith’s son to whom she has been promised. Surprise! Peter and Henry don’t like each other. Surprise! Peter (as in “Peter and the Wolf”, get it?) might be the werewolf and is the bad boy orphan of the village, more apt to break the rules than follow them. Henry, by contrast, is a somewhat meek boy who bemoans his lack of courage in the face of adversity.
Once every twelve years a blood moon appears and during that time, the mysterious werewolf’s bites turn its victims into werewolves, rather than just killing them. Of course, the werewolf has to restrain its murderous rage and not eviscerate these same victims, but… who in the village could be the werewolf?  Grandma, living outside the village in her cute little A-frame?  Peter, the bad boy?  Henry?  Valerie herself?
If I were a sixteen year old girl, I might find this load of nonsense mildly engaging due to the inclusion of big-eyed Amanda Seyfried and the handsome Shiloh Fernandez (who looks remarkably like Edward (Robert Pattinson) from Twilight) and Max Irons, but none of them actually act, the dialog is campy and self-conscious and there are way too few scares for what’s billed as a sort of teen horror film. I don’t know if I’d even recommend you watching this on cable, it’s that bad. It’s one of the few films I’ve seen this year that just begs for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 commentary track. ‘nuf said.

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Review: The Adjustment Bureau

adjustment bureau one sheetI’m not a particularly paranoid person, but there are times that I can be a bit suspicious about coincidences or “kismet”, things that are almost impossibly unlikely to have happened as they did. I’m not alone: sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick made a career out of asking “what’s behind the scenes” in a vast body of disturbing and thought-provoking stories, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Next and Paycheck. Add The Adjustment Bureau to this list, with the story adapted to the big screen by director George Nolfi.

David Norris (Matt Damon) is a young go-getter New York politician who has a chance encounter with the quirky, engaging Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt), a ballerina who captures his attention immediately. But strange forces are at work and Norris is assaulted and wakes up in a warehouse, surrounded by mysterious dark-suited men in fedoras. Their leader is Richardson (John Slattery), who explains to Norris that there’s a Plan, as mapped in their constantly changing notebooks, and that he cannot be with Elise in The Plan.
The film transforms from a romance into an action film once the watchers show up, and while fate keeps causing Norris to bump into Sellas, it becomes clear that if he’s going to try to exercise free will and pursue her, he’s going to do so at the risk of the Bureau wiping his memories to avoid dangerous ripples to The Plan. Offsetting the mysterious and sinister watchers is Harry (Anthony Mackie), who sympathizes with Norris and helps him learn what’s going on and how to wrest back control of his own fate.
I found The Adjustment Bureau an interesting and thought-provoking thriller, rather slow to get started but very worth watching. Blunt is splendid in her role as a modern dancer confused by all that’s going on and I found Harry a particularly sympathetic character, a man torn between his duty to the Bureau and his emotional connection with Norris. In an age where so many science fiction films are about alien invasions or other violent stories, it was a pleasure to have a more cerebral film with snappy dialog and a good cinematic payoff at the end.

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