Movies

Here is where I will tell you about movies I’ve seen and/or am working on. Not my own. Other peeps’.

RECENT ROUND-UP

Shutter Island – I’m not sure, but I think when an entire audience explodes in laughter at the first three notes of your film’s score, either you’ve got them right where you want them or someone made a gross miscalculation. A noir send-up? Maybe. Genuinely strong performances marred by a dull 2nd act that stretches credulity, but it all somehow came around in the 3rd act for me and redeemed itself. This is the Scorcese of Cape Fear, enough said.

Valentine’s Day – A featherweight Love Actually (yes, I’m serious about that) that is nothing other than a pure confection; funny, cute and heartwarming. A Garry Marshall film. Equal parts pro and con toward that silly ‘holiday’ and fully aware of it. Too many star turns to note but for once Ashton Kutcher didn’t annoy me and Jennifer Garner brought it. Funny thing: with a few notable exceptions, the entire cast are TV actors that have moved into feature films, something that didn’t happen too often 20 or so years ago, but is now where we get our movie stars. Intriguing.

Michael Jackson’s This Is It – Just an absolute shame. The show was so close, everyone had worked so hard. Michael was in good voice and still had all the moves. The little, blond guitar player(Orianthi) is smoking – playing-wise and to look at! The film doesn’t get deep enough but there are some interesting moments where you can see the man and performer behind the persona – a scene with in-ear-monitor problems and a vocal give-and-take on a run-through of Man in the Mirror. Almost great – now we’ll never know.

The Hurt Locker –  A well-conceived thriller. Simple and non-political (for the most part). Who knows what will happen March 7th, but it just might take Best Director and Best Picture – and I hope to see my friend and colleague Paul N.J. Ottoson on stage for Best Sound!

Avatar – The Hurt Locker’s nemesis when it comes to the Oscars. Big movie.  Event movie. Ten other movies you’ve seen before rolled into one. Best movie of the year? No. Best movie ever? No. Biggest crowd pleaser? Yes. And when a film so derivative, as un-original as it is groundbreaking (visual effects wise) can capture the world’s movie-going imagination, I wonder if audiences have been dumbed down too much. Avatar is like fast food – tasty, full of empty calories and ultimately bad for you, or in this case, bad for Hollywood. Why? Because all of the bad, studio, tent-pole business models have been rewarded with this film’s success. Now, I would hesitate to say that it’s better than Transformers (mostly because it was made by a filmmaker and not a commercial director, ouch!) but how much better? And how much the same? Hmmm… One thing’s for sure, the huge budget, thin story, visual effects extravaganzas aren’t going anywhere.

Up in the Air – Hands down, the best movie of the year. All of our current American (global?) worries and shameful practices laid bare in a simple tale of a man without roots, who enjoys his freedom to move about the country. His life is airports, hotels and planes. His relationships are just as transient. He feels he brings a human face to corporate greed and its intrinsic malpractice toward those who find their security and livelihoods on the payroll. His life is infinitely more secure until he is led out of his comfort zone and then finds that the other side, the one he has avoided for so long is just another ruse. Well, it spoke to me. George Clooney and Anna Kendrick… so good!

New Moon – Kristen Stewart. That’s all you need to say. Boring with silly visual effects, but… Kristen Stewart. When does Eclipse come out? June?

and lastly for this round:

some Blu-Ray rentals: Halloween 2 – nowhere near as entertaining as his first one, but Rob Zombie is a damn fine genre filmmaker and Scout-Taylor Compton rocks: Post Grad – shit.

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Steven Soderbergh’s experimental work in The Girlfriend Experience is notable mostly for his incredible composition, shot after shot after shot. This is the kind of film visually that I long to make and maybe dabbled with in worldfullofnothing. Second to the beautiful visuals is a truly compelling performance by (some might say ‘the notorious’) Sasha Grey, a renowned porn star. Unlike most of the women who ply that trade, Grey is uniquely natural, low on ink, with no augmentation, she’s got a true girl-next-door look but also a steely-eyed world weariness, which is primarily what Soderbergh uses from her; she fits perfectly into the film’s ‘realism’. Made for $1.7 million and cast almost entirely with amateurs, the production lasted all of a week. Unfortunately, the actual storyline is dull; it’s a day in the life of a professional escort (who provides a ‘girlfriend experience’ for a price), her clients, other business opportunists who come and go and her strained relationship with her boyfriend (a gym trainer with his own aspirations), all told competely out of order, back to mid, mid-third, front to side. Amazingly, the film remains possible to follow. Like “District 9” reviewed below, “The Girlfriend Experience” was shot with the Red HD camera… got to get me one of these! Beautiful capture, reason enough to see this film.

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Without spoiling anything, Passengers is probably the movie M. Night Shyamalan wishes he made last year instead of The Happening. And if you know a movie he made with “Lily” from Hannah Montana’s older brother, then you know this one, too. (I know something is horribly wrong with the grammar in that last sentence, sue me.) Having said all that so cleverly, let me also say Passengers is an engrossing thriller with solid performances by all, but especially Anne Hathaway and Patrick Wilson. Their chemistry is incendiary and keeps you at bay from figuring out what’s really going on until director Rodrigo Garcia wants you to. Speaking of Garcia, he is also the brains behind the stellar HBO series In Treatment and his co-star from that series, Dianne Wiest, appears here as well. This film came and went from theaters last spring and I can see why, it unfolds slowly (but does not plod) and, as appears to be Garcia’s aesthetic, gets very into psychology, both of the film’s characters but also of people who have survived a terrible event. So, it’s a bit of a talky at times. I didn’t mind. Curious note: in 2001 I worked on Rodrigo Garcia’s Showtime feature entitled 10 Tiny Love Stories, later re-titled Women Remember Men. I spent an afternoon with him only learning later that his father is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of Love in the Time of Cholera. I found Rodrigo to be a very artistic gentleman and it’s been nice to see him gain success as a writer/director in the last few years.

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The best science fiction is usually relevant to the human condition. Think of Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. This is what gives weight to an otherwise easily dismissable genre… think here of the SyFy channnel! (It’ll always be the Sci-Fi Channel to me.) District 9 is an allegory for race relations and, in particular, the problems of Apartheid that South Africa faced and finally managed, for the most part, to overcome. It’s also a thrill ride packed with action and the requisite “ewww, gross”-inducing moments. One thing is for sure, I had planned on having shrimp for dinner… probably won’t now for awhile. Presented in a mockumentary fashion (similar at times to Cloverfield or Quarantine but without the obvious first person feel) and also seen through surveillance cameras and, from time to time, a more traditional cinematic approach, District 9 introduces us to the forced segregation of an entire alien species as their sudden appearance in the skies over Johnannesburg twenty-years ago left the government, egged on by frightened citizens, with few options. The alien camp (a.k.a District 9) has become a hell on earth of crime, violence and opportunity for those looking to exploit the “Prawns” (nicknamed this for their shrimp-like appearance). During a mission to move the Prawns to a new camp further away from people, one man (the beauracrat in charge) gets a taste of the injustice inflicted upon the hapless aliens. Overall a solid, entertaining film and further proof, on the tech level, that the Red Camera is the future. Refreshing to see a film with no recognizable faces and one of two I’ve seen recently that allow for foreign language and subtitles (see the Inglourious Basterds review below)… of course, District 9 is a foreign film, made in South Africa through Peter Jackson’s New Zealand based company. And a big winner in the summer, up against the usual studio sequel machine. If audiences will accept more films like this, it will only be a welcome sign.

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At first blush, Inglourious Basterds seemed like it was easily 45 minutes too long but the more I thought about it later, the better it felt for its slow burn in the three or four lengthy scenes that gave me the ‘too long’ feeling initially. This is serious tension building stuff in the old style. If you like your movies at a Transformers pace where no shot stays on the screen for more than 12 frames, then Basterds is probably not for you. This is a movie with an opening scene that’s two and half reels long, that’s around 30 minutes for you folks who don’t know that films are broken into reels. In fact, if you are one of those sadly uninformed people, the movie gives you a good history lesson in cinema and theatrical exhibition. It’s entire third act revolves around it. Quentin Tarantino is a master with tension, closer in style to early Hitchcock than, say, Spielberg… the difference? Tarantino builds tension through long dialogue-driven scenes letting your own unease grow. You know something’s going to happen but he’s not going to give it to you until you can’t hardly stand it… one… more… second. Spielberg, also a master uses his uncanny visual and sonic expertise to heighten tension, with very little dialogue… think of the scene in Saving Private Ryan where the soldiers can hear the German tank approaching but can’t see it… for a very long time. Two completely different approaches but right on when it matters. Now, sure, Inglourious Basterds doesn’t quite know if it wants to be a World War II movie, fan-boy ultraviolent comic book or a love letter to 40’s-era cinema… it’s all of that… plus the most absurd revisionist history… in history… but it’s a good ride and it’s a true cinematic experience, something we’re not getting much of these days. Major kudos to Christoph Waltz who plays the Nazi Hans Landa… this guy deserves an Oscar nomination. Go see the Basterds!

MV5BMTkxNjUxODY3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjQyMzMzMg@@._V1._SX270_SY400_Apparently I’ve been on a bit of a Disney kick recently and why not? Personally, I think some of the best TV sitcom writing is happening at Maushwitz on shows like “Wizards of Waverly Place,” “Sonny With a Chance” and “Hannah Montana.” If everyone continues to agree that Pixar turns out one genius film after another, bridging the gap between family and adult fare, the same can be said for the shows coming from It’s A Laugh, the production company behind these Disney channel programs, albeit where Pixar leans heavily toward the adult demo, Disney channel keeps it real for the kids. Nothing wrong with that. This current flood of strong shows and hot young talent got started with Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus just three short years ago and while it appears Season 4 of Hannah Montana will happen, “Hannah Montana: The Movie” could have been the coup de grace for the series, letting Miley off the Hannah tour bus and giving her a shot at crossing over. I suppose that’s all still in the works, but here in this film, all the angles come together, the Hannah/Miley secret gets tested and survives and the whole thing could have come to a momentous conclusion. Chances are, the movie was meant to stand apart from the series and have no bearing whatsoever on the yet-to-come shenanigans over at the Disney channel. In any case, “Hannah Montana: The Movie” is truly funny, truly heartwarming, played for maximum emotion and just as over-the-top silly as the show. It also gives both Jason Earles and Emily Osment some room to flex their comedic muscles. Everyone looks a little different in this film. The switch from episodic lighting and HD to a cinematic 35mm production brings the characters to life in ways not possible in a three-camera sitcom environment. Miley Cyrus, with her larger than life expressions, enormous blue eyes and mouth that seems to move around her words is a true natural beauty. The Hannah wig and overdone pop star theatrics take away from her and that is the overall point of this film, Miley has gotten lost in Hannah and it’s time for an intervention: i.e. back to the farm to get in touch with what’s real. The TV show has always been good at balancing slapstick with its messages and the same is true here. There are genuinely funny set pieces and very touching moments although the movie really gets rolling once Hollywood is in the rearview mirror and the ‘fish-out-of-water-realizing-she-actually-belongs-in-the-pond’ storyline kicks off. The decision to leave Mitchel Musso and Moises Arias behind was welcome since, usually, the ‘Rico’ bits are the weakest in any ‘Hannah’ episode. Overall, “Hannah Montana: The Movie” is a delight and I recommend it for anyone who just wants to have some fun.

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When I was kid I loved the Witch Mountain movies. One of my first actress crushes was Kim Richards from those films. So I was intrigued by the notion of revamping the franchise as was done here with “Race to Witch Mountain.” I’ve also become a bit of a Dwayne Johnson fan after his role in “The Game Plan” where he started to counter his tough guy shtick with the addition of a soft center. The guy can be really funny. Although, he’ll always be The Rock to me! Now then: This is a complete re-invention of the Witch Mountain concept, the kids aren’t Tony and Tia… they’re Seth and Sarah. Whatever. This movie is a lot of high octane fun that never slows down or bothers with too much exposition. It doesn’t need it. Let’s face it, it’s called “Race to Witch Mountain” for a reason… it’s a race! And the race is on from Fade In to Fade Out. Totally a kick-back, turn your brain off 100 minutes. Johnson is solid in both light moments and ass-kicking sequences. The kids are also strong, especially AnnaSophia Robb who was so good in “Bridge to Terabithia” and the little seen “Sleepwalking”. Kim Richards (who is Paris Hilton’s aunt – did you know that?) and her former co-star Ike Eisenmann show up in clever cameos, letting us know that the folks at Disney expected fans of the original to want a little something familiar. Cheech Marin shows up for a few seconds in a wasted opportunity. Knowing how much enjoyment the original pictures brought to kids in the 70’s, this update/new take on the idea is welcome. The originals are still fun but are horribly dated. Having this version for 21st century kids is a smart move and the filmmakers didn’t spoil it.

Orphan

“Orphan” starts out painfully slow but eventually, around the middle of Reel 2, starts to get under your skin. At first the audience is meant to feel sympathetic toward orphaned Esther, who is mature beyond her years and a talented artist, but her taste for Victorian era clothing and her Russian accent makes her an easy target for bullying tween-age girls. She also begins to show a peculiar dominance toward the other children in her adopted family putting her at odds with her new mother. To make matters worse, her adopted father is a complete push-over around Esther. Sure enough, things start happening and, yes, they are comedic (probably unintentionally so, but Esther’s moments of unhinged brutality lend themselves to camp) but as things progress, a whopper of a turn in Act 3 helps things not only make better sense but is entirely unexpected. The actress playing Esther, Isabelle Furhman, is a remarkable young talent and Aryana Engineer, who plays Esther’s new younger sister, Max, is a scene stealer. Also of note is a sonic device employed when Max is without her hearing aids as the film falls completely silent in some of it’s more intense moments. An entertaining summer thriller, for sure.

Ghosts of

I refused to pay Hawaiian Airlines for the use of their headphones so had to make do plugging my ear buds in and holding them in place, whereby I only got the right channel of the sound track… and it was enough. Not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination: labored and unfunny. Bright spots only in Michael Douglas’ and Lacey Chabert’s performances. Otherwise, skip “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.”

Beth Cooper

Yes, I like Hayden Panettiere. What’s not to like? Well… let’s talk about “I Love You, Beth Cooper.” What starts out as a smartly written, clever conceit, unfortunately turns into a grad night free-for-all with all of the requisite bad jokes, over the top theatrics and retread set-ups. Hayden, however, looks stunning in her little red strapless dress that somehow manages to stay put through all manner of running, jumping and rolling around and her chemistry with co-star Paul Rust is strong. There are definitely funny moments but there are some groan inducing ones, too, especially a gay joke that runs throughout the film and is not funny… at all. I’ll look forward to seeing Hayden back in her cheerleader outfit on “Heroes”.

One Response to “Movies”

  1. Janna Newman Says:

    Hey Jess! Great website. I enjoyed reading your review of the Hannah Montana movie. I think having a well put together blog like this is a good idea!

    Hope all is well,
    Janna

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