3/28/09

Review: Monsters Vs. Aliens (2009)


Monsters Vs. Aliens begins with a wedding proposal, and ends as the bride-to-be flies away to Paris. In between, she saves the world several times over and proves to herself that she's capable of incredible things, with or without the groom.

What about the monsters, and the aliens? They're there, too, but their presence, and indeed, the presence of any other characters besides Susan, or Ginormica (voice of Reese Witherspoon), as she is known after being grown to unusual size by space radiation from a meteor, is really incidental, or even less.

It is odd that a movie with a promising "high concept" for a title has so little interest in exploiting it very much, but the film is sweet, full of action, fun and funny, and cool to watch in 3-D (I only viewed the film in IMAX 3-D, and the IMAX part was superfluous, if not distracting, as the film is not maximized for an IMAX screen).

The other monsters are cleverly designed and expertly voiced. Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie) is a mad scientist who transformed himself Fly-like, into a human-sized pest, and keeps tinkering, the Missing Link (Will Arnett) is an aeons-old fish-man who loves kung fu and was nabbed attacking a Hawaiian resort, B.O.B. (Seth Rogen) is a gelatinous ooze without much going on upstairs, and Insectosaurus, a giant prehistoric-type bug about as big as Ginormica. The four (along with Susan) are inspired by 1950s sci-fi movies, but apart from their origin stories, told briefly, they are more light amusement than clever parody or interesting characters.

The "aliens" are actually one alien and a lot of clones of the same alien, so, again, a lot of wasted story opportunities. Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) is the motivation behind two major attacks on earth which must be foiled by Susan and her motley crew. He left his own planet because nobody liked him and clones himself to take over the earth and finally get some quality time with himself.

While the movie is easy to like, fast-paced, well animated and pretty fun, the problem with the script is that it misses so many jokes and clever plot twists that any relatively interesting person could write rings around it just sitting in the theater. The further possibilities for all of the monsters and aliens are multiple and obvious, and one begins to resent the filmmakers for laziness.

The major character who is most amusing and involving, besides Susan, is actually not a monster or an alien at all, but President Hathaway (Stephen Colbert), a grandstanding, cowardly idiot with one really hilarious sequence and some minor punchlines. The President alone gets anything like the kind of parodic exploitation one would have liked to have seen for each of the sci-fi characters.

In the end, however, the entire plot is put at the ginormic feet of Susan, and the portrayal is sympathetic and well executed, and moves the story along quickly and logically. Reese Witherspoon does a great job with the character, and the message of the film is all about Susan, and women and girls in general, finding and using their own potential to decide their own lives.

One just wants a bit more, a bit more complication, a bit more parody, a bit more of how the other characters might have learned that lesson, too. Again, it's a fun ride, but oh, the missed opportunities....

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

3/17/09

Review: The Last House on the Left (2009)


I haven't seen the original version of The Last House on the Left, so, besides seeing the trailer, I went in with a clean slate, hoping I'd like it, actually. And for the most part, it was okay, even superior. It's a fairly taut, interesting thriller that mostly works above the level of similar films.

The film begins with a startling, if kind of cheap escape sequence, with hooded bandits ramming a police car to rescue its prisoner when it stops at a railroad crossing. It achieves the effect of startling, and introducing bloodthirsty, demented criminal characters, but isn't too much more than a typical bloodfest.

Next we encounter the Collingwood family on their way to vacation at their house by the lake, mother Emma (Monica Potter), father John (Tony Goldwyn), a doctor, and daughter Mari (Sara Paxton), a competitive swimmer.

For a refreshing change, though they drive an SUV and have a lake house with a guesthouse, they do not seem to be the Richest People in the World, as many families in horror movies lately have seemed to be. They seem like a pretty normal family, with the parents just hoping to relax for the weekend, and Mari preoccupied with her swimming. They are also a bit haunted by the death of Ben, an older son who recently passed away, but not in a supernatural way.

Mari quickly unpacks in the guesthouse, takes a dip in the lake, and decides to find her friend Paige, a local who works as a cashier in a convenience store in town. She borrows the family SUV and heads out to catch up with her. At the store, Paige (Martha MacIsaac) and Mari meet a boy named Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) who offers to sell Paige some weed if she'll accompany him to his motel room to get it. Though Mari is reluctant, she gives in to her friend.

This is when all hell breaks loose, with Mari and Paige (and Justin) kidnapped and soon fighting for their lives at the hands of the criminal gang from the beginning of the picture. I don't want to get into any real spoilers, so enough of that.

The Last House on the Left gets points for being so realistic, though much of the violence is presented as quite over-the-top and played out for some tedious suspense. It does have the sense of real danger at the outset, with real consequences and stakes.

And overall, the film mostly works. The acting is pretty solid from everyone, though Garret Dillahunt as the lead thug and Aaron Paul as his "brother" are principally just there. Riki Lindhome as their indomitable female sidekick Sadie tries the hardest to be as strange and frightening as she can possibly be, and she largely succeeds. Sara Paxton, Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn are just right as the imperiled family, and Martha MacIsaac and Spencer Treat Clark are good, too.

But there are two scenes in particular which wreck the film upon the metaphorical shoals. A rape scene in the middle is more leering than effectively brutal (though it is quite brutal), and a completely extraneous ending needed to find a berth somewhere sooner in the story, or be left out entirely. These two scenes and the way they are handled bring the film down from an interesting, about three-star affair, to much less.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

3/6/09

Review: Watchmen (2009)


As a fan of the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel upon which it is based, I have to say up front that it's hard for me to know how someone who has not read it will see Zack Snyder's movie adaptation of Watchmen. That said, I saw it as a very faithful, gorgeous, satisfying, bloody, sick adaptation of a classic, with great casting, effects, and rhythm.

At two hours and forty-five minutes and full of noise, exposition, graphic violence and slightly less graphic sex and nudity, this movie is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, so parents of young children take notice. This is not The Dark Knight, brutal but essentially heroic. This is brutal, nasty and essentially unheroic. Included are depictions of rape, gory mass murder and individual murder, mutilation and deaths by explosions.

Watchmen is the story of a group of superheroes trying to make their way in the world after their superactivities have been banned by law, in an alternate-historical version of the United States circa 1985. Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term in the White House. The Cold War balance with the Soviet Union is tenuous and held in place by the existence of one of these superheroes, the only one with "real superpowers," a cold blue nuclear technician, supercollider and warhead called "Dr. Manhattan" (Billy Crudup, perfect). Right-wing politics have never suffered the setbacks of losing the Vietnam War, Watergate or the real ascendance of freedom movements. America is a bleak, tense, oppressive place on the brink.

Like the graphic novel did, the film goes further than any previous superhero story in asking the question "What if superheroes were real?" It doesn't just make superheroes into relatable people like you and me, as did the classic efforts of Stan Lee's "Spider-Man," "The Fantastic Four" or "X-Men," though it does that too, with darker and funnier results, but also asks what if they were relatable people like you and me who joined the establishment, who fought against the establishment, who fought crime, each other and the rest of the world, with psychological problems, kinks or sociopathic certainties about justice and fate.

Taking nearly all of its direction quite precisely from the graphic novel, Watchmen is a visual, political and pop-culture feast of cultural archetypes from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, Superman, Batman, Captain America, the Silver Surfer, Bob Dylan, Apocalypse Now, Dr. Strangelove, the Justice League and more. Much of its aesthetic reminds one of Genesis's great "Land of Confusion" music video, which was contemporaneous with the original comics. The nuclear tension is defining and rife.

The murder of a right-wing vigilante crimefighter named the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, excellent) prompts the action of the story, which then veers all over the place, back to the origins of the characters and the costumed crimefighter movement and forward to the most esoteric future projections of the mind of Dr. Manhattan.

The killing unleashes the suspicions and investigative efforts of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley, superb), a masked vigilante detective, and the only still-active superhero of the previous era besides Dr. Manhattan. Rorschach comes to believe there is a conspiracy to murder former costumed heroes, and his interference in this conspiracy brings other former heroes and villains back into the picture, including Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), two Silk Spectres (Carla Gugino and Malin Akerman) and the arch-villain Moloch (Matt Frewer). I'll leave further plot spoilers out. All of the acting is extremely well done, and the casting of Frewer, famous as the eighties character Max Headroom, is particularly inspired. The soundtrack is just right, too, featuring Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Tears for Fears and more.

It's hard to fault the film, so faithful to its excellent source material, for what it leaves out, but a few things that might have been better incorporated are a bit more about the sadomasochistic leanings of the character Hooded Justice and others (though this is made up for by the handling of Nite Owl and a few other characters), the implementation of the Keene Act banning the activities of costumed crimefighters, the death of Hollis Mason and the street-level view of events provided by the barely present film characters of the news vendor, his faithful comics customer, the staff of the New Frontiersman tabloid and Rorschach's psychiatrist, which probably could have added. Apparently, an animated version of "The Tales of the Black Freighter," the comic-book within the graphic novel, will accompany the DVD.

That said, with time constraints and so much to work with, Snyder's film distills the essence of the story and provides a rich, worthwhile and fast-paced ride through the dark world of the Watchmen. This is an essential superhero movies, one of the best ever.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

3/3/09

Thune leads first 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results

This poll ran from 1/19/09, when I put up the new '12 site, through yesterday, so for about a month and a half. Future polls will run monthly, ending at midnight Pacific time on the second of each month.

Sen. John Thune (SD) led voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. This was a pretty lightly voted poll, and of course it is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are the first results:

#1 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 16.3%
#2 - Gov. Mark Sanford (SC) ... 15.4%
#3 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 12.5%
#4 - Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA) ... 10.6%
#5 - Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 8.7%
#6 - Fmr. Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) ... 7.7%
#6 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... 7.7%
#7 - Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (FL) ... 6.7%
#8 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 3.8%
#8 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 3.8%
#9 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 1.9%
#9 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... 1.9%
#9 - Other ... 1.9%
#10 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 1%
#11 - Sen. Sam Brownback (KS) ... 0%
#12 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 0%

104 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Alex
Choose Our President 2012