6/30/09

Review: Whatever Works (2009)


Whatever Works is not first-tier Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Annie Hall, etc.), but it's not exactly second-rate either (Celebrity). It does unite for the first time the talents of Allen and comedian/writer Larry David, and this is a very good thing. It gets a bit bogged down in secondary characters, however, and this is generally to its detriment. Fortunately, this is not too serious a flaw.

David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a classic grouch, a former physics professor once nominated for a Nobel Prize who now lives alone in one of the most fabulous New York City apartments you've ever seen and, for some reason, yells at little kids who want to learn how to play chess, for cash.

The title credits play with Groucho Marx singing "Hello, I Must Be Going," from Animal Crackers, a classic grouch song, and this is appropriate, as well as being a bouncy, happy way to open the film. Like in that film, our main character is our direct narrator, too, at times directly addressing the camera--not just to tell us how he feels, though he does that, but also to reveal his superiority to the rest of the characters, as only he knows this is a movie.

This mostly works pretty well, though there are times it could have been used more, better, or less. It's very like the Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite, though it was used much more cleverly in that earlier film, and the two movies have other similarities as well.

Yellnikoff's life is changed when he meets Melodie St. Anne Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood, excellent), a young runaway from Mississippi who wheedles her way into his apartment, his life, and then his heart. She's very young, beautiful and trusting, and she takes to Boris's superior, misanthropic attitude like a duck to water, though she never quite buys a lot of it. This leads to some very funny moments when she begins to echo his opinions to others. Boris's life is changed, and he gets a bit better attitude in specific to areas of his life involving love, but in general he's still the pessimistic, overbearing grouch. This leads to further romantic complications.

Meanwhile, Melodie's parents come North looking for their missing daughter. First to arrive is her mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson, very good), whose husband has left her for her best friend. She blossoms in New York, though never warming up much to her daughter's new husband, becoming a creative and fulfilled person in a pretty believable way.

Melodie's father John (Ed Begley, Jr.) arrives a bit later, now stranded on his own romantic shoals, and is similarly nonplussed at first that his daughter has not been subdued with chloroform and kidnapped by white slavers. His encounter with New York changes him, too, but, though Begley is good in the part, this subplot is less convincing and probably could have been mostly left out.

There aren't as many intriguing characters as in some of Allen's recent films, but David and Wood are solid as Yellnikoff and Celestine and continue to entertain throughout. The happy ending could have been more oblique and felt more satisfying.

Whatever Works works, as a solid outing from Woody, even if it feels a bit forced and too easy in places, but it's lots of fun and well worth seeing for casual or serious Allen fans, or Larry David fans.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

Coleman concedes, Al Franken to Senate for Minnesota

From ABC News:

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of comedian-turned-Democratic candidate Al Franken in his prolonged battle to become a U.S. Senator.

"I received a very gracious call from Sen. Coleman. He wished me well. And we agreed that it is time to bring this state together," said Senator-elect Franken during his victory speech outside his home in Minnesota.

...

Franken's defeat over Coleman provides Democrats with a super-majority in the U.S. Senate with 60 seats on their side of the aisle. President Obama clearly won't be able to count on all 60 votes on every single issue, but it certainly provides a boost to the White House and Harry Reid as they enter into policy negotiations with the Republican leadership in the Senate.


Finally!

Alex
Choose Our President 2012

6/24/09

Sanford joke for David Letterman

I know Dave's monologue has already aired on the East Coast, and there may be some version of this joke in it, but here's mine:

"First they said Gov. Sanford had gone to Appalachia, then it turns out he was in Argentina, and I said to myself, 'If he ended up in Alaska, I got no joke.'"

Alex
Choose Our President 2012

Review: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)


There is no better "Transformers" movie than the one every little kid who ever saw the cartoons or owned a "Transformer" toy (or one of many rip-offs of varying coolness) created while watching or setting up pitched bedroom-floor battles between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons. Full disclosure: I had Optimus Prime and some others and watched a lot of the cartoons myself as a kid in the mid-eighties. They're pretty cool toys, and it was a pretty good cartoon. Any movie is going to fall short of when real imagination meets really good toys.

Still, I was pretty bummed out by the first live-action Michael Bay movie. I didn't write a full review of it, but my capsule review would be: pretty cool effects, which you could actually see if the director and editor weren't on meth. The chief flaw of the first film (besides general hokiness, expected) is that the Transformers are very hard to see, because no cut lasts more than a few milliseconds. I don't know if somebody slipped something relaxing in Bay's coffee or what, but this is not a flaw of the second movie, Revenge of the Fallen.

Like Steven Spielberg did with The Lost World, the sequel to Jurassic Park, when he let the humans be lame and focused on showing cool dinosaurs, including pterodactyls, in this much-superior sequel, Bay has largely, and wisely, shunted the humans aside to focus on showing us more and cooler-looking Transformers. Thank goodness, that's all I wanted.

The film opens as Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), the main human character from the first movie, is headed off to college. He finds a shard of some Transformer-world artifact or other in his old hoodie, and it unleashes evil Transformers bent on destroying him. For some reason, despite this major development, he still heads off to college and like, goes to frat parties and stuff. I don't want to get too much into the plot, which hardly matters, but suffice it to say that the Decepticons are rallying for a pitched battle with the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime and now allied with the U.S. government, and governments around the world, to track down and eliminate the remaining Decepticon population.

There's another couple of Transformer-artifact MacGuffins for everybody to chase, and some tension as the Transformer/military strike force is put under a new, political White House liaison who is promptly and fully ignored by the fascist human soldiers who assume they know better than their Commander-in-Chief, and, of course, they do, because this is a stupid action movie.

All right, that's more than enough plot. The point is to watch Transformers, see them transform, and fight, and blow stuff up good. This is well accomplished, even if the movie could only have been improved by cutting out another half-hour or more of the lame human plot crap (it's two and a half hours long, for cripe's sake!). But the Transformers are satisfying in the main, and there are even some cool moments when we think of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee as heroic characters, which must be a hard thing to pull off with essentially ugly cartoons.

That said, there are some pretty inexcusable flaws, and I blame them all on Michael Bay, because I do not like Michael Bay movies (The Rock excepted). There are many times when it's unclear which robot is which, or what exactly is happening when a few of them get tangled up chasing or fighting each other. Some of the Decepticons use the b-word to refer to female characters. This is so stupid and unacceptable, I don't feel like I need to say why. Inexplicably, many of the Transformers have various ethnic accents which, in some cases, do help create character, but in others, seem senselessly offensive. And "elderly" Transformers, with canes and embarrassing flatulence? What could this even mean? Sometimes somebody just should have vetoed certain things for being too stupid.

And the human characters are just stupid, stupid as characters, stupidly portrayed, stupid, stupid, stupid, even "stoopid," which is stupider than stupid. Also the human writers, and director.

Despite its flaws, however, the movie is just cool to watch. With the glitchy editing fixed, it's a Transformer feast, with interesting underwater Transformers, transforming household items, animal Transformers, multi-piece, "Voltron"-like Transformers, all manner of flying Transformers, an Earth-orbiting satellite Transformer--and you can see them all, which is really quite awesome. If you go, go for the Transformers, and feel free to ignore the humans and the plot. It's worth it for--you guessed it, the Transformers.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

2012 GOP presidential field leader Sanford admits affair after disappearance

From MSNBC:

Fighting back tears at a news conference he assembled, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) admitted that he had an affair with a woman living in Argentina. "I have been unfaithful to my wife," he said. "I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. And all I can say is I apologize."

Sanford also announced he was resigning his position as chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

The governor's stunning revelation caps a three-day media frenzy, in which it was first reported that the governor was missing; then his staff said he had been hiking the Appalachian Trail; and this morning, the State newspaper discovered he had been in Argentina.


He's done, erratic and hypocritical; stick a fork in him.

Alex
Choose Our President 2012

6/22/09

Review: Moon (2009)


Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the lone human operator of a Helium 3 mining station on the dark side of the moon. In the future presented, Helium 3 is a dream fuel which has solved global warming and pollution and provided the world with the clean, plentiful fuel of which it is now in dire need. Bell seem gung-ho and dedicated. He has three weeks or so left to go until his trip home to see his wife, Tess, and daughter, Eve, who seems to have been born since his departure from Earth.

Bell passes his time building a model town he calls "Fairfield" and drawing long lines of smiley faces which indicate the days left until his return home, and seems to enjoy the relief of exiting his living quarters and home base to harvest full tanks of fuel to rocket to earth or to repair automated mining systems. He does seem to be starting to feel a bit under the weather.

The film is shown mostly from Sam's point of view, so when he awakens after an accident and finds another Sam Bell now sharing the station with him, he, and the audience, are disoriented, and get to follow the clues with him as he attempts to discover the true nature of his presence on the moon.

Moon is the first film from Duncan Jones, who just happens to be David Bowie's son, and one does think about "Space Oddity" when watching the film, perhaps not exactly what the son would hope. But in a way, that song is its own movie, and the movie is its own song, and in their own ways, they are as frightening, meditative and ambiguous, in a thoughtful way, as the other. That the film has its own driving, haunting score from Clint Mansell, whose impact really stays with you after the movie ends and blends nicely with the thoughts it leaves you to ponder, is also a major strength.

As the suspense builds, one begins to notice that, though Sam Rockwell is the main featured actor, other characters besides the two Sam Bells are as integral to the story as they. GERTY is the station's computer attendant/butler/substitute miner/amanuensis/operator, voiced by Kevin Spacey, and his actions are always questionable. This character borrows a lot from HAL-9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey, certainly in terms of added menace in the audience's expectations, but this does not turn out quite the way one might expect.

Another computer voice, the announcer of the moon rover, is also effective and provides some comic relief. Sam's absent wife and child are omnipresent to him, in messages and in his thoughts. And mining company officials who only communicate with him at a distance, and a crew they send to investigate operations, are more menacing than even the techno-cold robots.

Moon goes slowly, and is patient, letting the questions it raises find their full fruition in the audience's mind before placing certain plot cards on the table. When it does set them down, they are still ambiguous, subject to a larger frame of questions, so that even when simple questions are answered simply, qualms and nagging suspicions persist.

Rockwell is excellent in his (at least) dual role, and cabin fever times two is very interesting to watch. Spacey is also good, and the interface of a yellow smiley face which sometimes changes to looks of questioning, concern or sympathy is surprisingly effective (as well as bringing to mind The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in all its iterations, but specifically the neglected but fine 2005 version with Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed President of the Galaxy).

Moon raises questions of identity, technology, corporatism and human ethics in a deceptively simple but troubling way. Despite visual and plot similarities with 2001, it really has much more the feel of a Philip K. Dick or Ray Bradbury story (or even an O. Henry story) than a more cosmic Arthur C. Clarke tale, though its implications are as universal. People may disagree about what actually happens, though the film provides a fairly comprehensible storyline and seems to follow through with it in a factual way right up to the end. But was that really....Or could that really...?

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

Review: Away We Go (2009)


I wouldn't want to take it too far, but Away We Go feels a bit like a response to criticisms of director Sam Mendes's previous effort, the also quite good Revolutionary Road. Some called that film cold, slightly overdramatic and somewhat unrelatable to modern times, each of which has at least some truth to it, in my opinion.

So new we have Away We Go, which is perhaps a bit warm, overearnest, easygoing, and perhaps overinclusive of very very modern, or modish characters. Away We Go is like a dialectical journey through various iterations of modern relationships. It's absolutely gorgeous, funny and touching despite weaknesses of being too glib, too cute in a few too many places and having a very weak, ambiguous ending.

It tells the story of Burt Farlander (Jon Krasinski, "The Office") and Verona de Tessant (Maya Rudolph, "Saturday Night Live"), an unmarried couple who discover they're having a baby, and a trip they take around North America visiting friends and relatives, auditioning places to settle down to raise their child.

The film is written by real-life couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, writers of memoirs, short stories and novels, and it's a compliment to say that it's only a little too writerly. Sometimes characters break out with long monologues which are short stories in themselves. A bit too much emphasis is placed on dialogue, and not quite enough on action. Still, to create a believable, interesting, appealing couple the audience can identify with is no small achievement, and this also arises out of the writing, along with luminous performances from Rudolph and Krasinski.

As in life, the journey is more the point than the destination, so it would probably spoil a bit too much to revisit each of the locales and characters encountered there. Suffice it to say that Burt and Verona see enough of various styles of living and married life that Verona's comment that they "don't love each other like anybody else" has quite a bit of resonance. They do, in fact, seem like much the sanest couple in evidence, though they also see that the toll taken as people confront the challenges of life together may not exempt their relationship forever from the wear and tear of longevity. This scares them as well as reinforcing the reassurance their own love provides them.

The cast is quirky, pretty persuasive, and genuinely surprising. Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels play Burt's off-center parents ("I like your new hairstyle. I don't think it makes you look crazy," Burt tells his mother). Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan are memorable as old friends of Verona's whom they visit in Phoenix. Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King from HBO's excellent "Boycott") plays Verona's sister with grace, wisdom and wistfulness, providing some of the film's most moving moments. Maggie Gyllenhaal is self-important and loopy as Burt's childhood "cousin."

The film's cinematography is bright and open, giving a good sense of the places they visit and the various emotional avenues opened by them. The music, much by Alexi Murdoch, who reminds one of Nick Drake or Billy Bragg, adds much, and blends seemlessly with tunes by George Harrison, Bob Dylan and others.

The film brings to mind several other quirky road-trip/mid-life angst films, among them Flirting with Disaster, About Schmidt, Sideways, and the like, and it feels quirky in a similar vein. However, it's not derivative of any of these or any other readily identifiable model, and it does feel driven by its own characters' realities more than any intrusive big ideas or major contrivances. Some of the minor characters do seem too contrived at times, and perhaps like their stories are supposed to form some kind of thesis or antithesis to Burt and Verona's relationship, but it doesn't quite work out in an intellectually satisfying way, so that it's a bit confusing why some parts of their side stories are included and others perhaps left out. It doesn't have nearly the emotional resonance, in the end, as any of the three movies mentioned above, nor even, quite, as much as Revolutionary Road.

Without spoiling the ending, I do understand that it probably added something to it to have some odd mysteries and unsaid things the audience is thinking about while the action unfolds, but on the whole, I felt some loose ends were left unaddressed, the last line of dialogue kind of blew it, and it felt a little too perfect and overly symbolic. Still, for a film with little or no suspense, it had me riveted to my seat and entertained throughout. And it's so beautiful.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

6/19/09

Review: Year One (2009)


Harold Ramis's Year One is everything one would have wished Land of the Lost to be, that is to say, quite funny. Jack Black and Michael Cera have a unique chemistry which brings to mind such classic duos as Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Cheech and Chong, and I'm not exaggerating. They play off each other wonderfully. And unlike in Land of the Lost, where Danny McBride would say something funny, and then Will Ferrell would mostly say something much less funny, Black and Cera each have great lines which build on each other quite hilariously and satisfactorily. Cera's character seems visually inspired by Buster Keaton's caveman in The Three Ages, and he has a Pretty Good Stone Face to pull it off.

Oh, both Year One and Land of the Lost are stupid, Year One as scatological or more in places, but the difference is that it plays. The dumb jokes have timing, true inspired silliness and make you laugh.

Year One is the tale of two misfit cavemen, Zed (Black), a terrible hunter, and Oh (Cera), a gatherer and self-proclaimed "maker," who are driven out of their village after Zed stabs a fellow hunter in the back and then samples the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (which doesn't seem to improve his intelligence, but does provide the catalyst for achieving his "great destiny").

The film takes a lot of historical and theological liberties--funny in places, but not profound--contemporizing cavemen, Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, Romans in Judea, and Sodom and Gomorrah, chiefly, though, to tell the truth, there's not much evidence outside of a literal reading of the Bible to contradict the film's version, which is kind of funny in itself. But these are all excuses for Black and Cera to wander around goofing on ancient times.

The first people they stumble upon outside the village happen to be Cain (David Cross, very funny) and Abel (Paul Rudd, glimpsed), mid-murder. Cain introduces the cavemen to the wheel, with a slow-moving ox-cart. They are amazed and delighted, as if discovering their first roller-coaster, and promptly also their first motion sickness. Ah, it probably sounds like a lame gag to write it down, but so do most of the film's jokes. If you're in the right mood, i.e., to laugh, it all works.

Zed and Oh meet Adam (Ramis himself) and the apocryphal temptress Lilith, but quickly go on the lam with Cain when his crime is revealed, and are then promptly sold into slavery, where they meet the rest of the members of their old village, who have been captured in a raid and also sold. They resolve to rescue their favorite cavewomen, Maya (June Diane Raphael) and Eema (Juno Temple), who were apparently cast for the actors' remarkably symbolic names. (They don't have a lot to do in the film but be gorgeous.)

A few more digressions interfere before they can get back to this idea. Separated from the rest of their tribe in a scuffle, Zed and Oh wander in the desert and come upon the famous sacrifice of Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, McLovin of Superbad) by his father Abraham (Hank Azaria, great as usual), stumbling into performing the angelic role of delivering Isaac from his fate. With Abraham's people, they learn about the wickedness of Sodom (where their girlfriends have been taken) and Gomorrah, which doesn't sound half-bad to them. An impromptu circumcision ritual convinces them it's time to find Sodom and rescue their maidens.

In Sodom, portrayed as Las Vegas of the Plain with a particular tolerance and fondness for its namesake sexual practice--and Lot and his wife and daughters not in evidence--Zed and Oh are made slaves again, then rescued by Cain, who gets them jobs with the town guard. This works out fairly well for Zed at first, but Oh is enslaved again, painted gold, and forced to work as a masseuse for a particularly hairy High Priest (Oliver Platt). Tricked into entering the forbidden Holy of Holies in the temple, Zed and Oh are then condemned to be stoned to death, etc., etc. Plot descriptions must cease here to preserve the ending.

Overall, this is a very good Harold Ramis film, inviting not-too-shabby comparisons with some of the best work of Mel Brooks, Bill Cosby and Monty Python, as well as the aforementioned classic comedy teams. The writing is amusing, the plot contrived and silly, but quite clever underneath that, and Black and Cera deliver the goods, ably supported, particularly, by Cross, Azaria and the incredibly beautiful Olivia Wilde ("House") as Princess Inanna. There are also entertaining cameos from Bill Hader ("Saturday Night Live") as the village shaman, Kyle Gass ("Tenacious D") as the chief eunuch of Sodom, Xander Berkeley as the King and comedian Paul Scheer as a "volunteer" slaveworker with a laid-back attitude. There are some funny outtakes during the credits, but all in one burst, so you don't have to stay to the very end if you don't want to see the MPAA certificate. Yeah, it's kind of a dumb movie with plenty of dumb jokes, but they're done just right and they often work on a couple of different levels. What more do you want, Will Ferrell crapped out by a dinosaur? Not me....I have to say this movie made me smiley-happy, and it's mostly Black and Cera who carry it on their shoulders.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

6/12/09

Review: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)


I hate to be so predictably cranky (okay, so I don't really hate it), but Denzel Washington, you are no Walter Matthau, and John Travolta, you are no Robert Shaw, and Luis Guzman, you are no Martin Balsam, and James Gandolfini, you are no Lee Wallace, and Brian Helgeland, you are no Peter Stone, and, especially, Tony Scott, you are no Joseph Sargent. Yes, the original 1974 movie The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is infinitely superior to the new version (1 2 3), even if I translate that to just one star's difference in my official star rating.

What's missing? Just the great acting, atmosphere, suspense, plot, style, humor, wit, dialogue and fun. That said, the new one's an okay action flick, if you overlook a few serious flaws. Three stars for competence and a certain action-ride delivery, on a purely reptilian-brain level.

The films both concern the hijacking and ransom of a New York City subway car and its passengers by a relatively well-organized, knowledgable crew of desperate men. The current film updates mainly the communications technology, and adds a few plot differences which are not especially interesting or worthwhile.

Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber (the first name of the character seems to have been changed from the original to "honor" Walter Matthau), a subway executive under investigation for possible bribe-taking who is working as a car dispatcher until his name can be cleared (or not). A typical day turns ominous when the car referred to as Pelham 1 2 3 stops on the tracks, and stops answering the radio. We know it's been hijacked by John Travolta's character and his crew, but Garber finds this out only when Travolta's character, who calls himself "Ryder," takes charge of communications and relays a demand for $10 million to be delivered within the hour.

That this is sort of compelling seems incidental to the film itself. Travolta's acting is subpar at best here, far short of believable or interesting. Washington does better, but not by a lot. Tony Scott's editing is competent as usual, but pretty soulless (as usual). It seems to aspire to an immediate, cinema verité, hand-held style which is effective at times and distracting at others. And for some reason, sometimes a Google Earth-type effect is used to rush us above and around the city from scene to scene.

This turns out to be totally whimsical and inconsistent, and about as impressive and interesting as Google Earth, which is to say, impressive and interesting if you're Googling your house or other places of interest to you, but mostly pointless in the film. Some tension builds up, but no real suspense. Once in a while, the film freeze-frames, and a timer is shown. Most of the freezes turn out not to be significant or witty.

Travolta has been and can be an interesting villain, see especially the fun John Woo ride Broken Arrow, which is about as stupid as this movie, but much more fun. His work here is about on the goatee level of his work in that hacker movie with "Fish" in the title that I've never needed to see. Okay, it's at least one rung above that.

The main points, and they're fairly large, if not particularly important, which challenge credibility, have to do with the contempory updates made to the story. The hijackers figure out how to use the Internet while on the subway cars, while at the same time they knock some kid's laptop on the floor and never look at it again. And Travolta's character hopes to use his real name on E*Trade or something similar to supplement his ransom income, an actually sort of clever idea which is overwhelmed by the stupid, stupid fact of his using a real name and single account. It's analogous to a very cleverly handled sneeze in the original film, and this says a lot.

When The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is over, you feel kind of like you've seen an okay, dumb action movie, but you also feel drained, assaulted (also sort of intelligence-assaulted) and numb, and not in a very good way. I kind of wanted to like it a lot more, or hate it a lot more, but can't seem to muster either. It feels a lot like Tony Scott's 1998 semi-remake of The Conversation, Enemy of the State. A lot happens, it's relentlessly, competently portrayed. You don't really care why, and you end up by wishing Tony Scott would use his certainly considerable powers for good instead of this sort of brain-dead mediocrity.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

6/8/09

Review: Land of the Lost (2009)


Oh, my goodness. It's no criticism to say that a Will Ferrell movie doesn't have much of a plot. He's a pretty good actor, but he's carried more than a few movies with adroit improv and sheer goofiness alone. But Land of the Lost is so...boring. Not even stupid, as, again, that wouldn't be a very apt criticism, though it is pretty stupid. But it's just boring.

There are a few bright spots, both from Ferrell and Danny McBride (Pineapple Express), and especially McBride, but overall, this one's a snoozer. Matt Lauer's pretty good as himself.

Based on the children's television show from Sid and Marty Krofft, which I'll cop to having watched on more than one bleary Saturday morning, but which was never a great favorite of mine, the possibilities for parody, hijinks and silliness are all there, but are largely left unmined by what feels like a desultory effort.

The plot of the show concerned a scientist and his family who are marooned in the titular land when they...well, I'm not sure. I guess they raft down a crazy stream like they do in the movie. Anyway, they end up in some kind of parallel universe with dinosaurs, volcanoes, monkey people and "Sleestaks," lizard-y monsters who hiss, walk menacingly toward them very slowly, etc. They have to figure out how to survive and try to get home. I can't remember if they ever did get home.

Those human characters don't appear in the film, they're all new characters, with Ferrell as Dr. Rick Marshall, a visionary screw-up whose theories on parallel universes get him nowhere in the scientific world, Anna Friel as a Cambridge acolyte who believes in Marshall when nobody else does, and McBride as Will, a desert redneck who runs a tourist trap hole-in-the-wall known as "Devil's Canyon," which turns out to be a strange portal to the Land of the Lost, with the help of Marshall's tachyon amplifier device, which plays songs from "A Chorus Line."

Dinosaurs, Sleestaks and Cha-Ka, a monkey-man (Jorma Taccone), none of which are particularly interesting, scary or humorous, also reappear from the TV show.

It's hard to pinpoint when this kind of movie goes wrong. Generally speaking, it should be the perfect platform for Ferrell and company to go off on, parodying, acting dumb, and generally having a good time. Maybe that's part of it. They don't seem to be having a particularly good time. The effects also may have been too involved to allow for much really spontaneous improvisation. Whatever it is, it's easy to tell that it doesn't work very well. It's mostly joyless.

There's an extra scene midway through the closing credits, if you're still awake. There might have been another one at the very end of the closing credits, that will forever remain a mystery for me, as I had to get home to catch some Z's. And I love to catch the whole closing credits, and wasn't even very tired when the movie started.

In sum, I'd say avoid, avoid, avoid, probably even if you're a big Will Ferrell fan, Danny McBride fan, or "Land of the Lost" fan. Unless you can see it for free. With free snacks. And have something caffeinated. I did all that, and still probably didn't come out very far ahead.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

6/5/09

Review: The Hangover (2009)


The Hangover is a dark, sick, consistently funny movie (with a few slow spots midway) about four friends who head to Vegas for a bachelor party and end up in the biggest mess of their lives. There are no sympathetic characters, with the possible exception of the groom, Doug (Justin Bartha), who doesn't get much screen time, and the tone veers from semi-realistic to completely surreal, sometimes jarringly, but overall, it's a road/disaster/party pic without any qualms, and lots of laughs. I think I actually snorted with laughter once at the very end, and it had me laughing all the way through.

The main weakness of The Hangover is the lack of a truly sympathetic character, I'd say, or even just a character you can really like despite outrageous behavior. It's in the writing; the actors are all likable enough personalities.

Bradley Cooper plays Phil, a schoolteacher who steals from his students, says he hates his wife and kid, and causes most of the big trouble the group gets into, though it must be granted that much of his bad behavior occurs during their grand blackout of a bacchanal. Ed Helms ("The Daily Show," "The Office") is Stu, a dentist who's much too whiny to identify with, who has a horrible girlfriend he probably deserves. Doug, the groom, again, is absent for most of the film.

And that brings us to this movie's X-factor, Zach Galifianakis as the bride's brother, Alan, a very funny, truly out-of-touch-with-reality man-child who can't hide his eccentricities, some of which are disgusting, and the rest of which are pathetic.

Again, some of his eccentricities are so anti-social or unsympathetic that they're hilarious, but they still leave the movie without a real center, though I suppose that's part of what lets it spin out of control so blithely and blissfully. You do kind of love Alan, and partly for his unlikability.

Mike Tyson has an outstanding cameo as himself, partially spoiled by the trailer. Rob Riggle ("The Daily Show") has a great bit part as a sadistic cop. Ken Jeong is quite memorable as Mr. Chow. Jeffrey Tambor as the father of the bride and Heather Graham as the other bride are amusing but pretty much wasted in terms of their comedic potential--even one or two more skewed scenes or lines of dialogue from them would have added immensely.

There's a ridiculous throwaway parody of Rain Man and A Beautiful Mind which doesn't mean anything, but which comes at exactly the right moment to sort of glide the film up into a different plane of comedy for a bit. (And, ironically, Galifianakis's Alan is probably a bit more like the real-life John Nash than is the cleaned-up Beautiful Mind character portrayed by Russell Crowe.)

The film has a mixed penchant for male nudity, mostly quite unpleasant, which doesn't add much, and compares unfavorably with, say, Walk Hard or the more recent Observe and Report, where it's used to mine for more genuinely absurd humor. I'm actually kind of baffled about why the film isn't rated NC-17, given a certain moment at the end, and yes, that's a bit of a warning to more offendable moviegoers.

The Hangover reminded me of Scorsese's After Hours, the 1980 teen movie Midnight Madness and the Ethan Hawke starrer Mystery Date, wacky capers where the trouble just gets deeper and deeper for the hapless main characters, all movies which were more good-natured and successful. Still, it's very funny, not sublimely funny, but a good time at the movies, and Galifianakis is a star.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

6/3/09

Sanford (again) leads May 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results

Gov. Mark Sanford (SC) led May voting (for the third month in a row) for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this 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 this month's results:

May 2009

#1 - Gov. Mark Sanford (SC) ... 26.7%
#2 - Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (FL) ... 8.4%
#2 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 8.4%
#3 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 7.6%
#3 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 7.6%
#4 - Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 6.9%
#5 - Fmr. Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) ... 6.1%
#5 - Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA) ... 6.1%
#5 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... 6.1%
#6 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 5.3%
#7 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 3.8%
#8 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... 3.1%
#9 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 2.3%
#10 - Sen. Sam Brownback (KS) ... 1.5%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 0%
#11 - Other ... 0%

131 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

6/2/09

2012 possible Minn. Gov. Pawlenty won't seek reelection

From the Washington Post:

Pawlenty, unlike some of the men (and woman) he may well run against in 2012 for the GOP nomination, has almost no political operation to speak of--a weakness that he must move to quickly remedy in the coming months.

...

For Pawlenty to begin moving up in the so-called "Invisible Primary," he needs to quickly ramp up his national team and begin traveling the country in support of his candidacy.

What he does have going for him is a record of electoral success in a swing Midwestern state, a natural populist streak that is sorely lacking among the the current Republican leaders and a strongly conservative record sure to appeal to the party base. Make sure to read our "case for" and "case against" Pawlenty as a potential veep pick for McCain in 2008.


Pawlenty is somebody to watch, but he has significant weaknesses, too. Interesting development....

Alex
Choose Our President 2012

6/1/09

Review: Up (2009)


I am not a big fan of WALL*E, in fact I find it a bit depressing and keep thinking of how much they should have paid the producers of Short Circuit for ripping off their character design, and the Hello, Dolly! stuff just rakes my nerves. I think it was overthought, ponderous, boring and cold (though I should admit my little niece and nephew are enthralled by it--over and over again). I couldn't stomach even the idea of Ratatouille, and also didn't see Cars. And from the previews of Up, I fully expected to be pretty disappointed by it, too.

Surprisingly, it turned out to be an effective, touching, funny, entertaining film with no major flaws to point to, as well as being fun to see in 3-D. It's not the greatest animated film of all time, but it's definitely a cut above, say, Monsters Vs. Aliens or the aforementioned Oscar-winning?! robot movie. (Sorry.)

Up tells the story of Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner, the perfect choice), a retiree with childhood dreams of adventure he shared but never quite realized with his wife, Ellie, inspired by their mutual admiration of explorer and dirigible enthusiast Charles F. Muntz (Christopher Plummer). It's Ellie's dream to live at the top of Paradise Falls, a South American landmark set in a landscape cut off from the rest of the world, and made famous by Muntz's explorations. Though the dream is not realized, Fredricksen and his wife do get to live a long, happy life together doing work they enjoy, surrounded by knick-knacks and artifacts of far-flung adventures which fascinated them as children. Fredricksen even plans a South American trip for them, but that is not to be.

I should specifically compliment the nearly dialogue-free opening montage of the film, which tells the story of Carl and Ellie's friendship, romance, courtship and life together. It's really quite remarkable, and it sets a deeply kind-hearted tone for the entire film. The forties segment kept reminding me of A Christmas Story.

Time ticks by pretty slowly for Carl after Ellie's passing, and the city begins to encroach on the remnants of his life with her. A developer building a high-rise leaves his house an island in the midst of city construction, which he stubbornly refuses to acknowledge or give in to.

But when fate intervenes, and Carl finds himself forced to change or adapt, he opts instead to tether his home to thousands of helium balloons, and attempt to ride it to adventure at Paradise Falls, like his childhood hero Muntz, like he and Ellie had always planned. This sounds like the hard part, but the film is smarter than that, and provides some more interesting complications for Carl.

The first is a stowaway, Russell, a Wilderness Explorer hanging around Carl's house in hopes of earning his "Assisting the Elderly" award so he can be named a Senior Explorer. Carl first gets rid of him by sending him on a classic "snipe hunt," but it backfires in a big way once they are aloft--and yet again later--and Carl is stuck with and responsible for the little chatterbox.

The next complication comes when Carl and Russell land in South America and encounter what remains of explorer Muntz's old expedition to prove the existence of "the monster of Paradise Falls," but I'll stop there and let you find out for yourself. The trailers probably already gave too much away, but I'll be more reticent. It's no secret to say there are talking dogs, but this is handled a hundred times more cleverly than the clumsily out-of-context previews would suggest.

Imaginative, good-looking, good-natured, funny, and well and efficiently told, Up is a satisfying ride worth taking for kids and adults--maybe not a home run, but at least a solid triple, and that ain't bad.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies