Category: Movie Reviews

LET ME IN versus LET THE RIGHT ONE IN – or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love them Both

Published October 10, 2010

Haunted I am.  And torn.  Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered even.

The Movies did this to me … nothing new there.  But what is new is the very surreal experience of being charmed by two unique films – both telling exactly the same story – and further seeing them less than two weeks apart.  I’ve needed a little time to process the whole thing.  I have, of course, seen many a remake before, but usually the remake in question is based on a film made decades earlier.  That is not the case with Let Me In.

But let’s back up a bit.

After being a bit obsessed with all things Swedish of late (blame The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels for that – more to come soon regarding those utterly remarkable books and films), I recently bought, sight unseen, the DVD of the Swedish film Let the Right One In.  I had heard much about it of course, especially since America still seemingly has its teeth firmly sunk in the jugular of vampire-mania.  Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, etc …  “Experts” have told us this trend is on the wane, but I haven’t seen any evidence of this.  Unless the disappointing theatrical opening of Let Me In is any indication.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  And I digress.

Watching Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 adaptation of  John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel Let The Right One In (Lindqvist also wrote the screenplay), I was happily horrified by some of its daring (to put it mildly) imagery, and profoundly moved by its central love story.  Yes, I have enjoyed the Twilight films and books (though I obviously do NOT fit the demographic), but the boy-meets-girl tale at the center of Let The Right One In is about as far from sparkly as it can get.

Since I abhor spoilers, I will simply let the succinct jacket copy of the DVD tell the uninitiated among you what this story is about:

Lonely, 12-year-old Oskar is regularly bullied by his stronger classmates. A new friendship develops when Eli, a pale, serious young girl who only comes out at night, moves in next door. Coinciding with her arrival is a series of inexplicable disappearances and murders. As Oskar becomes more aware of Eli’s tragic plight, he cannot forsake her. However, Eli knows that to continue living, she must keep relocating. But when Oskar faces his darkest hour, Eli returns to defend him the only way she can …

Hmmmm.  Aw, screw it – there’s no way to discuss this further without some spoilers.  I’ll go as easy on them as I can.

BEGIN MINOR SPOILERS

When we first meet slight, fair, and towheaded Oskar, he is brandishing a knife and seething threats to … nobody.  He seems like a little psychopath.  It is only later that we learn he is being relentlessly tormented at school, and is simply acting out his fear and frustration.  When Oskar first meets Eli in the snowy courtyard of his apartment building, she tells him, “I can’t be your friend.”  It seems a harsh and curt manner of introduction, but we soon learn that Eli’s rudeness is actually quite the opposite.  An older man lives with Eli (is he her father? grandfather? or something far more upsetting?), and he frequently goes out on nightly jaunts.  Yes, like Oskar, Eli is also terribly lonely, and like him she is also twelve years old … but she has been twelve for a verrrrry long time.

Newcomers Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson play Oskar and Eli, and are so marvelous in these terribly difficult roles, one forgets that neither had acted in a film before.  Their relationship is not only at the heart of this movie, it IS the heart of this movie.  I was so wooed (and wowed) by their performances, I had to watch Let The Right One In twice in a row (… I can count on one hand the films that made me feel like doing that).

KARE HEDEBRANT AND LINA LEANDERSSON AS OSKAR AND ELI

Yes, this movie is at times utterly horrifying (vampires and horror, hmmmm … who’d a thunk it?), but it is also an incredibly moving love story.  Even more so than the shamelessly-romantic Twilight series.  That is thanks to its earnest performers, the choice of making Oskar and Eli PRE-pubescent (barely), the fact that the story is rooted in both our reality and traditional vampire lore (even the title invokes the necessity of invitation), and that it takes quite seriously the question, What would life truly be like for a centuries-old vampire – especially one who looks like a 12-year-old girl?

At times this story reminded me of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, just told on a smaller, more intimate scale (young Hedebrant even resembles an adolescent David Soul, who starred in the 1979 miniseries).  I was also reminded of the Stephen King short story One For the Road, from 1978’s Night Shift, which also featured a snowy backdrop and a bloodthirsty little girl.  At other times Tom Holland’s wonderfully campy 1985 film Fright Night came to mind – where a boy finds out that a vampire has moved in next door, but no one will believe him.  However, even if this tale was influenced by those others, it does not rest on their laurels … it may even surpass them.  I will never forget what happens when Eli’s “guardian” goes out on those nocturnal excursions (Oh my God, that’s what that rope, bucket, and funnel are for?!), nor what happens when Eli crouches in the shadows of a short tunnel, calling out to a stranger for “help.”  Neither will I forget the touching little sacrifices that she makes for Oskar.

END MINOR SPOILERS

Let The Right One In both scared me, and broke my heart – you know, in a good way.  I can’t recall the last time I was so moved and touched by a film … especially a horror film.  It haunts me still.

NOTE TO THOSE WHO PURCHASE THIS FILM ON DVD: The original U.S. DVD release of Let The Right One In apparently botched the English subtitles.  After much ballyhoo from cineasts, the DVD was reissued with the proper subtitles.  If you purchase this, please ensure that the back of the package says, SUBTITLES: ENGLISH (Theatrical).  Also, when you pop this in your DVD player, the default version that starts when you hit play is an “English Language Dub” with NO subtitles.  To which I say NO, NO, NO, NO – switch these over to “Swedish Language” and English Subtitles – the ONLY way to watch this film.  (Who is the marketing moron who decides that “dumbing down” their product to appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator is a good way to make a little more money?  I know many, if not most, Americans don’t like foreign films because of the subtitles, but … sadly, they are all missing out on some truly magnificent movies.)

Anyway … I knew while watching Let The Right One In that the American remake was already in the can and about to be released.  Obviously, I, like most other fans, was very dubious.  Almost offended, since I loved this film so much.  Why do we need a remake of a damn near perfect movie?  Just because of a little language barrier and a nation’s distaste for having to use their gray matter and read a bit while being washed with cinematic imagery.

And yet …

Damned if director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) hasn’t done the impossible.  Made a remake that is almost as good as the original.  It is quite obvious that Reeves has incredible affection for the source material – both the original book and the movie – and has practically filmed a love letter to both.  Let Me In is at times SO much like the Swedish version – line for line, shot for shot – that I kept asking myself WHY this version was necessary (… then I remembered – see the rant above).

And yet yet …

While much has remained the same (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), what changes have been made are either necessary for the cultural differences and locales (this new version takes place in snowy Los Alamos, New Mexico in the early 1980s), or actually expand on the original themes.  I’m not sure why the names were changed – Oskar is now Owen, and Eli is Abby, but once the film started, I wasn’t that bothered by the switch.  One shot in particular regarding Abby’s guardian (played by the always reliable Richard Jenkins), explains infinitely more about their relationship, and just how long perhaps he has actually been “watching over” her.  What is implied with this one shot, gives a whole new undercurrent to the “love story” between Abby and Owen.  One which lends a disturbing ambiguity to the film’s denouement – is the ending happy or tragic?

While I was completely won over by Hedebrant and Leandersson in the original, the actors in this new version are also extremely well cast.  Abby is played by Chloë Grace Moretz (Hit Girl in 2010’s Kick-Ass), who will likely be a major star in years to come after this incredible performance; and Owen by Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road), a waif-like boy whose wide-eyed innocence and repressed anger are pitch perfect for the character.

KODI SMIT-McPHEE AND CHLOE GRACE MORETZ AS OWEN AND ABBY

Simply because I was so enamored of the original, it has taken me awhile to figure out my feelings about this remake.  There is simply no way for me to review this without bias.  Most of the reviews have been positive – not to mention relieved.  Even Stephen King has said of this movie: “Let Me In is a genre-busting triumph. Not just a horror film, but the best American horror film in the last 20 years. Whether you’re a teenager or a film-lover in your 50s, you’ll be knocked out. Rush to it now. You can thank me later.”

That’s high praise.  Yet so is the blurb by the Washington Examiner on the DVD cover of Let the Right One In: “Best. Vampire. Movie. Ever.”  I don’t know about that, and yet it’s not exactly like other contenders for that title leap to mind.  Like an exceptional meal, or a brilliant concerto, or a delicious book, these films have lingered in my mind and heart long after I finished them.

To sum up: I loved both of these movies – though the original edges out the remake a bit.  Is that because I saw it first?  I couldn’t say.  Maybe.

One more thing: according to box office figures, Let Me In is kind of laying there like a cinematic turd.  It only opened to $5 million, and that cannot be a good sign.  If vampire fatigue truly is setting in, it will be too bad if this is one of the films which gets a stake through its heart.  It deserves better.  A lot better.

Oh well.  Seek these films out.  Both of them.  And let me know which one you think is better in the comment section below.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN – movie grade: A
LET ME IN – movie grade: B+

PIRANHA 3-D movie review

Published August 21, 2010

One doesn’t go into a movie entitled Piranha 3-D with expectations of high art, cinematic subtlety, or intellectual stimulation – but I did go expecting a good time.  My reasons are as follows:

1) Joe Dante’s original 1978 Piranha was a low-budget, Roger Corman-produced, John Sayles-penned, affectionately silly, Jaws spoof that worked on a guttural level while providing a treasure trove of film-buff in-references.

2) 1981’s Piranha 2: The Spawning is, oddly enough, the directorial debut of James Cameron – who three years later would go onto write and direct The Terminator.  Cameron was originally hired to do the special effects, but took over direction after the original director was fired.  Most concede that the film is a stinker, but agree that the fault does not lie with the future Titanic/Avatar director.  Cameron himself has jokingly referred to the film as “the finest flying killer fish horror/comedy ever made.”

3) The trailer for 2010’s Piranha 3-D won me over with its cast alone.  To see Christopher Lloyd on the big screen for the first time in years (overdramatizing lines like “This particular piranha vanished two million years ago!”), and Richard Dreyfuss spoofing his Matt Hooper character from Jaws … were reason enough for me to check out this film.  More about those two legends in a bit.

Director Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Mirrors) thankfully more than gets the joke of this movie.  In fact – and quite ironically – most critics agree that this could be one of the most entertaining films of a rather lackluster summer.  (Don’t take my word for it – it currently has an 82% approval rating over at Rotten Tomatoes.)

The story couldn’t be less complicated.  The town of Lake Victoria, Arizona is generally pretty quiet – but once a year the population explodes when 20,000 college kids arrive for Spring Break.  This spring, however, an underwater earthquake opens a huge fissure which releases thousands of mutant piranha who couldn’t be more pleased with the virtual smorgasbord swimming above.  Sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue) and Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames) do their best to keep the inebriated, and barely dressed populace safe, but … by the time the furious fishies show up, it is pretty much a lost cause.  When, in this film’s final third, the carnage reaches its bloody beach zenith, its damn near Saving Private Ryan, in 3-D, on acid, with boobs.  Lots of boobs.

Often when one uses phrases like gratuitous, excessive, over-the-top, in-your-face, needlessly violent, and without a moral center, these would be considered criticisms.  However, the joke of this one joke movie is so damn funny, and is pulled off with such expertise, those aforementioned phrases are this film’s strengths … along with some hilarious in-jokes … and clever cameos … and pointed barbs … and decent special effects … and boobs.

KELLY BROOK AND RILEY STEELE ARE WILD, WILD GIRLS

Speaking of those last, Jerry O’Connell plays Derrick Jones, the producer of Wild, Wild, Girls (such an obvious spoof of Girls Gone Wild and its creator Joe Francis, that Francis is suing the movie’s producers for “libel-in-fiction”).  O’Connell’s characterization is so sleazy and high strung, he seems to be doing a riff on his Jerry Macguire costar Tom Cruise.  While this character is truly a scumbag, the movie does revel awhile in his mammarial excesses (to put it mildly), but eventually serves up his just desserts in manner so ridiculously over-the-top and in-your-face as to be jaw-dropping – before you can say, “Oh, no they di-in’t,” oh yes, they di-id.  English actress/model Kelly Brook plays one of Derrick’s Wild Girls and, though she is little more than eye candy here, she does add to this movie’s charm.  Director Eli Roth (Hostel) shows up as the emcee of a wet tee-shirt contest, and also gets turned into fish bait.

Elisabeth Shue and Ving Rhames do fine (if undistinguished) work here – it’s good to see both of them on screen again. If the film has a hero, it is probably Jake Forester (Steven R. McQueen – Steve’s grandson), who plays the sheriff’s son.  While the kid does have talent and charisma, he’s got a long way to go before he can hope to fill his grandfather’s shoes.

Regarding those two aforementioned cameos … this film’s opening had me grinning before the credits even appeared.  I don’t want to give away too much, suffice to say that Richard Dreyfuss’ appearance in this film DOES pay hilarious homage to Jaws, and that his role here is not unlike Drew Barrymore’s in Scream.  Producer Bob Weinstein reportedly had to cajole the actor with a bigger paycheck to get him to agree to do this, but the result sets a pitch perfect tone for such a giddy spoof of Jaws.

RICHARD DREYFUSS NEEDS A BIGGER BOAT

Christopher Lloyd, who seems to have been gone from our movie screens for ages, makes a more-than-welcome return as a scientist who offers exposition and explanations.  He isn’t given a lot to do, but he plays it so gleefully broad, I kept expecting an arm-waving exclamation of “Great Scott!”  When Mr. Lloyd first appeared on screen, the audience with whom I saw this picture literally cheered!  Would somebody declare Christopher Lloyd a national treasure already?  Why isn’t he given more work?  Why has he been demoted to doing direct-to-video offal?  From his appearances in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Taxi, Star Trek III, the Back to the Future trilogy, Roger Rabbit, and The Addams Family movies, to name only a few, the guy has entertained us for decades.  His appearance here makes an already entertaining film, very entertaining.

To wrap up, while Piranha 3-D will not be nominated come Oscar season, this movie was WAY better than it had any right to be.  Even the 3-D, converted from 2-D, was not too shabby.  (There will always be a vast difference between films shot in 3-D, like Avatar, and transferred, often horribly, like Clash of the Titans – this falls somewhere in the middle.)  For fans of exploitation spoofs, you won’t do much better this season than Piranha 3-D … I never thought I would say such a thing, but it gives me great pleasure to do so.

GRADE B+

EDGE OF DARKNESS – movie review

Published January 30, 2010

WORDSLINGER’S UPDATE: This review was written just before Mel’s most recent meltdown.

I discovered something not long into viewing the new thriller Edge of Darkness: I’ve missed Mel Gibson.


Gone from starring-role films since 2002’s Signs, Mel didn’t have a great time during the aughties. They started out pretty good, but then something went wrong. While his 2004 directorial effort The Passion of the Christ went on to gross over $600 million worldwide, the controversial film left Mel extremely rich and emotionally … conflicted? I can only theorize as to why his life, drinking habits, and nearly 30-year marriage all went kablooey in the wake of this gargantuan success, but kablooey they went. (Am I the only one to notice that in all of Mel’s post-kablooey “damage-control” interviews, the one topic he vehemently refused to discuss was his father? Just an observation.)

But I digress.
Edge of Darkness
Edge of Darkness, based on a 1985 BBC series of the same name, is the latest effort from director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale) – Campbell also directed the TV version. The film involves Boston homicide detective Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson), whom we first meet as he his picking up his 20-something daughter Emma (newcomer Bojana Novakovic) for a long overdue visit. As seen in the trailer (posted below), Emma isn’t at her father’s house very long before she is gunned down by a masked assailant. The rest of the familiar-but-gripping tale has Tom Craven hunting down his daughter’s killer. As the culprit isn’t inordinately hard to figure out, I won’t give away anything more.

While we’ve seen this story before – hell, while we’ve seen Mel Gibson in this story before – it is still refreshing to see a markedly older Mel returning to form. Yes, the age lines are deeper, and the hair is thinner (and is it just me or is Mel getting shorter?), but the acting chops are still there in spades. From tenderness, to crushing sorrow, to controlled rage, Mel gives a very affecting performance. Especially in scenes where he interacts with hallucinations of his daughter as a little girl – love that “shaving” scene. It is these little touches which distinguish Edge of Darkness from 2008’s similarly-themed Taken with Liam Neeson – a film which I liked a great deal, but did not touch me emotionally like this film did. In fact, where Taken relied heavily on bad-ass action, Edge of Darkness is really more of a drama. Those expecting otherwise may be disappointed, but shouldn’t be.
Mel Gibson
Excellent support is offered by Ray Winstone as a man who … oh, but that would be giving too much away – I’ll just say his performance is one that keeps the viewer guessing. Danny Huston is appropriately slimy as a corporate CEO; Shawn Roberts is tweakingly paranoid as Emma’s boyfriend; and Bojana Novakovic (seen briefly in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell) makes a very strong impression as Mel’s doomed daughter. I see big things ahead for this charming, talented, and lovely Serbian actress – check out my Examiner profile of her here.

Director Campbell – whose Casino Royale was a kinetic masterpiece – has slowed down his sensibilities with this film. The action here is sparse, but each time it comes, it is as shocking as a slap in the face … you know, in a good way.

Not unlike a cross between Ransom and Payback (with a dash of Conspiracy Theory), Edge of Darkness is rewarding little revenge thriller, whose familiarity is well-compensated for by the presence its gone-too-long star. Mel Gibson can do this kind of role in his sleep. Thank goodness he was awake for this one.

It’s great to have you back, Mel. Here’s hoping this film is harbinger of better things to come.

WORDSLINGER’S FINAL UPDATE: Sigh.

GRADE: B

Check out the trailer below … gotta love that final line.

AVATAR – movie review

Published December 19, 2009

It takes some mighty big balls to stand before tens of millions of television viewers, raise your Oscar-filled hands, and exclaim “I’m the King of the World!” James Cameron was quoting Titanic – the film for which he had just won a record-tying 11 Academy Awards – but still, no one has ever accused this man of overt humility. Yet after Titanic went on to earn $1.8 billion in global box office, perhaps the visionary filmmaker had earned the right to such a claim. His previous films, The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, and True Lies were all eye-popping, audience-pleasing, envelope-pushing, genre-defying blockbusters, each of which helped prepare him to make that little boat movie. So how does one top the most successful film of all time?
Avatar poster
If you are James Cameron, and your visions are beyond what current effects-work can handle, you spend the next 12 years creating the technology to tell the story you want to tell. That story, written 15 years ago, would be called Avatar. Though it took much longer to bring to fruition than Cameron intended, the director’s claims during this time that Avatar would “change movie making as we know it” were as dubious as they were warranted. Cameron’s films have always changed movies as we previously knew them: Terminator’s metal man, Alien’s loader vs alien queen finale, The Abyss’ water tentacle, T2’s liquid metal man, True Lies’ Harrier jet climax, and damn near everything in Titanic. Whether you love or hate him, The King of the World’s films have invariably shown us things we’ve never seen before.

So does Avatar live up to not only Cameron’s previous work, but his own effusive claims that this film is a “game changer”?

Yes, it does, and yes, it is.

While I could easily write a 3000 word review here by spelling out in detail every little spoiler I can think of, this is one film that really needs to be discovered by its audience. I’ll try not to give away anything that hasn’t already been shown in the trailer.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic ex-marine, called in by the military to take over a project on which his recently deceased twin brother had been working. After spending a few years in cryo-freeze, Jake and a crew of soldiers and scientists arrive at the planet moon of Pandora. It seems this ecological wonder, whose air is poisonous to humans, is rich in a substance called Unobtainium (… while some have rolled their eyes at this term, “unobtainium” is actually a word used by scientists since the 1950s to describe any mineral whose excavation is either difficult or impossible). Yet, wouldn’t you know it, the richest deposit of this gravity-defying material is directly under an encampment of Pandora natives called the Na’vi. These locals are 10 foot tall creatures with blue skin, huge yellow eyes, three-fingered hands, and swishing tails – they are as intelligent as they are savage. Jake’s mission is to have his consciousness projected into this genetically-identical avatar – a human/Na’vi hybrid body grown in a tank – and to infiltrate the Na’vi camp in order to convince them to relocate. If this cannot be done peacefully, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is more than prepared to take what he wants by force. Once Jake is accepted by the Na’vi, he quickly falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe SaldanaStar Trek’s Uhura), and their affair is interrupted only by a stampeding herd of tatonka … Kidding.
Avatar - Jake and Neytiri
What Avatar lacks in originality story-wise, it more than makes up for in presentation. Yes, we have seen similar tales told many times before – Dances with Wolves, Dune, and John Carter of Mars come to mind – but Cameron has never been accused of storytelling originality. (Just ask Harlan Ellison, who sued Cameron for “borrowing” elements of two Outer Limits episodes for The Terminator. The case was settled out of court, and Ellison got a few hundred thousand dollars and an on-screen credit.) But let’s be honest here – as some have posited, there are only twelve stories in the world, and each generation puts a different spin on them. It’s the way Cameron spins these tales that makes them so special.

Avatar IS special. In fact, I’ve never seen a film quite like it. There has never been an alien world so fully realized on-screen – from the insects and animals, to the natives and landscapes, Cameron creates an entire eco-structure, complete with food chain, that is utterly fascinating and breathtakingly beautiful. Especially in IMAX 3D. (Yes, this was the clearest 3D I have ever seen – a constant depth of field that draws you in, and a giant technological leap forward.) There is no way for me to describe here in words what Avatar does with pictures, but maybe that is the point. The special effects in this film are SO incredibly real, that for much of the film it is easy to miss them. From the Na’vi, whose eyes are alive like no other CGI creation before, to the alien landscapes which are seen from every angle imaginable (never more thrilling than when one is learning to “break” a dragon), to Jake Sully’s wasted legs, no film has ever paid so much attention to little details.

It is also great to see Sigourney Weaver back in her first James Cameron film since 1986’s Aliens – she plays Dr. Grace Augustine, who heads up the avatar program. She joins Jake on Pandora in her own Na’vi body, and it is pretty cool how these avatars resemble their human counterparts. Grace looks not unlike a giant blue version of Ripley from 1979’s first Alien film – now that’s a face lift.

Cameron has said that Avatar was inspired by “every science fiction book I read as a kid,” but he also borrows liberally from himself with this film – elements of Aliens, The Abyss, and Titanic are evident – particularly the love story from the latter which ultimately sells this story. If Jake and Neytiri’s romance didn’t work, the entire film would fall apart, despite its powerful digital glue. But work it does – not an easy task when the lovers are blue and tailed. Only the power ballad over the final credits seemed a little too derivative of that little boat movie.

In fine, Avatar is spectacularly entertaining, sumptuously designed and, insofar as the rest of Hollywood is going to have to scramble pretty damn hard to match this detailed beauty of this film, it could also be considered a game changer.

I can’t wait to see it again.

MOVIE GRADE: A

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER — review

Published August 3, 2009

Call me an enigma … I’m a dude who enjoys a good romantic comedy. Yet I will be the first to admit that the genre has grown stale. Yes, a few weeks ago I gave The Proposal a good review, but my affection for it had more to do with the charisma of its leads than any earth-shattering new take on old plot lines. Which is why I can most heartily recommend what many are referring to as the anti-rom-com: (500) Days of Summer.
500 Days of Summer
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom, a copywriter for a greeting card company who believes his life will be complete when he meets “the one,” and Zooey Deschanel as Summer, whom Tom meets when she comes to work for the same company, and whom Tom also believes to be that “one” — the girl of his dreams. Tom is a romantic at heart — Summer, not so much. That’s not to say Summer isn’t fun; from the bows in her banged brunette hair, to the batting of her big blue eyes, not to mention the flip in her skirt and the flirt in her skip, Summer is every inch the pixie-faced dream girl. With one exception: she does not believe in romantic love.

The tag line for this movie is “This is not a love story” — but it is, as the line continues, a story about love. And as those go, this one is so refreshingly honest that it catches you unaware. The titular 500 days are shown to us in an unpredictable, title-carded, nonlinear fashion. One never knows where this story is going. We do know from the get-go that Tom has willingly strapped himself in for an 18-month roller coaster ride, replete with breathtaking highs and soul-sucking lows. What we don’t know is how it all will end. And for a story that has seemingly been told a gazillion times, that is cause to celebrate.
Joe and Zooey
Many are the surprising moments in this film — as numerous as they are subtle. Like when Tom takes Summer to a revival showing of The Graduate, and Summer ends up in devastated tears during its final scene … Tom had always thought it had a happy ending. Or when Tom, on the morning after his first night with Summer, dances through the streets to Hall and Oates’ You Make My Dreams Come True. Okay, that one wasn’t so subtle, but the audience loved it. Then there’s the party thrown by Summer, where we witness Tom’s attendance in a split-screen devoted to Expectation and Reality. This scene is so funny, painful, and identifiable, it’s a wonder no one thought to do it before. Some rom-com staples are still here: the wise-beyond-her-years younger sister, the cocky-but-clueless roommate, the musical montage, but they are merely the glue that holds the time-hopping plot together.

Joseph Gordon Levitt, whom we watched grow up on 3rd Rock from the Sun, is marvelous here, instantly making us identify with his idealism of romantic love, and his heartbreak when those ideals are steamrollered. (Also, and this is a bit off-topic, he shows such range and charisma, I wonder if he would make a good replacement Joker should Chris Nolan make another Batman film — Levitt’s resemblance to the late Heath Ledger is, at times, gasp-inducing.)
Zooey
Zooey Deschanel, who has languished in memorable supporting roles for years (Almost Famous, Failure to Launch, Yes Man), may have finally found her breakout role. Not only does she make us believe that Tom could fall for her so instantly and completely, she manages to make Summer sympathetic even when she is breaking his heart.

One of the things that makes this film work so well, is that we have all either known, or been, a Summer or a Tom. Love can be messy — and this film is all about that mess, including the wonder, horror and absurdity of it all. Outside of the kind of movies Woody Allen made 30 years ago, it’s a rare thing for a Hollywood love story … I mean story about love, to not only embrace the neurosis of its characters, but not take the easy way out of that neurotic dilemma. Speaking of which …

Many films have attempted to ape the bittersweet hilarity of love-gone-wrong that won Woody Allen an Oscar for 1977’s Annie Hall (the most successful was 1989’s When Harry Met Sally … but even that one finally succumbed to Hollywood formula). Though it’s quirky devices (nonlinear format, use of split screen, animation) all beg comparison to Annie Hall, where (500) Days of Summer earns the comparison (and it does) is that it knows what love is, what love isn’t, and revels in the confusion. Yes, relationships can be as crazy a man who refuses to take his brother, who thinks he’s a chicken, to the doctor because he needs the eggs (if you don’t know that reference, go rent Annie Hall), but (500) Days of Summer is the first film in recent memory to take those eggs and make such a fluffy soufflé.

(500) Days of Summer may not be a love story, but it is one of the best stories about love to come down the pike in ages. It is also one of the best films of the year.

GRADE: A

PS — If you see this film, take some extra cash with you … you’ll want to stop on your home to pick up the soundtrack.

TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN

Published June 29, 2009

I have a confession to make — a dirty little secret, if you will: I like Michael Bay movies. Notice I did not say “films” … I said movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some films of the art house variety, too, but I (unlike other stuffy critics) know when to leave my brain at the door, release my inner adolescent and enjoy a cinematic thrill ride. And Bay has been honing his thrill ride formula for a good little while now. Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon (love that one), Pearl Harbor — the man’s got his recipe down pat. One gets the feeling that Bay overdosed on 1970’s Spielberg films (especially Jaws and Close Encounters), 1980’s Tony Scott movies (I’ll bet he LOVED Top Gun), and everything directed by James Cameron (their common motto: THINK BIG). Watching a Bay movie is a little like climbing into a brand new sports car with a super model, turning up the radio as loud as it will go and driving as fast as you can through the most dangerous area you can find. After a couple of hours you are probably ready to pull over and get out, but while the ride lasts, you feel like a kid again. Thrills, spills, romance, laughs, action, scale, and bombast. It’s easy to see why producer Spielberg hand picked Bay for 2007’s Transformers.

I’ll admit I never really got the appeal of this cartoon/toy series in the 80s — I was a little too old by then — and when I heard that Steven Spielberg was producing a live action version two years ago, I thought he was crazy. I was half right … he’s crazy like a fox! That 2007 film grossed over $700 million worldwide. A sequel was inevitable.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
While I am a bit late posting this review of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, it has already grossed over $200 million domestic in only five days, despite garnering some of the worst reviews I have ever read. Given those opposing (but not unusual) facts, as I headed to my local IMAX theater this afternoon, my expectations were a wash. I liked (but didn’t love) the first Transformers movie — and I assumed this would be more of the same. My mistake: this movie is MORE of the same.

The plot: irrelevant. I couldn’t explain it if I tried … but here goes: Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is headed to college. Struggling with his clueless (but still hilarious) parents, and whether or not to take his Autobot Camaro to school (huh?), he also is having trouble expressing his feelings to his girlfriend, Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox, looking ever more like a young Angelina Jolie). Things go awry, however, when Sam finds a shard of the AllSpark he used to destroy Megatron in the first movie. As he is downloaded with a mind-numbing amount of alien information, Sam begins to exhibit strange behavior at the worst possible times. This starts in motion a chain of events that will see a new war between the Autobots and the Decepticons — one that will stretch from the far reaches of space, to the ocean depths, to the Smithsonian, to the Egyptian pyramids (used here to staggeringly epic effect). The plot is actually far more complicated than this, but to try and explain more would be like trying to give a detailed report on the painted backdrop of your favorite roller coaster: it’s a little beside the point.

MEGAN FOX AND SHIA LaBEOUF
Shia and Megan
Reliable review in a nutshell: If you liked the first movie, you’ll like this one, too. If you hated the first movie … there’s no talking to you and why are you even reading this review?

Some critics (and erstwhile prudes) have lambasted this movie for things I just didn’t get. Sexual content? Yes, the camera does ogle a couple of its female stars, but certainly no more than you would see on television after 8:00 (‘course, that’s not saying a lot these days). Remember Megan Fox’s bared midriff from the first movie, when she was looking under the hood of Sam’s car? Think that, squared. Bay has always featured beautiful (clothed) women in his movies, lit in a golden glow of fantasy. If this offends you, you should probably know better than to go to a Michael Bay movie anyway … you may also want to steer clear of the magazine rack at your local supermarket. This movie’s PG-13 rating is right on.

There have also been complaints of racial stereotypes by a couple of the Autobots, Mudflap and Skids, whose “ebonics-speak” has been (unfairly) compared to minstrel shows, Amos and Andy, and Jar Jar Binks. I didn’t get these comparisons at all. While they are obviously caricatures meant for comic relief, there is nothing hateful here. If anything, they are goodheartedly poking fun at gangbangers, not an entire race of black people. To confuse the two is to imply that all black people act, speak and think like gold-sporting, krunk-wearing, rap-listening gangbangers (no offense to them), and such an implication is far more racist than anything in this movie.

Does the movie wear out its welcome? At 2 1/2 hours, there is definitely some trimming that could have been done — especially in the final reel — but what is on screen is so overwhelmingly eye-popping (ginormous robots fighting atop the Egyptian pyramids), this complaint is merely like saying the roller coaster was too long.

As for the rest of the critics, whose remarks have gleefully spewed hate on Bay and this movie, I will say this: one does not go to a theater to see a movie called Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen expecting to be intellectually enlightened, subtly moved, or emotionally … transformed. One does go expecting a mindless epic thrill ride, an old-fashoned monster movie with state-of-the-art effects, and on that level, Bay succeeds in spades. What this movie lacks in logic and coherence, it more than makes up for with spectacle and FUN. What more do you want from a summer blockbuster?

GRADE: B+

PS — If you have the option of seeing this on an IMAX screen, do not hesitate to put down a few extra bucks. Well worth the upgrade.

THE PROPOSAL – movie review

Published June 22, 2009

Sandra Bullock returns to the rom-com genre that made her famous in The Proposal — her first since 2002’s underrated Two Weeks Notice. While no one will ever accuse this film of overt originality, what’s lost in predictability is made up for in the sheer charisma and likability of its stars.
The Proposal
Sandra plays Margaret Tate, a shrewish New York book editor who, because of an expired Visa, is about to be deported back to her native Canada. Her assistant, Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds – nicely sharpening his comedic chops), is a sincere-but-easily-cowed young man simply trying to climb the corporate ladder … and get his own novel published. When the deportation bombshell is dropped by her boss, Margaret plucks from her improvisational bag of tricks the fabrication of her upcoming nuptials with Andrew. Andrew, realizing his job is on the line, agrees. While a suspicious immigration officer smells something foul (a moldy sitcom premise?), he allows them a few days to get their story straight … I mean, take care of business. Before you can say Green Card meets Northern Exposure, Margaret and Andrew are off to his hometown in Alaska for his grandmother’s 90th birthday.

Once in Alaska, Margaret is introduced to Andrew’s parents (played ably by Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson), and his grandmother (87-year-old Betty White – who damn near steals this movie).
Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds
I’ve spoiled nothing here, this synopsis can be gleaned from the trailer, but it doesn’t take a genius to know where this story is going. I don’t mind that, as long as the getting there is something unique, or special, or fun. In this case … it mostly is. Sandra Bullock, looking fabulous at 44, milks the second-rate script for every laugh she can get. She is also pretty fearless in scenes like the one involving a puppy, an eagle, and a cell phone … you’ll know it when you see it. Given that she also spends a good deal of this film trying to convince her faux-fiancee’s family of a lie, there is also a little whiff of While You Were Sleeping … but I won’t count that as a bad thing. Her utter likability is the very foundation of a film that threatens more than once to collapse under the weight of its own clichés.

Ryan Reynolds (who obviously found time to mine this screenplay for laughs when he wasn’t doing sit-ups) also brings much to the table with a funny and endearing performance. While he has done his fare share of action roles recently, between his charming (and sometimes silly) performance in this film and 2008’s Definitely, Maybe, I think he is finding his niche. His sparkling chemistry with Sandra (their 12-year-age difference is hardly noticeable) IS the heart of this film.

That said, Betty White, and this bears repeating, is such a marvel of energy and comedic timing, she saves the picture from whatever shortcomings Bullock and Reynolds can’t do on their own. Whoever is responsible for this piece of ingenious casting deserves much of the credit for this film’s success.

While I am recommending this film, some of its flaws are glaring — and I’m not even referring to the age old premise, that can be forgiven if it is done right. Director Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses) might do well on her next project to hone up on how to stage scenes with a lot of extras. The sequences involving Margaret and Andrew’s publishing office cubicles, especially the ones at the end of the film, are staged, acted and directed so ineptly, they completely ruin the flow of the otherwise entertaining story. Rather than subtle reactions, the extras all mug shamelessly, and remind the viewer that they are watching a movie. I also could have done without the “Ramone” scenes … every time I thought he was gone, he popped up again. I blame the director.

So … if you are looking for an agreeable time-filler with its fair share of laughs (if not surprises), I can think of many worse ways to spend two hours than with Sandra Bullock in rom-com mode. I laughed, I smiled, and never looked at my watch. While this movie is probably not deserving of any grade over B-, due to the charisma of its stars, I’m going to raise that to a …

MOVIE GRADE: B