Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Lookout: Confused, Noirish Tale Falls Short

The Lookout opens nationwide at a theatre near you this Friday, March 30. I had a chance to take in a sneak preview last night and, well ... it's not great.

When Chris Pratt, the star hockey player, and spoiled rich kid, is out cruising with friends on a dark highway, on prom night, with no headlights, and crashes the car, his life is drastically changed. Two of his friends have died, one will no longer speak to him, and he doesn't remember the accident. He doesn't remember much due to his closed head injury, he is forced to keep notes in a small notepad. In fact, his whole apartment is labeled with instructions.

Do we feel sorry for him? The director, Scott Frank, seems to want you to feel sorry for him with all of the long takes, silent shots of Chris dealing with his plight, feeling sorry for himself in a lot of ways. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance makes you want to feel sorry for him. He is, after all, our protagonist, so we really want to feel sorry for him. But he wasn't much of a good guy in his previous life, where we are told that he once slashed a nobody player in a championship hockey game knowing he wouldn't get the penalty and suspension; this tale also looms as a sort of lost plot thread.

In fact, a lot is lost. Isla Fisher's character, Luvlee, is either bait or really falls for him, but it is all unclear. She delivers lines that seem both in awe of the legendary Chris Pratt, and yet vengeful at the same time. And as quickly as she has arrived to, and then driven the plot, she is gone. Was this film edited to hell, or is it just sloppy? Hard to tell.

The Lookout is really well acted, but the directing sort of steps on itself. The film is never really sure if it's a character study of a man with a closed head injury and the people in his life, and how he and they deal with their problems, or if it's a bank robbery film. It never truly feels like either. The bank heist plot is a really slow build that doesn't really get interesting until the third act, and the film is paced so slowly that at 99 minutes it feels like two hours. This mostly lies in the fact that it doesn't begin it's "plot" until more than half way through.

I really wanted to like this movie, the trailer looked good, I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but it just wasn't everything I hoped and dreamed it could be. Perhaps my expectations were too high, and visions of "Brick" were dancing in my mind's eye. It's not "Brick," and doesn't quite feel as comfortable within the genre of noir, as does the aforementioned. I needed The Lookout to find its identity and become one or the other of its dual personalities.

There were things that I liked. I did like some of the shots, even if they do confuse the mood. And there is a major standout acting performance by Jeff Daniels. His character, Lewis, was blinded by overexposure to meth fumes, and now serves as best friend, roommate and sort of mentor to Chris. Daniels brings an air of acceptance to his character's fate. He is comfortable with himself, and has accepted his own hand in that fate. Chris, on the other hand, hasn't really accepted himself, still showing signs of that selfish rich kid, which makes it so hard to feel sympathetic when he makes the really bad decision of helping out in a bank robbery where he works as a janitor -- his self-imposed "pennance" for killing his friends.

By the time this film climaxes, it's just too late, regardless of shootouts and double crosses. And what the hell's the deal with Bone? That one character also leaves a looming feeling of over-the-top.

I'm sort of left confused as to why it is that this is getting a wide release. It feels more like straight to DVD, and then ready for cable viewing on a hung-over Sunday afternoon when you can't reach the remote. I give it a 6 out of 10 ... a solid C. Stay at home and watch "Brick" instead ... or just wait a week for it to hit your local second run dollar show ... maybe a week later for DVD.

Friday, March 23, 2007

TMNT: A Must See, Even Without Vanilla Ice!

Every time the subject of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comes up, a friend of mine laments the day he was in a comic shop in California and his friend held up a copy of some new indie black and white comic with four turtles, and he merely responded, “No one is going to buy that, it’s oversized and in black and white …” Well, it turns out several people bought it and after two animated series, and three live action films, the Turtles are back in action, and here to stay. This time, in CGI.

Now I am really tempted to tell you what a shell of a good time this film is, or how it kicks shell and takes names … but I’ll resist the urge and spare you the bad puns! The thing about the Turtles is that the majority of fans grew up with the 90s cartoon show and, therefore, expect to see Shredder fighting it out with our four heroes. But anyone who has read the comics know that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird went on to some very strange tales after Shredder’s defeat in the first story arc. The live-action movies attempted this, but fell a little short with the sequels. However, this new incarnation in CGI follows the map set out in those films, and with the general feeling of family felt in the comics, extremely well.

Kevin Munroe has brought the TMNT back in a big way. It has a similar dark feel to the first live-action film, but it’s not dark in that you can’t see the action, which was a major complaint that many had with the live action picture. When I spoke with Kevin Munroe at last year’s San Diego ComiCon he mentioned having sat down with the animators to watch The Third Man for specific lighting cues, and it is evident. The film is lit beautifully and “shot” really well. It doesn’t feel like just another animated feature. It feels very cinematic and very BIG!

Munroe uses the live-action films as a jumping off point, and even drops some props in there for reference to those films. Where we start is that Leonardo is living in South America to complete his training, but has stayed too long, which has resulted in a sort of breakdown of the family element; Michaelangelo is a “costumed” turtle for kids’ parties, Donatello is an IT Guy, and Raphael, unbeknownst to his brothers is taking on crime at night as an armored, motorcycle riding vigilante. However, something is brewing that is going to require the brothers to learn how to work together again, and they’re going to need the help of April O’Neil (who is a bit of a ninja herself this go ‘round) and Casey Jones.

There is a really neat story here that involves some monsters, The Foot Clan and an ancient General trapped for all eternity by his own immortality. At times it is difficult to determine who, amongst the non-turtles, is our antagonist, and in that, this film really held my attention. It’s fun, looks great, and just feels right. With each new incarnation of Turtles, something changes, but Munroe doesn’t seem to have missed a beat. I am really hoping there’s a sequel that captures the tone that has been set here. And, of course, I can’t wait to see the return of The Shredder via CGI!

I’m going to give this film a 7.5 or a B+, however you prefer to look at it. If ever there was a Turtles fan that dwelled within you, get yourself out to the theatre and see this movie. TMNT opens nationwide today!

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Last Mimzy: Silly Rabbit, Quantum Physics Is For Kids?!?

Upon seeing The Last Mimzy, I can't help but describe it as E.T. with a stuffed rabbit, under the influence of John Titor (look him up!). When two siblings, Noah and Emma, find a bizarre chest near the family beach house they discover that it is filled with all sorts of quantum wonders, which seemingly increase the kids intelligence, give them bizarre metaphysical powers, and alienate them from their parents.

This film is very interesting, but sort of misses its target audience. In a film that explores Tibetan ideology, quantum physics, and the space time continuum, it seems very strange to have the heroes as children. This angle does allow the fillmmakers to explore theories about how children often see things beyond adults because their brains work at a higher level, but they're also pitching this theory to children who don't have enough life experience to understand any of it, and adults who, well, are operating at a lower level of brain activity than the children.

The name Mimzy comes from one of the toys, a stuffed rabbit, that Emma (Rhiannon Leigh Wryn) quickly becomes attached to, and believes is telling her things. Noah (Chris O'Neil), on the other hand, becomes intrigued by the box's "engine," and soon finds that he can hear spiders and teleport cans of soda.

As all of these things begin happening, a larger puzzle looms and Noah's teacher (Rainn Wilson in a typical, but enjoyable role for him) starts to believe that Noah may be a special child as indicated in certain Tibetan beliefs. The children's parents, however, are not ready to buy into any hippie mumbo jumbo and are concerned for their children who only seem to interact with each other.

Add Michael Clarke Duncan as an operative of Homeland Security and you have a presumed terrorism plot that puts the children and their toys at the center. But there's nothing terrorist about it. In fact, I wouldn't have minded the children having found Mimzy at the Circle K as all of their actions in the days that follow, will effect a doomed future.

As someone who loved What The Bleep Do We Know?!?, devoured the books of Carlos Castaneda at the pace of a fat kid left alone in a pastry shop, and loved the darker fairy tale elements of Pan's Labyrinth, I really enjoyed this film. Somewhere it is missing something that would make it perfect and I really believe it's the mixing of a perfectly good quantum tale with childrens' fare, but I really can't think of any other way to tell the story. It has a fairy tale element and even touches upon the magic of Alice in Wonderland, as our heroes themselves seem to be following Mimzy down the rabbit hole.

Feel free to take the kids and enjoy a great family adventure, but be ready for the younger set to shift and squirm, possibly becoming bored ... if it's children over 12, though, this is going to be a fun discussion-filled car ride home!

Disturbia: Missing One Crime-Solving, Talking Dog

And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids and their stupid dog ... okay, there wasn't a dog in this particular mix of the Scooby-Doo gang, but there should have been. Disturbia, which is being billed by the rabid movie-going public as a teenage remake of Rear Window, owes as much to Hitchcock as they do Hanna-Barbera.

Kale (Shia Labeouf) is your typical 17-year-old high school kid until his life is thrown into a top spin when his Dad is killed in a car accident while the two are returning from a fishing trip. That sort of thing, understandably, changes a kid. So, it is also understandable when Kale punches his Spanish teacher in the face for making inappropriate comments about the aforementioned dead father being disappointed in his son over missing a Spanish assignment. Understandable, not reasonable, the entire incident is ridiculous, but also serves to put Kale under house arrest during the summer before his senior year of high school. Now, when Mom (Carrie-Anne Moss) cuts off the XBox online service, as well as his iTunes, what is a boy to do, but pick up a set of binoculars and begin living a life of voyeurism, watching his neighbors swim in bikinis, do yoga in their bedroom, conduct extra-marital affairs, and kill unsuspecting local women.

First of all, let's remind ourselves that this film is PG-13, and is, therefore, a horror movie for the younger set. It isn't gory, there's little blood, there isn't any real scenes of murder. It does, however, build some decent suspense, and the Scooby gang here is good looking and charming, but I shouldn't see the boom mic once, let alone 4 times. I understand that this was an early screening, and I hope the problem is fixed prior to the actual release date, because I cannot suspend my disbelief and feel scared by the slow build when I'm staring at a boom mic.

Moreover, I have an equally hard time believing that our killer can be taken down by three teenage kids, after alluding the police for nearly seven years. Nor can I believe that a killer who has been active for so long would suddenly become so sloppy in dismembering bodies without a shade properly pulled. David Morse is scary enough, and even downright creepy, but at no point do we really feel that he might not be the killer and merely suspected because of a stir crazy boy and his wild imagination. This guy is definitely the killer, but why is he so damn sloppy?

There are a lot of things that I liked about this movie, but they are far outweighed by the things I didn't like. The fun little relationship that develops between Kale and neighbor Ashley (Sarah Roemer) is cute, but it's not enough. And all of the psychological pressures that Kale should be feeling are not only overlooked by the adults in his life, but the filmmakers as well. After foiling a crazed serial killer, this boy should be completely unravelling, not looking for some smoochie time, no matter how hot that neighbor is.

This movie will do well at the box office as long as its intended audience finds their way there. Teenagers that have never seen Rear Window will be looking at some fresh concepts, but let's just hope that their time spent with cartoons helps them see through this drivel and demand more from these types of movies.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Moan For Me, Baby! Black Snake Moan is the Perfect Cure For the Blues

I recently had the opportunity to attend a screening of Black Snake Moan, followed by a Q&A with director Craig Brewer, and then when the opportunity for a screening popped up again last night, I jumped at the chance. Black Snake Moan is a beautifully made, incredibly acted film. And yet, it has this dirty quality to it where you can feel that Memphis heat, you can smell the sweat ...

However, Craig Brewer contends that this is not at all an exploitation film, but a very southern film. He describes it like a Saturday night in Memphis with folks being very religious, but also having a penchant for booze and sin, so you go down to the local juke joint, dance, sweat it out, then get up for church on Sunday. Hearing that made me realize and see, upon the second viewing, just how personal this film is.

The film opens on Blues Legend Son House talking about love and how that deep love that you feel deep in your heart, that's what can destroy a person. Then ... BAM! We dive headlong into our tale, opening on the manic lovemaking of Rae (Christina Ricci) and Ronnie (Justin Timberlake). We then are introduced to Lazarus (Sam Jackson) and begin the parallel journey of lost love, booze, sin and redemption for both Rae and Lazarus.

There are a lot of very interesting religious themes that play themselves out through the course of the film, such as Jackson's Lazarus who is a character who is seemingly resurrected by the relationship he forms with Ricci's Rae, a nymphomaniac with a history of abuse. Together, they find redemption even if it does take chaining Rae to the radiator to get there.

There are many moments in this film that feel exploitive. Again, it's dirty, it's sweaty, Ricci is half naked, chained to a radiator and Jackson feels it necessary to get the devil out of her. It has a certain over-the-top quality that certainly has some light, laughter-filled moments, but that's not what this film is about. It's a personal journey for Brewer, who admits to having anxiety attacks and says that his wife has to lay on his back with her flesh against his, arms wrapped around his shoulders, holding hands, in what they referred to as the Black Snake Moan. Brewer also tells of dreams in which he, himself, is chained to a radiator. And he then uses this radiator as a symbol of forboding, as well as a sort of altar where the hardest decisions are made.

Brewer has really arrived with Black Snake Moan, creating such wonderful, emotive imagery, with a cast that delivers his "show, don't tell" dialogue with a very real quality. The chemistry between Rae and Lazarus is really felt by Jackson and Ricci. These two people need each other, and come to learn that as the film evolves, because it isn't just the film that moves on, but these characters, this town ... and even when you feel a real conclusion, much like life, nothing has changed that much.

So, go feel some sin and sweat it out with Black Snake Moan.
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