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Friday
Feb262010

Cop Out

Never before have I walked out of a movie and felt so bad for the people involved in its production. Cop Out is one of those films where you look at the talent and find it hard to believe that they actually think it's good. Kevin Smith, director of such films as Clerks, Mallrats, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, helms this travesty, marking his debut directing a movie not written by him. If Cop Out is any indication, he needs to stick to his own stuff. It's only February, but I'm confident this train wreck will be on my worst of the year list.

The film is a humorous (a word I use very loosely here) take on the buddy cop action picture, akin to movies like 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon. But where those oozed with style and provided laughs despite not necessarily being comedies, Cop Out fails miserably. In what is the worst onscreen pairing since Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in Gigli, Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan play Jimmy and Paul, partners who have been together for nine years. Jimmy's daughter, played by Michelle Trachtenberg, is about to get married and wants a huge wedding, $50,000 huge. Jimmy is expected to pay for it, but he and Paul get suspended for a month without pay after a stakeout goes awry and a clerk at a local store gets murdered. Now, the only way to cough up that cash is to sell a rare baseball card he's had since his childhood. Unfortunately, he is assaulted and robbed of the card, which he quickly finds out is now in the hands of the gang suspected of murdering the store clerk, so he and Paul break the rules, as they always do in these types of movies, and set off to crack the case.

I struggled writing that synopsis. The actual movie isn't quite as clear cut. What I just detailed to you above makes more sense and has a better flow to it than the actual film itself. I left out the unnecessary side story about Paul's wife, played by Rashida Jones, and his suspicion that she's cheating on him. I also left out how inconsequential that opening murder is to the story. I even skipped over Jason Lee's part as Jimmy's daughter's new stepfather who is loaded with money and insists on paying for her wedding, which Jimmy's pride won't allow. Besides, he needs some type of motivation to track down the gang. The ruthless murder of an innocent man plays second fiddle to the recovery of that precious baseball card.

But the story's problems lie with more than just the lunacy of it all. It's told haphazardly, like a first time film student editing random scenes together, interrupting action scenes to interject a scene of exposition in the mix. I edited my college video project tighter than this mess.

Kevin Smith, who is solely responsible for the edit hack job, deserves berating for his poor direction as well. Somebody once said that Smith was the Quentin Tarantino of comedies because he can write amazing dialogue and create endearing characters that we want to spend time with. That is true and is the main reason his movies succeed. His directing skills, on the contrary, have never been anything to note, but you were able to ignore that based on his talent as a writer. This is the first film he has ever directed that he didn't write, which makes the lack of competent direction that much more noticeable. Watching him try to stage an action scene is like watching a cat play with a ball of yarn. Just as the cat swats at the ball, never grabbing hold, Smith reaches out and tries to latch onto something exciting, but never gets there. It doesn't take long for that cat's ball to unravel. Smith's action scenes fall apart even faster.

What really kills Cop Out, however, is its utter lack of laughs. The dialogue is missing that Kevin Smith touch and each and every joke crashes down faster than a fat kid's face into pie. The leads have zero chemistry together and Morgan in particular is insufferable. I'll admit I've never liked the guy, but never has a dislike turned into hatred faster than it did here.

Cop Out is one of the most pointless movies I've seen in a long time and is easily the worst film of the year thus far. It pains me to say this because I adore Smith's previous work, but I've only scratched the surface of its problems. It's shocking how inept this production is and I can only hope that Smith looks back on this with a good heart and realizes what a mistake it turned out to be. If he has gotten to the point where he actually thinks this tripe is funny, then God help the future of comedy. We've lost a real talent.

Cop Out receives 0/5

Friday
Feb262010

The Ghost Writer

It would be easy to start this review off with a summary of the troubles director Roman Polanski has faced over the years, condemning him for his actions, yet praising his cinematic work, but forget about all of that. The real question is: can this man still make a movie? Polanski, of Rosemary's Baby and The Pianist fame, returns with The Ghost Writer, a political thriller bursting with intrigue and political themes that eventually gets sidetracked by its muddled tone, bad humor and been-there-done-that final twist.

In case you're unaware, a ghost writer is a professional journalist who interviews somebody and writes their books for them. For instance, Bill Clinton's memoirs weren't necessarily written by him, but rather by another person who took what he said and turned it into prose. In the movie, Ewan McGregor plays one of these men, known only as the Ghost, and he is invited to write the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang, played by Pierce Brosnan, after his previous ghost writer was found washed up on shore. For a hefty fee of $250,000, the Ghost agrees to take the job and is quickly invited to live in Lang's house along with his wife, Ruth, played by Olivia Williams. While he is there, allegations of war crimes pop up on the news and the Ghost quickly realizes that there is more to this man's life than meets the eye.

Hot off the heels of Scorsese's umpteenth masterpiece Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer feels like a number of movies mishmashed into one. What should have been an airtight political thriller becomes too oversaturated with goofy humor and chase scenes in the latter half that sometimes make the proceedings feel more like National Treasure than All the President's Men. This journalist all of a sudden becomes an action bound, conspiracy unraveler who figures things out in a split second that the FBI wouldn't for months.

That's not to say I dislike humor and think all serious movies should be completely so, but the jokes in the film seem too self-knowing to really work in this context. At one point in the movie, the former Prime Minister's wife makes a joke about texting. I'm sorry, I wasn't aware this was a teen comedy. Later, the Ghost hops on a bike and his rear wheel sinks into the wet terrain he's traveling on, impeding his movement. This comes at a moment in the movie where he is finally starting to piece together what is happening and is heading off to the beach where the last ghost writer's body was found. I need not explain why that joke is out of place.

My main beef with the movie, however, comes not from its poor use of humor or its sagging back half brought on by a spike in the action, but rather from its piling on of foreboding. The tension doesn't always flow naturally as it should in a political thriller. More than a few lines of dialogue eerily forewarn of the Ghost's impending danger, like one where a character tells him not to turn left in his car or he "might never be heard from again." While this could be fine alone, this is not an isolated incident and moments like this occur throughout the movie. I never felt like I should care based on what I was seeing onscreen, but rather from the constant reminder that something bad was going to happen being shoved down my throat.

Nevertheless, The Ghost Writer raises some interesting themes of power, struggle and war crimes and relates them back to America, exploring our motives and questioning who really pulls the strings, but the provocative conversation that should have occurred on my car ride home became too focused on the glaring flaws to spark any real interest. Despite a solid recommendation, I find myself disappointed with The Ghost Writer, a film that seemed destined for greatness, but ends up a throwaway thriller with minor thrills and little else.

The Ghost Writer receives 3/5

Friday
Feb192010

Shutter Island

At the movies, actors are considered the most important to the viewing public because, hey, that's who they're seeing onscreen. Although they do offer considerable depth, films are made by dozens, sometimes hundreds of people. Most do their job off camera and receive little respect for it, even directors in most cases, but not Martin Scorsese. Perhaps the most notable of all living directors, Scorsese has crafted a body work unparalleled in the film world. From Taxi Driver to Goodfellas to The Departed, the man has routinely delivered solid work with films that are largely considered to be some of the greatest of all time. His genius still holds true with his latest effort, Shutter Island, based on the book by Dennis Lehane, a brilliant, haunting tale of morality and mentality that explores the difficulty of living through painful memories and what it means to accept them.

Leonardo DiCaprio is captivating as Teddy Daniels, a federal marshal on his way to Shutter Island, a land mass in Massachusetts where a mental institution rests. Along with his partner Chuck, played by Mark Ruffalo, he has been hired to find a missing patient who escaped the previous night. The head psychiatrist of the penitentiary is Dr. Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley, who explains to them that there's no logical explanation for her escape. Her cell door was locked from the outside and the only window is covered with bars. As he puts it, "It's as if she evaporated straight through the walls." After Teddy searches her room, he finds a note that simply says, "The law of 4" and "Who is 67?" As he finds clues, he discovers that not all is as it seems on the island.

However, things don't seem right within Teddy either. He is haunted by his troubled past and the atrocities he experienced in WWII a mere 10 years ago, he is having more and more vivid hallucinations of his dead wife, played by Michelle Williams, who burned up in a fire by a man supposedly held at this very institution and he is becoming increasingly weaker as time goes on. He has even been taking pills provided by the institution workers. Is he being drugged? Are they trying to keep Teddy there? If so, for what purpose? He sets out to find the answers, but must act quickly if he ever hopes to get off the island.

Appropriately, Shutter Island is like a book that you want to flip to the last page so you can see how it ends. The questions it raises linger and never go away, begging you to find the answers and I wanted nothing more than to skip to the end if only so I could finally find out what was happening. However, if I'm being honest, the ending isn't something that we've never seen. In fact, it's pretty common of any film that takes place in an insane asylum to naturally go this route, so yes, you'll probably figure out as you watch that only one of two endings are even possible and you'll be able to narrow it down to one with your knowledge of how movies generally work, but you'll nevertheless be shocked by its intricacies. It's not a simple case of that's that. It's more like a brain teaser, working in a way that even after you know the answer you have to think back and place the pieces in the correct slot.

Much of the astonishment from the ending comes from the terrific acting leading to it, though it would be impossible to delve into why some performances worked so well without giving away vital points of the story. While Ruffalo and Kingsley were great, as was Jackie Earle Haley in a particularly inspired cameo, DiCaprio steals the show. He plays a multi-layered individual dealing with heartache, fear, confusion and a sickness begun from the opening scene where he and his partner drift up to the island on a ferry that increases as time goes on. He mesmerizes in another award worthy performance, especially during the more emotional scenes. Nobody can cry like DiCaprio.

Of course, it's impossible to talk about a Scorsese picture without talking about the man's direction. As should be an obvious remark by now, Scorsese directs this picture with a style unseen in Hollywood. If you ask me, he actually tones it down a bit with Shutter Island, never forcing camera movements when it isn't prudent, but rather keeping a steady eye on what's going on, allowing his actors to do their jobs. His stylistic touch was fantastic from the simplest of shots to the recurring motif of flickering lights that can be analyzed in so many different ways you could write a term paper on it.

This is a tall claim to be throwing out when you're discussing a body of work as impressive as Scorsese's, but I believe Shutter Island may be one of his best. It's meaningful, enlightening, beautiful and intense all at the same time. It's one of those films that you walk out of and feel like watching again immediately. It's a testament to the skill of the talent involved and it shows that ingenuity still exists in an increasing Hollywood world of sequels and remakes.

There's one line of dialogue, the last one in the entire movie in fact, that set my brain racing. It's a line that has stuck with me ever since I've seen it and sparked discussion with those around me. It's a summation of the whole film and really gets to the core of life and the disparity between what can really be considered sane and insane, so I'll leave you with it to ponder over.

"Is it better to live as a monster or die as a good man?"

Shutter Island receives 5/5

Sunday
Feb142010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

I suppose we can thank good 'ol Harry for this. Due to the success of the Harry Potter franchise, we now have a countless number of books being adapted to the big screen in an effort to start a lucrative series. Harry Potter, Twilight, The Chronicles of Narnia, Cirque du Freak, all hope to grab that cash from you. While not all were successful, namely the latter one, all shared that same trait. Now we have a newcomer hoping to wedge its way into the fold in the form of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Despite a few problems, it largely succeeds and proves itself as a fun, entertaining fantasy adventure that will tide fans over until the next Potter film.

Logan Lerman plays the title character, a teenager who is about to find out that his entire life is a lot more complicated than he thinks. His father is actually Poseidon, god of the sea, played by Kevin McKidd. Years ago, he came onto land, fell in love with his mother, played by Catherine Keener, and they had him as their child. Now, Poseidon's brother Zeus, god of thunder, played by Sean Bean, has accused Percy of stealing his thunderbolt. He has 14 days to return it or the gods go to war, destroying the heavens and the earth. As a result, Percy is taken to a camp exclusively for demi-gods, kids who are half human and half god, to train. Once he arrives, however, he watches his mother get abducted by Hades, god of the underworld (or more precisely, the Devil). He is played wonderfully by Steve Coogan. So Percy decides that he must get his mother back and treks across America with Annabeth, played by Alexandra Daddario, and his protector Grover, played by Brandon T. Jackson, in search of three pearls that will grant them entry and exit to the underworld.

Phew. You wouldn't think so given the PG rating and marketing towards kids, but this film has a lot going on. On their journey, the kids meet Medusa, battle a 10 headed dragon, and travel down into Hell to confront Hades. I felt like I was watching an epic for the ages, an exciting, scary, violent romp through the best parts of Greek mythology. The funny thing is that despite the kid-centric commercials, this thing is more for adults and teenagers. It features decapitations, a drug induced happiness that is played as cool and the aforementioned descent into Hell. Top onto that the intense battles with all sorts of mythical creatures and you have a film that is actually quite creepy. This thing's scarier than The Wolfman.

Although comparisons are unavoidable, especially given that this director helmed The Sorcerer's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, Percy Jackson differs from Harry Potter in these respects. The Harry Potter films are more polished, but Percy Jackson is more fun. This doesn't waste its time in endless set-up with zero payoff (much like the fifth Potter). It's more of a droll, white knuckle action fantasy that moves at a brisk pace towards its conclusion. If you're looking for a better film, go with Potter, but if you're looking for something you can put on and enjoy at any time, Percy Jackson is your best bet.

Still, the film is nowhere near perfect and actually stumbles the most when it tries to mix that drollery with a serious story. The humor rarely works and feels out of place when one-liners are thrown out in the heat of battle. Its tone gets mixed so frequently that I'm not sure one is ever established. For instance, when they first arrive in Hell, they see thousands of tortured souls below them. The visual is haunting. Then they meet the Devil and his, shall we say, mistress, played by Rosario Dawson, and it turns lighthearted with an eerie sexual tension bubbling beneath the surface. The movie would have been helping itself had it gone the full scary route rather than attempting to juggle the two.

Then you have the ineffective side stories about Percy growing up without his father and the kindling romance between him and Annabeth. You see, Percy has been bitter his whole life about his father running out on him and his mother. He was only 7 months old when it happened, so he never even got to meet him and now he's stuck with his nasty stepfather who treats his mom like a piece of meat. The ending tries to resolve these daddy issues and the cheese is stacked up high. The romantic chemistry between him and Annabeth was missing, rendering that moot as well.

If you're looking at the film from an analytical point of view, this is a great story told haphazardly, but if you're looking at it through a normal citizen's eyes, this is great fun. It won't ever reach the success of Harry Potter, but here's hoping it makes enough money to warrant a sequel. Percy Jackson deserves at least that.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief receives 3.5/5

Friday
Feb122010

The Wolfman

The Wolfman has been plagued with production problems since its inception. Originally scheduled to be released in late 2008, it was pushed back numerous times, it underwent reshoots, a usual normalcy in filmmaking, that were rumored to be because the powers that be weren't happy with the look of the werewolf, directors were leaving the project due to the ever reliable term "creative differences," and even now, a week before the film came out, early word wasn't good. Well, it's not. The Wolfman is a dull, lifeless, meandering failure saved only by the sinful glee of watching England's citizens get their limbs get ripped off in splatters of blood.

The Wolfman stars Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot, a British man who moved to New York some time ago to pursue his acting career. His brother, still living back in Blackmoor, England, has just been found dead and Lawrence has been summoned back for the funeral. The events surrounding his death are mysterious because his ravaged corpse shows evidence that he was not murdered by man, but by some kind of beast. One night at a gypsy camp, Lawrence finds that beast and is bitten, giving him the curse of the werewolf. Meanwhile, something doesn't seem to be right with his father, John, played by Anthony Hopkins and now he is being pursued by the local police, headed by Abberline, played by Hugo Weaving.

There are more than a few problems in this dreadful adaptation of The Wolfman, but none surpass the questionable decision to cast Benicio Del Toro in the title role. I haven't seen such an egregious case of miscasting since Ben Affleck in Daredevil. The film takes place back in old England, in the late 19th century and Del Toro plays a British lad who grew up there, yet he doesn't even attempt an accent. The problem is that his dialogue is still written in that time period's prose, so he ends up sounding silly. Every line he uttered was a distraction and his presence in this movie is unforgivable.

Still, with such great material to develop from, I find it baffling how bad this thing turned out. It should have been an homage to the olden days of horror, hearkening back to the roots of what made the genre so popular in the first place. Instead, it's little more than a new age horror flick hiding under the guise of a classic. It's incredibly violent and it uses dozens of jump scares, some that are placed within mere seconds of each other, none of which work.

The disappointment is that the film looks good. The production design is impressive, with a haunting, bleak atmosphere accompanied by gothic architecture and a dark tone that would have generously supported the story had there been one to care about. This thing goes from scene to scene without so much of a story arc, basically repeating itself over and over until the anti-climactic final battle. Scene transitions were sometimes abrupt and rarely seemed to gel together, even going so far as to overuse the fade-to-black scene ender multiple times.

What The Wolfman all boils down to is a slapdash, clumsy remake with zero scares, an uninteresting story and one ridiculously bad miscast. Sure, the intense violence will hold your attention for a few moments, but when you realize that's one of the only aspects of it worth noting, you begin to realize how truly shallow it is.

The Wolfman receives 1.5/5