Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Switch - 3 1/2 stars

I didn't expect to like this movie much going in. It sounds like a pretty wacky premise: Wally (Jason Bateman) and Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) are best friends, but we can tell he likes her. He just made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in the friend zone. Kassie decides she wants to have a baby, so she finds a donor and plans her insemination. On the night of the deed, Wally accidentally drops the cup in the sink and the seed goes down the drain. Thinking quickly, he replaces it with his own. Oh, and he is so drunk that he doesn't remember it the next day.

Kassie moves away, and we cut to 7 years later. She moves back and Wally meets her (and his) son. Bit by bit Wally starts to notice how much the kid acts like him. He also develops a really good relationship with the kid. Eventually he figures out what happened, and his dilemma is whether to tell Kassie or not. If he does, she will probably hate him and he will never see the kid again. If he doesn't, he can be in the kid's life but he will never be more than Uncle Wally. Of course he should just pursue Kassie, marry her, then tell her down the road that he is really the father. Or not.

In a lesser movie (a typical chick flick), this wouldn't work. The character's actions wouldn't be believable. But it works in this movie. The writing is better than average and Bateman does a really good job with it. For one thing, it is believable that he would be to chicken to tell Kassie how he really feels about her. His character is very well established as neurotic and insecure.

One thing I didn't like was the movie had the typical confession scene. Any time a character has a secret, he will end up telling the other person in the most public and embarrassing setting possible. Remember The Proposal? Sandra Bullock decides to come clean during the wedding and tell all the assembled guests that their relationship is a sham. She couldn't have done it right before?

Even the public confession scene works because Bateman pulls it off so well, and it makes sense that he would confess when he does. He tries to tell her a few times, but he doesn't get the chance, and something happens that kind of forces his hand.

Jeff Goldblum is entertaining as always as Bateman's co-worker. Juliette Lewis is also very funny as Kassie's best friend. But the standout performance is the kid Sebastian (Thomas Robinson). He is adorable, and I found myself really rooting for Wally and Kassie to end up together. Not so much for them, but because I wanted Sebastian to be happy and have Wally as his dad.

Usually I'm pretty cynical and this isn't my typical movie, but the movie is that good.

Playground - 3 stars

Playground sure means well. It's about a very serious topic - the child sex trade. Do you know what the number one destination is for underage prostitution? Think it's Thailand or some place like that? Wrong, it's the United States.

This movie presents a lot of troubling information. We learn an awful lot about the victims and perpetrators of child sexual abuse. The movie focuses on one particular girl named Michelle. Michelle has had an incredibly difficult life, and she disappeared for a long time. The filmmakers set out to find her. Eventually they do, and she tells us in a very matter of fact way about the horrors she experienced. We hear from other victims, and we even hear from a couple of former pimps.

One injustice the movie brings up is the fact that girls from other countries brought here are treated as victims. Girls from America who go through the same things are criminalized.

The problem with the movie is it's too unfocused. It tries to cover too much ground, and it really started to feel like it was repeating itself. I always try to separate the documentary from the subject. Obviously this is important information, but the movie is not put together very well. But I'm still going 3 stars because it isn't boring and I learned a lot.

But this movie will really make you mad and depressed.

Wild Grass - 2 stars

This is a weird French movie. It's original but rather boring.

A woman is out shopping for shoes, and her purse is stolen. Later, an older man finds her wallet abandoned in a parking lot. He thinks about returning it to her, and we hear his entire inner monologue. He keeps playing out these different scenarios in his mind of what it would be like if he called her up. He goes through her wallet, discovers things about her, and starts getting very interested.

He finally turns the wallet in at the police station. They call the lady and when she picks it up, she asks who returns it. She would like his name and number, so she can thank him. When she calls him and says thanks, he asks if that's it, doesn't she want to meet? She says no, and he gets pissed. Then he starts stalking her. He leaves messages on her answering machine every night, he leaves notes for her in her mailbox, and he even slashes her tires at one point.

She tells the cops, they ask him to leave her alone, and he does. But then something funny happens. She starts to get interested in him, and she starts calling him.

From there some unexpected things happen. I really liked the performance by Andre Dussollier as Georges Pallet. He has a great voice and a great way of delivering his lines. The story kept me interested because I was curious to see what happened next, but at the same time it bored me too. Interesting stuff happened, but the characters did not react the way normal people did. It somehow took the impact out of everything.

And what the hell is up with the ending? Strangest, most random last line I've ever heard in a movie.

Life During Wartime - 3 stars

Todd Solondz makes very interesting and original movies about unhappy people. His movies are never uplifting but there is a kind of black humor to them. I found myself laughing out loud several times here, but usually I was saying WTF at the same time.

This is a sequel to Happiness (1998), but with all different actors. Which is a pretty interesting idea. I wonder if he tried to get the same cast together, how many would have come back? Maybe he figured better to have all different actors rather than some of the same and some different.

This was not as uncomfortable as Happiness was. There is some talk about pedophilia, but the conversations are not as bad as they were the first time around.

The kid toucher from Happiness (now played by Ciaran Hinds) just got out of jail. His young son thinks he is dead, because his mom (Allison Janney) didn't want to tell him the truth. She is dating a nice guy who falls for her way too quickly. Joy is married to a crazy, creepy guy and she keeps seeing the ghost of her former boyfriend (Paul Rubens). Late in the movie she goes to stay with her sister (Ally Sheedy).

It seems every Todd Solondz movie has a young kid who asks way too many questions, and seems very mature for his age. In Storytelling, the kid hates the family maid so much he convinces his dad to fire her. In Happiness, the kid asks his dad all kinds of sexual questions. In this movie, the kid is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. At one point, his mom tells him in too graphic detail how excited she got when her new boyfriend touched her.

This is a good movie, but definitely not a feel good movie.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Eat Pray Love - 1 1/2 stars

Julia Roberts plays Liz, a woman who is just not happy. When we meet her, she is in Bali doing research for a magazine article she is going to write. She meets an old palm reader who tells her that she will have 2 marriages, one short and the other long, she will soon lose all of her money, and she will come back again and teach him English.

Six months later, she is in New York. She is married to a nice guy played by Billy Crudup. She seems happy until she hears him say that he wants to go back to school and get his Master's degree. Suddenly she doesn't want to be married to him anymore. Now, maybe she hasn't been happy for a long time. Maybe they shouldn't have gotten married in the first place. But the movie makes her look like a total bitch. She wants out of the marriage just because her husband wants to go back to college? Oh, and the scene where she prays is terribly hammy. Praying in movies is never done well, and it really made me cringe in this movie.

She tells her friend (Viola Davis) that she longs to travel. She has a box she keeps under her bed, and in the box she keeps travel brochures of all the places she wants to visit. Sounds nice, except 6 months ago she was in freaking Bali! Most of us have never been to Bali. She gets to travel for her job, yet she is complaining like someone who works for minimum wage and has never left the continental US.

She starts seeing a young actor (James Franco), and she isn't happy with him either. The movie doesn't give us any insight into what the problems are. We don't really see them having an honest conversation about their relationship. She just decides that in order to be happy and get balance in her life, she needs to travel the world. Her plan is 4 months in Italy, 4 months in India, and 4 months in Bali.

We also see her telling her friend about how she has been in and out of relationships since she was a teenager. She has never had time to discover herself. How about take some time off from dating? It's not that hard. Someone asks you out, you say no. Just be single for a while.

There is no discussion about how she is going to pay for her trip. She gets divorced and we get the impression that her husband is getting at least half of everything she owned (she was the bread winner of that family). So how in the world can she afford to not work for a year and travel the world? This should have been addressed, but this is one of those movies made by rich people who can't comprehend an existence where you don't always have enough money for everything. It reminds me of that Jennifer Lopez movie where she works as a dog walker and lives in a million dollar condo.

She goes to Rome and moves into a place run by a fussy little Italian lady. There is a funny sequence where she shows Liz how to heat the water on the stove and pour the water into the bath tub. With less than an inch of water, Liz says "There isn't enough water." The woman responds "Everything that is important gets clean." Funny, but they never reference that again in the movie. I wondered if Liz ever figured out how to fill the tub properly. Every night she is going home and not able to take a real bath?

There isn't a good sense of time in the movie. I thought we were on her first or second day in Rome when she revealed she had been there two weeks. She suddenly discovers how good Italian food is, and she starts eating like she is in heaven. This was shot badly. For one thing, we get numerous close ups of Roberts shoving spaghetti into her huge mouth. I kept having to cover my eyes. Has anyone else noticed that there is something really wrong with her lips? Too much collagen, too many face lifts, something.

She makes friends while she is in Rome. She does this quite easily. You get the impression that she could live the rest of her life in Rome and be happy. At one point she tells her Danish friend that she shouldn't worry about a few extra pounds and she should just eat whatever she wants. Yeah, isn't it nice to hear a skinny actress say that? Of course by the end of her trip she is as skinny as she was at the start. On her last day there, she has an American Thanksgiving dinner with her friends and their family. The movie was boring up to this point, but the dinner just stops the movie dead.

The next segment of the movie finds her in India. She goes to work and live in an ashram. I guess she had enough of the touristy stuff in Italy and now she wants to work on the spiritual stuff. While she is there, she meets a Texan played by Richard Jenkins. Here the movie gets interesting for a bit, because Jenkins is so good. At first he only speaks to her in bumper sticker lingo, and he refers to Liz as Groceries (because he notices how much she likes to eat).

There is a scene where he tells Liz about his past and why he is there. This is probably the best performance I have seen Jenkins give, and after The Visitor, that is saying something.

Then she goes to Bali to study with that palm reader she met at the beginning. Here, she meets a Brazilian played by Javier Bardem. The scene where his son leaves to go back to college is maybe the best thing I have seen Bardem do.

Overall, the movie bored me to tears. There was at most 45 minutes of interesting story, good acting, and characters I cared about (mostly thanks to Jenkins and Bardem). The problem is the movie is 133 minutes.

The Expendables - 2 stars

What a missed opportunity. When Sylvester Stallone announced he was doing another Rocky movie several years ago, everybody groaned. Rocky V was bad enough, we don't need another one. I figured he hadn't had a box office hit in so long (anyone remember Driven or Get Carter), he was desperate to get out of movie jail. Thankfully he delivered Rocky Balboa, the best Rocky movie since the first one (maybe not as much fun as Rocky IV, but still).

Then he said he was doing another Rambo movie. Ok Sly, don't get carried away. Well, Rambo ended up being really good too. One reason I liked it was he wasn't afraid to do a hard R-rated violent action movie. Hollywood doesn't seem to make as many adult oriented action movies anymore. Everything is PG-13 (shame on you, Die Hard franchise). So to see Rambo shooting the evil Burmese army to fleshy pieces was very liberating.

Then he announces The Expendables. I'm pretty sure I remember hearing he was going to assemble a great cast of action favorites from the 80s. Well, the movie is kind of a throwback to 80s Cannon films, but the cast? Let's take a look.

First, the Expendables are a mercenary team. Since they are the good guys, they only take jobs where they kill bad guys. So, mercenaries with a heart of gold. They are played by:

Stallone - obviously. The goatee reminds me a little of Get Carter, which just makes me remember how much better the Michael Caine original was.

Dolph Lundgren - good choice. This is what I was hoping for. Nice to see Lundgren get a high profile movie again. It's been a while since Masters of the Universe or Universal Soldier.

Jet Li - wait, what? I like Jet Li, but he doesn't remind me of 80s action movies. I never heard of him until Lethal Weapon 4 (1998). So I guess Stallone is going for action heroes of yesterday and today or something.

Jason Statham - I don't like Statham, but I must be in the minority, because people keep going to see Transporter and Crank movies.

Randy Couture - who?

Terry Crews - again, who?

Not as impressed by the cast as I thought I'd be. Mickey Rourke is also in the movie, but he isn't one of The Expendables. Apparently he used to be. Now he just hangs around his garage/bar/tattoo parlor and paints guitars while he gently weeps.

The bad guys are Eric Roberts and Steve Austin. Roberts is appropriately hammy and Austin is huge and seems like he would survive a shotgun blast to the chest. And as for the Bruce Willis / Arnold Schwarzenegger cameo? It shouldn't have been in the trailer. It would have been a nice little surprise. But Schwarzenegger is in the movie for like 2 minutes. Willis for 3 minutes. And the scene is pretty pointless. Willis is the guy who hires them for a job. Schwarzenegger is a rival mercenary who also wants the job. But as soon as he shows up, he says "I'm too busy anyway. Give this job to my friend here." Then why did you show up in the first place? Just so the crowd would say "ooh, it's Arnold!" Although that does make me look forward to the day when Arnold quits politics and goes back to making movies.

The problem with such a big ensemble is there are too many characters to get to know. Stallone gets plenty of screen time but we learn nothing about his back story, except he and Rourke fought lots of battles together back in the good old days. Statham is the only one given any kind of side story. He has a girlfriend who has left him for another guy. There are two scenes about this side plot, and they stop the movie cold. I didn't care at all. Just get back to the main story.

The movie opens with The Expendables going to rescue hostages from Somali pirates. Which isn't that exciting. Right before the shooting starts, Statham's cell phone goes off (this is in the trailer). It's supposed to be funny, but it's just awkward. They kill the pirates and rescue the hostages, with Lundgren using a gun so big that it rips them in half. Then Lundgren decides that for fun, he is going to hang one of the pirates. This is where Stallone and crew draw the line. Blowing them to pieces is ok, but hanging them is going too far. I guess it's because they are disarmed and maybe it's against their code to kill an unarmed enemy, but this causes them to fire Lundgren from the team. I wonder if Lundgren will show up later as their enemy?

Then there is a half hour of nothing. Just scenes of them saying badly written dialogue. I was really getting bored. This isn't what Stallone promised us. This is no fun.

Finally we get some action again. The big job is to go to an island nation somewhere in Latin America and kill the evil dictator there. Stallone and Statham go to check it out. There, they meet the required lady in distress. She is their contact, and they will have to leave in a hurry, leaving her behind. The scene where they get away is pretty freaking awesome. They have this plane, see, and it has guns in the front, and drops gasoline from the rear, and ...

Stallone and Statham decide the job is too dangerous and they aren't going to take it. But Sly can't stop thinking about that woman they left behind, and he decides he needs to go rescue her. And this leads to the type of scene I hate. Sly is going back, but he's going back by himself because it's too dangerous to involve the others. So what does he do? That's right, he goes and tells them. "Guys, I'm going back, but I'm going alone." My response would be "Then why are you here? Why haven't you gone yet?" But of course this is just so the guys can say we're going with you.

The final 20 minutes of the movie have some very cool action. It is almost worth the price of admission. Terry Crews has a very cool (and loud) gun, and there is a great sequence of him shooting soldiers in this hallway, and we see it from a distance. That was a cool bit.

The music is way over dramatic throughout the movie. There is a part where they are planting charges all over the general's palace. The entire time, the music is swelling and the audience I saw it with started to chuckle. It went on too long.

Overall, the movie is a disappointment. The escape with the plane and the final battle are the only cool things in the movie. The rest is pretty boring.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - 3 1/2 stars

This movie is from Edgar Wright, and if you've seen Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, or Hot Fuzz, you have some idea what to expect. The movie is full of pop culture references.

The movie is basically set up like a video game. The hero, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) likes this girl. In order to date her, he will have to defeat her 7 evil exes. Kind of like a video game where you have to defeat a boss at the end of each level.

The rules of physics do not apply in this movie. Each time he fights an evil ex, suddenly everyone can fly and has powers. The funniest part is when he defeats an enemy, they vanish and leave coins behind.

Some random things I liked in the movie:

The Universal logo in 8-bit Nintendo graphics and sound.
Brandon Routh's vegan powers, how he loses them, and what happens then (the Vegan Police!).
When Routh punches a girl, he punches the highlights out of her hair.
Everything Kieran Culkin says.
The Seinfeld bit.
Alison Pill (the drummer of Pilgrim's band, and one of his exes).

My only complaint about the movie is it's too long. I was ready for it to be over with about 20 minutes to go. They did a good job of making each battle with an ex different, but by the time he got to the final one, I was about done.

Holy Rollers - 3 stars

Jesse Eisenberg plays a youth from an Orthodox Jewish community. He is very devout in his faith, set to marry a pretty local girl (a marriage arranged by their fathers), and he hopes to be a Rabbi one day. His family doesn't have much money (their stove only works half the time), and he is helping the family by working with his father.

One day his friend offers him a job carrying medicine. He flies into New York with the medicine, and he is told it will help people. His friend says if customs or police start asking questions, "just act Jewish." I guess the police never think to suspect people in Hasidic Jewish attire of smuggling.

It turns out what he is carrying is not medicine but Ecstasy. As religious as he is, this doesn't seem to bother him too much, and he keeps doing it. He even starts recruiting other Jewish people to carry the drugs for them, with the explanation that they are carrying medicine that will help people.

The movie doesn't focus too much on the dangerous side of the drug trade. The drama in the movie comes from Eisenberg's relationship with his father. His father figures out pretty early that he is up to no good, and the journey he goes through by the end of the movie is pretty heartbreaking.

It isn't a great movie, but it is enjoyable. Eisenberg is a good actor and he carries the movie easily.