Friday, April 15, 2011

Scream 4 - 3 stars

I was very apprehensive going into this movie. I really enjoyed Scream 1 and 2, was disappointed by Scream 3, and I was afraid this one would suck. Usually when a franchise is revisited after many years (like, I don't know, Crystal Skull maybe), it is just a cash grab and it doesn't live up to the previous entries in the series.

Luckily this one doesn't suck.

Kevin Williamson wrote the first 2 Screams, and when it came time to do the third one, he was busy writing Dawson's Creek. So the producers got Ehren Kruger, one of the hot new writers at the time, to write the third one. I don't know if he was working from a story outline from Williamson or if the movie was entirely his invention, but it wasn't very good. The 4th movie was written by Williamson, and while it isn't as good as the first movie, it is definitely better than the third. I will have to re-watch the second movie to determine how this one compares.

When the first Scream came out, cell phones were pretty new. Well, at least the idea of anyone owning a cell phone was new. By the second movie, everyone had one. This time, they have incorporated facebook, iPhone apps, and live web blogs into the mix. One character is always walking around with a webcam on his head, filming for his video blog. There are also references to the horror movies that have come out in the decade since Scream 3, like the Saw franchise.

I will admit I was a little disappointed that the movie didn't do more with this stuff. They reference that today's audiences want more gruesome kills, but the kills aren't any more gruesome than what I remember from the previous 3 movies. They use web cams and streaming devices a little bit, but nothing is as cool as the sequence in the first movie where Gail plants the camera in Stu's house during the party ("Shit! 20 second delay!").

Part of the plots of Scream 2 and 3 involved Stab, the movie of the events that took place in the first Scream movie. Gail Weathers (Courtney Cox) wrote The Woodsboro Murders after the events of the first film, that was made into the movie Stab, and by Scream 3 they were making the third Stab film. Well, in Scream 4 they have made more than 4 Stab movies and at this point, the events of the first film are so unremarkable that people have iPhone apps to make their voice sound like Ghost Face.

If you aren't a fan of the previous Scream films, I don't know how much you will enjoy this one. You don't have to see (or remember well) each previous installment. The plots are simple enough that you won't really be in the dark if you didn't see Scream 3, for example. But part of the fun is revisiting characters that you like (Sidney, Dewey, and Gail) and seeing what new, clever ways Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson can come up with to torment the characters. Overall this movie succeeds.

Win Win - 3 1/2 stars

Paul Giamatti stars as a small town lawyer named Mike Flaherty. His practice is not going so well, and he is having trouble providing for his family. He has a wife (Amy Ryan) and two young girls. On the side, he is a wrestling coach for the local high school. His assistant coach is played by the great Jeffrey Tambor, who does 'sour' and 'bad mood' better than anybody.

One day, he discovers a dishonest way to make some extra money for his family. He represents an old man named Leo Poplar (Burt Young) who is slipping into dimentia. Leo doesn't want to be put into a home, but he can't take care of himself anymore. Mike decides he can declare himself Leo's guardian, make an extra $1,500 a month, and put Leo in a home anyway. He won't be caught because no one can locate any of Leo's family.

Soon enough, Leo's grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer) turns up. He needs a place to stay, so Mike lets him live with his family. Lucky for Mike, Kyle just happens to be a great wrestler. This is good because Mike's team sucks. So he gets Kyle to come join the team.

Neither the wrestling nor the stolen money are what drives the story. There are some wrestling scenes, but not enough to make this a wrestling movie. The money he gets from Leo does come up later in the movie, but it doesn't ruin his life. The movie isn't about those things. It's about these characters and how they relate to each other.

Eventually Kyle's junkie mother turns up and things get complicated. But all the characters behave the way real people do. This is not as good a movie as Thomas McCarthy's last (The Visitor), but it is a worthy follow up. This is one of the best movies so far of 2011. Basically, the filmmakers did everything right and nothing wrong.

The Conspirator - 1 1/2 stars

Did you know that the night Abraham Lincoln was killed, there were other assassins out to kill other members of the government? One victim who survived was William H. Seward, the guy who purchased Alaska from the Russians.

Did you know that the conspirators met and planned at Mary Surratt's boarding house? And after the assassination, she was arrested and tried before a military tribunal? This is interesting stuff that one could make a good historical drama about. Unfortunatly, this isn't it. This is a really boring courtroom drama that looks as though it was shot for a History Channel reenactment.

The star of the movie is Fredrick Aiken (James McAvoy), a former Union soldier ready to have a career in the legal profession. After Lincoln is assassinated and Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) is arrested, he is assigned the job of defending her. The problem is, he believes she is guilty and has no desire to defend her. He seems to think that she is not entitled to a defense, which is not a good mindset for a defense attorney to adopt.

I quickly got tired of Aiken's attitute. In the scenes where he is talking to his client, he all but tells her that he thinks she is guilty, and barely asks any questions. He acts sulky. That's how I would put it.

The movie's goal seems to be to point out the parallels between this event and 9/11. The nation has just suffered a great tragedy, and someone must pay the price. It doesn't much matter whether she is really guilty or not. Her sentencing will help satisfy the country's rage. It seems to me that when you have a lynch mob, you should try to calm them down with rational discourse. Instead, the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) wants to satisfy their blood lust.

The movie is not about whether she is guilty or innocent. Instead the focus is on the fact that she, a civilian, was tried before a military tribunal with no jury of her peers, a right which is guaranteed in the Constitution. This is an injustice which should be looked at, as should the parallels to the Patriot Act and other things post 9/11. But the movie kind of rams these ideas down our throats. I would be more forgiving if the movie were better, but the biggest problem was that it was boring.

Soul Surfer - 2 stars

Soul Surfer is about Bethany Hamilton, the 13 year old Hawaiian surfer whose arm was bitten off by a shark. Specifically, the movie is about how her faith and her family help her to overcome losing her arm and become a champion surfer.

This is one of those movies where a documentary would have been so much better. This is an inspirational story, but the movie handles it so badly. It is so earnest and sentimental that I felt like I was watching an after school special or something. The filmmakers are trying so hard to appeal to a Christian audience that they don't take any risks, and the movie is rather boring.

The movie starts out introducing us to Bethany, her family, and her friends. They live a life of privilege, spending their days surfing and their nights either in their nice Hawaiian home, or at church youth group meetings. We never get an explanation as to why her parents don't have to work. I think her parents are professional surfers, but we never see what that involves. How much money does a professional surfer make anyway?

When the attack comes, it is a huge letdown. She is on a surfboard, and the camera is below the water, giving us the shark's POV. This lasts for a few seconds, then before any tension is developed, the shark pops out of the water, bites off her arm, and disappears. The whole thing lasts about 5 seconds. Now I wasn't going in expecting Jaws, but at the same time, the shark attack should be a big moment in the movie.

They rush her to the hospital, and at first she seems to be in good spirits. She doesn't let having only one arm get her down too much. I don't know if she was this cheerful in real life, but it seems a bit phony. Getting used to having one arm would be a huge adjustment, and I would expect her to be much more upset and depressed. If she was this resilient in real life, good for her.

Quickly she decides to get back in the water (at no time does anyone worry about more shark attacks - Larry Vaughn must be the mayor), but she soon gets discouraged and quits. This starts the sequence in the movie where she feels bad for herself and gets depressed. But quickly she snaps out of it, gets back on the board, and starts to win competitions.

The two best parts of the movie are near the end. The first is when she goes with her church group to Thailand after the tsunami. Here she realizes how lucky she is to have a nice home, clean water, food, money, all that stuff. The second is during the credits when they show actual footage of the real Bethany. This reminded me how much I would rather watch a documentary about her.

Hanna - 3 stars

Hanna is about a girl (Saoirse Ronan) who has been raised by her father Erik Heller (Eric Bana) in a cabin in the woods of Finland. She has never met another person besides her father, but he has prepared her well for survival. She knows several languages, she can defend herself and kill with ease, and he has even given her a back story in case she is ever questioned.

Her father was some kind of CIA agent who disappeared, and as the movie progresses we find out why. For some reason that I didn't feel was fully explained, Erik gives Hanna the choice of activating a homing beacon. Once activated, another agent named Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett) will come after her and try to kill her. Even by the end of the movie, I wasn't quite sure why he would want Marissa to come after Hanna. If he wanted Marissa dead, I would think there are easier ways to go after her.

His plan seems to be a horrible one. He will leave Hanna alone in the house while assassins come to the cabin (following the homing beacon). He will be long gone, but Hanna will be captured. She will escape and the two will meet up again in Berlin at a really cool looking Grimm's fairy tale house. If the whole plan was to kill Marissa for what she did to Hanna's mother, I would think he could come up with a better way to do it. This plan requires a lot of killing and the constant threat to both of them of being re-captured or killed.

One interesting thing is how many people Hanna and her father kill. She has been trained since birth to be an assassin, so she has no problem killing. But luckily somehow she is not a psychopath. When she meets another girl her age, she becomes friends with the girl and her family.

But any agent who gets in her way (or Erik's way) is quickly killed. In movies like this, you have to assume that all the CIA agents are bad guys. But I couldn't help thinking that most of them were under the assumption that they were after some rogue agent, and their orders were justified. There is even a sequence where Erik kills a couple of cops who happen upon him when he swims ashore in Germany. As far as I can tell, they just happened to be there. It's hard to sympathize with the protagonist when he is killing cops.

Besides that, this was a really cool movie. There were some good fight scenes, and it was well choreographed. Not like most action movies that are so over edited, you can't tell what's going on. In this movie, I always had a clear sense of geography. There were some clever and fun sequences with inventive camera moves. Particularly good was the scene where Erik overpowers a bunch of guys in a train station. The entire scene seemed to play out in one long tracking shot.

The only problem with the movie is the marketing. The trailers are showing all the action scenes, and audiences are going to be surprised by how slowly this movie moves. Instead of wall to wall action, there are a lot of quiet scenes of Hanna walking, or hiding, or experiencing the outside world for the first time. The movie does move slowly in places, but I was never bored.

Rio 3D - 2 1/2 stars

I went in with low expectations, and I was still disappointed. The songs are flat and lifeless. Not that the songs are the most important part of the movie, but if you are an animated movie and you are going to have musical numbers, especially if the opening credits are set to a big musical number, your songs better not suck.

Jesse Eisenberg voices Blu, a rare baby macaw who can't fly. He is captured by smugglers, put in a truck, and driven to North America. The box he is in falls off the truck somewhere in Minnesota, and a nice brainy girl (short hair and glasses) adopts him.

Cut to 15 years later. The nice girl, whose name is Linda (Leslie Mann) runs a book store (of course) and the two are best of friends. He gives her the fist bump when she offers it, and they even brush their teeth together. So adorable.

One day a scientist from Brazil shows up. Apparently Blu is the last male of his species, and luckily the scientist has a female. He would like to take Blu do Brazil so they can repopulate the species. At this point, the movie gets sad for a minute. I assume he wants her to give Blu to him, and she would remain behind, because she is conflicted about whether to give in to his request. But then suddenly she is in Brazil with Blu and the scientist. So apparently he was offering to bring her as well, which means basically a free vacation to Brazil. Why did she even have to think about this? Of course the movie doesn't mention this. Did he pay for her plane ticket and hotel?

Anyway, Jesse Eisenberg does a good job of acting like Jesse Eisenberg, meaning he is always awkward and uncomfortable, especially when he meets the female macaw, Jewel (Anne Hathaway). He is ready to make with the sexy time, but she just wants to escape from her cage. She doesn't want to be anyone's pet. Blu can't understand this, because he likes being Linda's pet.

Before they can escape, they are stolen from the lab by smugglers and chained together. They soon escape, but because Blu can't fly, Jewel can't fly either. They want to get away from each other, but first they have to find a way to break free of the chain.

It's no big surprise that they eventually fall for each other. One problem is this isn't set up very well. At no point before meeting Jewel did Blu express any interest in finding a mate. I think it would make the audience root for them to get together a little more if they had any idea that Blu actually did want to hook up with Jewel.

There was a scene where Blu and Jewel are riding together on a cart, and the animals around them start making music to try and set the mood, hoping that they will kiss. During this scene, all I could think of was how much better the music was in The Little Mermaid, since they were ripping off the 'Kiss the Girl' sequence.

I won't complain about the fact that none of the animal's voices are South American. But I will complain about how many celebrities lend their voices to this movie. I complain about this a lot, I know, but I am tired of seeing the poster, trailer, or opening credits and seeing a list of high profile actors. There was a time when the voice actors were not mentioned above the title, because they weren't celebrities. They were talented voice actors. Now, all through the movie I keep trying to figure out who is doing what voice. It gets distracting. I don't think the movie would be any less successful if less famous actors voiced the parts. Kids don't go to animated movies based on who does the voices. However, I will say I enjoyed Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords. His musical number was the only one I mildly enjoyed.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Your Highness - 1 star

I think the pitch for this movie went something like this: Remember Krull and Beastmaster? Wouldn't it be funny to make a movie like that, except have Danny McBride star as the lead character? All the other characters would do a British accent except for McBride. And he could act like every other character he ever plays, meaning he swears a lot and is always horny. Oh, and we should throw in a lot of stoner humor, cause that's funny. And we could also have the characters drop the f-bomb a lot. That's funny too.

The biggest problem with this movie is it's a spoof of movies like Beastmaster, but they filmmakers don't know how to do that correctly. In a good spoof, you first have to have a solid story with good characters to root for. For more on that subject, please to be reading this explanation by David Zucker on why Airplane! worked better than Top Secret! They had a decent premise to work with.

Prince Fabious (James Franco) is the dashing hero, and his brother, Prince Thadeous (Danny McBride) is his disappointing brother. There is an evil wizard named Leezer (Justin Theroux) who has kidnapped Fabious's fiance Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), and the princes go on a quest to rescue her.

The biggest problem is the characters are not written well. We hate Thadeous because he is a selfish dick, and his transformation into a hero is not believable. Also, the elements of the quest are not interesting. They just go from one set piece to another. One sequence has them captured by beautiful topless barbarian women, then thrown into a thunderdome where they have to fight a warrior, then a monster. Another sequence they are in a labyrinth where they have to fight a minotaur (of course).

The filmmakers think that pot references are hilarious. Once in a while they made me chuckle, but no more than that. You actually have to do something interesting besides just referencing pot to be funny. And having a character randomly add the word motherf***er to a statement is not funny.

An hour into the movie, Natalie Portman shows up. She is the most competent warrior of the bunch, yet she inexplicably falls for Thadeous. That is the least believable element in the entire movie. The biggest problem with the movie is it isn't funny enough. I checked my watch every 10 minutes.