Friday, March 30, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen - 3 1/2 stars

There is a rich oil sheikh who has a castle in Scotland. His favorite pasttime is fly fishing. He decides he would like to bring Salmon fishing to the Middle East, so he asks his financial consultant, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) to make it happen. She contacts Britain's leading fishing expert Fred Jones (Ewan McGregor) to help. He tells her she's crazy. Salmon need cold water; the water in Yemen is warm. Salmon need fresh water; the water in Yemen is too salty.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's press secretary, Bridget Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) is looking for a good story. All the news stories coming out of the Middle East are about the wars and soldiers getting killed, so she needs an uplifting story about the region. When she catches wind of the sheikh's idea for fishing in Yemen, she contacts Jones and orders him to make it happen.

This is a wonderful movie. The characters are well developed and they have interesting things to say. Jones is married but not happy. He also might have Asperger's syndrome (the character mentions it, but it seemed like he was joking). Ms. Chetwode-Talbot (as Jones refers to her over and over) is dating a soldier fighting in Afghanistan.

The best character, who also doesn't get enough screen time, is Maxwell. If you saw In The Loop, she may remind you of Malcolm Tucker. She thinks everyone else is an idiot, and has no problem chewing them out in front of other people. I would like to see an entire movie focused on her and her interactions with other government workers.

The movie is more drama than comedy, but there are a lot of funny parts. The humor comes from the characters rather than being lame setups and jokes. The movie does drag in a few spots and the tone goes from serious to light and funny a few too many times, but that is a very minor complaint. I enjoyed this movie from beginning to end. It just works.

Wrath of the Titans - 2 stars

In this sequel to Clash of the Titans (2010), Sam Worthington once again stars as Perseus, half man and half god. It's been 10 years since the events of the first film, and Perseus just wants to live a normal human life, raise his son, and fish.

One day Zeus (Liam Neeson) shows up and tells him that some kind of a war between the gods is coming. He asks Perseus to help him, and Perseus refuses. When Zeus travels to the underworld to meet with Hades (Ralph Fiennes), he is captured by Hades, who wants to steal Zeus's powers and give them to their father, Kronos. Once Kronos has enough power, he will be able to leave the underworld and destroy humanity.

When Perseus finds out about this, he decides he needs to save Zeus and stop Kronos. So he begins a quest to find a powerful weapon of the gods (so he can kill Kronos) and rescue Zeus.

This sounds like a decent setup for an action / fantasy movie. The problem is the characters are completely forgettable. For one thing, Sam Worthington is a very bland and boring actor. Either he is fighting, or he is standing around moping. He isn't given anything interesting to do in this movie. Another problem is the hectic camera style. When Perseus and Ares, the god of war, are fighting, the camera work is so jumbled that I couldn't tell which way was up. They are fighting and rolling around, and the camera is moving more than the characters. This is one of my big complaints in action movies like this. How about holding the camera still so we can actually see what is happening on screen?

At one point, the characters have to enter this giant labyrinth in order to enter the underworld. The labyrinth looks really cool and imposing. The labyrinth's designer says there are 100 doors that lead to death. Only one way will get them through. Well, it only takes them about 5 minutes to find their way through. One room almost crushes them, Perseus fights a minotaur, then it's over. That was disappointing.

I think this movie is about as bad as the first Clash of the Titans. If you do go see it, don't pay the extra for 3-D. It adds nothing.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mirror Mirror - 2 1/2 stars

In the first live action Snow White movie of the year (Snow White and the Huntsman will be released in June) stars Julia Roberts as the wicked queen. It's been a long time since I have seen Disney's Snow White (and I've never read the original fairy tale), but they take some liberties with this version.

Snow White's father, the king, vanished many years ago. The wicked queen took over as the ruling monarch of the country (Snow's real mother died in childbirth). She has been raising Snow White by keeping her locked up in the castle. She has also been spending the country's money on lavish parties while over taxing the people. This is told in a prologue acted out by puppets. This didn't work for me. The puppets were ridiculous.

One day, Prince Andrew Alcott (Armie Hammer) wanders into the country. He meets the 7 dwarfs in the forest where they rob him and tie him up. Snow White comes along and cuts him down. They go their separate ways and the prince ends up at the castle. The wicked queen sees him and wants to marry him, not only for his looks but because his country is very wealthy.

For the first half hour or so, I was bored. Except for a few funny bits from Nathan Lane (playing the queen's servant), I thought the movie was horrible. Then it started to turn funny. At times it seemed to almost be a parody of the Snow White story.

When it's funny, it works. I laughed quite a bit. But too often it would start to drag. And I hated the beauty treatment the queen indulges in before a party. It involves bird droppings, bees, maggots, and a scorpion. It really was disgusting, and I didn't think it belonged in the movie. There was also a training montage where the dwarfs are teaching Snow White to fight with a sword.

The funniest part of the movie was when the queen's servant announced to the servants that Snow White has been killed: "Snow White lived, she died, God rest her soul. There will be a buffet at 2."

In Darkness - 3 stars

In Darkness is a Polish movie set in Nazi-occupied Poland. It's about a sewer worker named Leopold Socha. With all the Jewish people kicked out of their homes and living in the ghetto, Leopold and his friend go into the empty homes and steal everything they can get their hands on. One day, Leopold runs across a group of Jews hiding in the sewers. Rather than turn them in, he agrees to hide them in return for payment.

Is it fair to compare every movie about the Holocaust to Schindler's List? Probably not, but it's hard not to. In this case, we have a man who is not Jewish saving a group of Jews. And at one point, he does make a list. He can only hide and feed a limited number, so he asks them to pick 10 people to be saved (they talk him up to 12, since Jesus had 12 apostles).

Socha has a wife and a young daughter. He doesn't tell his wife about the Jews for a long time, and when she does find out, she is less than supportive. Not because she doesn't like them - earlier in the movie she says that Jews are just like them - but because she is afraid of what will happen to her family. Socha is risking their lives by hiding the Jews.

Like all movies about the Holocaust, there are the requisite number of scenes showing the brutality of the Nazis. At one point, a young Nazi soldier is killed. To retaliate, the Nazis hang 20 random Polocks from the town.

As I said, it may not be fair to compare this to Schindler's List. It's not as good, and the end does not pack the emotional punch that it feels like it should. It also does not really show us much we haven't seen before. But the movie is effective. We feel the claustrophobia they must have felt while being stuck in the sewers. We feel the terror when a Nazi says to Socha "There may be Jews hiding in the sewers. Let's go take a look."

Considering the horror and scale of the Holocaust, there is no end to the number of true stories that can be told about it. This is another one, and it is worth seeing.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Hunger Games - 2 1/2 stars

The Hunger Games is based on a very successful young adult book series by Suzanne Collins. Lionsgate is really hoping this will be as big as Twilight or Harry Potter, and based on advance ticket sales, it probably will be. The studio is already talking about splitting the last book into 2 movies.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Catnip, er, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss lives with her mom and sister in District 12, which looks like the same location they filmed Winter's Bone in - a poor area of the Ozarks. This is in the distant future, after some kind of war has destroyed the US and a new nation called Panem has been established. The 12 districts once rose up in rebellion against Panem, and they were defeated. As punishment, every year each district has to send a boy and a girl, between the ages of 12 - 18, to compete in the Hunger Games, which is a fight to the death and only one can win.

The contestants, or 'tributes', are selected at random during a lottery called the reaping. When Katniss's younger sister's name is called, Katniss volunteers to be taken in her place.

The Hunger Games are not just punishment for the districts. It is the most successful reality show in the country (possibly the only one). It seems like everyone in the country watches it non-stop, and the tributes hunt each other in a forest-like arena with cameras hidden in every tree.

If this sounds familiar, that's because it is. Just off the top of my head, I think of The Running Man, The Long Walk, Battle Royale, and The Most Dangerous Game. Nothing wrong with recycling that story idea (just think of how many fantasy stories use The Hero's Journey), but they don't really do anything new or interesting with it.

The first half of the movie was not bad. They introduce a good character in Katniss Everdeen. It's refreshing to see a young female heroine who doesn't need to be rescued and is not sexualized. In fact, she is the one who usually does the rescuing. When the movie starts, we see her sneaking out of her district to hunt for deer. This establishes a few things. She's a hunter who knows how to use a bow, she is daring and resourceful, and her district is very poor. The fact that there is an electric fence to keep residents in shows that theirs is not a free society. I'm not sure the movie explains how she is able to get through the fence without being shocked, but oh well.

When her sister is picked as a tribute, Katniss volunteers to go in her place. This seems to surprise everyone, which makes us think that this has never happened. That's hard to believe. You would think that if a 12 year old is picked, their older brother or sister (if they have one) would volunteer to take the place of the younger sibling. You wouldn't want to watch your younger brother or sister be killed by an 18 year old.

Anyway, what follows is an hour or so of setup. Katniss meets Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). He won the games some years earlier, and he is going to serve as a mentor to Katniss and Peeta (the boy selected from the same district). They travel by train to the capital city, and it couldn't be more different from their district. Everything is futuristic, the people are happy and well fed, and everyone wears crazy bright colors and ridiculous hair styles. Even the beards are strange, especially the game master Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley).

Katniss observes this like she has landed in another planet. We see everything through her eyes, and it made me wish we got more insight into what the character is thinking. She and Peeta have very superficial conversations. I would think this would be earth shattering for them. They have lived their entire lives in abject poverty, and now they are celebrities in this futuristic city.

They meet the other 22 contestants, and here is another problem with the movie - we don't get to know any of them. It would be really interesting if they became friends, knowing they would be expected to try and kill each other in a few days time. But I think only a few other contestants even get any lines in the movie. By the time the game starts, the only characters we know are Katniss and Peeta.

Once the games begin, the movie starts to have real pacing problems. I started to get bored real fast. There should have been some interesting kills, but except for a sequence involving a hornet's nest, they were pretty disappointing. And since the movie was destined to be PG-13 from the beginning, the violence is muted and mostly off screen. The most violent sequence is at the start of the games, when most of the contestants make a mad dash to a pile of weapons. But this sequence is edited in such a jerky fashion that we don't know who is killing who - not that it would matter anyway, since we don't know any of their names.

It seems like there is a fundamental flaw with this game. The contestants know that they are expected to fight to the death, and only one can win. But what if some of them choose not to fight? What if the last two tributes are on the defense? The best strategy would be to find someplace to hide and wait. You could easily end up with several players hiding and waiting.

Before the games started, the tributes were trying to get sponsors - people watching the game that could send them help while the game is in progress. But it seems like everyone is betting on the games, so wouldn't everyone who is betting send supplies to the tribute they are betting on?

As the game progresses, the game master changes the rules. When Katniss gets too close to the edge, he causes a firestorm to force her back to the middle. But he basically sends her straight to a group of tributes who have banded together, almost ensuring she will be killed. It seems like the game master shouldn't be playing favorites. If he can, then why not do that all the time?

Another stupid thing that happens is when they make the big CGI creatures appear. The creatures chase the last few tributes and all I could think is what happens if the creatures kill all the remaining tributes? The game master is hoping that one will outrun the creatures, but that seems like a big gamble.

Overall, the movie is not bad. It's just disappointing. In order to do this right, the movie should have been rated R. But the studio would never allow that since the movie's target demographic is teen girls. Which is also interesting - when Battle Royale came out years ago, it was controversial because the story is kids killing kids. But for some reason the Hunger Games books are just fine for teens, and so if the movie. Would it really make a difference if we saw more blood? Is that what determines whether its ok for a 13 year old or a 17 year old?

21 Jump Street - 3 1/2 stars

Finally. After a couple of months of disappointing crap (The Vow, Joyful Noise), here is a really funny movie. Morton (Jonah Hill) and Greg (Channing Tatum) didn't get along in high school. Morton was a nerd with braces who couldn't talk to girls. Greg was a popular jock. They run into each other a few years after high school when both guys are in the police academy.

Morton is struggling with the physical tests and Greg is struggling with the academic tests, so they decide to help each other out. After they graduate, they are assigned to patrol a park. This isn't what either of them were expecting. One day they come across a gang of bikers smoking pot. They decide to arrest them, and let's just say that it doesn't go well. When they finally get one handcuffed on the ground, what they do to celebrate is just wonderful, dumb, and hilarious.

They get assigned to a special division. They are assigned to go back to high school undercover as students in order to break up a drug ring. Because Greg can't remember which fake identity is his and which is Morton's, they end up getting their schedules switched. This means Morton is in drama and track, and Greg is in AP Chemistry. This bit could have been eliminated as it was the least funny thing about the movie.

But there are still plenty of laughs. They are trying to find out who is supplying some new synthetic drug, and one of the funniest bits is where they find out what the drug does to you. There are several stages you go through, and they are all acted out brilliantly by Johnny Simmons in a very minor role. It's no surprise that Morton and Greg will eventually try the drug and go through the exact same stages.

Jonah Hill is funny as he usually is, and Channing Tatum has never been better (except maybe in The Dilemma). Ellie Kemper from The Office is given nothing much to do as one of the teachers, but Ice Cube is hilarious as the stereotypical police captain who is always pissed off and can't say anything without yelling.

This movie was a lot of fun.

Silent House - 1 1/2 stars

Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) is staying at a lakeside house with her father and uncle Peter. They are fixing the house up to sell it. While she is inside, Sarah starts hearing strange noises. The windows are all boarded up, so even though it's the middle of the day, the house is dark.

At some point, her uncle will leave and her dad will disappear, so she will be in the house alone. A lot of time is spent following her as she looks around calling out "Dad?" or "Uncle Peter?" Every now and then, something goes boom real loud, or we see a figure standing in the background.

At first we aren't sure - is this a ghost story, or some kind of home invasion story? There is a point where we think maybe someone has been living in the house while it was abandoned. The movie is one continuous take - at least it looks like it was. That's about the only thing the movie has going for it. It isn't enough for a movie to make us jump every 5 minutes or so. There really isn't much of a story here. I found I was bored 15 minutes in, and I couldn't wait for the movie to end.

When we finally find out what's been going on, there are still unanswered questions. And I don't care enough about the movie to invest any time or effort into trying to figure it out. Just skip this one.

Friday, March 9, 2012

John Carter - 2 1/2 stars

This movie is kind of a mess. Based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs (who also wrote Tarzan), its about a former Civil War captain who enters a cave, is transported to Mars (known by the inhabitants as Barsoom) and gets involved in wars and battles.

I have never read the books, but from the research I have done, it seems as though the filmmakers took a simple fantasy / sci fi adventure and made it as complicated as they could. They give Carter a backstory, and it takes way too long for him to get to Mars. It seemed like 20 - 30 minutes had gone by before he found that cave.

Once there, he finds that he has powers. Thanks to the different gravity, he can jump like 80 feet with ease. He also seems to be really strong, although the movie isn't consistent about that. One moment he is fighting an entire army off, the next he is held in chains.

He meets a tribe of giant green creatures with 4 arms. They don't trust him at first, then they are amazed by his leaping ability. A little later he meets the human looking people of Mars. He falls in love with a princess and gets involved in some kind of plot to force her to marry her bitter enemy.

There are also characters called Therns. They weren't in the first book, they popped up later in the series, but the filmmakers put them into this movie because there just weren't enough characters or something. It just isn't confusing enough - let's add the Therns from book 5!

Anyway, the Therns can shape shift, they seem to be immortal, they have visited other planets, and they are the reason Carter was transported to Mars. They have some kind of plan to kill everyone on Mars, then Earth was their next target, but I may be mixed up on that.

The movie is too confusing. I had a hard time caring about John Carter, the princess, or anyone else in the movie. The reason movies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings work so well is they have well developed characters we care about, and the story isn't that complicated. There may be complicated things going on around them and many other characters involved, but the main plot is pretty simple. Also, casting a better, more charasmatic actor as John Carter may have helped.

Oh, and the movie is over 2 hours long. It should have been about 90 minutes. I think that's it for now.

Project X - 3 stars

This movie is about 3 high school boys who throw a party. Somehow the party grows and grows until houses are destroyed and the SWAT team has to be called in.

Thomas is turning 17, and his parents are going out of town for the weekend. Since he will have the house to himself, his friends Costa and J.B. want to throw him a party. Thomas's parents are rich, the house is huge, and he has a pool. Perfect place for a party. Thomas isn't popular at school, but somehow Costa is able to get the word out to everyone at school.

Before the party, Costa takes his friends to a drug dealer to get some pot. While they are there, for some reason Costa decides to steal a little ceramic gnome from the dealer. Hmm, I wonder if there are drugs in that gnome? I wonder if the drug dealer will turn up late in the movie and want the drugs back?

The movie is filmed in the found footage / POV style we've seen with movies like Paranormal Activity or Chronicle. The movie is supposedly footage filmed by their friend. But the movie doesn't stick to this formula. Sometimes for no reason the movie is filmed like a normal movie. Two characters are having a conversation and the movie cuts back and forth between the two people. When the partygoers are arriving, suddenly the movie cuts to footage filmed outside of the people crossing the street. Why make the movie in this style if the filmmakers are just going to cheat?

There are laughs in this movie, so I am recommending it. I enjoyed the 12-year old security guards that Costa enlists. I also enjoyed the dwarf who is thrown into an over (don't worry, it isn't turned on).