Thursday, August 31, 2006

Summer Movie Olympics, Part 15: Snakes in a Mediocre Indie Comedy

I know, you think the title is lazy, right?

Remember me? I've been busy for most of August, finally writing some screenplay. It's been awesome, but that story is for another post.

I know you've been eagerly awaiting my take on any and all summer movies I've that summer is basically over. I am finally gonna check out "Miami Vice" next week and write up my thoughts on the summer movie season (here's a little preview- it's totally sucked.)

Anyway, here are a few mini reviews, before I get back to work on my ridiculous B-Movie.


I know that the internet hasn't really covered this title very well, and it's especially under-represented within the blog community, so I figured I right that wrong and throw in my two cents.

The entire "Snakes on a Plane" experience has been a fun once since I first heard about the movie concept. It's been fodder for countless jokes for over a year now, and the internet coverage has been fun and entertaining. It's become somewhat of a communal experience overall. Almost two weeks after seeing the movie, I remember the best moments fondly and chuckle to myself. Unfortunately, the worst part of the whole phenomenon was...watching the actual movie.

Sure, it has plenty of moments. And sure, I was plenty drunk. The crowd was loud and getting really into it. But ultimately, once the snakes get onto the plane- it's just too much mayhem. The best snake gags happen in the first few minutes, and the movie kinda blows it's load too early.

I don't regret my year long love affair with "Snakes on a Plane" at all. Ultimately, it disappointed, couldn't live up to everything I'd hoped. But how many things in life truly do?


This quirky indie family comedy drama is completely tedious. Not one of the characters behaved like realistic human beings- in fact, they all behaved like- characters in a quirky indie family comedy drama. This is the sort of movie that came out of Sundance by the dozen during the mid nineties, along with all the lesbians on heroin movies that were so popular back then. I could not ever get into the movie- it was one contrived situation with dishonest human behavior after another. I love Steve Carrell, feel he was robbed at the Emmys this year (though "24"did win- oh fuck yes) but he didn't really have a character written for him to play- nor did the rest of the cast.

Sure, each of them had broad and eccentric problems- Greg Kinnear is trying to become a bigtime motivational speaker, Carrell is a gay professor who tried to off himself, Alan Arkin snorts heroin (seriously, that's how forced the character traits are- an old man on heroin. Hardy fucking har.) The son has taken a vow of silence because of Nieztche. Or because he wants to get in the air force academy. Or something. The young daughter (who is adorable in the movie) wants to be a beauty queen, and the entire movie's plot is a road movie about this oh so charmingly quirky clan driving cross country to get to the titular beauty pageant. Oh yeah, and Toni Collette smokes. That's about all the development the character is allowed. It's a credit to her as an actress that she probably gives the movie's best performance.

I stopped trying to care pretty early in the film- it's just the absolute worst kind of indie movie. Carell's "40 Year Old Virgin," had more laughs, brains, and heart in one scene than in this entire movie. I'd rather take a flight with snakes on it then spend any more time on the road with the insufferably "eccentric" family.


An awesome family movie that's actually scary, I totally dug "Monster House" from beginning to end. The movie looked great in 3D, which added to the eye popping fun. The story is basic but pretty much the greatest kids movie premise ever- the mean old neighbor across the street has a house that isn't just haunted- the house itself is, well, a monster.

This is the kind of kid's movie that they made when I was a kid- mostly because the two lead kids are total losers. Most kids movies today feature perfect looking little aryan clones who are always popular and beautiful- kids can't relate to that. The kind of kids who see Monster House- they'll be able to relate to our fat and nerdy heroes.

It's everything a summer movie should be. It's fast, it's funny, it's exciting, and in the evil house, it has a great, terrifying, and really well designed villain. Too bad Hollywood couldn't pull a few more movies like "Monster House" this summer.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Summer Movie Olympics, Part 14: Fear in the Dark

It's been another long delay between posts- I'm sure many people are on pins and needles waiting for my latest entry.
I went to see "The Descent" last week, and now I'm finally writing about it. Part of the reason I've waited so long is probably because the movie was so traumatizingly scary that I neded a few days break before revisiting it again.

This is simply one of the scariest horror movies I've seen in years. It takes itself dead seriously, not resorting to forced humor or pop culture references that have plauged modern horror films for the last ten years. The movie made me jump out of my seat and yell out in terror a few times. Which may make me a wimp, but I think having that reaction is exactly what makes a horror movie so fun and visceral. If, by the end, the movie is imperfect, I'll forgive the flaws- because it was one of the most effectivley scary movies I've seen in so long.

Horror is one of the most purely cinematic of genres, and "The Descent" is no exception to the rule. The basic story is about a group of women who go on an adventure trip to explore a deep, unmarked cave system and find more than they bargained for. Deep caves are such a scary environment, it's shocking that there haven't been more scary movies set inside them. I don't want to reveal much of what happens, because that would ruin the pleasure in the shocks and scares. The ladies find something they didn't expect, something terrifying, get split up, and begin to fall apart- and, of course, die, one by one. The simple story is well paced and directed, keeping us on the edges of our seat at every moment.

Honestly, that's all I really have to say about the movie. I don't want to ruin it for anyone who hasn't seen it. Is that a cop out? Sure, maybe. It's a damn goood movie, and fans of horror should rejoice at something so scary, atmospheric, and actually intelligent coming out in the genre in this day and age.

"The Descent" is an artfully crafted nightmare that plays on our deepest childhood fears of things that lurk in the dark. See it, but don't say I didn't warn you when you have nightmares about being stuck in a cave with...something awful.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Summer Movie Olympics, Part 13: Here's to Woody

Woody Allen's new movie, "Scoop," is a film that has been widley described as a minor work from a major director. But as minor works go, the movie is pleasant, enjoyable, and even a bit touching. In the end, I liked it a whole lot more than the extremely overrated, stiff and awkward "Match Point," which was hailed as Woody’s “return to form” last winter. I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think a return to form and an inferior reworking of a filmmaker’s previous work (“Crimes and Misdemeanors,”) are the same thing. But I digress- we’re talking about “Scoop.”

Ian McShane plays Joe Strombel, a famous reporter who may have discovered the story of the year- that dashing socialite Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman,) may be “The Tarot Card Killer,” a serial murderer who has been killing London’s prostitutes. The story has everything- sex, scandal, murder, rich socialites with dirty secrets, and Strombel can’t wait to break it to the world. There’s only one problem- Strombel is dead. Being the tenacious reporter he is, he finds the nearest journalist in order to deliver the story from the grave- and he ends of finding college student Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson,) as she is appearing onstage as a volunteer in magician Sid Waterman’s (Woody Allen) act. Sondra begins her own investigation, bringing Sid along to help and pose as her father. The only problem is, she begins to fall for Lyman even as she becomes more and more convinced that he is the murderer.

The story is cute and well told, and the performances are decent all around. Jackman is especially good as the charming and possibly dangerous Lyman, while Johansson is adorable and goofy, recalling Diane Keaton's wonderful work with Woody in the 70's, and it seems as though comedic roles suit her better as an actress. She is looser here than she is in most of her dramatic roles. Woody is, as always, Woody. If you’re not a fan of his screen persona, he’s not going to win you over here. But as a huge fan of his work, I enjoyed his low-key performance as the stuttering and awkward Sid, sweating desperately as he lies his way through the Lyman estate to help Sondra.

The movie moves better than many of Woody’s recent movies (including the woodenly mounted “Match Point,”) and he seems to really be having a good time with this movie. The pacing is nice, the performances are relaxed, and the dialogue is breezy. It’s a pleasant enough movie that I hardly cared that I wasn’t laughing too much throughout- I just hope it’s not true as reported that this is his last comedy.

For years, Woody Allen has talked about how he doesn’t just want to make comedies, and it’s always been clear that he wanted to have a career like Bergman or Fellinni. But for my money, he has never made a drama that I’ve loved. Woody is one of the geniuses of comedy, and I’d like to see him make a few more movies that make me laugh as much as they make me think and feel. Woody has made some of my favorite movies- “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall” are among my top ten of all time- and his work is the best when drama springs out surprisingly from the comedy. As he continues to make a movie every year despite his age, I’ll be curious to see where he takes his most loyal fans next. “Scoop” might not be his funniest movie, but if it his last comedy, it’s a fine addition to his filmography. It might be “minor” Woody, it might be a movie that I can only really recommend to Woody-philes- but for those who love his work as much as I do, the movie is a tasty little treat. After a few dissapointing films in the last few years (though I did enjoy "Melinda and Melinda," and liked aspects of "Anything Else,") a minor work that is so pleasurable is something to celebrate.

Summer Movie Olympics, Part 12: Nascar State of Mind

Will Ferrell can always make me laugh. I’m talking deep, guffawing belly laughs. His latest movie, the Nascar themed “Talladega Nights,” is no exception.

Ferrell plays Ricky Bobby, a racing superstar who lives to win. He has a huge house, a sexy wife, and two bratty kids name "Walker" and "Texas Ranger." When French Formula-One Racing champion Jean Girard arrives in the United States to challenge him, our hero gets into a horrible wreck that sends his career and personal life into a downward spiral, leaving him without a racing sponsor or a wife. A shadow of his arrogant former self, Ricky Bobby must learn to get rid of “the fear,” regain his edge, and retake his mantle as a champion. That’s pretty much all the plot there is, but it’s enough to pull us along for Ferrell’s ridiculous ride.

As always, Ferrell has surrounded himself with a stellar cast. John C. Reily, one of my favorite actors, plays Bobby’s best friend, Cal Naughton Jr. The scenes between Ferrell and Reily are largely improvised and completely hilarious, and I’m excited to hear that they’ll be working together again in Ferrell’s next big comedy. Ferrell consistently plays dumb American machismo better than anybody else (the USC graduate was a frat member, and as a former Trojan myself, it's easy to see where he got the inspiration for the loud, sexist bores he plays so well,) and Reily adds a nice twist as his devoted sidekick who lets him win every race at his own expense- and “buries the hurt deep inside.” Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as Ali G, is equally hilarious as the pompous, gay, and very French Girard, and Gary Cole is terrific as Ricky’s irresponsible father, who helps his son get his groove back after his downfall.

Just like “Anchorman,” the movie is a total mess. It’s clear that a lot of story bits were cut in favor of pacing, so when the wonderful Amy Adams, as Ricky’s former assistant, approaches him in a bar and gives an impassioned speech for him to get back in the game (set to one of Journey’s greatest hits,) it hasn’t been established why her behavior is so out of character for her. The direction, by Adam McKay, is just barley competent. Most of the “mise en scene,” as they say in film school, consists of garishly bright product placements (which is accurate to the world of Nascar, and the movie does take the opportunity to make light of it- but still.) These criticisms would bug me a lot more in most movies, but I was laughing too hard most of the time to pay attention to them.

Like most Ferrell vehicles, the comedy is broad, the filmmaking is messy, the screenplay seems half-finished, and there are three times as many big laughs as every other movie in theatres. I’m excited to see Ferrell branch out this year into riskier, more subtle territory in this fall’s “Stranger than Fiction.” But for now, I’m just glad to enjoy another lap around the track with Will Ferrell’s so dumb it’s smart style of comedy.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Summer Movie Olympics, Part 11: Meryl Makes It Work

“The Devil Wears Prada” is a pleasing and entertaining Hollywood concoction, and it’s good to see something (slightly) intelligent and (very) female driven can do so well commercially in today’s entertainment industry.

Anne Hathaway plays Andy Sachs, who wants desperately to be a serious journalist but can only get an interview at Runway Magazine, where she accepts a job as the second assistant to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep,) the magazine’s notoriously steely editor in chief. The movie has a predictable arc that works despite the fact that we’ve seen it ten million times- Andy takes the job, hoping it will help her get another job in publishing, gets sucked into the world of fashion (and sports a ton of fabulous outfits, while the movie never explains how she can afford them- but, then again, it’s a fairy tale,) loses her friends and boyfriend, then realizes the error of her ways. It’s trite and obvious, but it works.

What elevates the film and makes it more than just another chick flick is the brilliant Meryl Streep. She owns every scene she appears in, outclassing her young co-star with even the subtlest gestures- when she raises an eyebrow, she can move mountains. Streep makes the movie more than worth seeing, and will probably be nominated for best supporting actress for both “Prada” and her stellar work in “A Prairie Home Companion.”

What makes Streep’s performance as Miranda Priestly work is the fact that she never once goes over the top. She doesn’t raise her voice once in the entire film. I’ve interned at places with notorious bosses who treat their assistants like dirt (and throw computers at them,) and expected the comedy to come from her outrageous behavior. But Streep never plays Priestly as an angry maniac- she’s always calm and composed- the better to seduce poor old Andy to the dark side. Streep is always sympathetic, and one of the movie’s most honest moments comes when Andy tells another character that Priestly doesn’t deserve her bad reputation- if a man acted the way she did, people would just say he was doing a good job.

By the end, Priestly does live up to her “dragon lady” reputation, destroying the careers of others to save her own, prompting Andy to walk away and redeem herself. She saves herself from corruption and decides to do something with integrity, not get stuck in the glamorous yet empty life that Priestly leads, and so on and so forth, blah blah blah. All of that is well and good, but honestly, I just wanted more Meryl. I’d rather see a movie all about Priestly any day- “the devil” is just more interesting than Hathaway’s angelic Andy.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

We're Gonna Need a Bigger Blog

I’m writing this as I watch Shark Week on The Discovery Channel. As mentioned in my previous post, this awesome week of shark related programming is making me feel better about anything in my life that’s been bothering me. I am currently watching a documentary called “Sharks: Are They Hunting Us?” which seems like a silly question to dedicate a full hour of programming to after most documentaries that have aired on the same network this week have hammered home the point that “no, they don’t hunt us, but if they mistake a person for a seal, then that individual is pretty well fucked.” This documentary is structured around the host, an animal behaviorist and all around nut job named Dave Salmoni, preparing- and working up the nerve- to do a free dive with Great White Sharks, hoping to prove that if he is not eaten by them, then he will have answer to his program’s titular question. He has already “proven” that lions are not man eaters by hanging out in Africa and getting as close as five feet away from them with nothing but a stick to defend himself, and, well…not getting eaten. Seems dubiously scientific, but makes for great television.

MythBusters is up next, in a two hour episode dealing with all kinds of shark myths depicted in “Jaws.” The prospect of Jamie and Adam taking apart the coolest parts of one of my favorite movies has me conflicted- I don’t love the movie for it’s realism- but seeing the guys build stuff to test scenes from the movie in the real world will be pretty badass. I just hope that the next time I watch “Jaws,” I’m not taken out of it by the thought “well, Jamie and Adam already busted the myth that a Great White could pull a dock off it’s moorings and out into the ocean.” But the one thing they won’t be taking into account is if a super shark like the one from the movie could do all the things they will be testing. Because the shark from the movie isn’t just any old Great White- he’s Jaws. Also, I hope next year Adam and Jamie test myths from the Jaws sequels, such as would a shark ever have a personal vendetta against specific humans, like the shark in “Jaws: The Revenge.”

My favorite Shark factoid I’ve learned this week was from the program “Sharks: What You Need to Know,” a random collection of Shark trivia that is kinda like the Discovery Channel version of “pop-up video.” It turns out that Sharks are predators even in the womb- fetal Sharks will actually eat their siblings to survive. The program showed footage from a shark womb-cam, with a baby shark eating a smaller shark fetus. It was one of the most horrifying images I’d seen since the guy in my film class brought in a video of his illegal piranhas, whom he had decided to starve because he wanted to get rid of them, eating each other alive in desperation. This is a true story.

Anyway, in a time when I’m feeling insecure, scared, and unsure about my future, as the second month of my unemployment is slipping by, and as global events seem to speed us closer to World War 3 and rising oceans caused by global warming, it’s nice to have Shark Week to make me feel better, to re-assure me that, no matter how bad it may get out there…at least I’m not a fetal Shark.

And tomorrow night is “Prehistoric Shark Night.” That should be badass.