Thursday, May 28, 2009

EXAMINER #2: 'Star Trek' stands out amongst May blockbusters

As much as I’d like to believe that I’m not a total fanboy… I totally am. So you can imagine how I spent the first four months of2009 -- drooling over the month of May, when not one or two, not three or four, but five major franchises would be waging battle at the box office over the first four weeks alone; "Wolverine," "Star Trek," "Angels and Demons," "Terminator Salvation" and "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian." And that doesn’t even take into account this weekend, the last of the month, which all the other studios conceded to Pixar’s “Up” except for Universal, which in a savvy bit of counter-programming, releases Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell,” a goofy horror movie that's aimed at a very different, equally loyal albeit smaller audience.
What’s ironic about “DMTH” is that it’ll be the first film Raimi has directed for his genre label, Ghost House Pictures, and the first Ghost House release that won’t open at #1. That said, “DMTH” has good buzz so despite my initial doubts about the project, I’ll be at the ArcLight at midnight on Thursday to judge for myself.
May also featured two indies about brothers, although they (the brothers and the movies) couldn’t be more different. The first, “Rudo y Cursi,” from Carlos Cuaron, Alfonso’s brother, stars Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna as rival soccer stars. Get over the fear of subtitles and go see it while you still can because it’s one of the ten best films I’ve seen so far this year!
The other, “The Brothers Bloom,” is a con-man movie from Rian Johnson, who also wrote and directed the overrated high school noir mockery “Brick.” “Bloom” stars a pair of Oscar winners (Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz), an Oscar nominee (Rinko Kikuchi who steals the film with her mute performance), and Mark Ruffalo, who should’ve been nominated for an Oscar by now. Unfortunately, all the acting talent in the world can’t save Johnson’s lifeless script, which is as phony as the schemes The Brothers Bloom concoct. I’ll spare the film any further commentary but needless to say, I wasn’t a fan. Johnson clearly has talent but his style is all over the place and he’d be well served by directing someone else’s screenplay for a change. I don’t understand the press love he’s been getting.
But back to the blockbuster box office behemoths. The summer movie season officially kicked off with Fox’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” followed by J.J. Abrams’ reboot of “Star Trek” for Paramount, followed by Sony and Ron Howard’s “Angels and Demons,” which had only six days before Warner Bros. unleashed the hell that is McG’s “Terminator Salvation” into theaters. Meanwhile, Ben Stiller took another paycheck role in Fox’s “Night at the Museum 2: Battle For the Smithsonian,” but I haven’t seen that sequel so I can’t bash it, although it doesn’t really belong in the conversation since it’s aimed at a much younger demographic than the other four films.
Now, going into May, judging strictly by the trailers, I was super stoked to see “Star Trek” and “T4.” I had supreme faith in Abrams and very little faith in McG, but then again, I grew up on James Cameron’s “Terminator” films and I’d never been a “Star Trek” kind of guy. I loved the “T4” trailer’s use of Nine Inch Nails’ “The Day the World Went Away,” but I suspected it was making the movie look more awesome than it really was. The “Star Trek” trailer looked equally awesome and obviously, like something I’d never seen before. Abrams and his young cast sold me on a new universe, where as “T4” sold me on a world I’d heard a lot about over the course of three movies, and couldn’t wait to see for myself.
Elsewhere, despite the production problems and online piracy, I thought “Wolverine” looked pretty cool, if a bit cheap, while the “Angels and Demons” trailer seemed to reveal that director Howard didn’t really fix any of “DaVinci’s” considerable problems, chief amongst them, the lazy casting of Tom Hanks, who looked absolutely miserable running around Rome.
As it turned out, “Star Trek” was the best movie by far, and even it had its script problems. You can read my full review for the Colorado Springs Independent here. None of the other three turned out very good, namely because of bad scripts that were compromised by the Writers Strike. I’d have to say that “Wolverine” was my next favorite of the four, if only because it resembled fun. Sure, it paled in comparison to its predecessors (yes, all of them, even Brett Ratner’s “X3”), but it wasn’t nearly the trainwreck I was expecting and the opening credits were great. Liev Schreiber and Danny Huston are two of my favorite character actors but “Wolverine” was missing a villain like the “X-Men” series’ Ian McKellan, whose sinister presence was also missing from the “DaVinci Code” sequel “Angels and Demons,” which had a couple of decent moments but felt shockingly flat considering the solid source material. I’ve read three of Dan Brown’s books and his writing is quite cinematic, as though it would lend itself perfectly to adaptation for the bigscreen. But both “DaVinci” and “A&D” were undeniably clunky and that’s inexcusable from a director of Howard’s caliber. Hanks was never a good fit for this series, and yet, if he couldn’t make it work, who the hell else could?
Which brings us to the relentlessly grim and joyless “Terminator Salvation,” which McG should be downright embarrassed about. The screenplay felt like a cruel joke, and while credited scribes John Brancato and Michael Ferris will be held primarily responsible, it deserves to be noted that A-Listers Jonathan Nolan (Oscar-nominated writer of “Memento,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Prestige”), Simon Kinberg (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “X3,” “Jumper” and “Sherlock Holmes”) and Paul Haggis (Academy Award-winning writer of “Crash,” “Casino Royale,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Walker, Texas Ranger”) all had a hand in shaping the script. The performances in “T4” were all cringe-worthy and borderline laughable with the exception of Anton Yelchin’s take on Kyle Reese. It was a tough Stateside debut for future “Avatar” star Sam Worthington, whose Australian accent snuck in and out of the movie along with Christian Bale’s angry Welsh inflection. As for the supporting cast, Common and Helena Bonham Carter were truly awful, while Bryce Dallas Howard and Jadagrace had no characters to play. The wham-bam action was decent but free of any kind of suspense (it’s been rumored that McG left his 2nd Unit to handle the action so he could focus on the “performances”) and the entire movie felt devoid of fun, failing to do anything new with the series.
Hollywood is batting 1-4 in my blockbuster book so far this summer, but hey, look on the bright side: There’s a new Pixar movie coming out on Friday! And for the crazy handful of you who might not be down with “Up” allow me to suggest a more “adult” theatrical experience, Steven Soderbergh’s low-fi drama “The Girlfriend Experience,” which stars (former?) porn star Sasha Grey as a high-priced Manhattan call girl. Grey makes an impressive mainstream debut and there’s actually very little sex or nudity in the film, which begs saying that it’s still worth seeing, guys! “The Girlfriend Experience” is also available to watch On Demand in the privacy of your own home for $9.99, a great bargain considering the absurd cost of movie tickets and concessions today.
As for June, the film I’m most excited about is Todd Phillips’ comedy “The Hangover,” starring the motley crue of Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifiankis, a mysterious baby, Mike Tyson and his tiger. I’m also looking forward to Tony Scott’s remake of the 70s classic “The Taking of Pelham 123,” starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta; a bigscreen imagining of “Land of the Lost” with Will Ferrell and Danny McBride; the new Francis Ford Coppola film “Tetro” starring the always-interesting Vincent Gallo; the final cut of Harold Ramis’ biblical comedy “Year One,” which was produced by Judd Apatow and stars Jack Black and Michael Cera; Michael Bay’s bigger, louder “Transformers” sequel and the Woody Allen comedy “Whatever Works,” starring Larry David. There’s also another comedy from an Oscar-winning filmmaker that opens June 5 in limited release that we’ll take a look at next week. Until then…

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Friday, May 15, 2009

EXAMINER #1: 'Twilight' takes bite out of MTV Movie Awards

If you’re wondering what’s happened to the MTV Movie Awards, you’re not alone.
It seems like it was just a few years ago that the MTV Movie Awards were relevant to pop culture. Now? They’re an afterthought. The reason? The nominees have officially become ridiculous.
Here are the facts: Beginning in 1992, the first six Golden Popcorn winners for Best Movie were “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” “A Few Good Men,” “Menace II Society,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Se7en” and “Scream.” All were rated R. In 1998, the PG-13 “Titanic” briefly interrupted the R-rated winning streak before “There’s Something About Mary,” “The Matrix” and “Gladiator” continued the trend. Since then, the only other R-rated winner was “Wedding Crashers” in 2006. Most of those movies fit my definition of a “modern classic,” so I’ll give MTV credit for being on top of its game in honoring influential films that, for the most part, have withstood the relative test of time.
That said, the last two Best Movie winners have been the summer blockbusters “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “Transformers.” Now, my problem isn’t that both of these movies made a ton of money, because with the exception of “Menace II Society,” all of the Best Movie winners listed in the previous paragraph made over $100 million at the domestic box office. I take exception with “POTC 2” and “Transformers” because they’re both mediocre movies, at best, and their triumphs illustrate a troubling trend; Where the MTV Movie Awards once honored challenging adult material that also appealed to a youthful demo, voters are now confusing the biggest movies with the best, allowing the show to be content existing as a popularity contest as decided by the high school crowd.
This year, the Best Movie nominees are a mixed bag: “The Dark Knight,” “High School Musical 3,” “Iron Man,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” and “Twilight.”
I won’t argue with the selections of “Slumdog” or “Dark Knight” because those were both great movies. But it’s a shame that neither will likely take home the Golden Popcorn on May 31 because it’s a foregone conclusion that the mass cult of “Twilight” fans will stuff the ballot box, ensuring its victory and more airtime for its dreamy star Rob Pattinson. Furthermore, the success of “Twilight” on the evening will dictate how the next few years of MTV Movie Award shows will play out, given that Summit has two sequels on the way.
Take for example the Best Kiss category, which usually features an inspired group of liplockers. This is a category that has historically been dominated by same-sex kisses. Past winners include “Cruel Intentions,” “American Pie 2,” “Brokeback Mountain” and most recently, “Talladega Nights.” This year, I would’ve thought that Sean Penn and James Franco to win for their scintillating smooch in “Milk,” but I fully expect the “Twilight’s” ratings-boosting duo of Kristen Stewart and Pattinson to take the stage because life, and more specifically the MTV Movie Awards, isn’t fair.
Then again, what does ‘fair’ have to do with anything? The MTV Movie Awards aren’t supposed to be the Oscars. Its primary goal is to entertain a few million teenagers for a couple hours, not to get the awards “right.” How can anyone take the show seriously when Angelina Jolie and Anne Hathaway are respectively nominated for “Wanted” and “Bride Wars” instead of “Changeling” and “Rachel Getting Married?”
This is an awards show that changes its categories annually, forcing this year’s voters to spend their time contemplating the Best 'WTF' Moment. This is an actual award, people. What qualifies as a 'WTF' moment? Amy Poehler peeing in the sink in “Baby Mama.” Forget the fact that Ashton Kutcher did the exact same thing in “What Happens in Vegas.” Why does this category even exist? Did MTV learn nothing from past awards such as Best Summer Movie So Far, which was only mildly less embarrassing than Best Summer Movie You Haven’t Seen Yet, which amounted to Best Trailer. It’s also hard to forget the discontinued awards for Sexiest Performance (which only objectified women) and Best Frightened Performance, which went to whatever flavor-of-the-month Scream Queen could look the most scared in her underwear.
I know MTV targets a younger, more PG-13 audience these days, and I’m not asking for voters to show some love to Frank Langella or Melissa Leo. I just wish they would hold themselves to the same standards as MTV’s audience in the 90s, which apparently had much better taste. Fortunately, in ten years, “Slumdog” and “Twilight” won’t even be mentioned in the same breath, let alone the same category.
Regardless of who wins, “SNL” star and professed “Motherlover”Andy Samberg promises to be a high-energy host who should be able to keep the evening moving at a nice pace. And I can take solace that at the very least, MTV nominated Bruce Springsteen’s heartbreaking theme to “The Wrestler,” which the Academy had the nerve to snub.
I know there’s a legion of “Twilight” fans on because it’s one of the site’s most popular topics and I’d hate to alienate that considerable readership with my first column (although I’m pretty sure this will be the first and last time “Twilight” is involved in a discussion of National Movie Awards), but this could be the last chance to save the MTV Movie Awards. Click here to vote until May 31!

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Early Predictions for the 2010 Oscars

Taking a cue from InContention's Kris Tapley and The Film Experience's Nat Rogers, among others, I've decided to throw up some way-in-advance Oscar predictions for next March. These are total shots in the dark, gang. I just wanted to go on record based on my gut feelings about this year's race, which hasn't even started to take shape yet. Please forgive mistakes in category placement, whether it's a lead actor/actress being in the supporting category (or vice versa) or an original screenplay that is really adapted. And lastly, you'll note that my two favorite films so far this year, The Hurt Locker and Away We Go, neither of which have been released yet, are scattered amongst the predicted potential nominees. I had to represent on their behalf. Without further ado, your 2010 Oscar nominees... but probably not.


The Lovely Bones
Shutter Island


Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Peter Jackson, The Lovely Bones
Rob Marshall, Nine
Lone Scherfig, An Education


Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Matt Damon, The Informant
Daniel Day-Lewis, Nine
Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island
Morgan Freeman, The Human Factor


Abbie Cornish, Bright Star
Penelope Cruz, Broken Embraces
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabby Sidibe, Precious
Hilary Swank, Amelia


Matt Damon, The Human Factor
Alfred Molina, An Education
Mark Ruffalo, Shutter Island
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds


Judi Dench, Nine
Sophia Loren, Nine
Mo’Nique, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Rachel Weisz, The Lovely Bones


Bright Star
Broken Embraces
The Hurt Locker


An Education
The Lovely Bones
Shutter Island

Contenders I Have a Good Feeling About: An Education, Avatar, Away We Go, Biutiful, Bright Star, Broken Embraces, The Hurt Locker, The Lovely Bones, Nine, Precious, Shutter Island, Up, Where the Wild Things Are

Contenders I Can’t Fully Back Just Yet, For One Reason Or Another: A Serious Man, Agora, Amelia, Antichrist, Brothers, Cheri, Green Zone, The Human Factor, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, The Informant, Julie & Julia, The Last Station, Love Ranch, Public Enemies, Taking Woodstock, Tetro, The Tree of Life, Whatever Works