Month: October 2015

Twilight

twilight

When Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) stands in the light of a dewy sunbeam to reveal his sparkling vampire skin, a familiar Rihanna refrain mentally kicked into play. “Shine bright like a diamond….Shine bright like a diamond….You’re a shooting star I see, a vision of ecstasy….Feel the warmth, we’ll never die.” That’s a nice emo tune for a vampire, I think, certainly a way of de-escalating things considering that Edward had just admitted to his human object of affection, Bella (Kristen Stewart), that he was an immortal, blood-sucking being.

But the conversation doesn’t go the pop chart route. Instead it gets weirdly dark and intense, violating so many rules of what a healthy, romantic relationship should be. Leaving aside for a moment that Edward has just dragged Bella into the remote forest interior in order to better bare his soul, and chest, to her, he repeatedly tells the woman he loves that he’s a killer, a creature designed to murder people. If that’s not enough to get your crush’s heart racing, he then waxes poetic and compares her to his “own personal brand of heroin,” because really, what girl doesn’t think of herself as an illegal substance that can lead to multiple organ failure?

At this point in the movie, I’d had enough of Edward’s abusive behavior and was angry that Bella was being set up as a collaborator. For every one of his condescensions or outright threats, she responds with more emphatic trust in his basic goodness, or sexiness – it’s never made clear. After Edward uses his superhuman speed and strength and saves her from an out-of-control car, she begins to suspect something otherworldly about her pale, moody lab partner. He coolly responds that no one’s going to believe her and suggests that the silly little girl just hit her head. When she won’t give up her suspicions, he basically tells her to fuck off if she values her life. Edward’s not always so abrasive though, swooping in to save Bella from some thugs while she’s wandering alone at night down a dark alley. It would have been chivalric had she not been in another town a hundred miles away. In this case, it’s just stalking.

But I couldn’t turn away, and not because I was captivated by Pattinson’s beauty (Long live Cedric Diggory!). It was because I’d naively promised a friend to watch the whole film and because there was actually a plot to this that didn’t involve the tortured lovers spouting fan fiction dialogue to one another. Bella is a newcomer to Forks, Washington and attempts to re-establish a relationship with her father (Billy Burke). She quickly makes a few friends, including a chatty Anna Kendrick, one of the few spots of sunshine in the whole film.

They aren’t nearly as interesting as the lab partner though. For all Edward’s talk about being a killer, he belongs to a “vegetarian” vampire family, led by the town doctor (Peter Facinelli), that feasts on animal blood. This annoys a group – or coven – of itinerant vampires, who also dislike Edward and Bella’s inter-species affair. (Cue Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.”) There’s a showdown and lots of pearly white fangs, but there is also a rush of energy once the vampire battle gets going. Watching people, or vampires, clawing and gnashing at one another is infinitely preferable to watching two people fail at building a healthy relationship.

When the film isn’t setting a bad example for its young audience, however, it takes beautiful advantage of its Pacific Northwest landscape. The movie is saturated in dusky blues and greens and makes living in a place with ancient, towering trees and no sun seem almost dreamy in a supernatural way. At the same time, it weighs down the angsty teen relationship, which may be how high schoolers like it. But for those of us in our mid-thirties and not drawn to vampire films, there are too many overdramatic flourishes that end up being tedious rather than mysterious. There are only so many times we need to see the lovers stare into each other’s soul or try to undress each other with their eyes, whatever they are doing. I’d prefer more Bella and Jacob (Taylor Lautner), her shy admirer who, because he is still human and not yet a werewolf capable of tearing her to pieces, doesn’t get much screentime. Thankfully, there are four more films in this series.

Released: 2008
Prod: Wyck Godfrey, Greg Mooradian, Mark Morgan
Dir: Catherine Hardwicke
Writer: Melissa Rosenberg
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Ashley Greene, Kellan Lutz, Nikki Reed, Jackson Rathbone, Billy Burke, Cam Gigandet, Rachelle Lefèvre, Edi Gathegi, Taylor Lautner, Gil Birmingham, Anna Kendrick, Christian Serratos, Michael Welch, Gregory Tyree Boyce, Justin Chon
Time: 121 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

Horrible Bosses

horrible bosses

What’s your horrible boss story? Mine includes a toxic mix of recklessness, immaturity, bullying, homophobia, and blatant disregard for labor laws. The standard cocktail, I assume, with only garnishes to differ. My boss played favorites and regularly treated hers to after-work drinks and once a trip to Oman (ostensibly on business). Those who ran afoul got the cold shoulder or an early termination. The less fortunate received a humiliating, shouty dressing down in front of coworkers and clients; we all ended up with some level of post-traumatic stress disorder. One day I decided I wouldn’t take it anymore, so I did what any person with a horrible boss does – I quit.

Actually, that’s not what everyone dreams of doing. The guys of this dark comedy who don’t have the option of telling their bosses to screw themselves instead take it several hundred notches higher and decide to kill their offending superiors. It’s easy to see why since all can rightfully claim the title of “Most Sadistic.” Harken (Kevin Spacey), according to employee Nick (Jason Bateman), is the total fucking asshole variety of boss, exactly the type I imagine populates high-pressure financial institutions. Meanwhile, Julia (Jennifer Aniston), a dentist, crosses, rather leaps across other lines of workplace decency by sexually harassing her hygienist, the newly engaged Dale (Charlie Day). Only Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) shares a professional and nurturing relationship with his boss (Donald Sutherland), but that disappears when the latter dies from a heart attack, leaving his coke-snorting son, Bobby (Colin Ferrell sporting cinema’s most formidable combover) in charge of the company.

I haven’t figured out if this film is supposed to be a cathartic experience and, if so, for whom. Certainly it delivers the laughs and is uncompromising in its humor. The three friends are no slouches but in the face of persistent emotional and even physical abuse, they don’t end up making the best decisions. Their frustration, and ours, paired with their ineptitude leads to extreme situations that are funny in their absurdity. At one point, Nick and Kurt break into Harken’s house, leaving a coked-out Dale – it was an accident with a dust buster – as the lookout. Naturally, you’d expect Harken to show up, which he does, but the fallout has one of the party clinging to dear life and for a completely unexpected reason.

Where the movie works, it’s thanks to the actors who are relentless about their characters’ mission. That Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis don’t allow these disgruntled guys to look backwards only pushes the story closer to the edge. All three have that look of pent-up paranoia that makes you want to see them safely through to their goal, even if it means some sort of complicity in murder. It helps that Spacey, Aniston, and Farrell also take full advantage of their roles and play truly despicable people who themselves have broken multiple laws.

The lines blur when it comes to the writing, however. There’s a lot of smart comedy, but it hides behind cheap jabs at race, disability, and weight to name a few. Not having the wherewithal to carry out the murders themselves, the guys ask their car’s satnav for advice. There’s a joke about the operator’s unpronounceable Indian name and another about that of their black murder consultant. They end up hiring Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx) after being directed to the most dangerous area in town because, well, you know. Somehow it’s funny that Julia rapes Dale, and his only recourse is to have sex with her on top of his unconscious fiancée or plot murder. Additional jokes about gender and sexual orientation are all thrown in for the sake of pushing boundaries, but many are delivered in a way that gives the audience license to laugh at whoever’s being made fun of. Even if I don’t prefer humor that shocks for the sake of it, I get the attempt and can stomach gags that involve shoving toothbrushes in certain orifices. I just don’t see why filmmakers didn’t make a better effort to offend in that way.

Released: 2011
Prod: Brett Ratner, Jay Stern
Dir: Seth Gordon
Writer: Michael Markowitz, John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Cast: Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Foxx
Time: 98 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

Ride Along

ride along

Ride Along is basically what you’d expect from a movie starring Kevin Hart and Ice Cube about a man who needs his girlfriend’s brother’s approval before they can marry. Ice Cube plays the snarling undercover police officer brother, and Hart bumps around and looks silly as the underachieving, diminutive boyfriend.

The movie has its moments, mostly involving Hart’s character, Ben, as he tries to work his way up from his current position as a high school security guard to the local police force. He is excited when he gets an invitation from James (Ice Cube) to shadow him for the day, hoping the experience will earn him both a future brother-in-law and the goodwill of the department. If you like the actor as I do, his giddiness will have you on the side of the beleaguered boyfriend, who, by all accounts, is a pretty good catch. He’s ambitious, devoted, and involves his girlfriend (Tika Sumpter) in his video game marathons. He probably lets her choose the next movie in his Netflix queue too, which is more than can be said of her brother, who thinks that she’s incapable of making her own life decisions.

Since the couple are so adorably compatible, it’s too bad that Ben has to gain James’s respect and take the audience on a pedestrian 100 minute ride along in order to get it. Even with Hart’s frenetic energy, the film is average at best. It throws a lot of soft punches with easy jokes about shady arms traffickers, misuse of guns, and Ben’s manhood. The plot doesn’t help either, eschewing the thrill of an original story for neatly traced lines over every other undercover police buddy odd-couple film you’ve ever seen. We already know that James is determined to make Ben’s life hell, so it’s not too hard to figure out what tricks he’ll pull (e.g. one with a grizzled biker gang, one with the help of a poker buddy) or that some of his pranks will turn out to be the real deal.

Hart and Cube are both dynamic actors and have a natural chemistry, but that doesn’t help much here. The latter tends to recycle his characters, but that of course gets old, even if people get some thrill out of seeing Ice Cube’s permanent scowl. He used the angry black man persona to better, and literal, effect in 21 Jump Street, but this was thanks to sharper writing and direction that turned each line and look into a powerful full stop. There’s an attempt to correct for this by throwing James some existential angst as he comes to terms with letting go of his sister, but it’s a short-lived emotional ploy. I suppose if you’re a fan of either actor – or Laurence Fishburne, who sweeps in for a cameo and looks like a boss, watch Ride Along to tick off a box, and then move on to something better.

Released: 2014
Prod: Ice Cube, Matt Alvarez, Will Packer, Larry Brezner
Dir: Tim Story
Writer: Greg Coolidge, Jason Mantzoukas, Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi
Cast: Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, John Leguizamo, Bruce McGill, Bryan Callen, Tika Sumpter, Laurence Fishburne, Jay Pharoah
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

Hocus Pocus

hocus pocus

‘Tis 1693, and the Sanderson sisters have been casting spells throughout Salem. Desperate for eternal youth and beauty, they lure a girl into their cottage in the hopes of using her soul to complete their potion. But after much double toiling and troubling, and even fires burning and cauldrons bubbling, the sisters are instead hanged. It takes more than a little bit of rope to kill a witch though, and the Sandersons bide their time in a semi-state of undead, waiting for someone, a virgin specifically, to light the magic candle on Halloween night.

Flash forward to 1993, and teenager Max (Omri Katz) is adjusting to his new life in Salem, having moved from L.A. He gets off on the wrong foot with everyone, including class beauty, Allison (Vinessa Shaw), and his bad day is made worse when his precocious little sister, Dani (Thora Birch), manipulates him into going trick-or-treating with her. When the three of them wind up at the Sandersons’ old cottage, they meet a talking cat (Sean Murray/James Marsden) and unwittingly release the sisters, who have one night to complete their spell lest they disappear forever.

It takes a good half hour before the witches reappear, and that’s when the movie really picks up. Otherwise, the set-up looks dated and forced, especially the pair of bullies who, though not to make light of the issue, aren’t all that threatening. Birch is a delightful little monster in the best way possible, however, and she perks up the nighttime scenes by running around, needling her older brother, and screaming her head off whenever necessary.

The best way to enjoy this hokey cult classic is to, like Birch, embrace it for what it is. I don’t have the same affection for it as some in my generation, but I can appreciate the fun/horror house nature of it. Never one for scary movies, I’m not sure how kids usually got, or get, their cinematic thrills, but I could easily roll with fluorescent green lights glowing from split floorboards and smoke clouds billowing from giant, plastic cauldrons. And it’s amusing, almost endearing, to see such inoffensive looking zombies in this Walking Dead age.

What gives Hocus Pocus most of its magic though are the Sanderson sisters and the actresses who play them. Bette Midler is Winnie, the leader of the pack who, now that I think about her protruding teeth and blooming hair, probably scared me off this movie as a child. Less frightening are the dimwitted sisters, Mary and Sarah, played by Kathy Najimy and pre-Carrie Bradshaw Sarah Jessica Parker. They mostly look like themselves but act like simpletons. And even if the comedy is dumbed down for a family audience, I still caught myself giggling as the sisters adjusted to modern life and our Halloween celebrations, which, let’s face it, are a pretty curious.

Released: 1993
Prod: David Kirschner, Steven Haft
Dir: Kenny Ortega
Writer: Mick Garris, Neil Cuthbert
Cast: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Omri Katz, Thora Birch, Vinessa Shaw, Sean Murray, James Marsden, Penny Marshall, Garry Marshall
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

Justin and the Knights of Valour

justin and the knights of valour

There are many things to like about Justin and the Knights of Valour. The animation, while not groundbreaking, paints an imaginative world filled with vivid detail. Justin (Freddie Highmore), its star, is also a genial, idealistic youth. He’s kind and principled, which may explain why his father (Alfred Molina) thinks he should follow in his footsteps and study law. And though it’s not always a respected profession, it’s a secure one in the land of Gabylonia, where legalism rules the day. The kingdom is a place where statutes have worked their way into every detail of daily life. Anyone can be ticketed for shouting too loudly in the streets and strongmen will snatch cats from little girls who haven’t updated their kitty’s vaccination cards.

It’s easy to see why Justin would want to trade a bureaucratic future for a life of adventure, and he dreams of being a knight like his grandfather, the brave and of course valorous Sir Roland. But two things stand in his way – his father and the law. And his scrawny physique. Since the king’s death years ago, the grieving queen (Olivia Williams) has banished knights, whom she blames for her husband’s death. Justin remains undaunted, however, and sets off on a quest, with some nudging from his grandmother (Julie Walters), to reclaim his grandfather’s missing sword and to find courage within himself.

I should stop here before trying to further untangle the various plot and character threads because, despite a strong opening, the movie overreaches and Justin’s coming of age gets lost in a confusion of sub-plots and minor characters, all seemingly to make room for the film’s expansive, all-star voice cast. There are a few key figures who aid in Justin’s self-discovery. He meets Blucher (James Cosmo), a monk and former knight who was also Sir Roland’s best friend. A colorful and scrappy old guy, Blucher puts Justin through the ringer and dispenses sage advice. Talia (Saoirse Ronan), a fiery barmaid, eventually turns sidekick while Lara (Tamsin Egerton), a selfish rich girl, is the lady to whom Justin dedicates his quest. Looming in the background is Heraclio (Mark Strong), a fallen knight who wants to reclaim his place in Gabylonia.

This film is hardly this straightforward though. A full slate of sideshow distractions leaves you wondering about the movie’s focus, which seems to be concentrated more on star power than on story. Antonio Banderas voices Sir Clorex, a vain handyman who passes himself off as a knight, David Walliams portrays a soothsayer/wizard/nut who hangs out at Talia’s bar and dispenses fortunes and gobbledygook in equal measure, Rupert Everett plays a fashionable jester and/or knight in Heraclio’s service, and Charles Dance is the head monk whose purpose I don’t remember.

The characters certainly add some laughs, and kids might enjoy their distinctiveness, but none are particularly important to the story. Justin’s journey is not just about following his heart but also about his relationship with his father, who in turn remains very affected by the actions of his father. There is potential for some Pixar-level pulling of the heartstrings, but the film never capitalizes on these moments, making Justin and the Knights of Valour a not altogether successful quest.

“Heroes” by Rebecca Ferguson:

Released: 2013
Prod: Antonio Banderas, Marcelino Almansa, Kerry Fulton, Ralph Kamp
Dir: Manuel Sicilia
Writer: Matthew Jacobs, Manuel Sicilia
Cast: Freddie Highmore, James Cosmo, Mark Strong, Alfred Molina, Julie Walters, Saoirse Ronan, Tamsin Egerton, Antonio Banderas, David Walliams, Barry Humphries, Charles Dance, Rupert Everett, Olivia Williams
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: Spain
Reviewed: 2015