Sunday, February 28, 2010

Whiteout (2009) - Too Bland for My Tastes

On the Menu: WHITEOUT (2009); Blockbuster Rental DVD

Ingredients: Kate Beckinsale, Tom Skerritt, Gabriel Macht, Columbus Short and Alex O'Loughlin. Directed by Dominic Sena. Run time: 96 minutes. Rated: R.

At First Bite: The trailer was promising. It sets up a mystery/thriller involving a buried plane in Antarctica. And, they even show part of a Beckinsale shower scene in the trailer. All right. Got my attention.

The movie begins by showing us the fateful 1957 flight of the plane in the trailer. Then, we're introduced to our chilly setting via a caption that reads:
I assume we should just hazard a guess that it's present day. The next set of captions let us know the name of the base, the latitude and longitude and the temperature -- a balmy (-55) degrees Celsius, which converts to (-67) degrees Fahrenheit. But, oddly, that doesn't stop guys from hopping off planes nude and streaking across the base. There's a minute-long tracking shot following our heroine, U.S. Marshal Carrie Stetko, from a short trek outside to her shower (that might be the best camerawork in the movie).

The vast majority of the base is evacuating for the winter, including Carrie. She's planning on resigning from her post with dreams of becoming a professional backgammon player back in the States. But, hold the phone, a body has been found. It's Antarctica's first murder, which means Carrie has to stay put and investigate.

A couple more bodies turn up and a mysterious cargo is missing from the buried plane. How is it all connected? 

Tough to Swallow: The dialogue leaves much to be desired. It's actually funny sometimes because most of the time the characters are just stating the obvious as though the filmmakers thought the audience would be either stupid or wouldn't see what was on the screen. "It's a body. It looks like he's been shot through the head." Really? Wouldn't have guessed from the bullet wound or since we saw him die in the opening sequence of the movie. I mean, why even start the movie off with the 1957 flight if you're going to recreate the entire crash later when the plane is found?

The movie is full of flashbacks. Five of them are of the same scene, which proves to be the exposition for Carrie and her trust issues. Then, of course, are the pointless mini-flashes of the '57 crash as well as its recent discovery.

The movie's twist is foreshadowed by, to be honest, a mere glance, plus the Law of Economy of Characters (see Ebert's definition).

Doc (Skerritt) informs us early on that a whiteout is a ridiculously dangerous weather condition where you can't see 6 inches in front of your face. Yet, the final chase/fight scene takes place during the whiteout and somehow they can see each other just fine (even when they're all wearing giant parkas and goggles). Plus, as long as someone is attached to a safety line the wind doesn't really affect them. And, can three people really survive 7 minutes of (-70+) degrees without wearing some type of mask? You'd think frostbite would set in pretty quick under those circumstances.

Oh, and Carrie is a U.S. Marshal and carries a gun, but I don't think she ever used it once. That's kinda weird when there's a killer chasing her around the base for most of the movie.

Dark Castle Entertainment put its name on this, but its filmography consists mostly of horror films (HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, GHOST SHIP, ORPHAN, etc.). WHITEOUT is no horror film.

How's about the nitpicky stuff, huh? Well, a thesis paper has the word doctoral misspelled as "doctorial." The label on Doc's Scotch Whisky bottle reads Scotch Whiskey. And, when Carrie and her crew go looking for grid 104 (where the plane is buried), the GPS coordinates, if researched with Google Earth (or what have you), show them to be on Lake Manitoba in Canada.

Something to Chew On: Reese Witherspoon was attached to the movie way back in 2002.

The film currently has a 5.3 user rating on (6,511 votes).

Sides: This Blockbuster Rental DVD has zero features. The only two options on the menu are "Play Movie" and "Languages."

Aftertaste: WHITEOUT was pretty disappointing. It's too predictable and the payoff was really lame considering the Cold War implications in the movie's opening sequence. I know the dialogue is bad (they should have used Wite-Out on most of the script), but I'm beginning to question whether Gabriel Macht should look for a new profession. Kate Beckinsale, on the other hand, is worth watching in almost anything. And, guys, you'll at least be happy with the opening sequence at the base. It's really the best part of the movie. After that comes the gratuitous flashbacks and surprising lack of frostbite. I think the filmmakers tried to sell it as a slasher film, but it didn't quite live up to that billing. The premise of the first homicide in Antarctica is murdered by the actual plot. The initial run-in with the killer is a little intense, but, overall, the movie is overwhelmingly blah.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Black Dynamite (2009) - So Much Cheesy Goodness

On the Menu: BLACK DYNAMITE (2009)
Ingredients: Michael Jai White, Tommy Davidson, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Arsenio Hall, Mykelti Williamson, Obba Babatundé, Bokeem Woodbine, Brian McKnight, John Salley, Cedric Yarbrough, Kevin Chapman, Byron Minns, Mike Starr, Phil Morris, Tucker Smallwood, Richard Edson, Miguel A. Núñez, Jr., Kym Whitley and Nicole Sullivan. Directed by Scott Sanders. Run time: 90 minutes. Rated: R.

At First Bite: When I first saw the trailer I thought BLACK DYNAMITE was really a '70s film just being released on DVD. I mean, most of the DVDs with the BLACK DYNAMITE trailer had the trailer for SOUL POWER, too, and that movie was shot in 1974. Once you see Arsenio Hall and Tommy Davidson, you realize it's not an authentic Blaxpoitation film though. But, in the trailer no one is credited as themselves. For example, Black Dynamite is played by Ferrante Jones, who is really Michael Jai White, and Chicago Wind is played by William T. Michaelson, who is really Mykelti Williamson. I knew right away that I wanted to see this once it came out on DVD.

The movie opens with the death of Jimmy, Black Dynamite's brother. If you're an undercover police officer posing as a pimp, you won't last long if you can't speak jive.

So, Black Dynamite is on a mission of revenge. That revenge mission turns into an anti-drug mission. And that mission turns into a bigger, more convoluted mission.

Second Helping: I watched it a second time, but with the audio commentary from Sanders, Minns and White. It was even funnier than the first viewing since I missed some of the jokes the first time around. The commentary mentions the different homages and points out some of the more subtle jokes. I definitely recommend you watch the movie at least twice, and once with the commentary track.

Tough to Swallow: There's a scene where a man is set on fire and they use CG for the fire. There's a green screen shot almost right after the fire scene, too. Neither fit with the '70s production vibe. 

In the diner scene, on the blackboard with the day's specials, scrambled is misspelled as "scrambed." Also, specials is written as "special's." In the animated closing credits, Bokeem Woodbine's character is listed as Black Hand Jack, but his character is Back Hand Jack.

The biggest travesty is that my favorite character, Militant #2, only has a handful of lines.

Something to Chew On: White came up with the idea for BLACK DYNAMITE while listening to James Brown's "Super Bad" on his iPod; he was working on UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING at the time. White actually co-wrote the story and screenplay. Sanders shot the movie with Super 16 Color Reversal Kodak film stock, which gives it a grainy, high contrast and saturated look. The movie includes stock footage from actual blaxpoitation films as well as from the Sony Pictures library. Sanders has mentioned the film includes shots from "Charlie's Angels," "S.W.A.T.," "The Rookies," "Matt Helm" and the 1984 Chuck Norris movie MISSING IN ACTION.

The movie premiered as a midnight showing at Sundance in 2009.

There are numerous homages: TROUBLE MAN, DOLEMITE, THE MACK, THREE THE HARD WAY, FOXY BROWN, AVENGING DISCO GODFATHER and ENTER THE DRAGON to name a few. White's influences for Dynamite were Jim Brown, Jim Kelly and Fred Williamson. White actually watched the finished movie with Brown, and Brown gave it his thumbs up. Davidson said his character, Cream Corn, was influenced by all the pimps on "Starsky and Hutch."

Most everyone knows Mykelti Williamson was Bubba in FORREST GUMP. Well, Byron Minns co-starred in that as well. He played the soldier who taught Forrest how to play ping pong.

And, depending on how many movies, TV shows and music videos you watch, you should recognize everyone on the Pimp Counci. There's also a couple references to the popular Roscoe's restaurant chain.

The film currently has a 7.5 user rating on (4,587 votes).

Sides: The DVD has a commentary track from Sanders, Minns and White. There are 17 deleted/alternate scenes (about 25 minutes worth of footage). "Lighting the Fuse" is a 23-minute making-of featurette. "The Comic-Con Experience" is an 18-minute Q&A session from the convention. The DVD also includes trailers for 12 other films.

Aftertaste: I love parodies. Well, I love good parodies. BLACK DYNAMITE is a great spoof of a genre that was half-parody anyway. You might have to watch the movie a second time to catch all the humor. There are funny lines (most of the humor is in the deliveries) and funny characters, but the spoofs of production values are even more hilarious. One stunt guy is killed at least 6 different times in the movie, another stunt guy is "replaced" mid-scene, boom mics are purposely left dangling in shots and stock footage is interjected regardless if it totally fits. Discontinuity is a big part of what makes the movie work. Most of the "mistakes" are on purpose, and from listening to the commentary, the real mistakes were left in anyway.

I didn't get all the homages since I've only seen maybe four Blaxploitation films; I can think of FOXY BROWN, SHAFT, THE BLACK SIX and SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG right offhand. But, I have seen ENTER THE DRAGON and White was definitely channeling the character of Williams for a good portion of the movie.

How does BLACK DYNAMITE compare to other Blaxpoitation parodies? I thought I'M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA (4 1/2 stars) and UNDERCOVER BROTHER (4 stars) were really funny. POOTIE TANG (1 1/2 stars) was downright stupid, but some of the lines got stuck in my head for at least a month. The difference with BLACK DYNAMITE is realism. The filmmakers wanted the movie to represent a '70s crew trying to make the best movie they could with what they had. Remember, White is playing Ferrante Jones, who is playing Black Dynamite. That's why it's funny when White pauses to look at the low boom mic or expects the director to stop the scene when another "actor" flubs his line, or when the camera stays on someone just a beat too long once the scene is over. Even the soundtrack is geared for laughs. Composer Adrian Younge puts together numerous "I'm singing about what's happening on screen" songs that are riots.

Apparently, it IS easy being cheesy.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Law Abiding Citizen (2009) - Best Served Cold

On the Menu: LAW ABIDING CITIZEN (2009)
Ingredients: Gerard Butler, Jamie Foxx, Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb, Regina Hall, Gregory Itzin and Viola Davis. Directed by F. Gary Gray. Run time: 108 minutes. Rated: R.

At First Bite: A crime thriller with Butler and Foxx where lots of things go explody looked pretty good in the trailer. I didn't go see it in the theater though. It didn't look that good.

Clyde Shelton (Butler) loses his wife and daughter during a home invasion. His lawyer, Nick Rice (Foxx), makes a plea deal with one of the murderers because he didn't want to go to trial and chance his 96% conviction rate. Ten years later, Shelton exacts "justice" on those who he feels wronged him, and does so mostly from the comfort of a jail cell.

Tough to Swallow: Law-abiding is a hyphenated word! Ugh.

Oh, and Shelton is supposedly a genius inventor, but the guy doesn't have a peephole on his front door, and doesn't think to see who is banging on his door before opening it as though he were expecting company. Give me a break. The background info we get on him later make his shortcomings even more unbelievable. His super-genius cred really takes a hit in the last 19 minutes of the movie.

Also, the entire movie we're led to think it's horrible that the justice system is broken and corrupt, but, again, that idea is lost in the final 19 minutes.

Needless to say, the ending ruined what was an intense and somewhat intelligent movie. It's funny, too, how far you can get in 25 seconds when napalm is concerned.

I have a couple of questions, too. Do assistant district attorneys go on police chases? Do prisons have guards or cameras to watch over super-genius murderers while they're in a cell?

Something to Chew On: The prison in the movie is a real prison (Holmesburg Prison), and actually housed inmates during production. Director F. Gary Gray makes a cameo as a detective, and Philadephia Mayor Michael Nutter also appears. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION director Frank Darabont and Catherine Zeta-Jones were both reported to be attached to the film in its early stages.

The film currently has a 7.3 user rating on (26,659 votes).

Sides: The DVD includes audio commentary from producers Lucas Foster and Alan Siegel (I might have watched the movie again if it was a director's commentary or included Butler or Foxx). "The Justice of Law Abiding Citizen" lasts about 6 minutes and discusses the actual use of law in the movie. "Law in Black and White - Behind the Scenes" is a 15-minute making-of documentary. "Preliminary Arguments - Visual Effects Progressions" deals with 5 different effects scenes and breaks them down (about 7 minutes long total). "Behind Bars - A History of Holmesburg Prison" is an exclusive feature from Blockbuster and runs about 7-8 minutes. Also included in the theatrical trailer and a "trailer mash-up." The mash-up isn't anything funny or creative (if it was a contest winner, it must have been a small contest). So, all in all, some decent extras.

Aftertaste: It's like DEATH WISH with a vigilante who is more John Doe (SEVEN) or Hannibal Lecter than Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey. Personally, I was rooting for Shelton the entire film. I'm not sure what that says about my sense of morality, but, even as a vengeful, sadistic killer, he's more likable than Rice. There seems to be a point when you're supposed to switch allegiances, but I couldn't do it. Shelton lost his family, and the court system screwed him royally. Rice neglects his family and chooses to make deals with murderers instead of trying cases because he doesn't want a blemish on his record. Which one would you side with?

There is one great scene where you're expecting something to happen... and it does, but it made me shout, "Holy s***!" Does it make up for the preposterousness of Shelton's game plan? You be the judge.

The movie had promise as a psychological thriller, but leans more on the explosions and kill scenes to keep you interested. But, like TAKEN, this revenge film takes the easy way out (maybe the way-too-easy way out) and tries to tie everything up with a nice little bow. The movie's finale is just plain dumb and ridiculously convenient. The way this movie treats its super-genius protagonist/antagonist is really frustrating. If you do watch this movie, turn it off when Rice reads an email while on the phone with his cop buddy. Then, imagine what you'd like to happen. Because if there's a real injustice here, it's the final 19 minutes.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009) - Borderline Nauseating

On the Menu: CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER (2009); Unrated

Ingredients: Rider Strong, Giuseppe Andrews, Noah Segan, Alexi Wasser, Rusty Kelley, Mark Borchardt, Larry Fessenden, Michael Bowen and Judah Friedlander. Directed by Ti West. Run time: 87 minutes. Rated: R.

At First Bite: I didn't know anyone had shot a sequel to CABIN FEVER until I read last week that the DVD was being released on Tuesday. I consider the original one of the best gross-out horror films ever made, so there's no way I could pass up its sequel (even if it wasn't directed by Eli Roth and went straight to DVD).

The movie begins with a cold open and picks up where the first one left off, and it seems only a couple hours or a day or two have passed since the end credits rolled as we find one of the original cast members emerging from the lake and trudging through the woods. Once the scene plays out we're shown the opening credits in an animated title sequence that illustrates how the town's water supply is contaminated and where it's being shipped.

Needless to say, the bulk of the shipment ends up at the local high school on the day of the prom. We're introduced to nerdy John (Segan) and his horny best friend, Alex (Kelley). John's in love with his long-time friend, Cassie (Wasser), who has just dumped her relentless jerk of a boyfriend, Marc. The next 18 minutes are devoted to figuring out who is going to prom, but not without four gross scenes and a sinister janitor.

Meanwhile, Officer Winston (Andrews), another character from the first film, puts two and two together about his part in the water contamination, and attempts to save the day and cover his butt at the same time.

Unfortunately, the main ingredient for the prom punch is the local bottled water. This is where things get gross and weird... and gross a lot more... and weird again.

Tough to Swallow: The bottled water company in the first film was Down Home Spring Water; here it's just Down Home Water. I mean, it'd make sense to maintain the company name if you're going to use Spring Fever in the title of the movie.

These next three gaffes almost made me throw up. During a getting-ready-for-prom montage, Alex calls John. When John hangs up the phone, his alarm clock reads 7:13 p.m. When Alex calls back, John's clock reads 7:12 p.m. In the library scene, John reads a couple pages about a skin disease. The first page has the word underlying misspelled as "undrelying," and the next page with text has the word amputated misspelled as "amuptated" in big, bold letters. Just thinking about them again makes me sick.

As far as the story goes, I don't quite understand the motives of the government-type guys in Hazmat suits. Quarantine? Cover-up? Either way their methods are confusing, and they're not very thorough went it comes to searches and locking doors. Also, the last 6 1/2 minutes were total trash. The movie gives up on the main characters and decides to bring back an earlier character while giving two producers (Patrick Durham and Jonathan Sachar) about 5 minutes of screen time. Their acting, if you can call it that, is atrocious. Well, pretty much all of the acting is bad. A poorly-done animated sequence (obviously, created with a lesser program or animator than the first) leads us to the closing credits.

One more thing -- Noah Segan looks like Jack McBrayer and Brendan Fehr's love child. It was hard to look at him with a straight face for most of the movie.

Something to Chew On: Eli Roth said he never considered directing the sequel "unless it was an animated musical about a corpse-raping deputy." However, he felt his co-writer Randy Pearlstein had a great story for a sequel and felt it could have been better than his original.

The movie was shot in 2007, but was shelved by Lionsgate until its premiere at the Screamfest Film Festival on October 24, 2009. Director Ti West abandoned the project about halfway through post-production when producers wanted to re-edit the movie. West attempted to use the Hollywood pseudonym, Alan Smithee, but he wasn't allowed since he wasn't a member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA), and use of the name was formally discontinued by the DGA in 2000. West wanted the film to be an homage to 1980s sex romp movies and films by John Waters. I'm sure Waters would be proud of the pool scene. Watching the movie though, it feels more like CARRIE and PROM NIGHT (even using the PROM NIGHT theme song).

There are two fun references to the original film. I'll just say rabbit and pancakes.

The film currently has a 4.5 user rating on (587 votes).

Sides: The DVD includes a 3-minute "Gore Reel," which goes the extra mile with some of the footage used in the movie. There is also a behind-the-scenes featurette, which is about 13 minutes long. This featurette includes interviews with cast and crew, excluding West, about the story and certain gore scenes. It also has trailers for other upcoming Lionsgate movies.

Aftertaste: The movie suffers from losing its director before it was finished, plain and simple. The producers tacked on a stupid ending, which I suggest skipping, to pad their egos without regard to the final product and creative vision of the director. I did like the way they give us the first handful of closing credits (superimposed over CG skin). The movie itself had definite potential. I hope eventually the director's cut will see the light of day.

I went into watching this (and everyone else should, too) with the expectations that it was going to be a crapfest with a major gross-out factor. Expectations achieved. The acting is sub-par, and none of the characters are really likable. The movie has two types of gross: funny-gross and puke-gross. Seriously, this has to be one of the grossest films I've seen in a while, and, let's face it, that's what anyone is really watching it for anyway. The yellow snow cone scene in JACKASS is the only time a movie has had me gagging to the point of nearly vomiting all over myself. To me, there wasn't anything that extreme in this movie. However, the fingernail and diseased genitalia scenes are pretty rough, especially if you've just finished eating 3 five-layer burritos.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Couples Retreat (2009) - Valentine's Mess

On the Menu: COUPLES RETREAT (2009)
Ingredients: Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Faizon Love, Kristen Bell, Malin Akerman, Kristin Davis, Jean Reno, John Michael Higgins and Ken Jeong. Directed by Peter Billingsley. Run time: 113 minutes. Rated: PG-13.

At First Bite: Vaughn and Favreau were in some great movies together: RUDY, SWINGERS and MADE. More recently, they've starred in THE BREAK-UP (crap) and FOUR CHRISTMASES (average). Favreau penned both SWINGERS and MADE, and he has a writing credit again with this comedy. Vaughn co-wrote COUPLES RETREAT, along with Favreau and Dana Ross, but his only other writing venture was the movie I described as crap above. From the trailer though it appeared, to me, that the duo had come up with a good laugher.

Four couples embark on a trip to a breathtakingly beautiful island resort, Eden. One couple is going to save their marriage. The others are going for fun. Well, they're promised fun anyway. Unfortunately, the therapeutic portion of the trip is mandatory for all. The resort's guru is Marcel (Reno), and his methods are eccentric, e.g. swimming with sharks.

Each couple finds they have problems, and they have a week to work them out with Marcel's program.

Second Helping: Yes, I watched the movie a second time, but only because there was a commentary track from Vaughn and director Peter "Ralphie" Billingsley. Mostly, they talk about how they've worked with certain individuals on other movies. It's a pretty bland commentary.

Tough to Swallow: During the commentary, for the film and deleted scenes, Billingsley and Vaughn talk about how they left parts out due to the pacing of the movie. Well, the run time is almost two hours, and that's including a lengthy and pointless Guitar Hero showdown. Not enough laughs for a movie portrayed to be hilarious in the trailers. The therapy sessions slow the film down as well, but the filmmakers seem okay with trying to force laughs from the ridiculous program work. We saw the joke of the first exercise in the previews, the shark bit wasn't funny, and the yoga bit overstayed its welcome.

Something to Chew On: Peter Billingsley has now worked with Vaughn and/or Favreau on 8 movies; this was his directorial debut. The characters are from Buffalo Grove; Vaughn was born in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. Vernon Vaughn, Vince's father, plays Grandpa Jim Jim. Because of budgetary reasons most of the resort staff in the movie are actual islanders who work or live there.

Back in November, there was a big to-do in the U.K. when Faizon Love and Kali Hawk (both likenesses and names) were removed from the film's poster by Universal. The studio apologized and decided not to use the revised posters in other countries. Had they realized how unfunny the movie was maybe they should have taken everyone off the poster.

It's also said in some of the special features that this was the first movie to be filmed in Bora Bora in 30 years. Portions of SKY PIRATES (1986) and XXX (2002) were shot there, but the entire 1979 film HURRICANE, starring Mia Farrow, Timothy Bottoms and Jason Robards, was filmed on the island.

There's a short scene after the credits. It's not particularly funny, but it's topical.

The film currently has a 5.7 user rating on (10,213 votes).

Sides: The DVD includes audio commentary from Vaughn and Billingsley. There are also seven deleted scenes, three extended scenes and an alternate ending (all with optional commentary from Vaughn and Billingsley).  There's a 3-minute gag reel, which made me laugh more than the film itself -- I actually just watched it for the fourth time.  "Therapy's Greatest Hits" is mainly outtakes from the couples' sessions (about 6 minutes). "Paradise Found: Filming in Bora Bora" is a 6-minute featurette talking about the difficulties of the shoot despite the beautiful location. "Behind the Yoga" last about 4 minutes and talks about the idea of tantric yoga and the creepy yoga guy.

Aftertaste: I think Frat Pack fans, and probably most movie fans in general, will be disappointed. It's not a guy movie like SWINGERS or OLD SCHOOL. It was a great opportunity to witness Kristen Bell, Malin Akerman and Kristin Davis in bikinis. Carlos Ponce, who plays the yoga instructor, was pretty funny (think Hank Azaria in ALONG CAME POLLY). It focuses on marital problems, but tries to make you laugh as well. It doesn't quite work. Maybe having Vaughn listed as one of the writers was the kiss of death.

Married couples might be somewhat welcome, but anyone else? Retreat!!!



Sunday, February 14, 2010

Triangle (2009) - It's All Greek to Me

On the Menu: TRIANGLE (2009)
Ingredients: Melissa George, Michael Dorman, Rachael Carpani, Henry Nixon, Emma Lung and Liam Hemsworth. Directed by Christopher Smith. Run time: 98 minutes. Rated: R.

At First Bite: I first heard of Christopher Smith four years ago when was holding a poster contest. One of his entries was what turned out to be the poster for his 2004 film CREEP; it didn't win, but it should have been disqualified for violating the rule of not being previously published. That didn't stop me from watching CREEP though. It was okay, but it was his horror/comedy SEVERANCE that I really enjoyed. Smith's previous films aside, it was the film's title that got me interested. I will gladly watch any movie dealing with the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster or Sherlock Holmes. It's more of a Bermuda Triangle-Haunted Ship-Time Travel-Twilight Zone movie.

Melissa George (30 DAYS OF NIGHT, "Grey's Anatomy") plays Jess, the frazzled mother of an autistic son. She's invited by her friend Greg (Dorman) to go sailing. Four others are onboard for the ride, and, unlike Jess, seemingly excited to be there. All's fine and well until the wind ceases and a storm approaches. The sailboat overturns, but a luxury ocean liner appears out of nowhere just when things are looking bleak. Once aboard, they determine the ship deserted, but Jess is having a really weird feeling of déjà vu. But, the worst is yet to come. A hooded figure emerges and is hellbent on killing everyone.

The story seems straightforward, but once it gets going you realize just how fractured the narrative is.

Tough to Swallow: There are a couple of CGI elements that are pretty bad (namely the sea gull and seeing the sailboat from the ocean liner's deck). The DVD cover art ruined the film's initial twist for me. The most disappointing aspect is the DVD is lacking in special features. A commentary track or making-of featurette would have done wonders to help those who don't truly understand the point of the film.

Something to Chew On: I was paying super-close attention to the opening shots, and there are tiny details, e.g. a child's toy, fridge magnets, a three-digit number and a street sign, that either foreshadow events to come or tie in with something later in the film. The three-digit number, I think, might be a reference to Kubrick's THE SHINING (although the movie might draw more comparisons to TIMECRIMES). Plus, if you're up on your Greek mythology, the name of the ocean liner, S.S. Aeolus, brings its own connotations. Aeolus was the ruler of the winds, and the wind oddly stops moments before the ship enters the picture. A story related to Aeolus is discussed briefly in the film, and, to me, it's the key to comprehending the plot (and it's VERY apparent that most of the reviewers/critics of TRIANGLE failed to catch it).

The film currently has a 6.7 user rating on (3,410 votes).

Sides: The DVD includes about six minutes of cast and crew interviews. The discussions range from George's performance to shooting locations. I was interested to see that they constructed half of an ocean liner at the end of a peninsula, but they don't really focus on it for long. The trailer is also included on the disc.

Aftertaste: TRIANGLE isn't a conventional genre film. Reading the DVD case at the rental store will make you think it's a slasher flick or Bermuda Triangle mystery. Well, it's both, but it's so much more. The film is determined not to be a whodunit, but more of a why-is-it-happening story. I love movies that mess with your mind, and this is one you'll definitely want to discuss with someone afterward.

Comparisons to TIMECRIMES (I strongly recommend seeing it, by the way) might be warranted given there's a hooded crazy and a time travel element, but the infusion of the Greek myth and the haunting performance of George makes TRIANGLE stand out on its own. I love the tiny details Smith left early on, and, despite the crappy sea gull, there is one wowing effect that I will NOT spoil here (loose lips sink ships, right?). However, the effect is quite eerie and pretty freakin' awesome. I look forward to Smith's next feature, BLACK DEATH, which should be out this year. TRIANGLE took a plot device and gave it a backstory by simply alluding to a myth. It may or may not float your boat. It did mine.

On a side note, feta cheese is good, garbanzo beans are okay, but Greek yogurt is blah.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bronson (2008) - Glutton for Punishment

On the Menu: BRONSON (2009)
Ingredients: Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance, Hugh Ross and Juliet Oldfield. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Run time: 92 minutes. Rated: R.

At First Bite: I've seen and own many films from Magnet Releasing (this being one of them). The preview made me think of the 2000 film CHOPPER starring Eric Bana, which I enjoyed immensely.

BRONSON is about Britain's most famous and most violent prisoner, Michael Peterson. In 1974, the 19-year-old Peterson robbed a post office and was sent to jail for seven years. He's still there. At the time of the film's release he had spent 30 of the 34 years in solitary confinement. The film's title is a reference to Peterson's alter ego, Charles Bronson, which is the name given to him by a boxing promoter during his short stint of freedom. He's shipped to a few different jails with an asylum thrown in the middle. Why? Because he makes a game of taking hostages in his cell, stripping naked and then proceeding to lay vicious beatdowns on the guards until he's overpowered.

He tells us early on that his parents aren't to blame for what he's become (it just happens to be a scene with an infant Michael behind the bars of a crib). He's a nutter, but he let's us know from the start that he wanted to be famous and knew he was meant for bigger things. It's like everything is a performance, which makes the director's choice of having Bronson on a stage speaking to us and a fake audience in between flashbacks even smarter. When addressing the camera he sometimes wears clown makeup, performs skits or even sings. It's actually funny, if not disturbing. These scenes seem to be representations of his imagination or hallucinations (he did seem to be drugged up a lot in the asylum).

Maybe he's just a delusional artist, who has become institutionalized. A telling scene for me is with the prison art instructor near the end of the film. The instructor, who had tabbed Bronson a "living Magritte," tells him, "You are finally going to get what you've always wanted." Bronson replies, "What you know about what I [really] want?" Then, the camera looks at him through the staircase (once again he's framed between bars). Cue the game, but not before Charlie creates his own Magritte while listening to Act I of the Delibes opera Lakmé.

That's another wonderful thing about this movie -- the music. The opening beatdown is hauntingly set to "The Electrician" by The Walker Brothers. The soundtrack includes stuff from Wagner, Strauss, Puccini and even the Pet Shop Boys, whose song plays at a dance for the inmates of the asylum.

There were a couple of other points about the opening and closing prison shots. Both involve cages (the last one not even big enough for him to stretch his arms out) and the colors of the shots are simply red and black. Either we're supposed to see a caged, bloody animal or someone trapped in a hell of his own choosing.

Tough to Swallow: It's hard to understand what is being said for most of the movie (and even the DVD's special features), and there are NO English subtitles. There are Spanish subtitles, but I took four years of French. Oh well.

Something to Chew On: Jason Statham was asked to play Bronson, but couldn't due to scheduling conflicts. It's weird I actually thought Tom Hardy seemed like a mix between Statham and Cole Hauser. Hardy ended up putting on 42 lbs. for the role. Hardy won the 2009 British Independent Film Award for Best Actor for this film, and deservedly so. Michael Peterson said he shaved off his mustache and gave it to Hardy to use for the movie. Peterson, using the Bronson moniker, has at least 8 books available on right now, including a book of poems, a fitness book and a prison guide. The Magritte painting that is recreated is The Son of Man. Magritte has this to say about the painting:  
... Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.
Hmmm. The artist hidden within a muscle-bound prison?

The film currently has a 6.6 user rating on (5,177 votes).

Note: I DID, in fact, eat everything in the title photo. Yes, all 3 sandwiches, plus the bacon and fries.

Sides: This  DVD has a nice collection of special features. The "Charles Bronson Monologues" lets you listen to the real-life Bronson talk about his current cage, meeting Tom Hardy and, among other things, his time on the asylum roof. There's a making-of featurette that lasts maybe 12 minutes. Another featurette shows the training Hardy went through to become Bronson. There are interviews with Refn, Hardy and Matt King (some of which are included in the making-of featurette). The DVD also includes some behind-the-scenes footage and the trailer.

Aftertaste: After seeing the BRONSON trailer I immediately drew comparisons to CHOPPER. Both are amusing and disturbing. This movie is sort of a biopic, but it's more a dark comedy. I've seen other comparisons including A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (my guess is because of the use of violence and music) and THE KING OF COMEDY (obviously linking the delusional main characters who think themselves to be great artists). Hardy was done a disservice by not being nominated for an Oscar. He was brilliant.

Refn has described this as a feminine film. I can see that. I mean, it's not your typical prison movie -- the prisoner wants to stay locked up. The smaller the cell, the more comfortable he is. Does the cage represent the womb? He doesn't seem to have a strong paternal figure. Jack (his uncle), Phil (his art instructor) and Paul (his prison friend) are all feminine characters, and Bronson seems to be at ease around them more than anyone else besides his mother. Aside from the fighting, the focus is more on the creative mind of the madman, e.g., his painting and his love of music. If you're a fan of British films, violence and dark comedies, then you'll love this. Now, be warned there are a few scenes involving male frontal nudity, but I told you about the guy's M.O. earlier. Also, there's a scene in the loony bin involving defecation. Regardless, I could watch the movie again. I'm a glutton for punishment, especially the stylish and intelligent kind.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cold Souls (2009) - Better Than Originally Thawed

On the Menu: COLD SOULS (2009)
Ingredients: Paul Giamatti, David Straithairn, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun and Lauren Ambrose. Directed by Sophie Barthes. Run time: 101 minutes. Rated: PG-13.

At First Bite: Like THE INVENTION OF LYING, I first heard about this film on "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien." That was last summer, maybe the end of July, so I've been waiting a while to watch this. Paul Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti (perhaps a more stressed-out version of himself). He's currently working on the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya, but has poured his soul into the part so much that he's become Vanya -- empty, depressed and "stuck." His agent tells him about a story in The New Yorker that explains the new trend of soul extraction, the brainchild of Dr. Flintstein (Straithairn). The doctor explains that life becomes more functional and purposeful once you get rid of your burdening soul. That might be so, but despite feeling "great," Paul's acting skills (he's now way too cheerful as Vanya) and sex life suffer. He makes a return trip to remedy the situation, and ends up with a rental soul. While all this is going on we're introduced to Nina (Korzun), who trafficks souls to and from Russia. We don't really understand the implications of Nina's work until later in the film, and I think she's the more compelling character because of those implications. Her boss's wife wants Al Pacino's soul, so on her next business trip to Dr. Flintstein she "borrows" the only actor's soul in storage. Feeling his rental is too much for him, Paul goes back to trade it for his own. Uh oh.

Second Helping: I normally don't watch a movie a second time unless I really enjoy it and there's a commentary track on the DVD. However, this is an intelligent and beautifully shot movie, and I felt I needed a second chance to really appreciate it. Watching it again, you understand Nina's expressions and struggles at the beginning of the film, and Paul's hotel visit makes more sense. During the first viewing, I immediately found comparisons with ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and SLEEPER. But, Barthes's vision is more melancholic than neurotic. The movie compares the soul to a muscle, in that it can shrink or grow depending on how you take care of it.

Tough to Swallow: "What happens to the soul when the donor dies?" It's a question posed, but never fully answered. And, the residues quota; how much is too much? As a fan of Six Feet Under and CAN'T HARDLY WAIT, I was disappointed that Lauren Ambrose didn't have more to do.

Something to Chew On: This is Sophia Barthes's first feature film (that's four blogs in a row involving first-time directors). The idea for the movie came to her in a dream. In the dream, she and Allen are in an office with boxes containing their souls, and Allen becomes enraged at the shape and size of his soul. She had been watching Woody Allen movies and reading Carl Jung's "Man in Search of a Soul," and thinks the two connected in her subconscious.

Giamatti's work prior to this film was the HBO miniseries John Adams, and, apparently, he told Barthes he indentified with the character in her film because he felt the role of Adams had drained him.

Barthes has grown tired of the comparisons of COLD SOULS to the films of Charlie Kaufman. She says her inspirations are Allen, Federico Fellini, Luis Buñuel, and Jean-Luc Godard among others. She wrote the film in 2005 while living in New York. She says the war and government made her feel as though her soul was shrinking, and made her question why she was living in the U.S. where reality was so gloomy. The story was her attempt at escapism.

The film currently has a 6.8 user rating on (1,588 votes).

Sides: The DVD has seven deleted scenes. The best, by far, is the one with Paul trying to hammer out his Vanya. There is also a 3-minute featurette about the design of the Soul Extractor 5000. Designers Eric Lahey and Calen Kennett talk about their inspirations and what it took to put the "machine" together.

Aftertaste: Here you have a smart, funny, absurd and depressing science-fiction film set in an alternate reality. Everyone is comparing it to BEING JOHN MALKOVICH or ETERNAL SUNSHINE, but I feel that is a disservice to all the thought and passion Sophie Barthes put into this movie. Yes, Paul Giamatti plays a character right out of a Woody Allen flick, but its how he emotes that brings his character to life (or to soullessness). It's all in his facial expressions. He looks as though he really has been drained of his soul for most of the movie. The same can be said of Dina Korzun. I was very impressed with her. I'm not a big fan of Emily Watson, so I was okay with her role as Paul's wife not being very substantial.

The comedy is deadpan for the most part. The funniest scenes involve Paul's visits with Dr. Flintstein (the joke about avoiding sales tax made me laugh both times I watched). David Straithairn was surprisingly funny. I love that the office has marshmallows as a snack. But, even though it's funny, the mood changes once the story shifts to Russia, and that's what makes the film for me. COLD SOULS has dry wit and is chilled to near-perfection.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

More Than a Game (2008) - Squeeze the Orange

On the Menu: MORE THAN A GAME (2008)

Ingredients: Coach Dru Joyce II, LeBron James, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee, Dru Joyce III and Romeo Travis. Directed by Kristopher Belman. Run time: 100 minutes. Rated: PG.

At First Bite: I had seen the trailer on a couple other DVDs, and knew I wanted to get it when it became available. I had watched part of the St. Vincent-St. Mary's game against Oak Hill Academy on ESPN2 back in 2002, but, at the time, I wasn't aware of the team's legacy. The hype over James is what had me watching (his jump shot was NOT that great). However, this time, it was the team that had me watching. Excluding Travis, they all played basketball together since they were 10-11 years old. The documentary tells each player's story and follows the team through its struggles and victories. It's like watching HOOP DREAMS, but you know, at least, one of the guys made it to the big time. The film is made up of interviews, home video footage, news footage and still photos that are brought to life by giving them three-dimensional depth or through creative montages. To me, despite the movie wanting to be about the friendships of the players (and not James specifically), it seems to be more about the growth of Joyce II as a coach and a father.

Tough to Swallow: I'm not sure if it was because the way it was shot, but the game scores and stats don't make the cut in the widescreen presentation. There are some parts of the story that could have been explored more, e.g., the criticism they faced going to the private Catholic school instead of the all-black public school, and the matchup with Carmelo Anthony. At no point does the film mention academics either (although I've read each player had at least a 3.4 GPA at STVM).

Also, we don't hear what the other players thought of James's early celebrity (or even what he thought of it himself really). What exactly was the impact of the media on the team? Speaking of other players, we never hear from anyone outside of the five star players.

And, the mess involving Gloria James and the Hummer H2 she bought her son for his 18th birthday seems to be glossed over. Belman also neglects to include the James's failed attempt to jump to the NBA after his junior year of high school ball. But, LeBron is credited as one of the movie's executive producers, so maybe that's why the tough questions don't get asked.

Something to Chew On: Belman was taking a documentary film course at Loyola Marymount University and decided to go back to his hometown of Akron to shoot his 10-minute project on the STVM basketball team. He saw promise for the project to evolve into much more, so he spoke to Coach Joyce and ended up going to practices and traveling with the team on game days. I imagine having a backstage pass to something like that was like winning the lottery. This documentary is Belman's only film credit to date.

Note: Tonight, LeBron scored 35 points, a franchise record, in the 1st half of a 113-106 win over the Knicks. He scored 24 consecutive points and finished with 47 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists and 5 steals.

The film currently has a 7.3 user rating on (376 votes).

Sides: The DVD contains three featurettes. "More Than a Film" chronicles the film from 10-minute project to completion. "Winning Ways: A Look Inside Sports Psychology" includes interviews with Belman, Coach Joyce and leading sports psychologists. "Behind the Music" lets composer/producer Harry Mason, Jr. take you through the making of the film's soundtrack.

Aftertaste: I love basketball, so it was cool to see all the old game footage. I mean, these guys were awesome at age 11. The movie itself is well-edited, and I liked the effects used to liven up the photographs.

Belman doesn't give you each player's story right up front; each bio is staggered throughout, which works very well. I'm glad it wasn't all about LeBron (maybe the final third of the film), but you still need to get in some tough questions and draw some emotion out of the guys. It's got style, but it lacks substance.

Coach Joyce had the most interesting story to me overall, but my favorite specific moment is the game when Little Dru lights it up.

Maybe I like HOOP DREAMS more because it doesn't feel like a fairy tale; it's reality for the vast majority of kids. It was more a story of the process and how young kids were using basketball as a way out of the projects. MORE THAN A GAME is more a story of the relationships and how the sport created a family.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Invention of Lying (2009) - Laying It on Thick

On the Menu: THE INVENTION OF LYING (2009); Blockbuster Rental DVD

Ingredients: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Louis C.K., Tina Fey, Jeffrey Tambor, Jonah Hill, Fionnula Flanagan, Christopher Guest and Jason Bateman. Directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson. Run time: 99 minutes. Rated: PG-13.

At First Bite: I think Gervais is very funny, and I've only seen GHOST TOWN and maybe four episodes of "The Office." I should work on that. He directed "The Office" and "Extras," but this is his directorial debut as far as feature films go. The first time I heard anything about this movie was when Gervais was plugging it on "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien." It was the interview where he poured his water over Conan's head and took a picture of him with his phone. He told Conan about how he lured Philip Seymour Hoffman to be in the film with an email. The email read as follows:
Dear Philip, will you please appear in my new film? There is very little money involved as I spent the budget on testicular implants, but don't look upon them as my testicles, look at them as our testicles.
It had that email working for it, and the concept was brilliant -- A man, living in a world of only truths, stumbles upon the ability to lie.

Gervais plays that man. His name is Mark Bellison, and he's generally unlucky. His mom is sick and he's in love with a woman who is way out of his league, Anna (played by Garner). He works as a screenwriter. He's not a very good one though, and everyone at work seems to hate him, especially his secretary (Fey) and the company's top writer, Brad (Lowe). Brad is the anti-Mark; he's rich, handsome and conceited. So, right away we've developed the sympathetic hero, the love interest and the villain. Halfway through the worst day of his life, Mark's brain flickers and he discovers he can say something "that wasn't." This is where the real fun begins. How could you explain what happened? What would you do with the power?

The movie is littered with self-deprecating humor and sprinkled with sexual humor, but the real genius might be the religious satire. There is no such thing as religion in this world, which has been a point of contention on some internet message boards. Well, some people are just way too touchy. It's a movie.

Tough to Swallow: There's a strained, frown-like expression Jennifer Garner has when expressing her character's true feelings. I think I understand why (she's always just said what's on her mind without thinking), but sometimes it's hard to watch. The whole romance angle, in general, was a little off for me. I would have liked to have seen more of Tina Fey, despite her character being so brutally honest.

And, once again, I'm going to harp on the crap rental DVDs from Blockbuster. No special features here. I've heard there are some great extras on the actual DVD. Also, I couldn't skip past the previews to go directly to the menu. I had to hold down the fast forward button through at least four trailers. I'm not lying. What a pain in the butt that was.

Something to Chew On: I've already mentioned Philip Seymour Hoffman and the email. I listed Jason Bateman in the ingredients, but there's another big cameo in the film. I won't spoil it. It's great though.

The chapel used for the wedding sequence is the same one featured in GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST; Garner's character was the one getting hitched in both movies.

This is Gervais's directorial debut (film).

Gervais is directing another film, CEMETERY JUNCTION, which is scheduled for release this year.

The film currently has a 6.5 user rating on (12,802 votes).

Sides: This particular DVD had zero.

Aftertaste: It's cleverly written, and the actors do a wonderful job of delivering the cold, hard facts with straight faces. As far as movies dealing with God complexes go, this is leaps and bounds better than BRUCE ALMIGHTY and its sequel. Those movies were a tad outlandish and I didn't feel anything for the protagonist. THE INVENTION OF LYING gives its unattractive hero wit, charm and compassion. I liken it more to GROUNDHOG DAY. But, be warned, if you're a religious zealot without a sense of humor, you might be offended by the film's take on religion and God. Otherwise, it's great if you want sit back and laugh. That's the honest truth.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Whip It (2009) - Some Tough Cookies

On the Menu: WHIP IT (2009); Blockbuster Rental Exclusive DVD

Ingredients: Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern, Eve, Jimmy Fallon, Andrew Wilson, Zoe Bell and Drew Barrymore. Directed by Drew Barrymore. Run time: 111 minutes. Rated: PG-13.

At First Bite: I heart Ellen Page. I hearted "RollerGames." And, I think Kristen Wiig is hilarious. So, why wouldn't I watch this?  It is also Barrymore's directorial debut, and kudos to her for not trying to upstage her fellow actors. Her character, Smashlee Simpson, is funny and loves to dish out some pain, but she's in the backseat for most of the ride. Wiig is pretty low-key, but she's the mother hen of the lovable Hurl Scouts, which happens to be the worst team every year. Owen and Luke's older brother, Andrew, coaches the Scouts. If you close your eyes when he speaks, you'd think it was Owen. Lewis, as you might have guessed, plays the league bitch and poster girl, Iron Maven. 

Page's character, Bliss, stumbles upon Roller Derby while shopping with her uptight mother (Harden). Her mother is a pageant mom. She buys $800 custom dresses and makes her two daughters stand up on stages telling pageant officials which famous person they'd like to have as a dinner companion. Ugh. So, which will it be: pageant or derby? Sticking with the pageant means Bliss is momma's little girl, right? The derby is her chance to shine. It's her chance to grow up (obviously, we're dealing with a coming-of-age story here). Well, maybe it means she'll become daddy's little girl since her father (Stern) is a huge sports nut (they do live in Texas after all). By the way, where have you been Daniel Stern? Seriously, I think seeing VERY BAD THINGS in the theater my freshman year of college might have been the last time I've seen you in a movie. But, anyway, Stern does a great job. Throw in a new boy toy and a fight with her best friend and the coming-of-age story is complete.

Tough to Swallow: I don't know that I can say anything bad about the movie itself, except I didn't hear Devo once throughout the entire film. Unbelievable.
One thing I will say is the rental version of the DVD is crap. Sometimes there are good "Blockbuster Exclusives" DVDs where they give you extra stuff on one disc that would normally be a 2-disc at Best Buy. However, they're trending towards bare bones DVDs now, which are crappy versions without any special features. Hopefully, I will be replacing the ones I actually have in my collection soon. The version of WHIP IT you can buy in stores includes 9 deleted scenes, including an alternate opening (no gag reel or commentary?!). The version I watched has a WHIP IT Soundtrack spot only. Stupid.

Something to Chew On: "RollerGames" debuted on television in 1989. Remember the T-Birds and the Violators?  Remember when they split up the T-Bird Twins? Remember the alligator pit? Yeah, probably not. The show, unfortunately, lasted just the one season. I loved watching it.

Asheville has its own derby squad named the Blue Ridge Rollergirls. Their season opens at the Civic Center on March 13 against the Rollergirls of Central Kentucky (ROCK). Which reminds me that one of my best friends, Anna, went to speed skate practice with the Carolina Rollergirls in Raleigh. I think her nickname would be Mommie Smearest.

The Hurl Scouts in WHIP IT were fashioned after a real team called Tough Cookies, which I didn't know about when I came up with the title for this blog. Coincidentally, my fiancée, Megan, also baked cookies before we sat down to watch the movie.

Another interesting bit of trivia is that Ellen Page dropped out of DRAG ME TO HELL for this role.

Also, this film is based on the novel "Derby Girl" by former Roller Derby girl Shauna Cross. Cross actually skated under the nickname Maggie Mayhem (portrayed by Wiig in the film).

There's also a scene where Bliss goes to the movies with her love interest, Oliver; they watch THE JERK. Makes sense when you think about it.

The film currently has a 7.3 user rating on  (6,440 votes).

Sides: The lone soundtrack spot and some trailers for other movies.

Aftertaste: It's a women's empowerment/coming-of-age/sports movie. It's rated PG-13 because of crude language, and maybe the violence on the track. The music was pretty good; I've actually been listening to bits of the soundtrack on's Music Sampler. I wouldn't mind having one of those Babe Ruthless posters either. WHIP IT is definitely a movie I could watch a second or third time. I say, WHIP IT? WHIP IT, good.