Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: "Let Me In"

Just a mini-review tonight: It's late Wednesday and we have a date with a baby first thing in the morning. Austin Lugar is handling the main review over at The Film Yap, so tune in there for his more complete take.

Overall, "Let Me In" is a better adaptation of the Swedish film "Let the Right One In" than I had any reason to expect. Writer/director Matt Reeves kept the original's creepy atmospherics, although he did punch up the action beats, as one might expect.

I was surprised that they kept some of the more unseemly characteristics of Owen (a wonderful Kodi Smit-McPhee), a lonely bullied kid who befriends a girl vampire. An early sequence where he wears a horrifying mask and taunts his reflection in the mirror while holding a knife lets us know this isn't a sweet innocent.

I liked that about both movies -- the depiction of bullies and the bullied as suffering serious psychological impact as a result of their interaction. And, of course, the advice of young Nosferatu Abby: "Hit them harder than you dare. And then they'll stop."

Chloe Grace Moretz continues her impressive turn of performances, punctuated by "Kick-Ass" earlier this year. When I heard a remake of "Let the Right One In" was coming, I thought at least they picked the one young American actress who could pull it off.

The action is moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the dead of winter. The look is spare and frigid, though the oppressive cold isn't quite as convincing as Sweden, of course.

Richard Jenkins is solid in the rather smallish role of Abby's human protector, who ruthlessly kills to feed her ancient craving for blood. Interestingly, he's credited as "The Father," even though Abby herself explicitly states that he's not her real father.

Another interesting choice was to depict Owen's mother only obliquely, through a fuzzy lens or in the distant background. It helps emphasize the boy's isolation, both physical and emotional.

I'll say this: If there ever were a romance between a human and a vampire, it would not be the stylized, sanitized Gothic splendor of the "Twilight" series. It would be like this: Disturbing, smelly and increasingly unpleasant as time goes by.

3 stars out of four

Review: "The Social Network"

I cannot tell you if "The Social Network" is an accurate account of the founding of Facebook, the Internet colossus the lets people project their identity -- even create one -- on the Web.

The book it was based on by Ben Mezrich has been accused of being a highly fictionalized, one-sided affair that paints a portrait of Facebook founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a brilliant but destructive genius who estranged anyone close to him.

The irony being, of course, that the wunderkind who helped connect 500 million friends doesn't have any of his own. The few people he hadn't turned off with his abrasive, domineering personality he drove away through his obsessive need to build the millennium's Next Cool Thing.

What I can say about this film directed by David Fincher from a script by Aaron Sorkin is that it's an altogether mesmerizing tale, filled with unexpected dark humor, that plucks a lot of resonant strings about the Digital Age. On the surface it's a legal drama, but the story underneath the story is how techno-savvy nerds are using computer code to rewrite the power structures that have endured for generations.

It's an extravaganza of greed, ambition, stupendous egos and cutthroat business deals. It is certainly one of the best movies of the year.

In a bravura performance brimming with nervous energy, Jesse Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg, a computer science sophomore at Harvard who is dumped by his girlfriend in the film's opening minutes. Angry and half-drunk, Mark rushes back to his dorm and performs the Internet equivalent of a drive-by shooting, creating a nasty site called Facesmash where male students can rate the attractiveness of their female peers side-by-side.

The stunt crashes the school's servers and earns Mark academic probation from Harvard, but also demonstrates the power of social connections transported online.

When a pair of blueblood twin upperclassmen, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, pitch him the idea of creating an exclusive social networking site for Harvard, Mark immediately walks it across the street to his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who has an affinity for business and the cash to get them started.

The site goes live and is an immediate sensation, spreading to dozens of schools. The Winklevosses -- or Winklevi, as Mark dismissively dubs them -- try to use their old-money connections to shut Facebook down. When that fails, they sue.

The narrative unfolds as a series of flashbacks framed by depositions for the Winklevoss lawsuit ... and also, Eduardo's. As we learn early on, a massive split grew between the two co-founders, leading to Eduardo suing Mark for pushing him out of the company right as it was headed to the stratosphere.

The performances are universally terrific. Armie Hammer is a hoot playing both Winklevosses -- through the magic of CGI -- portraying basically decent young men trapped by the arrogance of the bubble of entitlement in which they've lived their whole lives.

And Justin Timberlake has a sly, scene-stealing turn as Sean Parker, the rogue entrepreneur behind music-sharing site Napster. Parker gloms onto Mark like a metrosexual Rasputin, coaxing him into moving the fledgling operation out to Silicon Valley and whispering sweet nothings in his ear about becoming billionaires.

Eduardo wants to play it conservative, building Facebook through conventional advertising, but Sean senses that Mark is more of a social outcast at heart, longing to flip his middle finger at the establishment -- encouraging stunts like showing up to an investor's meeting in a bathrobe, or printing business cards that say, "I'm CEO, Bitch."

The final, compelling shot of "The Social Network" shows Mark Zuckerberg sitting at his laptop on Facebook, hitting the refresh key in search of his Rosebud. It's an exquisite moment that reveals the character's interior better than any words could. What matters if it's true?

4 stars out of four

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Video review: "Iron Man 2"

"Iron Man 2" was still fun, but just didn't have the polish of the 2008 summer hit. With only two years between films, the sequel was bound to feel slapdash and hurried-up.

Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark, brilliant billionaire owner of a multi-national corporation. Having outed himself as the man behind the Iron Man mask, Stark has been living it up, forcing evildoers into hiding and giving the high hat to congressional committees to boot.

But things are worrisome behind the glitzy veneer: The gizmo in Stark's chest that powers the super-suit and keeps his damaged heart pumping is slowly poisoning him. And Ivan Vanko, son of an old business partner of Stark's daddy, wants revenge for perceived injustices. Vanko builds his own super-suit complete with freaky power-whips, which he uses to nearly kill Stark.

Other players emerge from the periphery.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is still talking about putting a team of super-heroes together. He plants Scarlett Johansson as Stark's secretary, whose skills go beyond Excel spreadsheets. Right-hand woman Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) still yearns for Stark's affections, and old buddy James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is raring to become his super-suited sidekick.

Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is some sort of Steve Jobs-meets-war profiteer competitor of Stark's who soon partners up with Vanko.

Watching "Iron Man 2" feels obligatory, like getting off a roller-coaster and climbing right back on again: Now that you know where the loops and drops are, it's not quite as thrilling.

The film is available in a two-disc DVD set, or a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. Extras are good on DVD, moving to fabulous with the combo.

The DVD includes a digital copy -- all too rare these days; usually studios reserve that for the Blu-ray. There's a feature-length commentary by director Jon Favreau, four deleted scenes, two making-of featurettes, and a music video.
The Blu-ray combo has all that, and tons more.

The first disc includes the "S.H.I.E.L.D. Data Vault" -- an interactive pop-up feature with behind-the-scenes goodies. There's also previsualization and animatics of the special effects.

Disc two includes an extensive making-of documentary, four more deleted scenes, four more featurettes, and a gallery of concept art.

Movie: 2.5 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, September 27, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Bicycle Thief" (1948)

"The Bicycle Thief" is the best-known of the Italian neorealism movement, which was characterized by non-professional actors, naturalistic light and shooting in real locations -- often with passersby serving as unwitting extras. It grew up out of necessity due to the lack of much filmmaking infrastructure following World War II, and soon became an ethos that influenced generations of movies.

The immediacy and unornamented sentimentalism of the pictures, which tended to focus on the plight of the underclass, gave these films a visceral heft that connected with audiences. "The Bicycle Thief" is often cited as one of the most emotional films ever made, particularly its depiction of the relationship between an itinerant worker and his son searching for the stolen bicycle that represents their very livelihood.

A bit of controversy over the title: The original Italian is "Ladri di biciclette," or "Bicycle Thieves." This is of course a reference to the film's tragic climax, where the father, desperate after a long search has come to naught, tries to steal a bicycle himself and is caught and humiliated. I for one am a proponent of retaining the English translation of foreign films, even if they are inaccurate.

Besides, one could argue that using the original title kind of gives away the ending. Otherwise newbies might watch the movie and be thinking: "They keep chasing that one kid who stole his bike ... who are these other thieves?"

Director Vittorio De Sica, who co-wrote the script along with five (!) others based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini, cast non-actors in the lead roles, to stupendous effect. Lamberto Maggiorani, with penetrating but soft eyes and flaring cheekbones, plays the father, Antonio Ricci. Maggiorani was just an ordinary factory worker when De Sica cast him.

Lianella Carell plays his loving wife Maria, who seeks guidance from a local mystic, which Antonio considers a waste of money. Still, her prophecy that he would find a job came true, and so he turns to the old woman to help find the bike. Sure enough, as soon as he exits her building, the thief (Vittorio Antonucci) walks by.

Enzo Staioli is an absolute revelation as their son Bruno. With a mop of irrepressible hair that even a downpour of rain cannot long suppress, Bruno is a 7-year-old fellow pilgrim and witness to the joyous and heartbreaking events -- the film's silent narrator.

After more than a year out of work, Antonio is blessed with a job putting up movie posters around Rome, on whose outskirts they live. But it comes with a condition: He must provide his own bicycle to get around with a ladder and supplies. No bicycle, no job.

Unfortunately, they hocked his bicycle to pay for food. Maria pawns the household's entire supply of bedsheets to get the money needed to reclaim the bike. There's a telling scene where Antonio watches the clerk climb a high storage wall to place their sheets amongst a mountain of others people have been forced to pawn. It reminded me of the last scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," where treasures great and small are entombed in a vast warehouse.

Antonio is thrilled about starting work, taking pride in his new uniform (which is basically just overalls and a cap) and gleefully tallies all the money he'll soon be bringing in -- 12,000 lire a month in wages, and at least 2,000 in overtime, plus a family allowance of 800 a day. They won't be rich by any stretch, but can put their days of hunger and worry behind them.

Alas, on his first day the bicycle is stolen while resting against the wall where Antonio is putting up a poster of Rita Hayworth. He chases the thief, a teen boy wearing a German-style hat, but he gets away.

The look on Antonio's face when he arrives by bus, instead of by bike, to pick up Bruno at his own job at a gas station is one of pure shame. He can't even stand to face Maria, so after dropping the boy off immediately goes looking for help. He enlists the aid of his friend Baiocco, an actor and sanitation worker. The next day he, Baiocco and his men, and Bruno set out to look for the bike, stopping at a huge outdoor venue devoted to nothing but bicycles. After hours of searching and one nasty, fruitless confrontation, they come up empty.

It's hard today to think about bicycles being such a huge enterprise, but in post-war Europe, they were the primary source of transportation.

After Baiocco bids adieu, Antonio and Bruno search night and day, knowing that failure means ruin for the entire family. They spot the thief on the bike talking to an old beggar. Failing to catch the boy, they follow the old man to a church, where a shave and soup are offered in exchange for attending service. When they lose the old man outside the church, Antonio loses patience with Bruno and slaps him sharply, and the betrayal in the lad's eyes is just wrenching.

To make it up to him, Antonio takes the boy to a restaurant -- an alien experience for young Bruno, who mimics the rich child at the next table theatrically pulling long strings of mozzarella away from his mouth.

In the end they find the thief, and Antonio is nearly killed by a mob from the boy's rough-and-tumble neighborhood. Bruno summons a policeman, but lacking any witnesses or evidence of the bike, Antonio is forced to decline to press charges.

The denouement is one of the most memorable in cinema. Outside a football arena, Antonio is taunted by thousands of bicycles left by the spectators. He settles for stealing a lone bike leaning against a wall, but of course its owner quickly emerges and begins chase. Ironically, the shouts of "Stop, thief!" that produced no reaction from the crowd when Antonio uttered them less than 48 hours earlier elicit an immediate reaction now, and in moments a dozen men are chasing him.

He is quickly caught, slapped around and frog-marched toward the police station. But the bicycle owner, seeing the bawling Bruno clutching at his father's coattails, takes pity and orders him released. The movie ends on the ambiguous note of father and son, humiliated and despondent, clutching hands and weeping as they walk away into the crowd toward home, their hopes of a new life dashed and their prospects bleak.

The musical score by Alessandro Cicognini, a sweeping breeze of strings and horns, pulls the audience along in its sorrowful journey. It was the music of the streets, set to a story about the people who live there, work there, and if they're lucky enough, ride past on a bicycle.

4 stars out of four

Friday, September 24, 2010

Review: "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"

"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" starts out as a big-stakes film attempting a grand statement about the rift lines in the machine of American capitalism. It ends up going small-time, as a miserly story about people we do not understand behaving in ways we don't believe.

It has been 23 years since Oliver Stone solidified the image of the Decade of Greed in the pop culture zeitgeist, and the sequel wants to be an update of how things have changed -- for the worse. It's set in 2008, when our entire financial system nearly sputtered to a standstill, and instead of being the merchant of inside information, this time Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) has positioned himself as the oracle of fiscal sanity.

Or is he?

After spending eight years in prison for insider trading and other crimes, Gekko is out hocking his book, "Is Greed Good?" He gives speeches to rapt audiences talking about how the leveraged debt and other shady dealings carried on now put anything he did to shame.

"While I was away it seems greed got greedier, with a little bit of envy mixed in," he says.

His would-be protege this time is Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a hungry young trader with a passion for green technology. He's also engaged to one Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan), the estranged daughter of Gordon. She won't speak to her dad, and runs an anti-Wall Street web site called Frozen Truth.

Now, think about that for a minute. Here's a principled young woman who despises her father, despises the abuses of the financial markets, and has centered her career around denigrating them both. And yet she would fall for a young shark like Jake who relishes making deals and cutting the throats of the competition? The sort of guy who buys her an engagement ring worth a house in the suburbs?

Winnie remains an unbelievable figure throughout. She's supposed to be smart, but a few words from Jake and she's ready to turn over the keys to her family legacy (amortizing in a Swiss bank) to him. A few words from Gordon and she's ready to forgive him, too.

Stone was never very good with centered, plausible female characters, and Winnie is just another in a long line of women who exist merely to further the plot.

The heavy is Bretton James (Josh Brolin), head of the powerful firm of Churchill-Schwartz. There's bad blood between him and Gekko, and Gordon's looking to use Jake to exact a little revenge -- some for himself, and some for sending Jake's company down the tubes, and his beloved mentor (Frank Langella) along with it.

But Bretton throws them a surprise, by offering Jake a job instead of crushing him. Soon the idealistic young Jake is inside the enemy's camp, carrying water for Gekko and keeping secrets from Winnie. At this point, a little more than halfway through, the movie has no more secrets that we haven't already guessed.

Stone displays his usual visual flair, sending his camera spinning around stock tickers and up and down the sleek walls of Wall Street, showing us the environment of steel dedicated to the hoarding of wealth for its own sake. "Money is a one-eyed bitch who lays in bed staring at you ... if you're not careful, in the morning she'll be gone," is how Gekko puts it.

The screenplay by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff is filled with zippy dialogue and crisp scenes. I especially liked one where Gekko, having dinner with Winnie and Jake at a swank Manhattan restaurant, greets one of the Wall Street titans and the guy blows him off, not even recognizing him. Douglas gives a terrific reaction that reveals his mortification -- not at the social faux pas, but at the fact it demonstrates he's not a player anymore.

I also loved when Gekko calls a bunch of college students the "Ninja generation": No income, no jobs or assets.

But despite these slick elements, the movie is a confused mix of personal story and indictment of the financial sector that never really tie together. The central dynamic seems to be whether Gekko has truly reformed or not, but he's really a secondary character who flits in and out of the background for most of the film, until he takes on a sudden importance close to the end.

The Bretton James angle holds no mystery -- the way Brolin snorts and glares, we know it's just a matter of time before he's buried under a mountain of his own arrogant missteps.

Fairly or not, "Wall Street" nailed the culture of avarice that undeniably existed in the 1980s ... but so it did in the '90s, '00s and every decade before (and will after). Stone's haphazard sequel reshuffles the deck, but relies on the same old cinematic card tricks.

2 stars out of four

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Good-bye, Keaton

Review: "You Again"

I love the cast of "You Again." And I enjoyed the slapsticky humor, of which there is plenty. Pretty much everything else about this new Disney comedy is take it or leave it, though.

It's nice to see a movie that's not based on a book, comic strip, video game or another movie -- it was simply dreamed up out of screenwriter Moe Jelline's head, his first feature film. And if elements of the film seem familiar -- some have already dismissed it as "Mean Girls" for an older audience -- then at least the winning cast carries the material through the dry spots.

Kristen Bell plays Marni, a high-school ugly duckling who got her swan on in her 20s. Now a successful public relations executive, Marni uses the story of her loser days to inspire some eager new interns: 'Believe in yourself, face your problems, and you too can blah blah blah blah...'

Disaster strikes when Marni realizes the woman her big brother, Will (James Wolk), is marrying is none other then Joanna (Odette Yustman), the girl who tormented her back at Ridgefield High. Joanna was captain of the cheerleading squad, and ruled the school with a bitchy fist.

These flashback scenes are a hoot, due in large part to the convincing physical transformation of button-cute Bell into a nerd with droopy bangs, a face full of brace, and skin erupting with a bounty of zits. It's ironic that high-school movies often cast actresses the age of Yustman and Bell as 17-year-olds, and now we see how they get away with it.

Joanna acts as if she doesn't even remember Marni, and proceeds to subtly make her feel like dirt all over again. Marni, though, is determined to extract an apology for the many wrongs done her. If she doesn't get it, she's prepared to extract her revenge by sending the marriage down in flames.

This set-up would be sufficient for most comedies, but Jelline doubles down by replicating the dilemma one generation upward. Turns out Marni's mom Gail (Jamie Lee Curtis, in a hoot of a performance) had a very similar experience in her school days with Ramona (Sigourney Weaver), who is revealed as Joanna's aunt.

Now a fabulously wealthy hotel magnate, Ramona doesn't miss an opportunity to rub her success in Gail's face. Gail responds in kind, showing off some cheerleading moves and participating in an impromptu (and solo) drag race.

"High school was a horror movie. This weekend is the sequel," Marni laments.

Director Andy Fickman is an auteur of bland, family-friendly flicks -- "The Game Plan," "Race to Witch Mountain" -- and his ham-handedness is evident whenever the movie slows down for serious moments. Whenever the physical humor is front and center, though, it's an enjoyable romp.

The supporting cast is charming, top to bottom. Victor Garber plays Gail's pleasantly put-upon father, and Betty White pops up as Grandma Bunny, an octogenarian with a lusty streak. (Although, doesn't that describe all of White's TV and movie gags lately?)

Kristin Chenoweth plays Georgia, an impossibly spunky celebrity wedding planner, Billy Unger is Marni's wisecracking kid brother, and Sean Wing turns up as an old would-be flame of Marni's from school.

I especially liked Kyle Bornheimer as Tim, an old boyfriend of Joanna's who Marni invites to the wedding rehearsal to stir up the pot. Turns out Tim has some deeper-seated issues, which Bornheimer hilariously lets bubble to the surface.

No one is going to confuse "You Again" with great filmmaking. But if you can stand the slow stretches, you'll find an agreeably entertaining family-friendly comedy with a little bit of bite.

2.5 stars out of four

Review: "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole"

I don't know what the thing is with long movie titles these days. I think it started with the first "Pirates of the Caribbean," which wasn't content to just be inspired by a theme park ride, it had to have "The Curse of the Black Pearl," too. Or maybe it was the "Harry Potter" flicks with their endless extensions.

Now we have a children's fantasy book the with the pleasant-enough title of "Guardians of Ga'Hoole" that has somehow become a movie with the tongue-tripping moniker, "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole." This at least cues us in that it's about owls, and was made by the same animation studio behind the "Happy Feet" flicks.

Perhaps befitting the mythology surround owls, the film's denizens are much prouder than dancing penguins. The Guardians wear helmets and wield little swords or metal extensions on their claws into battle.

The movie, based on a series of 15 (!) books by Kathryn Lasky, is quite derivative, transplanting the familiar tropes of the fantasy genre onto owls. There's the young dreamer plucked out of obscurity for a vast adventure in faraway lands, with supernatural forces at work, a gathering cloud of evil, and the forces of light holding it at bay.

At one point, an older owl urges his young protégé to "Use your gizzard!", and we can practically hear the echo of Ben Kenobi instructing Luke about the Force.

I should point out this film was directed by Zack Snyder, whose previous movies were R-rated, ultra-violent flicks: "Dawn of the Dead," "300" and "Watchmen." Jumping into PG-rated animated fare for kiddies seems an unlikely career move for him.

Still, I liked the movie well enough to endorse it for smaller children. The animation is terrific, with the characters managing to have distinctive anthropomorphic personalities while remaining quite owl-like in their appearance and mannerisms.

And for once, the 3D effects don't look like they were slapped on as an afterthought.
Soren (voice by Jim Sturgess) is a young owlet just learning to fly along with his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten). One day they're bird-napped by some warriors and recruited into the Ice Claws, the band of owls led by Metal Beak (Joel Edgerton), who wears a sinister mask over his ravaged face. He and his mate Nyra (Helen Mirren) are committed to the racial supremacy of the larger, stronger owl breeds.

Soren grew up listening to the stories of his father (Hugo Weaving) about the Guardians, the fabled protectors of the owl kingdoms, and especially the great warrior Lyze of Kiel. He thought it was just lore, but since their ancient enemies are real, perhaps the Guardians are, too.

He escapes with Gylfie (Emily Barclay), a small elf owl, but not Kludd, who chooses to remain among The Pure Ones, as Nyra dubs her promising young recruits. They pick up companions along the way, including an immense owl who likes to sing and another named Digger who, well, digs.

Eventually they make their way to the secret island of Ga'Hoole where the Guardians reside, setting up the big showdown with Metal Beak and his flock. Ezylryb, a scarred little screech owl (Geoffrey Rush) who is the local historian, instructs Soren how to fly in extreme circumstances, and offers some sobering lessons about mythologizing war.

The film contains all sorts of strange elements that don't quite mesh. There's a subplot about the Pure Ones gatherings flecks of magical metal from "pellets" -- the fur and bones of digested rodents spit up by the owls. For some reason Soren's family has a snake as a nursemaid. And Metal Beak keeps his slaves in line through "moon-blinking," hypnotizing them by making them sleep at night, or something.

Despite its inflated title, "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole" feels like an epic tale crammed down to kiddie-movie size.

2.5 stars out of four

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review: "The Virginity Hit"

Just in case you were wondering, a foursome of New Orleans teens did not really make a pact to lose their virginity, pledge to smoke a ceremonial bong every time one of them crossed the finish line, and use cell phone cameras to record the mortifying misadventures of one member's pathetic attempts to deflower himself.

This may seem obvious to you, even if you didn't know that "The Virginity Hit" was produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as sort of an extension of their "Funny or Die" web site. But in a day when hoaxes like "I'm Still Here" and "Exit Through the Gift Shop" abound, it's best to make clear we're smack dab in mockumentary land.

The film, written and directed by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, contains plenty of clues that it's a put-on. The one that jumps right out is that all the girls in it are super-cute, while the boys they hook up with are dweebs who are not, shall we say, teen versions of Brad Pitt.

Only in fiction do gorgeous high school gals fall for skinny nerds, even if they have a great personality, and Matt Bennett most certainly does not.

Matt -- like most of the cast, he uses his real name -- is the least outgoing of the group. He wears glasses and tends to fade into the background in social situations. He has been dating Nicole Weaver for two years, but in another bit of claptrap that exists only in Hollywood, she wants to have sex while he wants to wait until it can be "perfect."

Matt lives with an adoptive family, his mother having died when he was young and his father flaking out on drugs. His "brother" is Zack Pearlman, who looks and sounds way too much like Jonah Hill for it to have been a coincidence. Zack is a budding filmmaker who documents everything that happens, and also pulls Matt's strings like a master puppeteer.

To wit: Matt finally agrees to do the deed with Nicole, even renting out a swanky suite at an old downtown hotel. Little does she know the room is festooned with microphones courtesy of Zack, who along with the rest of the gang is camped out in the adjoining room, listening to the proceedings.

This is pretty much a total rip-off of the webcam scene from the first "American Pie," of which this movie is more or less an update with slicker technology.

I like the idea for this movie more than the one they actually made. It's just not consistently funny, and plays more like the home movies of a bunch of well-to-do partying teens. A few grown-ups float in and out of the background, but these kids have no real parental supervision.

Once things sour with Nicole, Zack makes it his mission to pop Matt's cherry, which leads from one ridiculous set-up to another.

After posting the disaster with Nicole on YouTube -- Zack posts everything on YouTube -- they field a random offer from a hot 25-year-old to do the honors herself. But she demands that he wear a very specific, very expensive brand of suit, and do some personal alterations down below.

This is a probably the cleverest part of the movie, as Zack and his camera are banished, but then we watch Matt's adventures with this woman continue from angles Zack could not possibly have captured, and ... well, you'll have to see.

Sort of a "Porky's" for the age of YouTube, "The Virginity Hit" isn't nearly as raunchy as it pretends to be, and not nearly funny enough as it needs to be. If it were on Ferrell and McKay's site, I'd vote Die.

1.5 stars out of four

Review: "Wild Grass"

If you insist on imposing a conventional narrative understanding of film onto "Wild Grass," you're bound to come away disappointed. But if you give in to the movie and abandon the notion of coherent storytelling in favor of imaginative visuals and playful encounters, then ... you may still be left frustrated.

I make no bones about my preference for narrative film. Every time I sit in a theater and the lights go down, the plea that comes to mind is, "Tell me a story." One can recognize the pure cinematic genius of a Bunuel, Warhol or Fellini while still recognizing that spinning a great yarn is the heart of what making movies is all about.

Director Alain Resnais is generally recognized as part of the French New Wave, even though he was already making movies when Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were still posing as film critics. Nearly 90, he's still at it. And while I bless him for doing what he obviously loves so late in life, I did not find much to love about his newest, "Wild Grass."

This is the story ... dang, there I go again ... about a man and a woman brought together by a wallet. Her wallet. While shopping for shoes, her purse is stolen, and he finds her red wallet next to his car in a parking garage.

Seeing her identification, the man (André Dussollier) seems to recognize the woman from long ago. Based on the wallet's contents, she is a private person, well-to-do and flies planes as a hobby. Eventually, he turns in the wallet to the police, though he is terrified of going to the station. According to his interior monologue, he is worried that he will be recognized.

There is trouble in his past -- dark and violent. His thoughts often turn to killing people who annoy him. He goes by the name Georges Palet, though we feel certain this is not his real name.

The woman, Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma), is a dentist with flaming red hair who treasures her independence. Other than her partner and best friend (Emmanuelle Devos), she does not seem to have any significant personal relationships, other than cavorting with some other pilots.

She calls to thank him for returning the wallet. He asks to meet her, she questions why, and he snaps at her. Then he starts stalking her apartment, leaving long intimate messages on her answering machine, and dropping notes in her mailbox.

Eventually the police get involved again, this time to warn Georges to leave Marguerite alone. Curiously, as soon as his interest in her begins to wane, she seeks him out. His obsession with having a vital connection with a stranger becomes hers.

Is the interest romantic? Perhaps, but Georges is married, although his wife (Anne Consigny) does not seem bothered by his fixation on another woman; she even invites Marguerite over for coffee while he is away watching an old American war movie, "The Bridges at Toko-Ri."

Resnais, working from a screenplay by Alex Reval and Laurent Herbiet based on the novel by Christian Gailly, sends his camera soaring and flitting about his characters, often joining their faces in not so much a split-screen as a cloud of interconnection.

I think the theme is supposed to be about the recognition of perfect love, but if this is love then it's the creepiest kind imaginable. The feeling I was left with was that Georges belongs (back?) in prison, Marguerite has a borderline personality disorder, and the other characters are mere constructions to facilitate the plot, such as it is.

"Wild Grass" is about the randomness of life, and how the meaning behind arbitrary events is incomprehensible and opaque. This also describes what the experience of watching the film is like.

1.5 stars out of four

Review: "Bran Neu Dae"

"Bran Nue Dae" is based on a 1990 musical, the first to put Australian Aborigines at the center of a hit stage play filled with show-stopper tunes and spectacle. I think it probably worked better on the stage, though the new film version is pleasant enough.

I've always said that musicals rise or fall based on the appeal of individual songs. "Bran Nue Dae" has at least a couple that are eminently hummable, though I can't say I'm rushing out to buy the soundtrack.

The title is a phonetic pronunciation of "Brand New Day," and a tip of the hat to the legacy of white settlers who made it their mission to convert and integrate the native people Down Under. Often perpetrated under the yoke of Christianity, Aboriginal language and culture was suppressed.

Father Benedictus, played by Geoffrey Rush, is emblematic of the attitude of whites toward the Aborigine. He treats the boys at his school in Perth as wayward sheep in need of a stern hand, but underneath there's a condescending form of racism that makes him feel duty-bound to civilize these dark-skinned heathens -- white man's burden and all that twaddle.

His top pupil is Willie (Rocky McKenzie), a youth who's being groomed to become a priest, but who secretly yearns for a quiet life back in Broome, taking care of his mother, fishing with his friends, and romancing young Rosie.

Rosie is played by Jessica Mauboy, whose irresistible smile and heaven-sent pipes would make her a natural for "Australian Idol," if there is such a thing. (Wait, there is, I just Googled it -- she was on the show in 2006 and came in as runner-up.)

After a midnight raid of the school canteen goes awry, Willie flees in disgrace, meaning to make his way back to Broome. But how to tell his mother (Ningali Lawford) about his fall from grace? Unbeknownst to him, Father Benedictus is hot on his trail.

Willie falls in with Tadpole (Ernie Dingo), a roving vagabond who turns out to be his uncle; he offers songs and sage advice in between drinks. They're picked up by a pair of young hippies in a VW bus -- the girl is played by Missy Higgins, an Aussie singer of some following.

Directed and co-written by Rachel Perkins based on the stage version by Jimmy Chi and his band Kuckles, "Bran Nue Dae" is a kooky, deliriously happy mix of happenstance and broadly-drawn characters who are apt to break into song at any given moment. It's not quite enough for me to recommend, but I'm not unhappy to have seen it.

The story is set in 1969, which gives a tinge of innocence to the proceedings, as Australia's native folk were just starting to assert their right to live their lives unspoilt. To have that attitude summed up in Broadway-style songs with lyrics like, "There's nothing that I'd rather be / Than to be an Aborigine / And watch you take my precious land away" feels less like musical rebellion than schmaltzy sell-out.

2.5 stars out of four

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Video review: "Robin Hood"

Here would be my one-word review of "Robin Hood": Unnecessary.

The fabled bandit of Sherwood Forest has been depicted innumerable times, almost since the dawn of cinema. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland mix bits and pieces of the various Robin Hood legend for their own pastiche that never convinces us of its essential reason for existing.

Russell Crowe plays Robin Longstride, a humble archer in Richard the Lionheart's army, recently returned from the Crusades. He impersonates a dead nobleman to make good his escape, and finds himself stuck in the middle of a political battle over the throne.

Marian (Cate Blanchett), who was married to the dead guy, is forced to carry on the charade with this stranger playing her husband, and finds she likes him better than the old one.

The movie grows silly in the middle, and briefly is enjoyable for it. But then the heavy, portentous drama reasserts itself, and we're treated to dull speeches about nobility residing in the heart of the common man, yada-yada.

This bewildering film is schizophrenic: It couldn't decide which of the many faces of the Robin Hood mythology to wear, so it tries them all on.

Once again, the trend of underwhelming movies arriving on video with stupendous extras continues.

On DVD, a director's cut adds 15 minutes to the film's run time, and 10 deleted scenes add 13 minutes more. A 62-minute making-of documentary touches on all aspects of production, and includes the insight by producer Brian Grazer that they were aiming for "the 'Gladiator' version of Robin Hood."

A digital copy of the film is also included.

On upgrading to Blu-ray, you gain "The Art of Nottingham," which includes hundreds of still images documenting pre-production, costumes, behind-the-scenes and other goodies.

The centerpiece is a "director's notebook" that includes pop-up video with commentary by Ridley Scott, which includes an interactive feature that allows you to pause, view other extras, and then resume.

The extras for "Robin Hood" are right on target. Would that more good movies could receive such a splendid video release.

Movie: 2 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars

Monday, September 20, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Wall Street" (1987)

With the sequel, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" arriving this week, I thought it time to take another look at the 1987 original. I hadn't seen Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning film (for Michael Douglas' bravura performance) since it came out in theaters.

Like the rest of Stone's oeuvre, it's about as subtle as a sledgehammer. But his filmmaking style is like heavy metal: When he hits the right chords, nobody plays with as much power or brash energy.

It's always fascinating what you remember from a film you saw once long ago. I had a clear memory of only two scenes: One is when slithery corporate raider Gordon Gekko (like I said, subtle) gives his "Greed is good" speech. That moment crystallized the perception of 1980s excess for decades to come.

The other involves Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), Gekko's ambitious young protege. Bud has started to become a high roller under Gekko's tutelage of insider information and manipulating stocks, and is looking at Upper East Side apartments.

The older real estate agent is quickly rushing him through a fabulous penthouse, registers his hesitation and decides the young man is out of his league. She calls him "kid," offers to show him something more downscale. Sheen has this great reaction where he tries to hide his resentment at her condescension, then casually orders, "Offer nine-fifty." Meaning, $950,000 (or about $1.8 million in today's dollars.) One senses he's buying the place just to impress her.

Other things slipped out of memory. Chief among those is Bud's affair with Darien, an ambitious interior designer played by Daryl Hannah. Despite her face appearing on the film's poster, I had completely forgotten she was even in it.

Watching the movie again, I see why: The Bud-Darien romance is the weakest thing in the movie, a totally flat and unbelievable pairing. Darien walks out the minute it appears Bud will no longer be able to support her lavish lifestyle, and we're happy to see her go.

The encounters between Charlie Sheen and his father Martin Sheen are as strong as I remember: Despite only a handful of scenes, the elder Sheen has a convincing, easy authority as Bud's father, an airline mechanic and union leader who sees right through Gekko's manipulations. He can't believe that his son makes more money than him, but is always borrowing cash to pay for lavish suits and a Manhattan apartment.
"There's no nobility in poverty anymore, Dad. One day you'll be proud of me, you'll see," Bud insists.
"It's yourself you gotta be proud of, Huckleberry," his dad advises.
I love that little nickname at the end, a combination of affection and paternal authority. Stone wrote the screenplay with Stanley Weiser, and if some elements like the portrayal of Darien don't measure up, it's still a thoroughly engrossing story with a lot of verve, sharp observation and smart dialogue.

Example: Gekko explains that he's just spent over $1 million to buy a seat on the New York Zoo board. "That's the thing you got to understand about WASPs: They love animals. They can't stand people."

Stone's timing with the original film was excellent, arriving right around the time of the big stock crash of '87. The sequel seems fortuitous as well, with the current economic downturn caused (in large part) by banks taking on too much bad credit.

I don't think "Wall Street" was an indictment of capitalism per se, but its excesses and the way unscrupulous people could cheat the markets. We're seeing that again today, where corporate executives accept -- demand, even -- lavish bonuses even as their companies are laying people off by the thousands.

The ideal of the meritocracy seems further away than ever, as long as people like Gordon Gekko are happy to game the system for their own benefit.

3.5 stars out of four

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bonus video review: "Return of the Living Dead" on Blu-ray

I was astonished when, in recent years, I kept hearing 1985's "Return of the Living Dead" referred to as a comedy. Sure, I thought, there are plenty of schlocky moments, silly humor and camp dialogue. This is, after all, a movie in which one of the main characters does an impromptu striptease in a graveyard, and spends the rest of the film naked -- even after she's turned into a zombie.

But a straight-out comedy? This was one of the seminal movie experiences of my teen years, a turning point where I realized that cheap, bloody horror films can be as integral a part of your cinematic diet as Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen and Ridley Scott.

Speaking of Ridley Scott, the progeny of "Living Dead" is interesting. Dan O'Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for 1979's "Alien," directed by Scott, stepped behind the camera for this film. John Russo, who co-wrote the screenplay for George A. Romero's "Night of the Living Dead," had a dispute with his old partner.

They resolved their differences by essentially splitting the zombie cannon between them, with Romero's subsequent pictures using the suffix "of the Dead," while Russo's would be branded "of the Living Dead."

These two writers, O'Bannon and Russo, got together to create what is, for my money, one of the all-time great zombie flicks. The disturbing violence, which somehow managed to muster an R rating from the MPAA, coupled with some terrific creature effects (on a budget of $4 million), and the aforementioned naked zombie girl combined to make an indelible imprint on my impressionable young mind.

The series would go on to spawn four sequels, none of which O'Bannon or Russo had anything to do with -- not that they were missing out on any glory.

Romero has enjoyed something of a revival in the last decade, which has lead to the Living Dead movies being denigrated as inferior castoffs from the Church of Zombiology. I don't know why; I think "Return of the Living Dead" is vastly superior to Romero's "Day of the Dead," which came out the same year. And 2005's "Land of the Dead" was so uninspiring I haven't even bothered to watch the other two that have come out since.

"Return of the Living Dead" has finally received a sumptuous Blu-ray release. If you're a fan of this movie, or just zombie flicks in general, this edition falls into don't-miss category.

It comes with a making-of documentary, a featurette on designing the film, another featurette about horror films of that era, special zombie subtitles and theatrical trailers. There are also two separate commentary tracks -- one by O'Bannon and production designer William Stout, and another by cast and crew.

O'Bannon cheerily admits in these extras that he intended the film as a comedy, but in their commentaries the cast talk about playing it straight. (With the notable exception of James Karen, whose over-the-top theatrics added a bit of hammy hot sauce to the proceedings.)

Despite the director's opinion, I still regard it as a genuinely horrifying movie that happens to have a lot of humor in it, rather than a comedy.

The zombies of "Return of the Living Dead" depart in ways great and small from the classic, Romero-style zombie.

The most noticeable of these is the first known appearance of "fast" zombies. Until then, zombies were always slow, shuffling creatures. That was part of their appeal as monsters -- they weren't very fast, and any able human could outrun them, but they were relentless.

There has since come to be a great debate among horror devotees about "fast" vs. "slow" zombies, though at this point only Romero still appears to be employing the slow kind. Even the 2004 remake of Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" featured fast zombies.

O'Bannon and Russo's zombies are also much more intelligent. They retain their ability to speak and reason, at least to a limited degree. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, a zombie gets on the CB of an ambulance and tricks the dispatcher, asking her to "send more paramedics." In another, a green female zombie -- well, her top half anyway, the rest of her having been hacked off above the pelvis -- is strapped to a table and interrogated.

Why do you eat brains, she is asked. "The pain ... the pain of being dead," she moans. Eating fresh human brains makes the pain go away, at least for awhile. This would differentiate these zombies from classic Romero ones, which were essentially cannibals who feasted upon the entire body.

Another thing to note is that in "Return of the Living Dead," being bitten by a zombie does not turn you into one -- only exposure to a deadly chemical developed by the military. In this way, the infestation of zombies is somewhat limited. Even though the gas can be spread through the air or seep into the ground through rain, the outbreak won't be exponential.

Also, these zombies are more resilient to damage. Piercing the brain or beheading the zombie does not stop them. The individual pieces keep coming after you. (Though I'm not sure what a disembodied foot would gain from killing, since it has no way to eat and thus relieve the pain of being dead.) They can only be destroyed by being completely reduced to ash, melted in acid, etc.

Of course, in the end the military solves its little problem by nuking the entire town of Louisville, where the story is set (though it was shot in Los Angeles).

The film just looks terrific in hi-def, and I noticed several details I'd missed before. For example, the half-zombie leaks spinal fluid from her "tail" during her interrogation, forming a nasty little clear pool of goo. Linnea Quigley's famous nude dance on a grave included a modesty insert to cover her most private regions. (In the commentary, she refers to it as a "plug" ... yargh!)

And the Tarman -- the deliciously slimy zombie/skeleton -- has never seemed more repulsive. I was surprised to learn that it was not an animatronic piece like I always thought, but an actor (Allan Trautman) wearing a special suit. For his beheading scene, they simply hired a shorter actor who had to wear the same, smelly outfit.

O'Bannon and Russo may have intended it as a comedy, but I still don't put "Return of the Living Dead" in the same category as "Shaun of the Dead" or "Zombieland." It's just too damn gory, too scary and too frackin' good to be dismissed as a zom com.

Movie: 4 stars out of four
Extras: 3.5 stars out of four

Friday, September 17, 2010

Review: "I'm Still Here"

This film review is too late. Hours before I saw "I'm Still Here," director Casey Affleck admitted to the New York Times that it was all a hoax. Affleck called Joaquin Phoenix's "retirement" from acting to star in a mockumentary about the collapse of his life a bit of "gonzo filmmaking" after the style of Hunter S. Thompson, who blended journalism, fiction and pharmaceuticals.

There is plenty of all three in "I'm Still Here." It starts out as a raw documentary in late 2008, right after Phoenix abruptly announced he would make no more films, opting to become a hip-hop artist instead. He grows progressively shabbier, his hair and beard approaching caveman proportions, he snorts prodigious amounts of strange powders, his middle grows thick, and the sunglasses he wears constantly anywhere outside his house become swathed in progressive layers of tape meant to hold them together.

These humble wrappings cannot mask the disintegration behind them, nor can the revelation the whole thing was a sham repair the irreparable damage Phoenix has done to a once-promising career.

Here's why: "I'm Still Here" is a practical joke, and not a very good one, either in conception or execution. I'm still confused about why Affleck would make his revelation now, when the film was just expanding beyond a few cities. It seems he gave away the punch line before most people heard the set-up.

Affleck and Phoenix thought they were playing a gag on everyone else. At one point after his disastrous, mumbling, incoherent performance on the Dave Letterman show, Phoenix breaks down in tears: "Now I'm going to be a joke forever."

He would prove right, as a short time later Ben Stiller nailed Phoenix with a dead-on impersonation at the Academy Awards ceremony, which cemented the image in the public's mind. Having intentionally set up himself up as a punching bag for pop culture, Phoenix may find it hard to shake that persona.

Curiously, Stiller appears earlier in the documentary -- or mockumentary, I guess we should now call it -- to pitch Phoenix a role in his movie "Greenberg" (which was ultimately played by Rhys Ifans, brilliantly). This begs the question of whether Stiller was in on the joke.

In fact, once we know the film is a hoax, the only possible remaining entertainment value it has is in trying to guess which interactions are real and which are faux.

Certainly Phoenix, who comes across as a whining, colossally narcissistic brat, manages to fool a lot of people. He spends much of his time chasing around Sean "P. Diddy" Combs to convince him to produce his album. Combs, who is wary that he's being played, seems like the smartest person in the film.

I don't know much about rap music, but Phoenix is just terrible at it. He has no instinct for the rhythm and cadence of the lyrics he has (supposedly) written.

There's a lot of abuse directed at Antony and Larry, Phoenix's friends/assistants. No one who is really your friend accepts a paycheck for being one, but Phoenix apparently doesn't understand this. The film also contains a copious amount of frontal male nudity, and at one point Antony defecates on Phoenix while he's sleeping (or at least mimes doing so) in retaliation.

That could be an apt metaphor for the contempt Affleck and Phoenix are showing the audience with their grand, silly stunt. But the movie actually contains a better one: Attempting to flee the premiere of his "last" movie, "Two Lovers," Phoenix stands in a lonely stairwell in the bowels of the theater, vainly pushing on a door marked with huge letters, "Not an Exit."

Having faked his exit, Joaquin Phoenix may find people unmotivated to welcome him back in.

1.5 stars out of four

My postmortem on NewsTilt

Dear Paul Biggar,

Thanks for finally posting your promised postmortem on NewsTilt. Although as one of your former contributors, I wonder why it took three months to summarize the death of a company that only lived for two.

Eulogies are meant to be delivered when the corpse is still relatively fresh, not already in the ground and the worms busy plying their trade. They're like news in that way; perhaps that's why the term "deadline" has always seemed apropos.

Still, I'm appreciative that you took the time -- eventually -- to describe your thoughts, motivations and analysis. I think you're spot-on with most of it, especially the limitations Facebook placed on the site and especially its users. When they're reading a newspaper or magazine, people understand that they're getting a bookended experience that has been pre-molded for them. On the Web, they want to roam unfettered, and anything that places restrictions on that soon falls out of their daily loop of browsing.

As someone who participated in NewsTilt from the start -- and, at four to six pieces a week, I daresay was your most prolific contributor -- the interesting part to me is this debate over hiring experienced journalists vs. newbies. You say the journalists you selected were "too good" and quickly lost motivation, and that in retrospect that you should have hired kids fresh out of college who would post five pieces a day.

Perhaps this would have garnered more clicks, but then NT would have surely become the content farm you claim to abhor. It's easy and speedy to aggregate and comment upon the news others have produced; not so much to be the one churning it out.

Here's a truism that not very many readers, CEOs or even some editors really grasp: Good, original journalism takes time.

When I was first starting out I worked at a tiny newspaper for which I did crank out four or five articles a day. When I pull them out now, I'm embarrassed to have my name over them. Frankly, if Perez Hilton is our model for any kind of endeavor, then we might as well all just go into the dildo business.

I'm not surprised that only one-sixth of the journalists you recruited ever posted anything. Imho, your biggest mistake was not paying the writers from the start, even if it was a pittance. "Established" journalists like myself are imbued with funny ideas about being compensated for our work. We don't need exposure; we need cash.

Absent any reward, motivation is bound to flee. Some of us at least were willing to post for free for awhile and see if any money started flowing our way. Others were not, and I do not fault them for doing so.

I sense that you and Nathan believe yourselves to have done a tremendously honorable thing by returning the remaining 20 grand of your start-up funds to your investors. No doubt they're happy to have it back, and should be thanked for putting it up.

Personally, I think the money would have been much better spent compensating the people contributing to the site. If you had thought to write some checks to those most responsible for the success or failure of NewsTilt, even if it was just 40 or 50 bucks a week (to those actually posting), some momentum would've happened.

I won't promise that things would have been a rousing success. But perhaps here in September we would have been talking about how to raise more funds to continue NewsTilt, instead of looking back with regret and reproach on its early demise. After a scant eight or nine weeks of existence, I don't consider NewsTilt to have failed so much as been aborted.

I regard you and Nathan as decent chaps who had good intentions. But from my perspective, you violated the primary principle of what you claimed NewsTilt was about: Putting journalists first. It's all very well to claim that in abstract. But when it came time to (literally) put your money where your mouth was, once again journalists found themselves at the back of the line.

That's just my two cents worth. Which, of course, is a pair of pennies more than anyone who wrote for NewsTilt ever received.

Christopher Lloyd

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review: "Easy A"

It's so bursting with originality and smart dialogue, I can forgive "Easy A" for sometimes seeming too literate for its own good. But this is, after all, a high school flick inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," so even though I didn't really buy the words coming out of the mouth of a precocious 17-year-old, I still enjoyed knowing somebody uttered them.

For example, at one point notorious high schooler Olive (Emma Stone) refers to a homosexual friend as "Kinsey 6 gay." Now, how many people seeing this movie are going to know who Alfred Kinsey was, or what his 6-point scale meant? Maybe 2 percent? (Other than us failed psychology majors, of course.)

But I'm impressed that rookie screenwriter Bert V. Royal and director Will Gluck put that in their movie, knowing it'll sail over the heads of most of their intended audience. Who knows, maybe a few will Google it, and be rewarded with a delayed chuckle.

Olive is a nobody at her high school in Ojai (an actual place in the California desert) who stumbles upon a left-handed way to popularity: She pretends to have slept with a college guy. In actuality she's still a virgin who can't get a date. But she loves the way people talk and stare. She may not exactly be liked, but at least she's known.

Then the aforementioned friend, who's been getting hassled by the jocks because of his suspected sexuality, asks Olive to pretend to sleep with him. They stage a very public tryst at a party. Soon he's one of the guys, and Olive has become the most notorious girl at school. She flaunts it by stitching a red "A" on all her (suddenly low-cut) blouses, reveling in her newfound power.

"Now I'll have to get a low-back tattoo and pierce something not on my head," Olive jokes.

Amanda Bynes plays Marianne, the snooty leader of the teen Christian coalition, who becomes determined to see Olive shunned right out of school. Meanwhile, her best friend Rhia (Alyson Michalka) is none too pleased about being shunted out of the spotlight.

Royal populates the movie with likeable if unlikely characters. Patricia Clarkson and Stanley play Olive's parents, steadfastly adoring and supportive but cheerily keeping things light, cracking jokes and tossing double entendres. They're the sort of folks every teen wants to have, but none of them do because they reside not in Ojai, Calif., but inside a writer's head.

Thomas Haden Church is Mr. Griffith, the English teacher who manages to make Nathaniel Hawthorne seem cool -- or at least tolerable -- to high school kids. He likes to wander around the school's common areas, confiscating cigarettes and dispensing sage advice wrapped in a world-weary sarcasm.

Things grow drearier for Olive when she pretends to have slept with a string of losers and nerds, who pay her off with gift cards from The Home Depot and such in return for rescuing their masculinity. Olive is offended when one pretend lover offers only a coupon. "I fake-rocked your world!" she protests.

Of course, being a smart girl Olive soon realizes that taking money for pretending to have sex is not terribly different from actually selling sex. Luckily Todd, the cute boy who plays the school mascot (Penn Badgley), decides to suddenly requite the ardor Olive had been directing his way since 8th grade. It's exactly like a scene out of the '80s movies she cherishes.

I think "Easy A" will be most remembered as Emma Stone's breakout performance. I thought she was a little flat in other movies like last year's "Zombieland," but this role allows her to be witty and cool and dark in a Winona-Ryder-in-"Heathers" sort of way.

3 stars out of four

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: "The Town"

"The Town" is such a well-executed cops-and-robbers drama dripping with Boston flavor, it takes us a while before we realize it's built on a mountain of Hollywood clichés.

Ben Affleck, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay, plays a careful bank robber who tosses his professional detachment out the window for the damsel-in-distress: The manager (Rebecca Hall) at the last bank he robbed.

Throw in a headstrong FBI agent (Jon Hamm) hot on his tail, a trigger-happy partner in crime (Jeremy Renner) and a local mob boss (Pete Postlethwaite) who won't let him walk away from the "family business," and the film practically churns itself out of a Screenwriting 101 class.

Oh, I almost forgot: This is the Affleck character's "one last job" before he calls it quits and heads to Florida.

(The film could have been even more pat -- I haven't read the novel on which it was based, Chuck Hogan's "Prince of Thieves," but I understand in the book the cop falls for the same girl.)

This review is sounding like a pan, but read the first half of the first sentence again: Affleck gives such a confident, authentic performance -- both in front of and behind the camera -- that these familiar tropes take on a lively, at times electric quality that make us feel like we're discovering them anew.

Renner is particularly good as Jim Coughlin, a crook and killer with two strikes against him, and swears there won't be a third. He accepts who he is, and is resigned to whatever fate a life of a crime holds for him. "If something goes down, we'll be holding court in the streets," he vows before a big heist.

When they were teenagers, Jim killed a guy to protect his best friend Doug MacRay (Affleck), doing nine years in prison without a peep. Maybe that's why Doug keeps him around as a wingman, despite Jim's tendency to shoot first, and ask no questions at all.

Affleck and his co-writers, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, take pains to make Doug a sympathetic character. He methodically plans out his robberies, right down to knowing the biographies of the bank guards and nuking the surveillance video tapes in the microwave, so we respect his attention to detail -- especially his efforts to prevent violence.

Things go awry when Jim kidnaps Claire (Hall). She's released unharmed, but Jim is jumpy that she might gives clues to the feds. She cooperates with Special Agent Frawley (does the FBI have regular, un-special Agents?) but fails to pass on a key detail.

Doug agrees to shadow Claire, ends up bumping into her, and finds the attraction powerful, and mutual. Though they don't have a lot of scenes together, Affleck and Hall make the romance seem fleshy and real. I especially liked the undercurrent of class rivalry between them, with Doug a palooka Townie and Claire a yuppie interloper, or "Toonie."

That brings us to the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, whose rough-hewn, cloistered personality bleeds into every scene. Affleck and the rest of the cast nail the Beantown accent -- with such success, in fact, that I occasionally had trouble understanding them -- and the great cinematography (by Robert Elswit) captures the hardscrabble charm of the mean streets.

Affleck's always had screen presence, and with his hair starting to gray a little, it gives him a bit of authority he didn't have during his matinee idol days. "The Town" isn't quite as good as Affleck's directorial debut, the terrific "Gone Baby Gone," but clearly this is the work of a guy who knows how to tell stories.

Imagine what he could do with something a bit more original.

3 stars out of four

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Video review: "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time"

This summer's crop of movies featured a lot of disappointments. But one I think just about everyone saw coming was "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time."

An action/adventure from king of schlock Jerry Bruckheimer? Based on a video game? Set in the ancient deserts of Persia? With no actual Persians among the principal cast?

When one considers the progeny of this sun-baked disaster, the question becomes not where did everything go wrong, but how did anyone ever think it would go right.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Dastan, a street urchin-turned-adopted prince of the realm. While sacking an enemy city he finds a magical dagger that can transport the bearer back in time one minute, so they can change the course of events to their favor. Soon Dastan and the dagger's guardian, Tamina (Gemma Arterton), are on the run with everyone pursuing them.
Alfred Molina is worth a few yucks as a criminally-minded sheik who despises how the government is taxing his ostrich racetrack.

Mostly, though, it's a stupefying sequence of action scenes where Dastan -- or at least Gyllenhaal's obvious stunt double -- acrobatically leaps about the screen, clashing swords and getting his derring-do on.

I like video games. And I love movies. But the two just weren't meant to be together.
Bonus features are rather skimpy in the DVD version, but perk up somewhat in Blu-ray.

The DVD comes only with a making-of documentary that touches on various aspects of production. The single-disc Blu-ray also comes with a single deleted scene: A banquet involving the serving of heads that sounds suspiciously similar to the "monkey brains" scene in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack has both these features, plus "The Sands of Time," an interactive feature that links to about 40 featurettes about the making of the film.

Movie: 1.5 stars
Extras: 2 stars

Monday, September 13, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Seventh Seal" (1957)

The name Ingmar Bergman is like a dividing line in the cinematic landscape. To some, he is synonymous with ambitious foreign filmmaking -- movies at their highest plane of existence, unabashedly striving for art rather than entertainment.

To others, though, the Swede epitomizes the self-serving, "artsy" side of movies -- films that are made by, about and for those who consider themselves the cultural elite.

I trend much closer to the former side when it comes to Bergman, though I'll confess that after sitting through a whole slew of Bergman for a class on him at NYU, I developed a shorthand for mockery: Characters kneeling while facing the camera as they gaze upward slightly in the distance while contemplating the remoteness of God.

The remoteness of God is very much the central theme of "The Seventh Seal," perhaps the best-known of Bergman's films. Rather than being dull and self-important, though, the film is an exhilarating if allegorical look at the struggle between faith and reason.

Being away from Bergman for a long time, I was reminded how playful the great Swede could be. This child-like quality is represented in the characters of Jof and his wife, traveling actors who have a baby boy. Jof (Nils Poppe) plays a fool and mostly behaves like one, too, but has a spiritual purity that allows him to see heaven-sent visions. His wife Mia (Bergman favorite Bibi Andersson) adores Jof, but dismisses his stories -- such as seeing the Virign Mary teaching the Child to walk -- as nonsense.

In contrast to the unburdened acrobat, Antonius Block struggles to find God in his heart. A nobleman and a knight who has just returned from the Crusades to find his homeland infested with the Black Death, Block (Max von Sydow) has seen the worst that humanity has to offer. Finding no redeeming value upon the earth, he has little faith that something better awaits in Heaven.

Block's squire is Jöns, a cynical rapscallion who delights in upsetting his master's delicate sensibilities with his bawdy songs and behavior. He's played by Gunnar Björnstrand, who starred in many Bergman films.

Jöns has a horrible scar running from the crown of his head to his eyebrow, putting a strange unnatural part in his close-cropped hair, but seems ready to resume his old life if given the chance. While the squire bears the physical mark of 10 years at war in the Holy Land, his knight is a beautiful, almost angelic presence with a halo of white hair. But his soul has been indelibly etched.

The framing story is a game of chess played between Block and Death himself (Bengt Ekerot). The reaper has come to claim Block's life, but is amused by the knight's challenge to let him live as long as their game goes on. Block quickly gains the upper hand in their game, but Death disguises himself as a priest and hears the knight's confession, in which he reveals his strategy. From there, it is only a matter of time until Death prevails.

Block takes Jof and his family under his protection, not realizing he has brought his doom upon them as well. Later, though, he distracts Death long enough to let them make their escape.

The films ends with one of Jof's visions, the iconic image of Death leading Block and his party away on a far hillside in a forced dance of death. (Interestingly, crew members stood in for the real actors in that long shot, since Bergman captured it spontaneously at the end of a long day of shooting.)

For me the most affecting sequence of "The Seventh Seal" is when a group of flagellants wander into town, whipping and tearing at each other's flesh in the name of God. It stops the movie dead cold, but it's meant to, as we are presented with a stark depiction of the horrors committed in the name of religion. (The Flagellants were a very real and briefly popular movement in the Middle Ages.)

Block and Jöns also encounter a young girl who's been convicted of being a witch and sentenced to burn at the stake. The knight talks to her to see if she truly has had congress with Satan -- if he can have substantive proof of God's negative reflection, that would at least serve as something to bolster his own faith. But he looks in her eyes and sees only terror at her fate.

Jöns contemplates killing the mercenaries hired to carry out her execution, but Block appears willing to let matters take their course. He does, however, take steps to ease her suffering.

The title, of course, refers to the Book of Revelations, foretelling the end of mankind. The seventh seal is opened, followed by a period of silence before God lets fall his Final Judgment. "The Seventh Seal" is a film not about the end of time, but the silence between man and God.

4 stars out of four

Fall/winter film preview

September and October used to be the dregs for movies, but 2010 actually offers a strong lineup for the early fall season, including "The Social Network" and Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" sequel.

November and December are shaping up nicely, too, with the usual spate of serious-minded Oscar hopefuls, not to mention the beginning of the end for "Harry Potter."

Here's a rundown of autumn's film offerings, with my highly subjective take on the buzz surrounding each movie: Tops, Taps or Tipping either way.

Release dates are subject to change.

The Town (Sept. 17) -- Ben Affleck's back in a big way in this gritty drama about a close-knit family of Boston bank robbers. Affleck also directed and co-wrote. Tops

Easy A (Sept. 17) -- Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlett Letter" gets an edgy update in this comedy starring Emma Stone as a high-school loser who becomes notorious when she pretends to be a promiscuous harlot. Tipping

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Sept. 24) -- Everything's cyclical, especially movies and financial markets. Michael Douglas reprises his Oscar-winning role as shark Gordon Gekko, with Shia LaBeouf as his eager new wingman. Tipping

You Again (Sept. 24) -- Kristen Bell plays a beautiful swan forced to revisit her ugly duckling days when confronted with her high school tormenter marrying her brother. Jamie Lee Curtis, as her mother, replicates the conflict with old foe Sigourney Weaver. Tipping

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (Sept. 24) -- After three ultra-violent flicks, director Zack Snyder ("Watchmen," "300") tackles a PG-rated animated adventure about owls. We'll see if audiences give a hoot. Taps

The Social Network (Oct. 1) -- There's tremendous hype surrounding this cinematic account of the birth of Facebook. Indie star Jesse Eisenberg goes mainstream playing CEO Mark Zuckerberg, depicted as back-stabbing schemer. Directed by David Fincher from a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Tops

Stone (Oct. 1) -- Here's a creepy love triangle: Robert De Niro plays a parole officer facing retirement, Edward Norton is the skeevy convict who is his last case, and Milla Jovovich plays the criminal's wife who acts as temptress. Tipping

Let Me In (Oct. 1) -- Between "Let the Right One In" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," the Swedes are providing a lot of fodder lately for Hollywood remakes. I'm dubious, but the casting of Chloe Moretz from "Kick-Ass" as a girl vampire lends hope. Tipping

Secretariat (Oct. 8) -- Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery, the dilettante housewife who owned the Triple Crown-winning Secretariat, in a drama more about the woman than the horse. Tipping

Nowhere Boy (Oct. 8) -- Another "Kick-Ass" star, Aaron Johnson, stars in this biopic of a young John Lennon before The Beatles made it big. Tipping

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Oct. 15) -- After the lackluster second installment in the Swedish trilogy about disturbed computer genius Lisbeth Salander, I'm inching toward the delete key. Taps

Red (Oct. 15) -- Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren and John Malkovich play retired CIA agents on the run in this spy comedy. The preview with Mirren firing a massive machine gun is strangely compelling. Tipping

Conviction (Oct. 15) -- Another Oscar nomination for Hilary Swank? It's shaping up that way in this true-life story of a high-school dropout who became a lawyer to get her brother's murder conviction overturned. With Sam Rockwell. Tops

The Company Men (Oct. 22) -- Picking up the thematic threads of "Up in the Air," Ben Affleck stars as a hotshot executive who gets laid off, and struggles to pick up the pieces. With Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Costner. Tops

Hereafter (Oct. 22) -- There's been almost a total information blackout about Clint Eastwood's new movie, other than it stars Matt Damon and has something to do with the afterlife. Let's hope he doesn't go all M. Night Shymalan on us. Taps.

Monsters (Oct. 29) -- This could be the next low-budget sci-fi/thriller to break out, a la "District 9." It's about -- you guessed it -- critters from another planet. Taps

127 Hours (Nov. 5) -- James Franco plays Aron Ralston, a real-life mountain climber who amputated his own arm after being trapped. From "Slumdog Millionaire" writer/director Danny Boyle, so it's got a great pedigree, but the trailer deceptively avoids what the movie is actually about. Tipping

Megamind (Nov. 5) -- Is it me, or does this DreamWorks animated flick seem suspiciously similar to "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog"? (Google it.) The evil scientist is the protagonist, and his Superman-ish nemesis plays the heavy. Tipping

Due Date (Nov. 5) -- "The Hangover" director Todd Phillips re-teams with star Zach Galifianakis for another raunchy road trip comedy, this time with Robert Downey Jr. as an expectant father. Tipping

Fair Game (Nov. 5) -- Seven year later, will people remember the Valerie Plame scandal, let alone want to buy a ticket to see a one-sided dramatization starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts? Taps

Morning Glory (Nov. 12) -- Harrison Ford trades in his bullwhip for a news anchor pompadour in this dramedy about an ambitious TV producer who hires a crotchety journalist to co-host a lightweight morning show. With Diane Keaton and Rachel McAdams. Tops

Unstoppable (Nov. 12) -- Denzel Washington must really like trains, and director Tony Scott. After "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," he stars (with Chris Pine) in this thriller about a runaway train. Tipping

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part I (Nov. 19) -- And people thought "The Lord of the Rings" milked its finale. The final chapter of the epic journey of a boy wizard, in which Harry goes wand-to-wand with Voldemort, is being split in two. You'll have to wait until July 15 for the real end. Tipping

The Next Three Days (Nov. 19) -- Russell Crowe plays a regular schmo determined to break his wife (Elizabeth Banks) out of prison after she's falsely convicted of murder. With Liam Neeson. Tipping

Love and Other Drugs (Nov. 24) -- Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal are bed-hopping types who hook up, but then he wants to Get Serious in this romantic comedy/drama. Tipping

Burlesque (Nov. 24) -- Based on the preview, this musical starring Cher trips over every cliché of the small-town-girl-goes-to-the-big-city shtick. Taps

Tangled (Nov. 24) -- The Rapunzel fairy tale gets a modern updating in this Disney animation movie that emphasizes action/adventure over princesses. Tipping

Black Swan (Dec. 1) -- Director Darren Aronofsky channels Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" in this stylized drama about rival ballet stars. Starring Natalie Portman. Tipping

The Fighter (Dec. 10) -- Mark Wahlberg stars in this biopic about boxer Micky Ward, a never-say-quit type coached by his reformed brother (Christian Bale). Tipping

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Dec. 10) -- After the second film based on the C.S. Lewis fantasy books disappointed, the franchise switched studios and directors -- never a good omen. Taps

How Do You Know (Dec. 17) -- Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson play a romantic triangle in what would appear to be another dopey romantic comedy. Except for two things: Writer/director James L. Brooks ("As Good As It Gets") and co-star Jack Nicholson. Tops

TRON: Legacy (Dec. 17) -- A box office flop that became a Gen-X cultural touchstone, the CGI-pioneering film gets a sequel nearly 30 years later. Jeff Bridges reprises his role as a video game designer, inside which his son is trapped. Will anyone born after 1990 care? Tipping

Yogi Bear (Dec. 17) -- Here's a TV retread for those put off by the snooty intellectualism of "Alvin and the Chipmunks." Taps

Country Strong (Dec. 22) -- Hollywood loves movies about down-and-out country singers making a comeback. Gwyneth Paltrow stars, and sings, apparently pretty well. Tipping

Little Fockers (Dec. 22) -- Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro team up a third time as a father and son-in-law odd couple. Sounds naughty, looks crappy. Taps

Gulliver's Travels (Dec. 22) -- A super-sized Jack Black stars in a very divergent adaptation of Jonathan Swift. Taps

Somewhere (Dec. 22) -- After the stylized stumble of "Marie Antoinette," writer/director Sofia Coppola appears to be back in understated "Lost in Translation" mode with this drama about a movie star (Stephen Dorff) downshifting from the high life. The film took top prize at the Vince film festival. Tipping

True Grit (Dec. 25) -- John Wayne's signature role gets remade by the Coen brothers ("No Country for Old Men"). With Jeff Bridges taking over the eye patch of marshal/hired gun Rooster Cogburn. Revisionist Western? Smile when you say that, pilgrim-O. Tipping

The Debt (Dec. 29) -- Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington star in this drama about Israeli agents sent to hunt down a notorious Nazi, only to face recriminations 30 years later. Tops

Blue Valentine (Dec. 31) -- Not too much is known about this romantic drama, other than it stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, it jumps around in time, and it was a Sundance favorite. Tops