Your Highness Review

Your-Highness-posterCome, my friends, gather ye ‘round as I share my story. It is a sad tale, of a film with so much lost potential, of powerful actors and directors sacrificing themselves for the sake of a few cheap laughs, of an audience that might have cared once… But do not fear, for the ending is a happy one: I escaped this treacherous labyrinth with only a flesh wound.

Oh so long ago (last weekend) in a land far, far away (everywhere in the United States), the magical director David Gordon Green’s YOUR HIGHNESS (2011) opened after much anticipation in the kingdom. Starring Danny McBride as the slovenly, worthless Prince Thadeous and James Franco as his heroic brother Fabious, Green’s film looked to pick up where this trio’s previous collaboration, 2008’s PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, left off. But it was not to be. Instead, working from a script by McBride and Ben Best, YOUR HIGHNESS abandons laconic brilliance and inspired improvisation for consistently dull frat-boy humor and a lot of gratuitous nudity.

When Fabious’s virgin fiancé Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel, disastrously wasted) is kidnapped by the evil warlock Leezar (Justin Theroux), the two royal brothers set off on a quest to rescue her. In an adventure that is part Don Quixote and part Lord of The Rings, the duo come to encounter a few obstacles that make me blush just to mention them, and not in a good way. I will not divulge too many of YOUR HIGHNESS’s laughs, because there are precious few, but suffice it to say that such creatures as a jellyfish-like gay Sorcerer and a well-hung minotaur are among them.

The fantasy aspects are not well conceived (many characters’ names end in “-ious” and the only evidence we have for this land being someplace other than Camelot are the two moons in the sky), and no, playing these plot devices for laughs does not create high comedy.

On the other hand, the production aspects are too expertly orchestrated: Tim Orr’s cinematography is nothing if not majestic, costume design is detailed and strong, and even the sets lend the story a feeling of whimsy much ignored by the script.  I was particularly impressed with certain visual effects, such as when a courtly slave named Julie speaks into a fire or when bolts of green light shoot down from the moon.

But here is where this review must get a bit more serious. Some of Green’s earlier films have been poetry in motion, enchanting blends of surrealist spectacle and jaded wisdom. Even PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, which took a very different route than his prior dramatic films, was impressive – not only was James Franco’s performance hysterical and precise, but the film was simply clever. Not so with YOUR HIGHNESS, which squanders not only the wide talents of the Oscar-nominated Franco and the crass McBride, but also performances from such respectable actors as Deschanel, Charles Dance, Toby Jones, and worst of all, Natalie Portman.

Portman just won a well-deserved Oscar, and while this film was deep into post-production before she was even nominated, the question must be posed: Why this film? Portman’s character Isabel (clever, I know) is one of the smallest roles in terms of screen time, and she spends much of it diving half-nude into pools, walking in on Thadeous masturbating, or posing very still for the camera. The role is effectively chauvinistic, and while that’s not an uncommon occurrence in movies, it seems nearly criminal to have cast such a respected and talented actress for it.

YOUR HIGHNESS is highly disappointing. I trusted David Gordon Green to make good films. I trusted Franco, Portman, McBride, and Deschanel to choose their projects a bit more carefully, or at least to go down on different, isolated ships. Although this film does not come straight from “Apatown”, it bears many qualities of a script tossed into Judd Apatow’s trash bin, then pulled out by a janitor and leaked to McBride & Best. Was this perhaps intended to smack big producers who demanded something more high concept in the face? Were the filmmakers and cast possibly working under the delusion I admit to sharing: that they had the Midas touch? What a letdown.

  • Directed by: David Gordon Green
  • Written by: Danny McBride & Ben Best
  • Thadeous – Danny McBride
  • Fabious – James Franco
  • Isabel – Natalie Portman
  • Leezar – Justin Theroux
  • Belladonna – Zooey Deschanel
  • Julie – Toby Jones
  • Courtney – Rasmus Hardiker
  • King Tallious – Charles Dance
  • Original Music by: Steve Jablonsky
  • Cinematography by: Tim Orr

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives Review

boonmee-209x300To champion a film as a work of art is an increasingly rare pleasure, but no other reaction seems appropriate in response to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s masterpiece UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES. Appropriately, the film won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, yet this official Thai entry for the Academy Awards was left off the list of 2011 Best Foreign Film nominees. To my eye, this is a tragedy – the sum of the film’s parts are, at times, hauntingly tense, intellectually evolved, aesthetically remarkable, and contrary to popular opinion, cohesive.

Generous and simple bee-farmer Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar, remarkable) is dying. His kidney is failing; neither he nor his illegal immigrant nurse Jaai (Samud Kugasang) can do anything about it, and Boonmee knows better than to fight karma: “I killed too many communists”, he explains. In the days leading up to his death, Boonmee revisits the lives he may have inhabited before this current one, most of which were in the bodies of animals. His visions are accompanied by two reunions to dear people he lost: his wife, Huay (Aphaiwonk, so powerful with little screen time), and his son, Boonsong (Kulhong).

Weerasethakul works here to create something that is one part science fiction, one part epic poem, one part tender drama, and one part lucid dream. Germane to this multiplicity is the collaboration between Weerasethakul and his cinematographers, Yukontorn Mingmongkon and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES is almost completely captured in still shots, each one appearing to be the work of a great Impressionist obsessed with lushness, complementary colors, and objects bathed in shade.

An ongoing motif is the shrouding of actors behind softly colored nets for keeping out bugs. Never has the concealment of characters been so exquisite as in these separate shots, sometimes bathing the nets in sunlight or making the subject nearly imperceptible. Light is manipulated here subtly and expertly, often wringing fluidity from the lack of movement in shots. Naturally, Boonmee himself is never behind a net: he braves buzzing bees, mosquitoes, and gnats as if to say, “What’s the use anymore? I’ve honey to harvest.”

This is truly such a resplendent, creative, intense film. I find that I am skeptical of any sort of religious or spiritual subplots, but faith and spirituality take UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES to another dimension. In many ways, that spirituality appears completely foreign. It allows Boonmee to interact casually with ghosts, living caves, Ape-people, and animals. It gives Boonmee and his family the strength to watch him dissolve before their eyes, a particularly rare gift.

Saisaymar has the difficult task of portraying Boonmee as a man whose death is not necessarily a tragedy; his steady, powerful delivery gives us the insight to know he feels a little fear, a little joy, a little obligation, and so much more.

Although I realize it is clear how much I admire this film, I do not think a critique of it could be comprehensive without mentioning its most outrageous scene. One of Boonmee’s visions includes his life as a catfish (or perhaps a friend?), in which the fish subsequently encounters and pleasures an aging princess. It’s, um, a bit peculiar. But do not falter – in context, it is simply a segment of a magnificent whole.

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (2010, U.S. release 2011). Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Written by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Inspired by: A Man Who Can Recall Past Lives by Phra Sripariyattiweti

Cast:

  • Boonmee – Thanapat Saisaymar
  • Jen – Jenjira Pongpas
  • Tong – Sakda Kaewbuadee
  • Huay – Natthakarn Aphaiwonk
  • Boonsong – Geerasak Kulhong
  • Roong – Kanokporn Thogaram

I Am Number Four review

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While there is no rule in Hollywood explicitly stating that screenwriters should avoid ripping off characters as legendary as Superman, the makers of Dreamworks’s I AM NUMBER FOUR should have at least been warned. Ironically coming from SMALLVILLE creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, I AM NUMBER FOUR employs all the usual tricks for developing a sci-fi franchise, without bothering to leave behind an original piece of work.

I AM NUMBER FOUR stars relative newcomer Alex Pettyfer (whose tweeny-sounding BEASTLY was held back from release last year) as the eponymous Number Four, one of a group of nine infant aliens sent to Earth to avoid being annihilated by the evil Mogadorians. Isn’t that a scary name for the villains? As the movie opens, the nine infants have either (a) grown to become high school age or (b) been murdered at the hands of the main bad guy, cleverly identified in the end credits and IMDB as “Mogadorian Commander” (Kevin Durand). It’s a very lucky plot device that allows the other Numbers to know automatically that their counterparts are dead; with the death of Number Three, Number Four is moved to Paradise, Ohio so he can be kept safe. We know this sucks because, like, there’s rain and bullies and stuff when he gets there.

I cannot provide expert commentary on the citizens of scenic Paradise, but I can say that they must have a lot of designer clothing outlets and outrageous real estate prices. As Number Four hides from the Mogadorians under the anonymous-sounding name of “John Smith”, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (the artist behind 2006’s PAN’S LABYRINTH) takes us on a tour of a “miserable” town that includes natural waterfalls, a flowing river, bright sunlight, and of course, beautiful characters. One in particular catches John’s eye – the hipster-esque Sarah (Dianna Agron of GLEE) – because she enjoys taking photographs of people who don’t know she’s doing it.

Since when was this quality so attractive that it inspired complete the stupidity that John displays? Then again, John is not just “anybody”, but herein lies one of the lamest, most nonsensical plot developments in recent history. Number Four is meant to be keeping a low profile, staying indoors at all possible moments, and especially not talking to anyone with a camera and USB plug.  No matter how much chemistry Pettyfer and Agron appear to have – and luckily for the film, there is undeniably some – there is no reasonable explanation for why these two people should be together. Consider this my objection for any and all future extraterrestrial weddings.

Director D.J. Caruso knows the film’s faults, however, and he encourages his actors to give every cliché and line of dialogue their best efforts. Durand, as the ridiculous-looking Mogadorian leader, has perfected the art of being scary; to date, I’ve seen him play a bounty hunter, an assassin, a military commander, and now, a Voldemort look-alike. Here, he allows every threat to seem like he’s spitting it out through his sharp teeth and begging for someone to hit him in the face. Pettyfer, new to me but apparently one of Hollywood’s new hot properties, has a chance to sculpt a career from this film. He’s given some terrible lines like, “I don’t want to be a prisoner” and “All I think about is you,” but I prefer his version of tortured non-human teen to that of, say, Robert Pattinson. Similarly, Agron’s character doesn’t have much to say, but when she says it, there is an oozing of sweetness.

Unfortunately, I AM NUMBER FOUR makes the mistake of employing the spectacular Timothy Olyphant as Number Four’s guardian, Henri, and giving him absolutely nothing to do. Olyphant is a good actor, one with two hit television leads under his belt and a sense of comic timing that makes the first half of the film tolerable. Nonetheless, it is an intolerable character he plays. Henri’s entire life is apparently based on protecting Number Four, transporting him, feeding him, and paying for all his human clothes, but if he had succeeded in any way, the film could not have been. If I was assigned to be the only bodyguard for someone whose legacy was to perpetuate a race of royal, beautiful, powerful creatures for future sequels, I would probably have other methods of monitoring my precious charge than with my iPhone.

I Am Number Four Film
Dianna Agron and Alex Pettyfer

I AM NUMBER FOUR (February 18, 20100). Directed by: D.J. Caruso. Written by: Alfred Gough & Miles Millar and Marti Noxon, based on the novel by James Frey & Jobie Hughes. Cast & Characters:

  • Number Four/John Smith – Alex Pettyfer
  • Henri – Timothy Olyphant
  • Number Six – Teresa Palmer
  • Sarah – Dianna Agron
  • Sam – Callan McAuliffe
  • Mogadorian Commander – Kevin Durand

The Warrior’s Way Review

The Warriors Way posterIn many ways, there’s no movie concept more juvenile, more basic, or more ridiculous than Cowboys Vs. Ninjas. They come from opposite sides of the globe, of course, and certainly the loose, devil-may-care murderin’ style of a cowboy’s gun is no match for the stealthy throat-slitting sword of a trained assassin. On top of all that, what do they have to fight over? Ninjas never really seem to like brothels, and honor isn’t worth much on the dusty plain.

Despite (or possibly because of) all these limitations, Korean writer-director Sngmoo Lee’s THE WARRIOR’S WAY (2010) proves to be a stylish and aesthetically wonderful action film that takes pride in its B-level plot. There’s not much missing from the title for me to tell, except perhaps some of the characters names. Yang (newcomer Dong-gun Jang), we are told by both a narrator and subtitles, is the most powerful swordsman in the history of mankind – we know because he kills the former most powerful swordsman in the history of mankind. Yang is a member of the Sad Flutes (“The sound made when the throat is slit” he explains), and it is this ninja squad that he betrays by refusing to kill little April, the last living member of a rival clan.

Seeking solace and safety, Yang travels way out west to the town of Lode, population 500, where drunkards, clowns, midgets, and world-class beauties fend off a tribe of cowboy-bandits led by Danny Huston’s intimidating Colonel. Huston, whose father and sister each hold a place in the Hollywood Hall of Fame, is just one member of an A-list cast doing their best to seem serious here. Indeed, certain inhabitants of the squalid town are played by Kate Bosworth as the requisite love interest and none other than Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush as the never-not-drunk Ron, who (as fate would have it) turns out to be a master gunslinger. This cast elevates what could have been a typical New Zealander-American-Korean swords-and-bullets love story into a slightly less typical New Zealander-American-Korean swords-and-bullets love story.

The Warriors Way high-flying martial arts actionAlthough taking potshots at the plot of THE WARRIORS WAY is easy, the style and atmosphere  are wholly different matters. The action sequences are relatively standard for any film with ninjas, but they appear completely fresh because of their visual beauty. Lee has an eye for angles and colors, using intensely vivid CGI and a lot of green screen to wring out as much adrenaline as he can from the genre. Almost from the beginning, the Cowboys vs. Ninjas  set-up seems contrived, but the various gunshots, knife-throws, and dynamite explosions bring out an impressively original group of scenes. One of my particular favorites has very little to do with visual effects or style, but really just with a line by Colonel: “See you in hell, little girl. Wear something nasty.”

Rush, Huston, and Bosworth all know what they have gotten themselves into, and it is a true pleasure to see talented actors have a little fun. Rush is getting rave reviews as we speak for Tom Hooper’s THE KING’S SPEECH, but who would rather see a stuffy British drama then a nearly-scriptless bloodbath on a Friday night? Bosworth’s last big foray into sci-fi was Bryan Singer’s lukewarm SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006), but here she makes a bit more of an impression playing someone with a backbone and a deadly glint in her eye. What’s more, just for the men in the audience who don’t get enough of a rush from the blood spurting out in glass clouds, she spends the final act of the film in a corset while kicking ass. Huston hits more familiar notes than even the nearly-silent Yang, and here he recycles bits and pieces of his more intimidating roles – films like THE PROPOSITION and 30 DAYS OF NIGHT spring powerfully to mind. But this sort of character is his specialty, and as a Jonah Hex-style cowboy, he adds  pizzazz to a role that we know is pretty easy to butcher (just ask Josh Brolin).

Small side-note: the film’s score seemed much more impressive to me than the film itself, utilizing everything from electric and Spanish guitars, quiet flutes, and full orchestras. I did not realize until the end credits that the master behind PAN’S LABYRINTH, Javier Navarrete, composed the original music – someone give this man a franchise.

THE WARRIRORS WAY (Rogue, December 3, 2010). Written and Directed by: Sngmoo Lee. Original music by: Javier Navarrete. Cast:

  • Yang – Dong-gun Jang
  • Ron – Geoffrey Rush
  • Lynne – Kate Bosworth
  • Colonel – Danny Huston
  • 8-Ball – Tony Cox
  • Saddest Flute – Ti Lung
  • Baby April – Analin Rudd

Megamind Review

Megamind (2010)

Originality of vision is not always necessary to make a film, and the lack of it does not necessarily make a film bad. Even in 3-D, a movie can sometimes find it’s place in the middle ground between typical trash and art. Case in point: the newest Dreamworks Animation release, MEGAMIND, a collage of recycled material, prime voice casting, and fun, antic wit that brings absolutely nothing “newest” to the table.

Discharged from his dying home planet Clark Kent-style, blue-skinned extraterrestrial Megamind (voice by Will Ferrell) lands in a prison cell in Metro City and learns pretty quickly that villainy is his forte. He spends most of his huge-headed life being defeated by Metro Man (Brad Pitt), the narcissistic but nonetheless vigilant and all-powerful guardian of Metro City. Both villain and hero pay special attention to capturing/rescuing newscaster Roxanne Ritchie (Tina Fey), whose beauty and sass only further paralyze her faithful cameraman Hal (Jonah Hill, most likely cast not for his fitting voice, but body type). In the film’s most inspired conceit, however, Metro Man is finally defeated and presumed destroyed by a sun-powered Death Ray, leaving Megamind without a rival and with no one left to play cops and robbers. He decides, being the genius he is, that making a new superhero is the best idea to cure him of his boredom. Giving away anymore is both unnecessary and unfair, as the plot runs on fumes from there, much to the chagrin of anyone over the age of 10.

One may notice that the voice cast of this film is almost too good to believe, but it’s true, and impressive. Ferrell, whose last voice-over role was Man with the Yellow Hat in 2006’s CURIOUS GEORGE, proves once again why he is Hollywood’s go-to funnyman. His slight British inflection makes simple expressions embarrassingly funny – “Minion, I’m feeling so mel-onk-o-lee”, he says at one point. Fey’s Ritchie is a rare character for any film, strong and single and just as willing to dish out lines like “Let’s go gangsta”. Besides these two and Pitt (again spoofing his Hollywood persona a la BURN AFTER READING), the voice cast includes Ben Stiller, David Cross (as Megamind’s BFF puffer-fish-in-a-gorilla-suit, Minion), and J.K. Simmons (an obscure but apt, choice for a prison warden). These are highly sought-after and talented people, and through sheer skill and experience they elevate Megamind to a higher realm of comedy than many kids and adults will come to expect from the trailers.

No studio in a long time has made a film on the same creative or intellectual level as a Pixar Animation Studios; knowing this, Dreamworks is campaigning heavily for a Best Picture nomination in February for HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, and seems intent on adding quality films to their repertoire. In this sense, MEGAMIND represents. First, writers Alan J. Schoolchraft and Brent Simons borrow not only Superman allusions and jokes, but also essential plot details from such films as THE INCREDIBLES and DESPICABLE ME. Those films were each too good and too recent to forget, and the script would have benefited if equal attention were given to plot as the jokes (many of which had the 18+ audience members laughing while the kids waited for the loudest noise or brightest 3-dimensional explosion). Second, director Tom McGrath (stepping down a bit from MADAGASCAR, but not much) resorts to using that 3-D technology for pure exploitation, unlike great CGI films such as HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and TOY STORY 3.

Megamind horizontal posterOh, and weird as it may be to say, Hans Zimmer’s score (with Lorne Balfe) is just intrusive. My expectations for Zimmer are perhaps too high, and the man is bound to win a million more trophies before year’s end (his INCEPTION score was tremendous), so this was a bit of a disappointment.

MEGAMIND (November 2010). Directed by: Tom McGrath. Written by: Alan J. Schoolcraft & Brent Simons. Music by: Hans Zimmer & Lorne Balfe. Voice Cast: Megamind – Will Ferrell; Roxanne Ritchie – Tina Fey; Metro Man – Brad Pitt; Minion – David Cross; Hal/Tighten – Jonah Hill; Warden – J.K. Simmons.

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Hereafter Review

HereAfter posterClint Eastwood is one of the hardest working 80-year-old men on the planet, releasing a new film for nearly every year of the last decade, and collaborating on several others. Eastwood’s work ethic, multi-hyphenate status (director, actor, producer, composer), and choice of subject matter constantly raise the question, “What drove this man, this living legend, to pick this project?” His latest film, HEREAFTER, finally provides a reasonable answer: he’s simply getting older.

HEREAFTER contains three international, separate storylines bound to intersect: Matt Damon plays George Lonegan, a San Franciscan psychic who actually communicates with the dead; Marie Lelay (Cecile De France) is a French reporter whose near-death experience during a tsunami forces her to contemplate her life; and London-based Marcus (Frankie & George McClaren) is a boy whose twin brother Jason is killed in a tragic car accident.

George has long since stopped giving psychic readings for money. He considers his ability is a curse, but his brother Billy (Jay Mohr) talks George into doing a reading for an important client. The chain of events set off by George’s reading, as well as his relationship with a beautiful girl in his cooking class (Bryce Dallas Howard, who looks nothing like her uncle Clint), pushes George to reconsider his own isolation. Marie, we see, also finds her life spiraling out of control post-tsunami, so she leaves her job as a sexy and famous news reporter to become a sexy and famous author. She begins to write a book, conveniently titled Hereafter, and speaks to Nobel Prize winners about what really happens when we die. Marcus, the son of a heroin addict and an empty soul without his twin brother, is shepherded to foster parents that he simply ignores. He desires most to communicate with his brother, looks things up on Youtube like “What happens when we die”, and steals money from his caretakers to speak with professional psychics and “communicators”. Marcus learns very quickly that he is surrounded by frauds and charlatans, but somehow one day stumbles upon George Lonegan’s outdated website – if only he could meet this man that might just be the real deal… Finally, all these characters’ quests for understanding what happens post-mortem lead them to a climactic book fair, where Derek Jacobi performs the most unnecessary but lovely cameo since Springsteen appeared in HIGH FIDELITY.

It may not seem necessary to include such a full summary of the film, but Eastwood spends so much time on the minutiae of their lives and the events leading up to the book fair that it only seems apt.

Matt Damon's psychic gazes down upon an unwanted customer
Matt Damon's psychic gazes down upon an unwanted customer

The script by Peter Morgan, best known for his brilliant representations of true stories in THE QUEEN and FROTS/NIXON, does not shy away from exploring important questions. What really happens when we die? Are there people out there who can communicate with spirits? What’s the relationship between coincidence and fate? Under Eastwood’s direction, the drama plays like a slower recombination of 21 GRAMS and THE LOVELY BONES, but the final sequence brings to mind sci-fi romantic-dramas like THE LAKE HOUSE. Eastwood is contemplating the HEREAFTER as he films it, and whether or not he has answers to Morgan’s questions is irrelevant; it is his characters’ journeys that are important.

At eighty, I suspect mortality is on Eastwood’s mind more than it may be for either of the McClaren twins or for Damon. This is evident, sometimes veering the film into sentimentality and melodrama, and it’s easy to get disoriented in a film that begins with a devastating (and masterfully realized) tsunami sequence. Performances, too, switch between powerfully affecting (de France’s turn will earn her a career in Hollywood if she so desires it, and it’s a treat to see Richard Kind in his second great role in as many years) and a bit flat (Damon’s Oscar film of 2011 will have to be the Coens’ TRUE GRIT).

Critics and fans alike continue to ask, “Is HEREAFTER an Academy Award contender?” and I suspect that people will be divided, since the film is uneven in it’s direction, screenwriting, acting, and even Eastwood’s tender score.  But really, when considering with talent and strength of vision the idea of a hereafter, is that question even relevant?

HEREAFTER (October 22, 2010). Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Peter Morgan. Cast: George Lonegan – Matt Damon. Marie Lelay – Cecile De France. Marcus/Jason – Frankie McClaren. Marcus/Jason – George McClaren. Melanie – Bryce Dallas Howard. Christos – Richard Kind. Billy – Jay Mohr.

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Paranormal Activity 2 Review

Paranormal Activity 2 posterWhen PARANORMAL ACTIVITY from word-of-mouth sleeper to box office blockbuster  (earning nearly $195 million worldwide from a budget of, ahem, $11,000), it became one of the hottest horror properties in decades. Only a year later, and a week before Halloween, Paramount Pictures has released the long-awaited PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2, destined to make the people behind it filthy rich. But impressive as it is that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 manages to be both a prequel and a sequel all in one, it should surprise no one who saw the first Paranormal Activity that number 2 is simply a lesser clone, filled with cheaper gags on a paradoxically higher budget.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 takes place about two months before the “true events” of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, and in the same bloodline. Kristi Rey, sister of the first film’s Katie, has just given birth to a little boy named Hunter, and we’re introduced to the rest of the family in an impressively informal fashion. Kristi is married to big, kind, rich Dan, whose daughter Ali loves her stepmother but misses her own dead mother enough to believe in ghosts even before the horrific events start. The Rey home is a large one, replete with an ethnic (and therefore superstitious) nanny, a beautifully trained dog, and enough space to install 6 security cameras all around the house after returning to find the home wrecked, despite all the doors being locked. It is with these security cameras that the “forces that be” are captured doing crazy things: playing with children’s toys, tossing pool cleaners onto the ground, and turning off lights. Warning: review only gets scarier.

Hunter, we learn, is the major target of the spirit haunting the Reys (and subsequently the Sloats), and his role in the film is to cry, and scream, and evoke the sympathy of every audience member that was ever a child. To see a horror film in which the child is the target of malevolence, instead of the perpetrator, is already a step up from the ordinary. As doors slam on their own and the danger begins to manifest itself physically, the characters all devolve into their basic characteristics. The dog barks, the nanny waves a cross, Dan denies any kooky stuff going on, and Ali calls on her boyfriend in times of great stress. In one of the film’s lighter scenes, the boyfriend comes over to play with a ouija board and claims it is moving to show what the spirit in the house truly wants from teenage Ali: “P-U-S–”… See if you can figure out the rest.

Events escalate, and to be fair, director Tod Williams and his vfx crew do a good job of ratcheting suspense to make the film more psychological and engaging than many of the other in the current horror field – almost no blood is actually spilt or body parts sent a-flyin’. The camera work, in that handheld and grainy style, is used to brilliant effect. Shadows, tummy grumblings, and opening doors have never seemed quite as real or as subtly terrifying as when the characters are trying hard to ignore it all. Unfortunately, for every thoughtfully scary sequence, there are two others waiting to literally jump out and scare you…into cliché-induced catatonia.

*Minor side-note: The film’s first and largest mistake, to me, was the casting of even one recognizable actor. Sprague Grayden, whose work on 24 was being praised just last year, immediately thrust me into a reality that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY dissolved by casting two unknowns (Katie Featherstone and Micah Sloat). I’m also embarrassed to say I recognized the actress who played daughter Ali, Molly Ephraim, from a little Martin Lawrence vehicle called COLLEGE ROAD TRIP.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (2010). Directed by: Tod Williams Screenplay by: Michael R. Perry. Kristi  Rey – Sprague Grayden. Dan Rey – Brian Boland. Katie – Katie Featherston. Micah – Micah Sloat

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Alpha and Omega Review

alpha and omega posterFor anyone over the age of 5, Lionsgate’s newest animated feature ALPHA AND OMEGA is a test of patience at best and sanity at worst. Centered around the forbidden love between members of the highest and lowest castes of Canadian wolf packs – the Alphas and the Omegas, respectively – this poorly animated 3-D film deserves a full review only for hosting one of Dennis Hopper’s final performances.

Living in Jasper National Park, the Western Pack of wolves is separated by their talents: the Alphas,  born hunters and naturally beautiful, bring home the caribou for their lesser pack members, the weak, dorky Omegas. One such prime Alpha named Kate (striking an uncanny resemblance to and voiced by Hayden Panettiere of HEROES) is kidnapped, along with a childhood friend named Humphrey (Justin Long, shlubby underwolf incarnate), by park rangers for the sole purpose of repopulating Idaho’s wolf population. As the two of them are transported across borders by fat rangers and civilians alike, the film forces them to fall in love amongst snowball fights, full moons, and bear chases. Kate’s disappearance, however, disables her marriage to a rival Alpha and puts her pack at risk of invasion by the Eastern Pack, led by the fiercely named Tony (Dennis Hopper). Tony’s wolfson, Garth (Chris Carmack, the best-cast voice of the film), not only doesn’t want to marry Kate, but would rather marry her sister who – believe this or not – is also an Omega (Christina Ricci). Love and war impending, Kate and Humphrey hurry back to Canada to set the packs at ease and nuzzle noses and howl at the moon. Lovely.

None of the aspects of the film seem to work together properly, though I can imagine the lack of structure does not bother the target 3-6 year old audiences. The tacky computer graphics are by a company called Crest Animation Productions; the CGI does not even begin to compete visually with the flair of a Disney, Dreamworks, or Pixar film. Voice work in general is fine, with some creepy-violent yelling by Vicki Lewis as Kate’s mother, Eve. I found myself a bit disappointed to hear the legendary Hopper performing with Danny Glover on such a film.

Kate-voiced-by-Hayden-Panettiere-and-Humphrey-voiced-by-Justin-Longin-ALPHA-AND-OMEGA-3-D.-550x308Attempts at originality rarely shine through; unfortunately, they are usually the cause for any mature audience’s alarm. Howling at the moon, for example, has become pop-star crooning, which sounds even worse against Christopher Bacon’s shaky score than on the radio. The film’s only laughs come from the only interesting characters, a French-Canadian golf-playing goose named Marcel (somebody give Larry Miller more voice work) and his obnoxious but amiable duck-caddy (Eric Price). Otherwise, jokes do not simply fall flat; they inspire riots. One such jest, about “the repopulation of Idaho”, is one of dozens of horrible sexual innuendos in the screenplay by Chris Denk and Steve Moore, which may or may not have been written in the form of bullet-points and submitted unedited.

ALPHA AND OMEGA (U.S. Release: Sept. 17, 2010). Directed by: Anthony Bell and Ben Gluck. Screenplay by: Chris Denk and Steve Moore. Voices: Justin Long – Humphrey, Hayden Panettiere – Kate, Dennis Hopper – Tony, Danny Glover – Winston, Larry Miller – Marcel, Christina Ricci – Lilly, Chris Carmack – Garth, Eric Price – Paddy/Mooch, Vicki Lewis – Eve.

Nanny McPhee Returns review

NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS was known as NANNY MCPHEE AND THE BIG BANG in England
NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS, known as NANNY MCPHEE AND THE BIG BANG in England

NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS is a bright and bouncy – albeit disappointing – sequel based on the Nurse Matilda series by Christianna Brand and starring Emma Thompson as the beloved nanny.

Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is struggling to hold onto her husband’s (Ewan McGregor) farm while he is off fighting in World War II. Assaulted at all times by her criminal brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans, using the opportunity to be an absolute ham) and rowdy children (Oscar Steer, Asa Butterfield, and Lil Woods), Green is forced to consider the sale of the family farm until Nanny McPhee appears. Nanny McPhee, who uses her indescribable ugliness and sternness to tame the children and their spoiled-brat cousins (Eros Vlahos and Rosie Taylor-Ritson), also manages to do a spectacular job of  saving the farm from bankruptcy, robbery, and even violent destruction. As the children learn their lessons, McPhee’s hideous visage becomes more and more tolerable, through a mix of special effects transitions and sturdy make-up work, .

As written and played by Thompson, McPhee is quite simply the darkly dressed, crueler version of that other memorable nanny, Mary Poppins. Thompson gives the role dignity and believability, insofar as any character who makes pigs fly and speaks to ravens can be believable. Gyllenhaal, donning a false English accent and more floral dresses than in her most notable roles (SECRETARY, CRAZY HEART, or THE DARK KNIGHT), does not seem to be the most natural casting choice, but she gives the role of a harried mother all she’s got. Such reliable British talents as the unctuous Ifans, Maggie Smith and Sam Kelly as a dotty married couple, comedian Bill Bailey as a farm, and Ralph Fiennes and Ewan McGregor in effective cameos provide a high pedigree, unusual for such a typical child-oriented film. Their presence make NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS a sweet but wispy pleasure for viewers of all ages.

NANNY MCPHEE RETURNS (a.k.a. NANNY MCPHEE AND THE BIG BANG: UK release, May 2010; US release, August 20, 2010). Directed by Susanna White. Screenplay by Emma Thompson, based on the Nurse Matilda series by Christianna Brand. Cast: Nanny McPhee – Emma Thompson; Isabel Green – Maggie Gyllenhaal; Phil Green – Rhys Ifans; Vincent Green – Oscar Steer; Norman Green – Asa Butterfield; Megsie Green – Lil Woods; Mrs. Docherty – Maggie Smith.