Friday, March 27, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning, much like it's lead actress, is quirky and pleasant to watch - even if it does get a bit hokey at times.

Hitting a mid-life crisis Rose (the always perky Amy Adams) spends her days cleaning homes of the wealthy and her nights in a cheap hotel room with her married high school sweetheart (Steve Zahn). She sums up her existence late in the film: "I'm good at getting guys to want me, not marry me. That, and cheerleading." Things aren't much better at home where her ADHD/OCD riddled son (Jason Spevack) has just gotten kicked out of another school, her father (Alan Arkin) is involved in yet another get rich scheme, and her sister Norah (Emily Blunt) has just gotten fired from yet another job. Hmm, I sense a pattern here.

The two sisters, who obviously love each other (whether they truly like each other is a harder question to answer), team-up to form a new business cleaning up crime scenes. I'll give screenwriter Megan Holley credit for giving a new twist to the sibling story which adds some inherent dark humor to the proceedings. I can't remember another film where Amy Adams is cleaning up blood and brains out of a bathtub (I'm pretty sure that scene was cut from Enchanted).

The film has that independent quirkiness you would expect (at times a tad too much), but the acting is good enough to help smooth over most of the rough patches. One of my favorite subplots involves Norah's fascination with the daughter (Mary Lynn Rajskub) of recently deceased woman whose home they are cleaning. It's one of the stranger and more interesting relationships in the film. Although Adams carries the movie Blunt steals her moments and provides some of the most memorable of the film.

There are places where the film gets a little too cute for its own good. One involves the recurring theme of the two sisters discussing, and in search of, their mother's short cameo in a long-forgotten made-for-TV movie. If I have to tell you how this plot thread is resolved you obviously haven't seen very many movies (or commercials aimed at women). I also would have liked to have seen a little more of Alan Arkin to get a better handle on his character who, for the most part (at least until the end), is used mainly for comic relief.

Take away the crime scene business and the film is much like many other small independent films about dysfunctional relationships, childhood dreams crushed in the cold light of young adulthood, and learning valuable lessons about who you are and living your life. Oh, and there's lots of blood too. It's not on the level of Little Miss Sunshine, but it's a pleasant enough film with its heart in the right place.

Monsters vs. Aliens

Finally some truth in advertising. From the title alone you should know whether Monsters vs. Aliens is going to be your cup of tea. Do you want to see animated monsters fight animated aliens? If so, here's your chance.

Susan Murphy's (Reese Witherspoon) wedding day is ruined when the power from a strange asteroid makes her grow into a 50-foot woman. For her own safety she is detained by the government and sent to a top-secret lab to be housed with other monsters including the not so bright blob B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), the half-bug/half-man mad scientist Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), the Missing Link (Will Arnett), and the massive Insectasoris.

The monsters are released by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland, in a pretty forgettable role), and offered their freedom for their assistance when an alien Squidbilly (Rainn Wilson) attacks the planet looking for the powerful meteorite and not caring who he has to kill to get it.

The writing isn't great and there are certainly some plot holes large enough for Insectasoris to easily stroll through (such as why are these monsters so eager to help the humans who have been imprisoning them for years?). Also troubling is the fact that the humans in the film, aside from Susan, are either blander than beige (and that includes Stephen Colbert's turn as the President, though he does get a nice Close Encounters of the Third Kind moment) or simply annoying as they run around screaming. Thankfully, the monsters themselves (especially Rogen's B.O.B) are an awful lot of fun.

I do have some concerns about who the film is marketed towards. The silliness seems to be aimed at young kids, however several of the younger children at the screening I attended were frightened by the film's creatures, especially early on. Older children and pre-teens should be fine, but if you have real little ones you might want to wait until they're a little older before showing them this one.

If all your looking for is some is monster-on-alien action here's the film for you. It's not a great film, animated or otherwise, but it's enjoyable enough, and kids who aren't creeped out should have a fun time.

Monsters vs. Aliens is also being released in both 3-D and in IMAX; sadly the screening I attended was neither. I was a little disappointed, especially since I really dug the look of the film (including the monsters, aliens, robots, and backgrounds). While watching I could tell how certain scenes were shot and framed to take advantage of the 3-D format and my curiosity was piqued at how the film would look in an extra dimension. If you've got the opportunity to see it in 3-D I'd recommend it, but, if not, you should still be able to have a fine time at the movies.


Los Cronocrimenes (or Timecrimes) is a low budget suspense film centered around the concepts of paradox and time travel. That's not exactly a new area for films to cover, yet Timecrimes finds a fresh take. Part suspense, part sci-fi, and all good, it's a film you should be on the lookout for. The movie relies on simply imagery, strong emotion, and a well thought-out plot to create a compelling story that you'll enjoy wrapping your brain around.

Our protagonist is Hector (Karra Elejalde), and ordinary man whose curiosity gets the better of him. When he notices a woman undressing in the woods (Bárbara Goenaga) Hector investigates only to be attacked by a stranger whose face is completely covered by bloody bandages. His escape leads him into a laboratory to hide in a strange contraption only to emerge an hour before he entered to the surprise of a scientist (Nacho Vigalondo, who is also the film's director).

After finally accepting the situation, Hector is forced to try and recreate the events which caused him to enter the machine. If he fails the other Hector will continue living out his life. Hector soon learns that time travel complicates things exponentially and his attempts lead to realization, mistakes, disaster, and further attempts to set right the entire series of events.

At a running time of only 89-minutes the film is well-paced and doesn't overstay its welcome. Although the performances are all strong, it's the plot which drives the film and keeps the audience on its toes. The entire enterprise has the feel of an old school sci-fi story which you'd expect to find in one of the long forgotten pulp magazines of the past.

In some ways Timecrimes is a very simple film which builds on some universal themes: curiosity, mysterious phone calls, and naked women in the woods will often get you into more trouble than you might first imagine. In terms of a suspense/horror movie the "monster" is quite simple. Yet it's in this simplicity the bandaged man is given power. What easily could have been laughable becomes disturbing. As Hector falls further and further down the rabbit-hole, and we learn why you should never mess with time, our view of the protagonist begins to change as he's forced to make hard (sometimes brutal) decisions.

Time travel films can go in many different directions regarding the logic and consequences of the subject. This one stays true to Novikov's self-consistency principle in enforcing rules to what effect a time traveler can have to the past. Time travel isn't a boon here, but a curse. As the scientist puts it "This machine doesn't solve problems. In fact, it creates them."

Fans of hardcore sci-fi should enjoy themselves; I certainly did. At the same time the film works very well as a suspense film which should also please general audiences and give them a little more than they were expecting. It's a great puzzle which slowly reveals more and more pieces, waiting until its final moments to fit them together, and only in the end show you how everything fits together. An American version of the film is scheduled for 2011, but I have more than a few concerns about Hollywood "improving" on the tale and urge anyone who has a chance to go see the original.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Alex Proyas is responsible for the sci-fi noir thriller Dark City (a film which I love to no end). Nicolas Cage, despite having a career which I kindly refer to as spotty, has made some enjoyable flicks over the years, and even picked up an Oscar. The fact that this combination produced a movie such as Knowing can be met with nothing more or less than puzzled bewilderment and great sadness. I might expect something like this from a team-up with M. Night and Eric Dane, but c'mon! Ignorance truly is bliss; sometimes it's better not to know.

The plot goes something like this: Fifty years ago a creepy little school girl who heard whispered voices (this is one of those films where the voices are real, and always right) wrote a letter containing a series of numbers (which turns out to be a series of dates and exact GPS coordinates to many future disasters) which found itself into the school's time capsule. Years later the son (Chandler Canterbury) of a scientist finds the paper which sends his dad (Cage) into a drunken obsession about the end of the world (this is one of those movies where, yes, the world really is in danger and only Nicolas Cage can save the day). God help us all.

Rose Byrne (who I'll bet good money was chosen for her passing resemblance to a younger Jennifer Connelly) plays the daughter of the prophetic elementary student. How she gets involved in the plot is more than a little convoluted, but, in this film that's par for the course.

We get grief over past deaths, crises of faith, familial misunderstandings, looming evil, odd occurrences, and even twists... basically the best hits of M. Night Shyamalan. Sadly Alex Proyas isn't content just to crib others works and gives us mysterious strangers (i.e. Dark City) lurking around every corner and bend. They aren't as cool, but they do yell sunlight! The ridiculous nature of these strangers is only exceeded when the truth about there existence is revealed in a climax with all the metaphoric subtlety and craftsmanship of Zack Snyder.

In a film filled with issues one of the biggest is the film's lack of focus or tone. I could never tell whether Proyas was in on the joke and was laughing along with me or actually wanted me to take these events seriously (and I'm pretty sure, from their performances, that the cast shared in my confusion). It doesn't help that the film jumps from unintentional camp to realistic stunt sequences to involving mass death all willy nilly.

Knowing feels too much like someone else (perhaps Uwe Bowl?) attempting to make a Proyas film rather than a new offering from the director himself. I wasn't a big fan of his take on I, Robot but this film gives me serious doubts as to whether he is even still competent to continue making films, which I guess can also be said of Nic Cage.

The film isn't quite ridiculous enough to become MS3000-style camp on the scale of Fifth Element. It's just bad. Mindbogglingly, insanely, stupefyingly bad. Not simply a train wreck, it's as if all the incoming trains crashed at the station at the same time. And then the station exploded. And then it was hit by an atomic bomb.

There's a scene late in the film where Cage drops to his knees, eyes tearing-up, looking up with confusion, anger, doubt, disbelief, and incredulity. That's how I felt watching the film. Turns out I would have been better off not Knowing.

I Love You, Man

I don't remember exactly when the term bromance was introduced into the lexicon but it seems were stuck with it, at least for the forseeable future. From the writer/director of Along Came Polly and the writer of Doctor Doolitle 2 comes this tale of a man on the eve of his wedding who realizes he doesn't have any male friends. Thus hilarity (or Hollywood's approximation of the concept) ensues. As set-ups go it's pretty bland (and seems to be cribbing a tad too much from The 40 Year Old Virgin), but I'll admit I Love You, Man was better than I expected.

After an eight month courtship Peter (Paul Rudd) and Zooey (Rashida Jones) have gotten engaged. Zooey's friends (Sarah Burns, Jaime Pressley) are pleased with her choice for a husband, but they're a little concerned with the fact that Peter has no male friends. When Peter realizes his wife's misgivings he begins a "humorous" search for a best pal that ends in Peter's discovery of a new friendship with a slightly unbalanced stranger (Jason Segel).

Although the film contains many funny moments there are few big laughs. Part of the trouble is the film tries a bit too hard at pushing rather obvious jokes down our throats. Peter is a goof and mildly socially retarded. We get the joke early on, but the film is relentless in treading over the same material over and over again until its almost impossible to take him seriously.

The plot also contains scenes and segements that range from groan worthy to slightly humorous in-and-of themselves but do little to advance the plot of the film. The worst of these comes from the montage of Peter's man-dates (including, of course, the annoying guy, the gay misunderstanding, and some pretty disgusting projectile vomiting) which begin to drag long before the friendship the film centers around ever gets going. When Peter meets Sydney (Segel) we're finally given what feels like a natural scene and I wonder why the writers thought they needed the crap and contraptions we're forced to sit through in order to get to what is actually worth watching.

Of course the film also has to give us the prolonged yet easily resolved third action romantic comedy tension when Zooey becomes jealous of the time Peter is spending with his new friend. Great, we haven't seen that before.

As a night out at the movies I Love You, Man works fine, even if it's not all that memorable. You'll get a few chuckles, see Lou Ferigno put Jason Segel in a sleeper-hold, and then you'll move on to something else. Keep your expectations low; this isn't one of those films you walk out laughing and quoting the best lines and moments, but it is one where you can have an okay time. The talent involved on-screen sadly overshadows that of the script and direction, but this time a year you could do far worse.

Friday, March 6, 2009


As a self-professed comic book nerd you can bet I've read Watchmen a few times and keep an Absolute Edition within easy reach.

I will also admit I didn't read the series when it hit shelves in the late eighties. It took a few years for Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' work to find itself into my hands. Perhaps its because I first read the graphic novel as an adult that I can look at it through a different filter than something like Star Wars, Transformers, or Batman, and I can separate my appreciation for the subject without childhood wonder coloring my opinion.

Although it brings to life several moments of the comic in vivid detail, and includes a superb performance by Jackie Earl Haley as Rorshach, it also condenses, mangles, and distorts the tale into a movie that only slightly resembles the comic. And for a movie which is style over substance it adds very little in terms of look or technology. The most memorable shots are either taken directly from the page or borrowed from better films (such as a war room eerily similar to that of Dr. Strangelove) you would rather be watching.

In 1985 the world is at the cusp of nuclear destruction. Richard Nixon is President and costume heroes have been outlawed for years. As tensions rise we are brought into the mysterious death of a former hero known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and the circumstances which surrounded his untimely end. Through flashbacks we learn about the former heroes inhabiting this reality, their past successes, and the present struggles of their private and professional lives. I will give director Zack Snyder credit for cramming an incredible amount of information and detail into nearly every cranny of Watchmen. He takes the time to give us a look at the rich history of these characters, even if he makes a few too many mistakes along the way.

The film the "visionary" director presents us with is filled with many issues perhaps the biggest of which is Snyder's misinterpretation of the film's complexity and length as something big. Rather than peeling back the subtle layers presented in the original work, Snyder chooses what to leave out and to make everything included in the film big, loud, cool, and colorful, without anything resembling subtlety or context. And when he tries to add meaning it's with a hamfisted fury that disrespects both the audience's attention and intelligence. There are several moments big flashing letters "THIS IS IMPORTANT! DID YOU HEAR THAT LAST LINE? LET ME REPEAT IT FOR YOU!" would have been less intrusive, and more natural, than what we are forced to endure.

For years Watchmen was described as unfilmable. Many drifted to and away from the project. It was too dense and too complex to condense into a feature film. Unable to include everything Snyder and his team give us a "greatest hits" version of the graphic novel. Given the time frame available that's all we can really ask, but quizzically the best moments are either changed (the ending involving the space squid, Rorshach's cigarette in the eye) or completely left out (Dr. Manhattan's conversation with Hollis Mason about electric cars, the dispersal of a angry mob-to their own homes-by the world's only super-hero). Instead what we're given feels hollow and empty. Sure it's pretty, but it's also vapid and mostly incoherent and uninteresting (those with whom I talked afterwards who hadn't read the comic were more than a little confused). It's as if we've been handed a greatest hits volume of one of the world's premiere artists only including the b-sides and performed by a cover band who doesn't really get the music.

By cutting various story elements, and truncating the rest, we're left with a film full of logistical issues, both large and small. At points throughout the film characters react to situations that the movie hasn't bothered to inform them of. The most grievous of these is the reporting that Dr. Manhattan has gone to Mars on the local news. How does the reporter know this? Manhattan simply ducks out of a on-air appearance, is able to teleport anywhere (including a number of locations on Earth), but somehow the reporter instantly knows where he's gone, and how long he intends to stay? I want access to his sources!

Even after cutting some of the best material, at more than two-and-a-half hours the film is still too long. Of course it doesn't help that Snyder has chosen to present every action sequence in slow motion (which creates numerous new problems, not in the least of which gives the appearance of super-human powers to what are supposedly normal human beings). I hope you enjoyed this Mr. Snyder, because I'm revoking your slow-mo privileges for the remainder of human history. Of course it's not bad enough that everything is slowed down, but sound effects are added as well for each kick or punch. I didn't know that the human body made those sounds. It actually became so distracting to me I half-expected big "POW" and "ZOWIE" signs from the old Batman TV-show to appear as well.

Tied into this is the misguided attempt to make these heroes of yesteryear cool. There's a scene relatively early in the film where Dan (Patrick Wilson) and Sally (Malin Ackerman) reminisce about old times and laugh at how silly they were to dress up in bad costumes and fight crime. The scene works in the graphic novel because the costumes were indeed hideous. It doesn't work here, where seemingly ever character has been given their own fashion consultant. Nite Owl is heroic, but he's not supposed to be cool, and by making him into a poor man's Batman (able to knock people across a room in slow motion in his kick ass costume) you lose an important piece of what makes Moore's character work.

If the plot is a problem the film also fails in terms of character. The story is over-burdened with too many for a film of this length. As a result important small roles are reduced to little more than cameos or removed completely. It also doesn't help that aside from Haley's performance the acting is spotty at best. Obviously each of these actors were chosen for their appearance, not for their talent or ability to make us believe or care about the characters they are portraying.

I love Carla Gugino but she's horribly miscast here as the original Silk Spectre and is saddled with some laughably bad old-age make-up for most of her scenes. Ackerman, who gets the larger role as her daughter, is simply horrid. She's a lovely woman and fills out the latex costume quite nicely, but she simply doesn't have the range or gravitas for the role which leaves us with a pretty, but rather dim, leading lady who can't deliver her lines but is willing to get naked! Maybe my standards a bit too high, but do we really need a gratuitously long nerdcore Skinemax moment in Watchmen?

Crudup does what he can with Dr. Manhattan but is burdened by the film's inability to come to terms with who, and exactly what, the god-like being is and what, if any, limitations he has. Crudup attempts to play the character as detached, which works in some instances but also makes a character who should come off as a genius often appear slow. His stilted dialogue, which I'm sure was meant to highlight his disconnect with reality as humans perceive it, felt more to me like a stroke victim struggling to communicate basic ideas.

You might think from this review I didn't like anything about Watchmen, which isn't the case. I liked the kitty. Okay, that's not the only thing I liked about the film, but it is a good example how even the things I enjoyed about Watchmen still don't quite work. Adrian Veidt's (Matthew Goode, who spends most of the film dressed up in one of Chris O'Donnell's spare costumes from Batman & Robin) genetically enhanced pet Bubastis looks great and I wanted to see more of him. However, by removing the space squid (in favor of a far inferior ending that doesn't even work on its own terms) and Ozymandias' genetic research the existence of Bubasitis makes absolutely no sense (like so much of the rest of the film). It's as if the makers of the film decided every billionaire former hero with an Antarctic retreat would own a genetically-enhanced cat. Maybe PetSmart Antarctica sells them by the litter.

The great failure in Snyder's film is that it takes one of the greatest comics of all-time and transforms it into a film which is the cinematic equivalent to Batman & Robin. Given a choice between watching either of the two again, at this moment, I honestly can decide on which I would choose.

The entire enterprise is made up of seemingly random choices. Snyder revels in the level of gore and exploding bodies (which I would argue is only used to sell one lame joke late in the film), yet balks at giving us a single drop of blood when it comes to the story's horrific climax. Why? Of course it doesn't help when your saddled with screenwriters and a director that don't even understand that there is no group actually called the Watchmen in the story (Minutemen, yes. Crimebusters, yes. Watchmen, not so much). That's one of those small facts somebody might have wanted to check.

I apologize if in this review I've come off as someone slavishly devoted to the source material as I've tried, with somewhat limited success I'm sure, to rate the film both on its own merits as well as an adaptation. Snyder fails in his attempt to both recreate scenes in lavish detail without so much as a shard of glass out of place, and yet, at the same time, makes a series of odd changes that not only make little sense for the film but detract from the story Moore originally gave us. For years people argued that Watchmen was unfilmable, it turns out, despite the best efforts of Snyder and his team, they were right (at least in terms of making a good theatrical version).