Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

In the past, Michael Moore has taken on George Bush, the gun lobby, and health care. In his latest film Capitalism: A Love Story, he finds a new target in the economic system of capitalism. Greed, it turns out, isn't really good afterall.

As in his previous movies, Moore combines interviews of real Americans, news footage, the town of Flint, funny clips, his own personal narrative, and his trademark stunts, to try and prove his point. Although Capitalism is a highly entertaining movie, in terms of constructing and presenting an argument it's Moore's weakest entry to date.

The basic premise of the film is capitalism is a flawed and inherently destructive system. To help prove his point, Moore showcases the inequality between corporate America and the middle class (which has been taken advantage of by a growing culture of greed). The advantages and opportunities that capitalism fosters such as entrepreneurship, invention, and the ability to rise far above the economic station of your birth, are simply glossed over (or reduced to broad generalization).

The film includes several strong moments including FDR's proposal for a second Bill of Rights which would have assured all Americans the right to health care, a good job, and affordable housing. From Moore’s perspective, America was instrumental in getting other countries these things, but decided for itself, that a large pile of money was more desirable.

The film also has fun with Reagan's presidency (which provides the funniest moment of the film) and the rise of corruption of the 1980s, which we are still paying for today. The film showcases how corporations use every loophole available to squeeze money from their workers, even after their deaths. The "Dead Peasant" portion of the film will no doubt shock and sicken many who were unaware of the business practice of companies buying life insurance for their employees without their knowledge with the company being the sole beneficiary. Why would they do something like this? Death is profitable.

As the film winds to its end, it becomes a cry for action—any action. As Moore states, the only way greed (which he infers is inherent in a capitalist system) can be held in check is for the people to recognize what is happening and demand a change. To help illustrate this point, Capitalism includes a bread company co-op, striking workers in Pittsburgh, and the grassroots movement which led to the unexpected election of a black President on a campaign of change.

Much like Bill Maher's Relilgulous (which I also had mixed feelings towards), the film takes on a large concept and posits that isn’t simply broken, but evil. Both films point out numerous flaws, but don’t quite succeed in proving that the instrument of their distaste needs to be wiped from the face of the earth.

As he is wont to do, Moore also ignores the positive aspects of the systems he is attacking or offer constructive alternatives to the status quo. As a film, however, Capitalism is definitely worth seeing, and is quite entertaining. As a political statement trying to decry an entire way of life, it falls a little short.

Our pal Eric at Scene-Stealers enjoyed the film a little more than I did. For a slightly different perspective check out his review here.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Fame is fleeting and, by itself, unsatisfying. So what are we to conclude about a group of kids chasing a dream, not of being a great singer, dancer, or musician, but only trying to grab the spotlight for themselves?

"Fame," the remake of the 1980 film, gives us a variety of characters from the meek Penny (Kay Panabaker) to the angry Malik (Collins Pennie), but in none of them do we find anyone to root for.

Sometimes it was all I could do try and remember what particular talent got each kid into the school; there are simply too many characters. More than once I actually forgot someone was even in the film as they disappeared for long stretches.

The film condenses the journey of a class of students from the New York City High School of Performing Arts from auditions through graduation. That's more than four years boiled down into less than two hours. The film bites off more than it can chew.

Our story begins with an insipid American Idol-style audition sequence which is included solely to grab some cheap laughs from the audience. How are we to judge the talent or root for those who made the cut if those who missed it were nothing more than clowns?

Also included in the film are a karaoke night out, the sterotypical unreasonable parents (for no reason other than the script needs them to be), and some rather odd chronological problems which leave too many issues to be quickly and neatly wrapped up late in the students' fourth year.

There's plenty to nitpick about the story, acting, and questionable updating of the original story and music (which includes more hip hop and rap), all of which is inconsistent.

If the film has one major flaw, however, it is almost instantly forgettable. None of the actors are bad, at least I believe that to be the case, but the shallow characters they are stuck with makes it hard to tell.

That's not to say Fame is a bad film. There's some talent here, especially Naturi Naughton who shines despite being saddled with the most cliched subplot. One-time TV couple Kelsey Grammar and Bebe Neuwirth, along with Charles S. Dutton, each have nice moments as teachers of PA. Add to that a few passable musical numbers and some impressive dancing and the film may not succeed, but, for most of the running time, there's just enough there's enough to keep your interest.

The trademark song of the original film doesn't show up until the closing credits, re-edited into a hip hop travesty. The entire film has been updated, but like this one number, not improved. Even if Fame had been an original film, and not an unnecessary remake, it still sports a few too many blemishes to garner much praise.

Although I can't recommend the film I do think there is a target audience that should enjoy themselves, if only until the closing credits. The pre-teen girls in the audience of the screening I attended had fun, and as PG family fare you could do worse. Go see it if you like, but if I could offer you a piece of advice: Forget Fame. I plan to the moment I finish this review.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Jennifer's Body

Here's what I learned from Jennifer's Body.

1) Academy Award nominated screenwriters are just as good at writing mediocre horror flicks as everyone else.

2) People should really stop giving Æon Flux director Karyn Kusama work.

3) Asked to do some real acting, and without Michael Bay's lascivious ogling lens, Megan Fox (who isn't allowed to straddle motorcycles in cut-offs here) isn't nearly the same sexy siren her fans drooled over in the Transformers franchise.

The film isn't awful, but it wastes what little it brings to the table by serving up a lukewarm TV dinner that fails to satisfy. Jennifer's Body makes several errors on it's way to Best Buy's DVD bargain bin, some of which I've summarized below.

You'd think casting Megan Fox as the high school bitchy best friend man-eating (literally!) cheerleader would be a plus. Although this role is all Fox could hope for, her flaws really start to show. She's simply not much of an actress when her daily call-sheet calls for anything more than to look hot. And although Amanda Seyfried fares better on camera, she's horribly miscast as the dorky and homely best friend. In her narration, Seyfried states the two are so different that no one can understand their friendship. Really? And pulling her hair back and giving her glasses may work in teen rom-coms, but here it's just one of many stupid, stupid decisions.

Un-titilating Titillation
Early web gossip for the film has been fascinated with two things: Megan Fox's skinny-dipping scene and Fox and Seyfried's lesbian scene. If this is all you care about, let me save you $10. There's no nudity in the first, and the second might titillate a 12-year-old but it goes nowhere fast, and, even worse, makes no sense when it occurs in the film. Why would Needy (horrible name for Seyfried's character by the way) make out with Jessica after she knows her friend has turned into a monster?

To hold horror films up to logic is bound to bring disappointment, but even for such a film, Jennifer's Body has plenty of issues. Unwilling to follow any rules, or go the Scream route and satrize the absurdity of horror flicks, Jennifer's Body falls, and so fails, somewhere in the middle. Characters commit actions which only occur because the plot calls for them (such as a contrived break-up whose sole purpose is to separate a couple for slaughter).

Then there's the troubling inconsistencies inherent in Jennifer's transformation (which isn't delved into until the second-half of the movie and so I won't ruin here). Throw in the varying level of intelligence (and even speech patterns) of every single character onscreen, and you've got more than the average amount of groan-worthy moments. You know you're in trouble when the script calls for numerous, supposedly smart characters, to believe that Jennifer (Fox) is a virgin - a misunderstanding which is central to the entire plot of the film.

The Victim
In horror movies there are three archetypal characters: killer/monster, victim, and hero. Now the victim can also be the hero, but in Diablo Cody's script the victim is the monster. But instead of a sympathetic monster like Frankenstein we're given a self-absorbed slut of a killer. See the disconnect? Are we supposed to root for Jennifer, feel sorry for her, or hope for her death? The film asks the audience to do all of these at different moments. It doesn't help that the script consistently yo-yos the character between simply dumb-bitchy victim and Species-like man-eater.

The film is wildly erratic in how it presents its story. At times it's a gorefest. At times it's smart, bordering on satirical. And at times it's nothing more than your typical, dumb monster movie. Sadly, these jagged pieces never fit together. The entire film feels like it's continually in search of its identity.

There are plenty of horror flicks worse than Jennifer's Body, but the film disappoints with how quickly, and easily, it wastes what little it has going for it to begin with. Luckily, the slasher genre allows the film to be dismissed and forgotten quite easily, and Cody and the rest can quickly move on to other projects.

Love Happens

I often dread going to see romantic comedies such as Love Happens. 1,000 times burned, 1,001 times shy. Romcoms are usually known for only their lack of originality, convoluted nature, and eagerness to play on overused themes.

As it happens, Love Happens isn't a bad film. In fact its a fair bit better than I expected. However, even with two likable stars playing even more likable characters, not to mention a talented supporting cast, the film gets into trouble when it ignores the story it's trying to tell, one worth watching, and instead focuses on giving us pat scenes which could have been taken from any other movie of this genre.

Aaron Eckhart stars as a widower turned self-help guru on the verge of national syndication. Along with his loyal assistant (Dan Fogler), Burke returns to Seattle for a seminar and hoping to close a lucrative deal.

Unexpectedly Burke encounters a flower shop owner (Jennifer Aniston) with a passion for big words. His relationship with Eloise forces Burke to take a hard look at his own life, the loss of his wife, and the pain he still carries around inside him.

There's much about the film that works. First, Eckhart and Aniston are great on screen together. Not only can we see these two together, we want them to get there. Of course the two meet cuter than a basket of puppies, but that's to be expected.

I also liked the choice to make Burke honest and not only in the self-help game for the money. He genuinely wants, even needs, to help others deal with the loss of loved ones. One of the film's best relationships is between Burke and a father (John Carroll Lynch) struggling over the death of his son.

The film struggles, however, with the relationship between Burke and his father-in-law (Martin Sheen) which produces one of the most ludicrous scenes of the movie that involves breaking-and-entering, a parrot, and hiding under a table. Don't ask.

Even more troubling however is the film's need to provide us with a final act confession and "big reveal" about Burke and his struggle to get over the death of his wife. Not only is the revelation not shocking (it's hinted at several times) its inclusion does nothing to improve the story in any way except add a pandering "Awwwwwww" moment which the film not only doesn't need, but made me feel dirty for even watching it. Not only does this twist completely take the film off the rails, but it also creates a myriad of problems and logic holes which aren't even mentioned, let alone discussed.

Love Happens is 65% good film, 20% romcom cliche, and 15% off-the-rails disaster. That still puts it well-ahead of the curve giving us a good romantic comedy. It just happens the movie could have been much more.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Although "Whiteout" was slightly better than I expected, the film is nothing more than your basic thriller complete with a masked killer, a plucky detective with hidden scars, dangerous situations (most of which could be avoided the slightest hint of common sense), and a late plot twist which is far less surprising than it's expected to be.

Kate Beckinsale stars as US Marshall Carrie Stetko. Due to an unfortunate case in her past, which we are given glimpses of in flashbacks, Carrie transferred as far from the action as possible. For years she has been the law in the icy wilderness of Antarctica where nothing ever happens.

Until now! Cue the suspenseful music.

Only days before her vacation, when the last planes will leave the Antarctic station for winter, a body is discovered. Carrie will have to put her past behind her and with the help of her doctor friend (a gruffy looking Tom Skerritt) and an agent from the United Nations (Gabriel Macht) she'll try to find a killer from among the small population of the research station.

The story, adapted by four screenwriters, is based on the comic book mini-series by Greg Rucka and artist Steve Lieber. There's little to the tale itself, so the film puts most its energy into pushing the tension and focusing on the dangerous environmental conditions. Oh, and of course, coming up with a way for Beckinsale to disrobe!

Part of the problem with the film comes from the very limitations of this environment. With only a scant number of people working at the station there's little investigation for Carrie to undertake. And, as we're only introduced to an even smaller handful of subjects, there's little surprise when the truth is revealed.

The film attempts to make up for these issues by muddying the plot and finding ways to put Beckinsale's character in danger. Those who want to root for her death might get some cheap thrills out of this but it doesn't do much to advance the plot.

It's not a total loss. The tension and sylistic choices hold up for most of the film. Beckinsale is passable in her role, though she wouldn't have been my first choice for the damaged Carrie (and don't get me started on those flashbacks). And Skerritt is truly enjoyable in his small role. That might not add up to much, but, as I said before, it's more than I was expecting.

There's a reason this film has been kept on the shelf for more than two years (it was completed in 2007). I'm actually surprised the film wasn't released straight to DVD, which is where it probably belongs.

Keep your expectations low going in. "Whiteout" isn't awful; it's just very, very average, without anything to set it apart from the glut of cheap thrillers out there. But, hey, even in a film which takes place in the Antarctic the director still finds a way to get Kate Beckinsale naked (well, in that PG-13-where-you-don't-see-anything kind of way). That should tell you all you need to know about the demographic the flick is aimed for and the amount of bang you're going to get for your buck.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Adapted by creator Shane Acker from the short film of the same name, and produced by Tim Burton (who knows a thing or too about creepy and unconventional animated films), comes "9."

CGI animation in the style of stop-motion, Acker's film is a breath of fresh air in both style and story. If you enjoyed Coraline earlier this year then this one's for you. Here's a good story beautifully rendered and not afraid to inspire both fear and awe in younger viewers.

Rather than take time to explain the world and its rules (i.e. talk down to its audience), as would happen in well over 90% of animated films (and close to 100% of kid's films), we're thrown right into the middle of the action.

The story begins with birth into a world of death. This is a post-apocalyptic world populated only by small puppet figures and dangerous mechanical beasts. We discover the world through the eyes of the newly created 9 (Elijah Wood).

Through 9's experiences and explorations we learn more about the state of the world and the origin of the stitchpunks (the name for the rag doll creatures). They are your basic collection of movie archetype characters, each based on a single overriding characteristic. There's iron-fisted leader 1 (Christopher Plummer), inquisitive and curious 2 (Martin Landau), the brave warrior 7 (Jennifer Connelly), the mute twins 3 and 4, the prophetic 6 (Crispin Glover), the inventor 5 (John C. Reilly), and the dimwitted bully 8 (Fred Tatasciore).

The stichpunks live in fear of metal creatures who roam the landscape intent on their extermination including a skull-faced cat, a winged predator, and the large metal spider which controls them all. As animated baddies go, these are the most frightening I've seen in some time.

Although Burton's hand can be felt (especially in Seamstress creature), neither Acker's voice nor vision is overwhelmed.

This is a story is your basic Frankenstein cautionary tale of science uncontrolled, and the dangerous consequences when the creation turns on the master. Although not terribly original, the story works well enough, especially as it slowly reveals itself to the audience (which allows for plenty of tense moments).

The film also hasn't skimped on scary or dark moments for hopes of bringing in a younger audience. It certainly isn't for young children, but pre-teens and older will get something to savor very different from the regular release of Disney, DreamWorks, or even Pixar.

And the look is fantastic. Everything shown on screen feels real and tangible, almost as if you could reach out and run your fingertips across the varied textures on display.

The film isn't without its flaws, such as the climax, revelations, and resolution of the film, which - though beautiful - don't have the magic of the rest of the film and are a bit of a letdown. Style points aside, 9 isn't a great film, but, in a year that's been surprisingly good for animation, it is a very good film which certain audiences (and you know who you are) should, and will, seek out.

If you like your animation beautiful, but more than a little bleak, I'd recommend you attempt to discover if 9 might be your lucky number.