Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 10:55 pm on June 29, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 6/20/08)
Directed By: Marco Schnabel
Written By: Mike Myers & Graham Gordy
Cinematographer: Peter Deming
Starring: Mike Myers, Jessica Alba, Romany Malco, Justin Timberlake

It’s hard to drum up much energy to write a full review for a movie like The Love Guru, one whose writers obviously didn’t bother putting much energy into its script. In fact, the amount of laziness exhibited in every aspect of this film is enough to lose every conceivable potential audience.

The plot is so thin, it is literally presented and set up in its entirety in the 5 minutes or so that precede the opening credits sequence. Even the paper-thin love story, between Mike Myers and Jessica Alba, has absolutely zero development: upon their first meeting, Jane (Alba) essentially tells the Guru Pitka (Myers) that she has a crush on him, and they agree that they will pursue their romance as soon as their silly task at hand is completed. Said task is reuniting the star of the Toronto Maple Leafs–owned by Alba’s character–with his wife. Said star, Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco, wasted yet again) hasn’t been playing well ever since his wife started sleeping with Jacques “Le Coq” Grande (Justin Timberlake), who is notorious for having a huge schlong. (Get it? “Le Coq”? Yeah, that’s as clever as it gets.)

There are some funny parts in this movie, but they are disappointingly infrequent and limited. A lot of the gags are based on toilet humor of the most juvenile kind. Ben Kingsley, for instance, plays an embarrassing role as Pitka’s cross-eyed trainer, where he teaches his students, um, something by having them battle with urine-soaked mops. If you weren’t paying close enough attention just now, I gave away two big jokes. Here’s another one: Pitka’s “clever” means of buying time at the end of the film’s climactic hockey game is to have two elephants go at it on the ice. We might be able to overlook the several layers of implausibility and sheer ridiculousness if this were actually funny, but instead it just drags on for a douchechill-inducing amount of time.

Most of the running jokes in the film are just as stupid. Pitka loves making everything into an acronym, but none of them are funny or particularly clever. There are multiple attempts to goof on the Indian concept of the “third eye” that just come off as weird, as do the brief forays into spoofing those Indian music videos that we’ve all seen on the internet.

Basically this whole movie just feels thrown together, based on a flimsy idea that probably never was enough to fill a full feature-length film in the first place. If Myers were still on Saturday Night Live, it might have made a decent sketch. As it stands, it’s a largely unfunny movie with some chuckles here and there amidst an absurd story that never really goes anywhere.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 2:56 am on June 27, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 6/13/08)
Directed By: Louis Leterrier
Written By: Zak Penn
Cinematographer: Peter Menzies Jr.
Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt

When you think about it, it’s really George Lucas’s fault. Seemingly ever since the beginning of ILM, his vision has been for computers to do everything. They broke a ton of ground with Jurassic Park, but it seems like the technology has actually devolved since then. These days (ever since Lucas took the big plunge with the ill-fated Episode I), it feels like every movie has major characters who are completely computer animated. Someday, if Lucas has his way, we probably won’t need actors anymore. Except that we will, and The Incredible Hulk is an excellent example of why that will be the case for a long time.

The story is decent enough. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is hiding out in Brazil, trying to live his life without any “episodes” occurring. He’s been doing a pretty decent job at it, working in a soda bottling plant and practicing some sort of yoga or meditation or deep breathing something-or-other that helps him control his temper. When a small accident involves a drop of his gama-tainted blood ending up in a soda bottle, though, which is consumed by an American (Stan Lee in his compulsory cameo appearance) who has an undisclosed reaction to it, the US government (and, particularly, William Hurt as General Ross) is tipped off to Banner’s location. Ross enlists the help of Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), one of those over-the-top super-trained military guys with an oddly discordant background (in this case, he’s Russian-born and English-trained–or is it the other way around?). Together they come hunting for Banner, who hulks out, and then proceeds to do what the Hulk is always found doing: beating up the bad guys and then running away to hide. This first encounter is handled quite well, with the Hulk only being partially revealed and then only in glimpses as he briefly emerges from the shadows. It gives the character a mystique to him, and avoids giving away everything about him in the exposition.

Eventually Banner makes his way to the US, where he looks up his former lover Betty Ross (Liv Tyler, in her second–and better–of two big roles this summer). At the college campus where Betty is a researcher (and where Bruce formerly worked with her), General Ross and Blonsky catch up again, and this time a larger battle ensues. This is where the movie starts to falter, as the Hulk is now seen in all of his ridiculousness as they battle out in the open. In case I’m being unclear: this Hulk (rendered by Rhythm and Hues) does not look good. It is a poorly-animated, cheesy-looking beast that has no chance of functioning as an interesting or sympathetic character, nevermind maintaining the suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t even seem like much effort went into it; in the Ang Lee Hulk, at least the creature (although also ridiculously fake-looking) shared facial features with Eric Bana. No such effort has been made here. In fact, the contrast between Edward Norton, whose acting is as top-notch as always and who appears strong in his self-control and resolution, and the pixelated Hulk, who is sloppy and downright goofy in his visage and movements, is striking in all of the wrong ways.

It is obvious that those behind this film are fans of the Hulk character and its legacy, from musical cues that call back to the television series to a cameo appearance by Lou Ferrigno himself (who also supplies the Hulk character with its voice). It’s sad, then, that they completely miss the whole point of the character by portraying it as a soulless, unsympathetic piece of animation. This is most clear when the Hulk and Betty escape once again and attempt to share a tender moment while hiding out in a cave. It’s almost comical when they are seen standing next to each other, and just plain silly when Liv Tyler cozies up to the cartoon for a nap. As Ronnie B commented after seeing this movie, it’s no more touching than seeing Bugs Bunny play basketball with Michael Jordan in Space Jam.

After this second encounter, during which the Hulk seriously injured an overly-brave Blonsky, the soldier becomes obsessed with gaining the Hulk’s power for himself. He follows Banner and Betty to the research facilities of Mr. Blue (Tim Blake Nelson), who has been working on a cure for Banner’s condition. Needless to say, it involves manipulating the very gamma radiation that turned Banner into the Hulk in the first place, and so Mr. Blue also happens to possess the ability of turning Blonsky into an evil Hulk, which Blonsky forces him to do. This quickly leads to a Good Hulk-vs.-Bad Hulk showdown, which once again is really hard to care about as it’s just sloppy animation flying around as a city crumbles and catches fire around them.

Perhaps the best part of the film, after the superb performances by both Norton and Tyler, is the epilogue featuring Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., in his role from Iron Man) meeting with General Ross. This sets up an Avengers movie, which has the potential to be pretty interesting, especially if it’s going to feature the superiorly-handled Iron Man character prominently. And who knows, maybe CG technology will have advanced a bit more by the time that film is in post-production, although I have serious doubts that it’ll do so sufficiently to change my current opinion of its overuse.

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Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 10:47 pm on June 25, 2008

Status: In theaters (opened 6/13/08)
Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan
Written By: M. Night Shyamalan
Cinematographer: Tak Fujimoto
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel

When The Sixth Sense was first released, M. Night Shyamalan was widely praised as the next coming of Hitchcock. He’s faltered in some ways since then, but with The Happening he shows that he is still ready, willing, and–most importantly–able to live up to some of that billing. Here he delivers a very unique film, not only in terms of its premise but in its presentation.

One day in Manhattan people suddenly start becoming disoriented and proceed to kill themselves in various horrific ways. Nobody knows what is causing this to happen, but it quickly becomes apparent that it is spreading. In nearby Philadelphia, Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife (Zooey Deschanel), along with their friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez, a very capable child actress) decide to flee. The movie is essentially the story of their escape, while Elliot the science teacher attempts to reason out an explanation for what is happening. Along the way his theories appear to be proven true, although we never learn for sure exactly what the cause is, which proves to be a very effective way of keeping things suspenseful even when the enemy is not thoroughly understood. Said enemy is, ostensibly, the plant life that we as humans have not been doing a very good job of sharing the planet with as of late; they’ve finally evolved a way to fight back, it seems.

If plants sound like a boring threat to you, you haven’t experienced the way Shyamalan crafts a thriller. The fact that the events occurring are never completely understood (even the recap given by a TV news reporter after the “happening” appears to have subsided still rings mostly as speculation) gives the whole movie a chilly air of suspense stemming from a fear of the unknown. The frequent cuts to shots of leaves blowing in the wind are eerily quiet and disturbing in a very Hitchcockian manner (not unlike, say, a shot of a seemingly innocuous bird settling onto a jungle gym). Shyamalan takes several opportunities to show just how adept he is at crafting situations that repeatedly serve to bring his audience to the edge of their seats and then immediately cause them to leap out of them. The Happening strikes a masterful balance between disturbing, slowly-developing imagery (there’s a scene involving a lawnmower that particularly sticks in the viewer’s mind) and tightly-crafted cringe- and jump-inducing surprise (such as a scene involving Elliot in the house of an old reclusive woman they encounter).

One area in which the film really stands out as unique is in the sheer awkwardness of how the events are depicted by the filmmakers and how they are responded to by the characters. Although many have panned it for this very reason (Jim Emerson, for instance), I really feel that they are missing the point. It’s much more interesting to see a school evacuation where everybody seems more confused and unsure than panicked, for example, than it is to show yet another high shot of the school’s entrance as children flood out, as we’ve seen seemingly hundreds of times before. The uniqueness of the way Shyamalan chooses to handle scenes such as this not only keeps the viewer interested, as it reinforces the keeping-you-guessing aspect of the film, but it also adds to the chilly ambiance of the situations the characters find themselves in. To me inquisitive, uncertain characters are much more interesting than your standard horror movie screamers. The whole style of the movie seems to flow from this basis: a lot of the photography is closer and softer than might normally be expected, the majority of the settings are open and serene rather than dark and claustrophobic, and the events themselves are more chillingly quiet and disturbing than they are shocking and outright scary.

Wahlberg’s and Deschanel’s performances are on the surface quite flat, but again they seem more to be reflective of characters who don’t quite know how to react, and would prefer to witness what’s going on rather than scream about it and run away. It’s another awkward aspect of the film that might put off some viewers, but looked at with an open mind it’s refreshingly different from the by-the-book performances a less creative director might have elicited. Shyamalan certainly has a long ways to go before we can really consider him to be in the same realm as Hitchcock, but The Happening is a step in the right direction.

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Posted by mike in Film,Friends,Reviews at 1:15 am on June 24, 2008

Status: Unreleased (premiered 6/22/08)
Directed By: Mark Flanagan & Andrew van Baal
Cinematographer: Andrew van Baal
Starring: Dave Allen, Jon Brion, Grant-Lee Phillips, Zach Galifianakis, John C. Reilly, Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and many others

At dinner with his parents the night before the world premiere of his first movie, Largo co-director, editor, and cinematographer Andrew van Baal warned them once again that the film he had made would likely only serve to alternately bore and offend them. He informed them of the fact that he had hoped to capture a depiction of the performances at this trendy Los Angeles club, where the sublime meets the profane. The film vacillates between the two, mixing emotional musical performances with biting and edgy comedy routines, sandwiched within a visual chronicle of the last days of the old Largo on Fairfax, which closed its doors for the last time prior to the film’s completion (the club has since reopened at a new, larger location). Shots of the club and its ambiance are intercut with the performances to form what amounts to a “best-of”-style concert film; Largo has hosted a lot of special performances over the years, and this movie aims to assemble a sampling of the best of them into a cohesive whole.

The directors have presented the film in a manner very befitting of the club itself: the black-and-white photography helps convey the feeling of the dimly-lit interior, and tight shots of the performers bring the club’s intimate setting to the moviehouse audience. The first several performances are what co-director Mark Flanagan described at the post-screening Q&A as maudlin, with tight steady perspectives and softly-focused and -lit faces of the artists (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and others) pouring their hearts out on the club’s small stage. The selection of songs follows a naturally building arc, and by the end a crescendo is reached featuring rocking performances by Andrew Bird, Largo’s long-time musician-in-residence Jon Brion, and Grant-Lee Phillips, with wider angles, freer camera movements, and more frequent cuts to go along with them. In between there are several hilarious comedy pieces by the likes of Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, and Patton Oswalt. John C. Reilly stops by to share a story that makes one wonder if he hasn’t done stand-up before, and Flight of the Conchords ably bridge the music and the comedy in their now-famously unique way.

I found myself at times wishing that the movie was either all musical performances or all comedy; going back and forth between the two, it’s easy to get into one mindset or the other and find yourself wanting to stay there. The film transitions between performances smoothly, though, and after a few context switches they become easier to take; in fact, I’d say that it achieves a point where the comedy provides a nice respite from the music, and vice versa. The way the film subtly shifts styles to match the various performances further helps to entrench the audience in each one, in addition to serving as a testament to both the care that was put into its assembly as well as the talent behind it.

That this is not a movie for everybody should be patently obvious on the surface. The opening-night crowd was largely comprised of Largo regulars and existing fans, which made for a perfect first screening, but I do wonder along with the LA Times reviewer who asked, “Whom will they be rocking beyond the film festival audiences?” Largo is not only well put together, but it is also admirable in the way it allows the performances it documents to speak for themselves. There are no titles, there is no narration, and there is no commentary; it is simply a collection of supremely talented artists, sampled while at their most exposed in the most intimate of settings. By nature it’ll only appeal to a niche audience, but it’s a niche that exists and was out in full on Sunday night at the Crest theater. Where it goes from here I’m not sure, but I’ll provide updates as always. I’d like to see it get bought by an HBO or a Showtime (the “profane” parts would necessitate it), where I think it could get some airtime and attract some viewers.

Until then, I just want to publicly congratulate Andy and Flanny for producing a movie that is beautiful, funny, moving, and at times very touching. It’s always special to be able to see a film’s premiere exhibition, but this one was particularly so for me because of my personal relationship to the primary creative force behind it. I’m extremely proud of and happy for my friend for what he’s accomplished, and looking forward to seeing what it leads to for him next.

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Posted by mike in Film,Friends,News at 12:59 am on June 20, 2008

Largo, the film my friend Andy has made (which I’ve written about a couple of times previously), is finally set to premiere this coming Sunday, June 22, at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Andy, the artist
Not only am I super-excited for my friend (who looks really “artisty” in his publicity photo for the festival), but I’m really looking forward to seeing the fruit of his labor in its finally-completed form. Having had the opportunity to see parts of the film at several stages over the past few years, including being present for a few of the performances that will be showcased in it, it’s going to be really cool to get to see it in its polished form on a big screen, not to mention with a big film festival audience (which should naturally be pretty receptive to a non-narrative film).

Interestingly, in the time since Andy completed shooting footage for the film, the club (in its original incarnation) has closed. It just opened in its new larger location last week, in fact, making the debut of the film particularly timely, in addition to giving it additional cachet as a chronicle of a club that is now made even more legendary due to the fact that it no longer exists (at least, not physically; from everything I’ve heard and read, all intentions are to ensure that the spirit of the club transfers to its new location). I think that this can only help build excitement for the film, and hopefully increase the amount of people interested in it. I’m really looking forward to the premiere, and will be sure to report back early next week with some thoughts on the movie and a report of how the premiere went.

Along those lines, now that we’re finally settled into our new home, and I’m more or less settled into my new job, I’m done with excuses for slacking off on my movie-reviewing goal, so I’m going to work on getting caught up (I’ve got a lot in the queue). I can’t think of a better movie to use as my first full-length review than Largo, so that seems like a worthy plan. I don’t know if I can hold a pace like Chas did when she first started blogging, with an entry every day, but we’ll see– there’re enough movies I’ve seen since my last roundup that it might require a review a day for a couple of weeks before I’m caught up. My intention is to work backwards, chronologically, so that at least the first few are somewhat relevant and timely; the rest will be more for archival purposes and just to force myself to not abandon the reviews I’ve started. The release of the new Batman movie seems like a good date to shoot for to be caught up by, so that’ll be my aim.

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Posted by mike in Entertainment,Sports at 2:21 am on June 13, 2008

Having moved from western Michigan to the suburbs of Chicago when I was 15, I went through a not all that reluctant transition as a sports fan. It was hard to not get Bulls hysteria during the mid-90s, and I’d always been at least as much of a Bears fan as I was the Lions fan my father’d tried to raise me to be, having been a very impressionable child in 1985, not to mention the fact that we lived approximately equidistant between Soldier Field and the Silverdome, and it was a no-brainer which one would give a young NFL fan the superior experience and memories. I even decided, prior to the start of this past NHL season, to officially forsake the Red Wings in favor of the Blackhawks; I hadn’t followed the NHL since the strike and the Blackhawks have some very promising young talent that I’ll be able to follow for several years (especially now that their home games are finally being broadcast). This turned out to be humorous timing, but I found that the playoffs are at least as fun to watch when rooting against the Red Wings as when rooting for them, anyway (they’re sort of the Yankees of hockey).

Baseball was a different story, though. The fact that there are two very distinct and separate leagues makes it not a big deal to have an “AL team” and an “NL team,” and that is what I did. I have very fond memories of summer afternoons spent watching WGN as a child: The Bozo Show in the morning, a rerun of The Incredible Hulk, then a Cubs game at 1:20. The fact that watching the Cubs did not conflict with rooting for the Tigers, as I was naturally raised to do, made it all the more enjoyable. As such, the Cubs are the only team I can truly say I’ve been a fan of my entire life, and I have WGN to thank for it.

Today, June 12, 2008, marked the 60th anniversary of the first broadcast of a Cubs game on WGN, and both the station and the team chose to have fun with it. Being a sucker for tradition, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Don't adjust your set
For starters, the first couple of innings of the game were broadcast in black-and-white. Both teams wore throwback uniforms, a first-ever for Wrigley Field. WGN used “1948 camera angles” during these first couple of innings, simulating an era when only a few cameras were available to televise a game (as opposed to the dozens that are now common), and wide shots were how audiences watched most of the game. Going further with the theme, during the black-and-white innings no instant replays were shown, since the technology didn’t exist yet in 1948. I don’t know if they had teletype capabilities at all back then, but WGN did their best to give everything an old-school look in the font department, too.

Bob and Len
The Cubs’ announcers, Bob Brenley and Len Casper, played their part by dressing as reporters would have in the 40s, with pinstripe suits, swanky vests, and fedoras. Not only did the channel use an old-time logo, but notice how they even went so far as to print new banners for the announcers’ booth, too.
Wayne
The Wrigley Field announcer, Wayne Messmer, got into the act as well: in addition to dressing in 1940s attire himself, he also sat in the front row right behind home plate, as the stadium announcer would’ve done at the time. Also during the black-and-white-televised innings there were (presumably simulated) typewriter noises heard in the background, imitating the sound of a pressbox from the era.

In addition to the blocky font used, even the sponsor logos (such as this Pepsi one) were old-style:
1948 Cubs lineup
Old-school score

Finally, throughout the game, pieces of old-school Cubs and baseball trivia were presented, still in that old-timey blocky font:
1940s schedule

And after all of that fun, the Cubs went on to do what this 2008 team has done so many times already: win another game with a come-from-behind victory, another one at home (bringing them to a ridiculous 29-8 in the Friendly Confines so far this season), and enjoying a start to the season that’s better than that of 1948 or any other year before or since.

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