Joe's Movie Reviews

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Yes" And No

First, I want to say that if there are any fellow members of Lyndale United Church Of Christ who just found out about this blog in last week's E-mail blast and are now checking it out for the first time... welcome, and thank you. You should perhaps know that you are joining an ever-growing community of readers that will soon make this blog the most widely-read online movie-related site in the world, and causing Roger Ebert and the Internet Movie Database to give up in frustration, unable to compete.

And by the way, if you think you detect a certain amount of sarcasm and/or irony in the previous paragraph, then you probably are NOT a newcomer here. It sounds as if you know exactly what to expect. And far be it from me to disappoint you. (And again, thanks... no saracasm in that).
"Yes Man". Is there anything funnier than the site of a comedian who has made a 15-year film career out of the same basic set of wacky facial expressions do still another 100-minute series of variations on those same expressions? Can there possibly be anything more hysterical than what seems like the tenth version this month of the old "emotionally distant male reconnects with the world through the help of a quirky, offbeat love interest" plot? And are you the sort of person who would answer "yes" to either of the above questions? Oh... I'm very sorry to hear that. I hope you can get some effective therapy soon. Now, as for the rest of us...

In "Yes Man", Jim Carrey plays an emotionally distant (of COURSE he is!) bank employee who, as the result of a recent bad divorce, has withdrawn from all of his friends and family. One day he gets talked into attending a seminar by a charismatic self-help guru played by Terrence Stamp, who persuades him to accept the power of "Yes"... to literally say "Yes" to absolutely every single offer or opportunity that comes his way. Needless to say, this changes his life in major ways, most of which are intended to seem wild and wacky. (I wonder if George W. Bush attended a seminar like this just before his first term, and from then on any time one of his advisors came to him with suggestions like "What do you say we invade Iraq and then lie about the WMDs and other reasons for the invasion?", he had no choice but to say yes? It would explain so much!)

This is essentially a movie devoted to fulfilling our expectations of virtually every person involved in making it. Want to see Jim Carrey do Jim Carrey instead of stretching himself the way he did so brilliantly (I DO mean that, seriously) in "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind"? You got it! Want to see Zooey Deschanel take one more step towards firming up her reputation as "the quirky girl who inspires our wacky hero to see the light"? You got that, too. It even continues the recent downward trend of Terrence Stamp, getting him involved once more in trying to provide a touch of dignity and class to a very lowbrow comedy that desperately needs it. And once again, it's not quite enough.

It doesn't seem all that long ago that comedy was based on the UNexpected... characters saying or doing things you had no way of anticipating. When did that change? Once in a very great while, a picture like "Tropic Thunder" that really doesn't play by any kind of rules comes along, but it's now the extremely rare exception. And genuinely talented performers like Carrey, Deschanel and Stamp are content to fritter away their abilities in predictable hackwork like "Yes Man". It may not be the absolute worst example of how far popular culture has fallen (not as long as Celine Dion still has a career), but it's not exactly very encouraging, either.

If the premise of this movie seems interesting enough that you actually feel inclined to catch this movie, I have two alternate suggestions. (1): Read the non-fiction book of the same title by Scottish author Danny Wallace that was the VERY, VERY loose basis of this film. It's genuinely hysterical, and not at all predictable. (2) You could also see "Liar, Liar", a picture with a not too disimilar premise that Carrey made some 13 years ago, when his comedic approach was still fresh and he was occasionally inclined to take some chances. Or just catch some old Monty Python episodes. Warning, though: they could very well make it impossible for you to ever take a film like "Yes Man" seriously ever again. Pardon me now, I have to go and watch the "Argument Clinic" sketch. After writing about "Yes Man", I feel the need for something REALLY funny.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Twilight Time

Vampires never seem to go out of style, but as time goes by and folks in the media continue to try to find new ways and styles of presenting them, they've come up with some very unusual approaches, everywhere from "The Count" on "Sesame Street" to the recently ever-more-popular approach of vampires that look and act like they stepped right out of a script for "Gossip Girl". In "Twilight", this approach may possibly have reached its peak.

For those who may be unaware, "Twilight" is based on the first of a popular series of teen novels (none of which I've read). In this first tale, a young girl (played by Kristen Stewart of "Into The Wild") is reluctant to follow her mother and mom's new husband on a job-related road trip, so she goes to live with her father in a small, dark/dreary, rain-drenched upper northwest town. There she quickly settles into the local high school and becomes romantically involved with a mysterious student... who just happens to turn out to be a vampire, as are the other members of his family. You never got to meet Dracula's sister or father, did you? Just one of the many unique experiences awaiting you in "Twlight".

Actually, the very basic premise is not really all that different from the concept of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", complete with the brooding vampire who really isn't all that evil and becomes involved with our teen heroine. But what a world of difference! "Buffy" took the time to avoid stereotypes and make each of its characters... lead and supporting... into real people (or whatever they may have been). "Twlight" gives us cardboard characters who for the most part speak in the same angst-filled monotones, in dialogue that could just as easily have been spoken by any of the other characters. The storylines of "Buffy" almost always related to real world and real, identifiable problems. "Twlight"'s main interest seems to be in close-ups of our handsome, brooding vampire hero and scenes designed to make the teenage girls in the audience filled with romantic longing. "Buffy" could give you every conceivable emotion in the course of a single episode. "Twilight" gives you little but the aforementioned brooding, with the exception of a few scenes that are UNINTENTIONALLY hysterical... I'm thinking in particular of a baseball game between the various members of the vampire family. If only more deliberate comedies could produce as many laughs!

That's not to say that there isn't ANYTHING to recommend it. Director Catherine Hardwicke gives us a fair amount of eerie atmosphere, the cinematography is much better than your standard cheesy horror picture, and in the midst of a cast of unmemorable performances (Hardwicke did much better in "Thirteen" with Holly Hunter and Evan Rachel Wood), Stewart actually seems natural and believable, like a real teen. Still, she's no Sarah Michelle Gellar. Still, is this enough for a really rewarding time at the movies? Not for me.

Having never read any of the original novels, I can't really say whether this movie is an accurate reflection of them. But if it is, I'm a bit mystified at their popularity. As I was sitting here in the Walker Library typing this, I happened to overhear a woman who appeared to be in her 40's asking a clerk how to get on a reserve waiting list for the "Twilight" books, saying something about being "born too late". Maybe I just have a similar problem but was born SO late that I'm just unable to connect with the appeal of the "Twilight" series. (Although I kind of think not.) But ultimately, my reaction to this film is to go very much against my usual grain and actually recommend that instead of going to a theatre to see a movie (this one), you instead stay home and watch a TV series... either in reruns or DVD, or even on, however you can get it. I don't think I have to tell you what TV series that is.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Klaatu Barada No-No

Yes, it's come to this. The need to deliver some badly needed sarcasm and negativity in these reviews has finally resulted in me dipping into the well... or should that be cesspool?... of turkeys that I've seen second-run recently. But it had to be done. Apologies to those who have no idea what the title of this column refers to... you'll have to have seen the original 1951 version of "The Day The Earth Stood Still" to understand it, as it's inspired by a line that doesn't appear in the remake... and maybe virtually nobody will get it. But it just popped into my head totally unbidden, and wouldn't let me alone until I had written a negative review with that title. Who am I to ignore the magical muse of sarcasm?... I mean, seriously, how often do muses ever directly inspire YOU? Just because it's the muse of sarcasm, I'm supposed to ignore it? I take my muses where I can find them.

Anyhow, let's proceed.
1. "The Day The Earth Stood Still". What a lovely birthday present. This movie was released exactly on my most recent birthday, and as gifts go I've had better. In fact, it's the sort of gift you wind up returning the very next day. But then, I also got the local release of "Frost/Nixon" on the same day, so things worked out. As for "Day The Earth Stood Still"... I suppose it's somewhat encouraging that casting directors have given up on trying to convince us that Keanu Reeves is a brilliant scientist, or super-hero about to save the world, and cast him as an emotionless alien. At last, a role that doesn't stretch our credibility. But that's about it for encouraging.

Much like the original, THIS version of the story is about a human-like alien being who comes to Earth accompanied by his giant robot guardian in order to save the Earth. NOT the human race, mind you, but the PLANET Earth. Seems that a consortium of alien races has decided that the human race is too much of a danger to the planet and will have to be wiped out in order to save the world. On the plus side, you wouldn't have to worry about not being ready for the digital TV conversion, but overall probably not such a good trade-off. The various governmental forces come to much the same conclusion, and rush to try and stop it.

In the 1951 original, Michael Rennie as Klaatu the alien managed to give us a believably non-human character without human emotions and at the same time not come off as wooden. And when he did eventually have to exhibit some concern for the human race, you believed him. Maybe that's asking too much for a performer of Reeve's range (it shouldn't be, though... he was actually a decent actor in the very early days of his career), but Reeves is SO wooden here you could practically make a table or chair out of him. Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly as the female lead, a scientist attempting to persuade him that the human race is worth saving, should have been a redeeming factor: after all, she actually DESERVED her Oscar (how refreshing!), and has given other Oscar-worthy performances. However, she's no real improvement over Reeves: I was unable to tell what she was feeling in any given scene unless her dialogue indicated it, because her one and only facial expression and vocal tone never changed once during the course of the entire film. And while I don't like to put down child actors, Jaden Smith as Connelly's step-son had better hope his dad Will overcomes his fears of nepotism and decides to give him more acting work in the future... I don't know who else will after seeing this movie. There are some real stand-outs in the smaller roles: the always reliable Kathy Bates is totally believable as the Secretary Of State (government official in charge of response to the aliens after so much of the government has gone into hiding). If aliens were landing, you'd WANT her in charge. And John Cleese is utterly marvelous and even touching in a cameo as a professor trying to persuade Klaatu of humanity's capacity for change. Too bad he couldn't have been equally persuasive with the film's producers and convinced them to give him a bigger role. But Bates & Reeve's combined screen time probably isn't more than 20, maybe 25 minutes. If only...

A lot of people wonder about the special effects in movies like this: if they're really spectacular, that's enough for them. Well, those people will be happy maybe half of the time. I'll admit that the primitive, reptilian part of my brain really responded to some of the destructive scenes... it was kind of cool to watch entire athletic stadiums or even trucks in motion on the highway dissolved into nothingness in mere seconds by the swarms of insect-like creatures. But why, oh why, is movie technology still apparently unable to create a completely digital human-like character who doesn't look like something out of a cheap video game? Klaatu's robot looks mighty impressive just standing still, but as soon as it starts to move I almost felt like laughing. And don't even get me STARTED on the explosions.

And let's face it: if the characters and arguments presented in this movie as reasons for allowing the human race to continue were all the alien visitors had to go on... well, the odds would not be good. How about Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu... but no, Jennifer Connelly trying to convince Reeve of humanity's worthiness by her concern for her badly acting (in all senses of that term) step-son... while her expression never shows a sign of this concern... is what we have to pin our hopes on. Maybe we shouldn't be making any long-term plans just yet.

After the movie was over, I actually heard one other audience member express some disappointment to her companion that the movie was CALLED "The Day The Earth Stood Still" but that at no time anywhere in the film DID the Earth actually stand still.
(Seriously, I am not making that up.) I don't want to be too much of a nitpicker, so I'm willing to let them slide on that one. But there's only so far I can carry that attitude, and I can't take it so far as to actually recommend that anyone rush out to any of the discount theatres where this is now showing to see it. Of course, if Klaatu decided to send his robot after me, who knows? I don't want to be TOO unreasonable about this.
Don't know how soon I'll be able to squeeze this in, but before too many more days you can probably also look forward to (or anticipate with fear and dread, depending)
to some negative commentary on the movie "Twilight". All I'll say right now is that even as a major, long-time fan of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", I still never really appreciated how good that show was until I saw "Twilight"...