Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain Crime doesn’t pay.  Director Michael Bay goes the distance to remind audiences of that necessary lesson because it also gives him the opportunity to glorify and glamorize every ugly facet of it.  Sitting through Pain and Gain, an alleged black comedy that exposes the danger of American greed, I’m left to contend that the writers and actors sought to dig up a fascinatingly dark tale spun so unbelievably from the ground up that 15 percent of it must actually be true.  After all—this is a true story.  I could have used a newspaper clipping of said story or even a mere tweet.  Bay’s punishing drama lasts 130 gruesome minutes.

The story takes place in 1995 where a Miami fitness guru, Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), a smarmy snake with muscles, slithers his way into a senior position at a gym and manages to triple its membership within a short amount of time.  But the cash isn’t green enough, and after a few interactions with self-made titan sleaze Walter Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), Daniel decides he can give the jerk what’s coming to him and steal all of his dough.

To do it, Daniel recruits the bronze mammoth and reformed ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and the steroid abuser Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie).  Together the odd-trio team attempt a series of failed executions at nabbing Kershaw before finally kidnapping him and then torturing him for three weeks until he signs over all of his finances and possessions to the unorthodox bodybuilders.  The gang seals the deal by killing him, or so they think, and Kershaw escapes near death.  Held captive in a hospital bed, Kershaw’s repelling personality and lack of convincing evidence regarding his abduction cause the police to laugh off his account of events.

Left broke and broken, Kershaw hires a retired private investigator (Ed Harris) to find the three tank-sized clowns that stole everything from him.  It ends up only a matter of time that Daniel and his pals fall victim to the temptations of the wealthy lifestyle and they compromise their plans, setting off a series of idiotic judgments and actions that lead them to further murder and destruction.

pain and gain imagePain and Gain happens to illustrate everything about soulless filmmaking.  Despite decent performances from the cast, the script never allows us to care for anyone of these hulking doofuses because they’re all so vile and violent.  Wahlberg’s character should carry the story in a tragic fashion, but he’s so unlikable in every conceivable manner, as are the other characters who fall victim to his manipulations.  Johnson has the most well-rounded role as the beefy aggressor who has found Christ, only to immediately find the devil in Daniel.  Mackie plays the third hand with little of interest added to his character.

When the characters fail, Bay makes sure we feel the pain.  His music video-style only glamorizes the violence and depravity.  These three men become enforcers of brute punishment, and rather than explore any psychological dimensions of these characters, Bay plays the outrageous blackness of the film for laughs, only they don’t hit as hard as his three leading actors—if ever.  Instead the director lights up the screen with oil, sweat, and sunlight and plays his misogynistic melee tale for all its worth, consistently objectifying women and playing up the volatile chumps and their violent ways as something to be desired.  From the outset, we don’t understand these characters in any possible way, so why spend 130 slow minutes trying to laugh off their bloody antics?  Bay thinks he’s delivered a cautionary tale, but instead his penchant for cinematic destruction provides a herd of antagonist morons doing grotesque things that are meant to look ‘oh so cool’—which reminds me of another one of Bay’s ugly and overlong crap chutes from ten years ago.

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Summer 2013 Preview

The blockbuster season is so close you can smell the shrapnel.  Luckily for us movie fans the studios have begun trotting out some of the big tentpoles early ever since the year 2011 when Fast Five broke the mold and opened a week before the typical Summer launch which has been the first weekend of May for over a decade.  The Vin Diesel-led action-sequel turned out to be a roaring success, even besting final grosses of the almighty Thor which kicked off the ‘season-proper.’  Now the studios are realizing audiences will pay to see a big movie any time of year if the anticipation is there.

I haven’t done this for a few years, but I miss the optimism in looking ahead to the movie season rather than the disappointment in looking back.  What movies are on my radar this summer?  Actually quite a heap.  Nearly every weekend has a movie I’m eager to see which is likely a major problem for studios as supply is very high this season and the competition will be fierce.  Hopefully my adoring wife will hold my hand through them all… or most.  I’m sure there will be big winners and major losers in this bunch.  But the real question is: will there be any surprises?  And which am I looking forward to most?

The Dark Horses:

pangPain and Gain (4/26): We have seen a lot of Dwayne Johnson lately.  And he will be around a lot more yet.  With Snitch and the G.I. Joe sequel still in theaters, he’s about to star in an uber-violent action-comedy from Michael Bay about criminal bodybuilders.  Johnson co-stars with Mark Wahlberg, Ed Harris and Tony Shaloub.  The trailers for the film definitely have some personality and signature Bay visuals—tan human beings drenched in sweat (or is that the camera lens), gunplay, car chases and explosions.  But I’m not sold yet.  The film looks a little more niche than expected and may play just as well at home if it’s any good at all.  TRAILER.

greatgatsThe Great Gatsby (5/10): It’s not the first title that comes to mind when I think ‘summer.’  That might be because the studio moved it from its Christmas award season slot last year to May 10th where there will be less… competition.  Right.  The trailer looks visually arresting and I’m surprised to see the film getting a 3D release.  As a film adaptation directed by Baz Luhrrman and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, this could be fantastic, but I’m not entirely sure it will break out at this time of year. TRAILER.

This-is-the-End-2013This is the End (6/12): A slew of comedic actors who’ve all shared the screen together in some capacity star as themselves caught up in an apocalypse.  Seth Rogen, Michael Cera, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, Aziz Ansari, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, Mindy Kaling, Danny McBride… Yes, they’re all in this movie and they all play their celebrity selves.  Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the film.  They also wrote Superbad and Pineapple Express.  And Green Hornet… and The Watch… If you are still reading they also wrote Drillbit Taylor (Remember that movie?  Owen Wilson was in it.  No one saw it…)  Their latest movie, looks like an intriguing concept…which could in fact turn out to be The Watch all over again (and that movie was a complete disaster).  But the trailers have me convinced this could be funny… or maybe too raunchy for my tastes.  Sadly this is one of the few comedy choices we have this coming season so we can only hope. TRAILER.

The-WolverineThe Wolverine (7/26): What?? Not in my top ten?? No.  Ever since Director Darren Arronofsky famously dropped out of the this dark prequel/sequel/standalone/spinoff or whatever it is, my anticipation went down.  I want to see it, but I’m not particularly excited.  James Mangold is a capable director.  But Walk the Line and Knight and Day aren’t exactly titles that tell me he was the right choice to revive this installment after the dumping ground that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Hugh Jackman has the chops to still deliver a great solo Wolverine movie, and the trailer looks pretty good, but how can a trailer for this movie not ‘look’ good?  TRAILER.

despicable-me-2-picture03Despicable Me 2 (7/3): I have to admit I really enjoyed the original surprise hit featuring the voice talent of Steve Carell.  Will this movie be a simple cash grab or a worthy follow-up?  I don’t know.  Time will tell.  Sequels to animated films generally don’t retain the magic of the predecessors, but I have no doubt that the writers could come up with something truly special.  Or maybe those yellow minions will be incredibly annoying the second time around.  TRAILER.

the-heat-trailerThe Heat (6/28):  Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock as hardcore law enforcement?  Sounds like comedy to me.  But will this movie have enough wit in the script or will it be an onslaught of profanity substituted for genuine ideas?  I believe both of these actresses are capable of delivering a very entertaining comedy and would likely make a dynamic pair, but I’m on the fence and entirely not blown away by the trailer. TRAILER.

LonerangThe Lone Ranger (7/3): This actually looks very entertaining, regardless of the naysayers.  This honestly just looks like a fun movie—batty, goofy, action-packed, impressively shot.  But it still has an iffy air about it and so it didn’t quite make my top ten list.  But Johnny Depp as Tonto strikes me as awesome.  Armie Hammer as the Ranger?  Hopefully a star is made out of him.  Plus Gore Verbinski is directing, and if he can recreate the magic of his first Pirates of the Caribbean film, then we may have something here.  TRAILER.

MonstersUMonsters University (6/21): Pixar Studios have been wanting sequels left and right all of a sudden.  It’s been off-putting for me as they typically come up with great original storytelling.  The teaser trailer for this Monsters, Inc. prequel also rubbed me the wrong way portraying monster college to children as a mindless wild party atmosphere (just without the booze).  Then a follow-up trailer filmed as a university advertisement was a bit more daring and original.  I think Monsters Inc was a very solid movie, but I’m not enthused for another.  TRAILER.

AftEarAfter Earth (6/7): My biggest question mark of the season… M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth.  The studio hasn’t been putting his name in the ads.  Why?  Because you probably laughed out loud when you read his name.  The man has been cursed.  At one point in his career everything he touched turned to gold.  Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs.  He was the next Spielberg.  Then… The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender.  Make it stop!  After Earth, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller starring Will Smith and Jaden Smith looks both good and bad.  I don’t know.  I suppose if this wasn’t a Will Smith-starrer I would look the other way.  I don’t see it as a resurgence for Shyamalan, but anything is possible.  Maybe it’s just that southern drawl in the actors’ voices that has me confused.  TRAILER.

world-war-z-trailerWorld War Z (6/21): I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead TV show mainly because of the high production values and searing drama amongst the human cast.  World War Z, which appears to be a very loose adaptation of its novel source, looks like a solid suspenseful ride.  But I have my doubts about Marc Forester directing (not to mention the highly-public troubled production)—he was behind Quantum of Solace and Finding Neverland.  The zombies look like dodgy CGI creations on speed, sort of like I am Legend.  Brad Pitt stars which adds some leading man power, but despite a promising trailer, I have a feeling Forester will deliver a completely digital film that misses the human element, the realism, and the drama.  Will I still see it?  Um, yeah.  TRAILER.

The Top Ten:

1183878 - WHITE HOUSE DOWN10) White House Down (6/28):  Okay.  I just saw Antonie Fuqua’s version of this movie and it was bad.  But come on.  The trailer for this Channing Tatum-Jamie Foxx version looks surprisingly good.  I’m game for another White House takedown movie even if it stars Channing Tatum because Director Roland ‘Independence Day‘ Emmerich is taking it down… and he has a profitable history in doing so.  Hopefully the villains, the heroes, the script, the plot, the visual effects and everything else in between are better than Olympus Has FallenTRAILER.

Fast-Furious-6-Official-Super-Bowl9) Fast & Furious 6 (5/24): Remember how Fast Five came out two years ago and blew away expectations?  I have a feeling returning Director Justin Lin will take it to a whole new level with this sixth installment.  I can’t believe I’m writing these words.  I mean, the awful Tokyo Drift was three movies ago!  Actually, Fast Five didn’t blow me away like everyone else, but I did enjoy it enough to be very excited for the entire cast returning for even bigger action, bigger chases, and even further ridiculousness.  Just don’t try and follow the titles of these movies, because they only want you to be confused.  TRAILER.

elysium-neil-blomkamp8)  Elysium (8/9): —UPDATE: The trailer arrived and it did not disappoint.  In fact, I should be moving this film higher on my list.  It looks great!— I have not seen a single frame of a trailer for this movie, but the production stills have me intrigued enough.  Plus the Oscar-nominated hit District 9 was my favorite movie of 2009, and Director Neill Blomkamp is now back with this new sci-fi action-thriller starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.  What’s it about?  IMDB lists the synopsis as: “Set in the year 2159, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth, a man takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds.”  Sounds good to me! TRAILER.

now_you_see_me_xlg7) Now You See Me (5/31): This trailer jumped out of nowhere and arrested me at gunpoint.  Magicians who rob banks, but for what purpose?  Is there something greater going on behind the curtain?  Count me in.  It has the intrigue of The Prestige with the fun of The Italian Job.  Plus the cast is absolutely top notch.  Something good in the script must have attracted them all.  Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman, Isla Fisher, Michael Caine, Mark Ruffalo.  Ticket.  Bought.  TRAILER.

2_Guns_26) 2 Guns (8/2): An action-comedy in vein of Lethal Weapon starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg.  It looks action-packed, but most surprisingly, it looks funny!  I can’t remember the last time Washington ran for some laughs.  This has all the right ingredients for a good-old buddy-action-flick and also looks to be a fresh break from all the comic book heroes and science fiction running amok.  TRAILER.

oblivion201212109117055) Oblivion (4/19): Summer starts very early this year and Tom Cruise is prime set to deliver a sprawling sci-fi actioner about a post-apocalyptic Earth and the aftermath of humanity leaving the planet (which is also the synopsis of After Earth).  Joseph Kosinski directed and the man is a visual talent, but can the story also deliver?  His previous film was Tron: Legacy which I actually enjoyed a lot.  I think Oblivion has grown on my radar the more ads I see for it.  Plus Cruise rarely stars in a bad film, especially his big budget fare.  I’m in.  TRAILER.

three-new-posters-for-pacific-rim-123740-02-470-754) Pacific Rim (7/12): Okay.  I know.  Giant robots versus giant monsters battling to the death.  I know!  But come on.  There’s people inside the giant robots manning controls.  And Charlie Hunnam who is a force to be reckoned with on Sons of Anarchy has what is potentially his big breakout role here.  Plus!—this is a Guillermo del Toro film who is a fantasy genius and he creates incredible creatures and worlds.  He’s the man behind Blade II, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the Hellboy movies.  I think he’s got us covered.  Pacific Rim looks like Transformers meets Godzilla with hopefully more brains than either of those.  And it looks awesome!!  TRAILER.

ironman3-poster-jumbo-jpg_1621423) Iron Man 3 (5/3): This ‘proper’ season kickoff will be huge.  Iron Man 3 luckily has the advantage of looking like a sequel to The Avengers (which everyone loved, and that film nearly doubled Iron Man’s previous domestic audience) rather than the mild disappointment that was Iron Man 2 three years ago.  New movie.  New director.  New tone.  And it looks like Tony Stark may have a lot to lose this time around.  I swear looking back—did anything actually happen in Iron Man 2?  Now the chips really start to crumble for Stark and it looks like an absolute blast.  TRAILER.

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS2) Star Trek Into Darkness (5/17): J.J. Abrams is the new deity of dorks.  But cool people love him too.  So now there really isn’t such a thing as dorks anymore.  Abrams is a genius… yes I’m in that camp.  And no, I haven’t seen Lost.  But his movies get better and better.  Mission Impossible III, Star Trek, and Super 8.  Soon he will deliver Star Wars Episode VII.  But for now let’s talk Star Trek and the upcoming sequel.  It looks amazing and I’ve only grown more fond of Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot over the years.  He did everything right in making Star Trek accessible to a mainstream audience.  The film was action-packed, funny, witty, well-acted, and the nods were everywhere for hardcore fans.  But if you missed them as a casual moviegoer, you still loved the movie!  So how can I not be ecstatic for the new Star TrekTRAILER.

mosposter1) Man of Steel (6/14): As I’m typing this I feel absolutely blown away that Man of Steel is in my number one spot.  I’m not a Superman fan!  I just don’t dig the character.  I don’t dislike him.  I just think he’s not that exciting of a character.  He’s basically indestructible, so where is the fun in that?  But Christopher Nolan is producing.  Zack Snyder of 300 and Watchmen is directing.  And the trailers look… amazing.  I’m honestly still skeptical, but I can’t deny that I’m most interested to see how this one turns out.  Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, and Henry Cavill (as Clark Kent)… that’s a solid cast.  The visuals looks great.  The emotion looks in place.  The story and themes seem to be just right.  It has that Nolan-feel.  Maybe that’s it.  We had this same anticipation experience back in 2006 when Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was set to usher in a new era for Superman.  The movie was a box office disappointment (only because Warner Bros spent way too much on the film because it performed exactly the same as Batman Begins the year prior) and people went from worshiping the film to outright hating it over the years.  I don’t know how people keep repeating these phases in moviedom.  The same thing happened to Indiana Jones 4 and Terminator 3 and Prometheus… and okay I’ll stop there.  But I really think Nolan and Snyder will deliver a Superman movie that finally makes me a fan.  TRAILER.

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The Fighter

With no shortage of first-class boxing dramas in the last forty years, it seems only fitting that The Fighter join former heavyweight champs Rocky, Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, The Hurricane, Cinderella Man, and Ali as a major contender in the ring of motion picture greatness.  David O’Russell’s darkly funny and tragic film springs from the ropes this holiday season, boasting some of the year’s standout performances and solidifying its place as a serious contender for award recognition.

The Fighter focuses on 1980s Lowell, Massachusetts boxer Micky Ward.  Never heard of him?  Neither had I.  Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg takes on the role of the 31-year-old small-town fighter whose quest for success in the ring is hindered by the extreme dysfunction of his family.  Completely overshadowing him is older half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer under the weight of a severe drug addiction.  He spends his time training Micky and participates in a ‘real-life’ documentary in development by HBO that he thinks is chronicling his big comeback—Dicky did knock Sugar Ray Leonard down once upon a time (or so he believes).  Micky’s mother (Melissa Leo) acts as his manager, finding big fights to put her son on the map—fights that nearly land him in a coffin.  With her line-up of crazy sisters to back her up, Micky’s mother and most of his family fail to realize how ignorant they are of the man’s own desires and goals.  Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), a local bartender who sees potential in Micky and the madness of those closest to him holding him back from greatness.  When she begins a relationship with him, Micky starts to understand from an outside perspective just how buried he is and decides to seek out new management and training, a choice that will hopefully lead him to a shot at the Welterweight title.  In the process it may cost him the only life he’s ever known and the only family he’s ever had.

Luckily Director O’Russell knows not to let The Fighter remain yet another underdog boxing story—it is exactly that to be sure—but the film keeps its eyes fixated on the emotional strings and hardships tied between Micky and his family.  This isn’t a movie about ‘boxing’, it’s a film about a boxer and the people enveloping his existence.  We follow these characters and believe them wholeheartedly, partly because they are so well-acted, and also partly because they are based on truth.  In many ways I can understand the criticism of Micky’s character being completely overshadowed and dull in comparison to the supporting characters around him, but I believe that’s the point of the story.  Eventually Charlene becomes exactly what Micky’s family became, and Micky can’t please anybody because no one wants to let him make his own decisions in life.  Micky is constantly overlooked and left unheard while everyone else directs his path.  Mark Wahlberg captures the stress of his character beat for beat, and because he isn’t portraying a showy and rigorous character as attention-hogging as Bale or Leo, it doesn’t make him any less powerful.  Wahlberg’s dedication to the role and to making sure this movie was produced shows clearly.

Christian Bale lights a fire hard to extinguish.  Once he enters the film from the get-go he dominates his every scene.  Bale has been known to be completely consumed by the characters he plays, and he plays Dicky Eklund as though it’s the performance of his career.  Again shedding the poundage as he did in The Machinist years back, Bale portrays Dicky as consciously lost as can be.  The performance wreaks of despair and hilarity in equal measure, and I mean that as a compliment.  Much of The Fighter comes across surprisingly and overwhelmingly darkly comical, but I suppose this is a David O’Russell film.  Bale seems perfectly tuned to the tone of the film and is able to deliver a very complex performance that the Academy will be hard pressed to dismiss.  And don’t forget about former nominee Melissa Leo as Micky’s dominating, guilt-tripping mother either—she’s as engulfed as Bale and as equally heartbreaking.

The Fighter has a lot to say to audiences.  It is extremely dark, comical, heartbreaking, gritty, exciting and often painful—a grab-bag of emotional drama.  You come away from a movie like this rooting for the protagonist and yet feeling extremely thankful you didn’t endure his situation (or come from a family as dysfunctional as his).  Many viewers may be turned away from the harshness of some of the material on display here, but this is Micky’s story and O’Russell serves it up for all it’s worth and delivers a brutal knockout that had me floored.

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The Other Guys

I can’t remember the last time I sat through a major comedy featuring prominent stars without at least a few good laughs finding their way out.  To my complete surprise, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg have unsuccessfully lampooned the buddy-cop action flick with The Other Guys.  This latest Adam McKay–Will Ferrell collaboration hit with a thud, so much so I began questioning whether I even enjoy Ferrell as a comedian.

That simply can’t be the case.  He’s a gifted comic actor, and his performances in Elf, Anchorman, Zoolander, Wedding Crashers, Blades of Glory and other films have caused me side-splitting pains of laughter.  But lately with Semi-Pro, Step Brothers, Land of the Lost, and now The Other Guys (which is getting good reviews and making buckets of dough), I seem to be losing appreciation for the funnyman.  However, a likelier conclusion would be that he has simply been floundering in stink-pile projects.  Either way, The Other Guys happens to be an intriguing premise and allows Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg to trade zingers—an opportunity I was looking forward to immensely.  The script simply goes nowhere, and I didn’t care for any of the jokes.

Ferrell and Wahlberg play pencil-pushing cops Gamble and Hoitz, living in the shadows of destructive action-hero NYPD detectives (Samuel L. Jackson, Dwayne Johnson) living out Bad Boys-style stunts and rescues on a daily basis.  One such chase has them leap off a high-rise building in an effort to catch the bad guys, and their self-proclaimed indestructibility causes them to forget that gravity will pull them to their deaths. With these two larger-than-life boneheads out of the way, Hoitz wants in on the action and away from his desk, dragging the hesitant Gamble along with him.  Gamble wants to play it safe, while Hoitz is looking for a big case.  The two find one unexpectedly, and become knee-deep in some extortion plot resulting in their inevitable suspension, allowing action-movie cliches to ensue (although it’s intended for laughs).

Sadly, I found zero fun here.  I can appreciate what McKay and Ferrell were trying to do, and I can see this potentially being a great comedy, but the jokes continuously backfired and fell flat.  Even Wahlberg, usually the hard-nosed action-star, failed to do much more than shout obnoxiously throughout (hilarious Mark, I know).  The plot was simply lacking, the dialogue wasn’t funny, and the mash-up of Ferrell and Wahlberg was in fact inspired, but went nowhere with the material.  I am amazed that the critically-reviled Cop Out from Kevin Smith seemed more enjoyable.  If Other Guys has a redeeming quality, it is Michael Keaton throwing out lyrics from TLC hits and doubling as Police Captain and Manager of Bed Bath & Beyond.  Otherwise, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell continue down a slippery slope.  Step Brothers I hated, and Other Guys almost as much, just not in the same way.  Where Step Brothers was so idiotic and loud, Other Guys is simply tired and lazy.

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2010 Summer Movie Preview

I have to thank TacoGrande and his latest poll for inspiring me with the idea for this post.  As  the blockbuster Summer season is about to kick off next weekend with the release of “Iron Man 2,” I thought I’d take a look at my top-10 (sort of) most anticipated movies over the May-August frame, where studios release some of the biggest films of the year.

10. ROBIN HOOD (5/14):  In all honesty I have little interest in another take on Robin Hood.  But with Russell Crowe returning to his ‘Gladiator’ roots, and Ridley Scott behind the lens, maybe there’s hope for this mega-budget epic.  Ridley is trying to go the ‘King Arthur’ route and present his take on Robin Hood as the ‘real story behind the legend.’  ‘King Arthur’ was a domestic flop, and Scott’s own “Kingdom of Heaven” starring the star-that-never-was Orlando Bloom was a box-office disaster when it kicked off Summer, 2005. The previews for “Robin Hood” look a little bit like a montage of tamed battle sequences taken right out of ‘Gladiator,’ but I can’t deny being intrigued by a major epic reteaming of Ridley and Russell.  I really do want to know, however, what happened to the project’s original incarnation of “Nottingham” where the story was reversed and focused on Crowe playing a heroic version of the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Regardless, this movie looks epic, and the action should be great.  Add in the brilliant Cate Blanchett as Maid Marian, and this movie could potentially be awesome.

9. THE LAST AIRBENDER (7/2): The other “Avatar” movie hits theaters over July 4th weekend in converted 3D.  I have to admit that I know nothing of the anime series, but the previews alone have swayed me into an intrigued state, especially with M. Night Shyamalan taking a stab at the material.  While the infamous director has given us enough reason to hate anything he touches over the last few years, we can always look back to a happier time with Signs, Unbreakable, and The Sixth Sense.  Hopefully he’s got enough ‘bad-movie-itis’ out of his system to deliver an entertaining adventure film. I have faith in him yet, but this man seriously needs some salvation of credibility, and hopefully this movie is at least a small revival for him.  Visually, this movie looks plenty fun.

8. SPLICE (6/4): Sci-Fi has to be my favorite genre, and while I can’t tell if “Splice” is going to be a good movie per se, I can say that the premise intrigues me.  A month ago I knew nothing about this project.  After seeing a few trailers, I’m sold on the idea.  Since the film isn’t exactly being talked about a lot, I will tell you the plot centers on two scientists (Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley) who experiment on forging human DNA and animal DNA, creating a humanoid organism hybrid.  Things must eventually turn deadly, as this is sci-fi horror, but I have to say the trailers are effective, and I am very interested to find out if this is any good.

7. THE A-TEAM (6/11): Hopefully we get enough wit and laughs for all the explosions and stunts coming our way with “The A-Team” starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, and Jessica Biel among others.  The action sequences look a little heavy, but I have faith that this movie will be one of the best kick-back popcorn rides of the Summer, low on brain-power and high on thrills and humor.  This will all depend on the chemistry of the cast–if it works and audiences respond in kind–expect a franchise to form.

6. THE OTHER GUYS (8/6): Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as two cops trying to compete with Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson as two gung-ho cops in a comedy from Adam McKay (Anchorman).  Count me in.  Casting Wahlberg is an inspired choice, and I’m looking forward to him and Ferrell exchanging some great banter.  Wahlberg may be an awkward dramatic actor in Max Payne, The Happening, and The Lovely Bones.  But he was great in The Departed and very funny in Date Night.  So I can see him having a blast with this, and I think audiences will like the pairing of him and Ferrell.  With ‘Anchorman 2’ getting the axe this week, this may be the best we can hope for from McKay and Ferrell.  And as for Ferrell lately, with his last three movies finding serious hate from me (Semi-Pro, Step Brothers, Land of the Lost), this should be a sure-fire hilarious rebound.

5. TOY STORY 3 (6/18): Pixar movies have become just about as much of an event movie for me as any, and they are returning to their best film–“Toy Story” after more than 10 years since “2.”  Just think, the original “Toy Story” came out 15 years ago.  10 year-olds then would be 25 now, and possibly taking their little one to this latest installment.  “Toy Story 3” should be huge, especially with all the major voices returning (including Tom Hanks and Tim Allen), as well as the reliability of the Pixar brand.  While I don’t expect it to be as brilliant as the first film or some of Pixar’s recent movies, I imagine this being good-old nostalgic fun with a lot of heart and humor, and one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.

4. KINGHT AND DAY (6/25): Finally we have the return of Tom Cruise.  While 2008’s ‘Valkyrie’ managed to keep him on the map, luckily the former biggest-star-in-the-world returns to blockbuster action territory.  It appears as though he’s playing an action-junkie spy trying to protect Cameron Diaz’s character, and the results look very funny and very entertaining.  Some of the trailer mirrors “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” and it very much gives off that vibe, and I’m totally fine with that.  Cruise is playing a character about as crazy as everyone thinks he is, and I think with him having a ball playing a role like this, it should turn out to be another solid $100 million for him.  I still think he’s a great actor despite all of his negative publicity since his Oprah days five years ago, but hopefully ‘Knight & Day’ will get him back on track.  Under the direction of James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line), I think it’s possible.

3. THE EXPENDABLES (8/13): Fans of Cobra, Rambo II, Commando, and other classic cheeseball action flicks can rejoice–“The Expendables” are coming this August.  Of course I’m dying to see this throwback to 80s action flicks, if not just for the scene that finds Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in a single frame together.  Add in Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Jason Statham, and a whole cast of macho superstars in a major over-the-top action flick–and this is shaping up to be the event action movie of the year.  Back to classic real-life stunt work, pre-Bourne editing, and larger-than-life action stars in all their glory.  I’m so there.

2. IRON MAN 2 (5/7): While ‘The Dark Knight’ may have shadowed the enormous popularity of ‘Iron Man’ in 2008, this year is all about Tony Stark, as this sequel looks to be the highest grossing movie of the year–I see $400 million on the horizon.  Even though TDK is the fan-favorite of 2008, if I had my choice of watching the gloom-and-doom of Christopher Nolan’s superhero flick or the hilarious, roller-coaster ride of Jon Favreau’s, I am more than likely to take the ‘Iron Man’ route.  What an entertaining surprise that film was two years ago.  Robert Downey, Jr. has ten times more charisma and chops than Christian Bale, and ‘Iron Man 2’ should have just as much wit and fun as the last film.  Don’t get me wrong, ‘Dark Knight’ is brilliant and objectively the better film, but ‘Iron Man’ is a lot more fun.  Cheers to you Mr. Stark.  I will be trying to catch this one on an IMAX screen, and not a fake one…

1. –TIE– So what if I’m cheating… I can’t decide between my two most anticipated movies of the Summer, so you’ll just have to get both.

PREDATORS (7/9): I have been pining for another “Predator” installment for a long time (I should admit 1987’s ‘Predator’ is my all-time favorite guilty pleasure movie), and I can’t believe it’s actually happening.  It’s been 20 years since “Predator 2,” and after two horrid “AVP” movies, finally Robert Rodriguez looks to deliver a proper standalone sequel to the Predator universe.  While the trailer has me thrilled just knowing a new installment is in existence, I wasn’t completely blown away by what the studio has to show just yet.  Luckily, the story takes place on a jungle planet (much like the setting of the first movie), and will feature lots of predators facing off savage human killers from Earth.  Add in some bankability with Oscar-winner Adrien Brody and Laurence Fishburne headlining the cast, and I think this could actually turn out to be the sequel                                                       I’ve been waiting for.

–and–

INCEPTION (7/16): Anything Christopher Nolan touches turns to gold.  I like that he takes breaks in between his Batman films to conjure up other original projects.  I also love the fact that he has clouded “Inception” in total mystery.  It has something to do with agents stealing people’s dreams, or entering their minds or something… and that’s all we know other than the movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Caine, and Ellen Page.  The trippy trailers feature some crazy visuals that may become the invention of a new filmmaking style (ala The Matrix).  I think this is going to be the surprise juggernaut of the year and, if it’s as good as Nolan’s other work, may finally garner him the credit he deserves come award season, especially with 10 Best Picture nominations now.  But this is all too early to tell.  It could turn out to be a gargantuan flop, but I can’t doubt the man.  All I can say is, I can’t wait to see what’s in store with “Inception.”

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The Lovely Bones

Visual excess abounds for Peter Jackson, whose imagination runs wild with the imagery provided by the text of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel.  Surprisingly, Jackson has less of a human element present in his crack at  ‘The Lovely Bones’ than he did in his spectacularly bloated rendition of ‘King Kong’ four years ago.  With so much lush opportunity to capitalize on an emotional resonance of his earthlings, Jackson instead seems far more eager to establish his flavor for special effects provided by the story’s setting.

Brilliant young actress Saorise Ronan (Oscar-nominee for ‘Atonement’) plays Susie Salmon (like the fish), a fourteen year-old suburban middle-schooler, well-behaved, adventurous, with a thrill for photography and a longing for her first kiss with the dreamy English-accented Ray (Reece Ritchie).  Susie narrated the events of the film from beyond the grave, always keeping her audience ahead of the game.  She informs us that she was murdered on Dec. 6, 1973.  One afternoon on her way home from school, creepy neighbor George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) stops her in a field and lures her into an underground ‘playhouse’ he tells her he constructed for the neighborhood children.  Horror follows as Susie never finds her way out, at least not in physical form.  Her spirit goes to the ‘in-between’ where she waits until her murder is solved.  Mark Wahlberg plays her determined father Jack.  Rachel Weisz plays her emotional-wreck mother, Abigail.  And Susan Sarandon plays her hard-drinking, chain-smoking grandmother.

The tagline on the poster stated: “The story of a life and everything that came after.”  While in some ways, that’s true, “The Lovely Bones” seems less interested in the effects of Susie’s death on her family.  I never once felt as though Peter Jackson meant to explore the family’s emotional devastation.  Instead, much of our time is spent through these other-world visualizations with ‘Hitchiker’s Guide to Galaxy’ style imagery that Susie occupies mostly on her own.  Here and there, another younger girl shows up named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) who advises Susie to keep moving forward toward Heaven.  Since the audience fully knows of the details concerning the murder of Susie, and her killer’s identity, two hours are spent watching the police and the Salmon family overlook Harvey’s involvement, even though he sits next door.  Frustratingly, Jackson focuses a lot on Susie’s lone explorations, as he cuts and pastes gorgeous desktop wallpapers together to create his lavishly haunting vision of afterlife.  Instead of dealing with the Salmon parents’ emotional devastation, he uses their breakdowns as a backdrop for landmark special effects sequences that play pretty for sure, but they also never allow us access to real people occupying Jackson’s movie.  He spends so much of his efforts creating a surreal visual experience, that his protagonists become one-dimensional and without an inlet for the audience.  Where Jackson could’ve shifted focus and made Jack and Abigail dual lead characters whose relationship slowly faces demise as a result of Jack’s obsession over the murder case, the movie is constantly distracted, where only marginal suspense can be generated.  Since Susie tells us everything we need to know before it occurs, there’s really no surprise left in store.  At the very least, Jackson could have allowed us to get caught up in Jack’s investigation efforts and findings.  Instead, he goes back and forth with sub-characters that only seem to hinder and confuse the storyline, as well as skew the reality of what happens onscreen.

Most of what confuses is a supernatural element that never becomes clear.  There’s a character who seems to have the ability to contact/see the dead walking among the living.  She witnesses Susie’s spirit leaving Earth, and senses her presence later on toward the end of the film.  There are also moments where Susie seems to have access to her father, instances where he tries to reach out and touch her, as Susie watches him in her Purgatory-esque  existence.  She even seems to be able to intervene in terms of her father’s emotion–sort of an E.T. like connection where they can feel each other’s pain.  This idea seems to give way to improper character motivations and realizations.  Eventually Wahlberg’s character suspects Harvey, but for no apparent reason, other than his image in a photograph.  Soon enough, he’s trying to smash in Harvey’s door and declaring him the killer.  Sure, the audience knows he is, but for Jack to have this sudden realization, it really makes little sense.

Stanley Tucci, unrecognizable from his standard supporting affairs in films like ‘Julie & Julia,’ really has all the meat this script has to offer.  Weisz, Wahlberg, and Sarandon literally disappear in this movie and their struggles go overlooked.  Instead, the serial killer of Harvey manages to steal all the thunder.  When Tucci makes his way to the forefront, the movie has an undeniably unsettling quality.  Perhaps that has to do with Jackson’s way of lingering on an up-close shot of Tucci’s mug or him tapping his fingers ever-so eloquently.  Tucci ends up stealing the movie with a haunting performance.  Of course it is easier to steal a movie as a memorable villain, but Tucci never has to compete with anyone onscreen.  His presence dominates any acting on display, whether it be Oscar-nominee Wahlberg, or winners Weisz and Sarandon.  Ronan manages to put on a strong performance, but once she exits Earth, her character loses almost all depth.  That leaves ‘The Lovely Bones’ to rely on Harvey and his potential capture.  Luckily “Bones” has Tucci to the play the character, because he manages to place that weight on your chest early on that the movie never lifts.

Other than impressive special effects sequences and a memorable performance from Stanley Tucci, Director Peter Jackson has a movie that is so obtuse that I don’t even know how to classify it.  If James Cameron is to be chastised for inventing a picture based on his obsessive visual excess, then Jackson should face a similar fate of criticism.  To Cameron’s credit, he never intended on placing his focus on genuine human characters.  Jackson did.  While part of his misfire may have to do with the source material, “The Lovely Bones” nevertheless misses its opportunity to illuminate a family torn apart by murder.  Even though part of me wants to give this a marginal recommendation due to its haunting and unsettling presence, I am slightly forced to move in the other direction.  Jackson has delivered another overlong, bloated movie (that I didn’t love as much as ‘King Kong’) that is a bit anti-climactic and confusing as to what its intentions really are.  I don’t know what to take away from ‘The Lovely Bones.’  There is only little resolve for the family characters, and not much invested in them anyway.  If I was meant to be captivated by Susie’s journey beyond the grave, then I’m left unengaged.  Jackson’s version of Heaven, while a culmination of raw technology efforts, feels desolate and lonely. I can’t say the movie didn’t impact me–it sure startled me, and stirred up emotions, but its protagonists did not, leaving a gaping emptiness all the special effects in the world can’t fill.

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Date Night

“Date Night” is everything its trailers don’t make it appear to be–a hugely entertaining, rowdy, wacky slapstick film featuring two comic geniuses.  Steve Carell and Tina Fey, two major stars of the two biggest sitcoms on NBC, have an exciting chemistry that carries this goofy, mainstream film to glorious heights.

The duo plays a middle-aged suburban married couple out for a night in New York City.  After attempting to get a table at a fancy seafood restaurant, they are shot down cold, and decide to take the reservation of the seemingly absent Tripplehorns.  Toward the end of their meal, two thugs arrive at their table and escort them out, quickly waving guns in their faces and demanding an important flash drive from them.  Mayhem ensues as these two spend the night dodging crooked cops, mobsters, and bullets in the midst of a go-to mistaken identity plot.

Luckily for Director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum II, yikes), this very mainstream script can’t bog down Fey and Carell.  The two make an unstoppable pair when Levy stops the action in favor of their witty banter and improvisation.  Add in some entertaining cameos from James Franco, Mila Kunis and supporting player Mark Wahlberg, and “Date Night” is a very funny, entertaining, action-romance-comedy serving up shameless mainstream hijinks.  With the weight on the shoulders of Carell and Fey, this potential disaster of a movie, turns into the perfect date night movie.  I really enjoyed it a lot more than I anticipated.

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Rating: 4.5/5 (4 votes cast)
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