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Column Fri Jul 09 2010
Predators, Despicable Me, The Kids Are All Right, The Girl Who Played with Fire, La Mission, Grease Sing-a-Long & [REC] 2
Due to a slightly overwhelming travel schedule and work load this week, I've had next to no time to devote to keeping you informed about what films are worth checking out and which aren't. And so I'm going to resort to something I haven't done in well over a year, possibly closer to two: the movie round-up. One or two paragraphs per review, regardless of whether they cost $200 million or $200,000 to make. I'm not a fan of these, but I don't really have a choice. A lot opens this weekend, so let's get to it...
I thought this fairly faithful sequel to the original Predator got the job done, and I had a blast watching a group of seriously talented and fun actors get put through the paces on a game preserve planet being hunted by a handful of predator creatures. I rewatched the original film, starring the current governor or California, and I was surprised how much dead space there actually is in that movie. That said, I still enjoyed watching it. Coming in at about the same running time as the original, Predators follows a bunch of military-trained, murderous humans all snatched from Earth and deposited on a jungle planet to both act as prey for the predators and get used to hone the skills of the aliens so they can hunt and kill more effectively. It's a great idea that plays off a very b-movie story and amps it up with extreme violence, loads of gore, and more compromised morals than I've seen in one movie in quite some time. Director Nimrod Antal (Armored, Kontrol) and producer Robert Rodriguez have crafted a great looking movie loaded with performers that take the story seriously and add a great deal of gravity to their characters when they easily could have been played for laughs.
Leading the team is a mercenary played by Adrian Brody (you see, he's the American, so he's in charge), followed by Alice Braga, Oleg Takarov as the Russian, Danny Trejo as a Mexican kidnapper, Louis Ozawa Changchien as a Yakuza (named Hanzo, no less), Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as an African soldier, the scene-stealing Walton Goggins as a death row inmate, and Topher Grace as a doctor. Wait, what? Showing up at the halfway point is Laurence Fishburne; I won't spoil who he is exactly, but I liked his performance quite a lot. I also liked the new varieties of predators we are introduced to here, while still paying tribute to the original guy who freaked us out in the first film. Antal is without a doubt a talented filmmaker with a strong sense of pacing and one upping himself with each new action sequence. My only complaint was that I would have liked a few more surprises in terms of who lives and dies. It's pretty clear from the first 10 minutes who's going to make it to the end of the film and perhaps live to fight more predators in a possible sequel. No, I don't think this movie will make my best of the year list, and I'm not even that driven to see it again any time soon, but I was thoroughly pulled into this story and this world, and I think Predators is worth checking out.
Probably the week's best mainstream release, the 3-D animated Despicable Me takes a rather bold approach to its storytelling by making its lead character — the Charles Addams-esque Gru (voiced in a vague Eastern European accent by Steve Carell — a bad guy... or at least a guy who thinks he's bad. In this world, villains are very much a part of everyday existence. They steal precious artifacts, destroy national treasures, and use a freeze gun on everyone in line in front of them at the local coffee rather than politely waiting their turn. Cads! When a new, younger villain named Vector (Jason Segel) starts besting Gru's best efforts, Gru devises a plot to commit the ultimate heist by stealing the moon with the help of a shrink ray and a rocket. The only problem is that Vector has the world's only shrink ray, so Gru must plot a way to steal it from him. Deciding that using little girls selling scout cookies would be enough to distract Vector, Gru adopts three cute girl orphans and tricks them into becoming a part of his scheme. Naturally their sweetness has an impact on Gru, who was treated quite awfully by his critical mother (Julie Andrews), and he starts to become attached to his new family.
Carell adopts a lower-key persona than he has in the past for playing Gru, but by doing so, the jokes seem to resonate more and are much funnier. I liked the supporting voice work from Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Jack McBrayer, Danny McBride and Mindy Kaling, but I have to give a great deal of credit to Russell Brand as Gru's partner in science and crime, the elderly Dr. Nefario. Brand puts on a voice that I frankly didn't recognize as his. He's a real treat and a welcome surprise. And I certainly can't leave out the supporting work by Gru's dozens of little, yellow, goggled minions (who have been front and center in the film's ad campaign), who act as worker bees for his dastardly deeds. They are very funny and operate as a collective Greek chorus, commenting and criticizing Gru's work. Predictable? Yes, but it's a film aimed at youngsters. What do you expect? The truth is, I was occasionally blown away by the film's visuals and its novel approach related to the portrayal of bad guys. Apparently, there is a difference between a villains and a bad guy. I also was impressed by the 3-D, which usually stays in check but sometimes loses its damn mind and nearly pokes you in the eye with sharp objects. Perhaps the only downside to Despicable Me is that it's coming out on the heels of the vastly superior Toy Story 3. But there's plenty of room in the landscape for two solid animated features, so let's applaud the efforts of both rather than feel like we have to choose. I think you and the kids will get a kick out of this movie.
The Kids Are All Right
Easily one of the best movies of the year so far — and quite possibly the best — this comedy-drama about a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) in California whose high school-age kids (Alice in Wonderland's Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) decide they want to seek out their birth father (they were both fathered by the same sperm donor, one with each mom). Finding dad (Mark Ruffalo) isn't that tough, but once he is injected into this family's lives, it upsets the emotional balance of what appears to be a healthy existence. The greatness of The Kids Are All Right is layered, and it goes without saying that director and co-writer Lisa Chokodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) has gone out of her way to put together this exceptional cast led by Bening, who plays the most complex character in a film loaded with such people. As each member of her family starts to fall under the spell of the charming, earthy and ridiculously handsome Ruffalo, she begins to feel left out of her own life. She attempts to make an effort to include him in her life and discovers he has infiltrated her world far more than she originally believed. It's a hard-crushed scene, and Bening floored me as she maneuvered through it.
It was also strange seeing Ruffalo play someone so overtly sexual and sexy. He tends to play slightly off-beat roles, and while there's no denying that he's a good-looking dude, he rarely taps into that as blatantly as he does here. I was as impressed by the younger actors here as I was the more mature ones. Wasikowska has been on my radar since her unbelievably heartbreaking run on HBO's "In Treatment," and she commands every scene she's in as the daughter preparing to go to college and struggling with her identity. She personifies someone her age going through the pain of mentally severing the ties of her parents, while only beginning to get to know this father figure as she's heading off to school. I realize I'm making this movie sound like it's overpoweringly heavy, and that's certainly not the case. More than any other of Cholodenko's work, The Kids Are All Right is packed with humor, some of it quite dark, but most of it pretty mainstream. In fact, that's the most surprising thing about what would appear to be an unconventional film — this thing is extremely accessible and comes across like a real crowd pleaser, and I mean that in the best possible way. Without sacrificing depth or resorting to pandering, this movie appeals to all. And while I certainly wouldn't call it a "feel-good" movie, seeing a film this satisfying did definitely make me feel a whole lot better about the state of movies today — this summer, especially. The Kids Are All Right is a film of substance that doesn't preach or treat its subject matter with a heavy handedness. This movie is more than alright; it's damn near perfect. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
To ready my exclusive interview with The Kids Are All Right writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, go to Ain't It Cool News.
The Girl Who Played with Fire
I'll admit, when I saw the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first installment in what is being called the Millennium Trilogy, I had no idea how popular the books by the late Stieg Larsson actually were worldwide. Nor did I know that the there was a third book (or movie) arriving. But the filmmakers of the trilogy wisely filmed all three books back to back, making it much easier to keep the stories' incredible cast together, in particular the striking and ferocious Noomi Rapace, playing the "girl" in the titles of all three books, Lisbeth Salander. In this new story, Lisbeth comes out of her self-imposed, money-infused exile when her abusive guardian is found dead, and her fingerprints are found on the murder weapon. She is also suspected of killing two investigators looking into a sex trafficking ring, one of whom is writing an article for Millennium magazine, edited by Lisbeth's sometime soulmate Mikael Blomkvist (played by Michael Nyqvist). Blomkvist doesn't believe Lisbeth is guilty, and the two of them set out on different paths to prove her innocence. In truth, the pair share almost no screen time together, but that somehow makes their relationship all the more fascinating.
Director Daniel Alfredson (who did not direct the first film, but did direct the third, due in October) wisely does not inject too much in-your-face visual style to this punk-rock procedural. He's smart enough to know that Rapace is her own visual effect, who somehow manages to make her go-to snarl face intriguing and appealing. Much like the first film, The Girl Who Played with Fire doesn't skimp on the sleaze either. A lengthy, fairly graphic lesbian love scene between Lisbeth and her girlfriend will certainly open a few eyes. I liked some of the new villains thrown into the mix, including a massive blonde button man (Micke Spreitz) who apparently doesn't experience pain. Much of the film features the two leads searching for clues while helping Lisbeth avoid capture from the police and the bad guys. An added disturbing bonus is that we get to learn a little more about Lisbeth's troubled past at the hands of her parents, the medical community, and the legal system. As strange as it might sound, the more of these films I see, the less interested I am in watching the American version, which begin getting released next year, directed by David Fincher, who will either stray from what makes these stories great or be so faithful to them that their production will seem unnecessary in the face of the Swedish productions. If you want to see the filmed version of this wildly popular series, these are the ones to see. The Girl Who Played with Fire opens today at the Music Box Theatre, while the DVD of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is just out on DVD.
I will admit, there were certain story elements to writer-director Peter Bratt's feature La Mission that took me by surprise. Starring Peter's brother Benjamin Bratt as Che Rivera, a well-respected man in the Mission barrio of San Francisco, the film begins as more of a straight profile of the community, in particular, the lowrider culture. Rivera is an ex-con and still goes to AA meetings regularly, so we know he's had a hard life, especially since his wife died. His only son, Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez), is a good kid who has a substantial secret he keeps from his extremely masculine father: he's gay and has a boyfriend. When Che finds accidentally finds out, the household is thrown into a chaotic mess, ending with Che beating his son in the street and calling him every hateful thing he knows, ensuring the entire neighborhood knows his shame. Considering Bratt typically plays fairly likable guys in movies and TV shows, he can play a scary sonofabitch when he wants to.
As nicely as the filmmakers handle the rift between father and son, I was far more interested in just hanging out with Che and his older friends, and watching a relationship between Che and his upstairs neighbor Regina (Melvina Jones) get off to a rocky start. That said, the scenes between Che and Jesse spotlight some of the best acting of Bratt's career, as Che struggles to accept or not accept his son's life. And that's a good enough reason to check out the film. At times, La Mission feels a bit Movie of the Week, but at other times its a penetrating family drama with a message worth reinforcing. As a special bonus for Chicagoans seeing La Mission on Friday, July 9, the film's star, Benjamin Bratt, will appear at the AMC River East 7pm showing, and the Evanston Cinemark 9pm showing to do post-screening Q&A sessions.
How do you even review a film like this? The Grease soundtrack was one of the first albums I ever purchased. I never miss an opportunity to see this movie on the big screen, and if I were you, I wouldn't miss seeing this limited run featuring a really fun sing-a-long feature that includes fun, animated subtitles on the screen during every original song. I loved hearing the audience sing all the mildly vulgar, retro tunes that I know by heart and might have sung along to regardless of the occasion. If you can see the film with a mostly gay audience, as I did here in Chicago last week, prepare yourself for a wickedly entertaining experience. Look, you either don't care about this at all, or you understand why this is one of the more exciting movie events of this summer. I never cease to be amazed at just how damn gorgeous Olivia Newton John was at this time in her life. In a lot of ways, productions like "Glee" or the High School Musical films could not have existed without a film like Grease. The idea of 20- and 30-somethings playing high school students seems a little less ridiculous when accompanied by a bopping soundtrack. Anyway, I had a terrific time watching Grease again, and you will too. End of story.
The 2007 original Spanish-made film [REC] was a nightmarish, first-person account of a TV crew that was trapped in an apartment complex with most of its residents when a mysterious, saliva-transmitted virus turns those infected into raging lunatics. Over the course of the very short running time, each resident — along with the rescue teams sent in initially to help them before the building was sealed off by the health minister — is either slaughtered or turned into one of these extremely dangerous creatures. The American remake Quarantine captured some of the fun of [REC], but it chickened out a bit when it came to some of the supernatural elements and possible connection between this incident and The Vatican.
Today, directors Directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza pick things up just minutes after the first film ends to take us back into the infested building, this time through the cameras of a small military team sent into the building with a man claiming to be with the health department (although that white colar around his neck tells a different story) to clean up the mess the first team could not. [REC] 2 basically never lets up, never stops scaring the holy hell out of us, and ramps up the batshit crazy more than I would have imagined possible. Do we find out what happened to that cute female reporter who got dragged off into the darkness? You really do need to find out for yourself. In my estimation, this is one of the rare and wonderful examples of the sequel surpassing the original in every way. The scares are ramped up, the story is more in depth and interesting, and the performances are more focused and slightly nutzo. True horror fans have already embraced the first film, and I'm guessing full bear hugs will be the order of the day when the catch a glimpse of [REC] 2. It's that good. The film is playing at midnight on Friday and Saturday exclusively at the Music Box Theatre. Expect big crowds.