Monthly Archives: February 2011

Unknown – Liam Neeson vs. a Taxi

And no, I know what review this is.

Unkown and I have a special bond ’cause I had to deal with real life fear while I was watching it. When I entered the theater, I made strong impressions on a lot of the employees, striking up all sorts of random conversations, but what I didn’t tell them was that I had plans to do the unthinkable: I was going to movie-hop. As The King’s Speech drew to a close, I thought I could surreptitiously kill some time by waiting until the end of the credits, but suddenly an employee was there, cleaning, getting closer. I had to get out, but there were still twenty minutes before Unknown started.

I sneaked past all the same employees I’d befriended, pulling my coat up over my face to avoid being recognized on my way to the bathroom. Every face was that of an enemy. I didn’t know who I could trust. Any random viewer might rat me out to the authorities, having seen me leave The King’s Speech. I made it back to my seat, and soon enough the trailers began. I tried to enjoy the movie, but I was on edge the entire time. What if I got caught? What would happen when I left a full four hours after I’d arrived? Every scene was made more tense by my beating heart, so for me, Unknown was an incredible thrill. For my friends, however, it was simply “meh.” Too bad they’re not the ones writing the review!

Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) is on a plane with his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones, whose name is as hot as she is), on their way to Berlin. When Harris accidentally leaves a suitcase at the airport, he sends his wife to check in to the hotel while he rushes back to get it, but on the way, his taxi crashes off a bridge. Next thing he knows, his wife has no idea who he is, and to make matters worse, she’s with another man who claims to be Dr. Martin Harris. It’s an exciting setup, and the film does a great job capitalizing on it.

It’s normally hard to review a movie that relies on mystery and revelation, since I don’t want to give too much away, but luckily there were misdirections everywhere, so it would be hard to pick out what’s actually true anyway. Think about the usual explanations for psychological thrillers in which the main character doesn’t know what’s going on. Wake up and it’s all been a dream? Actually crazy the entire time? Some sort of advanced scientific experiment? A giant government conspiracy? The writers doing heavy-duty hallucinogens when they came up with the idea?

Unknown leads you down pretty much every one of those paths. Dream? Check. Liam Neeson’s character, Dr. Martin Harris, is in a coma for four days. Crazy? Check. Even Harris’s wife doesn’t recognize him, plus no one ever saw him check in to the hotel. Advanced science? The film is set at a biotech convention at which Dr. Harris was to give a speech. Government conspiracy? The other Dr. Harris knows everything Liam Neeson does and is furnished with passports, documentation, and even pictures with Neeson’s wife. Is his wife in on it? Is she a prisoner? Does he even have a wife?

These and more are the questions I continuously asked myself, along with things like “Should I have bought popcorn?” and “If I had, would the girl have known I was movie-hopping?” But in all seriousness, Unknown’s relatable characters and sense of constant danger kept me in uneasy suspense at all times. I loved it, but some of my friends were disappointed at the lack of action, thinking that the trailers had misled them. By no means is this an action movie, and anyone going in with that expectation will be severely disappointed. There may be car chases, but they only serve as vehicles for characters to escape. There may be fights, but they are desperate fights for survival, not badass battles full of slick stunts.

As a writer, I’ve always had trouble with two climaxes, but during Unknown it was no problem. The entire movie builds toward the ultimate revelation, and when it finally comes, it’s completely satisfying. But just when you think you’re done, suddenly it starts all over, this time even more intense, for the stakes shoot through the roof. There’s a lot more on the line than just Dr. Harris. The secondary climax is a fast-paced, heart-pounding endeavor with a literally explosive finish. And I was blown away by the ending in which Liam Neeson gets to deliver a fantastic killing move coupled with an equally badass line. I wish I could repeat it, but then people might read too much into it and gain a clue, so just take my word when I say that it is freaking awesome.

I was thrilled, and if I had to guess, I’d say you would be too.

Score: 4/5¢

Alignment: Spectacular Fluff

Hint: He was dead the whole time, and weak to water, and it was actually present day.

Written by Russ Nickel

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I Am Number Four – Twilight + Michael Bay + Smallville

Twilight + Michael Bay = I Am Number Four

This is the entertainment business, and you know, they try, but probably the most entertaining thing about this movie was how it came to be. There are a lot of great films based on books, and even more great books deserving film adaptations, but rather than take a literary success and bring it to the big screen, Dreamworks decided to buy the rights to, of all things, I Am Number Four. Oh yeah, and they purchased them a year before it was even published! All because James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, decided to start a fiction franchise that pumps out books and movies that could be marketed to teens.

Our early attempts at a tractor beam went through several preparations. Preparations A through G were a complete failure. But now, ladies and gentlemen, we finally have a working tractor beam, which we shall call... Preparation H.

But hey, why not? It was bound to be a success. A young man escapes a planet just as it’s being destroyed, ending up in a quaint town in Kansas Ohio where he attempts to live a normal life, only to find that he possesses superpowers, which really throw a kink in his small-town romance. That exact story has already worked out once — why not a second time? All you need to do is get the creators of Smallville to write the script, toss in some beautiful people and a few Michael Bay explosions, and you’ve got yourself a hit.

I Am Number Four opens on a scene of said beautiful people partying at the beach. Our hero, John Smith (Alex Pettyfer), is having a blast with all his buddies, and even gets invited to a sexy swim with the school hottie, where she delivers such lovely dialogue as “The big dipper. It’s my favorite.” I doubt she could even name another constellation, but that’s neither here nor there, because suddenly a scar on John’s leg emits a blinding light, signaling that Number Three is dead. For some reason that may or may not be explained in the book but certainly isn’t in the movie, the survivors of planet Lorien can only be killed in order, so it’s time for Number Four to go on the run. He and his protector, Henri (Timothy Olyphant, whose last name always reminds me of Lord of the Rings), burn all their belongings and hit the road, but an eeeeevil gecko sneaks onto their truck.

Their flight leads them to Paradise, Ohio, where the gecko turns into a cute puppy…of DEATH! At least, that’s what I kept expecting. But when the puppy passed up numerous opportunities to transform into a horrible monster and slay everyone, I ended up just being pretty confused about why they built up so much suspense.

Puppies aren’t the only danger in Paradise, however. There’s also Sarah (Dianna Agron), the school sweetheart. There’s an alliterative joke in there somewhere. Something like “dogs are dangerous, but nothing can match the peril of the…” I don’t know, some word for cat.

Anyway, Sarah is an irresistible cliché, the blonde who dated the quarterback of the football team until she picked up photography, thus gaining a lens into the soul and learning the true meaning of love. At least the quarterback is original, except for the fact that he beats up science nerds and can’t understand why Sarah doesn’t want him and hates John for moving in on his territory. And the science nerd isn’t just a science nerd. He happens to have a dad who was totally abducted by aliens so he’s obsessed with rooting out all extraterrestrials at the school. All this is nothing at all like Smallville, because in that show, the blonde photographer is the same person who wants to root out the mystery behind the alien occurrences, and a different character is the love interest.

I feel bad bashing this formula so much, because I have to admit, the characters really were hot, which is what really matters. Dianna Agron of Glee fame is a girl next door of no compare, and Alex Pettyfer is, undeniably, a beautiful piece of man. I mean, in his next movie, he literally plays a guy whose main character trait is that he’s really really ridiculously good looking. Based on that alone, I figured I’d be able to enjoy their romance, but man, was I wrong. This was supposed to be a superhero movie, dammit, and we end up sitting through more than an hour of plodding romance with no action whatsoever. And it’s not good romance either. It’s just like Twilight: all meaningful looks, lip biting, and a thirst for blood.

Maybe not the last one so much, but when this movie wasn’t Smallville, it really was Twilight. The main guy has a secret that makes him an outsider at the school, but a beautiful girl is intrigued by his mystery and they fall for each other. And Loriens, unlike humans, only fall in love once and it lasts. Isn’t it romantic? Blehck. Males everywhere will squirm in their seats. On the other hand, it’s a perfect date movie. The guys will be excited to go, the girls will acquiesce, and then the girls will be so pleasantly surprised by the fact that the guy took them to a chick flick that they’re sure to sleep with them. Except studies show that scary movies are much more likely to get you laid, so oh well.

Although the whole first hour had me teetering on the edge of boredom, what’s scary is how much I actually ended up liking the movie, because, you see, the last 20 minutes kick so much ass! The action sequence is the only place you feel like Michael Bay was attached to this, and it shows. Number Six (Teresa Palmer) arrives, and she’s this hot, sarcastic Aussie girl with wavy blonde hair who can kill the evil Mogadorians like nobody’s business and deliver one-liners right after. She slides on her knees, hamstringing baddies while Number Four deflects plasma gun blasts with his hands, shooting them back at his foes. Six can turn invisible and teleport and generate a fire shield and all this sick stuff. Which brings up the question, why is John’s main superpower the ability to turn his hands into flashlights? I mean, like, I guess that would be sort of useful, but I’d way rather be able to turn invisible. The movie has to find all these excuses to have the battles take place in dark places so that John’s power is useful, and it’s amusing to see how often they work it in.

Number Six was so cool that she saved the movie.The fact that she arrived at the end meant that I left feeling super stoked, which colored my whole experience with such a positive light that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself. I don’t know why she wasn’t in the movie the entire time. Having someone fun and sarcastic was exactly what the plot needed to keep it from taking itself, and the romance, way too seriously.

So, way too much slow, clumsy romance (and don’t get me wrong. I love Titanic and The Notebook), and not nearly enough action, but the premise is good enough (even if it’s stolen straight from Superman), and when the fighting actually starts, it’s awesome (explosions, fireballs, plasma guns, giant winged monsters). If they made a sequel, I would definitely see it. Therefore, I give I Am Number Four:


Why did John decide to reveal himself to so many people in Paradise? The film made it look like he’d had a ton of close friends at his old school, but the second they found out about him, he fled. Within days of moving to Ohio, he was willing to confide in all sorts of people. Seems pretty fickle for a Lorien who’s supposed to bond forever, but maybe that same fickleness will mean that Number Six is a love interest later. Who wouldn’t pick Number Six over Sarah? Honestly.

Written by Russ Nickel

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I hate watching movies with my mother.

Long after I outgrew the clichéd, pubescent humiliation of spending any time whatsoever with your parents (lest a friend see you together at the theater), I still hate it. When I visit her North Florida condominium for the holidays, I’ll express disinterest in her wanting to rent DVDs. If we go to the theater, I need to make sure my brother on break from college sits between us. That’s not to say my mother is not my friend; rather, I’m proud to say I maintain what I consider a very good relationship with her. It’s just movies. Because, if I’m caught with her in a film neither of us have seen, without fail, she’ll lean over fifteen minutes in and say something along the lines of, “The lieutenant’s the killer, just watch.”

My mother, along with countless other people with whom I’ve shared a film, needs to beat the movie. As if it’s a fucking Sudoku puzzle that’s timing you on how quickly and accurately you can predict its plot. I’m all for puzzles, but paying $11 to sit in the dark trying to anticipate the screenwriter’s subscription to and/or intentional deviation from Hollywood tropes is not my idea of fun. While I’m ostensibly bothered by my mother and similar friends obnoxiously insisting on sharing their genius (to make sure there’s someone to whom they can say “I told you so” when the lights come on), I have a more principled disappointment with her apparent approach to motion pictures as a mental conundrum with an answer rather than as an emotive experience with an aftermath. Full disclosure, I used to be guilty of this same flaw; I was also twelve years old.

Likewise, I’m in ninth grade, eating lunch in the cafeteria of my humid youth. I had just been broken the night before by the soul-crushing execution scene in The Green Mile. I’m declaring unequivocally to my friends, in the voice of a 14-year-old who knows everything, that, if you don’t cry at the end of The Green Mile, you don’t have a soul. A few of my friends, ones whose having older siblings granted them access to R-rated pictures by age nine, shrugged. “I didn’t cry during that scene.” “Me neither.” “I didn’t cry.”

Nick chimes in, “I jerked off to it.”

I don’t know what else I was expecting. These were the “cool kids,” and it’s not cool to cry at the movies, duh. Why is that? Because crying is a sign of weakness? Of childishness? I would argue it’s more immature to spend two and a half hours and an amount of money just to sit there and prove that you’re tough. What a waste of time, simply because you are unwilling to let yourself go and enjoy the experience. The same with horror flicks, the same with comedies. Why must a movie be defeated with the awful weapon of stoicism or the dismissal of a faux-sophisticate? Have you ever ridden an insane roller coaster and stumbled off smiling, loose and light-footed, only to have your buddy dismiss it with a “Meh. It was alright, I guess. Didn’t do anything for me.” To go into a film trying not to be scared, not to cry, not to laugh, not to be surprised! Does the sensation of genuine emotion make you feel vulnerable, or do you just wish to convince yourself that you’re above something?

Admittedly, the most open mind in the world can’t make some things powerful, scary, or unexpected; some movies just suck. No matter how much you try to ignore story conventions, no matter how much you try to view a film on its own free of outside influence — no matter how stupid you make yourself — some twists will be obvious or nonsensical. Jokes will fall flat; scares will become jokes. But allowing oneself to experience every film to its fullest, whether it be a revelation or a trifle, simply allows you to enjoy life more. The alternative is pointless. Furthermore, having a low threshold of enjoyment does not lessen one’s taste for masterpieces. Liking Ratner does not forbid me from appreciating Kubrick.

So, please, for your own sake, stop trying to beat not just movies, but any work of art. It is within your power to render yourself powerless before the emotional torrent of film. I steadfastly refuse that one universal truth: “Haters gon’ hate.”

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The King’s Speech:

Just in case you’re wondering what on Earth I’m talking about, here’s what I was going for.

King George VI’s Original Speech, 1939 vs. The King’s Speech Review

Man, it is impossible to record youtube videos with a laptop mic and camera…

Written by Russ Nickel

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True Grit – Cowboys Acting Serious

I never rightly expected True Grit to send me a trampin’ through the wilderness on a journey o’ my own, pittin’ me against man and nature, but when I found m’self parked at the wrong movie theater, my life transformed into a most dire adventure. I’d already paid the meter 45 cents; if I reparked now, those coins would’ve given of themselves fer nothin’. I stood, perplexed, until my cousin said he knew the where’bouts of the other theater. We put aside our differences, he one o’ them proud college types, me a lowly alcoholic, and set out together, our common goal keepin’ our travel civil.

We sprinted through them streets, never heedin’ the warnings o’ the people we flew past. We ran and we ran, like we was on the dodge, all the while knowin’ we was never gonna make it, but then, suddenly, the theater came into view, and what a sight it was. We raced down the stairs, and before we knew it, we was inside. But I still had to acquire m’self some sustenance. I didn’t have time for decisions, so I told the girl behind the counter, “Get me some popcorn, lady. Whichever size is best.” She seemed miffed and did not act until I specified. Once I did, she moved ponderous slow and would not hand over the bag until I done tell her whether I wanted butter. I said I was watchin’ my figure, so no thank you ma’am, but my cousin, see, he wanted just a bit, so he asks for it. She musta been right spiteful, because she poured on more butter than I ever did see and handed it over with a glare in her eye.

Our old-west style journey finally over, my cousin and I settled into our seats, sitting right next to a young couple and thus unintentionally ruining their chances of making out the whole time.

In my opinion, True Grit received way too much acclaim. Its award-worthy acting and snappy, well-written dialogue were the stuff of Best Pictures, and critics and average moviegoers were drawn to this, forgetting that there’s more to movies than just acting and dialogue. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much more to this movie. Where was the plot? Where was the character development? Where was the emotion?

The plot was slow and predictable. True Grit is basically just a buddy cop movie augmented with a precocious little girl. In order to fit the Hollywood standard, the girl is required to succeed, the two buddies must have flaws that are counterpoints to each others, and the main characters must have a falling out, only to put aside their differences right before the climax. True Grit follows this plotline exactly, but the Coen brothers try to hide that fact behind high production values and a not 100% happy ending. By making the girl lose an arm, the brothers hope to shift this movie from trope to trophy.

Because the plot was so obvious, I never once feared for the characters, and if you’re never afraid of what might happen, there’s no emotional tension. You end up with a movie that’s logically good but emotionally uninspired. Sure, the little girl was smart for her age and very determined, but they spent like an hour building up that character. How many times do I have to watch her barter? She starts off precocious, and she ends precocious. By the time the closing credits rolled around, the only thing she’d learned was how to function with one less arm.

Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a totally wasted character. Get it? But seriously, he had so much potential. He’s this badass marshal who’s seen better days and now pisses away all his money on booze. Jeff Bridges plays him so well, but he just doesn’t have enough to work with. He could have started out down in the dumps, been inspired by this girl, lost his newfound faith, and then come through in the end. That’s basically what happens, except that they never sell you on his character arc. You can from tell the beginning that he’s still just as hardcore as ever. You never truly believe that he’s given up, and when he finally saves the day it’s just not surprising.

Maybe it’s a little more realistic this way, but it’s like the Coen brothers decided the only way to achieve realism was to sacrifice character and plot. Nothing interesting happens until well into the film when Cogburn and the girl come upon a cabin and kill some shady characters. Sure, it might be realistic for nothing to happen, but we don’t go to the theater for nothing; we go for a good story. Also in the name of realism, the main villain is painted as a sort of normal guy. Well that’s great, except I don’t care about watching Mattie Ross track down someone normal. I want higher stakes!

True Grit had high production values, great acting, wonderful dialogue, and a good sense of the Old West. What it did not have was an interesting plot, good character arcs, high stakes, or any semblance of emotional connection. Because the things that made it good are usually lauded by critics and people who think too highly of themselves, this movie has received largely positive reviews, but in my opinion, it simply wasn’t entertaining. And art, be it good or bad, serious or light-hearted, meaningful or shallow, must do one thing, and that is entertain. I was teetering on the edge of boredom throughout, and therefore, I give True Grit:


Alignment: Standard Gold

I know this is a nitpick, but why did that guy cut off his partner’s fingers before immediately stabbing him in the chest? That’s just unnecessary!

Written by Russ Nickel

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Easy A – A Better Late Than Never Review

So I saw Easy A last week, a few months after its theater run. It’s not a movie I’d normally see of my own volition, but it was a free showing, Emma Stone is hot, and since Easy A got decent reviews I figured it was safe to temporarily expose myself. And I’d like to make clear in advance that I knew what I was getting myself into. And it’s not really fair of me to begrudge the film its genre conventions. But they opened themselves up to it by openly acknowledging them, so I’m going to call this one fair game.

Emma Stone stars as an intelligent, unassuming hot girl, a cipher for all the bookish white teens watching. After lying about losing her virginity to best friend Michalka, Stone attracts the attention of their school’s stunningly efficient rumor mill (played with rigidly rehearsed efficiency by Steadicam operator Geoffrey Haley). Evidently this is a huge deal, and Stone is immediately labeled a harlot and shameless hussy by the school’s ardent, very vocal religious community.

Through a series of convenient coincidences incorporated to ease digestion of the plot, Stone chooses to embrace and perpetuate this rumor, first to protect her totally gay friend, and then because she pities a fat, sniveling stereotype. She proceeds to take payment for lying about her sexual escapades in the form of gift cards. This is doubly efficient because

1) It’s topical (Gift cards! I got like five of ‘em for Christmas!), and

2) It’s not real money, so you don’t have to explicitly address the fact that your protagonist has essentially become a prostitute.

One montage of wry commercial transactions later, and Emma Stone’s bad-girl behavior has gone too far. She doesn’t know who she is anymore, everything’s so messed up. Except it isn’t, because the nice-guy childhood crush trusts her version of events and actually really likes her. Together they stage an elaborate dance number in the gym on the day of the big basketball game to announce her live webcast explaining everything and clearing her name.

So basically, Easy A is exactly like every high school rom-com ever except for the fact that it was made in 2010 and therefore must exhibit an awareness of the culmination of pop culture that’s preceded it. I lost track of how many times the film winkingly referred to the fact that the plot was “just like one of those cheesy 80’s movies”, as if acknowledgement of that fact exonerated it of any derivativeness. Usually this meta-commentary was through Emma Stone’s webcast voice over. If this reach at “topical” youth culture wasn’t insulting enough, the narration is consistently used to repair lazy screenwriting, caulking in all the signposts and plot advancements the acting neglected to include.

Now, “meta” is something of a joke nowadays cuz it’s rampant, but it can be used effectively. In Easy A, it is not. Stone’s observations point out the creakings  of the plot machine and justify a couple homage moments, but the only element of meta wedded to the plot is the fact that it’s framed as a webcast. The movie doesn’t take it any further than that.

Think about this for a moment. There’s actually a lot going on here. It’s a mesh of the Scarlet Letter and 80s comedies set in the nascent technological wonderland of the 21st century. You could go to town on themes of vouyerism and spectacle; you’d even be able to implicate the viewers of the film for going to see a story about a hot promiscuous girl. The more I think about it, the more I realize this plot had a lot of potential.

Despite what my criticism may communicate, the movie wasn’t terrible. It was thoroughly average and even funny at times. When I think about how awesome it could have been, the mediocrity stings me more than an awful movie would. Easy displays the bare minimum of effort, the movie equivalent of fast food. It stands in the shadow of older, better works of art, offering no commentary or innovation. The pretense of meta-comedy becomes a shield the writers use to defend lazy and strategic screenwriting. What we see here is a cookie-cutter script developed for an up-and-coming marketable actress. It’s a remake of Mean Girls, with a Lindsay Lohan who hopefully wont self-destruct.

Every character is a stereotype chosen with formulaic calculation. Amanda Bynes plays an idiotic evangelical included to provide the opposing viewpoint with a villifiable antagonist. Dan Byrd is the non-threatening gay friend who shows up when the plot requires him. Penn  Badgley (listed as “Woodchuck Todd”) plays a love interest whose defining character trait is that he wears funny things. Thomas Hayden Church stole his deadpan teacher shtick straight from Tim Meadows. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they wrote in Stone’s adopted brother when they started shooting, took a look at the cast and said, “oh shit, we need a black person!”

There was some stuff for me to love. Stone’s protagonist is a bookworm, and so her jokes often appealed to the English major in me.  Her parents are pretty funny. But the few gems that existed were quips, shoehorned into static scenes chosen for convenience of shooting rather than any inherent interest. While their words may have been objectively funny, they were in a story without energy or momentum.

This overall laziness is evidenced by the sloppiness of the film’s exposition. The writers didn’t go to any trouble to embed the plot in the film, leading to moments like the Turning Point, where Stone’s scandalous behavior goes too far. What happens is the school counselor, who happens to be the wife of Stone’s English teacher, gives gonorrhea to a student who happens to be “going steady” with Amanda Bynes. The student implicates Stone because she’s an easy target, who agrees to corroborate the alibi because she cares deeply about preventing her favorite teacher from discovering that his marriage is a sham and he should probably get tested for gonorrhea. I could delve further into why this is absurd, but the main point is that none of this is set up or explained before it’s all dumped on us at once. We only learned that the school counselor existed about five minutes ago. We didn’t even know that she and another major character were married until one of them got gonhorrea.

This isn’t an isolated incident. It happens regularly, with Stone’s wry narration “reminding” us of three more things that weren’t mentioned before but are now vitally important to the advancement of the plot.

And part of me thinks maybe I missed something, and in actuality the whole movie went over my head. All these crazy coincidences and random plot elements, all the stereotypical cardboard cutouts, they’re all part of some grand deconstructionist joke that I was too judgmental to miss. Maybe all the random stuff that happens is just a reflection of the chaos of real life. Or maybe they just had a tight deadline.

2.5/5 Stars

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