REVIEW: In Her Shoes

You might not be aware of this, but… Many otherwise “normal” women have a massive fetish for footwear. Also: Ice cream is delicious but makes you fat. Elderly people are inherently poignant funny, especially elderly Jewish people.

You may also be shocked to learn that men are just impossible to deal with, that “dorky” people you overlook in your dating life often turn out to be ideal mates, that offbeat “menial” jobs can be more fulfilling/life-affirming than prestigious/high-paying ones, that self-respect is important, that it’s vital to heal old family wounds in order to move on and that sisters need to stick together.

If any of the above concepts comes as a revelation to you, chances are you have had the astonishing luck of having missed every single so-called “chick flick” to have emerged since the early 1980s. If this is the case, it is likely that a great deal of the material presented in “In Her Shoes” will be new and fresh to you. If this is not the case, then you might as well prepare for the innevitability that the best-case scenario in regards to your reaction to this film may be to find it a good but not-quite-good-enough retread of some extremely tired terrain.

The director is Curtis Hanson, late of “L.A. Confidential,” who seems to like a challenge. Previously, he put his good name on the line with “8 Mile,” a feature-length infomercial for the background-mythology of Eminem’s rap persona, and wound up making as good a film as probably could be made from such weak, suspect material. Now he turns his eye on similarly beneath-his-stature material, namely a by-the-numbers rom-com dramedy based on the book from chick-lit staple Jennifer Weiner. Someone needs to tell Mr. Hanson that just because making a not-terrible film from certain material might be possible doesn’t mean it’s actually worth doing.

Here’s the gist of the plot: Slutty, immature Maggie May (Cameron Diaz) gets summarily booted from her gig freeloading with her sister Rose (which she deserves) and with her father (which she doesn’t.) Discovering that her presumed-dead maternal granny (Shirley MaClaine) is actually alive in a Miami retirement home, Maggie goes looking for her. Meanwhile, the issues which led her to spurn Maggie have thrown career-minded, plain-jane Rose (Toni Collete) into a life-crisis but also seems to be opening new and interesting employment and romance opportunities for her…

In short order, Maggie finds herself “adopted” by grandma and her elderly pals, who take it upon themselves to impart their life’s wisdom and help her mature into some semblance of self-reliance (a blind, retired professor sets about curing her near-illiteracy, as well.) Rose finds herself dating a coworker she’d previously dismissed but who turns out to be The Greatest Man In The Known Universe, not only sensitive and a dining expert but capable of enjoying reading aloud from romance novels for her amusement. There’s a few more paralell plots and subplots as well, all necessary in order to mark time until the Big Scene where the sisters and grandma reunite, reconnect and share the full truth of the Big Unspoken involving their deceased, mentally-troubled mother.

The producers don’t want you to call this a “chick flick,” which should tell you three things: 1.) That it is a chick-flick, that they know most chick-flicks suck and that they know many will make the connection and avoid the film. The fact is, it’s a good example of this blighted genre but not QUITE good enough to stand above it. It is “just another chick-flick,” and it never rises above the genre in the way that, say, “King Kong” and “Bride of Frankenstein” were “more than just monster movies” or “2001” was “more than just another space movie” or “Lord of The Rings” was “more than just a fantasy movie.”

Yet… “not good enough” isn’t the same as “bad,” and there’s actually a lot to like here once you get past the fact that it is content to adhere to the staples of the forumla with devotion rivaling that of a Palestinian bus-bomber. For all of it’s mandatory gynocentricity, it’s male characters are treated with uncommon depth, and it takes the steps necessary for us to understand that Maggie and Rose are equally screwed-up in their own ways. What would at first seem to be the biggest cliche’, the Greek Chorus of elderly Jewish retirees, actually leads to some of the funnier and more touching bits on display.

And a key scene (probably THE key scene) near the end wherein Maggie begins, for the first time, to form an objective and adult view of her mother features probably the best acting of Diaz’s career. (It can’t quite fix the nagging problem that Cameron Diaz looks about as convincingly Jewish as Jet Li, though.)

So it IS, with appologies to the earnest producers, just another chick flick. But among it’s kind it’s a good example, and taken all together I’m reccomending it.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

REVIEW: Two For the Money

“Two For the Money” is a film about sports gambling, focused not on the gamblers or athletes or even the sports but on quasi-legal “tipsters” who do brisk business offering betting picks to gamblers for a nominal fee (and a cut of the winnings, of course.) On the plus side, this is a new and original vantage point from which to approach the worn gambling genre. On the minus side, it’s a new and original vantage point that largely involves watching people watching TV. One of the people we watch watch TV is Al Pacino, which is helpful but doesn’t solve the problem. Even Pacino can only distract us from the fact that a movie isn’t interesting for so long.

Pacino’s Walter Abrams, a recovered gambling addict who runs a powerful tipster firm, is technically the antagonist of the film, opposite Matthew McConaughey as Brandon Lang, an injury-sidelined quarterback with a talent for picking winners. Abrams hires Lang for this talent, with a larger plan to turn him into a mythic super-tipster under the alter-ego of “John Anthony: The Million Dollar Man.” Suddenly, Lang is rich and powerful, but Abrams is controlling and manipulative. Has he been completely honest? Will small-town Brandon be seduced by the questionable morals of the big city? Could it BE any more predictable where this is headed?

It’s not just that the film is much too similar to Pacino’s previous “sinister mentor” turn in “The Devil’s Advocate,” (itself largely a dark inversion of his “Scent of A Woman” bit,) it’s that it’s awash in the cliches of the entire “seduced by power and money” genre. This goes all the way back to Faust, and we’ve just been through it all too many damn times. Brandon’s new set of clothes, the fancy car, the “my mother says I sound different,” bit. The sudden “hey, waitamininit…” 2nd act mood switch from Walter. The mind-games. The easily-dismissed red herring baddie (Armand Assante.) Rene Russo as Walter’s straight-arrow wife.

It’s not that it’s not well acted, it is. And the direction is competent and well-staged and all of that. And yes, Pacino has a standout scene involving a gambling addiction support group. But it’s all just covering too much well-worn ground. Too many scenes we’ve seen before in better movies, and the film adds next to nothing to the mix that might’ve made it fresh or interesting. By the time the film gets to it’s central axis, that Walter is willingly serving as a perfectly-imperfect stand-in for Brandon’s deadbeat dad (who, of course, was the catalyst for Brandon’s sports fixation) not only do most of us already “get it” but also where it’s going.

Here’s a quick self-test to determine just HOW used-up the film actually feels: Early on, there’s a dinner scene where Walter challenges Brandon to pick up a random blonde in order to prove to them both his abilities as a pitchman. Now, guess whether or not he wins AND guess what is later revealed about this occurance. I was right, and I’ll bet you are too. Yawn.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

REVIEW: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

I love Wallace & Gromit.

I think I should say that up front, for the benefit of those who are aware that this film is playing but are not aware that the titular characters are part of a pre-established franchise. Much like “Serenity,” this film arrives as a long-awaited feature version of a cult phenomenon, but unlike the aforementioned Joss Whedon scifi flick this fact has NOT been a big part of it’s promotion. Thus, I can imagine that many folks who end up seeing and enjoying it may be a bit perplexed as to why so many reviewers seem so deeply attached to the stars of such a lighthearted, slapsticky endeavor.

So yes, for the record: Wallace and Gromit originated in a trilogy of claymation short films by Brit animator Nick Park, and I’m a fan. There’s actually quite a few of us, including an apparently massive cross-section of film critics. This is NOT to suggest at all that ANYONE needs any kind of “beginner’s class” to enjoy the film: The original shorts, like the new film, are broad (if uniquely British) comedies of visual slapstick; and everything you might need to know about the characters is to be gleaned immediately from the stand-alone film: Wallace is a chipper, if incredibly dense, absent-minded inventor, and Gromit is his infinitely more intelligent, competent (but voiceless) dog.

As the film opens, the pair are currently operating Anti-Pesto, a security/extermination service dedicated to the humane pest-control of the rabbit population that threatens the local Giant Vegetable competition. The chief patron of the event, Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter) is an animal lover and thrilled with their tender treatment of the bunnies; but her evil suitor Quartermain (Ralph Feinnes) is an old-school Great White Hunter who resents the Anti-Pesto crew robbing him of would-be floppy-earned targets.

Ever the inventor, (and hoping to win Tottington’s favor,) Wallace concocts a lunar-powered device to let him “brainwash” the rabbits out of their vegetable obsession. Something goes terribly wrong (as is usually the case with Wallace’s inventions) and soon the whole countryside is buzzing with rumors of a monster-sized rabbit terrorizing the vegetable population. This development leaves Quartermain salivating for a hunt and Wallace pressed into service to deal with the problem “humanely,” and any fan of the series can tell you that when Wallace is the better of your choices for a hero you’re in pretty precarious shape. Gromit, as usual, emotes subtly to himself (using only his brow and eyes) no doubt grumbling about innevitably having to sort the mess out in the end. And just who IS the Were-Rabbit, anyway…?

This is a hysterically funny, infectiously happy little film. Everything, from the people to the buildings to the vegetables are just so wonderfully pleasant looking I can’t imagine anyone not at least smiling throughout the proceedings. Park and his Aardman Animation crew are masters of subtle background jokes and slap-happy physical gags. They draw astounding amounts of hilarity from such odd sources as garden gnomes and the simple “funny-looking-ness” of rabbits. They imbue their characters with an eerie degree of subtle humanity: Few other studios could make the simple act of Gromit leaning over to lock a car door into one a film’s biggest laughs.

Speaking strictly as a fan for a moment… I don’t believe, overall, that this outing is quite as perfect as the series high point in “The Wrong Trousers”, but it’s a very thin line. Let it be said, at the very least, that it’s a worthy entry in the W&G mythology and is, like it’s fellows therein, among the funniest pieces of modern animation since the passing of the original Looney Toons.

Some fans, also, may be a bit surprised at an added element of slightly more “ribald” background gags (riffs on the dual meaning of “moon,” and the Cockney pronounciation of the word “horse,” etc.) Nothing, I repeat, NOTHING that would make it unsuitable for young viewers, but it is definately a new ingredient to the stew. And, yes, these jokes like the others are excruciatingly funny. (Though I’m sure SOMEONE will eventually take issue with the Priest who prays for the health of his vegetables and sprinkles them with holy water.)

There’s not much left to say after that. The film is what it is, and what it is is a delight. A total, complete and absolute marvel of a family movie outing that will reward all ages and certainly require repeat viewings. See immediately.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

REVIEW: A History of Violence

Warning: Spoilers herein, see the movie first, etc.

In my schoolboy days I was once told a parable the intended meaning behind which eludes me to this day. The story was about a king who is informed that a marvelous beast called The Elephant had been seen in his kingdom, leading him to dispatch his three chief advisors who were all wise but also all blind to find The Elephant and report back on exactly what it was. Coming upon The Elephant, one advisor inspected the creature’s nose, the second it’s legs, the third it’s side. Upon recieving the report, the king is dismayed when the first advisor insists that The Elephant is a tremendous serpent… but the second contradicts him by claiming it is a group of living tree stumps while the third is quite sure that it is a giant wall that breathes.

Yes, it’s an odd one. But I think the moral is that we’re supposed to see things for ourselves rather than rely on advisors who may not know of what they speak. Me, I’m stuck on how fascinatingly dense the advisor characters are: each one so instantly confident of their own interpretations that they don’t bother to inspect any farther up, down or across The Elephant. Which brings me to the critical press and a good swath of it’s reaction to David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence.”

Apparently, at some point in between the announcement that David Cronenberg would direct this (loose) adaptation of the graphic novel a little over a year ago and it’s actual premiere this past weekend, something like half the world’s film critics arrived at the conclusion that this was going to be a Message Movie. A Message Movie About The Evils Of The American Gun Culture, specifically. The math seems to work like this: Cronenberg is an important filmmaker. Important filmmakers make important films. Important films, lately, translates to Message Movies. Message Movies about guns, lately, are against them. Therefore, the film MUST BE an important message movie against gun violence.

The math is wrong.

Whether or not “A History of Violence” has been concocted to carry a message remains unsaid to my knowledge, but no message-mongering has wound up onscreen in any significant way. Yes, it’s certainly possible for those wishing to do so to see certain aspects of the film as validation of their own belief that there is no “good” violence. But it’s equally possible to see it as a more morally-gray twist on the “Death Wish” ethos, while many more will simply see it as a heartland-vs.-gangland reworking of the “outlaw-turned-homestead-defendin’-family-man” Western tradition. In other words, what you take out of the film will depend on what you bring in. Though naturally I’d reccomend you inspect the whole Elephant before you decide it’s a serpent.

Our story: Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is living La Vida Capra in a Rockwellian midwest hamlet with his beautiful wife (Maria Bello,) two great kids and fulfilling job as owner/operator of the local diner. One night, a pair of psychotic murderers on a killing spree make a pit stop in his diner and begin assaulting the patrons… and Tom stops them. Stops them dead. With the proficiency of the Clerics from “Equilibrium.”

The media hails him as an American Hero, but Tom just wants to get back to routine… and then disfigured philadelphia gangster Fogarty (Ed Harris) turns up in town with a story to tell: He thinks Tom Stall looks a lot like Joey Cusack, a mob-connected killing machine who’s been missing for… about as long as anyone has known Tom Stall.

So there it is: The small town husband and father celebrated for his crimestopping skills may only possess such skills because he’s really a professional killer for the mob. It’s easy to see how simple it would be for the film to turn into a polemic about the American romanticism of gunplay at this point, setting up pro-NRA “nuts” and “conservative” news types to celebrate Tom and have their positions “put to lie” by Fogarty’s revelations.

The message would be loud, blunt and unmistakable: Gunplay and the cowboy-mystique are bad, violence only begets more violence, and “heroes” who use violence are just as bad as those they fight. It’d be an easy path to take, and might even make a decent movie.

But “A History of Violence” never goes that route. It moves directly from Tom’s sudden act of heroism to Fogarty’s dark insinuations and then tips it’s true hat: It’s a character piece. The film may spark a political discussion, and such may have occured to the filmmakers or actors, but it’s never the focal point of the film. It’s chief interest, to the exclusion of nearly all else, is in placing these characters in a morally-unsure, perception-altering place and then observing how they react.

Even the initial obvious question, “is he or is he NOT actually Joey Cusack?,” becomes of secondary importance to the larger issue: What do these questions and their answers (whatever they may be) do to his family, his friends, his town and his relationships with all of them? To this end, Cronenberg is merciless: There’s dark places for character exploration of this nature to go, and he goes there.

Which also applies to the titular violence. Though not as extreme as much of his prior work, (the film departs significantly from the more Gran Guignol apsects of the novel, particularly in the third act,) the director’s eye for fetishistic bloodletting finds it’s targets where it can. And so too his penchant for frankly-presented sexuality, using a pair of sex scenes between Mortensen and Bello to graphically illustrate the tectonic shift in their relationship.

The actors are, across the board, in fine form. Mortensen, finally getting his due as an actor of note following his starmaking turn in the “Lord of The Rings” cycle, (has any other-major film of recent been so startlingly proficient at turning lesser-known and unknown character actors into name stars?,) proves a master of layered characterization. Ed Harris rediscovers the particular brand of menace that made him such a sought-after commodity for so long. William Hurt turns up playing way against type to great effect. And this is probably the first time I can say I’ve genuinely liked Maria Bello in a movie.

Running underneath the whole film is an insidiously subtle score from Howard Shore, which glides back and forth between idyllic pastoral comfort music and deep, dark beats which appropriately suggest a sweeping action score peaking out through the pinholes.

This is one for the best of the year list. Don’t believe the various hypes about too much/not enough violence, message-mongering or slowness: Get to the theater and see this movie.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

REVIEW: Into the Blue

This movie has a fantastic ending. I’m serious. Pretty girls wielding machetes, bullets, spear-guns, explosions, mass-murder, surprise-villians, scuba-combat, boat chases and even frenzied shark attacks… it ends up reading like one of Joe Bob Briggs’ famous checklists. If a giant squid had turned up, it would’ve fit right in (and, now that we’ve confirmed their existance, there’s really no excuse left not to have a giant squid in your ocean movie.) Yes, let it be said that the last 10-15 minutes of “Into the Blue” are some of the best lets-just-go-nuts action you can get at the movies right now.

Unfortunately, that last 10-15 minutes are preceeded by nearly an hour and twenty minutes of a really, really bad movie.

Let’s face facts about something: Scuba diving is fun to do. It’s a challenge, it’s the closest thing you can get to visiting another world without actually doing so, and so forth. However, scuba diving is not fun to watch unless those doing so are involved in some kind of struggle or are narrating about the various sea life around them… and even then the results are often iffy. This is one of those movie-laws that professional filmmakers are supposed to know before their making movies at this budget, but for some reason “Into the Blue” elects to be comprised almost entirely of scuba diving. In the same basic area. By the same basic people. Over and over again. To the sound of generic caribbean/techno music.

Generically-attractive Jessica Alba and Paul Walker topline as a cheerfully working-class pair of would-be treasure hunters in the Bahamas, who are shown to be poverty-stricken on an almost Dickensian level but apparently able to afford the very best in weight-training and beauty products. They both have the respective physiques of Grecian marble statues, of course, but also said statues personality and emotive range.

Most of the film concerns long, endless scenes in which the underwater-cinematographer pans around perpetually-bikini’d Alba as she writhes around in the open sea in an apparent attempt to prove that even breasts can get old fast if nothing is going on in the movie. In between this, the “plot” unravels as Walker’s ne’er-do-well pal (Scott Caan) and his shallow galpal join Our Heroes on a dive for sunken treasure that ALSO turns up a recently-submerged plane carrying a fortune in coccaine.

Thus arises someone’s idea of a profound moral dilema: Will Walker, who’s so The Good Guy that we earlier see him reject work with professional divers because he despises their ecological-unfriendliness, listen to his pal and sell the coke to finance the excavation of the legendary treasure-ship he’s sure is right nearby? Or will he heed the dire warnings of Alba, evidently the single most moral righteous beach bunny since Gidget, that drugs are bad? And, why yes, a bland not-Scarface drug kingpin and his henchmen are involved, too.

So, to recap: For 90 minutes a pair of bland actors conduct an underwater photo-shoot, then one of the main cast gets munched by a shark and something resembling a decent movie breaks loose. Along the way we learn that greed is bad, that drugs are worse and that money doesn’t buy happiness.

There’s nothing to see here but Alba’s celebrated cleavage, and that you can see by renting “Sin City.” And thats a better movie anyway, so skip this.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

REVIEW: Serenity

Warning: Spoilers, caution, etc.

Can I ask a favor of the rest of the critical community? Please? It’s just… guys, you need to get past this. It makes you look silly, it dates your reviews and it serves no purpose. So let’s stop it, seriously. Let’s stop saying that every single science-fiction and/or fantasy film that comes out and is even remotely good is “the way the ‘Star Wars’ prequels SHOULD have been done!” The prequel trilogy sucks quite fine all by itself, and it’s unfair to these new films to review them more as yardsticks than movies in their own right. Enough is ENOUGH.

Please?

Anyway, if “Serenity” must be related to a previous film, it’s CLOSEST relative would probably be “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai,” which you may or may not remember as also being a comedy-tinged action/scifi romp set somewhere mid-stream in the astoundingly dense continuity of a franchise which the audience was expected to have prepared themselves for by exposure to the plethora of “Buckaroo” comic books, TV shows, etc. existing outside of the film-proper.

The difference is, “Buckaroo Banzai” was kidding. There was no franchise, there never was, and the entire endeavor was a clever, disturbingly-prophetic ribbing of the then-emerging fanboy culture. “Serenity,” on the other hand, is very serious. It really is the no-beat-skipped cinematic continuation of a franchise, in this case Joss Whedon’s canceled space series “Firefly.” Canceled after one season but ressurected by sheer force of fandom via DVD sales, Whedon here continues his story as a feature-length film, expanding on the storyline and (one can only assume) tries not to think too hard, lest he seem less-than-humble, about the history of a certain other canceled space-age TV series that went (boldly) to the movies…

In terms of setting, “Serenity” and it’s prior incarnation take place in the same basic realm as most other spacefaring yarns post-Trek: The well-traveled galaxy largely dominated by a powerful Utopian uber-government. The twist comes in Whedon’s rendering of the world-spanning Alliance as a facist police-state with Marxist overtones. The heroes, namely the scruffy crew of the titular spaceship (which is shaped like a duck,) are thusly gun-toting libertarian outlaws shooting their way across planets “at the raggedy edge of the universe” which all bear a non-accidental resemblance to the Old West.

To drive the point home, it’s stressed that many of the good guys are fomer soldiers from the ‘less advanced’ losing-side of a recent Civil War. They’re known to eachother as “browncoats,” (get it?), which is also what hardcore “Firefly” fans tend to call themselves. Oh, there’s also some “see!? Cuz it’s the future!!” fun had at the notion of breakdowns in gender barries (the Wolverine-esque hardcase is named Jayne) and languages (everyone cusses in Chinese.)

In terms of story, the main plotline involves Serenity’s crew discovering that a waifish psychic teenager (Summer Glau) that they’ve been helping sneak around space was once a reflex-programmed living weapon for their Alliance enemies, who now believe that her psychic-sponge of a brain may be carrying a Terrible Secret and have dispatched a merciless asassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take her out. The mystery is revealed in between western-styled action scenes and visits with various supporting castmembers, while the main crew takes it’s time going through the venerable Han Solo Arc of self-preserving-brigand-to-greater-good-superhero in time for the big shootout.

Altogether, all of this is greatly amusing if you’re a fan of the genre in general or “Firefly” in particular. Much has been made of the fans’ hand-wringing over whether or not those not intimately-familiar with the series will be able to follow the story (or care to try,) but having seen the film I find this to be an overblown concern (and, methinks, a bit of wishful thinking: after all, no “cult hit” franchise has truly arrived until it’s been rejected by the “norms.”) A few of the more specific references to continuity-past will be lost on the uninitiated, certainly, but for the majority of the film anyone with even a passing familiarity with the “crew-on-a-spaceship” TV genre will be able to follow this just fine. If you feel MUST do something to “prep” before seeing it, just cruise an episode of “Firefly” (or “Star Trek.” or “Battlestar Galactica.” or “Space: Above & Beyond.” or “Babylon 5.” or “Andromeda.” or “Cowboy Bebop.” or… you get the picture) and you’ll be good to go.

That’s not a knock at the film or the prolific Mr. Whedon, (late of “Buffy,” soon-to-be director of “Wonder Woman” and currently in the midst of a great run on the “X-Men” comics,) merely an observation that his herladed originality is here targeted more at reconstructing and subverting familiar archetypes than inventing them outright: A lot of what crops up in “Serenity” we’ve seen before, from the sword-slinging Terminator-esque baddie to the statuesque African American tough-chick-with-a-gun to the perky-girl grease-monkey ship’s mechanic to the aforementioned wispy-waif-with-potentially-scary-super-powers (a hook Whedon is, let’s be real here, almost as guilty of overusing as fellow “X-Men” scribe Chris Claremont.) The difference is in the subtle, clever ways in which these old bits are presented.

It’s not perfect, at times feeling a bit too much like a high-end TV production than a true feature actioner. The scope which seemed so sprawling in hourlong episodes of “Firefly” often feels a bit constrained by the standards of a big-budget movie. Unfortunately, the screenplay’s knack for cleverness of dialogue isn’t consistently backed up by cleverness of visual design: The space scenes are a little too much like “Star Wars,” the blue-collar interiors a little too much like “Alien,” the facist Alliance a little too reminiscent of “Starship Troopers.” It’s not a deal-breaker or that serious a problem, but it’s a problem all the same.

Still, I’m reccomending it. It’s fun, and fans and non-fans should get a decent kick out of it. As newer action movies go you can do a lot worse (you could go see “Flightplan”, for example.)

FINAL RATING: 8/10