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Precious

You can always tell who the people are who saw Precious as they leave the theater.  They’re the ones who are shuffling down the hallways, staring at their feet in a blank look that may or may not have a hint of suicidal thoughts behind it.  Yikes!  This movie is almost in the same realm as Requiem for a Dream or American History X in the way that it’s full contact cinema.  You don’t sit back and enjoy this movie; this movie sits back and kicks your ass.  But in this case, it doesn’t make it a great movie.  The story is about a 16-year-old girl named Precious who has one of the most horrible, abusive lives you can possibly think of.  Go ahead and think of something horrible you can do to a human being; chances are that happens to Precious.  The title role is played wonderfully by a young newcomer named Gabourey Sidibe.  Her vulnerability is admirable as she’s the opposite of every single leading actress in Hollywood, yet she carries herself with a confidence that most don’t.  There are also some shockingly great performances from Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey…yeah, THE Kravitz and Carey.  You probably won’t recognize them though–unless they’re pointed out to you–due to weight gain, lack of make up and a killer accent on Carey.  Sherry Shepard (30 Rock, The View) also shows up in a near disguise performance as well.  The real star of the film, however, is Mo’Nique…comedian Mo’Nique.  Never did I ever think that I would say the sentence “Mo’Nique should win an Oscar,” but here I am saying it.  She gives one of the best performances of the year, and possibly of the last decade, from a woman.  Her entire role is disturbing all the way up to the climax of the film where Mo’Nique treats us to one of the most heartbreaking and soul-wrenching monologues I’ve ever seen.  Mo’Nique, who is a victim of childhood sexual abuse herself, had to dig so deep for that scene I have the feeling that it was purely cathartic, making the tears from the other actors painfully real.  If Mo’Nique doesn’t win an Oscar for this performance there should be a public outcry over it.  I think another Oscar might go to director Lee Daniels (Monster’s Ball).  His approach to such a dark story is almost whimsical at times while keeping it gritty and painful.  He does let you off the hook with some of the more disturbing scenes by cutting away just in time…thankfully.  His directing choices remind me almost of Oliver Stone in the way he edits, zooms, goes to fantasy scenes and even uses colors.  But all this said, the movie isn’t great.  The performances are.  The directing is.  But not the movie.  I’m trying to find meaning in the story.  I get that it’s meant to be inspirational and that even when this girl was beaten down as far as she was, she still picked herself up to move forward.  But does that work on me?  It’s interesting that the theater was packed when I saw it and it was all by white people.  African Americans are not flocking to see Precious.  Instead, it’s being seen by the white, suburban, Art House crowd, like me, and it’s not filling me with inspiration.  In fact, all it did was make me feel sorry for people like Precious, and I don’t think that’s the movie’s intention.  I can gain some inspiration from the drive to keep moving forward no matter what; but it still comes from a place of pity because I can’t identify with any of her problems.  Because of that, I think this is becoming a movie that everyone thinks they HAVE to like, while losing sight of the fact that some films can offer you great elements without a win overall.
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: B+

The Road

Novelist Cormac McCarthy seems to be a discovered treasure lately.  The 76-year-old wrote the novel that 2007 Best Picture winner “No Country for Old Men” was based on and he has three more of his novels being turned into movies in the next two years.  He also wrote the novel “The Road” and if I were a betting man, I’d say he’s got a good shot at having another one of his babies win Best Picture again.  “The Road” stars Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Robert Duval, Guy Pierce and a brand new 14-year-old Australian boy named Kodi Smit-McPhee.  This cast gives every inch of themselves to this story of survival in a post-Apocalyptic world.  But don’t be fooled.  This isn’t “2012” or some other special effect extravaganza where the every-day guy does amazingly heroic things while falling in love again with an old flame.  This is bleak, dark, depressing and beautiful.  In fact most of the movie has no special effects at all.  Director John Hillcoat did a great job of choosing already desolate locations to film so that elaborate FX weren’t needed to distract you from the story.  Why did the world end?  How did it end?  When did it end?  These are all questions that aren’t answered and don’t need to be answered.  In fact, we don’t even know character’s names.  Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are simply credited as “The Dad” and “The Boy.”  That’s all you need to know because at the core of this movie is a simple struggle of a father and son surviving in an unfriendly, hostile world, all while being completely relatable to the perils, triumphs and heartbreak that live in the seasons of life.  The Academy should really pay attention to this movie.  I’m not a fan of children or actors that are in the movie for 5-10 minutes winning Oscars, but this may have to be an exception since Smit-McPhee and Duval give us performances that are gut wrenchingly sad.  The tone of the movie is reflected perfectly by Hillcoat’s directing.  The movie wasn’t shot in Black & White, but it might as well have been since it’s depleted of colors except for some choice flashbacks.  The flashbacks, by the way, are the only change from the novel, to which it stays very faithful.  The violence in the book is done tastefully and modestly in the film, although sometimes what’s not seen is far more grotesque and disturbing than what is seen.  (Not hard to figure out how some people are surviving)  It might get a little slow and plodding for some viewers that have a shorter attention span but sticking this movie out till the end is not just what you need to do for closure to this hopeless story, but it’s almost a gift to anyone who’s ever had to go through life, that’s symbolized here as “The Road.”
The Road (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: A+

New Moon

My review of “Twilight” is still on this movie blog somewhere.  If you care enough, you can look it up and find out exactly how much I DIDN’T like that movie.  I won’t spend time in this review talking about “Twilight” because it appears that the team behind this franchise has learned from their mistakes.  In case you’re not a “Twi-Hard Fan,” the plot for this is simple: Bella is abandoned by her lover Edward for her own protection, which is also what her friend Jacob has in mind, who uses his newly discovered werewolf abilities to protect her as well.  Almost everything about this movie is better than the original.  The old director was fired and director Chris Weitz was brought in for this one.  Not a huge step in the right direction since we have him to blame for “The Golden Compass” but anything is better than the last director, Catherine Hardwicke.  They threw more money at this movie so the production value doesn’t make it feel like a made-for-TV special anymore and the Special FX are a little better.  However I think we saw more believable CGI animals in the 1990s.  And finally the actors playing new characters in “New Moon” are of a MUCH, MUCH better quality; namely Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon”) and Dakota Fanning.  But there’s the rub.  See, when you put actors that are as good as them in the same movie that feature actors as bad as the returning cast, it just makes the difference in talent that much more drastic.  And yes, I’m talking about Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner and ESPECIALLY Kristen Stewart…the stars of the film.  In their defense, the boys are at least tolerable though they lack any semblance of passion.  Kristen Stewart, on the other hand, might have single-handedly sunk “New Moon” as well due to her being unwatchable!  Her twitchy, vacant style of acting is beyond annoying, void of skill and as empty-of-a-performance as you’ll see in a movie grossing this much money.  In fact, Dakota Fanning and Michael Sheen are only in the film for 10 minutes, but they raised the quality a full letter grade by reminding me what quality acting is and actually making me care about what’s happening on the screen.  I do feel bad for Taylor Lautner who was almost killed by the movie studio in his attempt to get into the shape he’s in for “New Moon.”  He has to live in hell to look incredible while the rest of the Wolf Pack get to look like regular guys who, even one of them, boasts an impressively embarrassing pair of saggy boobs.  I’m not sure if there are gay metaphors either with The Wolf Pack, but the only thing gayer than hanging out shirtless in the rain with your boys wearing nothing but cut-off jean shorts would be if they also grew bushy mustaches and listened to Lady Gaga.  Regardless though, is “New Moon” a good movie?  Yes it is for the most part.  Does it deserve its 130 minute runtime?  No and it feels even longer than that.  But the story is better, the action is better (when it comes) and if Fanning and Sheen have bigger parts in the next one…I say bring on “Eclipse” because we shouldn’t put a stake in the heart of this franchise yet!
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B-

The Blind Side

This movie is shocking on several different levels.  Some of those shocks are good and some of them are bad.  In case you didn’t know, this is the true story of NFL player Michael Oher.  Now before all the women reading this tune out thinking it’s a football movie, understand that his story is one of heartbreak, tragedy, kindness, and love…and a little football.  One of the positive shocks to come from this was star Sandra Bullock’s performance.  Get this – she was actually good!  This might be one of the best performances of her career, but that’s not saying much since the bar wasn’t very high to begin with.  She plays a plucky, strong, WASPie, Southern Belle that runs the wealthy family that saves Oher from his ghetto war zone he roams night after night as a teenager.  Another positive shock was the performances from country singer Tim McGraw, who plays Bullocks husband, and the gentle giant, Quinton Aaron, who plays Oher.  Aaron is relatively new to acting but could have a career as big as his stature if he continues to get roles like this.  He’s able to convey so much sadness and defeat without saying a word, which works out for him since he only has about 25 lines in the whole film.  One of the negative shocks is how long this movie is.  It has a runtime of over 2 hours and as far as I could tell has no need for all that.  The other negative shock is the casting of child actor Jae Head as the youngest member of The Tuohy family.  Every scene this kid infects drips with hair-pulling schticks that would’ve made even Macaulay Culkin in “Home Alone” roll his eyes.  I could be in the minority on this since he seemed to earn laughter from most of the theater, but I couldn’t stand his annoying, hammy performance the entire movie.  Another shock that I had in the movie, that was neither good or bad, was how overtly Christian it was.  It almost seemed like it was made by a church group or Kirk Cameron.  There is heavy emphasis put on the fact that the wealthy Tuohy Family takes Michael Oher in because it’s their “Christian Duty.”  And in case you miss hearing that the first time in the film, don’t worry because they say it over and over and over again.  I kept wondering why.  Was it because they are trying to insinuate that more Christians need to be as charitable as that and many aren’t?  Is it because they wanted to take the emphasis off of the idea that maybe The Tuohys did it out of White Guilt?  Or was it to make you forget that The Tuohys were investigated by the NCAA for their role in raising Michael.  I don’t know.  But what I do know is that “The Blind Side” is a harmless and delightful movie that will make you appreciate what you have and want to help those who have nothing.  It “Hollywoods Up” the true story to a level that I’m sure isn’t 100% accurate but when looking at the actual photos of the family during the end credits you can’t help but to tear up a little bit.
The Blind Side (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B

2012

There isn’t anyone working in Hollywood that has more experience at destroying the world than Director, Roland Emmerich.  In fact, I can’t think of anyone who does it better either.  The man seems to have a sick fascination with it.  He’s done “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Godzilla.”  His latest apocalyptic orgy is “2012” which is the movie adaptation of the crazy Mayan Calendar theory that the world will end on 12/21/12 because…um…well, we don’t really know.  The movie attempts to explain why the world would end on that day with talk of solar flares from the sun, magnetic reversal of the poles and the shifting of the Earth’s crust but none of that really makes any sense and let’s face it…it doesn’t have too.  It stars John Cusack (who’s slumming it in this movie only because he needs the money, I’m guessing), Woody Harrelson, Oliver Platt (“Year One”) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (who was awesome in “American Gangster” and “Children of Men”).  Danny Glover also shows up as The President, but if Obama looks that old and weathered before his next term, I feel bad for him.  Let’s get right down to it, this movie is awful.  It might be the most expensive B-Movie ever made.  Usually these FX-laden eye parties are reserved for the mindless quagmire of the Summer, but the fact that the studio released it during Oscar season just makes it more laughable.  In fact laughing is what I did for most of the movie and I wasn’t alone.  Sections of the theater were laughing at the screen during sequences that were clearly meant to be thrilling or sad.  I think the reason why is because the movie lives in such a stereotypical “disaster movie” world that even your most casual of theater-goers will recognize the cliches.  The unlikely hero who’s still in love with an ex-wife he must save.  The characters with the ability to outrun earthquakes, out drive volcanic, nuclear clouds and out fly a crumbling city even in the face of no flying experience.  The plucky characters that are there for comic relief.  The cute kids that either have to overcome a physical malady or learn to respect their father again (in this movie it’s both).  And who could forget the illogical explanations of scientific “facts” that are there just to move the plot forward.  It’s all there wrapped up in a slick, expensive, CG wonderland of death and destruction that sits at a running time of over 2 and a half hours long.  Worth the price of admission?  Only if you’re drunk with some friends and want to have a blast making fun of a bad movie; and let’s face it, that could be some of the most fun you’ll ever have at the movies.
2012 (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: D+

A Christmas Carol

There is a big part of me that is so angry that director Robert Zemeckis no longer directs live-action movies.  I miss films like “Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and The Back to the Future series.  Lately he’s only done these CGI animated movies, like “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf.”  However his new one, which is the next in a long line of film versions of Charles Dickens’ story is absolutely incredible!  For those of you out there that say, “Oh great!  This is being made into a movie AGAIN?!”  I say, I’m glad.  This really is one of the greatest stories ever written and the fact that it has been made so many times is a testament to that.  Is this the best version of the story?  That I’m not sure of since there have been so many great versions, but I can say that it’s in the Top 3.  What it is the best at though is 3D creativity.  This was by-far the greatest 3D movie I’ve ever seen.  You know from the opening credits that Zemeckis is going to take you on a trip through London that could never ever be done in live-action.  Because of that, the sequences are not only vibrantly gorgeous to look out, they’re creative in a way that I never would’ve imagined.  (I think a Best Director Oscar should be in consideration.)  That remarkable ingenuity not only leads to adventure and thrills but it also takes us down some very dark and scary places.  WARNING: some of these scenes are too intense for small children.  Zemeckis didn’t pull back on the reins at all and created some downright frightening images and sequences in an attempt to make the movie as close to the book as possible.  That includes some scenes that The Muppets and Mickey may have left out.  If there is anything bad to say about the movie it might be in the performances from the actors.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s amazing to see the same actors play multiple roles of all ages and sizes because they’re not really on the screen.  I’m just one of those snobs that still can’t look past the CGI characters to the human emotions behind them.  But that’s not the fault of stars Jim Carey, Gary Oldman and others.  Carey is 80% of this movie playing Scrooge (of every age) and all the spirits.  However his Scrooge is nothing more than a realistic Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons,” his Ghost of Christmas Past is a distractingly creepy gay Irishman and his Ghost of Christmas Present is merely a fat Ring Starr.  But those borrowed characters are more amusing than pitiful and don’t ruin the film at all.  Will this version of “A Christmas Carol” put you in the Christmas spirit after watching it?  I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t.  Now whether or not you can hold on to it since they released it almost 2 months before Christmas is another question.
A Christmas Carol (Rated PG)
Gavin Grade: A

The Men Who Stare At Goats

You have to be a really weird movie to even come close to living up the hype that a title like “The Men Who Stare at Goats” has.  The story, which claims to be true, is about not only what the title is about but also how America financed a secret group of soldiers who were perfecting their “supernatural powers.”  Sadly, the movie doesn’t live up to the title.  In fact there are some parts that are almost so believable and rooted in reality that it no longer lives in the realm of absurd humor and is actually kind of sad and dark.  George Clooney and Ewan McGregor star in it as some sort of weird buddy team roaming the Iraqi desert on a mission, perhaps to find the plot of the film.  Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey round out the cast acting as if they are each working off of different versions of the same script.  There’s a huge disconnect in this film that resonates with everything about it.  It seems like this was a movie that was started but had no finished script to work on but it was too late to stop.  That’s the only thing I can think of since the cast is full of the kind of talented actors that can go from drama to comedy in one flawless swoop.  I can’t tell if the fault of the movie not making a solid landing on its own feet was first-time director Grant Heslov’s, or the script itself which was co-written by Jon Ronson, for whom the story is based on.  If the movie is any indication as to what it was really like for Ronson to go through this (if it’s real at all), I’m sure it was a confusing, trippy experience that was perhaps too bizarre to recount in written form in any logical sense.  The film drifts from scene to scene with very little glue holding the story together or explanation as to why things are happening.  That’s not to say that it’s not funny though.  Clooney plays deadpan comedy so well that it makes it such a treat when he takes a role that allows him to do it.  The situations that he talks about, mixed with McGregor’s narration, make for some very funny montages.  The use of quick flashbacks as an almost live-action version of “Family Guy” at times generate some of the biggest laughs in the movie.  But those aren’t enough to make the movie good.  At only 93 minutes long, it feels more like over two hours.  In the film the men who stared at goats apparently did it for hours and hours and hours trying to kill them with their minds; I wonder if us staring at this movie for just one hour killed OUR minds.
The Men Who Stare At Goats (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: C

Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

Apparently this is the first movie in a gothic book series for teens called “Cirque du Freak.”  The series has its fans but I can’t imagine it being very popular since I never even heard of it before.  I’m not sure if the book jumped on the vampire bandwagon or it preceded it, but the movie clearly was made to strike while the fanged-iron is hot.  The story is about a young boy who becomes (you guessed it) assistant to a vampire who travels with a Freak Show after he reluctantly sucked (ha) into a world of feuding ghouls.  Imagine “Harry Potter” meets “Twilight” only with a lot more silliness.  Acting veteran John C. Reilly stars as the vampire Larten Crepsley.  I love Reilly and think he never gets the credit he deserves.  He’s proved his dramatic chops (“The Hours”), his comedic chops (“Walk Hard”) and even his musical ones (“Chicago”) but never gets the accolades.  In “The Vampire’s Assistant” he doesn’t get to use much of any of those chops though.  This film has such a horrible script that it doesn’t give the actors a chance to do much of anything with it; even with great performers peppered in like Salma Hayek, Willem Dafoe, and Ken Watanabe.  But even if the script was penned by Shakespeare himself, the star of the film who’s a newcomer named Chris Massoglia, would still find a way to make it look like high school theater.  I’m not sure who’s nephew, son or friend’s cousin he is, but how he landed this gig is a mystery to me.  He is absolutely terrible!  He plays through the different scenes that involve action, comedy, horror, drama and suspense with the same dumbfounded, wallpaper face that makes you think you’re being punked by sitting through a movie with him as the star.  But I did think the same thing of Daniel Radcliffe when I saw him in the first “Harry Potter” movie though and he got better.  I do hope that this movie does well enough to earn the sequels it has planned.  The story and characters are engaging, dark, funny and odd.  It’s the kind of movie that I would’ve loved as a 13-year-old.  I’m interested in what comes next and I want to see how it all plays out.  This first film in the episodic story is all set up and no conclusion, but is different enough to at least keep me watching to see where it goes from here.  (Of course I could read the books, but who wants to do that.)  It intrigues with questions but doesn’t answer any.  In a way I’m glad that it’s not super great or ultra compelling because that would just be torture to have to wait for the next one.  So in that respect I’m thankful, but taking what I imagine is a very engrossing, fun gothic teen tale and watering it down to this, I am not.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: C+

Where the Wild Things Are

Director Spike Jonze is a really weird guy.  He’s done movies like “Being John Malkovich” and music videos for Weezer, Beastie Boys and Fatboy Slim.  His latest is “Where the Wild Things Are” and has been struggling to get this movie made for years.  He was a huge fan of the Maurice Sendak children’s story, as was I.  He wanted to make sure this beloved story was done justice and done right.  I’m really sorry to say that if he thinks it was done justice and right then I wish the project was never made.  One of the biggest fears that I have when I hear a children’s book is being made into a feature film is that they’re going to add so much to the story that what you loved as a kid is merely a shell of what it’s become.  Not only did that happen here, but what I loved as a kid was recognizable ONLY by the visuals on the screen.  Jonze and co-writer, David Eggers, managed to take a children’s story and craft a deeply confusing and manically emotional story out of what was originally an 8 sentence storybook.  Now I don’t think that that’s a bad idea, but boy did they miss the mark.  I saw this with my fiance who has a Masters in analyzing literature and extracting meaning from stories and she didn’t get it.  I didn’t get it either.  And boy will your kids not get it.  It’s rated “PG” but don’t let that fool you – this is not a kid’s movie.  Not because it’s too scary or violent (which it actually might be for some) but because it’s dull, slow and WAY over the heads of kids.  And that’s fine with me, but it’s way over the heads of adults too.  There’s no resolution, nothing is learned and characters have no arcs or motives.  So disappointing since I really wanted to like this movie.  Not just because I loved the book as a kid, but also because the trailers released for it almost brought me to tears.  The only positive thing I can say about the movie is that Jonze’s ability to translate his imagination to things you can actually see is amazing.  The sets are incredible and the use of such diverse landscapes of nature and phases of the sun gave the movie a real organic feel that helped you buy into the fantasy.  But the costumes are the crown jewel.  Newcomer Max Records (who plays “Max”) is acting beyond his years and to do it to 12′ high, fuzzy costumes with CGI faces is even more impressive.  The voice work of Paul Dano (“There Will Be Blood”), Catherine O’Hara (“Orange County”) and James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”) is so convincing, you’d think it was them in make-up (even though Gandolfini just plays the bipolar Tony Soprano all over again, only this time he’s fuzzy and adorable.)  However those are the only positive things I can say about this boring, plodding movie that is too childish for adults, too adult for children and too odd for everyone.  But oh well, at least I tried to end on a happy note, which is more than I can say for the film.
Where the Wild Things Are (Rated PG)
Gavin Grade: C

A Serious Man

Boy, am I a fan of the Coen Brothers.  This writer-director team has 14 movies to their credit and in my opinion only a few duds.  But peppered in with the duds are some of the greatest movies ever made.  I personally rank “The Big Lebowski” as the #1 comedy of all time.  I also was thrilled that “No Country for Old Men” won Best Picture in 2007 since it was by-far my favorite of that year.  But whether they’re doing comedy or drama, all their movies have one thing in common; they’re full of weird people doing weird things in weird scenes.  Somewhere in all that bizarre chaos is a story and usually the story is good.  “A Serious Man” is no exception to that even though it’s not one of their best.  But what I love about it was the possibility for discussion that it creates.  People who hated or didn’t understand “No Country for Old Men” will probably hate this too, even though it’s a comedy.  “A Serious Man” is basically a modernization (although it’s set in the 1960s) of The Book of Job from The Bible.  It’s loosely based on it much like the Coen’s “Oh Brother! Where Art Thou” was loosely based on Homer’s “The Odyssey.”  This one is a little more literal though.  If you’re rusty on the Old Testament, Job was a good man that had his faith tested by God and Satan just to see if he was pious because he was successful or because he really had faith in God.  If you know how Job ends, the ending of “A Serious Man” shouldn’t come as a shock either.  But keep in mind that all this is going on while the weird characters are doing weird things in weird scenes.  This isn’t a movie for everyone.  It’s not knee-slapping funny but the gradually building crap storm of crazy intrigues you so much that you’re willing to stick it out.  And I highly recommend you do since the ending is one of the best parts of the movie.  The other great part is the star, Michael Stuhlbarg, who you might know from…well…nothing.  He puts on a great performance as a hurting man who’s trying to keep it together and being funny while doing it.  You’ll know his name in the future even though you don’t know him at all now.  In fact the entire cast you won’t know since they’re all New York City stage actors.  It’s quite a departure from the Coen’s usual stable of stars, like last year’s “Burn After Reading.”  But again I stress that this movie isn’t for everyone.  In fact it tests even the most loyal Coen Brothers fan.  Despite having the funniest Bar Mitzfah scene ever shot for a movie, it’s overall not a gut-buster.  But, just like Job, you’re tested and in the end your reward is…well…the ending.
A Serious Man (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: B+