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Law Abiding Citizen

Jamie Foxx won an Oscar not that long ago so his star should be shining bright enough so that movies like this one are way, way below him.  I’m not sure why he did this, but he looked like he regretted that decision before filming started.  He wanders the streets of Philadelphia looking for a way out of the movie.  Gerald Butler (“300”) has really been working on his Scottish accent and has traded it in for a mumble through slanted lips.  I know it sounds like I’m ragging on this thriller from director F. Gary Gray, but I actually kind of liked it.  Remember the last scene from “Seven” and how it created an uneasy sense of dread since the bad guy was handcuffed and unarmed but you were still scared of him.  “Law Abiding Citizen” is like watching that last scene over and over again.  The story is about a father who sees his wife and daughter killed (LITERALLY in the first 30 seconds of the movie) and seeks to topple the corrupt system that failed to deliver him justice.  It’s a tired story but I’m always a sucker for it.  Revenge tales mixed with vigilante justice appeals to all of us, but it has to be done right.  Sadly for this movie, it wasn’t.  Like I said, Butler’s family gets murdered immediately which doesn’t give you a chance to feel for his character at all.  We don’t know anything about him prior to becoming the murderer he is for the rest of the film.  On the contrary, we know a lot about Foxx’s character and we don’t really care.  His family is dull, their love is phoned in and I didn’t really find myself caring what happened to them.  That was the running theme in this movie.  Apathy doesn’t drive a plot.  I can’t route the bad guy on without really understanding why he’s so hurt.  And as the movie goes on, Butler’s character doesn’t even understand what he’s doing anymore anyway.  What starts off as a gruesome, “Saw” type torture scene that really gets you excited for revenge turns into some sort of silly, unintelligible statement he’s trying to make about the judicial system.  He starts killing people off that didn’t have anything to do with his revenge so it makes us want to route for him less and less.  But it was still entertaining.  It does drag a little since it’s about 10-15 minutes too long.  But like I said, I’m a sucker for revenge tales and vigilante justice.  I enjoyed the well-thought-out murders and how far ahead he planned.  I didn’t understand why Foxx’s character, who’s a lawyer, was doing the job of the cops the entire movie; but I still enjoyed the race for him to get one step ahead of the villain.  I even enjoyed the intense violence in certain scenes which played with your notions of who Butler’s character was.  I don’t like the saying “It served its purpose” but that’s exactly what this movie did.  If you go into it wanting to see explosions and blood and don’t expect social commentary or complicated characters seeking vengeance, then you’ll be adequately pleased.
Law Abiding Citizen (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: B-

Couples Retreat

Remember the first time you saw “Swingers?”  That was that classic John Favreau and Vince Vaughn movie about being single and dating in L.A. in the mid-90s.  It was one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen and still a crown jewel in my DVD collection.  What made that so good was the chemistry between the two main actors and their fast, improvised dialogue.  Since then I’ve been hoping that they would recapture that magic and so far they’ve fallen flat (they did come close with 2001’s “Made.”)  “Couples Retreat” should be held up as an example of how a movie can become so bad so fast.  The first act of the film is hilarious, the second act isn’t very good and the third act is just terrible.  The story follows four couples in paradise as they all work out their marital issues at a…you guessed it…couples retreat.  Not a bad premise for a movie.  The script was written by Favreau and Vaughn and the movie was directed by Peter Billingsley (Ralphie from “A Christmas Story”).  It has Jason Bateman and Faizon Love (“Elf”) to round out the comedic husbands of the couples.  It’s got the makings of a great comedy but man, I don’t know what happened.  It might have something to do with trimming the movie from an R-rating to a PG-13 in hopes to broaden the audience (still might be a little uncomfortable to watch with teens).  But it seemed like most of the problem boiled down to a lost script that didn’t know where to go or how to wrap it up.  Such a disappointment since the charisma, quick dialogue and typical stereotypes of men were funny before they get to the tropical paradise.  But then the scenarios go from funny to ridiculous to unbelievable to just stupid.  It felt like those skits you see on “SNL” some times that are really funny but then suddenly aren’t as you realize they go on too long and trying too hard to find a way to end it?  That’s what happens here.  Except instead of ending the skit on a quotable catch phrase like they would on TV, they end it in a resolution that you would expect to see on a Soap Opera…cheesy, convenient and foolish.  Notice I haven’t yet mentioned the women who make up the wives, played by Malin Akerman (“Watchmen”), Kristin Davis (“Sex and the City”) and the stunningly beautiful, albeit elf-like, Kristen Bell (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”).  That’s because this script didn’t give them any personality or unique characteristics.  You could have switched the actresses with their parts halfway through the movie and I don’t think anyone would’ve noticed.  I don’t know if that’s because they’re not talented actresses or if the script was written purely as a vehicle to showcase the men and use the ladies purely as scenery.  Now I might be wrong with all this since as I was leaving the theater I did hear other people saying how funny they thought it was; but I don’t think I am because I could hear a pin drop in that theater through the whole second half so they either don’t get out very often or just laugh on the inside.
Couples Retreat (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: C-

Paranormal Activity

The marketing campaign behind this movie was genius.  It wasn’t as smart as the viral “true” story that was launched months beforehand for “The Blair Witch Project” but this was all about word-of-mouth.  They released this only in big college towns first hoping to get word on the Internet to spread like wildfire.  Then once interest was peaked they would only release it in your city if you went online and demanded it.  Luckily Sacramento was one of those cities and we got it…at one theater…that only had one showing…at midnight!  Smart!  The plot is simple: a couple buys a camera in hopes to capture some ghostly goings-on that the girlfriend has been claiming.  To know anymore about this story might water it down.  The cast consists of the couple, who are newcomers named Michah Sloat and Katie Featherston.  There’s a physic and a best friend that appear in the movie twice but only briefly.  Even though the movie is a first-person shot of a handheld camera, it won’t make you motion sick like “Cloverfield” and “Quarantine” did for some.  It’s important to note that this entire movie was made for only $11,000!  You heard me right!  That’s so impressive since and a bigger budget would’ve only made the movie worse.  The director, another newcomer Oren Peli, basically sets up a house (the entire movie takes place in one house) full of cheap parlor tricks to scare us and his actors.  There are many times during the movie where the unafraid and manly Michah yells out “Shhhhh” to his girlfriend while they’re frightened.  He’s not really yelling that at her, he’s yelling that at the audience.  Some of the more terrifying things that happen are so slight and subtle that you’ll miss them because you’re still screaming from what just happened.  But don’t think this is your typical scary movie.  This movie gives a new definition to “creepy.”  It never once frightens you into jumping because that’s too easy to do.  “Paranormal Activity” is just a collection of scenes filled with tension-mounting sounds and sights that make the goosebumps appear and you have to look away because you’ve been creeped out too much!  My only complaint with it is that when the final 5 over-boiled minutes of the film happen, the climax is absolutely terrifying, more could’ve been done with it.  That being said I am writing this review at 2:30 AM.  We got back from the movie and I was too scared to go to bed.  Be warned that what the movie “Psycho” did for taking showers, “Paranormal Activity” has done to simply falling asleep in a bed!  The feeling of being trapped in this house with this couple is conveyed perfectly.  When either of the other two cast members appear you feel perfectly safe but when they leave you feel like they abandon you and are responsible for the frights to continue!  Every time night falls and the couple attempts to go to sleep, the audience (totally sold out show) groaned with fear of what they knew was coming and when it does, even being surrounded by 600 people in a big-ass theater wasn’t enough to make us all feel like we were alone in that room with them.
Paranormal Activity (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: A

Capitalism: A Love Story

It’s difficult to review a Michael Moore movie because it’s hard to separate the film from the message.  Most people who write a review on his movies end up dissecting what they agree or disagree with what he’s trying to say.  But that’s not what a movie reviewer should do.  What we should do is judge the movie based on how well it was executed as a piece of cinema, as a documentary.  That’s what I plan on doing.  It is interesting to me that one of the harshest criticisms of Moore is that his movies are biased.  Well, of course they are…they’re documentaries.  ALL documentaries are biased.  They all start with a thesis or a opinion and then the movie sets out to prove it true.  In “Capitalism,” Moore’s thesis is that Capitalism is a corrupt and evil system that has replaced Democracy in our country and devastate many for the gains of a few.  I happen to agree with that, but as a reviewer I’ll refrain on diving into my thoughts and how they differ from his on the matter.  Moore is one of the best documentary filmmakers of all time.  His movies are refreshing, edgy, revolutionary, funny, heartbreaking but above all…entertaining.  He uses archival footage from How To films, propaganda movies, news reels and more to create this fast-moving, brightly colored world of examples of how things were (for the good or bad).  As in all his films, he has his sarcastic at times, somber at others and always monotonous voice to narrate us through it.  He does however cast himself as a more visible player in “Capitalism” than he has in past, such as “Fahrenheit 9/11.”  But it moves too slow and it’s too long.  At over 2 hours, it’s exhausting after a while trying to keep up on such a complex and confusing subject.  Most of us, including me and HIM, don’t understand the concepts of what made Wall Street collapse or why financial de-regulation happened or even what the hell a derivative is!!!!  So to try and cram all that into a movie is really a jagged pill to swallow.  But besides that aspect, it’s still very good.  Moore is great at telling stories; he lets things get really sad but then is sure to pick you up with something funny.  He makes sure you get angry over what he claims is wrongdoing, but then inspires you to do something about it.  In fact the last 15 minutes of the movie, which is nothing but a Call to Arms, will give anyone goosebumps on the arms and inspirational tears in the eyes, unless you’re rich.  The only problem is that I hope you’re brain isn’t fried by the time you get there.  I do have to say that it bothers me that most people who hate Michael Moore just because they’ve been told too by radio pundits, cable blowhards or politicians.  Most of these people have never and will never see one of his films.  I do firmly believe that if they did form an educated opinion about him by doing that, they’d change their tune once they find out that his movies are not only entertaining, but they’re made for us little people…well, and for him so he can make money too.
Capitalism: A Love Story
Gavin Grade: B

Zombieland

What is it about zombies that make people create such a natural tie-in to comedy?  It seems that there have been more horror-comedies that were about zombies than any other monster movie I can think of.  There will be lots of comparisons made of this movie, from first time director Ruben Fleischer, and the Simon Pegg classic “Shaun of the Dead.”  I’m a HUGE fan of “Shaun” and in my opinion, “Zombieland” stands up, toe-to-to with it; the only difference being that “Shaun” was the dry British version and “Zombieland” is 100% USAsskicking.  The film starts off with a cold opening followed by opening credits that not only set the tone for the film, but sets the level of violence as well.  This is not a movie for the squeamish.  If there’s some horrible act of violence coming up in the film that you just know they’ll cut away from because it’s much too graphic, guess again ’cause they’re showing it.  In fact a big part of the comedy of the film is the shock at how high they’re willing to take some of the gore.  The movie stars Woody Harrelson, Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Emma Stone (“Superbad”) and Jessie Eisenberg (“Adventureland”  I guess he can’t stay away from movies with “land” in the title).  Eisenberg is still very new on the scene and he’s apparently who Hollywood calls on when Michael Cera says “no” to a role because the two are virtually the same person.  Just like Cera, he can play one kind of part, and that’s the awkward, shy, funny guy and he plays it well.  That’s pretty much the cast of the movie minus a hoard of the undead.  The only other person in the movie is a cameo that should go down in history as the BEST CAMEO IN ANY MOVIE EVER MADE!  What the director, Fleischer, did in this was keep the film funny from beginning to end.  He didn’t fall into the trap of it getting too serious or too scary or too sappy at all.  His #1 goal in this was to make sure you have a damn good time watching it and you’re entertained; he doesn’t fall short of that one bit.  The only issue that it runs into is that it has a saggy middle act.  It starts strong, ends strong and gets rather dry in-between.  It’s still very funny, but looses its zombie allure by not having any scares, jumps or action for about 40 minutes.  Of course he makes up for that and then some with the climax.  The credit in this film can be spread evenly all the way around.  Not one actor carries it more than the others and they all seemed like they had a blast filming it…I know I would.  If you have a strong stomach and a sick sense of humor, then “Zombieland” is your idea of a fun night.  If you don’t, well…let’s be honest; a movie called “Zombieland” probably didn’t appeal to you anyway.
Zombieland (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: A-

The Informant!

Matt Damon gained over 40lbs for this movie and he certainly looks every inch of it.  But people who hate on The Oscars make fun by saying that anyone who changes their appearance usually wins one.  So is Damon next on that list?  I don’t know, but I think he should get a nomination.  He plays a fat, bumbling headcase named Mark Whitacre who became an FBI informant against his own company.  But wait…there’s SO much more.  In fact there’s so much to this true story that it gets pretty confusing.  That’s the problem with white collar crime – it’s pretty hard to follow.  Tell me that someone got shot or a store got robbed and I can follow that.  But you tell me that Bernie Madoff made off with $500,000,000 in a Ponzi Scheme and I have no idea what you’re talking about.  This film, from directing master Steven Soderbergh, tries its best to explain what kind of crimes are going on but doesn’t slow down for the slow kids in class.  I wasn’t a slow kid, but I wasn’t an A+ one either while watching this.  However, whether you get the plot completely or not doesn’t hinder your ability to laugh at the utterly stupid things that are done and said by Damon’s character, which leads me to wonder why the real Mark Whitacre would ever allow this movie to be made.  Nevertheless it was and it’s good.  Soderbergh (the Oceans 11-13 movies, “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich”) is great at making his movies seem cool and slick, even when it’s not.  Every scene has its own color and every angle has a purpose.  It’s really fun to watch as a film geek, although “The Informant!” doesn’t scream his name overall.  It does though in two areas.  The first is the casting, which has the formerly famous such as Scott Bakula (“Quantum Leap”) and Thomas Wilson (Biff from “Back to the Future”), the upcoming like Joel McHale (“Talk Soup,” “Community”) and a bevy of stand-up comics in not so funny roles.  The other area that is classic Soderbergh is the soundtrack which was done by the camp-master, Marvin Hamlisch.  It’s almost a character in the movie itself adding whimsy and goofiness to a movie that, at times, is a fairly dark comedy about the unraveling of a man.  The movie is almost 2 hours but feels more like 3, but not in a bad way.  There’s just so much information in the film that I wonder if some of it could’ve been kept out since it didn’t have the luxury to explain it in a timely or entertaining way.  But Matt Damon might have the mental illness of Mark Whitacre to thank come Oscar night if…that is if no other actors come out this year with a changed appearance too.
The Informant! (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: B+

Surrogates

There’s no other movie star out there that looks better all beat up than Bruce Willis.  I think every movie he’s ever been in, he’s beat to hell by the end of it and still looks great.  Unfortunately for this movie, that might be the highlight of the film.  (That and seeing how fat the guy (Devin Ratray) who played Buzz in “Home Alone” has gotten.  He plays a long, haired FBI surveillance guy in “Surrogates.”)  The story centers around humans using surrogate robots that go out in any form you want and live your life for you while you stay at home controlling them.  The problem with that is everyone uses absolutely gorgeous models for their robots, which means they needed a cast of absolutely gorgeous people, which also means you now have a cast of good looking people who can’t act.  Even the performances from such veterans as Ving Rhames (“Pulp Fiction,” “Dawn of the Dead”) and James Cromwell (“W,” “i-Robot”) were terrible.  But I’ve seen bad action movies before that had awful stories and cheesy dialogue that starred Bruce Willis, but the man always seemed to make it work.  But his apathetic meandering through this movie made it stink so bad, I’m pretty sure he only did it for the paycheck.  Even the special effects weren’t that great.  If you’re a sci-fi movie that deals with robots and action you gotta make sure you hit the nail on the head.  Some of the action sequences (which were few and far between) looked like they were made on a teenager’s iMac for a YouTube video.  The story was fine and was really the only saving grace, but the movie deserves none of that credit since it was based on a graphic novel.  The script was written by the team responsible for the last two Terminator movies and “Catwoman.”  Ugh!  Who keeps giving these guys jobs?  However I was shocked to learn that they also wrote the David Fincher classic “The Game,” so maybe that’s why.  Hollywood’s hoping for that level of genius again.  But this sure as hell wasn’t it.  There was zero character motivation and drama that was shoehorned in with embarrassing results.  Leading all the way to the climax of the film which is so visually hilarious that those people left in the theater (yes, people were walking out) were cracking up, which was really not the intention of the scene.  Sadly you’d think that someone working on the film would’ve understood the story and applied the message to the movie itself.  No matter how shiny, beautiful and well-packaged something is, it doesn’t mean there’s a soul or substance behind it.
Surrogates (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: D

Love Happens

Keeping it real here, I totally went to see this movie with a chip on my shoulder and didn’t give it a fair chance.  I saw the God-awful commercials and trailers for it and couldn’t possibly have been more sure that it was going to be a festering bowl of formulaic feces.  I mean come on!  The title alone sucks.  “Love Happens?”  What the hell does that even mean?  Isn’t the saying “Sh*t Happens?”  I don’t like it when I’m wrong, so good thing that my instinct about “Love Happens” was only partially true.  This movie staring Aaron Eckhart (“The Dark Knight,” “Thank You for Smoking”) and Jennifer Aniston is almost as cookie-cutter as a movie can get, but it’s not terrible.  It’s also a little misleading.  It’s not the gushy romantic comedy that one would be led to believe it is.  It’s simply a story of a Self-Help Motivational Speaker who meets a fun, free-spirit and finds out that he’s the one who needed the help.  It’s a plot that’s been told time and time again.  But it was darker than I thought it would be.  It deals mostly with death and letting go of loved ones.  Not your typical story for a late summer estrogen party.  I’ll admit that there were even moments that had me tear up.  However most of the sobbing in the audience came from the WAY overly melodramatic ending that, for me, flirted with the edge of ridiculous.  But one of the more moving parts of the movie was one of the smallest and it involves a secondary character named “Walter” who’s played by character actor John Carroll Lynch.  The all-male creators of this movie would hope that the comedy side would be carried on the stereotypical sidekick characters of Eckhart’s chubby agent and Aniston’s hippie co-worker.  Even though these parts are played by the moderately talented Dan Fogler (“Fanboys”) and Judy Greer (“27 Dresses,” “The Village”) they fall WAY short of making me laugh more times than I can count on one hand.  But I need to repeat that the movie isn’t bad and serves its purpose.  I didn’t think that I was going to see Oscar magic, original content or hell, even anything closely related to a good movie.  But what I saw was harmless, sweet and simple.  And because I was thrown the curveball of actually feeling something during the movie (for however brief it was) I gotta give it credit considering the state of mind I was in when I sat down.
Love Happens (Rated PG-13)
Gavin Grade: B-

Jennifer’s Body

The writer and producer of this movie, Diablo Cody, was the person behind the Oscar-winning film “Juno,” and in my opinion, is a writer to be respected.  She has a great way of creating dialogue that sits in a world inbetween fantasy and reality, while keeping it very funny and thoughtful…much the same Kevin Smith used to do in the ’90s.  (Sorry Kevin, you had a good run.)  But in “Jennifer’s Body” that style got the tone of the movie wrong.  You can’t have a movie that is a horror comedy spoofing it one second and snarky the next.  I enjoy both types but combining both in the same movie is just confusing.  A movie like “Shawn of the Dead” was a perfect horror comedy because it was a great horror movie that happened to be funny.  There are some scenes in “Jennifer’s Body” that are legitimately chilling.  It’s easy and satisfying to have a demonic possession movie use long-lasting images stay on a screen with no action, just to freak you out.  And the star of the film, the stunning Megan Fox, seemed like she reveled in doing that.  You can see the macabre, blood-filled smile on her face is almost indistinguishable from whether or not it’s the character “Jennifer’s” or Megan’s.  The same blurry line of real and fictitious emotion can be said for co-star Amanda Seyfried (“Big Love,” “Mamma Mia!”) and her looks of being creeped out.  Both girls are really good in this.  Director Karyn Kusama is also really good, although she lets her fascination with lesbianism get the best of her with a very sensual scene between the two stars that has absolutely no purpose in the film at all (although I did enjoy watching it).  The problem for this movie comes squarely on the shoulders of Cody and her ridiculous script.  I honestly feel like giving this movie a much worse grade than I gave it just to punish it for coming so close to being a good movie and then crashing and burning as badly as it did.  There is one single scene that was the tipping scale for me.  “Jennifer’s Body” had me!  I was buying all of it and enjoying most of it until the scene that explains what happened to Jennifer that was so poorly done that it just made me angry.  It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t scary, it wasn’t good storytelling.  It was lazy and stupid.  In fact it was so stupid that I didn’t even care about what happened in the rest of the film.  I sat there half concentrating on the climax of the movie, while the other half of me was still dwelling on how a good movie could go so wrong.  Pity too since you’d think someone with the first name Diablo would do a great job writing a movie about the demons.
Jennifer’s Body (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: C

Sorority Row

From the very first opening scene of this movie you know right away that it’s gonna be complete trash.  It’s the typical Hollywood college party that shows beautiful people swilling copious amounts of alcohol while getting naked and having sex all over the extremely large mansion that is decorated with millions of dollars of finely crafted furniture and expensive fixtures.  That’s one thing about cinema that I’ve never understood and never enjoyed – the bloated, false caricature of what “college parties” are like.  However, the good news is that after that, the movie is shockingly not bad.  It’s a classic horror mystery that is so much fun to watch.  It’s one of the sub-genres of horror that I really enjoy.  It’s the gore and fun of a slasher movie mixed with the whodunit story of a murder mystery.  Unfortunately the best movie to ever pull this off was the Wes Craven masterpiece “Scream.”  The whole time I was watching this I was thinking that it was done better when “Scream” did it.  See, even though the movie isn’t bad it’s really predictable and very formulaic.  But as I noticed at the reaction of my fiancee, it still does the trick with the building tension till the inevitable scare.  But the script is pretty much awful.  You can tell it was written by two men and directed by another.  It has no insight at all as to how girls interact or talk to each other.  The characters are drawn as stereotypically as you can and as far as a thrilling climax, clever killer reveal or even major loose ends to be tied up by the end…you won’t find that here.  The acting is far from varsity level but considering it stars a bunch of new actresses, such as Briana Evigan, Leah Pipes, Rumer Willis (and yes Audrina from “The Hills” for a whole 5 minutes), I wasn’t expecting Oscar performances.  (Especially from you Rumer.  You’re not hot enough or good enough to be in movies so that must mean Mommy (Demi Moore) and Daddy (Bruce Willis) helped you out there…sorry she annoys me.) But if you plan on plopping down $10 in hopes you see some blood, boobs and booze, you won’t be disappointed.  You’ll jump, laugh and scream but still leave the movie theater not remembering one thing about the movie you just saw.
Sorority Row (Rated R)
Gavin Grade: C+