Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"Girls like to laugh at men" A Review of "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past"

I've seen many versions of “A Christmas Carol” in my life (for my money, “Scrooged” is the best one), but I've never seen one quite like this. First we'll take out Ebenezer Scrooge and replace him with famous photographer and man-whore, Connor Mead (Matthew McConaughey: “Contact”, “Sahara”). Next we'll get rid of Christmas and replace it with the wedding of Connor's little brother, Paul (Breckin Meyer: “Robot Chicken”, “King of the Hill”) to Sandra (Lacey Chabert: “Party of Five”, “The Spectacular Spider-Man”). Then we'll get rid of Jacob Marley, and replace him with the man who taught Connor how to be a player, his Uncle Wayne (Michael Douglas: “Basic Instinct”, “War of the Roses”). Finally we will ditch the Christmas ghosts and replace them with Wayne's first sexual partner, Allison (Emma Stone: “Superbad”), his assistant, Mel (Noureen DeWulf), and the mute Ghost of Girlfriends Future (Olga Maliouk). There, now we have the recipe for “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”.

The only thing that the above description leaves out is the actual main plot point, which is the relationship between Connor and his first love, Jenny Perotti (Jennifer Garner: “Alias”, “Juno”). Jenny and Connor have been friends since they were kids, she even gave him his first camera. They should be together, but in junior high something happened to throw them off course.

At a painfully 80's dance, Connor cannot build up the nerve to ask Jenny to dance, so she goes off to dance, and play tonsil hockey, with one of the jocks. This sends Connor running to his uncle to get his first lesson in how to play the game; he never looks back, even when he gets a chance to make things work with his first love, until now.

This movie is a by the books comedy chick-flick with some amusing twists. It throws up some fun lampshades onto the traditional scenes from “A Christmas Carol”, especially with Allison, the Ghost of Girlfriends Past, who gets the most screen time of any of the ghosts.

One of this film's brightest spots has to be Michael Douglas. Given that the man has spent a good portion of his career making films about the dangers of women, it is funny to see him playing a slimy, despicable, but still utterly likable stereotype in this film. Whether he's driving around in the “Stabbin' Wagon”, or just conjuring up a snowstorm of tissues he steals any scene he is in.

The movie suffers from some major flaws. First off, it features Lacey Chabert who still has one of the most annoying voices in Hollywood (especially if you discount actors who do annoying voices only in character), and also wears a horribly unflattering dress for most of the movie. To her credit, she does fit the character well, and she only has a few lines.

A bigger problem is McConaughey himself. His performance is not that of him playing Connor Mead, but him playing Nicholas Cage playing Connor Mead. I spent the first twenty minutes of this movie trying to figure out who it was McConaughey was trying to be before I figured it out. Now why he would want to play as Nicholas Cage, I do not know, but that's what it was.

Finally, there are utter failures of logic. There's never any explanation as to why Jenny was hanging around the Mead mansion as a kid, no explanation as how Mel can be a ghost without being dead, no reason why Connor tries to prop up a falling cake with a champagne bottle that is not the same size as the gap he's trying to fill, but most of all, never any acknowledgment of the fact that Jenny's ditching Connor at the dance very clearly set him on the path we find him on. I suppose these things should not surprise me though, as this is simply not a deep enough movie for these things to be a major concern.

Overall, Ghosts is a predictable but enjoyable spin of a classic tale, but there's not really anything new here to see. The acting ranges from adequate to good, some of the dialog is really good while other parts fall pretty flat, and there are bigger things to suspend disbelief over than just the existence of ghosts. I suppose the target audience for this movie is going to be all the women whose husbands and boyfriends are off seeing the Wolverine movie.

It's fun, it's cute, but it's just not worth the price of admission. You can catch “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” in theaters nationwide starting May 1st, but I suggest waiting for it to come out on DVD so you can watch it with a box of chocolates by your side and a glass of white wine in your hand.

Check out ”Mallville – A Journal of the Zombie Apocalypse”, my free ongoing blognovel.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"I can hear the music we're supposed to be playing" A Review of "The Soloist"

Pessimism, cynicism, realism, call it what you like, but many of us fall victim to this type of thinking. When someone has become genre savvy to reality they may eventually look for something somewhere that gives them hope that maybe the world can be fixed. This type of thinking can lead that person on a quest to try to fix the world, whether they should or not. This is a movie about someone just like that.

“The Soloist” is based on the book “The Soloist: A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, And The Redemptive Power of Music” by Steve Lopez. The book itself is based on a series of columns he wrote for the Los Angeles Times about a homeless virtuoso named Nathaniel Anthony Ayers.

In the film, Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.: “Iron Man”, “Tropic Thunder”) is a typical cynical Angelino. He's a writer for the L.A. Times in a time where print media is starting to enter the downturn it is currently in. Far from worrying about the fact that his peers are being laid off around him, he is more concerned with finding topics for his column

One day Lopez discovers Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx: “Ray”, “In Living Color”) sitting at the feet of the Beethoven statue in Pershing Square playing a violin with only two strings. Lopez is ready to dismiss him as just one of the many mentally ill homeless in L.A. when Ayers mentions he went to the Julliard. School

Smelling a story, Lopez confirms that Ayers attended Julliard as a cellist, but left after schizophrenia manifested itself. Lopez writes his article, and that could be then end of it, but a reader sends him a cello to give to Ayers. After hearing how Ayers plays an instrument with all of its strings, Lopez writes more articles.

Lopez eventually stops viewing Ayers as just a subject for a story, but as a real person who should not be where he is in life. Shocked at the idea of a man so talented living on the streets with the masses of homeless, he decides to try and save Ayers from the life he finds himself in, whether or not Nathaniel wants him to.

“The Soloist” is award-bait, pure and simple. I say this not as a criticism, but as a statement of fact. Being somewhat cynical myself, I know that the awards shows tend to look kindly on the mentally ill, but that in no way cheapens what is a beautiful movie. Any award nominations this film gets, it deserves.

Foxx and Downey play their roles wonderfully. Downey portrays Steve Lopez as a cynical ass who deep down is a good person (or at least wants to be), and wants to find some good in the world; he also plays him as much of the film's comic relief. Foxx plays Ayers sort of like “Rain Man” on uppers, one second rambling a nearly incoherent stream of words, and the next totally at peace as the music takes him.

I only have two real criticisms of this movie, so lets get them out of the way now:

The movie seems a little jumpy at times, like things are being glossed over. This is not uncommon for movies based on books, nor is it uncommon for movies based on true stories (since reality does not always follow the rules of good storytelling). This is only as distracting as you let it be though; if you can just sit back and experience the film, it is only a minor issue.

The second, and bigger, issue is the character of Graham Claydon (Tom Hollander). Claydon is a Cellist called by Lopez to try and help Nathaniel regain the cello skills he had in his youth. Unfortunately Claydon is one of those Christians who does not believe in subtlety, and repeatedly tries to force his beliefs on the mentally unstable Ayers to negative effect, seemingly more concerned with converting him to Christianity than actually helping his art. I do believe that Claydon has the best of intentions in these scenes, but good intentions do not necessarily equal good actions.

My issue with Claydon is not his actions, but his portrayal; Hollander's portrayal of Claydon is so over the top as to be potentially offensive to Christians. It is almost as if the director wanted there so badly to be a villain in this movie that he wanted to make the audience really dislike this character. Now for all I know the real-life version of Graham Claydon (if he exists) may be a complete horse's ass as portrayed, but in a movie full of such wonderful performances seeing this two-dimensional character is distracting, and does cheapen the experience a little.

“The Soloist” is not a movie that you watch, it is one that you experience. The film masterfully plays with sound and picture to try and make you see what the characters see. The sound in particular makes this worth seeing in a theater with a really good sound system; from the chilling sounds of the voices in Nathaniel's head, to the discordant sounds of Lopez's tape recorder, to the way Nathaniel's music drowns out the cacophony of the city around him, the sound is as much a character in this film as any actor.

If you've read many of my reviews you know that I am generally a proponent of waiting to see movies on DVD, but not this time. Unless you have a superb home theater set-up, you will not get the full experience of this film. Even then, some of the visuals are so striking up on the big screen in the darkened theater, like during the light show behind Nathaniel's eyes as he listens to the symphony rehearse, that it will be almost impossible to reproduce at home.

“The Soloist” combines fantastic acting, visuals, sound, and over all direction to tell a touching and hopeful story. A story that explores the plight of the homeless and mentally ill, the desire for one man to help another, and the almost magical qualities that music can have. This award-worthy film is definitely one to check out when it it comes to theaters this Friday, April 24th.

Check out ”Mallville – A Journal of the Zombie Apocalypse”, my free ongoing blognovel.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"I'm not gay, I'm in love" A Review of "17 Again"

As you grow older, do you find yourself dissatisfied with your life? Do you wonder what could have been had you made different choices? Can you pinpoint that one moment where you threw away your potential, and set yourself on your current course? What if that potential could be given back to you? What if you could be “17 Again”?

“17 Again” is the story of Mike O'Donnell (Zac Efron : ”High School Musical” 1,2, and 3), who in 1989 was king of the world. He's the star of the basketball team, has a beautiful girlfriend, a nerdy best friend whom he protects, and is almost certainly going to get a full basketball scholarship. On the night of the big game his girlfriend, Scarlett (Allison Miller: “Kings”) tells him that she is pregnant, and, being a nice guy, he abandons the game, along with all of his potential, to do the right thing and marry her.

Skip ahead twenty years and we find Mike (Matthew Perry: “Friends”) is miserable with his life. He's being overlooked for promotions at work for people younger, less experienced, and prettier than him, his kids don't like him, Scarlett (Leslie Mann: “Knocked Up”) is divorcing him, and he's living with his nerdy best friend from high school, Ned (Thomas Lennon: “Reno 911”).

At the height of his misery, Mike returns to his old high school. While staring at the basketball team picture from 1989 he is confronted by the janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray), who asks him if he would like a chance to do it over. Mike of course agrees that he would, and when he later sees the janitor standing on the railing of a bridge he rushes to stop him from jumping, and ends up falling over the side into a whirlpool of apparently magic water.

The next thing Mike knows, he's Zac Efron again; he's young, he's fit, but things quickly fall apart for him. He discovers that his daughter, Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) has taken up with the school psycho, Stan (Hunter Parrish: “Weeds”). He finds that his son, Alex (Sterling Knight: “Sonny With a Chance”) is not a basketball star like he was, but is instead one of the bullied. Can Mike save his family, his marriage, and make the most of his potential this time around?

“17 Again” is an inversion of the plot of movies like “Big” and “13 Going On 30”; instead of a child wanting to be an adult and have the freedoms being an adult has, we find an adult who regrets squandering his youth. In a way the movie is also a lot like “Freaky Friday” type films, but without the need to switch back at the end.

The movie is somewhat uneven in it's presentation as it switches back and forth between three types of story. Much of the humour comes from Mike trying to fit in to modern high school, but without warning he will frequently change into romantic-comedy Mike who is trying to seduce Scarlett, or dad Mike who is trying to help his kids. All of these versions of Mike are funny, but the transitions between them can sometimes seem awkward.

There are times in the movie where the filmmakers seem like they were uncertain how to progress from one part of the story to the next. The scene that symbolizes this best to me is near the end of the film where young Mike has screwed up everything, and lost all hope. Unable to make the story progress smoothly, the film throws this one scene in there to club the viewer over the head with it, and ,as if giving you giant visual parentheses at the beginning and end of this scene, there is a sort of jarring blackout scene transition.

The thing that probably surprised me most about this film is Zac Efron. I haven't seen much he has been in (not being 12 and all), but I found his performance convincing. There are many points in the film where it really does seem like he is channeling Matthew Perry's speech patterns and mannerisms a lot better than movies where two people play one character (EX: “Freaky Friday”, “Like Father Like Son”, “Face-Off”) usually manage. He also does a very good parody of his “High School Musical” roots, with humourous basketball and dancing sequences along with questions about his sexuality due to having too-nice hair, and sometimes failed attempts at being the cool kid.

I was also surprised at the sheer amount of geek humour in the film. Ned, who has grown to be a wealthy nerd, has his own subplot in the movie where he is trying to hook up with the school principal, Jane (Melora Hardin: “The Office”). He speaks elvish, dresses oddly, his bed is a full-sized landspeeder, and they even manage to work a lightsaber duel into the movie.

Despite the way it is being promoted, “17 Again” is not going to be that appropriate for your “HSM” aged kids. The film is PG-13, and aside from some minor cursing and sexual references, the movie plays around with the concepts of statutory rape (Mike trying to seduce Scarlett) as well as incest (Mike's daughter Maggie literally throwing herself at him). Unless you want to have to potentially explain some of these concepts to your younger children, this might be better kept as a date movie than a family film.

Ultimately, “17 Again” is an enjoyable film with good acting, sometimes great writing, and a good sense of pacing, it is ultimately not worth $11. The writing sometimes feels forced, subplots are left unresolved once their role in the main plot is played out (Alex and the basketball team at the end of the movie has no resolution), and the ending has a giant plothole that will leave you asking, “Hey, what about...” right about the time you get to your car.

This is a movie that is worth seeing, but it's worth seeing on DVD or cable in a couple of months. It's not bad, it's just not worth full price. If you want to check out “17 Again” when it hits theaters on April 17th, make sure to go to a matinĂ©e.

Check out ”Mallville – A Journal of the Zombie Apocalypse”, my free ongoing blognovel.

Monday, April 13, 2009

This Is Just To Say

I am a fan of “This American Life”, and after listening to episode 354, “Mistakes Were Made” I became inspired. The entire second act of the show was dedicated to William Carlos Williams' poem, “This Is Just To Say”, and they had their regular contributors put their own spin on the poem. So without any further ado, here are my three versions of “This Is Just To Say"

This Is Just To Say
by VOID Munashii
With apologies to William Carlos Williams

Please forgive me
for eating you
and turning you
into one of the undead

You probably
did not want
to die, let alone
rise again as a
flesh-eating monster

But your flesh
was so delicious,
and my hunger
was so painful


I allowed your
research station to
fall from orbit,
and burn up in the

You probably
wanted me to
at least save the data
that you invested
so much money into

Forgive me
but it was one
of your scientists
that caused the problems
in the first place


I blew up
the battle station
which you used
to destroy Alderaan

You were probably
trying to possess
the ultimate power
in the universe

Forgive me,
but you really
should have secured
that exhaust port