Friday, February 27, 2009

Spring 2009 Movie Preview (Part 1)

With winter’s chill hopefully coming to an end soon, movie studios are starting to ramp up their bigger releases for 2009. The month of March is bookended by potentially huge hits, both seeking different audiences. The following is a brief look at those two, along with other offerings for the month. April’s releases will follow next week.

Starring Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
Directed by Zack Snyder

With the court battle over the movie rights between Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox having been settled, viewers can now turn their attention to whether director Snyder (“300”) can do justice to the widely praised and popular graphic novel. The story centers around a group of retired superheros and the investigation into the murder of one of their former colleagues. With plenty of publicity and a highly visible ad campaign, combined with little competition from other films, box office success would seem to be a given. (March 6)
Official Web site

“Race to Witch Mountain”
Starring Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Carla Gugino, Cirian Hinds, Alexander Ludwig
Directed by Andy Fickman

Johnson, better known by many as “The Rock,” reunites with Fickman (“The Game Plan”) for a remake of 1975’s “Escape to Witch Mountain.” In the film, Johnson plays a cab driver who takes on the task of protecting a pair of siblings with supernatural powers from a shady organization with nefarious plans. This version looks to be amping up the action and comedy, which should be a good fit for Johnson. (March 13)
Official Web site

“The Last House on the Left”
Starring Garret Dillahunt, Aaron Paul, Sara Paxton, Martha MacIsaac, Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter
Directed by Dennis Iliadis

Another remake of a ‘70s film, this one has decidedly darker content than “Witch Mountain,” which might be an understatement. Based on the original directed by Wes Craven, “Last House” deals with the revenge that two parents seek to exact on a gang of criminals who previously kidnapped and brutally assaulted their daughter. Expect a drop of blood or two to be shed. Big surprise, I know. (March 13)
Official Web site

Starring Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury
Directed by Alex Proyas

An item retrieved from opening a time capsule at his son’s school reveals to a teacher (Cage) that several decades worth of catastrophic events in society have been accurately predicted – with more still coming in the future. But can he stop the impending disasters from happening? A better question may be can the visually gifted director Proyas (“I, Robot”) overcome a rather farfetched premise and make this something worth seeing? (March 20)
Official Web site

“I Love You, Man”
Starring Paul Rudd, Jason Segal, Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, J.K. Simmons, Jane Curtin, Jon Favreau, Jaime Pressly
Directed by John Hamburg

The quite busy Rudd stars as a newly engaged guy who goes on a series of dates with men to try and find someone to fit the role of best man for his wedding. Segal co-stars as a top prospect who begins putting strain on the engaged couple’s relationship. The film features a strong cast with lots of TV and movie comedy experience, which can only help here. (March 20)
Official Web site

Starring Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti
Directed by Tony Gilroy

After a tremendous first directing effort (“Michael Clayton”), Gilroy has attracted another talented cast to head up this tale about a pair of corporate spies (Owen and Roberts) looking to take down their respective bosses (Wilkinson and Giamatti). Things get a bit complicated when they begin to fall for one another, however. (March 20)
Official Web site

Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig and Ryan Reynolds
Directed by Greg Mottola

Set in 1987, “Adventureland” follows the life of a young college graduate (Eisenberg), as he takes a summer job at an amusement park. There he finds some odd fellow employees, along with a possible love interest (Stewart). This marks Mottola’s follow-up to the surprise hit, “Superbad.” (March 27)
Official Web site

“Monsters vs. Aliens”
Starring the voices of Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Paul Rudd, Kiefer Sutherland, Rainn Wilson, Will Arnett, Stephen Colbert
Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon

With a showcase Super Bowl ad slot, this animated film should have no problem with name recognition by the time of its release. And with a stellar cast of vocal talent at its disposal, not to mention its wide appeal potential, anything less than $100 million at the box office would have to be considered a disappointment by DreamWorks, the studio releasing it. (March 27)
Official Web site

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Movie Review: "Burn After Reading"

Starring George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Brad Pitt
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Official Web site

Ethan and Joel Coen have made a fairly long career out of choosing to tackle whatever projects they feel like, sometimes eschewing an easier path to success in the process. How else to explain following up their last film, "No Country for Old Men," the winner of four Academy Awards, with "Burn After Reading," a zany and comedically twisted comedy populated with a lot of stupid, self-centered people?

As usual, the Coens snag a top-flight cast, which can only help serve a decidedly entertaining, yet admittedly pointless story about a CIA analyst (John Malkovich) dealing with a blackmail scheme and a cheating wife (Tilda Swinton). The blackmail situation arises when Linda and Chad, a couple of fitness center employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), come into possession of a computer disk that appears to have top secret information about Osbourne Cox (Malkovich), a longtime CIA man with a drinking problem. Cox’s drinking leads to his end of employment with the agency, putting him in a grouchy and exasperated mood for pretty much the remainder of the movie.

Initially, Linda and Chad have no plan to blackmail Cox (whose full name Chad seems humorously obsessed with saying). However, when Cox seems ungrateful and suspicious of their having possession of the disk, they decide to try and get money from him instead — a mistake that leads to them turning to the Russian embassy for help.

Mistakes and misunderstandings by the characters in the film permeate the screwball script, co-written by the Coens. These mistakes and misunderstandings include the activities of Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a married, womanizing federal marshal, who is having an affair with Cox’s wife, Katie, even while he’s seeing Linda. He also has a growing fear that he’s being watched in public. Of course, being involved in that many different romantic relationships certainly makes such a belief seem plausible.

This marks the third collaboration between the Coens and Clooney, who has a knack for playing somewhat dim men in their films (see "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Intolerable Cruelty"). He, like many of the actors here, seems to be having fun playing against type. Pitt, in particular, makes good use of his limited screen time, playing the idiotic accomplice to Linda’s harebrained blackmail scheme. The cast is clearly the best part of the film, as the story itself is a bit of a jumble, filled with characters that the audience will have a difficult time rooting for. But laughing at the characters is never a problem.

Much of the humor in the movie is of a darker nature, with some of it springing up from violent encounters, verbal and physical. This means it may not appeal to all audiences, which is pretty much the same thing that can be said of most of the Coen brothers' comedies. For most people, there's should be an adequate amount of material to like here, just not quite enough to place it in the top level of their body of work.

Clearly, the Coens have no real desire to embrace conventionality, and for the most part, that’s to the benefit of audiences, who are all too frequently spoon fed simple stories with even more simple characters. That’s not to say that all of the Coens' movies lack simple people; in fact, many of their comedies are packed with them ("Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski," for instance). But movies like those, along with Burn After Reading, to a lesser extent, at least keep audiences interested to see what these idiots will do next (the characters in the movies, not the Coens — but I guess the statement could work either way).

Grade: B+
(Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and violence.)