Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" Review

Ignore the wet tendril snaking its way down your neck, it's only your liquidized brain. "Transformers 2" is only half way over; you won't need it anyway.

"Revenge of the Fallen" is huge, loud, and meaningless. After an entirely overlong and comparatively jokey first act, the endless string of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robot level fight sequences will beat your consciousness within an inch of its tolerance. Your eyes will glaze over, unfocus. Is director Michael Bay an artist, a con artist, or a hypnotist? Is there some deeper creative implication behind the trivialization of human (and I guess robot) worth? It's unclear how many people die in the film, but there is a clear lack of sympathy, or even fetishistic pathos to the destruction. What transpires enters and leaves the frame leaving no impression on its viewer whatsoever.

The film is in turns harmlessly dumb summer action fare, and more troublingly numbing and nonsensical. It's an impenetrable spectacle, a two and a half hour kaleidoscope shifting every permutation of guns, metal, and girls. Bay is a hypnotist, but not akin to, say, Godfrey Reggio, the director of the non-narrative documentary "Koyaanisqatsi," but rather a figure unparalleled in filmmaking for his ability to induce a disconnected vegetative state amidst flying iron fist fights, interplanetary espionage, and rippling firestorms.

The film feels in many ways as though it takes place during one continuous explosion. There are maybe fifteen minutes of hard plot that get stretched, slow-moed, doubled back, and reiterated over the course of the film, and still come out making something less than sense because our protagonists, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) are being hurried from set piece to set piece faster than the speed of logic.

Worst of all, "Transformers" is not only desensitizing, but is a dangerous template for future "family" action films. The colorful characters and the innocent source material make it seem a safe bet for little Joey, but the film earns its PG-13 rating and then some. There's an unspoken sexual frustration behind the joke writing, explicitly of the most juvenile variety, which I suppose, when examined, fits well with the overall aesthetic, given that the film is little more than a 200 million dollar realization of a thirteen year old's classroom doodles.

There's nothing remotely resembling substance in the picture, and the mind-meltingly repetitive action choreography coupled with the ludicrous running time (its biggest fault) prevent the film from passing even as pure fluff.

But ultimately, these criticisms can be applied generally to the modern blockbuster, and perhaps it's somewhat unfair that "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" happens to be the vehicle to weather the brunt of them. It's just as intellectually flaccid as last month's "Terminator Salvation," but if the box office numbers are any indication, it has much broader commercial appeal. It's an easy punching bag because it exemplifies so many of problems with films of its kind, and after a retrospectively decent first installment, there's no justification for how stupid and stupefying the film is.

So when the credits finally roll and you pinch your temples as you stand up to leave, just be sure not to slip on your brain on the way out.


Monday, June 29, 2009

FARCE/FILM Podcast Episode 1: Transformers 2, Summer of Sam

--> Episode 01: 12/21/09 <--
Hosts: Colin George, Sonic Kim

Intro - 00:00
Top 5 - 02:42
Transformers 2 - 32:40
Rewind Segment - 43:12
("Summer of Sam")
Events and Outro - 47:13

"Year One" Review

I anticipated another "Land of the Lost," or rather hoped for one, which is to say another silly but misunderstood and critically underrated comedy, but Harold Ramis' "Year One" isn't that film. But that's also not to suggest the film doesn't have silliness to spare, but the juvenile jokes, the surface-level period gags, and the flat line story arc prevent the talented cast (Jack Black, Michael Cera, David Cross, Hank Azaria) from elevating the film beyond mediocrity.

Like "The Hangover" and about as funny, "Year One" is its premise. It's maybe a concept comedy on the page, but the constituent scenes more closely resemble sketches than a piece of a whole, and the whole is less than the sum of its parts. There's no build, there's no arc, there's just a sparse minefield of successful one-liners and gags, and dangerous stretches between. The best that can be said is that the comedic personalities play exactly as you would expect between Black and Cera, but the script rarely offers them the opportunity to work together so much as beside one another.

The two play Hunter Zed and Gatherer Oh respectively, though the advertised caveman humor lasts all of about twenty minutes before the pair becomes unwittingly entwined in decidedly safe Bible parody. Cue the prostitution and foreskin jokes.

The environments are not as interesting as the mashed-up land of the lost, and because Black and Cera play their characters with on the nose modern sensibility, the prehistoric comedy is mostly demoted to an aesthetic gimmick. Many of the best jokes, besides having been in the trailer, do have fun with the premise, but lack the searing wit or intelligent wherewithal to comprise a smart comedy about dumb characters, rather than a lowbrow comedy about large-brow characters, which is what it is.

David Cross, who plays antagonist Cain (to Paul Rudd's Abel), has proved himself hilarious time and again through not only his own material and "Arrested Development," but has carved himself some unexpectedly interesting roles from the most awful material ("Alvin and the Chipmunks" springs to mind), but disappointingly never clicks in "Year One" either. The dialogue doesn't offer him the bite he's great at playing with and never sounds quite natural coming from him.

The script was maybe a placeholder at some point. With so many proven comedians lined up for the parts, it'd seem a safe bet that the funny would work itself out naturally, and there's evidence of improv throughout, but no one seems able to overcome what's on the page. As also in "The Hangover," the middling final product is a testament to the importance of not just a high joke per minute ratio in comedy writing, but in story. Last summer's "Tropic Thunder" had a strong premise that often didn't need to rely on gags because the plot itself was clever.

"The Hangover" attempts the same, but less intelligently and ultimately less successfully. "Year One" is a different type of comedy altogether, a straightforward concept mined for all it's worth over an hour and a half.

Ramis, who once directed "Caddyshack" and "Groundhog Day," has been struggling to strike gold again, and is more recently responsible for the dreadful "Bedazzled" and decent "Analyze This/That" films. Needless to say, "Year One" isn't his return to form. His direction is nondescript and though the actors give it their all, the script was too stagnant from inception to be saved.

So, if you have to pick just one prehistoric comedy this summer, make it "Land of the Lost."


Monday, June 22, 2009

"Whatever Works" Review

For many it was a dream too good to come true: New York's two most neurotic Jews (Director Woody Allen and "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David) collaborating on a comedy, but unless you immediately lower your expectations, the dream team will likely disappoint. "Whatever Works" is a languidly paced romcom focusing on the relationship that evolves between self-described genius Boris Yellnikoff (David), and the young run-away he encounters outside his apartment, Melodie St. Ann Celestine (Evan Rachel Wood).

Her character is a bumpkin if ever there was one, and spouts as many cliches as she personifies (to Boris' repeated chagrin). Their first meeting feels bizarrely fairy tale-esque, which is to say acceptably cliche, with the downtrodden caricature of hopelessness imploring a passerby for food or shelter, who in turn invariably offers them a kind hand.

Okay, maybe it doesn't go quite that well here, but it's a stretch to imagine a character like Boris being hospitable to an "urchin" like Melodie. The curmudgeon begrudgingly allows the southern belle to room with him, scorning her obviously inferior intellect and flinging insults like "inchworm" at her every other sentence. As for her physical appearance, he deems her a five, maybe a six out of ten. But wouldn't you know it, after a few weeks of home-cooked crawfish and shared city tours, the six becomes a seven, the seven an eight, and the two find themselves an unlikely, but happy, husband and wife. The fairy tale neatly ties its ends, but the movie's only half-way over. Melodie's mother (Patricia Clarkson) enters the picture.

Its simple premise diluted, "Whatever Works" begins to unravel. Becoming more family comedy than romantic, Boris disappears for whole sequences, which feel all the more sluggish for his absence. Mrs. Celestine, understandably displeased with her daughter's choice in spouses, sets out to find her a new man, and becomes memorably ensnared (ahem) in the New York liberal art scene.

As in many of Allen's films, the vast majority of the characters are aggressively forward in speaking about their sexuality, and of course, fidelity is a major component of the story. Not one but two young men find Melodie attractive enough to ask her outright for a date; one, so struck by her beauty that he asks her mother on the way to the ladies' room to introduce them. Who does that, other than maybe Allen to women?

The conflicting ideas never really harmonize, and the film feels in turns claustrophobically intimate and frenetically unfocused. Coincidences abound in the script, and he can call them fate, but Allen has a way of making New York, and recently London, feel like the two smallest cities in the world. Negativity aside, "Whatever Works" may be Woody Allen's funniest comedy in years, and a more apt title for the film than perhaps he originally intended. You can't outright condemn the piece for all it does right: David's performance is strong, and it's not hard to imagine Allen himself floundering in the lead role, but it's impossible to ignore its thematic fluctuations, yawny stretches, and story problems.

Some of it plays. Some of it doesn't. Whatever. This dream team fairy tale is probably best left a rental.


Friday, June 19, 2009

The Top 5 Reasons Summer Hasn't Even Started Yet

Other than that the calendar summer doesn’t officially begin until the 21st, the following are the top 5 reasons 2009 has more to offer than Star Trek, Up, and Drag Me to Hell (for a more cynical take on the summer movie season, click here).

5) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
July 15th

Okay, so the series hasn’t had a particularly exciting adaption for a few years now, but that hasn’t stopped you or anyone else for standing in midnight lines and breaking ticket sales records for each subsequent film.

Tagline: Snape kills Dumbledore!

4) Public Enemies
July 1st

I’m starting to get the impression Christian Bale hibernates during the winter. In contrast to his grating performance in “Terminator Salvation,” I’m hoping he pulls a 3:10 to Yuma here and impresses as FBI chief Melvin Purvis, tasked with taking down the notorious John Dillinger (Johnny Depp).

Tagline: It’s like Bonnie and Clyde got in a car crash with America’s most handsome men and you’re the paramedic!

3) Inglorious Basterds
August 21st

I’ve been understandably dubious towards Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, but hit or miss, “Inglorious Basterds” is bound to be a spectacle. Early reviews from the Cannes screening have been fairly positive, so here’s hoping the auspicious director surprises.

Tagline: $12.50? Um, and how much is that in scalps?

2) District 9
August 14th

Neill Blomkamp was original tapped to direct the “Halo” movie, but the project was canned after the budget ballooned out of proportion. “District 9” is a feature-length adaptation of a short film he directed about racism towards alien bugs! I don’t think I can tell you how interesting I think this idea is without sounding sarcastic.

Tagline: Nothing says soaring summer fun like a prejudice metaphor!

1) Bruno
July 10th

As a staunch supporter of Borat, even after the backlash and the inescapable impressions, I couldn’t be more excited for Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up piece. Employing the same pseudo-documentary format and avoiding the dregs of narrative (the less said about “Ali G in da House” the better), Bruno is my bet for comedy of the summer.

Tagline: Ron Paul ’12!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"The Hangover" Review

Todd Phillips' "The Hangover" is a concept comedy that presumes the idea of being so drunk you can't remember the night before is inherently hilarious, and so relies on the absurdity of its constituent scenes for big laughs. It's essentially a free pass for comedic situations, and the film feels all the more disappointing because of it.

You know the premise; four friends trek to Vegas for a bachelor party they'll never forget--cue the irony. They wake up in their suite the next morning to find the room trashed, a baby in their closet, a tiger in the bathroom, and Doug (Justin Bartha), the groom-to-be, missing.

"The Hangover" wants to be a character comedy, but our remaining three protagonists are too transparently archetypical to ever compellingly drive the film. You have Stu (Ed Helms), the high-strung, nerdy dentist with a bitchy girlfriend you know he's gotta dump, Alan (Zach Galifianakis) the fat, weird one whose oddball antics often feel forced, and Phil (Bradley Cooper), the self-loathing elementary school teacher and leader of the pack.

The film's biggest woes are in its payoffs (spoilers ahead). Phil says he hates his life, he pays for the trip to Vegas with bogus field trip money conned from his students, but it's never addressed thereafter, and when he returns to his wife and child by the film's end, he's been inexplicably changed by the experience. Stu has it out with his bitchy girlfriend, but it doesn't become the debilitating power-shift that the film or the characters deserve. Worst of all, it's clearly established in the first act that Doug's stepfather's borrowed car is to be handled with extreme care, so when the crew speeds to the wedding with the beaten heap of the car's remains, we expect a climactic explosion that never comes. It's bottom-line lazy comedy writing.

But ultimately, the movie wasn't written for snobs like me. It is its premise. If the phrase "People do dumb shit when they're fucked up!" sounds like an anthem to you, you'll likely to enjoy the film Phillips has crafted here. Comedy is the most subjective film genre, to the point where even theater experience and conditions play a large factor in etching an opinion. The Monday, mid-afternoon crowd of twenty may not have been the best litmus test for the successfulness of the film's gags, though the audience did laugh more frequently than I did.

Still, "The Hangover" has some inexcusable story problems, cliched protagonists, and if you'll pardon the expression, a forgettable story. Recalling some of my favorite recent comedies ("Sideways," "A Mighty Wind," last year's "Tropic Thunder"), the stories are just as successful as the jokes, and if I'm not laughing, I'm engaged. "The Hangover" is certainly good for a few chuckles, but offers little of substance beyond that, more akin to a stand-up comedy routine than a credible piece of visual storytelling.

It's disheartening to see it top the box office week after week (a sequel has already been green-lit) while more interesting, bizarre comedies like "Land of the Lost" are tossed by the wayside. "The Hangover" may thus far be 2009's undisputed king of comedy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that a couple of cave men and a flamboyant fashionista will be more than willing to contest that title in the coming weeks.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Land of the Lost" Review

Reviled by critics and passed over by audiences, to all appearances Will Ferrell's latest had arrived dead on arrival. So when I saw the film, playing to an audience of about twelve, two of whom walked out, I could only express my surprise. From the kitschy production design to the bizarre prehistoric gags, I had a lot of fun with "Land of the Lost."

Ferrell plays Dr. Rick Marshall, a disgraced "Quantum Paleontologist" who's let his life's work, the Tachyon amplifier, a device capable of moving its holder cross-dimensionally through time, fall by the wayside. It takes the encouragement from Cambridge laughing-stock Holly Cantrell (Anna Friel), a student of Marshall's work, to convince him to finish and test the device.

And so they find themselves at trashy highway tourist trap the "Devil's Canyon Mystery Cave," run by redneck Will Stanton (Danny McBride). Picking up major Tachyon hits in the rundown homemade river ride, the amplifier triggers the greatest earthquake ever known, ripping a portal into the titular land of the lost.

After partnering with outcast ape-man Cha-Ka (Jorma Taccone), the trio's mischievous guide, it's a seldom-interrupted chase film, a comedy of hostility, an exercise in silly costumes and slapstick panache. The constituent sequences are admittedly not all gems, but the film's aesthetic is too charming to let the occasional flat bit of banter or poorly executed joke ruin the fun. The movie doesn't stall so much as it occasionally idles, and absolutely succeeds in creating an atmosphere of constant oppression for the protagonists. A pin-drop seems enough for the heroes find themselves on the wrong side of all manner of Jurassic baddies, from T-Rex to Pterodactyls to giant mosquitoes to the lumbering lizard-men known only as Sleestaks.

It's an acquired taste to be sure, but the simple, vibrant set pieces, the Muppet-like creature design, and the cartoony CGI should be immediately appealing to fans of fifties B-pictures, the classic Universal monster films, and anyone interested in a less-than-serious take on the fantastic. Even if you're not a fan of Ferrell, he's done far worse work, and I'll happily take a bizarre experiment like "Land of the Lost" over another generic, diminishingly amusing sports comedy.

All that remains is the film's curious unpopularity, and while I can't reconcile the critical response, its commercial rejection recalls Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's now infamous flop, "Grindhouse." It's tough to advertise homage, and where both films affectionately embrace the campy classics on which they're based, those unfamiliar with the source material just see bad effects and gimmicky plotlines.

"Land of the Lost" isn't a great film by any stretch of the imagination, but has unfairly become the target of critics and internet cynics alike whom I can only assume don't understand the inherent comedic appeal of a man in a rubber suit. I'd watch the film again in a heartbeat over eye-rollingly bland summer action fare like "Wolverine" or (God help me) "Terminator Salvation." It's a breezy, inconsequential adventure film that has a lot of fun with its premise and takes itself as lightly as it should.

Enter with level expectations, and you might just enjoy getting lost.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Terminator Salvation" Review

McG's "Terminator Salvation" is full of paradoxes, and not just the brain bending, time traveling, series continuity kind, but also the stilted decision-making, lapses in logic, flawed design kind. The director, most well known for the two "Charlie's Angels" films, trades estrogen for an excess in testosterone, treating the "Terminator" franchise as an exercise in antithesis.

In fact, there's only about four women in the entire movie, none of whom are particularly flattering characters. The most likeable by default is Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate Connor, resistance soldier and maybe-savior John Connor's pregnant wife, as she's given almost nothing to do. Then there's Dr. Serena Kogan (Helena Bonham Carter), the face of Skynet, so she's bad. Third and worst, though through no fault of her own, is Moon Bloodgood as Blair Williams, whose arbitrary and apparently passionate attraction to a half-man/half-terminator turns her against her allies. Last is Jadagrace (?) as the young Star, a shy (or mute) little girl whose sole purpose seems to be projecting a lone beacon of cute onto the wasteland of washed-out deserts and deserted, leveled cities.

Okay, there may be a couple more women here and there, but they're few and far between in this future dominated by grunting, screaming men. The story begins in 2003, with death row inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) being offered a second chance at life through cybernetics. Though he knows he should embrace death for the crimes he's committed, he agrees to sell the good doctor his body for a price--one kiss. He's then carted off and his sentence carried out via lethal injection in a scene ripped straight from "Dead Man Walking."

Enter the future. 2018. Wright appears naked and conveniently near a man with just what he needs. Clothed, he begins his trek toward the nearest city, where he encounters Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), and the ever-adorable Star. Since Wright has the technical knowhow to fix the duo's busted radio, they intercept one of Connor's transmissions and set out to find him.

Meanwhile, the resistance is testing its latest weapon, a signal that powers down any terminators within its wavelength. The higher-ups are ready to launch a coordinated strike on Skynet when Connor learns from Wright that Reese (Connor's father, long story) has been taken prisoner and is being held at one of the targeted facilities.

It's no wonder Bale freaked out at that Director of Photography in the infamous leaked clip a few months back, as nearly every one of his scenes necessitates one of maybe six permutations of anger. The character of Connor lacks depth on the page, but Bale's performance is bludgeoningly one-note, and in that way, perfectly matched with Worthington; the two speak almost identically. One particular shot of them nose to nose in interrogation makes this amusingly apparent as they volley gruff monosyllabic responses and spittle-projecting barks back and forth.

The film also suffers from an antagonist identity crisis. Are we rooting for Wright, as he tries to escape from Connor? Are we rooting for Connor, who testifies to the worth of every human life, only to watch the generals with whom he disagrees decimated in battle? Or is it just the infinite waves of machines?

McG clearly has a vision for the future of the Terminator franchise (Army recruitment video by way of the apocalypse), but "Salvation" is blisteringly melodramatic and above all, commits the cardinal sin of summer action films--it bores. Things explode, and if the audience can keep track of who's fighting who or why, they certainly won't care on any intimate level. It's the equivalent of a two-plus-hour fireworks show, except the fireworks are only two colors, black and bleached-white.

It's obvious every moment is designed to positively drip masculine coolness, but it often comes off like the kid in school who just wants to fit in and tries a little bit too hard. The film is terrified of letting itself be mindless fun, even for a moment, and so packs on the doomsday pretension. The work may be a step toward credibility for the auspiciously named director, but as a standalone piece, "Terminator Salvation" is an indulgent, groaningly operatic mess that chokes on its own testosterone.


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Summer 09's Five Best Worst Trailer Lines

#5 X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Hugh Jackman: “I know who you are, Gambit!”

In the same way that Yoda turned in Episode III after thanking a particular wookie and added, “…CHEWBACCA!” Fox expects series fans to go apeshit over namedropping Gambit in the Wolverine trailer. If they really wanted to pander to the fans, maybe they should have just made an enjoyable film.

#4 Angels and Demons
Narrator: “He exposed one of the greatest cover-ups in human history.”
Someone: “Da Vinci!”

I’m pretty sure the target audience for “Angels and Demons” knows what the Da Vinci code is. Not only is the V.O. overlaid on images of the Last Supper and the Vitruvian Man, but it appears after Professor Langdon (Tom Hanks) is reintroduced. I guarantee you that someone over at Sony pictures wanted to call this thing “Da Vinci Code 2: Da Vincier.”

#3 Inglorious Basterds:
Brad Pitt: “And I want my scalps!”

Not quite sure what Tarantino is going for with this one, but Brad Pitt’s already getting shit for his delivery of this gem. The tone seems a little uneven in the released footage, and nowhere is that more apparent than in this uncomfortable close up.

#2 Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen
Shia LaBeouf:
“Megatron wants what’s in my mind!”

The Transformers 2 trailer is riddled with giggle-worthy melodrama, usually involving Shia LaBeouf trying to sound dramatic when shouting the names of robots from a two-decade-old children’s cartoon series. “Optimuuuussssss!” is a close second.

#1 G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra
Secret Army Guy:
“Standing in front of you are Delta Six accelerator suits”
Marlon Wayans: “What’s it accelerate?”
Secret Army Guy: “You.”

And world’s stupidest question goes to… Marlon Wayans! Grammar confusion notwithstanding, what the fuck else would an accelerator
suit accelerate? Your career?

Honorable mention:
Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen

Megan Fox:
“I’m not gonna GO without you!”

The Transformers trailer is so silly that you can’t really stop at just one or two quotes. Shia LaBeouf’s somehow hot girlfriend adds curious emphasis to the word “go” in her sentence. Flat out hilarious inflection.

"Up" Review

"Up" may be more emotionally charged than previous Pixar efforts, though almost exclusively in its first act, and is nevertheless a step down in storytelling for the company that last year brought us "Wall-E" and before that "Ratatouille." "Up" suffers in comparison to those films, and happily resigns itself from 'good Pixar' to regular good.

The story follows reluctant protagonist Carl Fredrickson, a 78-year old balloon salesman, who along with his now-departed wife, always dreamt of flying to adventure in Paradise Falls, South America. During a moving, poignant montage of his life, it becomes clear that the opportunity for adventure is passing the couple by. So when the widower Carl is sued and his home threatened, he takes the opportunity to take off, the house held afloat by thousands upon thousands of colorful balloons for the adventure he never had. All goes according to plan until he discovers Russell, an overeager "wilderness explorer," has stowed away beneath his porch.

The second act is the film's weakest, and the adventure advertised boils down to a few paltry miles. After a brief storm sequence, the unlikely pair find themselves on the other side of the canyon, but nevertheless "three days" from Paradise Falls. With the floating home strapped to their backs, Carl and Russell begin their trek, only to be sidetracked by the obligatory supporting characters, amusing though they may be: "Kevin" a fictional female dodo-like bird with hilarious favoritism, and "Doug" a golden retriever with a dog-to-English translation collar.

Where the film finds itself in trouble is in keeping the established themes at the forefront of the story when the arbitrary sequence of events in the second act unfold. The villain, Carl's childhood idol (which makes this guy how old?), a disgraced adventurer by the name of Charles Muntz, is the perfect match as a man who's been corrupted by his dreams, but he's never developed to a satisfying level and receives relatively little screen time.

Muntz's minions are a wellspring of only occasionally successful gags, an armada of translation-collared dogs tasked with hunting down Carl, Russell, and most importantly, Kevin. Their presence in the film feels somewhat random, and not quite funny enough to justify. It's becoming an ironically dirty word in reference to Pixar's work, but it all feels a little too cartoony.

The visuals are as strong as the best Pixar has offered, though shot composition gives everything a sort of flat feel to it (a problem perhaps 3-D was meant to rectify), with characters seldom moving on more than one plane, leaving the environments feeling oddly like stage backdrops.

"Up" is sadly Pixar's last original film until 2013, but with its glaring screenplay problems, it may be for the best that the studio recharge its creative cannons. After ten feature films, nine completely original, it's hard to leverage complaints against "Up" greater than that it simply isn't their best work. It may not be the revelation that "Ratatouille" or "Wall-E" were, but middle of the road Pixar is still worth the price of admission.


Friday, June 5, 2009

"Drag Me to Hell" Review

Make no mistake, "Drag Me to Hell," is one of the most obscenely entertaining films released this decade. More a dark comedy in the horror mold than a horror film outright, some may be disappointed by the lack of traditional scares, but Raimi is more interested in putting the screw to the audience through hilariously inventive action sequences and insane gross-out gags than frightening them.

In the same vein as Raimi's own "Evil Dead II" and "Army of Darkness," the director does horror by way of "Looney Tunes," including a sequence here that literally involves a falling anvil. The action is so outrageous, so gross, engrossing, delirious and deliberate, that some of the first act exposition and intermittent dialogue scenes feel plodding by comparison. Thankfully, the plot isn't particularly complex, revolving around loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) and the curse she incurs after denying an elderly gypsy an extension on her payments.

"Drag me to Hell" is an absolute delight for anyone interested in a comedic take on the horror genre, and "Evil Dead" fans should be thoroughly at home. By exploiting and satirizing the established cliches, Raimi has crafted one of the most viscerally fun movies in recent memory. The film is optimized for the theater experience, and the boisterous reactions of the full house magnify every impalement, every expulsion of vomit, and every "Boo!" gotcha moment.

Despite its few screenplay snags, "Drag Me to Hell" is Sam Raimi at his absolute best.


"Star Trek" Review

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" may only have been worthwhile as half of an eight dollar double billing, but I've compensated financially with two viewings of J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" reboot. While I couldn't profess to being more than peripherally interested in any of the series' televised incarnations and have seen only one of the feature films in its entirety, the new movie emphasized what I remembered liking and minimized everything else.

The characters themselves appeal to me more than the lore, which is conveniently one of the strongest assets of Abrams' adaptation. The young cast is spunky and endearing, humanizing the sometimes gratuitous action and turning nearly every potentially clunky line into a genuine moment. Chris Pine as the arrogant young Captain Kirk is particularly compelling, and his performance evokes the brainy, bad-boy charisma of Harrison Ford. The entire cast creates vibrant, intelligent characters that stand head and shoulders over the prototypical monosyllabic summer heroes.

The realization of the film's universe is another of its clearest triumphs. The art direction and production design is unequivocally among the most awe-inspiring the genre has seen in years. From the tentacled mass of the Romulan mining vessel to Earth's towering, foggy skyscrapers, Abrams consistently impresses. 

"Star Trek" is pure visceral fun, and while that necessitates a more lightweight storytelling aesthetic than longtime series fan might expect, there are enough interesting hooks and twists to keep the audience engaged, and like myself, coming back for more.


"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" Review

Twenty-four hours after seeing "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," I had to construct a basic outline just to recollect the constituent scenes of this aimless, inconsequential prequel.

For a movie purportedly about Wolverine, the character isn't given very much to do, and the story is driven throughout by what happens to him, not what he does. We open on the young mutant's nineteenth century childhood, we find out his father is a drunkard, but we're never given information that makes us particularly care about the character that was compelling enough to warrant his own spin-off movie.

The film is not a story so much as it is a sequence of events, and narratively flatlines as a result. Traditional cause and effect is largely ignored, as "Wolverine" seems content to jump from cameo to cameo, giving each of the mutants a three-minute fight scene with the protagonist that will somehow, ludicrously, progress the plot. Decision-making is also stilted, especially during the film's final act (if the term even applies), which takes place on a secret nuclear power plant island /government mutant testing facility/prison.

Direction is somewhat solid and the performances are passable throughout, but they don't come close to amending the incredibly weak screenplay. "Wolverine" does little to bolster the ailing X-Men franchise and, as evidenced by my outline, is immediately forgettable.


"Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian" Review

As a fan of Ben Stiller's first "Night at the Museum," I grew increasingly ill at ease with each subsequent trailer for its sequel, "Battle of the Smithsonian," and my fears were unsurprisingly well founded. 

The film is bigger than the first in every conceivable way, except perhaps in the one that matters, its story. The messy script is more a collection of scattershot hit and miss jokes than a legitimate follow-up to its intermittently exciting predecessor, and the film is resultantly crowded, frenetic, and unfocused. Celebrities abound, and packed so tight that they seem to get about two minutes of screen time in apiece before the film's fickle eye roves elsewhere.

But that's not to suggest that none of the fun of the first film has survived, and the new "Museum" moves too quickly to ever become stagnant, with plenty of amusing jokes amidst the clunkers, and occasionally strong comedic performances. Among the best are Hank Azaria as Kahmunrah, the curiously fictitious fifth king of Egypt and antagonist, Amy Adams as a randy Amelia Earhart, and a woefully underused Bill Hader as George Custer, whose last shot at redemption screams to have been the focus of the story.

"Night at the Museum 2" lacks the creative ingenuity that lifted the original above its potential mediocrity, and flounders as a result. However, there's enough kinetic energy and successful gags to make this a halfway decent diversion for fans.