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Movie Review - 3:10 To Yuma
09/07/07 at 05:11 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Over the last decade, westerns have become taboo in Hollywood, reducing the once great genre to a mere afterthought most executives wouldn’t touch with a stick. While it wasn’t abandoned altogether, evidenced by the presence of “American Outlaws,” “Open Range” and “The Missing”, none of the films were huge box office hits or anything exceptional. “3:10 To Yuma” looks to change all this.

A remake of the 1957 film, the story follows struggling rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), who is about to have his farm confiscated by the railroad. He and his two sons accidentally witness a stagecoach robbery by notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), and shortly thereafter Evans plays a key role in Wade’s capture. Desperate for money, he volunteers to join four other men in escorting Wade to the train that will take him to prison. However, their journey is far from an easy one, with Wade’s gang in hot pursuit.

The main reason the movie works as well as it does can be attributed to the acting, which is superb. Bale, who is less of a tough guy here then what we’re used to seeing (“American Psycho,” “Batman Begins,” “The Prestige”), is terrific. With a bum leg, he finds himself trying to vindicate his manhood, both to himself and his son, while keeping his moral code intact. Over the last few years, Bale has progressed into one of the best actors working today, and while his work here will almost assuredly be overlooked come award’s season, it is among the year’s best.

Of course, it helps tremendously when you’re acting across from the great Russell Crowe, who shines in a rare villainous turn. Smooth talking one minute with guns blazing the next, Crowe adds a layer of depth and complexity to the archetypical outlaw character not usually seen. Even though it doesn’t rank among his best performances, a true testament to his previous work, it remains captivating, and the scenes between him and Bale are especially engaging.

The supporting cast also deserves accolades for their work, as they are excellent across the board. The biggest surprise is Ben Foster (“X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Alpha Dog”), who excels as Charlie Prince, Wade’s ruthless right hand man. In deliciously evil fashion, his sheer brutality is able to upstage Crowe, becoming the truly wicked villain of the piece. Other standouts include Peter Fonda as a hired Pinkerton, Dallas Roberts as a railroad businessman, Alan Tudyk as a doctor, and there’s even a cameo by a famous brother comedian to look out for.

With the script, the writers do a great job at reinterpreting the western for a modern audience. Westerns tend to be relatively straightforward with regards to plot, yet this one manages to throw in several twists and turns, making sure to keep things interesting along the way. It also doesn’t save all the action for the inevitable shootout at the end, mixing in a healthy dosage throughout its entirety. Despite all the action, it still is very much a character-driven story, and there is much more going on below the surface than a couple of cool gunfights.

The film almost makes it through without any major problems but stumbles slightly when it comes to the ending. Something about it feels out of place, whether it is the seemingly illogical turn the story and characters take, or the way it borders on being too Hollywood-like for its own good and wrapped up too neatly. While it’s not a bad ending by any means, it’s not the powerful or classic inducing one it deserved.

Backed by an amazing cast, “3:10 To Yuma” is proof there is still life to be found in a western. In addition to offering several exciting action scenes, it is an absorbing look at two very different men who are perhaps more alike than they think. James Mangold (“Girl, Interrupted,” “Identity,” “Walk The Line,”) has turned in another solid directing job, and is to be commended for taking a chance on this one. Not only is his film easily the best western since “Unforgiven,” it’s also one of the most compelling released this year.

The Verdict: B+ (88%)
Tags: 3:10 To Yuma, Christian Bale, Russell Crow, Western, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - Halloween
09/07/07 at 05:08 PM by Jonathan Bautts
In 1978, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” burst onto the scene, widely popularizing the slasher genre while becoming one of horror’s most iconic films. Now nearly 30 years later, rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie (“House Of 1,000 Corpses,” “The Devil’s Rejects”) offers his own interpretation of the classic story.

This is the ninth film in the “Halloween” canon, and the first to attempt a retelling of the original. When Zombie, whose first two features generated a small cult audience, was announced as the man behind the project, fan reaction was decidedly mixed. After viewing the final result, it seems their misgivings were entirely justified.

The new tale of Michael Myers picks up during his childhood, where we witness his dysfunctional family, his encounter with the school bully, and his attraction to killing animals. One day he snaps, going on a killing spree and murdering four people, including his father and sister. We then fast forward a number of years, watching as Myers escapes from prison and returns to haunt his hometown.

Zombie proves to do a better job at directing than thought possible, though he never rises above a passable threshold. Favoring close-ups and shaky camerawork too heavily, he hasn’t figured out how to convey a sense of geography, which makes some of the scenes unnecessarily confusing. He also chooses to go for an increase in gore rather than psychological tension, discarding the very element which made the original so successful.

Still, his directing is far superior to his skill as a writer, which is immeasurably limited. The dialogue is clunky and poorly constructed, with several one-liners painfully sticking out. The storyline lacks depth and originality, never gelling cohesively or offering substance to keep the viewer interested. It seems he does little more than move aimlessly from one killing to the next, especially in the second half, never bothering to develop any of the characters or provide us a reason to care about their deaths or peril. This results in a story both shallow and empty, with an emotional center nothing more than a hollowed chasm.

The acting, while an improvement over the writing, remains far from first-rate, and none of the cast members accomplish anything of note. Daeg Faerch, who plays the younger Myers, portrays a kid with serious problems well enough, but never gets under our skin or exemplifies the chillingly evil we expect. Tyler Mane, the older Myers, is reduced to a giant in a mask, and it’s curiously never explained how he managed to transform his body from a little kid into one resembling a wrestler. The Jamie Lee Curtis character from the original, played with little skill by Scout Taylor-Compton, is reminiscent of an annoying Lindsey Lohan, and she is never able to generate sympathy or likeability in her role.

The big deal with this remake was supposed to be how it was going to shed light on Myer’s past, giving us an inside look at the man behind the mask. Unfortunately, the lengthy back story affords no real insight into the matter, succumbing to several movie clichés instead. What is left of the remainder is a condensed rehash of the original, with an increase in sleaze factor and a much higher body count. Gone with it is the possibility of anything innovative or entertaining, and ultimately a reason to watch, leaving “Halloween” nothing more than the latest in Hollywood’s long line of remakes which never should have been made in the first place.

The Verdict: C- (71%)
Tags: Halloween, Rob Zombie, Horror, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - War
08/31/07 at 03:43 PM by Jonathan Bautts
Jet Li and Jason Statham are prototypical examples of how to be modern-day action movie stars, and their repertoire of films showcases their amazing abilities in both martial arts and stunts. Reuniting for the first time since 2001’s mediocre “The One,” it would be logical to assume their latest film “War” would be a worthy addition to their careers.

The plot is what one would expect from a movie of this sort—an assorted hodgepodge of the stories from a dozen or so other films, amassed and thrown together here to fill the gaps in between the action. FBI agent Jack Crawford (Statham) is on the hunt for the mysterious assassin known only as Rogue (Li), who happened to kill Crawford’s partner three years ago. In the meantime, a deadly feud ensues between the Chinese and Japanese mobs, and Crawford and Rogue are caught right in the middle.

In a movie such as this, the plot is essentially reduced to an afterthought to make room for the action sequences, which are the main draw and reason to see the film in the first place. Unfortunately, someone should have reminded the filmmakers of this.

The movie inexplicably gets bogged down by its second-rate plot, relying more often on the dialogue instead of the stunts. The more time they focus on the story, the more we realize how poor and cliché-driven it is, a weakness it never recovers from. Matters only worsen when they pull off a huge twist of an ending so ridiculous it’s hard to take any of it seriously.

When the action finally does come, which is at a fairly consistent rate throughout the second half, it fails to live up to its billing. While it’s not bad, it’s also nothing we haven’t seen before, and done better previously by the parties involved. The at-times hyperactive editing doesn’t add much, if anything, and none of the film’s fights exhibit any sort of a “wow” element.

Li and Statham regrettably only have a handful of scenes together and, when they do finally meet up for their big confrontation, it can only be defined as disappointing. One would have thought choreographer Cory Yuen (“The Transporter”) could have been able to think up something far more creative, especially considering the talent he had at his disposal.

As far as the acting is concerned, it’s nothing special either. Li isn’t given too much to do other than look menacing, failing to build on his recent string of strong performances (“Hero,” “Unleashed,” “Fearless”). The martial arts aspect also tends to take a backseat to the gunplay, a questionable decision because martial arts are when Li is at his best.

Statham doesn’t fare much better. His cynical sense of humor and distinct charisma, which he exhibited in his early Guy Ritchie days (“Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch”) and in last year’s “Crank,” is curiously missing. Here, only his customary gruff persona is on display, which robs Statham of the very reason why is so entertaining to watch. The cast is also brought down by the presence of John Lone, the annoying villain from “Rush Hour 2,” who is up to more of his grating over-the-top antics as the leader of the Chinese mob.

In the end, for a movie named “War,” there certainly isn’t as much fighting as one would expect. Instead, it spends too much time dwelling on its shoddy storyline and not enough providing the types of spectacles action aficionados anticipate. For Li and Statham fans, it’s still worth watching at some point just to see them together again, but for everyone else, there’s really not much incentive.

The Verdict: C (75%)
Tags: War, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - Superbad
08/26/07 at 03:38 PM by Jonathan Bautts
It seems everything Judd Apatow is touching these days turns into gold. From directing "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" to producing "Anchorman," "Talladega Nights" and now "Superbad," Apatow has become one of Hollywood's hottest commodities. Yet despite what the advertisements might say, attributing the success of "Superbad" solely to him would be doing the movie a major disservice.

The plot is simple enough—best friends Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) are on a quest for alcohol so they can score with their high school crushes at a party. They are joined by the seemingly anti-cool Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the only one of them who has a fake ID, and it isn't long before two blundering cops (Seth Rogen and Bill Hader) are thrown into the mix. However, as you can guess, nothing really goes according to plan.

The movie's true strength lies in its casting, with all the leads playing their parts to a T. Cera's straight and ungainly portrayal of Evan plays well off Hill's over-the-top and vociferous Seth, yet it's the supporting characters that oftentimes end up overshadowing them. Newcomer Mintz-Plasse steals the spotlight as Fogell (or the now infamous McLovin); his character is so outlandish it's hard to do anything but laugh. Rogen and Hader, who play two of the worst cops ever known to man, are equally entertaining to watch, and the scenes between the three are some of the film's strongest.

The writing is also above par for your average teen comedy. The script, by real life childhood friends Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, is tightly written and consistently funny. Even the third act, typically the time in which a comedy switches gears for a more serious mode, manages to keep the laughs coming. They also interweave several pop culture references throughout (a staple of Apatow's films), and do a pretty good job at capturing the awkwardness high school can produce.

For all it does right, Superbad is not without its fair share of problems, the most glaring being a shallow emotional core. While a minimal plot and thin characterization isn't a bad thing per se, it can hinder a film from being a genuinely great one. Once you get past the laughs the writers constantly throw towards the screen, it's not hard to realize there's not much below the surface. One of the strengths of Apatow's directorial efforts is the depth and feeling he injects into the story, which is missing to a certain degree here. I don't know if it's the fault of first time director Greg Mottola, but we never acquire a reason to really care for Evan's and Seth's plights, other than wondering what crazy thing will happen next.

The film is also setback by a few moments which take the story out of the sense of reality it seems to be striving for. For example, the part involving Seth's childhood drawings is so curiously contrived, not to mention overplayed, that it feels more gratuitous than funny. Some of the dialogue balances this same boundary, at times working to hilarious heights and other moments teetering over the edge. It's this kind of duality which I found to be a bit tedious and annoying, and one which I could have done without.

So the real question remains: does Superbad live up to the hype? The answer is both yes and no. Without a doubt it is one of the funniest movies of the last few years, and one in which repeat viewings are likely needed just to be able to take in the plethora of jokes. Unfortunately, it never is able to transcend to anything much more than that. For some that will be just fine, for others it won't, but in a time when Hollywood calls "Norbit" and "Wild Hogs" hit comedies, it's refreshing to have something actually accomplish the comedy aspect.

The Verdict: B (86%)
Tags: Superbad, Judd Apatow, Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, McLovin, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - Smokin' Aces
05/04/07 at 10:37 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The Story: There’s a contract out on Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven), a seedy entertainer who has decided to turn state’s evidence against the Vegas mob. This attracts the attention of an eclectic mix of bounty hunters, and the FBI quickly responds by dispensing two agents (Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta) for safekeeping. A wild showdown in Tahoe ensues soon thereafter.

The Good: Ryan Reynolds turns in another strong performance, showcasing more of a serious side than what he’s known for. Rising above everyone else in the large ensemble, he carries every scene he appears in. Ray Liotta and Ben Affleck also do good jobs with what they’re given, the only other notables among the cast besides Matthew Fox’s fun cameo. The shootout sequences are pretty well done and the movie features some good editing, including a number of cool transitions. I was also surprised by the ending and the fact that it was able to make a point out of the nonsensical chaos preceding it.

The Bad: The film tries to duplicate Guy Ritchie’s early work, failing miserably on nearly all accounts. In terms of likeable or appealing characters, there are none (outside of Reynolds and Liotta). The others characters are all wholly despicable and uninteresting, destroying any sense of empathy or concern over their fates. The acting follows suit, excelling in inconsistency and a lack of depth. Andy Garcia seems to be doing a bad Andy Garcia impersonation, complete with a horrible accent, rather than creating a character. Alicia Keys and Taraji Henson never connect with the audience and are given way too much screen time. Even the great Jeremy Piven cannot rise above the constraints of his unsympathetic character, leaving the audience without any reason to invest in whether he lives or dies. The storyline is convoluted, and several times it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. The movie also tries to be funny, a Guy Ritchie staple, but never succeeds. It doesn’t help that what it considers to be humor is either too dark or just plain weird that it never actually is (aka the psycho kid).

The Verdict: I loved Joe Carnahan’s previous film, Narc, and was anxiously looking forward to his next movie, which unfortunately kept getting stalled due to an extended run of bad luck (see M:i:III). Unfortunately, Smokin’ Aces isn’t worth the wait. The movie is largely a disappointment, with major faults in both the execution but especially the characters. In the end, Joe Carnahan is way too talented of a filmmaker to turn out something as sub par as this.

The Score: C+ (77%)
Tags: Smokin' Aces, Joe Carnahan, Ryan Reynolds, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - Hot Fuzz
05/03/07 at 09:50 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The Story: Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg), a hotshot cop from London, suddenly finds himself transferred to the seemingly quiet and crime-free village of Sandford. However after a series of grisly accidents, he teams up with clumsy local cop Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), and together they uncover the village’s deep dark secret.

The Good: Writer/director Edgar Wright, actor/writer Simon Pegg, and actor Nick Frost, the team behind the cult smash Shaun Of The Dead, are back for their encore. This time instead of taking on zombies, the trio presents their view of the action-comedy genre and movies such as Bad Boys II and Point Break. Like before, humor is littered throughout, always keeping things entertaining rather than overly serious. Pegg and Frost once again prove their talent as actors as well as their comedic chops, and the unique chemistry between the two is the driving force behind the film. Edgar Wright also shows off his growth as a director, utilizing the action set pieces and slick editing to great effect. The big shootout at the end is one of the highlights, so over-the-top that it becomes a ridiculously fun time. The rest of the British cast is great in the way only British actors can be, and there are a handful of humorous cameos to watch out for.

The Bad: The film suffers from pacing problems. Once Pegg reaches the village, it takes a while for things to really get going, and the middle portion tends to drag as a result. The film runs on the long side, with the ending going on a little too long (as many action movies do). The movie, while funny, wasn't the hilarious romp I was hoping for, and didn’t come across quite as fresh or brilliant as Shaun. There is also a fine line between the art of parody and becoming that which you are making light of. While it balances this well overall, there are a couple of moments where it veers towards the latter, although not nearly to the extent which has plagued movies such as Team America.

The Verdict: The creators of Shaun Of The Dead have created another enjoyable take on a popular genre, but is their sophomore effort able to surpass their first? That is hard to answer, as it took me a couple of views to really absorb Shaun. So as of right now, I am hesitant to call it better, but I look forward to the repeat viewings needed to fully gauge the heat of the Fuzz.

The Score: B (86%)
Tags: Hot Fuzz, Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - Disturbia
04/19/07 at 08:35 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The Story: After an altercation at school, troubled teen Kale (Shia LaBeouf) is sentenced to three months of house arrest. Stuck at home, he soon becomes bored and turns to spying on his neighbors to pass the time. It doesn’t take long before he becomes suspicious that one of them (David Morse) is up to something devious and, with the help of his best friend (Aaron Yoo) and the girl next door (Sarah Roemer), he begins to investigate further.

The Good: From the get go, it is clear that this is Shia LaBeouf’s movie, and he responds by carrying it with a tremendous ease not often seen in those twice his age. I am a big fan of his, having seen nearly all of his films, and this one only adds to my belief that he is the best actor today under 25. He not only is able to play the movie’s lighter and comical scenes to great effect but also excels at the dramatic and suspenseful ones, giving his character a well-rounded edge. This type of charisma and depth is rarely seen in a movie such as this, which is the main reason why this film is able to rise above the recent crop of similar genre related fare. The rest of the cast, although not as strong as LaBeouf, is still above average. David Morse does a fantastic job at portraying a genuinely creepy guy where the entire time you know something sinister is lurking underneath his fake sincerity. Aaron Yoo is able to provide some good laughs, and Sarah Roemer makes for a good romantic lead that has problems of her own. While it was weird seeing Carrie-Ann Moss in a “normal” role, she is able to pull it off. I also commend the film for offering a few surprising scenes that I genuinely didn’t see coming.

The Bad: This film isn’t exactly original in its storytelling (the general idea is borrowed from Hitchcock’s Rear Window), so it doesn’t take too long before you can pretty much figure out how everything is going to play out. I found it a little strange that adults are conspicuously absent for most of the time. Also for some reason, the filmmakers decided to add an endless buildup right before the ending and, so when it finally does come, it’s not as big or exciting as what you were expecting.

The Verdict: While Disturbia can be a bit derivative at times, the journey along the way is both fun and exciting. Shia LaBeouf’s talent and likeable personality, combined with the film’s better than average direction, is what makes it all come together and be a success. LaBeouf, who is set to star in this summer’s Transformers and next summer’s Indiana Jones IV, is posed on the brink of stardom and, if Disturbia’s opening weekend is any indication, that time is near at hand.

The Score: B+ (87%)
Tags: Disturbia, Shia LaBeouf, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - Grindhouse
04/11/07 at 04:13 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The Story: Directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino team up for a double feature experience and an homage to ‘70s exploitation flicks. In Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror,” a military experiment is unleashed on an unsuspecting town, leaving the survivors, led by go-go dancer Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) and her ex-boyfriend Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), on a desperate mission to escape. In Tarantino’s “Death Proof,” a stunt driver (Kurt Russell) specializes in terrorizing young women on the road until he accidentally messes with the wrong ones.

The Good: I enjoy a good zombie movie now and again, and was very entertained by Robert Rodriguez’s take on the genre George Romero built. Simply put, “Planet Terror” is a bloody good time. Full of the over-the-top gore you would expect from a zombie film and the great action sequences that have become a Rodriguez staple, the spectacle ranks among some of the best work Rodriguez has ever done. The cast does a remarkable job at keeping us engaged, as well as reminding us to not take everything so seriously. Rose McGowan and Freddy Rodriguez are great as the leads and Naveen Andrews, Josh Brolin, Michael Biehn, Bruce Willis, and Tarantino give strong performances in their supporting roles. In “Death Proof,” Kurt Russell gives a refreshingly nasty turn as the villainous stunt driver, who manages to be charming at times yet always exuding a darker purpose. Besides Russell’s work, the other highlight is the car chases, which were exciting and fun to watch. Grindhouse also features four fake trailers, which were all very well done and witty, making them among the best parts of the movie as a whole. The look and feel of the film is to be commended as well. Rodriguez and Tarantino are perfectly able to capture the whole Grindhouse experience, complete with scratchy film, purposely bad editing, and even the lame theater menus that we’ve all come to loathe. I particularly enjoyed the missing reel gags, which were a very nice touch.

The Bad: Not much for “Planet Terror,” mainly the fact that it went a little too far over the top in spots. However, the same can't be said for “Death Proof.” I’ve never been much of a Tarantino fan and, outside of the extraordinary Pulp Fiction, feel the rest of his films never rise above the state of mediocrity. In short, “Death Proof” did little to change my opinion. I felt the film to be tedious and boring, which might have been influenced by the fact that it was the second film to be shown, yet I feel that my reaction would have been similar regardless. As is the case with all of Tarantino’s work, the movie is very dialogue heavy but, unfortunately this time around, most of it isn’t memorable or up to par with his past work. It doesn’t help the fact that outside of Russell, I didn’t find any of the other characters interesting or engaging in the least. If anything, they came across as annoying more than anything else, especially the overbearing Tracie Thoms, who fails miserably at trying to be a female Sam Jackson. There is also one sequence during the final car chase where I felt logic was blatantly thrown out the window in order to keep the chase going, which was even too outrageous by my standards.

The Verdict: In the end, Grindhouse turns out to be a mixed bag—one great flick packaged with a not-so-great one, along with some amusing trailers thrown in for laughs in-between. While Rodriguez succeeds in his entertaining half, Tarantino greatly disappoints with his, rendering what could have been a special film merely satisfactory. Still when taken into account overall, Grindhouse manages to be a fun and unique experience, despite the fact that it falters almost as much as it succeeds.

The Score: B (83%)
Tags: Grindhouse, Planet Terror, Death Proof, Robert Rodriguez, Tarantino, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - The Lookout
04/06/07 at 11:09 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The Story: Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a standout high school athlete, saw his dreams shattered after a fatal car accident left him with brain damage. Now a few years later, he grapples with trying to live a normal life, rooming with a fellow handicapped man in the blind Lewis (Jeff Daniels) and working nights as a janitor for a bank. Then one day he is befriended by former schoolmate Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), who offers Chris a very interesting proposition.

The Good: The directing debut of screenwriter Scott Frank (who worked on movies such as Get Shorty, Out Of Sight, Minority Report, and The Interpreter) gives the bank heist story an absorbing retelling, although to a lesser extent than last year’s superb Inside Man. The writing throws in a few interesting twists and turns by telling the story from the perspective of a character with memory problems, sort of like a watered down version of the phenomenal Memento. However the real star of the film is actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who proves he ranks right up there with Shia LeBeouf as one of the most talented actors of his generation. There is no doubt he has the ability to carry a movie on his own, which is the main reason why the film is able to work as well as it does. Expanding on the work he previously showcased in Brick, he makes Chris a complex character, portraying his vulnerabilities, desires, and inner conflicts in riveting fashion. Of course his co-stars do a good job at bringing their characters to life as well. Jeff Daniels does a great turn at giving us an additional viewpoint of a disabled man (although he isn’t entirely convincing as a blind man in a few scenes), and is able to throw in several humorous moments. Matthew Goode also does a good job at elevating his character from the standard run-of-the-mill villain that one usually expects in a movie such as this.

The Bad: While the overall script is strong, it is not without its set of problematic flaws. One of the movie’s earlier scenes involves Chris talking to his counselor, who is oddly never seen from again. The subplot involving Isla Fischer doesn’t go anywhere and is then awkwardly dropped altogether when the action starts to heat up. The story makes a big deal of Matthew Good’s character having both asthma and a sinister henchman, which comes across as something out of a lame James Bond movie. The film’s final showdown also isn’t as climactic or well executed as it could have been, probably a result of Frank’s limited directorial experience.

The Verdict: The Lookout managed a measly $2 million during its opening weekend, a tragically low amount for a movie this good. After watching the film, it struck me as this year’s Brick—not only for the fact that both star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but also because both under-the-radar flicks give fresh takes on old genres, involving a web of intricate characters while incorporating dark undertones. Hopefully once this is released on DVD, it too will be able to develop a cult following much in the same way Brick has been able to do. Until then, the box office continues to be dominated by largely lackluster films, leaving the laudable ones left out in the cold. Tragic.

The Score: B+ (87%)
Tags: The Lookout, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - Reign Over Me
04/06/07 at 11:05 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The Story: Former college roommates Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) and Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) randomly bump into each other again for the first time in years. However both have undergone significant change since their college days—Alan is unhappy with his stagnant life and Charlie has withdrawn from reality after tragically losing his family. The renewed friendship blossoms, turning out to be exactly what each needs to make it through this crucial time in their lives.

The Good: Mike Binder, the man behind 2005’s largely overlooked The Upside Of Anger, returns with another tale about lives caught up in turmoil. As before, things aren’t always dreary, with moments of humor sprinkled throughout, but make no mistake this is a drama, and Adam Sandler responds by giving one of the best performances of his career. The role isn’t much of a deviation from his usual childish, emotionally distant, easily angered persona, however this time it is much more complex and intricate. The scene where he breaks down and finally opens up about his past is the best acted scene he’s ever done, displaying an honesty and emotional authenticity we’ve merely glimpsed of before. Don Cheadle, who actually carries much of the movie, gives another strong performance by getting the audience to feel for and care about his character. The film is also the first movie that incorporates 9/11 into a fictional story, handling it with both respect and truthfulness.

The Bad: Don Cheadle’s character and storyline isn’t as strong or well developed as that of Sandler’s. It’s the same type of situation we’ve seen in countless movies beforehand and only the talents of Cheadle and Jada Pinkett Smith, who plays his wife, are able to make it work. The subplot involving the weird psychopathic woman didn’t fit in with the rest of the movie and felt particularly forced towards the end. Despite the fact that Donald Sutherland and B.J. Novak are very good actors, they didn’t fit their parts and were miscast in their small, albeit pivotal, roles. The movie also suffers from the Hollywood Syndrome down the home stretch, squandering the chance for an exceptional ending.

The Verdict: I must admit I am an Adam Sandler fan, having seen all of his movies since 1994’s Airheads, and was very pleased to see him excel in another dramatic role. His career has largely been inconsistent in terms of quality, usually a fault in his selection of scripts, and it was nice to see him move away from his usual assortment of dick and fart jokes to continue his evolution as an actor. That maturation, along with the great Don Cheadle and a good job from Binder, allow Reign Over Me to join Punch-Drunk Love as one of Sandler’s best.

The Score: B (86%)
Tags: Reign Over Me, Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - Casino Royale
11/29/06 at 08:22 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The Story: In a restarting of the James Bond franchise, Daniel Craig takes his first turn as the world’s most famous secret agent, 007. The rookie Bond’s first mission pits him against Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker serving some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. In order to stop him, Bond must beat Le Chiffre in a high-stakes game of poker at Casino Royale in Montenegro. MI6 appoints Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to look after Bond and watch over the government’s money. They soon are under attack, falling for each other while the stakes around them grow higher, leading to a series of events that will change Bond’s life forever.

The Good: Bond is back and better than ever as Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, the Zorro movies) returns to jumpstart the series once again. Daniel Craig was personally my top choice to play the new Bond, and he quickly proves he was the right man for the job. He takes Bond in a direction that hasn’t really been gone before, making him more of a ruthless killer rather than a sophisticated charmer. He does exude a little of that suave Bond is famous for, but the character is much psychologically darker this time around. This fits in with the grittier, more realistic tone the movie strives after, which overall works quite nicely. The action scenes especially are able to capitalize with this newer, more intense style, as the beginning foot chase through a construction yard is one of the best I have ever seen. Eva Green also manages to hold her own as the newest Bond girl, and her character is smarter and more complicated than most of Bond's previous love interests.

The Bad: The movie’s structure is a problem. The beginning is front loaded with the majority of the action sequences, making the last half really seem to drag more than it should. The big poker game towards the end doesn't compare with all that has been leading up to it, and the needed payoff is decidedly missing. It doesn’t help the fact that the movie is about 15 minutes too long. The time leading up to the finale particularly could have been trimmed down. The torture scene at the end, which is well known from the novel, is lacking in execution and feels a bit out of place. The scene can’t make up its mind about what mood it wants to be, coming across as awkward, painful, and funny. The movie is also lacking in the villain department. Le Chiffre makes for a decent bad guy but never distinguishes himself as all that interesting or threatening.

The Verdict: The bar for the spy genre has risen over the last several years, forcing Bond to learn from its peers and adopt change. While Casino Royale is never able to reach the level of the superior Jason Bourne movies, it is able to quiet the doubters and take its place among the best Bond films of all time. With a sequel soon on the way, I can’t wait to see what is up next for Daniel Craig and Co. The future of James Bond has never looked brighter.

The Score: B+ (88%)
Tags: Casino Royale, James Bond, 007, Daniel Craig, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - Borat
11/27/06 at 06:36 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The Story: Borat Sagdiyev, Kazakhstan's sixth most famous man and a leading journalist from the State run TV network, travels from his home in Kazakhstan to the U.S. to make a documentary. On his cross-country road-trip, Borat meets real people in real situations with hysterical consequences.

The Good: I like! This movie is just flat out hilarious, and is perhaps the most bizarre fish out of water story ever told. The circumstances that Borat gets in to are so outlandish and out there that it just adds to the humor to even think that they could actually occur. There are several scenes that you know are wrong but you can’t help and laugh. Sacha Baron Cohen completely loses himself in his portrayal of Borat, creating a character that appears to actually exist. He turns Borat into a very likeable guy who the audience ends up caring for, despite how ignorant or ridiculous he can be. Combined with his past performances as Ali G and Bruno, Cohen proves he is one of the most versatile actors in the business today.

The Bad: Several scenes feel like they run too short. They still are extremely funny but there seems to be many more laughs that could be had if they were slightly extended. Still, better to be too short and funny than too long and not. The movie itself loses steam over the course of the last third, managing to be not nearly as funny/creative as what came before it. Having also recently watched Da Ali G Show, I was slightly disappointed to see some of the same jokes reused again here.

The Verdict: Borat is the biggest breakout success of the year and has quickly become a cultural icon. The film is not for everyone, many will likely be offended by its outlandish portrayals and such, but for those who watch it, they will be dared not to laugh. The movie has been hailed by critics everywhere as one of the best comedies in recent times as well as one of the best movies of the year, which I feel is stretching it a little. Is it the funniest movie I’ve seen this year? Probably. The funniest ever? Probably not.

The Score: B+ (87%)
Tags: Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - The Queen
11/27/06 at 06:33 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The Story: When news of the death of Princess Diana breaks upon a shocked and disbelieving British public, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) retreats behind the walls of Balmoral Castle with her family, unable to comprehend the public response to the tragedy. For Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the popular and newly elected Prime Minister, the people's need for reassurance and support from their leaders is unmistakable. As the unprecedented outpouring of emotion grows stronger, Blair must find a way to reconnect the Queen with the British public.

The Good: The movie is an intriguing look at what goes on behind the scenes in the Royal Family. This is an area I don't have much familiarity with (I can now only vaguely recall Diana's death), which made it all the more interesting. The film is essentially a character study of how the Queen and Tony Blair deal with Diana's death and the public’s response to it, and the actors' mesmerizing performances make up its backbone. Helen Mirren is a lock for a Best Actress nomination, shining in a somewhat subdued performance of someone trying to cling to their tradition when forced to deal with a culture of change. Michael Sheen, whom I have become a fan of after seeing him in Underworld and Kingdom Of Heaven, gives his best performance yet as a man who rises to power and handles it with a grace and humbleness not often seen today in the world of politics. His role will probably be overlooked by others in higher profile pictures, but his portrayal is just as important to the movie's success as that of Mirren's.

The Bad: Nothing major. I thought the movie relied a little too much on actual news coverage. While this did add a grounded sense of reality to the film, it seemed to be overused in a couple of places. I also felt that the subplot involving the stag wasn’t as effective as it thought it was or could have been.

The Verdict: Stephen Frears, who directed one of my favorite romantic dramas of all time, High Fidelity, has crafted another winner. Sure to receive much attention come awards time, The Queen is a fascinating study of a leader caught at a time of personal crossroads. Definitely check it out.

The Score: B+ (88%)
Tags: The Queen, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - Saw III
11/05/06 at 11:10 PM by Jonathan Bautts
The Story: After eluding the cops, psychopathic killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) turns an abandoned warehouse on the edge of town into a gruesome torture chamber. Jigsaw's new protégée, Amanda (Shawnee Smith), kidnaps a doctor (Bahar Soomekh), who is now forced to keep the evil master alive. Barely clinging to life, Jigsaw begins to carry out his gruesome plans for the lady doc and another helpless victim (Angus Macfayden).

The Good: If you liked the gore factor in the first two, you're sure to enjoy this one as well. The games are, dare I say, even crazier and more demented this time around. The one that got to me the most wasn't even a game but when the doctor performs surgery on Jigsaw, cutting open his skull to alleviate the pressure on his brain. Let’s just say it was a pretty intense scene. The Saw movies are famous for their twists and this one, while not quite as shocking as the others, is still a good surprise. Tobin Bell also turns in another quality job for what is fast becoming one of the most iconic villains of the new millennia.

The Bad: The story does a good job of setting up the new characters and their predicaments, but does not take advantage of this by going deeper. The ingredients were there for a story that would rise well above your typical horror genre spiel, but it ultimately fails in that regard. Part of this is due to the writing, some critical moments/reactions just don’t feel real, and to the acting, which, outside of Tobin Bell, is nothing noteworthy. It would have helped tremendously if there had been a strong central character as good as Donnie Walberg's, whose great performance helped carry the last movie. Without revealing any of the twists, the ending feels like it’s missing something, ending up not as satisfying as it should have been.

The Verdict: While not as good as its predecessors, Saw III still remains a worthy entrant in the franchise. Unfortunately it suffers from a lack of emotional depth, squandering the opportunity to improve upon the series. But don’t worry, there will be another chance: Saw IV is on the way.

The Score: B- (80%)
Tags: Saw III, Movie, Review
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Movie Review - The Prestige
10/30/06 at 01:37 AM by Jonathan Bautts
The Story: From the time that they first met as young magicians on the rise, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) were competitors. However, their friendly competition evolves into a bitter rivalry, making them fierce enemies-for-life and consequently jeopardizing the lives of everyone around them.

The Good: I enjoyed the nonlinear style, which fit well with a storyline full of trickery and mystery. The acting is solid throughout, as Jackman and Bale are great leads. The supporting cast, lead by Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie, and Andy Serkis, is very good as well. All the technical aspects are top notch, making it one of the best looking movies of the year. I also give it props for surprising me a few times, particularly with the second big twist at the end.

The Bad: The character's motivations never appeared to fully justify their actions. Of course, the Nolans could have been trying to say that revenge is, in its very nature, childish and senseless. The characters could also have used a little more development.

The Verdict: My minor complaints aside, The Prestige is one of my favorite films of the year. It proves to be another worthy effort from Christopher Nolan, my second favorite director, who still has yet to make a bad movie. Highly recommended.

The Score: B+ (88%)
Tags: The Prestige, Christopher Nolan, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Movie, Review
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