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When Jim Sturgess says "Hit me," some might misinterpret the request.

When Jim Sturgess says “Hit me,” some might misinterpret the request.

(2008) Drama (Columbia) Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Aaron Yoo, Liza Lapira, Jacob Pitts, Jack McGee, Josh Gad, Sam Golzari, Helen Carey, Jack Gilpin, Jeffrey Ma, Christopher Holley, Scott Beringer, Teresa Livingstone, Jeff Dashnaw, Frank Patton, Colin Angle, Bradley Thoennes, Spencer Garrett, Sally Livingstone. Directed by Robert Luketic

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Getting an education is expensive but it is necessary these days if you want an express pass to success. Students go into outrageous amounts of debt just to make it through four years of college, let alone graduate school. Some students have had to think outside of the box in order to pay off what they owe.

Ben Campbell (Sturgess) has a brilliant mind, but that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee, and not even a very good one. He has achieved a great deal – he’s got nearly a perfect academic record at MIT and with his MCAT scores near the top of the scale, has been eagerly accepted into Harvard Medical School. The trouble is, he can’t afford the more than $300K that a Harvard Medical School will cost him and apparently he’s already maxed out on student loans. He takes solace in his misery with fellow nerds Miles (Gad) and Cam (Golzari), his two best friends.

One day, he catches the eye of Mickey Rosa (Spacey), one of his professors, for his ability to think calmly and rationally under pressure. When Rosa investigates further, he finds that Campbell has a keen mind for numbers a talent which is clearly being wasted as the assistant manager for a men’s clothing store.  Rosa decides to invite Ben to join a project he has underway, which involves having his genius students count cards at blackjack in Las Vegas casinos. While perfectly legal, it is frowned upon by the casinos because it is a way of beating the odds, which casinos are not known for tolerating.

Although reluctant to join at first, Campbell is finally persuaded to join by Jill Taylor (Bosworth), a girl he has had a crush on for some time. Spacey introduces him to fellow card counters Choi (Yoo), Kianna (Lapira) and the current big dog in the yard, Fisher (Pitts). Rosa trains Campbell in the nearly foolproof system which is designed to fly under the radar. After a training session, Rosa flies the team to Vegas to give Campbell his trial by fire. At first nervous and unsure, Campbell is able to focus on the task at hand while playing and becomes the team’s best card counter. This gives Rosa the warm fuzzies for his new prodigy, even as it brings envy and anger from Fisher and a certain amount of chemistry with Jill.

As the team grows more and more successful, they begin to attract the notice of security consultant Cole Williams (Fishburne), whose livelihood is being threatened by security software. Ever the old dog sniffing out wrongdoing (at least as far as the casinos are concerned), he begins to keep a wary eye out on the young man who seems to be winning an unusually high percentage of the time.

In the meantime, the thrill of the game and the fruits of success begin to take their toll on Ben. Initially in only until he earned his tuition for medical school, greed and arrogance are getting the better of him as he begins to alienate those who are closest to him, while initiating a growing conflict with Mickey, who has hidden depths of vindictiveness. Will Ben be able to win back what he’s lost while staying out of the clutches of the stone-fisted enforcers of Vegas?

Sturgess who turned some heads in Across the Universe is a charming lead. It’s a shame he hasn’t yet gotten the script to put him over the top, although this movie was successful enough that it looked like it just might but as of yet it hasn’t happened. Spacey is absolutely delicious as the villainous Mickey Rosa, smooth as a snake and twice as lethal. Fishburne is one of those actors that I wish would be cast in films more often; he is always interesting. I take some solace in that he has been very present on television recently with lead roles in CSI and Hannibal.  Most of the rest of the young cast manages to look good but for the most part, their characters aren’t particularly well-drawn.

The visual effects can be a bit much, but at least they manage to capture the excitement of big-time gambling, Vegas style. The interminable chip effects that often scream “I’m a pretentious film school graduate directing this movie – watch how clever I am!” appear so often they finally induce vertigo more than move the story along. A truly nifty soundtrack and some flashy camera work make this clearly a work of the MTV generation (the preceding statement should at least give readers a clue to my age).

Sturgess and Spacey do some very nice work, particularly Spacey. The young cast is attractive. Of course, any movie that spends as much time on the Vegas strip as this one does is near and dear to Da Queen’s heart. The blackjack sequences, which could have conceivably been unutterably boring, have some snap and pop to them which will allow even non-gamblers to get into the movie.

Unnecessary (and unforgivable) geography errors take you out of the movie in a jarring kind of way. Also, the shots of the ultracool and hip card counters walking in slow mo were cliché when it was made; it is twice that now.

There’s far more style than substance here if you ask me. The fact that this is based on actual events (the real person that the Ben Campbell character was based on makes a cameo as a dealer) makes you wonder whether the truth might not have made a better movie than the fiction based on it. While it can be visually stunning at times, there are too many clichés spoiling this pot. Not bad, but not great either.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating subject matter and nifty presentation. Blackjack sequences well-staged. Some good work by Sturgess and particularly, Spacey.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary and foolish errors in geography and logic. Overuse of “chip effects” and “badass slo-mo.” More style than substance.

FAMILY MATTERS: The language is salty throughout. There’s some sensuality and violence as well as some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The real Ben Campbell makes a cameo appearance as a blackjack dealer at the Hard Rock.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the history and game play of Blackjack. There’s also an interview with one of the actual MIT students involved in the incident. The Blu-Ray adds a video blackjack game through the BD-Live option.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $157.9M on a $35M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clockers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Levitated Mass

RoboCop (2014)


RoboCop takes aim at skeptical critics.

RoboCop takes aim at skeptical critics.

(2014) Science Fiction (MGM/Columbia) Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Aimee Garcia, Douglas Urbanski, John Paul Ruttan, Patrick Garrow, K.C. Collins, Daniel Kash, Zach Grenier, Maura Grierson. Directed by Jose Padilha

Military drones have become over the past 12 months something of a cause célèbre, although drones have been in use for years. In the near future, those drones will be even more sophisticated – human control may well be entirely unnecessary. However most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of life and death being doled out by machines.

Pat Novak (Jackson) begs to differ. The host of the right-wing news magazine show The Novak Element thinks that having robots in law enforcement would be a very good thing. However, existing laws in the United States prevent drones and robots being used in a military or law enforcement fashion on U.S. soil. Novak is campaigning to change all that.

Raymond Sellars (Keaton) would like to see him succeed. As the CEO of OmniCorp, the multinational corporation that supplies robotic devices to the military and to international law enforcement, he’s chomping at the bit to get at the virgin U.S. market but is frustrated that public opinion is against him. However, he knows that given the right stimulation, public opinion can change. What the machine needs is a human element.

Cue Alex Murphy (Kinnaman). An honest cop on the Detroit Police Department, he is chasing a  criminal gang leader named Vallon (Garrow) whose investigation by other cops on the force has stalled. An inadvertent miscue by a lowlife gun dealer gives him and his partner Jack Lewis (Williams) an opportunity to connect Vallon to actual crimes and put him away. Unfortunately, someone tips off Vallon and Lewis gets shot for their troubles.

Realizing that Murphy is not going to give up until he gets an arrest, Vallon arranges for Murphy’s car to be wired with an explosive device. It goes off, critically injuring the cop in full view of his wife Clara (Cornish) and son David (Ruttan).

This gives Sellars the perfect opportunity. Brilliant cyberneticist Dennett Norton (Oldman) can rebuild Alex; he has the technology. He can give Murphy all the advantages of being a robot while still retaining his human control. However, there are glitches. A machine doesn’t hesitate or consider human consequences; it just acts. Murphy is held back by having a conscience and emotions. Norton reluctantly must delete these items from the programming.

In his RoboCop role, Murphy scarcely even responds to his family who quickly realize that something is wrong. Norton isn’t happy about the situation either – the whole point was to retain both the human and machine and what he has created is essentially an automaton with some organic material. Nonetheless RoboCop is a huge success and Sellars is getting exactly what he wants – a repeal of the laws that keep his company from profiting in America. However, when Murphy’s human side begins to reassert itself, RoboCop becomes expendable in a hurry.

The 1987 Paul Verhoeven-directed feature was more of an over-the-top satire of consumerism as well as social commentary on urban decay and the ultimate soullessness of our society. It was most definitely a product of its time. Brazilian director Padilha (making his English language debut) is far more subtle but no less satirical, but with a little bit more thought beneath the satire – what constitutes humanity and at what point do we cease being human? He also asks a question that is very much one that should be getting asked more often – is trading freedom for security a wise idea?

I appreciate undertones of that nature, and give the movie points for it. However, movies of an action/sci-fi bent also need to be entertaining and for the most part, this one is. Kinnaman has a facial resemblance to Peter Weller (who originated the role) but in the Alex Murphy scenes shows a little more warmth than Weller radiated. He does surprisingly well as RoboCop and gets the right movement that you’d expect from a robot.

Michael Keaton is one of those actors that you don’t realize you miss until he shows up for an infrequent role. He is perfect for Sellars, making him almost likable despite his black heart. Only near the end of the movie do we see Sellars’ true colors but by then Keaton’s sucked us in. Oldman also manages to bring the conflicted nature of Norton to the fore and show both sides of the coin equally. Cornish is, I think, supposed to act as the conscience for the movie but doesn’t quite jell there. Jackie Earle Haley is awesome as OmniCorp’s prejudiced chief of security.

While the CGI is good (especially a squirm-inducing scene in which we see Murphy without the RoboCop armor) and the action decent, the story has a fractured element to it and seems to be travelling in all sorts of directions. Reportedly, the studio was extremely involved in the film and frustrated Padilha’s creative control to the extent that he made some unwise comments which he later recanted. However, the movie does show all the earmarks of studio interference which is never a good thing. Too many RoboCooks spoil the RoboBroth.

Despite the critical bashing it’s received, the movie is decent enough entertainment. If you go in expecting the same humor as the original, you’re not going to like this much. In fact, this version could have used a little more humor which it mostly gets from the Novak show segments that open the movie and are shown intermittently throughout. I would have been interested to see what Padilha’s vision for the film would have turned out to be although I understand that the movie’s budget became an issue in that regard. I suspect that he could have turned this into a better film than it turned out to be – although what he did produce is pretty good in and of itself.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty decent entertainment value. Kinnaman does a fine job as does Oldman and Keaton.

REASONS TO STAY: Muddled and unfocused, a sure sign of studio interference.  

FAMILY VALUES:  While not as violent as the 1987 original, there are plenty of bullets flying and some mayhem. There’s also a few choice bad words here and there as well as a disturbing image of the remains of Alex Murphy after the bomb blast.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman have both been involved in the Batman franchise; Keaton as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s two films, Oldman as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Norton’s trilogy.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Total Recall

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hysteria

The Patriot


The Patriot

Mel Gibson leads the charge against the Brits, disappointed he can’t paint his face blue here.

(2000) Historical Drama (Columbia) Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Joely Richardson, Chris Cooper, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Lisa Brenner, Tom Wilkinson, Donal Logue, Leon Rippy, Adam Baldwin, Jay Arlen Jones, Logan Lerman, Mika Boorem. Directed by Roland Emmerich

 

We often bandy about the term “patriotic” to imply our loyalty to our country. In reality, that has come to mean standing whenever the national anthem is played and making sure to cast our votes in each and every election. Most of us don’t even do that. There was a time, however, when being a patriot was dangerous; a man’s home, family and life were the collateral for his ideals.

Benjamin Martin (Gibson) has plenty of collateral. Although he mourns his recently deceased wife, he has seven wonderful children, a prosperous farm and as a hero of the French and Indian War, the respect and admiration of his community. However, the clouds of war brew on the horizon. The colonies of Massachusetts and Virginia are in full revolt against a tyrannical English king, and are soliciting support from the other colonies, many of whom have already given it. Martin’s South Carolina still debates the issue, but despite an impassioned plea by Martin to attempt other solutions (followed by a dire, Cassandra-esque warning that the war would be fought in the streets of their hometowns to be witnessed by their children), South Carolina chooses to fight for freedom. Martin chooses not to, but his passionate son Gabriel (Ledger) enlists in the Continental Army against his father’s wishes.

Two years pass. Lord Cornwallis (Wilkinson) has taken Charleston and as Martin predicted, the fighting is getting close to home. Following a skirmish in which Gabriel participates just outside the Martin farm, Martin and his household tend to the wounded on both sides. Into this scene of compassion canters the despicable Col. Tavington (Isaacs), who orders the wounded Colonials shot, Gabriel arrested and hung as a spy (for carrying dispatches on his person), the house torched and the livestock killed. In the ensuing pandemonium, Martin’s second-oldest son Thomas is shot before the horrified gaze of his family by Tavington, who sneers “Stupid boy!” in his best Snidely Whiplash fashion, and then gallops off, leaving Thomas to die in his father’s arms.

The despicable colonel forgets one of life’s basic rules (or at least one of the basic rules of 90s movies); don’t mess with Mel Gibson (you’d think the Brits would have learned that after Braveheart). He and his two remaining sons carry off a daring rescue of Gabriel, whereupon the elder Martin enlists himself and takes charge of a South Carolina militia whose job is to occupy Cornwallis and keep him from marching north to finish off George Washington. The militiamen do this at great cost, as Tavington carries out atrocity after atrocity.

This isn’t going to play very well in England, as the English here are portrayed as either sadistic, vain, arrogant and/or somewhat stupid. That’s OK, though; this is really our story, although ironically it’s being told by Roland Emmerich, the German director of Independence Day and Godzilla.

The battle scenes are terrifying, as armies get nose to nose and muzzle to muzzle, firing at point blank range at each other, standing in a line and praying that the volley of musket fire will pass them by, all the while cannonshot take the arms, legs and heads off of hapless soldiers in the front ranks. The violence and brutality are excessive at times, but the carnage is necessary to place in context the bravery of farmers, untrained in war, standing in the face of devastating British muskets firing with deadly accuracy into their ranks. Gibson is solid, though his performance is less compelling than in Braveheart, to which this will inevitably be compared. Here, he is a rough-hewn man with a dangerous temper boiling beneath the surface. Ledger is terrific – this was the performance that established him in Hollywood after success in his native Australia.

The Patriot is a bit over-the-top in places, and a bit predictable in others, leading to a half-star penalty. Be warned; this is a gut-wrenching, emotional movie. Da Queen rated it five hankies and there was a lot of snuffling going on in the packed theater in which we saw “The Patriot.” Da Queen was red-eyed hours after the movie was over.

The Patriot reminds us of the sacrifices that were made to give this country life. Men gave of life and limb, watched sons, fathers, brothers and friends perish, left their homes and families to exist in brutal conditions with the Continental army, and often watched their life’s work go up in smoke. Too often, we forget the commitment that created the liberty we cherish. That’s just the first step in losing it.

WHY RENT THIS: Intense battle sequences. Gibson is at his best here. Ledger makes a big splash in his debut.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Turns the Redcoats into Storm Troopers. Fudges on the facts.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of war violence here, some of it quite graphic.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The house used as Aunt Charlotte’s (Richardson) plantation was the same one used as the residence of Forrest Gump. Benjamin Martin has seven children, the same number Mel Gibson had at the time of filming.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on the real people these fictional characters were based on and the lengths the movie went to for historical accuracy in terms of uniforms and so on (it’s a shame they couldn’t have been more accurate in terms in more important places).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $215.3M on a $110M production budget; the movie broke even in it’s theatrical release.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Braveheart

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT:Magic Mike

First Position


First Position

Gaya Bommer-Yemini and Aron Bell pensively await their turn onstage.

(2011) Documentary (IFC/Sundance Selects) Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer-Yemini, Michaela Deprince, Jules Jarvis Fogarty, Miko Fogarty, Rebecca Houseknecht, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Denys Ganio, Viktor Kabaniaev, Mia Deprince. Directed by Bess Kargman

 

I must first admit to not being a ballet aficionado. I don’t know a pas de deux from joie de vivre. I know my sister took lessons when I was a kid and I’ve seen productions of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker thanks to parents who hoped to (quite without effect, sadly) expand my horizons artistically speaking. Like opera, dance in general and ballet in particular never appealed to me.

Understandably, I wasn’t particularly eager to go see this documentary by first-time feature director Kargman as the subject matter didn’t appeal to me much. You may well have the same prejudice in that regard as I do. However, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to love, or even know much about ballet in order to enjoy First Position.

The movie chronicles six young people ranging in age from ten to seventeen as they prepare for one of the premiere ballet competitions in the world – the Youth America Grand Prix. At stake are scholarships at prestigious academies (for younger participants) and even placements in world class ballet companies around the world. For many, this is the means to achieve a dream.

Aran (age 11) is a Navy brat, his father stationed in Italy. There, Aran is trained by a dour French instructor (Ganio) in Rome, a two hour drive from their home. His father arranged to be stationed there so that his son might continue to receive instruction. Even to an untrained eye like man, Aran has enormous potential. Graceful and precise, he makes complex moves look effortless. His dancing inspired Gaya, an Israeli, to take up ballet which is fortunate for she is a legitimate talent in her own right. She also has a major crush on Aran.

Michaela (age 14) was adopted by an elderly Jewish couple from Philadelphia from her home in war-torn Sierra Leone. A chance look at a dance magazine with a beautiful ballerina, nearly ecstatic with joy, seized Michaela’s imagination and turned her on the road to the YAGP. Along the way she must fight the mistaken perception that African-descended dancers lack the grace and elegance to be great ballet dancers – Michaela not only has grace and elegance, she has charm and wisdom as well. Her story is perhaps the most emotionally moving in the entire film.

Joan (age 16) lives in the violent Columbian city of Cali. Realizing early that he has a gift, his family sent him alone to New York City for further training. He misses his family terribly, and his family worries that he is eating too much American fast food (he’s not; most of his meals consist of rice, beans and some sort of protein mixed in). Joan, matinee idol handsome and with a spectacular body, looks to be a marquee dancer if only he can get noticed.

Miko (age 12) is a very talented dancer while her brother Jules (age 10) is less committed. Their mother is a combination of a stage mom and a Jewish mom; pushing both her children towards excellence. When both qualify for the semi-finals of the YAGP; when one of them chooses to drop ballet because it isn’t what they want to do with their lives, she is devastated. She and her Silicon Valley entrepreneur husband have moved from Palo Alto to Walnut Creek (about  a two hour drive) to be closer to the ballet teacher Miko likes (her husband moved the business there as well which I’m sure didn’t sit too well with his employees). That teacher, Viktor, is impressed with Miko and amused by Jules who is more of a typical kid. Viktor isn’t afraid to override the instructions of the meddling mom from time to time.

Only Rebecca (age 17) fits the stereotype of the ballerina; feminine almost to a fault, pretty and blonde with a preference for all things pink, a cheerleader in school and a princess in all else. She lives in suburban Maryland and unlike most of the other kids who have devoted their lives to their art to the point where all of them are home schooled, Rebecca attends high school and pretty much has a normal life. That doesn’t diminish her desire to be a ballerina however and she is hoping desperately that the representatives of the ballet companies who are attending the YAGP will not only notice her looks but also her legitimate talent as well and offer her a job.

The film looks at the things that these kids do to pursue their dream; the injuries (one of the competitors severely injures their Achilles tendon on the eve of the finals in New York City), the ridicule from other kids (at least one of the children depicted here was pulled from attending public school because of it) and the dedication to hours and hours of practice which is oftentimes painful, leaving the kids exhausted and sore. Like Olympic athletes, these kids have a dream and their parents are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

It turns out that the YAGP helped select the kids for Kargman to follow (which she did for a year) which is a little bit disturbing – how objective were the filmmakers when it came to showing some of the negative aspects of these kinds of competition such as the stress that it puts on the kids and the financial strain it puts on families. However, it does show kids doing some amazing things – the five who compete in the finals are all incredible dancers, particularly Aran who steals the show whenever he is dancing.

I will say that this doesn’t really inspire me to get season tickets to the Orlando Ballet Theatre, or to seek out performances on DVD or PBS. However, it does give me a new-found respect for the kids who work as hard as any athlete to succeed – and the families that sacrifice to give them the opportunity.

NOTE: While the film played at the Florida Film Festival last month, I was unable to see it. It is playing at the Enzian today and tomorrow.

REASONS TO GO: Some breathtaking moments of dance. Engaging kids are not only photogenic but articulate as well.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes seems like a bit of an advertisement for the YAGP.

FAMILY VALUES: Generally suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kargman took ballet lessons and considered dancing professionally until she was 14, when she chose to pursue other interests.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are stellar.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spellbound

COSTUME LOVERS: The tutus and costumes are varied; Aran’s for example are made for him by a professional costumer in Chicago, while Michaela’s are made by her mom. Joan wears only a simple pair of tights.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:Defendor

30 Minutes or Less


30 Minutes or Less

Some guys don't look intimidating at all, even when they have ski masks and guns.

(2011) Crime Comedy (Columbia) Jesse Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson, Dilshad Vadsaria, Michael Pena, Bianca Kajlich, Fred Ward, Brett Gelman, Ilyssa Fradin, Paul Tierney, Rebecca Cox, Rick Irwin. Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Ruben Fleischer previously directed the hit horror comedy Zombieland which starred Jesse Eisenberg. Both of them are back for a follow-up, leaving me curious as to just what kind of film we’d be seeing.

Nick (Eisenberg) is a slacker who has been delivering pizzas for awhile. He has little ambition beyond getting stoned and hanging out with his friend Chet (Ansari) who at least has sufficient ambition to rise beyond being a part-time substitute teacher to becoming a full-time one. Neither of them seem to have much drive to move past the surroundings of Grand Rapids, Michigan where they reside. However when they get into a fight and discover their worst secrets – Nick slept with Kate (Vadsaria), Chet’s sister, and Chet was the one responsible for letting Nick’s dad know that his mom slept with a lifeguard, ending their marriage and leading to his dad leaving town for good – the two split up.

Dwayne (McBride) chafes in the shadow of his father, the Major (Ward) who is sitting pretty off of a $10 million lottery win. The Major feels nothing but contempt for his unemployed son, while his son wants his dad to hurry up and expire so he can still inherit what’s left of the lottery fortune, which the Major has been squandering in a hurry. Dwayne and his best friend Travis (Swardson) are chased out of the house by the major and wind up hanging at a local strip bar where a stripper named Juici (Kajlich) implants the idea that Dwayne should kill his dad and inherit now, hinting that she knows someone who can do the deed – for a hundred grand.

But Dwayne and Travis don’t have fifty bucks between them, let alone $100,000 – until Travis suggests robbing a bank, which might not work that well since neither one of them know how. That’s when Dwayne comes up with the brilliant (but demented) idea to get some other schmuck to rob the bank for them. A pizza delivery guy, for example.

Nick is lured to their junkyard with a pizza order; they knock him out and attach a vest to him with an explosive device. When he awakens, the two would-be criminal masterminds tell him he has ten hours to rob the bank and bring $100,000 to them otherwise they’ll detonate the bomb. Nick, panicking, goes to Chet who after initial horror agrees to help his friend on the condition that he never see his sister again.

In the meantime, Juici is plotting with Chango (Pena), the hitman she had referred to – who happens to be her boyfriend – to take the money and run away with her. Double crosses are in the air – everyone is planning to betray everyone else. How will Nick and Chet escape the crossfire, assuming these two slackers can figure out a way to rob the bank?

As good as Zombieland was, 30 Minutes or Less is less consistent. Uneven in its pacing, I get the sense that they couldn’t decide whether to make a caper comedy or a raunchy drug comedy. The movie tends to be better when it goes with the former and less successful when it channels Cheech and Chong.

While all of the main characters have a following and a certain amount of success – Ansari in “Parks and Recreation,” Eisenberg netting an Oscar nomination in The Social Network for example – none of them have been actors I’ve been particularly fond of and to be honest, this movie doesn’t change my mind for any of them other than Swardson, who with his 70s porn star moustache and puppy dog attitude at least displays a certain amount of charm.

None of the rest of the leads are likable enough for me to particularly care much about any of them, a bad thing for a movie. I could forgive that however, if the movie was funny enough to sustain interest but in fact it only does so sporadically. Some of the scenes seem to want to dumb things down until only a one celled creature could possibly find it amusing.

I wish the movie could have been a little more consistent and a little less wishy-washy because it really did have some pretty funny moments. Unfortunately, they were few and far between enough for me to recommend that you find other ways to spend your movie dollars.

REASONS TO GO: Swardson does some nice work and when the movie works, it’s very funny.

REASONS TO STAY: Extremely inconsistent, the pendulum swinging from too raunchy and dumb to smart and funny in a heartbeat.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of crudity, and a little bit of nudity. There is some language most rough and some violence a little tough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There was an incident eerily similar to the one depicted here when on August 28, 2003, pizza delivery man Bryan Douglas Wells entered a bank with a bomb strapped around his neck in Erie, Pennsylvania with a very similar story. However, it ended badly as the bomb detonated as the police approached, killing Wells instantly.

HOME OR THEATER: Home, more like.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Operation: Endgame

Bedazzled (2000)


Bedazzled

This devil will make you do just about anything.

(2000) Romantic Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Brendan Fraser, Elizabeth Hurley, Frances O’Connor, Miriam Shor, Orlando Jones, Paul Adelstein, Toby Huss, Gabriel Casseus, Brian Doyle-Murray, Jeff Doucette, Aaron Lustig. Directed by Harold Ramis

Making a deal with the devil has become almost commonplace these days. I mean, how else can you explain Justin Bieber?

Elliot Richards (Fraser) is the guy at work that causes you to reverse direction, exclaiming “Oh my God! It’s HIM!!!” every time you see him. Socially awkward doesn’t even begin to describe him; if there’s a way of rubbing you the wrong way, Elliot is probably already doing it, perfectly unaware that he’s driving you crazy. In short, he’s a real nebbish.

His co-workers at the high-tech company in San Francisco where he works include the lovely but unattainable Allison (Frances O’Connor), for whom Elliot pines. However his every attempt (few and far between though they are) to talk to his dream girl ends in defeat every single time.

Enter the devil (Hurley), who in this case is a luscious, lurid wench played with more than a bit of a twinkle in her soulful eye. She promises him seven wishes, whatever he wants — including Allison — in exchange for his soul. Elliot readily agrees. As those who have ever made a deal with the devil can tell you, not a wise move on Elliot’s part.

Of course, the devil being what she is, the father of lies – oops, the mother of lies, the wishes go terribly wrong, one at a time. For example, Elliot wishes to be rich, powerful and married to Allison. He gets all that as a Columbian druglord whose wife is cheating on him and whose underlings are plotting to kill him. You get the picture.

This movie was made once before, in 1967 (and in turn was based on the legend of Dr. Faust), with Dudley Moore in the title role, and writer/director Peter Cook playing the devil. That version has a lot more wit and charm than this one, although Fraser has plenty of both, making the movie way more recommendable. Hurley is absolutely delicious as Beelzebub, not only easy on the eyes but veritably defining the word “naughty.” I was surprised I enjoyed her performance as much as I did; I thought she was OK in the first Austin Powers movie, but she certainly has the makings of a fine comedienne, which sadly she chose not to pursue.

Director Harold Ramis doesn’t have the deft touch that Cook does; he tends to use a bludgeon when a silk scarf will do. He has a formidable task, making essentially seven mini-movies with a linking device. Fraser pulls off seven completely different characterizations of the same man (with accompanying make-up and wardrobe changes) and that helps make this more palatable.

 As comedies go, Bedazzled isn’t bad – there are several good laughs to be found here. It isn’t as consistent as it could be, but the performances of Fraser and Hurley make up for it. G’head and rent it; if you don’t like it, well, the devil made you do it.

WHY RENT THIS: Charming performances by Hurley and Fraser. Some genuinely funny moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Vignettes are wildly uneven. Tends to use a cudgel when a rapier would be more suitable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual innuendo and some drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In the beach scene, the Devil’s dogs are named Peter and Dudley, a nod to the stars of the original Bedazzled.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed, although there is an Easter Egg leading to a deleted scene which was more “R” rated due to drug use, foul language and sexual content. You may find it on the DVD by going to the second features page, highlighting the first item on the list, then clicking on your “go right” button. A devil should illuminate on Hurley’s shoulder; click on it and voila.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $90.4M on a $48M production budget; the movie more or less broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I Remember


I Remember

Griff Blane and Rick Baker prepare to roast some S'mores.

(2008) Drama (Self-Distributed) Griff Blane, Rick Baker, Cassie Raye, Daniel McKinney, Randy G. Scott, Buddy Metz, Craig Hanley, Whittaker Garick, Charlie Wiggins. Directed by Ray Gaillard

When we see the homeless, we tend to view them as failures at life. They are scary in a way, as despair and desperation can drive people to do terrible things – and we sure don’t want to be around when they do.

Buck (Blane) is an eight-year-old boy who’s been through much more than any eight-year-old boy should have to. Both his parents were killed in a car accident and he and his little sister Molly (Raye) have been separated and sent to different foster homes. Whereas Molly is in a loving middle-class home, Buck has been left in the tender care of George (Wiggins), a brutish man who never tires of telling Buck that he’ll never amount to anything, or pointing out he’s been kicked out of every foster home he’s been sent to.

Driven past the breaking point, he escapes George’s clutches, leaving him with a present he’ll remember for a good long time. He decides to go out looking for his sister, but hasn’t a clue how to find her. Living on the streets and eating out of garbage bins, he finally attracts the notice of Joe (Baker), a kindly man who is also homeless.

Joe takes Buck to a camp outside of town where other homeless people are living as best they can. Joe teaches Buck the ropes and imparts the wisdom of how to survive on his own. Still, Buck is focused on finding his little sister and despite Joe’s warnings to the contrary, goes out after her. The attempt will lead Buck into a life and death situation, one in which he must make a decision that will color the direction his life takes from then on.

First-time filmmaker Gaillard filmed the movie in and around Columbia, South Carolina using friends and family as actors and crew members. Taking into account the nature of the production, it has to be said that this is definitely unpolished; the acting is uneven, as such productions usually are. However, this doesn’t feel like an amateur film. The cinematography is gorgeous, utilizing its locations nicely, and the script rarely descends into cliché.

Blane is a credible young actor; he takes the less-is-more route, rarely overplaying his hand. The result is that he comes off as a boy who is in a bit of a shell, but capable of violence when cornered. Simply put, Buck is not a kid to mess with. Blane gets that across, but manages to retain the inner core of a child. Many better known child actors wouldn’t have been able to pull that off. If he chooses to pursue acting as a career, he has a bright future in it.

Baker (not the special effects make-up guy) is the wise old Yoda to Blane’s Luke Skywalker. He plays a very complex character that is homeless by choice, rejecting the money-centric society that America has evolved into. Baker even resembles a Jedi with his snow-white hair and ponytail. In any case, he is the film’s heart in many ways and carries that aspect off solidly.

Quite frankly, I was pleasantly surprised with the movie that depicts how the homeless are perceived by society in a very realistic manner. There are a couple of rednecks in the movie (Hanley and Garick) who precipitate a good deal of violence. Some of the violence is sudden and brutal in the manner that violence often is. Sensitive souls should note that while the movie isn’t gore-drenched, it doesn’t shy away from it either and the violence that exists in that stratum of society is dealt with in a matter-of-fact manner.

The movie is a slice of life of lives that are often marginalized; that it depicts these people as human and worthwhile is a unique feature all of its own and should be applauded. It is a bit of an eye-opener as a matter of fact, and these are the kinds of movies that should be appreciated and savored. While it is exceedingly difficult to find the movie in local theaters, I would highly recommend ordering the movie from the website below. Talent such as Gaillard’s and his cast and crew should be nurtured and encouraged; I suspect that Gaillard has plenty of additional stories to tell and I for one look forward to seeing them.

REASONS TO GO: While very raw, the movie depicts the life of the homeless and how they are regarded by society in a very realistic manner. The movie is well-filmed, utilizing its locations very nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence can be off-putting to those who are sensitive to such things.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a smattering of foul language. While the lead character is a young boy, it would be advisable to watch the movie with your children to answer questions about the situations and the ensuing violence, some of which is directed at the boy, others committed by him.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before making this movie, Gaillard had no movie-making experience and knew very little about the process. He read several books on the subject at his local library and checked out information on the Internet before purchasing a camera and putting together the funds to film the movie, mostly with friends and family.

HOME OR THEATER: This film is on the festival circuit and your best bet is to see it at one; if you can’t find it, the movie is available on DVD at its website www.iremembermovie.com.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Princess and the Frog