Friday, January 25, 2008

*** out of ****

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to New York City after Will Smith fought off the zombie-inducing virus in December's "I Am Legend," the Big Apple is in peril again in the new monster flick "Cloverfield."

"Cloverfield" took America by surprise as a trailer screened before the mega-hit "Transformers." From there it has turned into an Internet sensation that will meet most expectations.

Shot entirely with a hand-held camera, "Cloverfield's" bouncy thrill ride will divide audiences. While it is steadier than "The Blair Witch Project," the first film to find success with this technique, take heed of this warning: Don't sit in the first row.

The story: We are watching a government classified tape found in Cloverfield, the code name for what was Central Park. The story centers on Jason (Mike Vogel) and his girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), who are throwing a surprise party for Jason's brother Rob (Michael Stahl-David). Rob is moving to Japan for a new job.

At the party, Rob's best friend, Hud (T.J. Miller), is taping testimonials from Rob's friends, but seems to be giving most of the camera time to Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), who is on the way out to meet other friends. She doesn't quite make it, as the building they're in gets jolted while Manhattan comes under attack by a skyscraper-size monster.

It's a straightforward story, but confusion sets in as these terrorist-like events unfold. Instead of evacuating the city, Rob enlists the partygoers to scavenge through the mayhem with the hope of rescuing his former girlfriend, Beth (Odette Yustman), who cut the party short with her new beau, Travis (Ben Feldman).

As Hud continues to document the journey, we feel part of the hunt. We get glimpses of the monster throughout the film and can piece together that it looks like a reptile that walks on all fours with a tail large enough to whack down anything. For added terror, it spawns giant spider-like friends as well.

The cast of relatively unknown actors adds to the reality of the film. Add to the mix terrific special effects and the low $25 million budget is surprising.

"Cloverfield" definitely has the J.J. Abrams touch and will have viewers glued to the screen.

Drew Goddard wrote, or at least outlined, the screen play for the largely improvised film. Matt Reeves takes his second stab at directing after his 1996 comedy debut "The Pallbearer."

A unique thing about "Cloverfield" is that unlike "Legend" or other horror flicks, the scares produce themselves with the high-tense realism of the situations. One scene that will certainly produce shrieks is the one at the subway station.

"Cloverfield" also plays up some fears reminiscent of 9/11, with clouds of dust billowing down Manhattan streets and an eerie scene where skyscrapers are crumbling in the distance. Another great scene to look for is the head of the Statue of Liberty rolling down the busy streets of New York City.

"Cloverfield" is a refreshing look at monster films and a reminder of Hollywood's originality. Next time, let's hope the director remembers to bring a tripod along for a smoother ride.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Strike Got You Down? Try these DVDs

Has your TV gone dark? As we approach the third month of the writers strike it may seem more like summer with big hit shows already in repeats.

Networks are scrambling to find programming, airing the few episodes written and made before the strike. Some midseason replacements include "Cashmere Mafia" and "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles."

Award ceremonies are suffering too; The Golden Globes became a press conference and the fate of the Academy Awards is still in limbo.

There seems to be no quick resolution or end in sight for the strike. New digital technology has led to new contract problems. The strike began because of unfair treatment to the writers with little or no residuals for internet streaming downloads.

You ask what's left on TV? Reality shows. As "American Idol" begins, we also get a mega-dose of dating shows: "Rock of Love 2," "Flavor of Love 3" and another round of MTV's "A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila."

The umpteenth seasons of "Survivor" and "Big Brother" are in order, plus revivals of semi-hit shows "American Gladiators" and "The Mole." But the award for the most desperate attempt goes to the CW network for the upcoming reality series "Farmer Wants a Wife."

So, what are TV viewers to do? Stay in the comfort of your home and check out DVDs of some great movies you may have missed in the theaters. Whether you add them on your Netflix queue or pick them up at your local Blockbuster here are some suggestions for great viewing:

"Away from Her" (PG-13) -- Stars Gordon Pinsent, Julie Christie, Michael Murphy and Olympia Dukakis. "Away from Her" is one of the saddest films of the year. Grant (Pinsent), an elderly man, deals with the fact his wife, Fiona (Christie), is now in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer's disease. When Grant comes back to the home he finds that Fiona has forgotten him and is now affectionate with another patient, Aubrey (Murphy). With Oscar talk around Christie's performance, this is one not to miss.

"Breach" (PG-13) -- Stars Ryan Phillippe, Chris Cooper and Laura Linney. "Breach" is the thrilling true story of an FBI recruit (Phillippe) who gets caught up in a dangerous game of espionage with his boss (Cooper), who is selling secrets to the Soviet Union.

"Eastern Promises" (R) -- Stars Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassel. "Promises" is a crime-drama mystery that follows Nikolai (Mortensen), a ruthless London gangster. He must retrieve incriminating evidence to protect his "family" from a midwife (Watts) who crosses paths with him. This is one to watch out for come Oscar time.

"Freedom Writers" (PG-13) -- Stars Hilary Swank, Patrick Dempsey, April L. Hernandez, Mario and Imelda Staunton. One of the most inspirational and faithful book adaptations of the year, "Freedom Writers" tells the true story of a young English teacher, Erin Gruwell (Swank), whose first job is at a racially divided school in Long Beach, Calif. There she teaches her students tolerance and to educate themselves in this moving drama.

"Grindhouse" (R) -- Stars Josh Brolin, Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton, Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. "Grindhouse" blends B-movie action with sci-fi, horror and exploitation flicks in two films by directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodrgiuez. "Planet Terror," Rodriguez's film, is about a zombie outbreak and a rag-tag team of survivors trying to stay alive. Tarantino's film "Death Proof" is a slasher flick about a killer (Russell) whose favorite weapon is his car. Including one of the best car chases ever caught on film, this is an experience not to miss.

"Joshua" (R) -- Stars Jacob Kogan, Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga. "Joshua" is the psychological horror story of a young piano prodigy, Joshua (Kogan). When the attention is taken away from him by his new baby sister, he has a sinister plan for her and his parents (Rockwell and Farmiga).

"A Mighty Heart" (R) -- Stars Angelina Jolie and Dan Futterman. Angelina Jolie gives a powerhouse performance as Marianne Pearl, the wife of slain journalist Daniel Pearl (Futterman), in this true story recounting the tragic events. With Jolie in consideration for a best actress Oscar, this is one to watch.

"Rescue Dawn" (PG-13) -- Stars Christian Bale and Steve Zahn. "Rescue" is another film that tells a real-life story. U.S. fighter pilot (Bale) is shot down and captured in Laos during the Vietnam War. This is the story of an amazing escape with a group of POWs.

"Talk to Me" (R) -- Stars Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofer, Taraji P. Henson and Martin Sheen. "Talk" is the biopic of Washington, D.C., radio personality Ralph "Petey" Greene, an ex-con whose popular radio show rocketed him to fame. With laughs-a-plenty and a great story, this is one to "talk" about.

Let's hope these offerings are enough to get us through the strike before "Farmer Gets a Wife 2" makes it to TV sets.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Definitely miss this 'Call'

* out ****

"One Missed Call" is the first film of 2008, but starts the year off with the wrong number.

Shannyn Sossamon ("Dirt," "Moonlight") gives an uninspiring performance as the fearless heroine, Beth Raymond, in a role that we've seen in horror films time after time.

The plot is simple: Beth's friends are all dying around her in tragic accidents after receiving a cell phone call. When her friends hear their missed call's voicemail, it is the sound of their death. The call is listed two days later at the exact time of their death sent from the cell phone of a person that died before them.

In the 48-hour doomsday waiting period, Beth's friends tell her how they start hallucinating, seeing insects crawling about and decomposed faces as a reminder of their end of days. When found dead they all have a red hard candy found in their mouths.

The cops don't believe Beth's claims, since after the deaths the messages are erased.

Police officer Jack Andrews (Edward Burns), our second hero, assists Beth after his own sister becomes a victim of the cursed call.

When Beth gets her own fatal call, however, she and Jack spelunk through eerie buildings and investigate through newspaper and police archives to find the origin of the voicemails and a way to save Beth before anyone else gets the killer call.

"One Missed Call" is dull and boring, failing to provide at least one genuine moment of fear. It also follows the patterns of similar themed films such as fellow Japanese remakes "Pulse" and "Dark Water" (both not much better). "Call" also raises many questions. Why listen to the message if you know the outcome? This question never dawns upon Beth and her friends. Instead the movie continues with their destiny, which leaves the characters and audience not very surprised with what happens next.

Since they can't cancel their phone plan (through Boost Mobile, the only company that lent its name and product), they do destroy their phones, but this doesn't seem to stop the vengeful spirit.

Giving the best performance of the film is the usually reliable Burns, who sleepwalks through his part as Jack.

This is the first American film for French director Eric Valette, whose directing style is either formulaic or got lost in translation with the common close shot angles for chilling jump scenes that got more of a laugh than a yelp. Screenwriter Andrew Klavan ("Don't Say a Word") has some good ideas but seems to have forgotten the elements of common sense and an ending.

The best moment of the film happens during the first few minutes when victim number one meets her fate by the ghoul, but seconds later the ghost reappears and takes the life of her cat.

This is when the cracks start to show -- did the cat also receive a voicemail?

With failed attempts for the film trying to explain itself, especially the connection between the characters and the curse, "One Missed Call" is definitely one to hang up on.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Katherine Heigl shines in "27 Dresses"

*** out of ****

"27 Dresses" is the new chick-flick of '08, but, guys beware, this is one you can go to and still have a laugh.

We have seen some variation of the formulaic romantic comedy "27 Dresses" countless times. Does it give us any new insight on the subject of marriage? No. Does it offer anything remotely original? No. Does it make an enjoyable comedy? Yes.

Katherine Heigl, of "Gray's Anatomy" and "Knocked Up" fame plays late twentysomething Jane, a hopeless romantic. Jane's life is neat and organized, working as an assistant at an eco-friendly company. Her boss George (Edward Burns) is oblivious that Jane holds a secret love for him. Jane's love life, however, sits on the back burner while acting as her friends' go-to-gal for planning weddings.

Jane is the embodiment of "always a bridesmaid never a bride." She's been one 27 times and counting. Keeping all the dresses crammed into an overflowing closet provides many amusing flashbacks.

At a pre-wedding party for a co-worker, Jane finally works up the nerve to ask George out, but her younger sister Tess (Malin Akerman) beats her to the punch.

The news gets worse when the manipulative Tess becomes engaged to George, which devastates Jane.

When Tess asks Jane to plan her impromptu wedding, spineless Jane can't say no.

In the meantime, Kevin (James Marsden), writer for the commitments section of The New York Journal, is pessimistic about marriage. Meeting Jane at a wedding, Kevin's persistent for a date, popping up in her daily life after finding Jane's dropped planner.

They eventually start dating, but Jane can't stop being frustrated with planning the wedding of the groom who should have been hers.

Jane also can't stand to see George get hurt, being blinded by Tess' lies and fake persona.

"27 Dresses" is consistently funny throughout. The montage of Jane wearing the 27 dresses is hilarious and the drunken karaoke scene is a highlight of the movie.

Heigl is amusing as Jane and handles the dramatic scenes nicely with plenty of chemistry wtih James Marsden.

Newbie Swedish actress Malin Akerman ("The Heartbreak Kid") wasn't exaggerated enough for most of her scenes, causing them to be somewhat lackluster.

Edward Burns is suitable as George, but acts too aloof throughout the movie.

Judy Greer, who plays Jane's co-worker and best friend Casey, provides comic relief.

In her second attempt at directing after the hit "Step Up," Anne Fletcher, a long time choreographer, paces the film well with drama and comedy in the mix.

Screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna ("The Devil Wears Prada") wrote the witty screenplay. Unlike most romantic comedies, the script is believable without relying on unrealistic coincidences.

In a sea of cute date movies, "27 Dresses" is certainly engaging (no pun intended).