June 28, 2007

Movie Review: Live Free or Die Hard

Posted in Movies at 11:16 pm by Calico Jack

Live Free or Die Hard is a welcome throwback to traditional action films, filled with ruthless bad guys (and one particularly lethal bad girl), outrageously complicated schemes for world domination, and a jaded antihero who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — in Bruce Willis’s case, for the fourth time over the past twenty years. He’s one unlucky cop, isn’t he? But a slightly ridiculous plot and a few unnecessary effects showcases notwithstanding, Live Free or Die Hard is one of the better action films in recent years; and is easily the most enjoyable Die Hard film since the original.

It’s been twelve years since audiences last saw John McClane, and the passage of time hasn’t always treated him well. His reconciliation attempts with his wife failed, and their subsequent divorce left his daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) embittered against her father. Now an NYPD detective working the graveyard shift, McClane is living a rather pedestrian life enlivened by arguments with his daughter over her choice of boyfriends. After receiving a call to pick up a computer hacker wanted by the FBI in connection with a security breach, McClane anticipates a rather quiet trip to D.C. to hand off his cargo. This being a Die Hard film, however, “quiet” is nowhere on the manifesto.

One home invasion and prolonged shootout later, McClane and hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) are on the run from a network of highly capable terrorists led by former cyberterrorism expert Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) and his sexy partner Mai Lihn (Maggie Q). Their nefarious scheme involves shutting down the vast majority of the United States’ critical systems — banking, traffic, utilities — and holding the nation’s wealth as ransom, all achieved through the use of a converted semi-rig doubling as terrorist HQ and a seemingly unlimited supply of henchmen. As a plot device, this isn’t exactly realistic or original — especially since Live Free or Die Hard suffers from the Magic Computer syndrome, where traffic lights can be turned off with a few keystrokes and a single password is needed to reset the FBI’s computer system. But the effects of a large-scale computer crash mesh with the plot rather nicely, as McClane and Farrell constantly run into problems figuring out what the terrorists’ next moves are or getting that information to the police. It also has the tidy bonus of leaving McClane as the only one who can save the day: reluctant to get involved once more, but fully aware that there is no one else to do what is needed. His conversation with the surprisingly un-annoying Farrell about the responsibilities of a hero and the downsides that follow is something oft-lacking in many recent action movies. It brings a depth to McClane’s character that has been the staple of the Die Hard franchise, above the explosions and frequent gunplay for which these films are more commonly known.

In that note, fears over the film’s PG-13 rating are mostly unfounded: the language may not be as explicit as the earlier entries, but the violence is just as visceral as any other. It’s actually one of the more violent PG-13 movies this critic has seen; for every over-the-top, almost cartoonish chase scene there is a close-quarters combat that literally pulls no punches, leaving McClane bloodied and his opponents…well, dead. Director Len Wiseman proves surprisingly deft at handling Live Free or Die Hard‘s action sequences, foregoing the frenzied camerawork and jittery cuts that give so many modern audiences whiplash. He also keeps the tone of the previous films, with McClane spouting one-liners at the most inopportune moments and cackling with glee at the carnage and mayhem he just caused. But Wiseman unfortunately falls prey to that succubus of directors, the “No Urge to Purge” temptation that gives Live Free or Die Hard a running time of over two hours. There’s one nifty but ultimately extraneous scene involving a truck and an F-35 fighter jet that should have been left out of the film entirely (although fun to watch, it gives the movie its most unbelievable moments).

John McClane is a bit of an anachronism in today’s digital age, a Luddite more comfortable with his fists and his sidearm than using technology to stop terrorists. He’s older and wiser, less prone to the impetuousness of youth, yet his forthright approach to villainy is refreshing — in an era when everything is driven by computers, he’s one of the few who is both tenacious and capable enough to accomplish the impossible. Even as all of Washington, D.C. grinds to a halt, McClane is thinking two steps ahead; his actions alone must save the United States from a cyber holocaust. His relationship with tentative ally Farrell falls squarely within the bounds of buddy-cop movies, but Farrell is needed to point McClane in the right direction — and then get out of the way as a generation’s action hero does his thing. Live Free or Die Hard breaks no new ground for action films, and its plot stretches all credulity, but its straightforward earnestness and restrained style elevate it beyond its derivative origins. Here’s to hoping John McClane has a few more unlucky days to come.

B.

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June 22, 2007

Movie Review: 1408

Posted in Movies at 8:55 pm by Calico Jack

Stephen King adaptations are always hit-or-miss. For every Misery or The Shining, there are twice as many Dreamcatchers or Secret Windows. In fact, the last good King film was 1999’s The Green Mile — quite a long time for such a prolific writer. However, 1408 breaks that unlucky streak through Mikael Håfström’s assured directing and a strong leading performance by John Cusack, one of this generation’s criminally underrated actors. 1408 is a genuinely creepy psychological thriller that never mistakes gore for scares, yet proves far more terrifying than the torture-porn dreck that makes up so much of American horror cinema.

Cusack stars as Mike Enslin, a second-rate author best known for his travel guides to haunted houses and hotels. Although not a believer in the supernatural, he diligently carries his ghost-detecting equipment to the bed and breakfasts that advertise their particular brand of ghoulish horror, and scientifically debunks whatever paranormal myths there might be after spending a night in each haunted room. Years of traveling around the country in a battered Suburban have left him cynical and jaded; but upon receiving a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City with the eerie words “Don’t stay in Room 1408” scrawled on the back, Enslin packs his travel bag for yet another opportunity to disprove the existence of the supernatural.

The Dolphin Hotel isn’t so amenable to his request for that specific room; it’s been closed off permanently to hotel guests and most employees. Manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) is quite insistent on this point, as there have been over fifty murders/suicides in Room 1408 since the hotel’s opening in the early 1900s. No one who has stayed in that room has ever lasted more than an hour, and even the cleaning maid who was trapped in the bathroom for a short while mutilated her face and became blind. Enslin is undeterred, however; if there is no such thing as a haunted house, why should he be bothered by how many people have died? Over the protestations of Olin, he enters the room and prepares for a peaceful night with his tape recorder, taking verbal notes of his surroundings and the utterly pedestrian nature of the room.

Room 1408 doesn’t stay quiet for long; soon Enslin is plauged with a broken thermostat, chocolates mysteriously appearing on his pillow, and intermittently faulty electric wiring. Such actions could be contributed to the long-neglected room itself — until the alarm clock launches into a playing of the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” as its radio begins an eerie 60-minute countdown. What follows is one man’s sharp descent into insanity, as ghosts both literal and allegorical haunt his every footstep while he tries to escape his prison. Room 1408 is a malevolent presence, manifesting through blood-dripping cracks on the wall and even a spectral doppelganger of Enslin himself. Yet even with the supernatural evil permeating the room, Enslin’s most terrifying revenants may come from within.

Samuel L. Jackson gets second billing here, but 1408 is really John Cusack’s movie. His performance holds everything together, even when a late second-act development threatens to run off the rails into horror cliché. Cusack is alternately cynical and terrified — and slipping into well-deserved paranoia — but never turns the movie into what could easily have been overwrought acting. And the devastating revelations in the third act not only break his character’s heart, but the audience’s as well. The other strong point of 1408 is its limited setting, as the vast majority of the film is confined to one hotel room, giving the movie a potent sense of desperation and fear as Enslin struggles to free himself. Håfström makes the most of a small set, doing a wonderful job of always keeping the audience aware of spacial distance; this film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well had the entire hotel been haunted. In true Stephen King style, the resolution to Enslin’s nightmare is not necessarily what it seems; and 1408‘s final shot will burn itself indelibly into the audience’s mind as one of this year’s great closing scenes. 1408 is an effective thriller, eschewing cheap thrills to suggest that perhaps that “ghoulies, and ghosties, and long-legged beasties” aren’t what we should be afraid of the most, but rather the personal demons we all carry.

B+.

June 21, 2007

Album Review: My December

Posted in Music at 9:40 pm by Calico Jack

Kelly Clarkson’s latest album My December — which has been plagued with problems throughout its recording — will finally hit stores next Tuesday. All five of you who care, raise your hands. Still, in the interests of avoiding the “music snob” moniker I listened to the entire thing, courtesy of MTV’s Mac-unfriendly website. My December has a different tone than her previous albums; it’s lyrically darker and more despondent than even the not-exactly-peppy “Since You’ve Been Gone” track from Breakaway, which made her the darling of so many jilted girlfriends. Even the music has a harder edge; it’s closer to Evanescence than Natasha Bedingfield — although it falls prey to modern rock’s worst attribute, as nearly every track sounds exactly the same. It’s all midtempo, interchangeable stuff that drones on after the first several songs. I believe another American Idol alum had the same problem, with his debut album being focus-tested to contain the maximum number of radio-friendly hits — i.e., Nickelback-lite. Chris Daughtry’s record was inexplicably snapped up by a large number of Americans, though; obviously it worked.

Clarkson also can’t seem to get past her biggest obstacle: her voice. She’s an alto who shouldn’t be trying to belt out anything soprano-related, as the results are more shrieking than singing. The first single “Never Again” is a particularly egregious example of this problem, but it gets little better for the rest of My December. However, there are two tracks which deviate from the usual formula and prove that somewhere, deep down, Kelly Clarkson has a decent singing/songwriting gene buried beneath layers of post-American Idol celebrity. “Be Still” and “Irvine” are quieter, reflective songs unfortunately stuck in the second half of the album; better placement might have given listeners more of an incentive to slog their way through the whole thing. Clarkson channels Damien Rice’s breathy vocals in the hopeful “Be Still”, and pleading “Irvine” is a quiet cross between Sarah McLachlan and Feist. I’ll probably end up getting both tracks on iTunes; they’d make for a nice coffeehouse mix.

If you’re interested in listening to My December, here’s the link for the 64K stream. As pop-rock music goes, it’s mediocre-and-below…but this album will probably sell a million copies to people who have never heard of Neko Case or Regina Spektor or even Corrinne Bailey Rae. Oh well; their loss.

C-.

June 16, 2007

Movie Review: Nancy Drew

Posted in Movies at 11:27 pm by Calico Jack

Nancy Drew flagrantly commits the two cardinal sins of book-to-screen adaptations. It mangles the source material, most likely angering the millions of fans who were anticipating a respectful treatment of their childhood memories. But it also can’t stand on its own as a movie, apart from any of the baggage that comes with a popular franchise. The first two Harry Potter films were decent at best, but fans were willing to forgive (or at least overlook) their flaws since they followed the books so closely. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy deviated from Tolkien’s novels in myriad ways, but those films earned their place in movie history as epics for a generation. Nancy Drew is a mishmash of ideas, a movie that condescends to its target ‘tween audience by assuming that (unintelligent script * stereotypical caricatures)^perkiness = a good movie. Now that’s a formula even the on-screen Nancy should be able to figure out.

Emma Roberts (niece of overrated actress Julia Roberts) stars as the 16-year-old titular character, whose skills at solving crimes have made her the darling of the local police force. After catching two bumbling criminals stealing from a church’s coffers, and offering one homemade treats to help him work through psychological issues, Nancy is ready to leave small-town River Heights and travel to Los Angeles for her dad’s three-month business trip. Carson Drew (Tate Donovan), concerned about his daughter’s knack for getting into sticky situations, lays down his version of Daddy Knows Best: “No sleuthing in L.A., and try to act like a ‘normal’ kid” — the latter half being some of the worst parental advice one could possible give. Nancy will have none of the former, but she also faces difficulties fitting in with the rest of humankind. After all, this version of Nancy Drew dresses in ’40s jumpers and penny loafers; thinks building cathedrals out of plywood and oil-painting recreations of Washington’s Delaware crossing are mundane activities; and, most excruciatingly, has a perpetually peppy — nay, chirpy — disposition, leading one to muse that perhaps strangulation isn’t such a bad way for Nancy Drew to go. In short, she’s a social misfit, a ditzy overachiever whose supposed talent for crime fighting is constantly overshadowed by her naivety and jaw-dropping inability to piece clues together, solving a mystery that seems glaringly obvious on the surface, but in fact…actually, it doesn’t get any more complicated than the original setup. And it still takes her an hour and a half to figure out something that the audience should have gotten in the first twenty minutes.

Andrew Fleming, writer and director of this celluloid abomination, doesn’t help our girl heroine much, giving her a flaccid story that provides at most, one thrill: seeing the ending credits start rolling. Carson and Nancy move into an old, decrepit house in north L.A., one which is like every other old house in bad movies: it contains a dark, mysterious secret. Twenty-five years ago, the owner was an actress recently returned from a months-long sabbatical. Soon after her arrival, she was found floating in the bathtub, a victim of an apparent murder-drowning. No one ever solved the crime, but now it’s Nancy’s turn to shine dimly flicker. Helping her in her quest is the most annoying sidekick in recent history, a twelve-year-old chubby kid with the apropos name of Corky (Josh Flitter). He’s the younger brother of the local school’s most popular girl, a fashionista bimbo named Inga (Daniella Monet) whose idea of style is arming herself with enough bangles and scarves (in L.A.?) to deflect a cruise missle. She could moonlight as the L.A.P.D.’s one-woman bomb squad, but I’m sure the producers will save that idea for the inevitable sequel.

After several obligatory high school hijinks reminiscent of an unfunny Mean Girls, insufferable Nancy and her idiotic pals set out on a quest to find the murderer of movie star-cum-floaty bather Dehlia Draycott (Laura Elena Harring, who must have had a hard time finding work after Mulholland Dr. to prostitute herself for this film’s paycheck). The fortuitous arrival of occasional boyfriend Ned (Max Theriot) serves only to give Nancy Drew a laughably atrocious love triangle between two 16-year-old nitwits and Corky…who’s 12. Yep, it’s really tough figuring out which way that one’s heading. More characters pop up, including Rachael Leigh Cook’s worst performance of her career as a single mom with ties to Draycott, and Bruce Willis making a mildly amusing cameo as a petrified version of his usual wooden self. Even the addition of several bumbling criminals (it’s becoming a theme) with a vendetta against Nancy doesn’t spice up the plot, which trudges its way along to a forgone conclusion.

The worst part of Nancy Drew is its butchering of the much-beloved classic novels. The literary heroine was clever and calm under pressure, but also fun-loving and adventuresome. This Nancy is nothing of the sort: lacking her predecessor’s intelligence, she has to rely on a haphazard chain of coincidences to help her solve an uninspired mystery. And it’s an odd juxtaposition when Nancy wears historical clothing and drives a fifty-year-old roadster, but also owns an iPod and MacBook. The producers tried to have the best of both worlds by taking elements from the books and coupling them with a modern script. Unfortunately, they did everything wrong by keeping Nancy’s period clothes but eliminating her intelligence. A truly modernized Nancy wouldn’t be a social misfit at all, but rather a charming, fashionable, poised young woman on the verge of adulthood adroitly solving crimes under the wise tutelage of her father. None of that can be found in this film, which winks at Nancy’s disobedience of her dopey father (she’s only sixteen, not eighteen as in the books) and teaches kids that studios are willing to plunder anyone’s childhood for a quick buck. Nancy Drew is a failure on every level — a perfect contender for worst film of the year.

F.

June 14, 2007

Britain’s Got Talent

Posted in Music at 5:43 pm by Calico Jack

Americans have the annoying habit of bastardizing nearly everything that comes out of the UK, especially when it comes to TV shows. (Coupling, anyone?) Rarely is an Americanized version able to hold its weight against the British original — The Office being the most prominent exception. And it’s almost unheard of to take a US export and turn it into something better.

Last summer the sporadically entertaining America’s Got Talent premiered to stellar ratings, reinforcing the notion that Americans can’t get enough of reality shows. And a week ago, the British version hit the airwaves — although if this clip is anything to go by, the Brits could be in for a far better show than we’re subjected to on this side of the pond:

Update: Paul Potts performed in the semifinals and….well, take a look for yourself.

Update x2: And we have a winner!

June 8, 2007

Movie Review: Ocean’s Thirteen

Posted in Movies at 5:21 pm by Calico Jack

Danny Ocean and his crew of suave, sophisticated con artists and thieves are back in Ocean’s Thirteen, Steven Soderbergh’s second sequel to the remake of the 1960 Rat Pack classic. Unlike the smug, self-satisfied Ocean’s Twelve, which kept the breezy tone of the first film but lacked all of its redeeming qualities, this installment has a stronger script coupled with a ridiculously outlandish plot that somehow manages to cling tenuously to a suspension of disbelief for all involved.

The name of the game this time is revenge: not the passionately unbridled raging that makes mincemeat out of the unwary, but a calculated, easygoing kind that drips with coolness — this is, after all, the most stylishly charming gang out there. After Ocean’s alum Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould) is double-crossed out of his partner’s share of a swanky new Vegas casino by gaming mogul Willie Bank (Al Pacino) and suffers a near-fatal heart attack, Danny recruits the rest of the crew one more time for a financial takedown of Bank, Ocean-style. The best way to do this isn’t through outright theft or a personal con job; all Danny has to do is rig all of the gaming tables to ensure the house loses — to the tune of $500 million on opening night. This isn’t one big con but a slew of smaller ones that affects all aspects of the casino, requiring everything from magnetic dice to fixed card shufflers. How do you get past Bank’s state-of-the-art security system to let gamblers Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), Frank Catton (Bernie Mac) and Yen (Shaobo Qin) work their magic? How do you prevent unsuspecting winners from promptly turning around and pumping their newly discovered fortunes straight back into the casino’s tables? (I won’t give the answer away, but it’s a comically mind-boggling scheme that puts other cons to shame). And most importantly, how do you pay for all of this? Ten million only goes so far, after all.

All of the Ocean’s crew are back save Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose disappearances are explained in a throwaway line that isn’t quite as convincing as hoped. Even the addition of Ellen Barkin as Bank’s right-hand assistant Abigail Sponder doesn’t make up for the lack of female presence, as Barkin is sadly underused, spending most of her time looking pretty in the background or doing little to give much character motivation (not that it’s ever been a big part of the Ocean movies). Linus Caldwell’s (Matt Damon) attempted seduction of Sponder using pheromone-laced cologne, a scene that should have been hilarious, falls a bit flat due to Barkin’s overacting. But the rest of the gang is in fine form, trading quips and shrugging off the exponentially spiraling complexity of this job with debonair attitudes. “We’re stuck,” Danny sheepishly admits to former nemesis Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) when faced with an unforeseen challenge. “Not stuck — just stalled,” retorts Rusty. This casual banter and jaunty insouciance is the hallmark of Ocean’s Thirteen, and its who’s-who of A-listers pull it off with rakish good looks and style.

Soderbergh also doubled as cinematographer, and his deft hand is clearly shown in every frame, from color oversaturation to the constant moving of the camera within scenes. Where most directors would take a steady shot and run with it, Soderbergh is always shifting back and forth, tracking movements and gestures that spice up the already impressive visuals in a scene. He uses the camera as another actor; it’s the thirteenth member of Ocean’s Thirteen.

As a disposable piece of entertainment, Ocean’s Thirteen works. It lives in its own fantasy world where everyone throws around numbers like “ten” and “thirty-six” to refer to millions of dollars, and where the glamor and glitz of Vegas never exposes its seedy underbelly. Clooney, Damon and Pitt all have an easygoing chemistry with each other, and Soderbergh knows enough to get out of the way of his own actors. Sure, it’s quickly forgettable, but it’s also tasty in its own way — in other words, exactly what a summer film should be.

B.

June 5, 2007

The Peril of a Pirate Flag

Posted in Random Oddments at 8:49 pm by Calico Jack

From the UK’s Daily Mail:

As his sixth birthday approached, Morgan Smith’s parents thought hoisting the Jolly Roger would be the perfect way to make the pirate-mad youngster’s day.

The flag was duly run up the pole in the back garden, leaving Morgan looking forward to a party on Saturday with lots of friends wearing eyepatches and wielding toy cutlasses.

But little did the family know that out on the treacherous high seas of bureaucracy, trouble was heading their way.

Council officials branded the skull and crossbones flag “unneighbourly” and banned Morgan’s parents Richard and Sharon from flying it.

There’s more at the link, including a cool picture of Morgan doing a rather good impersonation of a swashbuckling pirate — sword and eyepatch included.

And I’d like to apologize in advance for the following. I’m so very, very sorry.

June 1, 2007

Movie Review: Knocked Up

Posted in Movies at 8:45 pm by Calico Jack

What sets Knocked Up apart from other raunchy comedies is its heart, something lacking from movies that go solely for the gross-out gags and debauched humor. 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin made a name for itself by taking its titular uncomfortable subject and, at the core of all of the surrounding randiness and dirty jokes, treating it with both sensitivity and genuine warmth. Writer-director Judd Apatow (also known for the classic TV show Freaks and Geeks) continues his tradition with Knocked Up, a lighthearted coming-of-age film that manages to convey more insights into the ups and downs of unplanned pregnancies than many films which tackle the subject quite seriously.

Allison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is a competent E! Channel producer with dreams of making it big in the entertainment business. Jobless and future-less Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) shares a house with his four stoner buddies (hilariously played by Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel, and Martin Starr), doing little more each day than lighting up bongs and skimming movies for celebrity nude scenes. When Allison receives a promotion to on-air reporter, she and her caustic married sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) hit the town in celebration, eventually ending up at the same nightclub as Ben and his friends. The two meet, and after a night of drunken carousing end up in bed together, fumbling their way through the motions but too wasted to care. The morning after doesn’t go so well, as Allison realizes just how much of a lazy pothead Ben is. Ben, for his part, is simply happy to have slept with a girl at all, no matter if she’s disgusted with him later. They part ways, Ben to go home and brag to his friends and Allison to forget the thing even happened.

The title of Knocked Up gives the main plot twist away: eight weeks later, Allison discovers that’s she’s pregnant. Insistent on keeping the baby, she grudgingly realizes that the father ought to be involved in her life. Ben is completely clueless as to the responsibilities entailed in fatherhood, but — to his credit — he wants to do the right thing and support Allison, even if he’s a bit too narcissistic to realize just how much sacrificing of time, energy, and pot-filled evenings the next seven months will require. With the sometimes unwelcome assistance of Debbie’s acerbic tongue and her weary husband Pete (Paul Rudd), Allison and Ben begin to plan for the future…and perhaps grow a bit closer along the way.

This is all formulaic stuff, with few surprises before the wincingly painful-yet-funny childbirth scene that will inevitably leave audiences chattering long after the movie ends. The joy of Knocked Up is in the details, however, from the often hilarious potty-mouthed script which leaves no subject undiscussed to the difficulties Debbie and Pete face in their marriage. She’s extremely controlling, but loves her husband and their two children wholeheartedly; he would like to do nothing more than escape from her for days at a time. Their problems run throughout the entire movie, and serve as a nice counterbalance to the mostly sentimental romantic journey of Allison and Ben — although that pair are not without their own share of issues, especially Ben’s insecurity and Allison’s increasingly hormonal mood swings.

Knocked Up isn’t as consistently hilarious as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and it suffers from some of the same problems that plagued the first film — especially its running time of 129 minutes, far too long for this sort of comedy. But it is just as warmhearted and touching as its predecessor, and contains a few hilarious cameos from Ryan Seacrest, Steve Carell, and Jessica Alba. Amidst Knocked Up‘s raucousness and raunch, two important themes stand out: even with its difficulties, marriage is important; and being a parent requires both maturity and sacrifice. Those are lessons well worth recommending.

B+.