Friday, December 16, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game
of Shadows

Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as the world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, and Jude Law returns as his friend and colleague, Dr. John Watson, in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. 

Around the globe, headlines break the news: a scandal takes down an Indian cotton tycoon; a Chinese opium trader dies of an apparent overdose; bombings in Strasbourg and Vienna; the death of an American steel magnate ... no one sees the connective thread between these seemingly random events -- no one, that is, except the great Sherlock Holmes, who has discerned a deliberate web of death and destruction. At its center sits a singularly sinister spider: Moriarty.

Holmes' investigation into Moriarty's plot becomes more dangerous as it leads him and Watson out of London to France, Germany and finally Switzerland. But the cunning Moriarty is always one step ahead, and moving perilously close to completing his ominous plan. If he succeeds, it will not only bring him immense wealth and power but alter the course of history.

I'm not a Sherlock Homes devotee, I've only read a couple of the original stories, but I absolutely loved the first Sherlock Holmes movie. It was smart, funny, action-packed and visually stunning. Plus it made you think and follow the plot. I can say pretty much all the same for the new movie as well. This one, however, really requires you to pay attention to small details throughout the film's rather complex plot -- and half the time I really had no idea what Moriarty's plan actually was -- because, as with any good whodunit, those little  details just may come into play during the story's climactic moment. And if you're in the least bit familiar with the Holmes legacy, you'll also be very familiar with the climactic location, Reichenbach Falls, where Holmes and Moriarty finally met their end in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. But it's only the second movie, so they can't kill off the world's greatest detective and his greatest adversary just yet, can they?

You never know, because the film kicks off with a rather surprising fatality. After that, you aren't sure who will survive … except for Watson, of course, because as in the original books, the Holmes adventures are told by him. The film opens with Watson typing up his latest (and last?) story about Holmes' encounter with Professor Moriarty, who seems to be linked to a series of mysterious deaths (although no one but Holmes see the connection). As Holmes puts all the pieces together, he discovers that Moriarty is always one step ahead of him, and we see Holmes shaken to his core when he realizes he's been outsmarted. But with the help help of Watson and a gypsy woman (Noomi Rapace, the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), they gain the upper hand, but Moriarty is a crafty foe who can easily turn the tables. The cat and mouse game between Holmes and Moriarty is handled very well.

The original film got its share of criticism for straying too far from the original stories, as well as for all the things blowing up, and this film also has its share of explosions … but they're not just randomly in the plot -- various locations are being bombed by terrorists. Introducing Moriarty, Reichenbach Falls, and Mycroft Holmes also ties the movie more closely to the source material. Guy Ritchie has again delivered a beautiful looking film, even with all of it's dreary shades of grey, and his use of ultra slow motion during a chase and gun fight through a desolate forest is jaw-dropping. Some may say this is all style over substance, but I loved it. And there is more than enough plot to let Ritchie indulge his visual stylings.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law again prove that their casting was a stroke of genius as the two have the best buddy chemistry on screen since … Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte? John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd? It's hard to say, really, because they work together so well. Stephen Fry is also a welcome addition to the cast as Holmes' brother, Rapace makes a lovely new heroine for the boys to work with, and Jared Harris is appropriately smug and superior as Moriarty. Hans Zimmer's score also varies in range from gypsy music to Don Giovanni to pounding orchestral music. I absolutely enjoyed Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows as much as I did the first movie. It's one of those movies that you can't really do justice in a few words because it's so visual, so densely plotted, so well-acted … it really is a terrific piece of entertainment that strives to keep the audience on its collective toes and not just deliver a by-the-numbers mystery that can be figured out by the time you finish your popcorn. If you enjoyed the first movie, by all means put this on your "must see" list. If you're still on the fence, I highly recommend it. If you're a Holmes purist, it's sure to irritate you but this is Sherlock Holmes for a new generation … and maybe when it's all said and done, the movies will get that new generation interested in reading the original stories.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Conversation with
Christopher Sieber

If you're a member of the LGBT community, or just love musical theatre, then you are more than likely familiar with La Cage aux Folles in any or all of its various incarnations. Most people are familiar with the movie that started it all, but that movie was first based on a French play. The movie became a success in the States in 1978, and from that, the Broadway musical was born in 1983. Of course, with all of the success, Hollywood also had to produce an Americanized version of the movie which was also very successful. Back in '83, even if you hadn't seen the show, you were probably very familiar with the disco version of the musical's signature tune, "I Am What I Am," a song that has gone on to become a major gay anthem. Over the years, there have been local productions of the show across the country, and two Broadway revivals (and it's the first production to win three Tonys for Best Musical for the original production and the two revivals).

And now the latest version of La Cage has hit the road for a nationwide tour that is currently in Baltimore through November 6th at the Hippodrome Theatre. If you haven't gotten your tickets yet, there are several reasons to see the new production (which is a more intimate version of the original Broadway extravaganza), and two of them are the show's stars – the legendary George Hamilton has taken over the role of Georges (played by Christopher Sieber on Broadway) and the role of Zaza is being played by none other than … Christopher Sieber, the multi-talened, Tony-nominated Broadway star (taking over for Broadway's Harvey Fierstein)! I recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Christopher, from his hometown of Minneapolis, to talk about the new show, his outrageous role in Shrek the Musical and what the future holds.

CD: How is the tour going? This is your first tour, right?
CS: This is not necessarily my first tour. It's my second, but the first tour I did was 20-some odd years ago so … yeah, I was 22 then and you could stay up late and not worry about singing the next day. Remember 20 years ago when you could be irresponsible? (laughs) So this is a different experience for me because after the show I'm so exhausted because it's such a big part, I have to go back to my hotel room, watch TV and be quiet.

CD: On Broadway you played Georges, so you didn't have to go through as much preparation as you do now.
CS: Georges' songs aren't hard, they're not high. Georges has "You On My Arm," "Look Over There" … umm, he has … yeah, that's all he has, really. I have five or six songs as Albin/Zaza. It's a lot. It's a lot, but the part is so much fun to play, it really is, it's a blast. There's so much there.

CD: What made you decide to swap roles for the tour?
CS: I had done the show on Broadway, and I had kind of done Georges, and the producer Barry Weissler asked me if I would be interested in doing the tour, and I said, "You know what? I don't know. Maybe." And he says, "I kind of want to ask you to do Zaza," and I though that that was kind of a cool challenge actually, and it's such a great part, and I can scratch it off of my list of parts I wanted to play so I said sure, if we can make a good deal, make it worth my while to go on the road, I'll totally go. And, you know, I'm having a blast with it. And the hard part is watching George Hamilton do Georges, because when you do a part and you know the ins and the outs of it, and you watch somebody else do it, it's kind of like watching someone drive your brand new car in a way.

CD: Do you have the urge to give him direction?
CS: Yes, but I have to bite my tongue. (laughs)

CD: And what's it like working with George Hamilton?
CS: He is a doll, I'll tell you that. He is self-deprecating, so funny, a charming, charming, dashing man, not a diva bone in his body, just a lovely, lovely guy.

CD: That's always good to hear.
CS: Yeah, because it could make the tour really hellish if there's somebody opposite you who is a major diva, and most of the time divas … and I've worked with a few of them, and they're only divas when they have to be … they're the real insecure divas that are just basically bitches the entire time. They're horrible to be around.

CD: Looking at the show, the original version had that whole political/religious angle and it's still relevant in today's political climate.
CS: It's so relevant today, yeah. It's the gays against the conservatives, basically, is what the show is. It's kind of like the ongoing battle … the story is our son decides he wants to marry this girl Anne, and his girlfriend is the daughter of a very conservative politician who's trying to sweep clean the types of clubs like La Cage aux Folles, and sweep these people away so they don't exist anymore. So Jean-Michel wants his parents to butch it up and it just doesn't work out and hilarity ensues. It's a covert message about be who you are, and there's a line in the show that if we've done our jobs correctly you'll leave with more than a folded program and a torn ticket stub, because it's a covert message that will make you think a little bit. It's something like, "Life is too short to judge, to hate, we can all live together, and just because you're gay doesn't mean we can't be a family." And that message comes through and it's kind of an interesting … because in this production, it's such an intimate production. We've cut back a lot of the over-the-top numbers and everything, and just brought everything down real to make La Cage aux Folles an actual little club, and it works really, really well.

CD: Okay, I was wondering what the differences were between the original production and this version.
CS: Yeah, they cut back a lot, they cut right down to the story which is basically the family. So they really knocked it down. Terry Johnson, our director, really pared it down so it's almost like a play with the best music in the world.

CD: And speaking of music, you certainly get to perform probably the most iconic gay anthem ever. What's it like to sing that song every night and wonder if audiences are really getting the message of it?
CS: Well, my parents saw the show and my mom said, "You made me cry," and I was like, "Why," and she said that song, "I Am What I Am," "it was you." And I was like, "Yeah," and she said it was just amazing and great, and I was so happy because my mom never gives me compliments. (laughs) My parents never give me compliments because it's the Minnesota way – if someone gives you a compliment then you think you're something! (laughs) But they gave me a compliment and I was very surprised. But that song, it moves people and it certainly is one of those songs that you have to be prepared for even as a performer because you kind of have to go down a rabbit hole with it. Luckily, I've had a lovely … quite the history of, you know, being a gay man, and I'm 42 now and all the stuff that I had to go through I can use in that song. But basically, ultimately, it's all about pride and being true to yourself and being who you are. And I think it's one of the best songs for musical theatre ever written. It really is. It's like a little play in itself. But such a great song, and so moving and the words are so true, "Life's not worth a damn, till you can say hey world, I am what I am. And your life is a sham, till you can shout out loud I am what I am." I mean those are just terrific lyrics.

CD: It gives me goosebumps just hearing you say the words.
CS: Oh, good!

CD: How long does it take you to get into the whole Zaza character?
CS: It's about 45 minutes before the show, we start our makeup process which is basically just kind of a base because I do put the makeup on stage myself in front of the audience.

CD: And you're in and out of makeup throughout the show?
CS: Well, the way it's done now, Albin just stays in his show makeup, because somebody noticed that between shows in the West End and on Broadway, the showgirls don't take their makeup off, they don't even take their wig prep off. They just put on a bald cap and sunglasses, and they go out. So that's exactly, when we hit the Promenade scene, that's exactly what we do. So I have a hat on and I have sunglasses on, and I still have my big old lashes on and my eye shadow (laughs), so I'm only in and out of makeup three times, not like the old show where it was every other scene where you had to put on, take off, put on, take off.

CD: You're now playing the role Harvey Fierstein played on Broadway. Any urge to take on any of his other roles now, like Edna in Hairspray?
CS: I did Edna already at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. It was a great experience. It was exciting.

CD: Cool! Speaking of roles that require some preparation, I remember seeing you on the Tonys doing your part from Shrek the Musical. Did you have to do that entire part on your knees?
CS: Yeah, yeah, I pick the parts that kind of destroy me for some reason. (laughs) For my next show, I think I'm going to do one called "Whispers in Pajamas," where I'm in a bed, in pajamas and I have to whisper all my lines and music to a nursemaid and she has to sing it for me. That or "Jazzy the Musical" in a little hoveround chair. (laughs) Yeah, I do parts because I like the challenge of it and plus there's so much stuff you can do, like weird stuff, like Farquad in Shrek the Musical was so bizarre. I got the opportunity to write with David Lindsay-Abair most of the part, so what ended up on stage was mostly my fault, and all the stuff with me being on my knees and everything, because we were in development and we started about three years prior to it finally hitting Broadway, we started with one act and three songs and as we progressed, every other month we'd get together, and before you knew it we had kind of a show, and we were trying to figure out what to do with Farquad, how to make him small and we were maybe going to put a trench in the stage, or maybe hiding me behind set pieces and little things, and that would be a nice fun little running gag, but one day I came in with these little legs that I had constructed, I put them in front of me and I knelt down and did this little dance with them and it was the funniest thing we had ever seen, and we were like that's it. And it ultimately became this huge thing and I apologize to everyone else who has to do that part ever. It was so funny, but ultimately it was exhausting and it ruined my body, my neck and shoulders, my spine and my back and my hips … my knees are fine actually. The weird part is my knees are fine, but everything else hurts.

CD: Hopefully the only thing that hurts after this tour is your feet from the heels! How long is your tour with La Cage?
CS: We are going to be on the road for about a year or so, 42 weeks. I think we end in Canada.

CD: Well, I'm sure you're going to take a nice long rest after this, but what's your dream project down the road? What do you want to do next?
CS: Well, it really sounds like a cliché but I really want to direct something. It's so cliché but I think I have a good eye for things. I teach kids, high school students, that really want the desire to do theatre, I do workshops and stuff with them, and that's really actually a lot of fun because they come prepared and they really want to do it, so that's really nice. I like doing that, but to direct people, to do a production would be really neat if I could do that. I think I have a good eye and know the pace of the shows, and I know how to work things so I think it would be … even if it was just an acting coach or something, I think I'm pretty good at that, I guess. I don't know. (laughs) We'll see.

CD: I think there is plenty of evidence to prove that!
CS: I know that when I teach I can get these kids to do stuff that they didn't think was possible, and you can see it on their face when they have a breakthrough, they're like, "Oh my god! I never even thought of that!" And I'm like, "Yeah!" We just did one here in Minneapolis and it was terrific. These kids came in and they were prepared and they were just great. They were really enthusiastic, and not all of them could sing but it doesn't matter if you can sing or not, even if you're doing musical theatre. You just have to interpret it right and do it right, and people will buy it.

I think that whatever role Christopher Sieber is interpreting, audiences will buy it. You can get more information about the national tour of La Cage aux Folles by visiting

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Green Lantern probably works
better for the uninitiated

So a dying, purple alien crash-lands on earth and tells you his ring has selected you to be his replacement, to take his lantern and to recite the oath. Then he dies, leaving you with no clue as to what exactly the oath is. What do you do? Well, if you're Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), hot shot, wreckless pilot, you figure out how to activate the ring and it transmits the oath directly to you and then transfers you to the planet Oa where you learn you are now part of an elite corps of intergalactic peacekeepers.

So goes the origin story of Green Lantern, one of the stable of DC Comic characters coming to the big screen for the first time. I'll be up front with you -- I am not a reader of comics. Used to be (I even worked at a comic book store in high school), but as I've gotten older I've found other things to distract me. (But with the DC Comics reboot upon us maybe this is a good time to get back into comics.) As it stands, I barely know the difference between Green Lantern and Green Arrow so I'm probably going to have a different reaction to the movie than the die-hard fans.

And my reaction is that I enjoyed it very much. I was worried about Reynolds' snarky persona, but it was put to great use when he was being the cocky pilot. He lost that swagger, though, after he realized he didn't have the capacity to fulfill the destiny bestowed upon him by the ring (of course, he did but he just didn't know it at first). When needed, Reynolds proves that he can be funny and charming, but emotional, dramatic and heroic. I thought he did a great job. His co-star, Blake Lively … well, she has her moments but I had a hard time buying her as a pilot/businesswoman who is roughly the same age as Hal. Even with dark hair, to me she's still that high school student from Gossip Girl (which I haven't seen since season two). I do love Peter Sarsgaard and whenever he's on screen he's captivating to watch. Unfortunately, he's severly under-used as the alien-infected-human villain and his less-than-threatening character weakens some of the drama that you normally get in a superhero movie.

That being said, I thought this was one of the better origin stories because it completely explained the character of Hal Jordan to this novice without being the least bit boring. The film balances the action and the quiet moments very well; it's not all wham-bang action from beginning to end. One of my favorite moments is when Green Lantern returns to see Carol (Lively) after saving her life and she immediately recognizes him. It was a funny moment and probably one of Lively's best moments in the movie. The scenes on Oa were amazing with a seamless blend of human actors and CGI sets, backgrounds and characters. Everything was bright, colorful and beautiful to behold. It was great hearing Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan as two of the alien Lantern Corps members, and I reall, really like Mark Strong as Sinestro. He's got a great voice and if you watch him closely, you'll notice that he never blinks! Ever!

Also totally awesome, and the source of a lot of controversy amongst the fans, was the Green Lantern suit. It's hard to believe that the entire thing was CGI and that Reynolds was never stuffed into what would have been like a rubber sausage casing. I bet Christian Bale wishes they would CGI his Batman suit on! It was just so cool, and the mask and Reynolds' eye turning white when he's the Green Lantern … it was totally amazing. Now let's talk about the 3D … I am a fan of 3D when it's done right and I hate that Hollywood has this need to convert every 2D movie into 3D now. This is a 3D conversion, but I have to say it is one of the best of the lot. The image was clear, sharp, had nice depth and only an occasional bit of distortion. Nothing leaps off the screen at you, but the depth works really well in the space scenes and on Oa. The Parallax character really could have benefited from real 3D so that it's tendrils could literlly crawl off the screen and into the audience (the CGI work on Parallax was excellent, giving the "creature" a real feeling of weight and texture). If you have the choice of 3D or 2D, I'd say go with the 2D but you won't feel burned by having to pay extra for the 3D if that's the only choice.

I don't know why a lot of early reviews are calling Green Lantern "joyless" because I ended up having a great time watching the movie, and I went in expecting the worst. It's sure to anger the hard-core Green Lantern fans, but if it can get over that hurdle, I think those who like Ryan Reynolds and these kinds of action-packed, special effects extravaganzas will come out of the theater pretty joyful indeed. It's not The Dark Knight or Spider-Man 2 … but it's not Fantastic Four either! A note for parents -- most of the movie is kid friendly, but younger children may be frightened during the Parallax attack on the city which includes scenes of a crowd of people fleeing the monster and being consumed by it, so keep that in mind.  Oh, and don't jump up right as the credits begin to roll, or you'll miss the set-up for the next movie!

Green Lantern is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Arthur - Best that you can do?

A few years ago, director John Waters commented on the Hollywood trend of remakes by telling filmmakers they should stop remaking classics and remake bad movies and make them better.  Hollywood, sadly, has not heeded his words and now gives us a "re-boot" of the comedy classic Arthur.  Any movie from the 1980s is ripe for the picking because the people who go to the movies, especially on opening weekend, weren't even born when the original Arthur was released in 1981, and they almost surely don't know Dudley Moore and only know Liza Minnelli as that old singer from Sex & the City 2 (and maybe Arrested Development).

The original Arthur Bach was a drunk, plain and simple.  A fun drunk, but a drunk nonetheless.  He was also filthy rich thanks to his family's deep pockets and he loved to cruise around a pre-Disney-fied New York City picking up prostitutes for a night of fun.  He had a servant named Hobson (played brilliantly by Sir John Gielgud, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role).  Arthur's family are dismayed by his behavior and threaten to cut him off unless he marries a girl named Susan - more of a business arrangement than a real marriage.  Unfortunately, Arthur has fallen for another girl from the wrong side of the tracks (Liza Minnelli), but is forced to go through with the wedding because money talks.  Hobson takes ill and passes away, leaving Arthur (who had been sober while caring for Hobson) despondent.  He hits the bottle again, tells Linda he loves her and they go to the church to stop the wedding.  Susan's father, however, is very over-protective and gives Arthur a thrashing at the church when he shows up with Linda and the wedding is cancelled.  Arthur knows he will be broke but happy, but his grandmother tells him that he can have the money because no Bach will ever be a working class person.

The new Arthur follows the same basic plot, but without any of the charm.  This Arthur, played by Russell Brand, is a child in an adult's body whereas the original Arthur was just an irresponsible adult.  We're told the new Arthur drinks but he spends more time playing with his toys and causing havoc around New York than he does getting drunk.  Political correctness has caught up with Arthur so much that now he attends AA meetings!  There is also some gender-bending as his mother, rather than his father and grandmother, threatens to cut him off from the family fortune if he doesn't marry Susan (Jennifer Garner) but his heart is once again torn by a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, this time named Naomi (Greta Gerwig).  Hobson is now a woman (Helen Mirren) who is Arthur's nanny instead of butler.  Yes, nanny.  Unfortunately for Mirren, she doesn't have half as many great one-liners as Gielgud did in the original (don't count on any Oscar glory for this one), and her illness and death happen so fast that there is no real emotional impact.

I will be honest and admit that I am not the world's biggest Russell Brand fan.  His voice is grating and he's really not pleasant to look at.  All I could think about was if he ever washes his hair.  He plays the little boy in Arthur perfectly but there's never any real growth in the character, even when he does call off the wedding and forsakes his millions.  Jennifer Garner did turn in a nice performance as the woman who knew her marriage to Arthur was only business, because by taking the Bach name she would control his company when his mother stepped down.  Garner played the cold-hearted gold digger very well.  It's hard to tell if Mirren just took the role for the paycheck or if she was just acting exasperated by Brand through the entire shoot, because she was just a sourpuss the whole time.  Audiences loved Gielgud's Hobson because he was witty and just rolled his eyes at Arthur, while Mirren's Hobson just comes off as a disapproving parent.  Worst of all is Greta Gerwig.  I enjoyed her performance in No Strings Attached, but here she's got one expression and one tone of voice, no matter how happy or angry she is with Arthur.

It's been a long time since I've seen the original Arthur, but I do remember laughing a lot while watching it.  I laughed once during the new Arthur.  Some movies are just of their time and can't be remade or updated without taking some drastic measures.  Arthur was certainly of a time when audiences could laugh with and love a drunk millionaire with a penchant for ladies of the evening (and a heart of gold).  It's hard to warm up to a spoiled brat millionaire with a fleet of movie cars (including the original Arthur limo) who doesn't know the value of a dollar even if he does have a heart of gold.  The best that you can do?  Rent the original.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Now if you've seen the ads on TV or the full trailer, you might be coming into this film thinking it's a dramatic thriller with a little bit of The Matrix and Inception thrown into the mix. The movie does have it's dramatic moments, but the tone of the film is actually quite a bit more lighthearted than you've been lead to believe. Damon stars as a political candidate whose aspirations are dashed after a video surfaces of him in a bar brawl and then mooning the camera (really, this is the worst a guy can do to not get elected?). He meets a woman quite by accident just before his concession speech but the encounter energizes him enough to go off script, win the hearts of those who had previously supported him and gives him a shot to run again in four years. But he can't get the woman out of his mind after he runs into her again on a bus – something he was never meant to do because there are a group of people who watch and manipulate almost all of our actions, at least the ones that will have a major impact on our lives and the lives of others. Because one of these guys was sleeping on the job, the encounter on the bus throws the world out of balance and it must be corrected before the ripples cause major havoc.

While I was expecting something much darker, I was ultimately charmed by the love story between Damon's David Norris and Blunt's Elise Sellas. Even when faced with obstacles that are designed to keep the two apart, Norris does everything he can to make sure the two stay together (even though she has less faith in him with his constant disappearances from her life). Norris even goes so far as to enlist the aid of one of the Adjustment Team members, the one who threw everything out of balance in the first place, and learns all of their secrets including how they travel from place to place through various doorways with the aid of their magical hats (yes, hats). I would even go out on a limb and say that these beings who are not supposed to be seen are actually something like guardian angels. Religious terms are never explicitly mentioned, but you can certainly see them if you just read between the lines. That doesn't make the film a religious experience, though, because director George Nolfi keeps things firmly set in the realm of science fiction as far as how the Adjustment Team operates with all of their gadgets.

Everyone in the cast is excellent but Damon proves once again why he's a star admired by film-goers around the world. He easily plays the everyman caught up in bizarre circumstances that anyone can relate to, and he can handle all of the action scenes without seeming like he trained for months for just such an occasion. He's masculine but not overly so, and you're never threatened by him. Like the old saying goes, he's someone women want to be with and men want to be (and vice versa). I didn't jump on the Matt Damon bandwagon until he did the Bourne series of films, but since then I've really admired his work in everything from The Departed to his guest appearances on 30 Rock. I can't picture another actor who could find the right balance of machismo and vulnerability that Damon has in The Adjustment Bureau, and the success of the film's premise lies squarely on his shoulders and makes the film well worth seeing.

The Adjustment Bureau is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image.

Drive Angry 3D

The story is out there and I don't think the previews have really explained much, which is why the movie has pretty much tanked at the box office. Nic Cage plays John Milton (the name is not random, by the way) a soul escaped from Hell to avenge his daughter's death and save his grandchild from being sacrificed at the hands of a Satanic cult to bring Hell to earth. Milton is joined on his quest by Piper (Amber Heard), a girl who can kick ass with the best of them – she also has a pretty sweet ride taken from her abusive ex-boyfriend (played by screenwriter Todd Farmer, who loves to write himself into his movies as the naked guy). Milton is being followed by The Accountant (William Fichtner), who is responsible for returning escaped souls to Hell.

The movie features some totally outlandish action scenes, such as when Milton is besieged by a dozen of cult leader Jonah King's men while copulating with a waitress the entire time, Farmer's patented dialog and utilizes the 3D process to throw everything from bullets to car parts to body parts at the audience. Now that is what 3D is for! The film itself is a terrific homage to the 70s car exploitation films (if you liked Tarantino's Death Proof, you should enjoy this) and really has the feel of a film of that era. If there is one thing Farmer and director Patrick Lussier do well it's give their films the correct look and feel of the era they're paying homage to. I loved their remake of My Bloody Valentine because it was a straightforward remake that improved on the 1981 original, yet still had the feel of a film made in 1981.

I don't know what's kept audiences away in droves from this movie, but I fear we've grown tired of one bad Nic Cage movie after another. Drive Angry, however, suits his style perfectly because Cage doesn't necessarily have to act as much as react but he does deliver Farmer's dialog perfectly. I loved Amber Heard's character because she's a tough girlie-girl who can take a few punches to the face but never, ever has a hair out of place, dirt on her clothes or a smudge to her makeup. At one point I was looking at her and thinking how pretty she is then I realized she'd just been in a big fight with another character and came out of it looking perfect. Billy Burke's Jonah King is properly menacing as he gives the cult leader a sinister Southern drawl, and David Morse shows up as a (living) friend of Milton's named Webster (and I confirmed with Farmer that his first name, though never mentioned, is Daniel – again, no accident) but best of all is William Fichtner as The Accountant. He gets to play the role totally deadpan, but he also gets all of the best lines (which are even funnier when delivered with the utmost sincerity) and one of the best moments as he exits a moving truck onto the hood of a moving car. Drive Angry may not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you can appreciate the filmmakers' intention and have a fondness for the cheeseball exploitation films of the 70s, then this is one ride you should not miss.

Drive Angry 3D is rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, grisly images, some graphic sexual content, nudity and pervasive language.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Worth the Commitment

No Strings Attached
Cast: Natalie Portman, Ashton Kutcher, Greta Gerwig, Lake Bell, Cary Elwes, Kevin Kline
Director: Ivan Reitman

Emma (Portman) and Adam (Kutcher) are long-time friends who almost ruin everything by having sex one morning. In order to protect their friendship, they make a pact to keep their relationship strictly "no strings attached." "No strings" means no jealousy, no expectations, no fighting, no flowers, no baby voices. It means they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, in whatever public place they want, as long as they don't fall in love. The question becomes - who's going to fall first? And can their friendship survive?

No Strings Attached is another in a long line of romantic comedies that are all pretty much interchangeable, and if you don't know that the two leads will be together by the end of the movie then you haven't seen many movies. So what's the point in seeing this movie if you know how it's going to end even before you buy a ticket? One little twist on the genre that sets this film apart is that Portman's character is the one who wants to keep things strictly on a friends with benefits basis while Kutcher's character is the sensitive, relationship-oriented one. It's usually the guy in these movies that can't commit so it was nice to see this little flip-flop. Another reason to see No Strings Attached is simply for Kutcher and Portman. They have some great screen chemistry and you can really believe in the characters and you actually root for them to get together in the end (even when you already know they will). Portman shows that she can handle light comedy after her dramatic turn in Black Swan, and she really sells Emma's change from her commitment phobia to really loving Adam. Kutcher is basically playing the same character he always plays, but he still gives Adam a lot more charm because the character does have a heart and isn't just the overgrown college frat dude he is when we first meet him.

Beyond the two leads, the filmmakers have done what is probably one of the best jobs ever of casting the supporting characters, from Greta Gerwig as Emma's friend Patrice to Jake Johnson as Adam's friend Eli and all of the other peripheral characters in their lives. Each and every one of these actors is committed to their characters and they really bring them to life. These are people that you would actually want to spend time with, and when it comes to supporting characters that is not always something you can say. Kudos to the casting directors and the actors for doing such a great job.

The film is directed by veteran comedy director Ivan Reitman (Stripes, Ghostbusters, Kindergarten Cop) and he manages to stay true to his style while bringing it up to date with the addition of more R-rated language, partial nudity (mostly Kutcher) and a lot of sex. In one real modern spin, Adam's friend Eli proudly tells anyone who will listen that he has two dads and that they're great people (he also quickly adds that he's totally heterosexual) and no one reacts negatively. In our current landscape, it was nice to have this moment however brief it was … and then Reitman goes and ruins it all by finally showing the dads during the film's end credits as two stereotypically, over-the-top flaming queens (think two Zaza's from La Cage Aux Folles). I know this is a comedy and this gets a huge laugh from most audiences, unfortunately this just reinforces the belief that all gay men are basically one step away from a drag queen. It was a very disappointing moment in an otherwise good film. That being said, No Strings Attached is a funny, charming romantic comedy worth seeing mainly for the stars and the supporting cast.

Rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Miss America 2011

So the 2011 Miss America Pageant was held on January 15th, and I just had to make a few observations.

Seriously, girl, it's called a comb!

Graphics guy: "There's an L in Ashleigh? Well, no one will notice, right?"

Miss Arizona looks different on tape (left) than she does live (right).

And then someone let this demon spring forth from Hell.

Really, it's called a COMB!

Umm, is anyone actually directing this show?

What the?!?!

This is just nightmare inducing.

Not really sure what look Miss Arkansas was going for here.

And then they cut to a revival meeting. Hallelujah!