Review: SHUTTER ISLAND (R)

Leonardo DiCaprio never really knows what he's doing in "Shutter Island."

U.S. Release Date: February 19, 2010

Running Time: 138 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence, brief nudity)

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, John Carroll Lynch, Ted Levine

Director: Martin Scorsese

Producers: Martin Scorsese, Bradley J. Fischer, Arnold W. Messer, Mike Medavoy, Jeffrey Clifford, Daniel Dubiecki, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum

Screenplay: Laeta Kalogridis, Steven Knight, based upon the novel by Dennis Lehane

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / July 19, 2011

In a long line of bad-looking movies, Shutter Island comes right in at the worst-looking of 2010. Being a Martin Scorsese film, one would expect it to be a a great and enjoyable watch, but despite all of the twists and turns that it takes, it’s not. In fact, it’s fairly routine for this kind of genre. I’ve seen a lot of films that unfold the same way, and they do it a lot better. Granted, Shutter Island does get better as it goes along, but only by a little bit. For the most part, it wallows in the same amount of mediocrity for its entirety and provided me with the same thing I’ve seen a thousand times before.

One good thing is that the performance from the always trustworthy Leonardo DiCaprio is decidedly solid. He plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall that has been sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient at a hospital for the criminally insane. The hospital is located on Shutter Island, an island somewhere in the Boston Harbor.

The staff at Shutter Island seems oddly complacent, despite their surroundings. Everyone is oddly eerie. Daniels (DiCaprio), assisted by his partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), begins to investigate. That’s when things start getting a little too creepy for his liking. Right around this time the film’s first big twist occurs. Daniels reveals to Chuck his real reason for coming to the hospital in the first place. Apparently, his wife was killed in a house fire some two years back and the arsonist responsible for her death is being held at Shutter Island. Daniels took on the case so he could confront the arsonist, Andrew Laeddis.

Now, I’ll abandon the synopsis and begin by listing the downfalls of Shutter Island.

Besides DiCaprio, the acting was stiff and unbelievable. Everyone seems oddly campy. There’s a chilling cameo from gifted actor Ted Levine but, for the most part, DiCaprio’s the only one that seems to have actual feelings and emotions throughout the entire movie. The other actors are stiff and unconvincing and act as if they’re in on some big, stupid joke. Maybe it has something to do with the ending of the movie. Do I know? Do I care? Does it really matter?

The cinematography was bland and uninspired. Almost every scene was badly-lit and the continuity was a mess. This just isn’t Scorsese’s kind of film. What was he thinking? It’s agonizing to watch everything unravel, and boy does it unravel. The biggest, most unbelievably bad part about Shutter Island was the CGI. Good God! What awful visual effects. Half the time, I thought I was watching a 3D film, but not wearing the glasses.  I have a fair warning to Scorsese, wherever he may be, and that warning is to stay away from CGI in the future. His use of the green screen as well is horrifying.

Now, I have heard that many have been baffled by the film’s ending, saying that it was one of the most spectacular and unpredictable endings yet. I frankly don’t understand that. They claimed to have never saw it coming. It apparently threw them back and caused them to gasp. Uh, was that their first time watching a movie? Were they really that surprised? It’s one of the most overused “twist” endings in history. Hell, I knew how it was going to end from the trailer. What I wasn’t expecting was how bad it was actually going to turn out.

In the end, Shutter Island is a movie that received too much hype and those who view it long after its release will find it as disappointing as I did — that is, of course, if they have a decent taste in cinema and don’t enjoy inflicting pain upon themselves.

RATING: 1.5/4

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Review: GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI (R)

Forest Whitaker plays a wise hitman in "Ghost Dog."

U.S. Release Date: May 18, 1999

Running Time: 116 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: Forest Whitaker, John Tormey, Henry Silva, Cliff Gorman, Isaach De Bankole, Camille Winbush

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Producers: Jim Jarmusch, Richard Guay

Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / July 18, 2011

If there’s one thing that’s impressive about Jim Jarmusch, it’s that he can certainly create a movie-going experience unlike any other. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is essentially an urban Western-gangster-samurai-crime film, yet it also retains the elements of an art film. The storyline is standard and the characters are far from original (excluding the titular lead character), but Jarmusch is completely unorthodox in his delivery.

Forest Whitaker plays Ghost Dog, an African-American hitman employed by the mafia. He follows an ancient samurai code outlined in a book called Hagakure and keeps to himself most of the time, living in a shack on the roof of a apartment building. He communicates to a mobster named Louie only through use of a carrier pigeon. We come to learn that Ghost Dog is indebted to Louie for an act of kindness years earlier and now sees himself as Louie’s retainer.

At the beginning, Ghost Dog is hired by Louie to execute a man named Handsome Frank, who seems to be sleeping with the daughter of the mafia boss Vargo, but when the act of violence is committed, she happens to be present in the room. Obviously, this wasn’t meant to happen and the mob tries to cover up their involvement by getting rid of Ghost Dog.

Of course, like you guessed it, the story follows the traditional “revenge” formula, yet it isn’t a story about revenge. Ghost Dog (as mysterious as he is) is a man about values: loyalty and honor. He upholds the laws between retainer and master, and never means disrespect. Occasionally, the film will pause as Ghost Dog reads a passage from Hagakure, explaining these moral codes.

Here, Jarmusch presents to us a story that is enjoyable. He manages to squeeze in moments of originality and ingenuity, often flipping the formula on its ear, and gives the whole film a stylish quality that you won’t find much elsewhere. You’ll find a lot of it to be implausible (such as a spectacular gunfight sequence between Ghost Dog and an array of gangsters), but it doesn’t really detract from the film in general.

The only problem I really have with Ghost Dog is that Jarmusch adds a lot of really unnecessary social commentary when there”s no need for any. He often detours from the story just to show us a brief and useless look at reality. An example of this would be when Ghost Dog spies a pair of hunters on the side of the road. They’ve just killed a bear and their excuse for killing it is that there were “too many of them.” I realize that hunting is a cruel sport, but the nod towards it is entirely irrelevant. It’s as if Jarmusch finished the script, realized that there weren’t any scenes with “secret meanings” behind them, and went back to cram a whole bunch of them in.

Now, you may find yourself frustrated with the slow pace of Ghost Dog as well, but after the first half-hour, the mood changes and things really pick up. It’s a clever ride and one that I doubt you’ll find in most of other films.

RATING: 3/4

Review: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (R)

Things go bump in the night. Or not. Maybe.

U.S. Release Date: October 22, 2010

Running Time: 99 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, violence)

Cast: Brian Boland, Molly Ephraim, Katie Featherston, Sprague Grayden, Seth Ginsburg, Micah Sloat

Director: Tod Williams

Producers: Oren Peli, Jason Blum, Akiva Goldsman

Screenplay: Michael R. Perry, Christopher B. Landon, Tom Pabst, based on characters by Oren Peli

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / July 16, 2011

Paranormal Activity 2 is a half-hearted attempt at horror. It’s got a lot of “Gotcha!” moments and all of them failed to spark any sort of thrill inside of me. The plot is the same as the first Paranormal Activity, except Paranormal Activity 2 acts as a prequel and a sequel at the same time. It’s the second installment in the franchise, but happens before the first one. That’s about the most interesting thing that Paranormal Activity 2 has to offer.

People have got to learn that pop-ups are not scary. They do not define the word “horror”. Most modern horror films that you see on Netflix or at the movie theater use pop-ups as the main way to scare the audience. And almost ninety-nine percent of the time, they completely and utterly fail. These moments are referred to as “Gotcha!” moments. They usually involve characters hearing a noise, venturing into the darkness, and then, when they’re least expecting it, something bursts into the frame with a loud and unprecedented noise. But we almost always expect it. And it’s never as scary as its should be.

But besides not being scary at all, Paranormal Activity 2 is just plain stupid and boring. We switch between about six different camera angles for most of the movie and nothing really ever happens during the scenes. Sure, I get it. This supposed to give the audience suspense, so that when something does happen, they’re not expecting it to and it freaks them out. Normally, that sounds like a good idea but here, it doesn’t work. Nothing ever happens and something does, it’s usually something really small and minute or something really, really unbelievable. A certain scene involving a woman being dragged downstairs comes to mind.

Movies like Paranormal Activity 2 make me sad for this generation. Whatever happened to the good horror films of the sixties and seventies? Whatever to horror being manufactured with suspense, instead of loud noises and gore like it is nowadays.

Of course, Paranormal Activity 2 will attract those looking for a scary time. Of course, they will jump a few times, but leave slightly disappointed. Of course, there will be a third one. Of course, they will rely on “Gotcha!” moments as their source of terror. And if they choose to do so, I can guarantee you that the third one will be even worse than this one.

RATING: 1.5/4

Review: BOTTLE ROCKET (R)

Owen Wilson is hysterical as Dignan.

U.S. Release Date: February 21, 1996

Running Time: 92 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, sexual situations)

Cast: Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Robert Musgrave, James Caan, Lumi Cavazos

Director: Wes Anderson

Producers: Cynthia Hargrave, Ray Zimmerman, Polly Platt, James L. Brooks, Richard Sakai, Michael Taylor, Andrew Wilson

Screenplay: Owen Wilson, Wes Anderson

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / July 16, 2011

What an original and endearing little gem Bottle Rocket is. It doesn’t follow any formulas and kicks any possible cliches to the curb.

For starters, Bottle Rocket isn’t orthodox about anything that it does. What about the plot? Well, the plot is there, but only sometimes. It concerns three hooligans aspiring to become master thieves. Their leader, Dignan (played by Owen Wilson), isn’t exactly smart and doesn’t really know what he’s doing half of the time, but he’s positive and stays positive so it’s impossible not to like him. His friends Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Bob (Robert Musgrave) are ne’er-do-wells as well.

The trio executes their first crime at a local bookstore. They get a small sum of money and decide to go on the lam. Normally, going on the lam is when you’re forced to, as in you’re wanted by the police. The trio of hoodlums do it less because they’re forced to and more because they want to. They settle down at a motel, where Anthony falls in love with a Spanish-speaking maid.

From here, Bottle Rocket meanders down several different paths, with none of them ever really leading anywhere. Wes Anderson, the writer and director here, shows us some of the most subtle humor you’ll see in a comedy. You don’t really laugh until a few seconds after the joke is said. This is the kind of movie that stands out amongst others, for it is very unlike other movies.

The main problem though is that comedy comes only in certain scenes. The beginning of the movie is hilarious, as is the ending, but the middle is boring. These are the scenes where Anthony begins to grow feelings for the maid, Inez (Lumi Cavazos). It’s slow and not particularly interesting. Really, the scenes where a crime is perpetrated, those are the best. Anderson delivers just the right amount of idiocy to make less stupid and more funny.

A standout performance is the one from Owen Wilson, playing Dignan. Wilson brings such a level of humor to this role that you just grin at every single action he does or word he says. It’s a fantastic comedic performance and such a likable character.

Again, Anderson has an ear for dialogue and he’s a pretty good director as well. This is a pretty formidable entry in the competition for best film debut. It’s charming and inventive and most of all, funny. Not in the “haha” sense of the word, but in the sense where you grin and say, “Now that’s funny.”

RATING: 3/4

Review: WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS (PG-13)

Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz look like a couple of fools in "What Happens in Vegas."

U.S. Release Date: May 9, 2008

Running Time: 99 minutes

MPAA Classification: PG-13 (Language, sexual situations)

Cast: Cameron Diaz, Ashton Kutcher, Rob Corddry, Lake Bell, Dennis Farina, Queen Latifah, Krysten Ritter, Jason Sudeikis

Director: Tom Vaughan

Producers: Michael Aguilar, Shawn Levy, Jimmy Miller

Screenplay: Dana Fox

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / July 15, 2011

I’m beginning wonder if there’s even an attempt made to make good movies anymore. It seems like the same exact thing keeps getting tossed up onto that silver screen, nary a change ever being made to the good ol’ rom-com formula. The creators behind What Happens in Vegas never even almost try to bring something new to the table, relying on clichés so overused and worn-out they wouldn’t even make for a serviceable boxing bag.

Leading a cast of losers are the two of the unfunniest people Hollywood has ever had the indecency to bless with acting careers: Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz. The days where good looks and charm compensated for raw acting talent have long since passed for the two of them and here they just look like fools, most notably in a scene where Diaz pegs Kutcher with oranges as they race through the streets of New York City, all-the-while looking like fools.

Out of everything that What Happens in Vegas to offer, the story is the most original, even though saying that is a stretch. It deals with Joy (Diaz) and Jack (Kutcher), two radically different people whose troubled lives lead them to Las Vegas for solace. Joy has experienced a recent breakup, while Jack has been fired from his job. In Vegas, the two coincidentally cross paths and become friends. Eventually, they start drinking and soon find themselves married.

Well, the following morning, the two realize that what they did was a huge mistake and immediately reconcile to get a divorce. But just as they are about to, Jack decides to play one final round on one of the slot machines and ends up winning the three-million dollar jackpot, thus resulting in their divorce being put on standby. This is where What Happens in Vegas loses any semblance of the charm it barely had and becomes a fight between Diaz and Kutcher for the title of who looks the stupidest at doing what.

What director Tom Vaughan doesn’t understand (besides the art of filmmaking) is that a movie with a formula is not always a bad thing, but a movie that follows a formula because its creators could not be any more creative is. What Happens in Vegas exploits its formula, taking advantage of every possible cliché until watching it becomes a game of ‘Betcha Can’t Guess What Happens Next.’

But to be fair, the audience this film was made for aren’t the kinds of people that like variety. They like seeing the same things done over again and again because it eliminates thought process. They don’t have to think about what’s coming next — they anticipate it. God forbid a movie that requires you to use your brain.

I won’t go much further in explaining all the faults that What Happens in Vegas has. It would take too long and frankly, I’m tired. You’ll know if this is your kind of movie or not. What use is this review anyway? I’m basically just pointing out the obvious.

RATING: 1/4

EPIC MOVIE (2007) / Comedy-Fantasy

Running Length: 85 minutes
MPAA Classification: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language, and some comic violence.

Cast: Kal Penn, Jayma Mays, Adam Campbell, Faune Chambers, Jennifer Coolidge, Darrell Hammond, Fred Willard, Crispin Glover
Directors: Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer
Producer: Paul Schiff
Screenplay: Jason Friedberg, Aaron Seltzer

Watching Epic Movie is a lot like having someone repeatedly hit you over the head with a frying pan whilst telling the same unfunny joke over and over and over again. Calling it a ‘movie’ would be a gross exaggeration; it’s more or less a series of crude, overlong skits strung together by a repertoire of gags that work less than zero percent of the time. Seriously, you’d find more entertainment value in a colonoscopy.

For the most part, parodies stopped being funny after the release of Scary Movie in 2000, which wasn’t a great movie, but there were enough laughs in it to satisfy the average movie-goer, and in the end, it got the job done. Since then, there have been nothing but misfires, and a majority of them – if not all of them – have come from the trashy film making duo of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Epic Movie may just be their worst outing to date.

The plot is comprised of events from a multitude of films, but the two most notable are Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Our heroes (if they can be called that) are Lucy (Jayma Mays), Edward (Kal Penn), Susan (Faune Chambers), and Peter (Adam Campbell), who all happen across “golden tickets” inviting them to Willy’s Chocolate Factory. Upon their arrival, they realize that not a whole lot is right about the mysterious factory – (it deals with a certain ‘special ingredient’, if that’s of any help) – and the four end up escaping by means of a wardrobe, which leads them to Gnarnia. (Oh my God, do you get it? It’s a silent ‘G’! Haha!) There, the White Bitch (Haha!) is threatening to take over all of the land, and it’s up to the four of them to help the innocent fight back.

To be as blunt as possible, Epic Movie is a malefic, contemptible piece of garbage that’s an attack on all five of the senses and a kick in the balls. If there’s anything worse than an unfunny comedy, it’s an unfunny comedy that thinks it’s hilarious, and this is a perfect example. It’s absolutely shocking how consistently unfunny this thing is. Joke after joke misses, and though a large part of it may be due to the fact that the actors are horrendous, the majority of it stems from Friedberg and Seltzer’s lack of talent.

Besides the fact that it’s disgusting, despicable, and overtly laugh-free, my biggest problem with Epic Movie is the reason for its conception. The sole reason that it exists is to inflict upon its audience as much crudeness and raunchiness that its PG-13 rating will allow. That’s it. The goal here is not to provide a worthwhile movie-going experience, but rather an experience that will leave you sprinting towards the nearest shower and/or confessional after it’s over. There is not an inch of talent in front or behind the camera, and that’s still not even the most horrific part. How a studio saw anything in this is absolutely beyond me, so, for those of you that would like to know, Epic Movie was financed and distributed by Regency Enterprises. I’ll repeat that name again. Regency Enterprises.

There is such thing as a ‘watchable’ dumb movie, but Epic Movie threatens to cause brain damage. Friedberg and Seltzer, I hope the measly amount of money you make from these ventures is worth having the rest of the world despise you.

Final rating: no stars (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest