Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Ghost Town

Tastes better than expected
By Lauren Flemming

“Ghost Town” delivers some well-deserved chuckles and even a few laugh-induced tears, despite the lack of publicity surrounding this romantic comedy.

An anti-social and brutally rude dentist, Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais, “The Office”), unexpectedly dies during a common medical procedure but is revived after seven minutes. Unaware of his brief passing, Bertram leaves the hospital only to find hordes of people staring at and following him. He thinks they’re hallucinations, but the people are actually ghosts with unfinished business, seeking his help to resolve their unattended earthly affairs.

Naturally, as an adamant anti-people-person, Bertram is rattled by his new company, even more so as he begins responding to them in public, drawing stares from bewildered humans who cann't see the ghosts. One ghost in particular, Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), uses his persuasive, and at times petulant, demeanor to use Bertram to break off the impending wedding of his widow, Gwen (Tea Leoni). Bertram must overcome his aversion for social niceties and befriend Gwen, who happens to live in his building, in order to rid himself of Frank’s constant company.

Bertram and Frank discover some supernatural confusion along the way and, in due time, experience the inevitable “ah-ha!” moment of self- (or in Frank’s case, spirit-) awareness.

Gervais’ portrayal of Bertram is sharp, quite easily carrying the humor of the entire film. Fans of “The Office” original will not be disappointed with his performance.

Kinnear pulls off the narcissism that follows his character to purgatory, but doesn’t seem to embody any real redeeming qualities until the very end of the film.

Complete with a hilarious gag scene and some opportunistic cheeky jokes, the film was entertaining and funnier than expected. The basic plot is stale—man sees dead people and can communicate with them—but writer/director David Koepp (better known for his action screenplays: War of the Worlds, Jurassic Park, Spider-Man) manages to incorporate some fresh humor.

Expect a romantic-comedy story-line, but don’t expect the mushy-gushy—this film steers clear from (almost) all gag-worthy scenes by injecting very unromantic humor. Well worth a matinee-priced ticket, “Ghost Town” will, if nothing else, keep you smiling at the quick quips of Ricky Gervais.

Check it out: Ghost Town official website (requires updated Flash plug-ins)

Burn After Reading

Pitiful, like an overdone steak
By Alex Berry

On the surface, Burn After Reading is nothing more than a bunch of over exaggerated stereotypes gallivanting in an unrealistic world of idiots. As the latest Coen Brother's flick (following award winning and crowd pleasing No Country for Old Men), this disappointing espionage storyline has too many coincidental subplots, overused humor, and overdramatic acting. But this all seems to be a masking method to portray America as a country full of lonely, arrogant, and disconnected people--which works in its own meaningless way.

The supposed "dark comedy" isn't much of a comedy at all, maybe earning a grin or chuckle for some of the absurdity. Mostly, the oddball movie is downright boring, and this dragging tale of CIA mockery and societal ignorance falls into a 'love or hate' category--as most Joel and Ethan Coen movies do. Take it or leave it.

The central plot focuses on Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), two dim-witted gym employees who stumble upon a disc containing the memoirs of former CIA agent, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich). Imagining the information on the disc is valuable government spyware, Chad and Linda foolishly attempt to blackmail Osbourne in order for Linda to pay for her multiple plastic surgeries.

Osbourne's wife is having an affair with playboy Harry Pffarer (George Clooney) who in turn is also a married CIA agent and begins courting Linda after coincidentally meeting through an online dating service. The whole scheme goes wrong which leads to a couple of unnecessarily brutal murders.

The star-studded cast might be the only reason people show up at the box office. The acting is intended to look like overacting, making the whole movie purposefully unbelievable. Though it is mildly entertaining to watch Pitt girlishly dance on a treadmill, the characters however are underdeveloped and fit into an exaggerated mold (typical move by the Coen Brothers, think Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?).

So what's the point ?

Pitt plays a bouncy, energetic, almost feminine gym trainer who simply doesn't fit the role. Clooney's tacky playboy antics are all too cliche, and McDormand's middle aged, dumbed-down blonde role is unimpressive. The intense facial expressions for non-dramatic scenes (paired with the theatrical music) make the actors look cheesy. And even though the actors succeed in portraying these characters, the outlandish, overdamatic roles take away from their credibility.

The theme of Burn After Reading is unclear and the plotline so chaotic, it's difficult to find motif, if there is one. The overall presence of loneliness, selfishness, and superficiality in American life might be a theme undermined by the movie's stupidity. The scrambled plot stutter-steps through each scene making you believe there will be some profound "ah-ha" moment; instead, it leads us to Harry's mystery spy contraption, which ends up being a dildo chair.

Also, everyone is cheating on everyone. But even within the love affairs, the characters' chemistry is distant. Osbourne's wife (Tilda Swinton) is a "cold, stuck up bitch" who we don't get to know at all throughout the movie. We don't get to know any of the characters really, beyond their phony exterior, nor do the characters get to know each other. The only loner worthy of human connection is Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins), Linda and Chad's boss, who is chastised in the movie as a negative person even though he is the most optomistic character with his puppy-dog eyes and in his hesitancy to pursue Linda.

There is a lack of sensitivity to prove all the negative aspects of life: Osbourne's anger and alcoholism, Harry's cockiness and paranoia, Linda's self-conscience body image, and the CIA's overall stupidity and disinterest. This Coen Brothers' tactic is clever in the sense that the character's involvement and distant interaction further demonstrates arrogance and self absorption. But if you weren't looking for this theme, you'd probably simply yawn.

Had the unmemorable humor actually been funny, the movie might be entertaining. Overall, the Coen Brother's make a sarcastic statement about America's general lifestyle. The point is we're all narcissistic idiots. Thanks for the lesson.

Righteous Kill

Early-bird special kicks butt
By Amy Stillwagon

Have you ever watched an action movie and thought “Hey, my grandpa could totally pull off that gun scene?” No? Neither had I, until I watched “Righteous Kill.”

The years are beginning to show on the faces of actors Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, and yet they went about their macho cop roles as if they were a bunch of crazy, young 20-somethings. From the beginning of the movie, this veteran cop team seems to be well overdue for retirement, yet they are still hanging out in bars, sleeping with young women, and living the single life to the fullest.

What starts out as a slow-paced plot with cheesy celebrity cameos surprisingly turns out to be a good film. The beginning of the movie is a bit jumbled and leaves you wondering how it’s possible that Turk (DeNiro) and Rooster (Pacino) blend in around the likes of skater Rob Dyrdek and rapper 50 Cent, living through endless nights of sex with women who look like they’re just shy of 30. Once you get past those farfetched details you can finally start to understand what the movie is really about.

Turk and Rooster work the cop circuit as investigators, always at odds with a younger cop duo. As the movie progresses, more and more guilty criminals go free of crimes that Turk and Rooster think they are guilty of, and that just doesn’t fly for this seasoned duo.

When a series of murders of these criminals gets linked back to the police station, things finally get interesting. Turk, a cop consumed by rage, seems to be the obvious suspect. He and his partner become the targets of intense questioning and stake outs.

Scene after scene goes by, building up the evidence against Turk until the plot takes a surprising turn as one of the criminals lives through an attempted murder while one of the station’s own gets targeted by this insider serial killer. Co-workers are plotted against one another and no one trusts the next guy. The final twist to the movie ties it all in for an unexpected and somehow heartwarming finale.

DeNiro and Pacino make for believable but burnt out cops who stick together as partners through absolutely anything they face. Though they may look like your grandpa, they can still handle themselves against even the most unexpected criminals.

The overarching story of unlawful justice kept me intrigued and in my seat until the final credits. However, those of you hoping for an action-packed film should save your money for a movie that doesn’t sell out during the matinee seating, with a senior citizen discount.

Check it out: Righteous Kill

Inside the Actor's Studio- Robert DeNiro

Tropic Thunder

Tropically delicious
By Kamila Szoltysek

Prepare to witness the most outrageous compilations of comedic performances since–well, never. Previous attempts of Hollywood satire simply do not compete with “Tropic Thunder”’s stunning political incorrect-ness.

The “Scary Movie” series has nothing on this.

You’ll find yourself delightfully startled, yet wondering if you’re immoral for laughing at the countless jokes aimed at racial issues and disabled people.

As the film’s writer, director, producer, and lead actor, Ben Stiller is supremely accountable for the success or failure of “Tropic Thunder.” Needless to say, the comedic genius that Stiller has unveiled in this movie yet again proves that a funny gene does exist and was passed down from Stiller, Sr.

“Tropic Thunder” is aimed at revealing the ironies and common themes within the Hollywood community, the propaganda and politics involved in creating a big-budget blockbuster, the media’s obsession and exploitation of the lives of celebrities, and even the stereotypical downfalls of highly successful actors.

In essence, this is a movie about making a movie. But documentary it is not.

Claiming to be the “biggest budgeted Vietnam War movie ever made,” “Tropic Thunder” is the name of the film that is being made in the film. Confusing?

The director of the movie (in the movie) is frustrated with his arrogant and demanding actors. He realizes that the only way that the actors might show honest emotion is if they actually experience real fear, unstaged.

So, he deserts them in authentic Vietnam, with hidden cameras in place.

It’s not long until the plan fails and the actors are spotted by Vietnamese drug lords that assume the Americans are intruders.

After Ben Stiller’s character gets caught, the rest of the actors find ridiculous ways to free their fellow comrade from the hostage situation to which he is oblivious.

Ben Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a former successful action star who has recently been making some less-than-impressive movie choices. He sees this role as his opportunity to save his dwindling career.

Remind you of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, perhaps?

Robert Downey, Jr., plays the Australian actor Kirk Lazarus, a multiple Academy Award winner known for his serious method acting and dazzling dramatic performances. He, however, has grown a substantial ego and proves that he will take drastic measures to ensure the credibility of the black character that he is cast as when he undergoes a controversial skin pigment augmentation for the movie.

Lazarus then truly embraces his character as a black man and refuses to stop using his impression of a black dialect, even after the group realizes that they are no longer making a movie.

Here, Downey, Jr. could, in fact, be spoofing himself.

Lastly, Jack Black is cast as the third leading actor, playing Jeff Portnoy, a heroin-addicted funnyman known mostly for his series of films in which he plays multiple characters that fart uncontrollably.

Aside from the heroin, a direct blow to comedian Eddie Murphy.

By now, you should realize that this movie is intentionally unintelligent and overly obvious.

I can see how overacting can come naturally to Ben Stiller and Jack Black, but I had my reservations about Robert Downey, Jr. It was truly impressive to see Downey, Jr. overact so effortlessly.

His portrayal of a black man was too funny to be offensive. I dare someone not to laugh uncontrollably at his ignorance in the film.

In fact, the absurd ebonics that Downey, Jr. uses for his character is so overtly foul that it is unmistakably the funniest part of the movie.

Surprises are also aplenty, with several big-name cameos and one particularly controversial actor (Tom Cruise) who plays the hilariously vulgar studio chief, Les Grossman.

However, I can’t fully praise this movie without mentioning my annoyance that the only women in “Tropic Thunder” with speaking lines were the women who were playing themselves, such as Tyra Banks and Maria Menounos.

Nonetheless, my advice for anyone planning on seeing this movie is to watch it on an empty bladder, or at least come prepared with an additional pair of undies or even an adult diaper.

For its satirical brilliance, “Tropic Thunder” should win an Oscar for making fun of Oscars.

Check it out: Tropic Thunder

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bottle Shock

This wine hasn't peaked

By Alex Dimitropoulos

During the creation of “Bottle Shock,” word must have come from on high that the source material needed juicing up, and the rushed result is a muscled underdog fighting its way through tiresome sports drama conventions. For a film about California wines winning over snooty critics at a 1976 blind tasting in Paris, this approach proves especially problematic. “Bottle Shock,” a movie that should have let the viewer savor a bouquet of historical details, focuses more on selling itself to a broad, beer-guzzling audience than selling its fine subject.

The film opens by panning over rolling hills and an order imposed upon nature: parallel grape vines stretching for miles and miles. They look Photoshop-beautiful, but they have not made their way into shops like the one that British wine connoisseur Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) runs in dusty silence. His customer base, like his wine selection, is limited, and the expert initially seems provincial by not including small-town America in his stock.

Before 1976, however, California wines were not even a blip on the grape-stomping radar. Something from Chateau Montelena, which Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) runs with his son Bo, would not have been worthy of awkward gulping. Barrett, a man’s man who quotes Hemingway and dons gloves to box Bo, also boxes his own wine in Napa, California. He lives his craft and understands that what he makes is special, even if outsiders do not recognize or know his talent.

“You’re a snob,” Jim tells Spurrier. “It limits you.”

But Spurrier expands his horizons, turns ennui into enthusiasm, and invites Jim and his local competitors to face off with French wines in a blind taste test later titled the “Judgment of Paris.” The judges, set up here as prissy, pompous elitists, would never rate a California wine highly, regardless of its taste, if they knew that was what they were drinking.

These plot elements blend well, but Rickman, who out acts all but Pullman with just a studied arch of the eyebrow, disappears for much of the movie. The remainder, like a bad wine, is poorly structured, and the soundtrack and romantic or inspirational subplots cloud the contest’s impact.

The supporting cast, who work under Spurrier in “Bottle Shock,” has too much to support. There’s surfer slacker Bo, who represents stoners who will not let go of Woodstock; Gustavo, who says he grew up with dirt under his fingernails and wine in his blood; and intern Sam, a woman who gets in between the two youngsters and serves solely as eye candy and joke deliverer. The music, which should have been less of a character, consists of French accordions, a clichéd instrumental swelling for every cellar room pep talk and southern rock, better suited for Hicksville football tales than Napa viniculture.

“If one of us wins, we all win,” Bo says.

“Good luck out there. Thanks for representing us,” Gustavo says.

“Things are about to get real emotional,” the film score says.

But what does "Bottle Shock" itself say? It reveals the significance of the results of the contest at the end of the film, but it does so with text on the screen. Though this is a common technique for serious films rooted in history, it clashes with the lighthearted body of the film here. An excellent movie lies somewhere in this muck, but overall, "Bottle Shock" gives a bland, familiar aftertaste. It could leave you thinking more about the film tricks jockeying for your attention than the event that altered menus in even the most exclusive restaurants, be they in America or abroad.

Check it out: Bottle Shock's official website

Bottle Shock Trailer

House - Season 5: "Birthmarks"

For fans of the sweet and sour
By Brittany Cofer

Dr. Gregory House is quite possibly one of the most condescending characters on television. But in season five’s fourth episode, “Birthmarks,” the in-your-face doctor shows a rarely seen softer side.

The acclaimed drama “House” uses the familiar medical show theme but adds a twist by usually coming close to killing patients in attempts to find out what is causing their illness. The show tries to bring in a human element by creating intricate plot lines between the cast of characters.

At the end of season four, Dr. James Wilson’s girlfriend Amber tragically died. Wilson has since quit his job and shut out everyone around him, including his long-time friend House. Ever since, House has been desperately trying to win back Wilson’s friendship, though not conventionally. When the rare glimmer of earnestness slips into House’s persona, it is unmistakable and no doubt carefully crafted by the writers.

In this episode, House’s father has died, and to no one’s surprise, he says he is not sorry about his father’s death and will not attend the funeral. His medical team begins their differential diagnosis on an Asian woman brought to the hospital from China, when House makes an all-too-predictable derogatory statement. Upon receiving the Chinese medical records, House says to an Indian staff member, “Kutner, you’re sort of Asian. You can read this right?”

The obligatory medical jargon makes its way into nearly every scene. But the cast conveys the lines with such ease and fluidity that the viewer can easily follow the action. The show can be heavy at times, but one of the best parts of House’s brash character is that he can say what other characters cannot, and it comes off as humorous. Sometimes he does not even have to say anything at all.

Wilson, who always seems to be drawn to House even when he doesn’t want to be, forces decides to trick House into going to his father’s funeral. On the way, House receives a phone call. The ring tone is unmistakably Hanson’s “MMMBop.” I laughed aloud when hearing the song and seeing the embarrassed look on House’s face as the phone began to ring. Moments like this one uplift viewers, reminding them the show is not all gloom and doom.

House explains to Wilson that he believes the man who died was not his biological father. He said that at the age of 12 he realized he resembled a family friend and not his father. Wilson does not believe the story and thinks it is a ploy to prevent them from attending the funeral. While giving the eulogy for his “father,” House begins to break down and says, “I am what I am because of him, for better or for worse.”

House shows a side that has never been seen before as he bends over his father’s body and kisses his forehead. We then see House holding a pair of nail clippers, with which he snips a bit of the man’s ear for a DNA test. For the House fan, this moment is bittersweet. We wish for him to show a more human side and inevitably, when he does, it is swiftly counteracted.

After the trip Wilson tells House he will be coming back to work at the hospital. “I’m coming back because you’re right,” he says. “That strange, annoying trip we just took was the most fun I’ve had since Amber died.” House, even after confirming the man who raised him was indeed not his biological father, shows a slightly sentimental side by saying, “Wilson, my Dad’s dead.”

Check it out: House's Official site

House Season 5 Trailer

Inside the Actor's Studio- Hugh Laurie

Lipstick Jungle - Season 2: "Let it Be"

Pretty, empty calories
By Jennifer Paxton

Once upon a time an HBO gem celebrated Jimmy Choo’s, Manolo Blahnik’s and the modern woman. Witty, provoking insight accompanied character-driven plot lines, and the ladies were hooked.

Flash forward four years after “Sex and the City”’s conclusion in 2004, and that caliber of fresh television for today’s women has not been met.

In its second season, NBC’s “Lipstick Jungle” follows the busy lives of three expensive purse-toting New York women.

There’s Wendy Healy (Brooke Shields), a movie executive juggling ballsy decisions at work and a family at home. Nico Reilly (Kim Raver, “24”) is on top of her career game as well, taking the helm as editor-in-chief of a “Vanity Fair”-esque fashion magazine. Fashion designer Victory (Lindsay Price, “Beverly Hills, 90210”) plays a hopeless romantic struggling to find Mr. Right while keeping her studio afloat.

It’s no surprise that “Lipstick Jungle,” based on the book by “Sex and the City” author Candace Bushnell, revolves around drama considering its hasty origins. “Jungle” premiered alongside ABC’s “Cashmere Mafia,” which was made by “Sex and the City” creator and executive consultant Darren Star. The two wannabes duked it out in the primetime slot with neither show ever really winning. They featured similarly high-powered, caffeine-fueled women trying to balance executive jobs with marriage, families and an ever-growing collection of enviably cute outfits. Can they have it all?

“Lipstick Jungle” wants to say “yes.” In “Chapter 10: Let It Be,” Nico grapples with how to approach her new relationship with her 25-year-old boyfriend, Kirby, as a widow in public. Victory can’t decide between her new beau, Rodrigo, and her old multimillionaire one, Joe Bennett. Bennett, played by Andrew McCarthy, fills the role of “Mr. Big” for the series, carefully treading the line between sexy intrigue and disappointing stupidity. And Wendy, the anchor of the show, becomes involved in a complex insurance fraud case at work but still magically makes time for dinner with her family.

The negatives of “having it all” comprise the beef of the episode, but all loose ends magically tie up by the end (cue cheesy music and gratuitous shots of the New York skyline), fooling the viewer into believing these women can pull it off.

I don’t buy it. The show’s wrap-ups are forced and unconvincing. These women are not happy, but in dire need of a nap. “Jungle” hopes to portray these women as inspiring busy bees, but they come across as anxious, buzzing mosquitoes who can’t sit still.

And while “Sex and the City” wasn’t afraid to show its characters occasionally downtrodden and hungover (hence, relatable), the “Lipstick” ladies look annoyingly perfect – all the time. Like most women, I love a cute dress. But the emphasis on expensive aesthetic perfection for these ladies reeks of materialistic froth.

The show presents a “jungle” of modern issues for women without examining their roots as its HBO predecessor did. Furthermore, strong friendships between the women are absent. “Lipstick” may as well follow three completely unrelated characters living in the city. Individually, the show allows for some depth into individual characters, however. Victory is the most relatable character on the show for simply admitting some vulnerability, while the other two are beyond unrealistic.

The show does get an “A” on keeping its viewers glued to the screen week after week. What the show lacks in depth, it compensates for in dramatic pull.

If you want a show you can relate to, don’t watch “Lipstick Jungle.” If you want a soap opera at prime time, watch this series, just don’t expect it to bring you back to Carrie Bradshaw’s stoop.

Check it out: Lipstick Jungle

Lipstick Jungle "Let it Be" Trailer

*Editorial note: Lipstick Jungle has been cancelled after the current season.