The Barenaked Archives: The Skeleton Key

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

So, I give you my very first regular feature: The Barenaked Archives. These are reviews that I did for SIN or Hollywood Elsewhere (or both). Sadly, SIN and my column on HE are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

What’s Your Favorite Scary Movie?

I don’t have one.

I hate horror movies. Despise, detest, loathe, abhor, pick your term. Anybody who knows me relatively well knows that is the one genre of film I flat-out refuse to watch (okay, that and any movie based on a Nicholas Sparks book).

I can count on two hands the number of horror films and/or slasher flicks I’ve seen, on one hand the ones I didn’t hate, and on no hands how many I watched voluntarily.

However, even I’m willing to overcome my intense dislike for the genre when a) the movie is free and b) I will be compensated monetarily for viewing it. Even if it may mean a sleepless night or five.

Hence, the reason I saw The Skeleton Key this week.

Bayous Are Bad

skeleton_key_webSetting is, without a doubt, one of the most important things when making a supernatural suspense movie. It’s usually best to set it in an old, creepy house that looks like it has a history. It’s even better if said old, creepy house is in the swamps of Louisiana, the only state in the Union with a rich and famous legacy of ghosts, voodoo, vampires, and other things that go bump in the night.

The Skeleton Key fully exploits the inherent creepiness of its bayou locale and the locale’s history, resulting in a relatively suspenseful mystery that at times overcomes its mediocre, been-there-done-that plot.

Caroline Ellis (Kate Hudson) is a New Orleans hospice worker who’s just taken on a live-in job in a decrepit old mansion out in the swamps, caring for the elderly Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) under the watchful eye of his wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands). At first Caroline is content to do her job, but strange goings-on at the mansion have her questioning what’s really going on, and lead her to investigate voodoo practices in hopes of saving Ben.

This story couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Louisiana, and it makes the most of its location. The natural history of New Orleans and its surrounding area makes it easy to bring in voodoo practices, which still have a hold on people today. Just the atmosphere down there makes it a little easier to believe that magic holds sway, even in the “real” world.

The swamps, of course, are innately eerie, between the isolation, the ghostly moss-covered trees, and animals just waiting to take a bite out of you. It makes the boonies of Oklahoma seem positively urban. There’s a sense that the swamps have only one way in and one way out, and if somebody doesn’t want you to get out, you’re not going to.

The Devereaux mansion itself makes for a great “haunted house” setting. Hidden by a long road of mossy trees, it’s fallen into neglect, with peeling paint and overgrown bushes, except for the garden out back. The inside seems dark even in the daytime, and for every door that Caroline’s skeleton key unlocks, you get the feeling there could be some secret behind it that you’re better off not knowing.

With those major setting elements combined, you have the perfect atmosphere for a movie like this, and it’s helped along by Kate Hudson and Gena Rowlands, both of whom turn in some solid performances. John Hurt is also good, considering that his performance must be primarily through his faces and gestures, since Ben can’t speak. Peter Sarsgaard also crops up as the Devereaux’s estate lawyer, Luke, and he is always worth watching.

The plot is really neither here nor there, as it’s just another “pretty white girl in trouble” mystery. Some of the twists are interesting (though not necessarily good).

The end could’ve stood for a little cutting, especially as movies like this are best left without a ton of explanation. There’s a fine line between telling just enough to let the audiences know what’s going on and insulting their intelligence.

Truth be told, The Skeleton Key is about on par for an August release: not bad but nothing to write home about. If you’re in the mood for a creepy and unsettling mystery, check it out at a matinee.

The Barenaked Archives: Aquamarine

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

So, I give you my very first regular feature: The Barenaked Archives. These are reviews that I did for SIN or Hollywood Elsewhere (or both). Sadly, SIN and my column on HE are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

Just for the record, this one was written as a joke.

Aquamarine review

aquamarine_webHi!!!!! I’m Chrystle Camylle Kane (Cece to my friends but not to you losers!) and I’m thirteen years old and this is my first movie review EVER!! Bet you can’t tell! I got to go see Aquamarine and now I get to tell you all about it!!

So, I like totally loved this movie. I mean, hot guys, a mermaid, and omigod JoJo in her first movie ever? It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

It’s about JoJo and her best friend, Claire, who live in Florida, but JoJo’s mom is about to move them to Australia or New Zealand or something, which is totally not cool. She won’t let JoJo stay with Claire till she’s 18. Completely unfair! My mom’s the same way.

Anyway, JoJo is spending the night at Claire’s house and there’s a huge storm that washes a tidal wave into the pool, and it turns out it washed a mermaid in there too! Her name is Aquamarine and she does weird things like eat salt and her fingernails change color with her moods. At first JoJo and Claire are really scared of her, but then they make friends with her.

It turns out that mermaids, like, don’t believe love exists, but Aquamarine does, but if she can’t prove it to her father in three days then she’ll have to marry this totally horrible guy. So JoJo and Claire have to help her! Because if you help a mermaid, you get a wish, and they can wish for JoJo to not move away! Personally, I’d wish for my parents to let me date and for that cute guy in third hour history to finally notice me. I’ve only been flirting with him for, like, five months! Guys are sooooo dense.

Anyway, Aquamarine decides that she loves this guy Raymond, who works as a lifeguard at the beach. He is totally hot. He’s got wavy blond hair and he’s soooo buff. And because he’s a lifeguard, he spends so much time without a shirt! OMG!! He’s got the most beautiful body I’ve seen in my entire life. Plus, he’s not a jerk like the other guys he hangs around.

So, to help Aquamarine get Raymond to fall in love with her, JoJo and Claire have her read all these magazines like Seventeen and Cosmo. Which is totally what I would’ve done. Those things are, like, foolproof in how to get a guy.

But there’s this other girl, Cecelia, who’s a complete witch, and she wants Ray. She’s one of those snobby rich popular girls, and she and her friends are so horrible to JoJo and Claire! They’re completely evil. I wish more bad things had happened to her.

But anyway, everything turns out good in the end, even though it’s totally not what you’d expect. It’s all about friendship and stuff and it’s really, really happy! It’s, like, the best movie I’ve seen since When a Stranger Calls (omg SO SCARY!). Everybody should watch it.

Cece Kane is an eighth-grader at Cleveland-Garfield-Polk Middle School. She’d like to give a shout-out to her friends Kayley, Kymbirley, and Clowey, and says “Go Meerkats!”

The Barenaked Archives: Bewitched

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

So, I give you my very first regular feature: The Barenaked Archives. These are reviews that I did for SIN or Hollywood Elsewhere (or both). Sadly, SIN and my column on HE are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

Bewitched Be Sucking

bewitched_webCandy is a wonderful confection. It’s sweet, it’s tasty, and the sugar high will keep you running for hours (well, maybe that’s just me). However, if you have too much of it, candy will make you sick and leave you hanging over the toilet, ruing that last bite. Such is the case with Bewitched, a movie that starts out as a sweet little comedy that quickly overstays its welcome.

In an attempt to sum up the very convoluted plot, Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) is an actor who’s dropped off the A-list after an atrocious performance by his last movie. He’s cast as Darrin in a remake of the TV show Bewitched in the hopes of rebuilding his career.

To ensure the show’s focus stays on him, Jack casts an unknown in the role of Samantha: Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman), who, unbeknownst to Jack, is an actual witch who’s given up her powers and moved to Los Angeles in hopes of finding real love. (Why on earth she thinks she can do that in L.A. is beyond me.) So, we’re dealing with a movie that’s a remake of a TV show about the remaking of said TV show. Got that?

It’s probably a testament to how well Nicole Kidman can act that she did so well with what could have been an annoying role. Isabel is girly and light and sweetness and innocence, like living cotton candy. Kidman instills in her likeability despite being a relative child to the modern world. Not to say she does it perfect all the time, but Isabel is considerably less irritating than she could’ve been.

Will Ferrell, on the other hand, cranks it up to 11 to play the self-centered, arrogant Jack, and does so very unevenly. At some points his over-the-top acting is bust-a-gut funny, while at other points you just want to hit him with a tranquilizer gun so that he’ll SHUT UP.

Sadly, woefully, tragically, miserably underused are Michael Caine as Isabel’s skirt-chasing father Nigel and Shirley MacLaine as Iris Smythson, the actress who plays Samantha’s mother Endora on the TV show. Both are bright spots in some otherwise-dull sequences, and they even get their own little romance, but their plot line is dropped by the end of the movie, leaving us wondering what happened. In fact, forget the rest of the movie, I would’ve rather watched a film about these two.

Steve Carell, a Will Ferrell movie regular, makes a manic and hilarious cameo at the very end as Uncle Arthur. It’s a pity, because Arthur’s only purpose is to be the deus ex machina dropped in to clean up the mess the characters have gotten themselves into. Let’s say it together: “lazy writing.”

Speaking of lazy writing, this movie has the some of the worst “dream” sequences I’ve ever seen. You see, because Isabel is a witch, she can rewind time and start over when things don’t work out quite right. Now, this is cool, and could probably be very effective if used correctly.

However, when you spend thirty minutes following a storyline, and then rewind those entire thirty minutes to start over, that’s not cool, that’s stupid. You have wasted the viewer’s time and this gimmick should be dragged outside, doused in lighter fluid, and ignited so that we can hear it scream in agony as it dies a slow, flaming death.

Bewitched is a hardly bewitching, and if anything should be avoided. There are other better comedies around. If you must see it, wait and catch it at the dollar theater on 50-cent Tuesdays. At least then you won’t be wasting your money.

The Barenaked Archives: An Unfinished Life

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

So, I give you my very first regular feature: The Barenaked Archives. These are reviews that I did for SIN or Hollywood Elsewhere (or both). Sadly, SIN and my column on HE are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

An Unfinished Life

unfinished_life_webAn Unfinished Life really wants to be an Oscar-worthy character drama. It’s put together all the trappings: an abused woman escaping her abuser with her daughter, a hostile parental figure with whom she hasn’t spoken in ten years, a wise yet crippled friend, and a quaint, secluded small town where the hustle and bustle of big-city life has never stepped foot.

But something’s missing. Maybe it’s that we get the sense we’ve seen these characters before. Maybe it’s the fact that as soon as they’re together, we can tell where they’re going to end up. Maybe it’s the fact that some subplots feel tacked on. Whatever the reason, that “something” is what holds An Unfinished Life back and makes it feel…well, unfinished.

Einar Gilkyson (Robert Redford) is a Wyoming rancher still haunted by the death of his son ten years earlier. He lives a solitary life on his ranch, with the only company being his best friend Mitch (Morgan Freeman), who was mauled about a year before by a grizzly bear. Einar’s less than thrilled when his daughter-in-law Jean (Jennifer Lopez), the woman he blames for his son’s death, shows up on his doorstep, but he’s shocked to see her daughter Griff, a granddaughter Einar never knew he had. Will he be able to mend the relationship with his remaining family members?

One thing you can’t criticize about this film is the acting. For pity’s sake, it’s Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman. You know they’re going to do a great job going in. Redford nails the bitter, grizzled old rancher, and Freeman’s role is quite similar to his Oscar-winning one in Million Dollar Baby. (Not saying that’s a bad thing, just saying it means Freeman knows what he’s doing.) Jennifer Lopez does well enough in her role, and newcomer Becca Gardner holds her own as Griff, and that’s saying something.

The setting, also, is beautiful. It’s a raw, natural beauty that comes from out-of-the-way places and small towns nestled in the crook of a mountain. Even though the ranch is old and in some ways falling apart, there’s something comforting about seeing a place that’s so close to nature and weathered so much still standing there year after year.

However, there’s something about An Unfinished Life that just doesn’t click. It leaves a sense of confusion, like you know you should’ve liked the movie better, but you didn’t and you just can’t figure out why.

Part of it is the subplot with Jean’s abusive boyfriend, Gary. I hate to say it, but after they get out of town the first time, he just doesn’t strike a very threatening chord. He tries to be, but he’s a city boy and you know as soon as he sets foot in the small Wyoming town that it’s only a matter of time before somebody kicks his ass. It feels like it was either hacked to death in the editing room or tacked on at the last second.

It also doesn’t help that the whole movie has a vague feeling of déjà vu, like it’s been seen and done before, and better. It’s as though the director took the ingredients for what he thought would make a good movie and threw them in the pot without regard for how much and in what order they should be added.

Even though An Unfinished Life has some strong points, as a whole it seems something’s been left out, something that could’ve pushed it past the “Well, it was good, but…” sentiment.

The Barenaked Archives: American Dreamz

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

So, I give you my very first regular feature: The Barenaked Archives. These are reviews that I did for SIN or Hollywood Elsewhere (or both). Sadly, SIN and my column on HE are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

Dreamz with a Zzzzz…

american_dreamz_webIt’s rare that we here in Oklahoma get to see a movie more than a month early. So when the student union offered a free screening of American Dreamz back in March, I was second in line, getting there early enough to ensure a good seat.

For the reasons why that action has now been filed under “Michelle’s worst idea of 2006,” see below.

There are many things about American life and culture that are ripe for satire. The Bush administration, although it’s been getting that treatment for awhile. Terrorists, because laughing at them helps negate the “terror” in the name. And, of course, reality television, although that practically makes fun of itself.

So, if just making fun of one of these things is good, making fun of all three is better, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.

American Dreamz (with a “z,” becauze God forbid we zpell anything right in America) is the ambitious movie that attempts to pull reality television, instant fame, terrorists, and the President into one film and satirize these issues within an inch of their lives. The problem with this tactic is that they wind up shoving too much into the film, and thus it commits the worst sin a movie can: it becomes boring.

And yes, they sing the phrase “dreamz with a ‘z'” in a song. The temptation to stab out my eardrums was overwhelming.

We have Hugh Grant, who plays Martin Tweed, the narcissistic host/judge of the American Idol-esque show American Dreamz. We have Mandy Moore as a small-town contestant on the show who would sell her soul to Satan to win, and then figure out a way to wiggle out of the contract. We have Dennis Quaid as the President of the United States, who is self-admittedly not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, and is currently undergoing an identity crisis. And relative newcomer Sam Golzari is Omer, a mostly inept wannabe terrorist who has the slight problem that he actually likes American culture, especially show tunes.

Supporting cast includes Willem Dafoe as the vice president running the administration, Marcia Gay Harden as the supportive First Lady, and Chris Klein as Mandy Moore’s head-over-heels boyfriend. With all these people, and coming from writer/director Paul Weitz, you’d expect something that would at least be moderately entertaining, if not actually funny, for two hours.

What you get is a movie that is so mind-numbingly dull that it took the mantra “you can’t review a movie you haven’t seen all of” to keep me in the theater.

This movie has all the subtlety of a tanker truck smashing into a moving train. They will never let you forget that Dennis Quaid is supposed to be President Bush and Willem Dafoe is supposed to be Vice President Cheney. Quaid’s terrible Texas twang, the references to his father being president before, and the fact that Dafoe could pass for Cheney’s twin make it painfully obvious for the entire two hours.

I’m all for political satire, but this went over the top so fast it lost any amusement factor that it may have had.

And that was just the political satire part, which would’ve been more than enough for one movie. But no, they had to add in reality television. Because otherwise we would’ve never figured out that most people who get on those shows aren’t necessarily chosen for talent, but for the conflict they can create, or that they’re cutthroat in their desire to win. Saying that you grow to dislike these characters is an understatement. You grow to loathe them.

It doesn’t help that the beginning of the movie has a rambling feeling, as they’re trying to introduce all these characters and get them into their spots. It takes so long to get going that I was checking my watch less than thirty minutes into the film. By the time it reached the end, I was hoping — no, praying — that half the cast would get blown up, because that would be the only way this could have anything resembling a satisfactory conclusion.

Unfortunately, that is not the case, and though there was death, it wasn’t enough to make the previous two hours worthwhile. The only reason I didn’t fall asleep was because the chairs in the theater were too uncomfortable.

American Dreamz isn’t like Ultraviolet, which is so bad it’s funny. This is just bad. The idea probably seemed funny, but the execution is terrible and the parts don’t make a cohesive whole. I beg you, do not waste your hard-earned money on this. Start studying for finals early instead. It’ll cost less and be considerably more entertaining.

The Barenaked Archives: Batman Begins

From 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

So, I give you my very first regular feature: The Barenaked Archives. These are reviews that I did for SIN or Hollywood Elsewhere (or both). Sadly, SIN and my column on HE are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

Batman Begins

batman_begins_webBuzz has been building for the fifth Batman installment since Warner Bros. first announced they’d selected Christopher Nolan as director. It continued to build with each bit of casting news: Michael Caine as the butler Alfred, Liam Neeson as the mentor Ducard, Morgan Freeman as the Q-like Lucius Fox, and Christian Bale as the Dark Knight himself.

It really sounded like Warner was trying desperately to erase the vile aftertaste of the much-maligned Batman and Robin after seeing that, when done right, comic books movies can be both good and lucrative (see: Spider-man 2, X2). Now, the movie is here, and the inevitable “does it suck?” question can be answered.

Batman Begins not only doesn’t suck, but is easily the best Bat-flick of the bunch and arguably the best comic book movie to date.

Unlike the previous installments, where Batman was already a fixture in Gotham, this movie starts out with Bruce Wayne (Bale) in prison halfway across the world, having been traveling for years in search of a way to assuage his guilt and rage over his parents’ murder. He’s recruited by Ducard (Neeson) and taken in by the League of Shadows, a mysterious vigilante organization led by the equally mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), where he learns to fight. It’s only after he discovers his values and the League’s conflict that he returns to Gotham to take back his company and his city.

The first third of the movie is Bruce Wayne honing his fighting skills with the League of Shadows, interspersed with flashbacks that detail his parents’ murder and Bruce’s hatred for Joe Chill, their killer. When he leaves the League and returns to Gotham, he has to reenter a society he’s been away from for seven years, and learn about the company that his father left.

Some might think this part is “slow,” because the movie is about Batman, but Nolan and writer David Goyer really put the emphasis on the “begins” part of the title. We know that Batman is an ass-kicking vigilante badass, but this is about how he becomes an ass-kicking vigilante badass. They show us where he learned to fight, how he learned to be stealthy, how he learned to strike fear in the hearts of villains everywhere, how he got his cave, and how he came into his famous gadgets and gizmos.

Christian Bale is the best Batman, hands-down (sorry to all you guys who love Michael Keaton). He has a handle on the dual personality, both the billionaire playboy and the ass-kicking crimefighter. You can practically see the anger that fuels him in his quest to save Gotham, as it moves from the uncontrolled rage of a boy searching for vengeance to the righteous wrath of a man determined to bring justice to a city. With Bale, it seems that Bruce Wayne is the mask, and Batman is his true persona.

Although it seems that Gotham is overrun with crime and corruption, there are still a few idealists, people who would also like to see Gotham restored, just like Batman. There is police sergeant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), one of the few good cops in the department. He’s seen a lot, and it wears on him that nothing he does seems to make any difference because of the opposition he faces, but he’s still a good cop.

Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) is the assistant district attorney and Bruce’s childhood friend, who’s the only person with the guts to prosecute the heavy-hitting criminals that overrun the city. (And surprisingly, she did not annoy me.) Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) is a scientist/inventor within Wayne Enterprises, and it is he who provides prototypes (originally developed for soldiers) of the tools that Batman uses. And, of course, there is Alfred (Caine) the butler, both a servant and a worried father figure to Bruce who will not let him give up, ever.

Mention must be made of the villains, because every superhero is only as good as those he fights. Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) had a bigger part than expected as the mob boss who owns half of Gotham. He’s arrogant and completely assured of his own power, as we see when a pre-Batman Bruce angrily confronts him in a restaurant on the seedy side of town.

However, Falcone is small potatoes compared to the man who seems to be one of his flunkies, the head psychologist of Arkham Asylum, Dr. Johnathan Crane, a.k.a. the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). At first, Dr. Crane looks like a milquetoast pawn, paid by Falcone to declare his thugs legally insane so they don’t go to jail. Then, it becomes clear that Crane is smart, dangerously smart, and it’s more likely that Falcone is his pawn rather than vice versa. Although some might miss the fun and flamboyant villains of Bat-films past, this one deserves to be Bruce Wayne’s show. And what a damn good show it is.

Another thing to point out is this is not a kid-friendly PG-13. The trailers promised dark and scary, and the movie delivers. With a villain whose main weapon is a hallucinogenic gas that makes people see what they fear, how could it not?

When Batman makes his first true appearance, it’s like watching a short horror movie, except the bad guys are the ones being stalked by an unseen menace. We catch glimpses of Batman, hear the fluttering of his cape, but we don’t see him.

Under the influence of the fear gas, Scarecrow’s mask drips with maggots and his voice sounds like a demon’s. Batman’s eyes glow red and his mouth oozes black goo. This is one scary comic film, and probably not for younger kids the way previous incarnations were.

Batman Begins is an example of a film where everything clicks: from the casting, to the directing, to the setting, to the story. We’ve moved from a neon-cartoony Gotham and a Batsuit with nipples to a believable metropolitan area and a hero whose barely-checked rage makes him almost as dangerous as the criminals he fights. Realistic? Yes. Dark? Yes. Good? Fantastic.

Batman begins, indeed.