December 21, 2012

Mao's Last Dancer (2009)

Um, the closest thing to a recognizable leading "star" in this movie  is Bruce Greenwood (who isn't really recognizable since I need to link to his name) and this chick from Center Stage

I realize this movie is a bit older than the ones I usually review, but being in China and all, it seemed only appropriate to watch a movie that is so Chinese, it's actually banned here! (eek... I hope the government isn't tracking my computer right now)

So let's dispose of the basics, since I'm assuming most people have not heard of this movie - it's a biography of a Chinese ballet dancer named Li Cunxin, based on the book he wrote of his life. He was born in the 60's, so he grows up during the Cultural Revolution. Only a few minutes into the movie, it was pretty clear why the Chinese government banned it - it is not a flattering portrayal of the government during that time. But the movie is more than half English, which might help sway those opposed to reading a lot of subtitles, and all the dancing segments, of course, have no dialogue at all.

The dancing is incredible. Being a bit of a ballet movie geek, I've seen the good (Black Swan), the bad (Center Stage - but really, so bad it's good), and the ugly (The Company, which I barely stayed awake through). I'll watch just about anything if it has ballet dancing in it. But the dancing here is really breathtaking. After sitting through something like Center Stage, in which the dancing is great but the acting is so horrible, I couldn't help but wonder throughout the movie how difficult casting must have been. The guy who plays Li Cunxin is, of course, a dancer, but plays his speaking parts just fine as well. Then again, his dancing is so amazing I'd probably forgive a fair bit of stiff acting.

But even disregarding the dancing, the story of Li Cunxin's life is enough to make a movie. While some of the events are probably not as extraordinary as we might believe, it gives those of us without firsthand knowledge of life in China during the Revolution a glimpse into what it was like. Some of the practices we find unthinkable still occur today, such as the training of young athletes hundreds of miles from home with no visitation rights for parents. Just think of all those cute Chinese gymnasts at the Olympics and then remember that they have not seen their parents in about ten years. It sure makes you think twice before complaining about a strict youth soccer coach or something. I'm not saying this to criticize the Chinese (and I'm not saying this because I'm afraid of the Chinese government), I just think the movie provides an interesting contrast between American and Chinese culture, shown through the eyes of one man.

I tend to skew toward movies of a decidedly lower quality (it's ok, I know it), so watching something so serious and with no car chases or cheesy romantic scenes might seem out of character. And I've definitely been accused of being biased toward movies set in Asia and/or about Asian people (is that so bad?), but I really think this movie transcends my inclinations and is worth watching, even for those who are either not Asian or do not have an Asian fetish (you know who you are out there).

Final word: You don't have to love ballet to be moved by this movie, but it would certainly help.

December 14, 2012

Ted (2012)

 Seth McFarlane, Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis

I strategically put Seth McFarlane's name first in the list of stars for this movie. Why? Because the movie is basically all about him (he's the voice of the talking teddy bear, Ted). For Seth McFarlane worshipers out there, this is no problem. But those of us who can't believe he's been allowed to make three (THREE!) nearly identical shows that are all currently on air, it feels like one very long episode of Family Guy that's missing Stewie, Brian, Lois, Chris, Meg and Quagmire. Which leaves us with Peter Griffin. And whose favorite character on that show is Peter?

There are funny moments in the movie, of course. But there are also a lot of moments where it feels like Seth McFarlane wrote in some kind of inside joke that only he gets, and is laughing at home, thinking about you watching it saying to yourself, 'WTF'? (Cue the numerous anal penetration jokes that have absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand.) Like Family Guy, it starts with an idea that's funny on its face, but ends up being a really long tribute to a bad Judd Apatow movie. That is to say, there are probably people out there who will think this movie is hilarious. And I weep for them. The movie even follows the same format as Family Guy - joke, joke, crass joke, long boring stretch of a joke that takes too long to execute, side rant, joke, long tangent into something 80's-related that no one cares about and isn't funny, crass joke, extended fight scene, joke, end. Please don't think I've ruined anything for you. If you didn't see this coming, that's on you.

I don't want you to think I'm a total Seth McFarlane hater. I actually like Family Guy. But on that show, everyone is making jokes. In Ted, the only person making jokes is the teddy bear. The whole thing just feels like a giant stroking of Seth McFarlane's ego, culminating in a comment by the bear that he "sounds nothing like Peter Griffin." Ha. Ha.

Maybe the whole thing wouldn't have been so bad except I can't imagine a world where a successful woman that looks like Mila Kunis is in a long-term relationship with a 35-year old who gets stoned every day with his teddy bear and works at a car rental place. But again, I don't like Judd Apatow movies.

Final word: I wish I had just been watching an episode of Family Guy/American Dad/Cleveland Show (take your pick, really) because then at least I'd know it would end in thirty minutes.

December 8, 2012

Contraband (2012)

Marky Mark Wahlberg (does no one else still call him that?), Giovanni Ribisi, Kate Beckinsale (can she even still be considered a "star" at this point?)

I know my blog has fallen into a sort of Family Guy-esque predicable format - start on a topic, run off on multiple tangents that may or may not have anything to do with the initial subject (and that may or may not last just a little too long), then wrap up with some final snarky remark as though I've been on topic the entire time. So I thought I'd shake things up a bit.

I want to start with my confusion over how Marky Mark has morphed into what we consider to be an action star. When did this happen? Look, I understand everyone that is famous in one way or another thinks that they are entitled to be famous in other arenas (which is why we now have to watch movies starring WWE stars and Justin Timberlake), but I somehow missed the moment in which we collectively thought to ourselves, "a former boy band member - he seems like someone who could turn into a badass on screen." Someone actually pinpointed the moment for me and told me it was the movie Fear that did it for them, but I think all anyone remembers about that movie is the roller coaster scene with Reese Witherspoon because the movie came out when I was, like, in middle school and middle schoolers are little hormonal perverts that remember stuff like that.

Anyway... overlooking the fact that Marky Mark is like, 5'4" (his bio claims 5'8", but those stats are more inflated than NBA programs), he does an okay job here. Action movies are really just the male counterpart to romantic comedies. Not to get all sexist here, but I don't know why so many guys complain about their wives/girlfriends/moms making them sit through The Proposal or whatever when these same guys probably make their wives/girlfriends/moms sit through movies like Red Dawn. Fair is fair, guys. Let's all agree that the majority of action movies and romantic comedies fall into the middle-of-the-bell-curve of predictable okay-ness, where watching them is tolerable, but probably won't make anyone's Top 10 list. Of course, there are outliers of exceptionalism on both ends of the spectrum that taint everyone's memory (ahem, One for the Money on the rom-com side, John Carter on the action side).

All of this ranting serves to explain why I'm commenting so little on the movie itself - because there's nothing really noteworthy about this movie that I couldn't say about every other action movie. It's fine. It has action, it has a plot that's predictable, but entertaining enough to sit all the way through without feeling like you've wasted your time, and it there are only a couple of moments where I needed to roll my eyes at the dialogue. 

Perhaps the only distinguishing feature of the movie was the presence of Giovanni Ribisi. I'm telling you, this guy is the next Paul Giamatti - I'm expecting him to start popping up everywhere. Why? Because he's so dang good. I remember him as the lovable but really, really dumb brother of Phoebe in Friends. I remember him as a totally believable person with mental retardation in The Other Sister. I remember him as the annoying younger brother that distracts you from the husky whispering of Nicholas Cage in Gone in Sixty Seconds (no easy feat, really). And now this - a greasy, shady drug dealer that's so vile you want to jump into the screen and punch him yourself. He's so good you don't even care that he's ugly. Hence, my reference to Paul Giamatti, who now plays romantic leads, despite the fact that he looks like he should be the grumpy neighbor or obscure relative on a thirty minute sitcom. 

Anyway, Giovanni Ribisi's appearance in the movie made me realize a couple of things:

1. Why is he in a movie with Kate Beckinsale? The only movie I've seen with her in the last six years besides the Underworld movies is Click. Seriously. Click. (Side note: Her official fan website is a .net, not even a .com. What other proof do you need that she can no longer count as an A-List actress?)
2. I more acutely understand why Marky Mark was pretty much the only person in The Fighter not nominated for an Oscar. It's not that he's bad, it's just then when surrounded by good actors, it's even more obvious that he's totally replaceable. I don't think the movie would have been any different with Jason Statham [or name your favorite action star here] in it.

Final word: It was like eating breakfast at Denny's - you know what to expect, it's totally fine, but don't pay more than $3 for it.

December 2, 2012

Liz & Dick [TV movie] (2012)

Lindsay Lohan, Grant Bowler

Now I realize this is just a TV movie, but honestly, who knows if we'll ever see Lindsay Lohan in a real movie again...

The real problem is Lindsay. Don't get me wrong - I love Lindsay Lohan. I always have. I'm not ashamed to admit it. There was even a time when I felt like if I knew her personally, we would be friends. For all the bat-shit-crazy stuff she's been through, I still see her as the adorable 10 year-old twins in The Parent Trap. But as aged as she looks from all her drinking and partying, it only makes her look like those people who have had a hard life, not old like she's been married three times and has a couple of kids already. Only her raspy smoker voice makes her sound older, but even that is an issue because well, she still sounds like Lindsay Lohan. Which is weird, because she does a perfectly fine British accent as Hallie Parker in The Parent Trap, yet that same accent is nowhere to be found in this movie. And you know how I feel about inaccurate accents.

Casting someone as high-profile (notice I didn't say A-List; I think Hollywood kicked her off after she made the TV movie, Labor Pains) as Lindsay is a mistake in a biography. It's just like when movies cast people with distinctive voices to ruin animated movies. (examples: Owen Wilson in Cars, Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo, Samuel L. Jackson in, well, anything...) At no point can you watch this movie and not see Lindsay Lohan playing dress up as Elizabeth Taylor. I've never even seen an Elizabeth Taylor movie and I couldn't buy into her as the character! In fact, about the only thing accurate about Lindsay's portrayal is that Richard Burton once said Elizabeth Taylor had short legs and a double chin - Lindsay has both of those, made painfully aware during the multiple close-up shots on her face. Again, reminding us that she really looks nothing like Elizabeth Taylor.

Grant Bowler, on the other hand, is plenty handsome enough for me to believe someone might leave their husband for him. And he at least uses a somewhat correct accent. Though he's not really famous, I'm a little confused as to how he ended up tangled in this mess of a movie. Perhaps the Lifetime Channel should have dipped into their roster of attractive/not-attractive leading men who only appear as guest stars on random shows like Criminal Minds or Bones so that people wouldn't be fooled into thinking this might not be as terrible a movie as it seemed. (Side note: I'm convinced Lifetime has a policy of only using actors and actresses who look just slightly more attractive than regular people, so when you first see them you're fooled into thinking they're attractive, but on second glance...)

One last complaint - the same as always - casting. Elizabeth and Richard are only supposed to be 7 years apart. Lindsay and Grant are almost 20 years apart. And Lindsay looks like a coked-out overgrown child, so it's even more disconcerting every time they make out on screen. Every. Single. Time. As the movie preview says, "they drink, they fight, they fornicate" - so you can imagine there is plenty of cringe-inducing PDA. Sigh. Maybe one day Hollywood will get it right with the pairings.

The most entertaining part of the movie though, hands down, is the ridiculously fake backdrops used to show us Elizabeth and Richard out and about in Rome. I realize it's a TV movie, but if you can't afford to actually shoot a scene in Rome, just don't show any outdoor shots! I mean, they couldn't even spring for some CGI? I guess Dance Moms just isn't paying the bills. Shocking.

Final word: It's totally believable as a Lifetime movie. I'll leave it at that.