Tuesday, January 25, 2011

From the Queue: Cyrus and Salt

Considering it stars fat boy slapstick kings John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, I expected a totally different movie than what Cyrus delivered. What could easily have been a Talladega Nights style look at the complicated modern family, instead became a thoughtful, funny movie akin to a stellar episode of Modern Family.

There are moments in Cyrus when Reilly's middle-aged character (think of Paul Giammati in Sideways) must deliver an award winning poker face as he observes his girlfriend's weird relationship with her 22-year-old son Cyrus.

You want to root for JCR and against Cyrus until the movie's third act when you actually start to feel empathy for the title character.

Marisa Tomei continues her unlikely trajectory as a top-notch supporting actress in her turn as Cyrus's mom. Even if you don't believe that Marisa Tomei would produce offspring that looks like Jonah Hill, this movie is alternately hilarious and relatable. Four stars.

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So one of my entertainment fetishes is, and always will be, JJ Abram's hit spy drama Alias. Even if it's last season was odd, the first three were so outstanding, I have a hard time figuring out why Alias didn't become a smash hit.

Although it was a serial spy drama, the most interesting aspect was watching Jennifer Garner's character hide her secret double agent life from her closest friends.

I have no idea if the spy scenes were realistic or not, because having never been a secret spy, I don't know what real-life spying is like. Having said that, the action sequences were extremely fun to watch as well.

With that in mind, I give you Salt, an Angelina Jolie film that seems to be some sort of answer to the Bourne franchise. You've heard of a secret spy. You've heard of a double agent. And now, from Salt, we have the next logical step: a triple agent. A Russian spy masked as a CIA agent, who seems to be on a mission to provoke World World III, when actually she's out to save the world from an absurd secret Russian agency that raises orphans to become American intelligence officers.

Salt's plot is so absurd, its not worth recounting, but its action sequences delivered on a similar level to Alias. Where Salt totally failed was in making the audience care about its main character's private life. Unlike Alias, I didn't find myself rooting for Salt to find happiness outside of her life as a triple agent. In fact, her relationship with her husband is so convoluted that it's unclear whether she ever cared about the guy in the first place. During an opening scene when she seems to be outed as a Russian agent she frantically tries to call her husband to warn him that danger may be coming. Even as bullets are whizzing by her head, Salt is speed-dialing home. And then, toward the end of the film, Salt lets her husband drowned to death while handcuffed at the bottom of a pit with Russian agents looking on who she would go on to kill in the next scene. If she was going to kill them anyway, why didn't she take a stab at saving her husband's life?

There's no point trying to answer that question or any of the finer plot twists that Salt offers up. This movie stars a real A list actress in Jolie, but it's more akin to the 80s and 90s schlep that Van Damme and Segal offered up. Two stars.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Packers vs. Bears



As someone who grew up a Packers fan living in Bears country, I think I have a unique perspective about tomorrow's NFC Championship Game.

Not many kids from Indiana have the opportunity to attend Packer games at Lambeau Field, the Sistine Chapel of sports venues, but I did. As time has passed, it's become kind of hazy how the opportunity to go to the games ever crossed my path. The long and short of it is our neighbor was a so-called Gold, or Milwaukee, season ticket holder. For many years, he would invite us to go to the games with him. Then, he got a job in Europe and allowed my Dad to be the placeholder of his tickets.

So during middle school and high school, when Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren, Brett Favre and Reggie White were making Packers history, I was frequenting Lambeau Field three times a season. Outside of the friendly confines of Lambeau, it was a little tougher being a Packers fan. Growing up in The Region area of Indiana, I was surrounded by frothing-at-the-mouth Bears fans. Fortunately for me, my high school years, which are prime smack talking years for sports fans, coincided with the Dave Wannstedt era. The Packers went 8-0 against the Bears when I was in high school, while also reaching two Super Bowls and winning one of them.

Eventually I moved to Nashville and since then I've only been back to Lambeau Field once. My fervent love of the Packers has remained, though. Through the Ray Rhodes season, the Mike Sherman years, through five offseasons worth of being Brett Favre's hostage, my love of all things Green, Gold and frozen tundra'd has not diminished.

Now, the Packers have a chance to return to glory, to reclaim the trophy named after their own patron saint, to overcome a season when all of the experts and most of their own fans left them for dead. The only thing standing between Green Bay and a trip to the Super Bowl are the Monsters of the Midway, led as they seemingly always have been, by a rugged defense and a bruising middle linebacker.

They're calling this the most hyped conference championship game in NFL history, so I'm not sure what more can be said about this game. Certainly, no one has said it better or more accurately than Holly over at CHTV.

Looking at this game as impartially as I possibly can, I genuinely believe the Packers are the more talented team as evidenced by Vegas calling them 3.5 point favorites. And yet, doubt began creeping into my mind shortly after the Packers defeated the Falcons last week. On the eve of battle, the doubt has grown to the extent that I don't know who will win this game.

I'll say this... if you transplanted the exact same Bears' talent onto any other NFC playoff team's roster, I would have no doubt that the Packers would triumph. But this isn't just some other NFC playoff team. This is the Bears, and this is the 182 meeting of the teams.

The Packers have not played up to their capability during their first two meetings with the Bears. In their absolute worst game of the season, they lost by three at Soldier. In a sturdy but unspectacular regular season finale, they won by three points in Lambeau.

How does this one shape up? If the Packers' talented group of receivers play like they did against Atlanta, catching the pinpoint passes Aaron Rodgers throws their way, then Green Bay will reach the Super Bowl. The Bears are going to drop their safeties halfway down the field and force the Packers to go on long drives in hopes that they turn the ball over before they reach the red zone and score. If the Packers are patient and if their receivers play like they should, which is to say like they didn't in the first two meetings against the Bears, then this will be a win.

There are other x-factors, like Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's unpredictability and the Bears' stellar special teams. But I believe this game rides on the Packers and their offense. Assuming there's nowhere to go but up for Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and company, I'm predicting a win. Packers 28, Bears 20.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

From the Queue: The Town

I rated The Town three stars, which I know puts me among a vast minority of people who were disappointed by this movie. I understand why the film was popular with critics and audiences.

The acting was fantastic, the action sequences were testosterone-fueled shoot-em-ups and yet the story was simple enough that you didn't have to tie your brain into knots to figure out what was going on. Neighborhood kids have a tough time getting out of their destructive environs, even when they have every logical reason to leave.

Now I'm going to go into what I didn't like about the film. It felt like a version of so many movies I've seen before -- Heat, The Departed, Gone Baby Gone, even the Fighter. And unlike those films, I didn't see a particularly compelling reason to root for the main characters to make it. Ben Affleck and Rebecca Hall have a few heart-to-hearts and that's supposed to somehow trump the asinine way they met (he held up her bank and then stalked her before fabricating a reason to meet at the laundromat).

The acting was absolutely perfect, but this was still a cops and robbers movie. Yet the robber (Affleck) got so much more play than the cop (Jon Hamm, stepping out of Don Draper's bedroom), the writers don't even make it a tough choice for the viewers. You basically have to pull for Affleck, because The Town makes the FBI agents seem like the villains, even though they're hunting down armed robbers. Jeremy Renner in particular was stellar and of all the performances, his deserves award nominations. I liked the scene where he agreed to go help Affleck in a fight before ever knowing what the fight was about.

But the Affleck/Renner storyline was also a little thrown together. We don't learn until pretty far into the movie that Affleck may be the father of Renner's sister's baby, and that Renner seems to have some sort of fantasy of a happy little family.

Like I said, the acting was good, and this movie still gets a passing grade. But it could have scored higher if it didn't serve up some of the most cartoonish action sequences in a non-Sylvester Stallone movie. Robbing Fenway Park? Really? Why not pull an inside straight and throw in the Vatican, the White House and an Al Qaeda cave or two? The closing scene is a blur of gunfire and glorious last stands that would make Custer green with envy. Everyone's dressed like Boston cops so it's hard to tell who's getting shot, or why exactly, since in several cases the cops come in guns blazing for no apparent reason.

I think The Town was undone in my mind because I had just seen The Fighter in the theaters. The Fighter was forced to be slavish to its subject matter, because it was about real people and real events. The Town, on the other hand, is straight comic book formula, and I'm surprised so many critics let its outstanding acting dwarf its obvious flaws.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

NFL Divisional Round predictions

Patriots over Jets
The New York Jets are a bunch of bullies who are more skilled at talking than playing. Rex Ryan's desperate efforts to make this game about himself instead of his his so-so playoff team. The Packers went into New Jersey with a battered team many left for dead. They left with a shutout and I haven't looked at the Jets the same since then.
I have never seen a team talk more smack with so little to back it up. I don't necessarily buy the media's view that the Patriots are destined to win it all. I think the Ravens, Steelers, Falcons and Packers all could beat them. But not the Jets.

Ravens over Steelers
It will be a bloodbath either way, but I like the Ravens defense better than the Steelers this season. The Ravens' offense did look pedestrian last week, but I am still going with the road upset here. Whichever team wins this will have a chance to out-muscle and out-fight the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
Ravens by a field goal.

Bears over Seahawks
The regular season schedule laid out perfectly for the Bears, why should the playoffs be any different? Chicago couldn't have asked for an easier second round game than the happy-to-be-here Seahawks. I agree with others that the Bears and their fans seem a tad over-confident, but this game isn't going to be about mindset. It will be about talent and the Bears have more.
Bears by double digits.

Packers over Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons remind me a lot of last year's New Orleans Saints in that, despite their impressive record and No. 1 overall seed, there is a cloud of skepticism about their team. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Falcons hoist the Lombardi Trophy. Hell, I picked them to go to the Super Bowl before the season. They'll only have to win two home games, they're well-coached, with a good defense, a sturdy running game and an accurate passer.
Yet, I am still going with the Packers in this one. Matt Ryan may be a star, but I believe Aaaron Rodgers has the potential to prove he's a superstar. It will take a heroic performance from Rodgers because people still have to remember, the Packers are battered and bruised at nearly every position. Don't let last week's win at Philadelphia, or previous must-wins against Chicago and the Giants fool you, this roster is still decimated by injuries. James Starks looked good last week. I doubt we'll see another 120+ yards out of him against Atlanta. But even the threat of a running game could be enough to keep the opposing defenses off balance. I'm going with the Packers in another painfully close game.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

From the Queue: The Last Exorcism

A few months ago, Ali and I rented the Blair Witch Project because she had never seen it and a decade later she wanted to see what the fuss was all about.

Yes, the movie has become rather dated since it became a rags-to-riches story that had film students across the country seeing dollar signs. Still, the Blair Witch Project deserved credit for keeping you interested despite its shoddy camera work and dreadful acting. It's campy, but it's clever and it keeps you jumpy enough to qualify as a solid horror film.

I was told that The Last Exorcism was supposed to be 2010's Blair Witch, so I added it to my Netflix queue. I actually think the film's creators did themselves a disservice by assuming The Last Exorcism would play as a campy horror film. Until the end of the movie, I was on the edge of my seat and wondering what would happen.

But then, in a turn of events that still has me a little confused, the writers decided to bust out a smalltown satanic cult and what could have been a fine Blair Witch homage film completely derailed. How weird did the film get at the end: At one point a demon fetus is tossed into a fire, which then explodes and leaves the film's heroes scattering in all directions. Yes, I said demon fetus.

For its ability to make the most out of a strange storyline (phony evangelical pastor brings a film crew to actually prove exorcisms are fake) and above average acting, the Last Exorcism was on the brink of winning me over. But then, in an effort to surprise its viewers, the writers busted out an ending scene that really ruined the entire movie. I can't remember an ending as dumb as this one, leaving The Last Exorcism with two out of five stars.

From the Queue: Rear Window

Rear Window is one of those classic movies that I could reference in conversations even though I'd never actually seen the film until it arrived last week via Netflix. I'd seen it parodied, imitated and quoted multiple times.

I knew the story -- home-bound adventurer begins to suspect his neighbors are the subjects of a domestic homicide -- and probably decided before I ever took the DVD out of its paper envelope that I would enjoy the movie.

There are a few folksy parts, especially found in elements of the climactic final scene, but by and large this goes down as one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films. Jimmy Stewart is awesome as the grimy photographer turned invalid, the sort of dark, self-tortured artist that can be found on many newspaper photo staffs across the country.

Even though the movie is about a (potential) murder, Rear Window keeps a surprisingly light feel to it. In one moment Stewart is tossing out armchair investigation theories and in the next he's gawking at the scantily clad ballet dancer across the way. Hitchcock uses clever long-distance shots to put the audience in Stewart's wheelchair-bound shoes.

In the end, it didn't really matter to me whether Stewart was right, and he had solved a homicide, or if he was wrong and simply had concocted a crime to cure his stir-crazy boredom. Rear Window has a sense of adventure to it that modern movies rarely can capture.

For its acting, simple-yet-creative storyline and unparalleled direction, I give it five stars.

Friday, January 7, 2011

NFL Wild Card predictions

I'm really not hedging my bets as a Packers fan when I say I'm already pleased with how the season has gone. The mere fact that the Packers worked their way into the playoffs is satisfaction enough considering the avalanche of injuries this season.

To beat the Bears on the final game when Chicago was unnecessarily trying to win the game, well that just put the sugar on top. My preseason Super Bowl pick of Falcons-Chargers is obviously not going to happen since San Diego couldn't get its act together in time to salvage its season. So here are my first round predictions to try to compensate for my weird preseason picks.

Chiefs over Ravens
I know this will be an unconventional prediction, but Kansas City has always been a difficult place to play. The Chiefs don't deserve to be hosting this game, matter of fact all four road teams in the Wild Card round ought to be playing at home. But the NFL uses screwy rules to award its home games and Arrowhead is a huge asset for the Chiefs.

In order to win, Kansas City must force a few turnovers. That seems entirely possible with Joe Flacco at the helm, even though he cut down on his mistakes this season. The Chiefs also need a few surprise big plays... maybe Dexter McCluster finally comes to life. I like coach Todd Haley and even though the Ravens have a killer defense, I'm going with the Chiefs in a close game.

Jets over Colts
This is an ironic pick for a Packers fan to make considering how eerily similar Green Bay's situation is to Indianapolis, but I think injuries finally derail the Colts. Frankly Indianapolis found its way into the playoffs because the AFC South was so mediocre no one wanted to win. Yes, the Colts have Peyton Manning and yes the Jets are dysfunctional and unpredictable.

But I still like the Jets defense and I'm guessing they get enough out of their running game to control the ball and eek out a close win.

Saints over Seahawks
The Saints have no running game, a suspect defense and seem to be lacking the spark that carried them through the postseason last year. Still they're a popular pick to make noise again in the playoffs. With Drew Brees and the passing game, I certainly get it. I don't see New Orleans repeating its run from a season ago, but even if the team plays poorly it should have enough to defeat Seattle.

I'm going with the Saints by two touchdowns over a team that has no business being in the playoffs to begin with, let alone hosting a game.

Packers over Eagles
I'm choosing my heart over my head in making this selection. Andy Reid is outstanding in the playoffs, especially at home, where the Eagles will be playing on Sunday. Green Bay has to have a trick up its sleeve in order to pull off the road upset. Here are two guesses for how the Packers could get the win: 1. a surprise performance by Cullen Jenkins bolsters the pass rush to help the Pack control Michael Vick and the Eagles. Maybe Vick even takes a tough hit and Kevin Kolb comes in to audition for his new team. 2. The Packers find a running game, perhaps led by James Starks.

There have been hints of ground success in between long bouts of ineptitude. Green Bay's going to score points, I would guess, and the defense comes in playing pretty well. This looks like a toss-up and maybe its a chance for Aaron Rodgers to finally earn his wings. Another first round playoff loss will do nothing to silence the growing criticism that Rodgers can't deliver in big games. Packers 24, Eagles 21