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by Bill Gibron

5 Feb 2009

They say the most important element in a science fiction story is a strong, understandable mythology. Formulate a believable, working, and logistically logical universe where characters and creatures abide by the rules and regulations set before them and you’ve conquered a great deal of the potential problems. As a result, slip ups can be cured with ease and risks rewarded, just as long as the foundation is set and secure. In the new future shock thriller Push, we are introduced to an entirely new (if slightly redundant) race of specialized individuals, people with powers beyond those of mere mortals. Meeting them towards the middle of their real world arc, we gets bits and pieces of how Nazi experiments in psychic warfare led to an X-Men like mutant population capable of great things - and the secret society Hell-bent on controlling them. Regrettably, the aforementioned reference to a certain comic franchise isn’t the only bit of borrowing this film does. Indeed, the whole effort feels lifted from dozens of familiar - and in most cases, superior - offerings.

Nick Gant has been in hiding most of his life. As a young boy, he saw his father killed by a government agency called The Division. Seeking out individuals who are gifted psychically, the cabal hopes to capture and experiment on each and every one. Later, Nick hooks up with tween terror Cassie Holmes. She’s a ‘watcher’, someone able to see into the future, and she needs his assistance in finding “pusher” (someone able to control the minds of others) Kira Hudson who holds the secret for tearing down the Division. Of course, there’s a catch. By taking on this task, both Cassie and Nick will die. But if they fail to fulfill their mission, they run of the risk of destroying all others like them. With Division agent Henry Carver hot on their trail, and a complicated environment of fellow shifters, stitchers, bleeders, and wipers to navigate, it will take all the special skill that they possess to save everyone.

You’ve got to give Push credit for trying. It’s almost impossible to create a complex alternative reality where everyday humans hold exceptional superpowers, where government cabals plot to capture and control these individuals, and a ragtag group of internal rebels try to overthrow…wait. Isn’t this the primer for NBC’s on again/off again phenom Heroes? Or the structure for any number of post-modern graphic novels? Apparently, when challenged for something original, writer David Bourla absconded with any number of sci-fi comics clichés and then tried to turn them into something novel and original. Yet no matter how you categorize them - sniffers, stitchers, pushers, movers - we are still stuck with individuals as gimmicks. Unless you give the holders of such skills real psychological depth, all we can do is sit back and wait for the overloaded F/X light show.

Sadly, Push doesn’t even deliver said spectacle. Instead, this is a ploddingly paced, awkwardly ambitious film that seems lifted from the middle act of a better, more buoyant franchise. UK director Paul McGuigan wants to create something both personal and pyrotechnical, hoping that the many tiny moments between his actors will blossom and grow into a narrative of epic of otherworldly proportion. He even skimps on the action, leaving all the superpowers stuff until a midpoint confrontation between Grant and his Division enemies, and a last act throwdown on a Hong Kong high rise. Maybe he thought the sparing use of these often intriguing abilities would give them more impact. Perhaps the budget dictated their rare depiction. Whatever the case, this is a movie that needs more - more operatic dramatics, more life and death drive…heck, just more action in general.

Struggling to stay afloat inside McGuigan’s brooding, often pointless pretensions are some damn fine performances. Dakota Fanning could be a live action anime heroine what with her whisper thin figure, Hello Kitty fashion sense, and fragile delivery. Even in moments of predetermined import, she’s vulnerable and distressed. She’s matched well by Chris Evans as Grant. Though given little to do except play icon, there are times when he lets down the forced façade to seem very human indeed. While Camille Belle is still lost somewhere in 10,00 B.C. and Djimon Hounsou does menace as if on autopilot, supporting players like Maggie Siff (as an evil healer) Ming-Na, and Cliff Curtis add wonderful atmospheric accents. In fact, had Push totally ignored the histrionics inherent in the genre and went with something more intricate and intimate, it might have worked.

Instead, we get wannabe chest-thumping and lots of lag time in between. Fanning’s Cassie repeats herself endlessly, doddling in her sketch pad and harping on her impending death. There’s also way too much exposition, sequences where we are given the narrative thread and overriding situational specifics over and over again. Speed is important in efforts like this. Had Wanted slowed down to explain itself fully, or Shoot ‘Em Up stop to allow reconsideration, neither film would fly. Instead, they piled on the particulars and just kept going. Push needed this same kind of urgency. This material needs mania, something you envision being better handled with particular aplomb by someone like Ringo Lam, The Wachowski Brothers, or maybe even John Woo. It’s not that McGuigan is out of his league. He’s just not playing in the same ballpark.

Big ideas like the ones posited in Push necessitate a big vision to succeed - or at the very least, characters we can cheer for, care about, and get behind. Instead, what we experience is two hours of brooding among ambient Asian backdrops…and little else. The Hong Kong setting seems odd since the storyline does very little to accentuate the locale. Only a sequence with the Bleeders (individuals with voices that can literally kill) in a fish market makes sense. In addition, recent films with similar themes like Jumper and Babylon A.D. undermine any sense of originality or freshness here. Even with all its idiosyncratic elements, Push feels like something we’ve seen before. Unfortunately, said memory is of something far more fascinating and definitely more engaging. 

by Bill Gibron

4 Feb 2009

She only appears in the last 15 minutes of the film. Her presence is, at first, rather disorienting, since we’ve seen so few adults during the course of the carnage. As she tries to comfort a distraught and very upset Alice, her almost blasé response to the concept of a killer on the loose makes her instantly suspect. Still, we’re willing to go with this well-meaning matriarch, at least, up to a point. And then Betsy Palmer, TV star from decades past, opens up her predatory pearly whites and starts telling the story of a boy…a boy named Jason, and soon we see the light. As the mother of the drowned lad, Mrs. Voorhees means business, and in her line of work (carving up teenagers), business is booming.

As Friday the 13th prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary (a new unrated DVD has just been released), and with renewed interest in the franchise sparking via a brand new up to date remake, it’s important to look back on the villain who really started it all. No, not that fame whoring lummox named Jason. He took over the splatter mantle when Mommy bought the farm near the end of the original film. No, the real badass of the entire F13 series is the unhinged lady who started it all. As Camp Crystal Lake’s cook back in the ‘50s, Mrs. Voorhees knew her handicapped son needed constant minding. When counselors decided to have sex instead, his death helped her maternal instincts go ballistic.

The entire premise of the first Friday the 13th film is the notion of hedonistic teens paying for their self-indulgent ways. When Steve Christy vows to reopen the failing family business (the camp has had more than its fair share of bad luck in the years proceeding Mrs. Voorhees first spree), he hires a bunch of pot smoking, bed hopping, beer swilling young people to help handle the proposed influx of kids. They are to spend two weeks getting the place in shape before they see the first paying customer. Ironically enough, new cook Annie is picked up hitchhiking, and in a very dramatic and suspenseful scene, has her throat cut while running through the woods.

Thus begins the body count, what all entries in the Friday the 13th franchise are noted for. During the course of this first installment, we get arrows through the throat, axes to the face, knives to the gut, and in perhaps the movie’s most memorable kill, a full blown machete to the head decapitation. It is Mrs. Voorhees who suffers said final humiliation, loosing her noggin after a knockdown drag out lakeside rumble with Alice. The two square-off in typical talking baddie/last girl fashion but what makes the entire scuffle work is the sight of Palmer, well into her 50s by this time, smacking the bejesus out of her costar…and smiling that old school Tinsel Town grin all the while.

Starting around the same time as TV came into its own, Patricia Betsy Hrunek made a name for herself in such popular broadcast fare as the Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One. She also had small but important roles in films like Mr. Roberts and The Last Angry Man. As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, she found work on game shows like I’ve Got a Secret. However, her most famous turn may have been as a reporter/personality for then fledgling morning show Today. Along with commercials, talk show appearances, and occasional returns to the stage, Palmer eked out a decent if indefinite career. She was a face you recognized, but you weren’t quite sure about the where and when.

Rumor has it that, desperate for a new car (and the cash to buy same), Ms. Palmer took the role in Friday the 13th, even though she considered the script a “piece of shit”. Receiving $1000 a day for a total of 10 days work, she collected her check and tried to forget her foray into fright. But her performance was so memorable, and the impact of the slasher standard so immediate, that it wasn’t long before Mrs. Voorhees became a true blue arterial spray icon. Thanks to the hulking mutant with a mashed up face and a bullish bad attitude, the woman who gave birth to a thousand slice and dice nightmares instantly begat an entire motherly mythos.

And with good reason. Palmer is electric in the original Friday the 13th, an old ham really bringing home the bacon with her unsane showboating as the marauding madam. With eyes suggestively sparkling with glints of gratuitous hate, and choppers that would make a Great White envious, she doesn’t just chew up the scenery - she takes huge, heaping helpings of backdrop and grinds them up like little children’s hearts. Her Mrs. Voorhees is unstoppable, unconquerable, and unfathomable. Sure, seeing your son die would drive any mother over the edge. But to grab a hatchet and start swinging requires a madness that not even Charlie Manson could manage in a lifetime of incoherent inner monologues.

But Mrs. Voorhees has it all figured out. Her son died at the hands of randy adolescents who couldn’t keep their Eisenhower era hands off each other, so she is going to make sure that generations of the same suffer a similar fatalistic fate. But does this really make her the ultimate horror movie badass? Does her unrepentant desire to kill off anyone associated with Camp Crystal Lake really make her the definitive illustration of wrath unraveled and visceral? The answer, oddly enough, is Hell mofo-ing YES!!! While other killers get to hide behind masks (hockey, Halloween, or otherwise), or go about their gory commerce in Darth Vader like gasps, Palmer puts on a primer for going full blown psycho and never ever stops. She’s committed while needing to be. She’s scary without losing total touch with her aims. And until Alice removes her cranium from her collar, she’s damn successfully at the fine art of splatter.

Like any legitimate legend, Mrs. Voorhees doesn’t overstay her welcome. She battles mightily, takes her machete medicine, and dies like any badass should - directly in the line of sight of her oversized ogre of an undead child. As pure evil, as the Wicked Witch of the West meshed with a spinster aunt whose long since lost her marbles, as the unquestioned inspiration for every slasher film fiend to come afterwards, Betsy Palmer’s work in the original Friday the 13th is greatness personified. While she may not like the terror tag (though she’s recently relented and started attending conventions) and thinks the entire experience was a ‘waste of time and talent’, there’s no denying the impact of her performance. Almost three decades later we’re still talking about PAMELA Voorhees, the devoted parent who took her unquestionable grief a few slaughter-filled steps too far. It’s because of Betsy Palmer that we still cringe…and care.

by Bill Gibron

3 Feb 2009

The nostalgic effect of stop motion animation is potent. Indeed, the moment a member of an earlier generation sees the static, superlative work of such single frame artistry, visions of Ray Harryhausen, George Pal and his Puppetoons, and the dream factory forged by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass instantly come to mind. It’s all Mad Monster Parties and the adventures of Tubby the Tuba. As the format flourished during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, the love for all things Clokey (Gumby), O’Brien (King Kong), and Danforth (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) grew. In the ‘80s, Will Vinton carried the magic mantle, while the ‘90s saw Nick Park and his Wallace and Gromit gain international approval.

Somewhat lost among the mythic mix is creative genius Henry Selick. Sidelined by his association with Tim Burton, a lame live action misstep (Monkeybone), and an under-appreciated if terrific take on Roald Dahl, he’s now back - and he’s brought English icon Neil Gaiman along for the ride. Together, they tap into areas heretofore unheard of for a family film, bringing both the singular and the sinister to the mix. The result is Coraline, a quirky dark fantasy which while grounded in a kind of every kid reality, transcends the mundane to become something quite special indeed. 

When her family moves to rainy, gloomy Oregon, Coraline Jones finds herself lost in a new and wholly unfamiliar apartment house. Her upstairs neighbor is an eccentric Eastern European named Mr. Bobinsky. He once ran a famous mouse circus. Now, he seems insane. Downstairs live the equally odd actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible. The former burlesque style glamour queens are obsessed with their slobbering terriers and their inflated figures. And then there’s Wybie, the grandson of the woman who owns the building. He’s a jabbering pain in Coraline’s already sour demeanor. 

One day, our heroine discovers a door to another dimension, a place where her gardening book author parents are attentive and thoughtful, where Mr. Bobinsky is a regal ringmaster, and the team of Spink and Forcible offer their own naughty nightly floorshow. But something is not quite right with this fanciful place. All the people have big black buttons sewn into their faces - in place of their eyes - and in order to stay, Coraline must agree to do the same. Little does she know that dark forces are plotting to keep her prisoner in the other realm forever!

In a genre packed with derivative visuals and too hip for homeroom pop culture jibes, Coraline is a welcome return to pure animation splendor. It’s gorgeous to look at, inspiring to experience, and satisfying in ways few modern motion pictures - no matter the proposed demographic - ever strive to achieve. In the hands of Selick, the real mastermind behind A Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, we witness the kind of imagination and invention that only Pixar can provide - and with none of that newfangled technological twaddle to get in the way. This is untainted artistry, plain and simple, skill sets unseen in today’s joke a minute cinema-nipulation.

Granted, Selick does take liberties with Gaiman’s prize winning novella, reconfiguring the setting to a dreary Pacific Northeast and creating his own character outside the book. As a result, Coraline feels like a real motion picture rarity - a true collaboration between author and interpreter. Make no mistake, this director still admires and abides by the tome’s “horror’ overtones, never lightening up the material to make it more mainstream. Instead, Coraline is a film you have to fall into fully, an outrageous statement of childhood fear fashioned out of wish fulfillment, candy floss, and a whole lot of sharp, pointy things.

Selick excels within this brooding big picture, and he certainly brings the spectacle here (enhanced, naturally, by the application of excellent 3D effects). He pays homage to Pal and the Puppetoons with an amazing mouse marching band that has to be seen to be believed. The level of precision and overall scope is jaw dropping. Similarly, Madams Spink and Forcible give a floorshow that will sail right over the heads of prepubescent audiences, but definitely satisfy a depressed drag along dad or two. Selick sets much of the film outside the perplexing pink apartment house, utilizing the surreal garden set-up and the surrounding forest to find new avenues of expression. And there’s no denying the man’s eye for set and character design. The figurines employed here and the backgrounds they exist in are fully realized and ridiculously alive.

Of course, character is very important to this film’s success, and Coraline doesn’t skimp on personality. Thanks the wonderful work by the voice actors (Dakota Fanning, Terri Hatcher, Ian McShane, Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders all acquit themselves more than admirably here) and the way in which these entities are employed, we experience untold amounts of depth. Some might see this film as too edgy or cold, calculated without adding the necessary nuances of emotion or identification. Frankly, it’s a foolhardy argument. Coraline is involving, entrancing, heartfelt…and in the end, rather hopeful. We want this young girl to be happy, and fear she will take up with the Other World residents because they promise things that are superficial and instantly gratifying. If there’s a singular theme here, it’s the tagline currently being used for the film’s promotion - “be careful what you wish for”. Such unearned satisfaction can only lead to pain and disappointment.

In combination with the qualities Selick typically brings to the party - passion for stop motion, an attention to detail, a true love of the overall artform - Coraline can’t help but be charming. It’s like a trip back in time, to the moment when you first realized that a giant ape could actually climb to the top of the Empire State Building, or a creature from Greek mythology could ‘come alive’ scare you to your core. It’s a flawless illustration of why pen and ink cartooning (and its modern computer-based companion) just can’t compete with the painstaking approach of this old school medium. Perhaps audiences will finally understand and appreciate what Selick and his cohorts have been championing for decades. This kind of animation is truly amazing, and Coraline is a perfect example of its remarkable, resplendent wonders.

by Bill Gibron

3 Feb 2009

Every year it’s the same. Oscar pulls out a list of pseudo successful nominees, pundits kvetch and make their predictions, various underling awards hand out their trophies, and by the time the biggest ceremony rolls around, a group of presumptive number ones are anointed. As the list dwindles down - PGA, DGA, SAG - the question of who walks away with Academy gold seems clearer and clearer. So assuming the following Monday morning winners - Slumdog for everything, Streep for Doubt, Penn for Milk, Ledger for Knight, and Cruz of Barcelona - who exactly is number two. Who are the runner ups that, unlike other prized pig popularity contests, don’t get to take the place of the winner if said victor can’t (or is unable) sample their own spoils?

Oddly enough, calling the race for second place is, with one or two rare exceptions, a far more complicated process. Since the Academy doesn’t release results, and few on the inside are willing to offer their perspective, we are stuck with the annual list of winners…and little else. So consider this a combination, a set of attempted predictions as to what will happen 22 February, and a hopefully educated guessing game on who came up a few votes short. None of this takes into consideration the films that were snubbed, or had to settle for recognition in the lesser, technical categories, and as we move closer to Oscar day, SE&L will sort everything out with its own idiosyncratic set of recognitions. Until then, let’s play Tinsel Town’s game, beginning with:

Best Screenplay (Original)

Presumptive Winner - WALL-E (Jim Reardon, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter)
Runner-Up - In Bruges (Martin McDonagh)

In the category which used to be known as the “thank you for playing” home version of the Oscars, people who would otherwise never win an award - say, the Coen Brothers circa the mid ‘90s - would be thrown a big fat bone of quasi-recognition here. It was the spot where such names as Spike Lee, David Lynch, and Terry Gilliam typically landed. Now, the trophy holds a little more aesthetic weight, with previous winners such as Alan Ball, Cameron Crowe, and Pedro Almodovar setting the bar pretty high. This year, however, the love for Pixar’s animated epic will translate into one non-animation award. That just leaves indie darling Martin McDonagh to sweep up afterward.

Best Screenplay (Adapted)

Presumptive Winner - Slumdog Millionaire (Simon Beaufoy)
Runner-Up - The Reader (David Hare)

In order to justify its presence as part of 2009’s Academy pageant, don’t be surprised if The Reader walks away with more than one little gold man. The multiple nominations indicate a tendency toward rewarding this mediocre effort, but it’s hard to envision earning the major hardware. If Slumdog somehow stumbles, failing to fulfill it’s destiny as Oscars latest multicultural comment on its own previous cluelessness, be prepared to see David Hare hobble up to the podium and pick up yet another Academy certified undeserved nod to scribing (right, Akiva Goldsman???).

Best Supporting Actress

Presumptive Winner - Penelope Cruz: Vicky Christina Barcelona
Runner-Up - Taraji P. Henson: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Calling Ms. Cruz the best thing in Woody Allen’s PR anointed “return to form” is faint praise indeed. In a movie where all the characters complain like longshoreman debating a rise in union dues, she stands out for two tawdry reasons - her implied sexuality, and her Spanish accent. Still, Oscar likes to think with his ‘sword’, so Penny will walk away bedazzled…and hopefully, soon forgotten. In the meantime, a truly stunning piece of work by Mr. Henson will have to settle for second. In a film filled with grace notes, she’s refinement personified. Every time she mentions the name of her adopted son, your heart breaks a little.

Best Supporting Actor

Presumptive Winner - Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight
Runner-Up - Robert Downey Jr.: Tropic Thunder

Call it a battle between white and black face. Both of these actors do amazing work under make-up jobs that should really limit their range of (e)motion, and each defines their individual movies by the way they carry themselves and their characters. Had Ledger not died unexpectedly, this would be a real hambone horserace. And it would not be a surprise to see the year’s second comeback kid earn his Oscar wings. Instead, the smart money says that the Academy rewards the Aussie posthumously, leaving the previously bridesmaided actor waiting for another year to finally earn his much deserved industry acclaim.

Best Actor

Presumptive Winner - Sean Penn: Milk
Runner-Up - Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler

Actually, this category really isn’t that hard to call. It’s been a race between Penn and Rourke since The Wrestler turned from a whispered about sleeper to a year end Best of darling. Both men deserve it, actually, relying on their perceived image - and their own perversion of same - to reach untold levels of acting truth. Before the recent rash of underling awards, it looked like Rourke would be the clear consensus champion…and he still could be, since Oscar isn’t necessarily in love with Penn’s personal politics. But another recent issue - California’s incomprehensible gay marriage ban - should elevate his profile into the winner’s circle.

Best Actress

Presumptive Winner - Meryl Streep: Doubt
Runner-Up - Melissa Leo: Frozen River

Of all the races out there, this one has been the most interesting to watch unfold. At first, conventional wisdom had Angelina Jolie walking away with the award for Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. Then people actually saw the movie. Before long, Anne Hathaway’s troubled addict was moved to the top slot. Then Kate Winslet went from Supporting given to Best Actress possibility and the entire category went to Hell. Now Streep has walked away with the pre-ceremony predicting plaudits, so it could be anyone’s race. The amazing work from Ms. Leo, however, may have to settle for second.

Best Director

Presumptive Winner - Danny Boyle: Slumdog Millionaire
Runner-Up - David Fincher: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

He’s the DGA’s choice, had taken home a Golden Globe, and has managed to fend off some last minute negativity (something about the pay for Indian actors) to come a single step away from earning the Oscar he so richly deserves. But if Danny Boyle loses out to someone during the evening’s festivities, it just might be Fincher. Accomplishing something very rare for a filmmaker, the visionary director dialed down the darkness and came up with a meticulous, meaningful epic. Absence the battles with perception (Button is often referred to as Gump Lite) and publicity (star Pitt is a commercial blessing and a curse), he’d be picking up the prize.

Best Picture

Presumptive Winner - Slumdog Millionaire
Runner-Up - Frost/Nixon

This is an odd choice, admittedly, but one that crosses the clear generational gaps that seem to exist within the Oscar voting pool. Should Slumdog struggle - and it still might, no matter that current trending towards victory - then the race is really wide open. The backlash against the Academy keeps The Reader out of contention, and no one really wants Benjamin Button to win. This leaves Milk the odd man out, bringing the sentimentalized treatment of America’s poisonous political nightmare to the fore. Thanks to time’s ability to fade memories, some see Ron Howard’s reconfiguration of history as a revelation. Should the real cinematic vision fail, this could fill the visible void.

by Bill Gibron

2 Feb 2009

It was all about the action. Action, ACTION, ACTION!!!  Yep, action with THREE entertainment exclamation points. After a self-imposed moratorium which saw limited Hollywood participation in the previous broadcasts of America’s annual anthem, Tinsel Town tore up Sunday’s Super Bowl with a record eleven trailers. And as usual, many substituted smoke and mirrors for substance. Some were just teasers. Others unveiled their full blown first firefight salvos in the proposed battle for box office supremacy.

In between the endless ads for beer and beefed up vehicles, we got our initial glimpses at the return of the Decepticons, GI Joe, and Will Ferrell’s take on a classic ‘70s kiddie series. Curiously absent? A new Watchmen preview (only five weeks and counting…).  Same with the Wolverine X Men Origins film. Nothing about Public Enemies, the return of Harry Potter, Terminator: Salvation, or Alex Proyas’ Knowing. Apparently, unless it was approved by Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, the marketing teams didn’t bother…with one or two exceptions.

So, without further ado and in alphabetical order, here are reviews of the pictures pimped during last night’s game, beginning with:

Angels and Demons (Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor - directed by Ron Howard)

If the key to winning back audiences burned by the dull and dopey Da Vinci Code is keeping major plot points and characters a secret, then the ad for this prequel sequel to the 2006 hit has a good shot at being successful. While star Hanks is featured in several scenes of pseudo thrills, it’s the arrival of McGregor in full priest garb that’s the most shocking. The main narrative thread? Who knows? Does Dan Brown still have the juice he commanded two years ago? That’s probably the biggest mystery of all.

Duplicity (Clive Owen, Julia Roberts - directed by Tony Gilroy)

On the down side, this new film features an aging Julia Roberts trying to capture some post-millennial buzz. On the up side, we get the always watchable Clive Owen. And somewhere in the middle sits Tony Gilroy, freshly minted to the mainstream from Oscar nom glory and ready to follow up Michael Clayton with this calculated corporate spy game. With all the cutesy RomCom contrivances in the trailer, the moments of meaningful drama seem lost. And a mid-March opening is never a good sign.

Fast and Furious (Paul Walker, Vin Diesel - directed by Justin Lin)

Oh what a difference a few bombs will make - and we’re not talking about the pyrotechnic kind. After the first F&F made megabucks, both Walker and Diesel were destined (PR style) to become the new post-modern action heroes. A few Babylon AD/Running Scareds later, and both leads are back licking their lame box office wounds. With Tokyo Drift‘s Lin still in charge (apparently series originator Rob Cohen couldn’t be bothered) this will be stylish and empty - perfect for the early April lull before the real popcorn season begins.

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (Dennis Quaid, Channing Tatum - directed by Stephen Sommers)

It’s a film based on a cartoon originally based on a toy. Now that sounds promising, especially if you’re a full blown ‘anything ‘80s’ geek. And depending on what you think of Stephen “Yes to Any Excess” Sommers, this is either the sleeper blockbuster of 2009 (it doesn’t hit theaters until August) or Van Helsing with toy soldiers instead of baby vampires, werewolves and lots of stuff going “boom”. The trailer did deliver a classic ID4 money shot, though. Who didn’t smile when the Eiffel Tower disintegrated and fell, huh?

Land of the Lost (Will Ferrell, Danny McBride - directed by Brad Silberling)

Believe it or not, Sid and Marty Kroffts’ Saturday Morning trip back in time was proposed and presented as serious science fiction. Even with the grade-Z effects, the storylines were written by some of the genre’s greats. So the snarky, borderline silly preview for the Farrell update appears prepared to crap all over that concept. In some ways, this looks like a Night in the Prehistoric Theme Park, with CG dino damage taking the place of actual ideas. Yikes.

Monsters vs. Aliens (Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie - directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon)

Something about the premise seems a bit…off. The outer space angle looks lifted directly from Mars Attacks! But the creature feature element appears all fudged up. Are a 50 foot teenager and a giant gerbil really ‘monsters’? And does the notion of pitting a “ragtag” group of quasi-fiends against technologically advanced enemies really play? Finally, can we trust co-directors Letterman and Conrad? They were, after all, responsible for Shark Tale and Shrek 2 respectively. Well, at least the 3D gimmick seemed sort of interesting.

Race to Witch Mountain (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb - directed by Andy Fickman)

The original Disney film is not one of the House of Mouse’s shinier moments. For those of us who experience Uncle Walt’s awkward years (read: the ‘70s) first hand, this was sloppy speculative drek at best. Now, the man who made Johnson a massive family friendly hit (he helmed the genial if generic The Game Plan) puts the former WWE star and a pair of precocious tweens in car chase jeopardy, and let’s the stunt work speak for itself. Oddly enough, this is one revamp that shows some promise.

Star Trek 2009 (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto - directed by J.J. Abrams)

For those counting, this is number eleven in the cinematic series. For those beholden to the notion that ‘evens rule’ and ‘odds suck’, this could cause a problem. Still, Mr. Lost seems to be hitting all the right notes here - reinventing the origin story of the original Trek posse to put their later in life antics into perspective. Messing with mythology is never easy, and Shatner-ites have been whining about their favorite gas bag’s lack of a cameo, but the visuals make this a must-see…at least, until the sneak preview reviews start pouring in.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox - directed by Michael Bay)

In typical Bay style, this is all slam-bang bombast and very little clarity. We get no perspective on the plot, lots of over-energized eye candy, and one too many hyper hero shots. The new machines look very impressive indeed, and how can you not like a sequence where Master Mutt Jones gets his booty kicked by a giant, pissed off robot? Slam the first film all you want, but it was a joyous junk box of super steroided fun. Hopefully, this will be just as pangloriously goofy. 

Up (Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer - directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

Pixar has this problem, especially in the early stages of marketing their movies. If you remember, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and especially WALL-E looked less than promising in their preview form - probably because, unlike the standard Robert Zemeckis school of trailering, every single plot twist isn’t given away in the two minute overview. But so far, the latest from these CGenuises is rather underwhelming. The images, as always, look stunning. We’ll have to wait a while to see if the studio continues batting 1000, or finally finds a project that stumbles, if only a little.

The Year One (Jack Black, Michael Cera - directed by Harold Ramis)

Black and Cera in a comedy designed by one of the genre’s greats (SCTV‘s Harold Ramis) - how could it fail? Well, the dry as a desert wit displayed in the less than impressive trailer might be an indication of such a suspicion. Sure, there are some clever jokes and a few inspired cameos, but the last time someone tried something like this, we got Caveman (or go back even further for the Dudley Moore flop Wholly Moses). The talent involved gets the initial offering a tentative pass, but things better improve come follow-up time, or all bets are off.

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