Reel Opinions

Monday, August 28, 2006

How to Eat Fried Worms

One thing I certainly cannot criticize the new family film, How to Eat Fried Worms, for is that it lives up to its title. There is much digesting of the little squirmers during the course of the film, more so than any 90-minute long movie probably needs. That being said, what I can criticize the movie for is being a loud, annoying, and overly loose adaptation of a children's novel that is loved by many. In bringing the book to the big screen, writer-director Bob Dolman (The Banger Sisters) has removed all the joy from the source material, and instead has given us an overly crude and juvenile comedy that will appeal only to the 10 and under set. Without the familiar title attached to lure in audiences, this movie wouldn't stand a chance. With so many better family films out there, why would any parent want to sit through something like this?

The plot (such as it is) centers around an elementary school kid named Billy Forrester (Luke Benward) who is forced to move into a new town and a new school when his dad (Tom Cavanagh) gets a new job. Billy is not happy at the idea of being a new kid, and sure enough, the second he rides his bike up to his new school, the local bully Joe (Adam Hicks) targets him. What starts as a childish prank, when Joe and his friends secretly replace the drink in Billy's thermos with some freshly dug up earthworms, quickly escalates out of control when our hero tries to act cool and pretends that he eats worms all the time. Joe the bully calls Billy's bluff, and challenges him to a bet where he will have to eat 10 worms in one day this coming Saturday. Having no one on his side except for the sweet school outcast girl, Erica (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), Billy is forced to take the challenge in order to stand up to Joe's bullying.

How eating 10 worms in a single day proves anything about our hero's worth, your guess is as good as mine. Even if Billy wins the bet (the prize being that if Billy eats all 10 of the worms, Joe has to show up to school on Monday with worms in his pants), wouldn't that in fact make him the target of even more bullying? In fact, How to Eat Fried Worms seems confused about what message it wants to bring forth to children. It tells us we should stand up to bullies by doing whatever stupid dare they want us to do. It will somehow make Billy cool to the other kids that he saw Joe's challenge, and the kids will respect him. If that doesn't make any sense to you, then try this. The movie then switches gears and tells us that we are supposed to sympathize and be nice to bullies, because they have really crummy home lives, and they act out to deal with the abuse they get at home. (Joe has an older brother who teases him.) Okay, so we're supposed to stand up to bullies by taking on their humiliating challenges and degrading ourselves, but we're also supposed to stand up for them as well, because they're just misunderstood? I'm still trying to figure out what message we were supposed to leave with this movie, other than worms really do not taste good no matter how you try to prepare them. And I don't think anyone needs an entire movie in order to inform them of that.

How to Eat Fried Worms is a plotless, 90-minute long gross out joke in search of a point. Once the bet is set about 20 minutes into the movie, the remaining 70 minutes is a stomach churning and endless series of close up shots of worms being slurped, swallowed, ground up, chewed up, and "flavored" with everything from lard to hot sauce to an omelette. I'm sure kids in the single digit age group will find this stuff hilarious, but any adult or somewhat mature teenager will probably be squirming in their seats as much as the little earth crawlers do in this movie. The kids keep on screaming how gross it is (as if we don't know that already), and the movie keeps on coming up with different ways to show kids doing cruel things to worms and to each other. This is one pointless, ugly and vile movie, and the fact that it tries to attach a message about respecting others is almost as disgusting as anything in the movie itself, as it obviously exists solely to gross out and nothing more. The characters are a mere afterthought (the kids are just one big batch of cliches and obnoxious screamers), the adults are downright idiots (there's a spaced out teacher, an ignorant principal, a crazy old hag who runs a bait shop, and some clueless parents), and the entire movie has the look and production values of a Saturday morning special that would be right at home on the Nickelodeon channel. Bob Dolman's flat and characterless direction doesn't help matters much, as he only seems interested in graphic sight gags of worm abuse.

A tasteless movie like this needs a bland cast, and Fried Worms does not disappoint in this department. Luke Benward is passable as the put-upon hero, but we never truly sympathize with him as much as we should. This is most likely because the movie makes him out to be an idiot, going back to the whole why would eating 10 worms make you popular thing I mentioned earlier. His parents, portrayed by Tom Cavanagh and Kimberly Williams-Paisley, are about as fleshed out and interesting as a mom and dad from a 1950s family sitcom. The dad, in particular, seems to hail from the world of Leave It to Beaver, as we never really learn what he does at work, and almost every scene he's in revolves around him sitting down, putting his arm around his son, and having a heartfelt talk while sappy music plays on the soundtrack. The other kids in this movie are generally a screaming chorus that the screenplay does very little to develop. Other than a pointless and unnecessary scene where a couple of the kids play a dancing video game at a convenience store that comes literally out of nowhere, they pretty much do nothing but scream about worms, and react in disgust as Billy swallows them down. The only stand out is young Hallie Kate Eisenberg, as Billy's equally put-upon friend. You may remember Eisenberg as that little girl who used to lip synch to songs on the Pepsi commercials in the mid 90s, or from her small role in the film Bicentennial Man. She is likeable in her performance, and is one of the few characters who has a shred of intelligence and doesn't act like she hails from outer space. Too bad the main thing Dolman's screenplay can think of having her do is watch the worm eating action from afar, and say "boys are so weird" over and over while she shakes her head.

Since the movie doesn't even try to follow the original book (the only thing similar is the title, there's a bet about eating worms, and some of the character names), How to Eat Fried Worms pretty much has lost all purpose in the translation. The film's production company, Walden Media, is a studio that prides itself on bringing children's literary classics to the big screen. They've had a pretty hit and miss record so far with films like Holes, Chronicles of Narnia, Because of Winn-Dixie, and Hoot. This is their worst effort yet. Maybe they should have thought twice about bringing a book where the main plot point is a kid eating worms to the big screen. So, even though the movie winds up living up to its title, perhaps the question here is did anyone want it to?

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Saturday, August 26, 2006


Over the past couple years, the Disney Studio has stumbled upon a seemingly fool proof way to make money. They simply search the news archives for any sports story that could easily be molded into a crowd pleasing underdog story, buy the rights, bang out a screen story that leaves out any rough patches or acts of bad behavior the real life person in the story may have been a part of, release the film, and watch the money flow. It is a plan that has worked for a long string of similarly themed films including The Rookie, Remember the Titans, Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played, and Glory Road. Disney seems poised to cover just about every major sport, so I'm sure we'll eventually get to a point where we'll see the "inspirational true story" about some guy who lost his arm in a factory accident, but persevered against all odds, and went on to become a champion ping pong player despite his one-armed handicap. Until that movie arrives, we'll have to settle for their latest entry, Invincible - a by the numbers underdog story that does little to convince us the story needed to be told on the screen in the first place.

The most recent sports figure to be glorified by the Disney Studio is Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg). Vince is living in hard times. It's the mid 70s, and there are massive job strikes and unemployment the nation over. He's just lost his day job as a substitute teacher, and now only has his night time bar job to pay the increasing bills. Worst of all, his wife of five years recently moved out, taking everything they own with her, and only leaving a bitter note behind saying that he'll never amount to anything. When all hope seems lost, a miracle arrives in the form of the new coach of Vince's favorite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles. Coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) has come up with a plan that he thinks will restore the fans' faith in the team after a lengthy losing streak. He will hold open try outs where anyone from off the street can try out for the Eagles training camp, and aim for a position on the team's final roster for the season. Vince is egged on by his friends at the bar to try out for the team, since they figure he has nothing to lose. To the surprise of the Coach and everyone at the try out, Vince ends up being the best of the hopefuls that day, despite the fact that he's never actually played in any professional game. Vince finally has a chance to prove his ex-wife and everyone else who has ever doubted him wrong by toughing it out through the team's grueling training camp.

For a movie that's supposed to be about Vince Papale, Invincible takes a pretty limited scope, focusing only on a couple months in the man's sport career. Since I do not follow football (or most professional sports, for that matter), I had never heard of the guy or of his story. Having seen the movie, I feel like I know about as much about the guy and his story than I did when I walked into the theater. We never truly get a sense of who Vince is, or why he stays so loyal to the Philadelphia Eagles, even though they seem to be the worst team in the world when he attends one of their games at the beginning of the movie. We never get a real sense to the turmoil in his relationship with the wife who winds up leaving him (she appears in one scene, asking when their lives are going to get better, then she's gone), or the true extent of his relationships with the people around him. The most we learn about Papale is that he likes to talk with the guys at the local bar about football, and diss the rival team, the New York Giants. We don't even get to see much of Papale's professional football career, which seems a bit odd considering it is the heart of the story. We get a lot of montages and scenes of him in training, the coach decides to give him a shot and put him on the team even though the other heads wanted to cut him, and then we only get to watch one real game of Papale's career before the end credits start to role. The story strangely seems to be beginning right when it ends. Even worse, we never get any sense about the relationship between Vince and his fellow teammates. We know they hate him for most of the movie, because he's an outsider and not a pro. Yet, during the big game climax, the team is supportive and nice toward him, despite the film never bothering to explain this change in heart of the entire Philadelphia Eagles.

Invincible tries to fill in the gaps with a love interest story where Vince begins to fall for a pretty young blonde who works at the bar (Elizabeth Banks). The subplot is supposed to represent him moving on with his life after the incident with his wife, but it is so underdeveloped that it barely even registers with the audience. The movie keeps on going back to this plot of the two shyly getting closer (she too is nervous about getting involved, as she also had a recent bad break up), but never bothers to develop the characters, keeping them emotionally distant. There's certainly nothing wrong with the actors playing the roles. Mark Wahlberg is a likeable everyman character who gets a shot at the big time, Elizabeth Banks is attractive and sweet in her performance, and despite being completely underdeveloped and underwritten, Greg Kinnear as the team's head coach gets a couple good scenes here and there when he's dealing with his supportive wife and kids. Despite the good performances, the movie never digs deep enough into anyone who enters the story. Everyone is kept at arm's length, and we seem to learn as little as possible about them, almost as if the movie is afraid to get to know them better. This is a major mistake when it comes to a bio-picture. Instead of the inspiring true life story that it strives to be, Invincible comes across as being about some cardboard cut out characters who like to hang out at a bar and play football all day.

The thing that ultimately winds up saving the day, and makes the movie worth watching at least once, is the overall look and style of the film. First time filmmaker Ericson Core has an obvious eye for detail, as every scene looks like a perfect representation of its time period. The clothes, the furnishings and the hair styles all have an appropriate look for the time, giving the film a time capsule feel. And thanks to the full cooperation of the NFL and the Philadelphia Eagles team, everything looks authentic and real during the game scenes. The football sequences featured in the film are expertly filmed, fast-paced, exciting and fun to watch. It's a shame the movie has to keep on going back to that underdeveloped love story that the screenplay obviously cares little about when the football scenes are much more exciting. And as is to be expected, the movie features a soundtrack filled to the brim with a large variety of classic rock songs from the 60s and 70s that do a good job of fitting the mood of the present scene. The look of this film was obviously handled with great care. It's too bad the screenplay did not receive the same amount of effort.

While never offensive or unwatchable, Invincible proves to be far too slight to deserve the big screen treatment. It's almost comes across as a lot of time, talent and energy being wasted for nothing. Vince Papale's story of going from down on his luck blue collar everyman to professional sports player sounds like a can't miss idea for an inspirational sports movie. Yet, for some reason, the movie never quite bothers to get close enough to its own subject. I was actually surprised to find out that this was an authorized bio-movie, and that the real life Papale was actually there on the set. With how little the movie seems to know about him, it almost comes across as an unauthorized film. Official or not, Invincible hardly lives up to its name.

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Friday, August 25, 2006


When it comes to intentionally stupid and crude comedies, Beerfest has one heck of a concept. Too bad it's backed up by one lousy screenplay. Mysteriously popular Canadian comedy group, Broken Lizard (who shot to fame a couple years ago with their debut film, Super Troopers), once again prove that they have no idea what they're doing when it comes to comedy. Oh sure, they have some great ideas, and there are a couple of good gags scattered about the film, but the movie aims too low in its low brow humor, and the timing is completely off. Director and co-star Jay Chandrasekhar (last year's Dukes of Hazzard movie) and the rest of the cast seem to be having a great time up there on the screen, but we're left feeling like the only way we could be having that much fun is if we were as drunk as their characters are.

Beerfest takes Fight Club and just about every sports movie cliche for its inspiration, and views it through a pair of beer goggles. The action kicks off when American brothers Jan (Paul Soter) and Todd Wolfhouse (Erik Stolhanske) are sent to Germany to spread the ashes of their recently departed German grandfather (Donald Sutherland in an embarrassing cameo) in a "sacred family place". The sacred place turns out to be an underground beer drinking competition that is held every year called Beerfest, where the best drinkers the world over compete in a series of increasingly stupid Olympic-style chug games. It turns out their beloved grandfather is notorious on this side of the world for past misdeeds, and the two brothers are ridiculed and humiliated by the undefeated German drinking team. With the sting of defeat fresh in their minds, Jan and Todd are determined to defeat the Germans and restore their family name when the next competition rolls around. They have one year to form a crack team of beer guzzlers, and enter the competition as the USA Team. The team of misfits includes a nerdy scientist with a certain unhealthy scientific interest in frogs (Steve Lemme), an overweight eating competition champion (Kevin Heffernan), and a former drinking game master turned male prostitute (Jay Chandrasekhar).

Beerfest is a sports parody movie for people who thought previous intentionally stupid sports parody films like Dodgeball and Baseketball were too intelligent and slow for their tastes. Once it gets a pesky disclaimer out of the way at the very beginning, warning the audience not to try the kind of stuff the characters do in this movie, Beerfest pretty much becomes an endless series of rapid fire gags that revolve around public drunkenness and every part of the human body being violated in some way, shape, or form. In a way, I somewhat admired the uncontrolled anarchy of the film. I liked the premise, and there are a couple good gags scattered about the film. There are some funny jabs at movie cliches (a main character dies, only to be replaced by his twin brother who suddenly shows up, and is played by the same actor), and one or two gross out gags that made me chuckle despite how juvenile I knew they were. I also liked veteran comic actress, Cloris Leachman, as the grandmother of the two main characters who has a not-so secret past of being a prostitute. The complements end here, however, as the rest of Beerfest just doesn't measure up no matter how much you lower your expectations.

Even though Mr. Chandrasekhar has directed all of Broken Lizard's past films, his directing style still looks like that of an amateur. He has no sense of pacing or timing, which is murder for a comedy that relies on rapid fire gags for its laughs. Some of the jokes seem to be dragged out long after we get the point and stop laughing (like a scene where Chandrasekhar's character hits on a woman in a bar while he's drunk), and there are others that don't even bother to give us a proper pay off. For example, at one point, the guys learn that the championship German team train themselves for the big game by drinking the urine of a ram. (Don't ask.) The guys decide to try this tactic, and the movie shows them chasing down a ram. Afterward, the film cuts to them chugging mugs full of urine, only to make disgusted faces at each other, and then moves on to the next scene. In order for the scene to work, we need a gag to go along with it. The sight alone of seeing these guys drinking urine isn't funny, there needs to be more. A good gross out comedy would have built upon this idea, and given us more than just having the actors mugging at each other in disgust. Even juvenile humor has standards, and the humor found throughout Beerfest is so below par it almost borders on being pathetic.

As mentioned earlier, the cast of this film (made up of the Broken Lizard comedy group and one or two Saturday Night Live veterans) seem to be having a grand old time. But then, why shouldn't they? They were given permission by a major studio to do a movie where they do nothing but hang out with friends, drink beer, and do stupid pratfalls and gross out jokes. They were probably laughing all the way to the bank. I'm sure they got more laughs when the studio greenlighted this idea than there are actually found in the movie itself. There are a couple of lines that made me crack a smile, but most of the jokes are an embarrassing collection of scenes where the guys act up under the influence of alcohol. They're not allowed to do anything actually funny, we're just supposed to laugh at their drunken antics and continuous thunder belches that are so loud I think the walls of the theater actually shook once. I have no problem seeing the Broken Lizard guys giving bad or unfunny performances, but seeing Donald Sutherland's performance in this film just plain made me mad. I've always had a soft spot for the guy, but the second he started talking in that awful attempt at a German accent, I just shook my head. I don't care if this movie's a comedy, there's no excuse for an actor who has done some respectable work to give a performance that bad. With An American Haunting and now this, Sutherland's really having a rough 2006.

While not a complete failure, Beerfest simply does not have the laughs to go with its concept. And, much like Talladega Nights, the film suffers from an overlong running time that could have easily been remedied in the editing room. I'm sorry, but if your film's plot revolves around nothing but five guys binge drinking for a year, it does not need to run for almost two hours. There's hardly enough genuine laughs to hold a half hour short film. If you really need to see this movie, I would suggest waiting for the DVD, as I'm sure it will be a lot better with the alcoholic beverage featured so prominently throughout. Or, better yet, track down a copy of Strange Brew, still the best beer-themed comedy out there. Beerfest is a bitter comedy brew that does not go down easy, and kind of leaves you feeling queasy when it's all done.

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Little Miss Sunshine

It's funny how a continued downward spiral of a certain genre can make you forget how good a formula once was. In this case, Little Miss Sunshine is the savior of the road trip comedy, a genre that has not seen a truly memorable entry since the 1987 John Hughes classic, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. After a series of forgettable entries (the most recent being the Robin Williams stinker, RV), Little Miss Sunshine is a much needed shot of intelligence and maturity. Bittersweet, honest, sometimes sad and often consistently funny, this is not only the best example of the genre in years, but also one of the best films of 2006.

The film covers a weekend in the life of a dysfunctional family as they drive cross country from New Mexico to California to attend a junior beauty pageant. The young hopeful who inspires the trip is 7-year old Olive (Abigail Breslin), a chubby yet spirited little girl who studies adult TV beauty pageants every day for inspiration. She has made the cut due to a last minute cancellation of another hopeful, and her entire family piles into a battered down bus for the trip. The clan includes failed motivational speaker father Richard (Greg Kinnear), fed up housewife Sheryl (Toni Collette), a drug-addicted smart-mouthed grandfather (Alan Arkin), an isolated teen who is intentionally not speaking to anyone named Dwayne (Paul Dano), and depressed Uncle Frank (Steve Carell), who has just been released from the hospital after a failed suicide attempt. During the 800-mile journey, the family will be forced to face their feelings for each other, and their own personal demons.

With a screenplay that constantly teeters on the line between the absurd and heartbreaking reality, Little Miss Sunshine becomes something of a small wonder. It is a movie that is often hilariously funny, but is also touching in many scenes. Despite the crazy situations the characters find themselves in, there is a lot of feelings of pain, isolation, loneliness, and sadness in just about all the adult characters that they try to keep to themselves mostly for the sake of young Olive. The movie knows how to handle its tricky personal issues and the comedy so that the movie's shifts in tone seem natural, instead of desperate or awkward. Some of the scenarios the family encounters during the trip come dangerously close to crossing the line (especially the final outcome of the grandfather character), but the movie never loses sight of its winning combination. And even though the characters are often at each other's throats, the script is smart enough not to make them annoying by having them constantly bicker with one another. The characters are likeable, easy to get behind, and developed well enough that we wind up seeing parts of ourselves in them.

Despite the dark undertones of Little Miss Sunshine, and numerous references to death, suicide and depression, the movie is never heavy or downbeat. Looking back on that sentence, I'll understand if you think I'm out of my head. This is a hopeful movie that never loses sight of the promise of happiness, no matter how bad the lives of the characters may be. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have crafted an uplifting and spirited comedy-drama out of some very unlikely material. As well as building some very strong laughs, Sunshine knows how to push the right emotional buttons in every scene. There are many memorable small moments throughout, such as teenage son Dwayne's eventual break down, and Uncle Frank's awkward reunion with someone from his past at a gas station. Each of these scenes are good enough to make small short films of their own. This is a near pitch-perfect movie that rarely if ever makes a wrong turn or a misstep.

All of this is topped off by a first-rate cast all the way around. As the frustrated and tired parents, Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette are realistic and winning in their respective roles. Kinnear in particular plays a man who expects nothing but success out of his family members and others, yet can't seem to reach success himself. He is a character who could have come across as hateful and unlikeable in the wrong hands, but Kinnear knows how to make us relate to him, and is probably one of his strongest performances in recent memory. As the hopeful and bright Olive, Abigail Breslin is a real find. The younger sister of fellow child actor, Spencer Breslin (Zoom, The Shaggy Dog), she has already surpassed her brother with just this one film, as her performance here tops anything her older sibling has ever done in his entire career. The real stand out, however, is Steve Carell who continues his winning streak with the closest thing he's had to a dramatic performance. He is quiet, reserved, and thoughtful in his performance, yet he also gets some of the film's funniest lines. In the span of one year, Carell has successfully changed from small-time supporting roles to leading man, and has become one my favorite actors. I truly hope his work in this film is recognized come award time next year.

With so many comedies (and movies in general) that fail to make any impression at all, Little Miss Sunshine is filled with enough emotion, laughs, and wonderful moments to almost make me forget about the rest of the mediocrity that comes out of Hollywood every year. It is truly a wonderful film, and hopefully it will receive the attention it deserves. It's just now starting to receive a wide release, so there's really no reason for you to miss it. I go to the movies for many reasons. I go to escape, I go to get lost in the story and the characters, and I go to be entertained. Little Miss Sunshine does all that and more.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

The hard part about reviewing An Inconvenient Truth is not trying to bring across that it's a good movie, because it certainly is. The hard part is trying to convince your reader that a movie that is practically nothing but Al Gore lecturing to people about global warming is worth their hard-earned movie dollar. That, obviously, is a tricky area, as Mr. Gore has widely been ridiculed for his sometimes rather flat (for lack of a better word) personality and the way he would sometimes present himself in public. The Al Gore portrayed in this film is personable, entertaining, and knowledgeable about the topic he covers. He obviously cares a lot about his topic, and it comes through in his performance and to the audience. While on paper, watching Al Gore talking about the environment for an hour and 45 minutes sounds like a cure for insomnia, the film is actually rewarding and informative.

Director Davis Guggenheim has brought Al Gore's acclaimed lecture on global warming that he has given all over the world to the big screen. Gore's presentation is very simple and to the point. He uses graphs, comparison photos (showing areas showing signs of global warming before and current), charts, statistics, and occasionally multimedia (animation clips created for the lecture, and some taken from TV). During his lecture, he talks about the effects that global warming has had on the weather patterns, on the Earth itself, and on the people of the world. He brings forth some alarming figures and statistics, backed up by photos and documents. He also uses personal experiences, talking about first-hand encounters with these events, and close friends and colleagues past and present who have inspired his views. The film is never preachy and usually honest, never relying on cheap scare tactics. Yes, some of the before and after photos of glaciers and mountains are quite literally jaw-dropping, but he wisely does not play up the drama, and usually lets the photos speak for themselves.

The film is not set entirely in a confined lecture hall. Occasionally, the filmmakers follow Gore during his travels to different locations where he gives his lecture, and the people that he meets outside of his presentation. The most poignant and important moment of the film, to me personally, is when the film crew follows Gore to the remains of the family farm where he spent a good part of his childhood. As he shows us the different areas, and talks about his family and their business, he mentions that one of the key crops his father grew was tobacco. Although the Surgeon General eventually started cracking down hard on tobacco, his father mostly ignored the dangers, and did not think much that one of his daughters was a heavy smoker. He realized it was too late when the daughter passed away from lung cancer, and never dealt with tobacco crops ever again. Not only is the way Gore tells the story touching and heartfelt, but it also eventually ties into one of his main topics that we have to do something about the problem before it is too late to do anything. The way that he uses personal experiences or life stories, and mixes them into his message is wisely not heavy handed or manipulative, but flows naturally into his subject.

The thing that I think will surprise anyone who happens to see An Inconvenient Truth is that Al Gore is actually quite entertaining and charming in his delivery and presentation. We are viewing the man outside of the campaign trail and the spin zone of politics, and instead are hearing him talking one-on-one with us and his audiences during his lecture about a subject that is very dear to him, and that he has been following since his days in school. He is passionate but never preachy, and he is also very funny sometimes. There are a surprising number of laugh out loud moments in the film, both in Gore's clever wording and the way he delivers his lines. He comes across natural as a speaker in this film, and is actually very likeable. He does not talk down to the audience, nor does he make things needlessly complex. He does rely heavily on statistics, figures and graphs, but he keeps them simple so that just about anyone can understand.

Naturally, An Inconvenient Truth is not exactly a movie that needs to be seen on the big screen. But, it is a movie that I think needs to be seen. Its message is clear and concise, and told in a way that is never sappy or accusing. Gore wisely does not use his forum to attack others who disagree with him. Sure, he pokes a little fun at the opposition now and then, but he mainly uses his show as a chance to share his views and offer a wake up call about evidence that can be found all around us. With intelligence, personality and wit, Al Gore makes his point known, and has become one of the biggest entertainment surprises of the summer movie season.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006


A thought occurred to me while watching Accepted. Whereas once the college campus comedy flourished with the likes of such classics as Animal House and the original Revenge of the Nerds, the genre has all but dried up with only the occasional Old School or Van Wilder popping up every so often. If Accepted proves anything, it's that maybe the genre died because there's just nothing left that hasn't been done already. While certainly watchable, first time director Steve Pink fails to keep the laughs coming after a fairly successful first half hour. When the film starts to run out of gas, we are forced to check off the genre cliches in order to keep ourselves entertained.

Things seem bleak for recent high school graduate Bartleby Gaines (Justin Long) when he is rejected by every college he applies for. His old fashioned parents (Mark Derwin and Ann Cusack) hold firm to the belief that a person is nothing without a college education, and wear their shame over the fact that their son has not been able to get into any college on their faces for all the world to see. Desperate for a way to get back into his parents' good graces, he teams up with his nerdy best friend Sherman (Jonah Hill from The 40-Year Old Virgin) to create a website and a fake acceptance letter for a fake college called the South Harmon Institute of Technology (or S.H.I.T. as it is affectionately called). Bartleby teams up with his friends to turn an abandoned mental hospital into a suitable campus, and hires a disgruntled former teacher turned foul mouthed shoe salesman (Lewis Black from TV's The Daily Show) to pose as the campus Dean. The parents buy the act, but things take a turn for the worst when a large group of slackers, stoners, and losers show up at the front door of South Harmon. It seems that they too have been rejected by every college they applied to, only to be accepted by the fake one Bartleby and his friends created. In order to keep the scam running, Bartleby will have to introduce a rather unorthodox way of teaching, and avoid the advances of the evil Dean Van Horne (Anthony Heald) from a rival college who wants to expose the scheme and shut South Harmon down so he can use the land for his own purposes.

Let's face it, just about everything you can do in a college comedy has been done, and Accepted does absolutely nothing to break the mold. A wild beer party set to the song "Blirtzkreig Bop" by The Ramones? Check. An evil dean teaming up with an equally evil jock frat boy to ruin the fun of the main characters? Check. A pretty and popular girl is dating the evil frat boy until she finds out that he is unfaithful, and discovers that the dorkier main character is much more caring and understanding toward her? Come on, do I even need to say it? The film actually starts off pretty strong, and seems that it will be a parody of the education system. The early scenes where Bartleby and his friends try to pass off a ranting extremist as their Dean to their parents are fun, and there are plenty of laughs in the film's first half hour. I actually started to get comfortable that the movie knew what it was doing. But then the other students show up at the door of South Harmon, and things quickly go downhill once the movie becomes an endless series of music montages set to the wild students partying to rock music, skateboarding, smashing into things, and blowing stuff up. The film never quite lives up to the promise the first half hints at, which is a shame, because the writers had a strong thing going here before they lost their nerve.

What's most bizarre about Accepted is the studio's insistence on watering down a film tailor made for an R-rating so it can receive a PG-13. This gives the film an overly sanitized feel that betrays everything the movie stands for. Didn't anyone at the studio realize that this was going to hurt the movie more than it helped? Why cater to a preteen audience when they're not even the audience that you're supposed to be targeting in the first place? And another thing, your decision to tone the movie down is obviously going to keep your core college audience away, as they will instead decide to wait for the "Unrated" DVD release later this year. Not only will this hurt the film's chances at the box office, it just doesn't make a lot of sense in the long run. Besides, a lot of the jokes are not appropriate for the preteen crowd, including the students and faculty referring to themselves as "shitheads" numerous times because of South Harmon's abbreviation. Because of this unwise censoring decision, numerous jokes are set up only to have no punchline or pay off whatsoever. I really would have liked to have seen some of the classes the students come up with South Harmon, which includes everything from "Slacking 101" to "The Decline and Fall of Chevy Chase". (Now there's a college course I would seriously sign up for.) But, aside from a few fleeting glimpses during certain montages, we never get a true sense as to what the school is about.

Perhaps what's more bizarre than the studio's decision to market the film to the wrong crowd is the filmmaker's decision to cast the 28-year old Justin Long as the 18-year old Bartleby Gaines. While Mr. Long certainly has a boyish face and doesn't come across as out of place as a teenager as he probably should, it still seems somewhat awkward to see him trying to pass himself off as a high school student, and talking about plans to create a fake ID. I really hope that he can advance into some more adult roles soon, because it's going to start to become very creepy if he's still playing these kind of roles in about two years or so. The rest of the cast are a nondescript group of stoners, idiot, and geek stereotypes that have been around in these kind of movies since the 80s. The one and only stand out in the cast is Lewis Black as the borderline psychotic former teacher. He generates the biggest laugh out loud moments during his early scenes that it's a shame the movie all but forgets about him as it goes along. We get little bits and pieces of his rants against society and the education system during his "lectures" that he gives to the students of South Harmon, but I have a sense we missed out on the good parts due to the film's PG-13 rating. Lewis Black is an underused comic gem in this movie, and it's the filmmaker's own fault that he was not used to the best of his ability.

In the end, Accepted comes across as being almost hypocritical due to its own sanitized tone. The movie ends with a long and impassioned speech about the values of free thinking and anti-conformity. Then they go and give into corporate greed, censoring the movie to their desires. It certainly doesn't make any sense to me, and it winds up making the film less than it could have and should have been. Ask yourself this question: Would Animal House be remembered as fondly today if director John Landis toned down John Belushi's performance? It's too bad that the makers of Accepted never asked themselves this question while they were in the editing room. Maybe if they had, we'd have a better movie.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Material Girls

Every once in a while, an actor or actress comes along who is popular, yet I cannot for the life of me understand why. Preteen idol Hilary Duff is one such actress. She launched to fame at the tender age of 14 with a TV series called Lizzie McGuire. Now, I never watched the show, so for all I know, her work on the series could have been nothing short of brilliant. I have high doubts of that, mind you, but I'm willing to give the girl the benefit of the doubt, because in each and every screen performance she gives, she mystifies and annoys me even more. Here is a girl with the looks of a Barbie doll, along with the personality and screen presence to match, and has not had a single hit film aside from the Cheaper By the Dozen movies (where she mostly stayed in the background in both films) and a movie based on her TV show. Yet, for some reason, the studios keep on casting her, and I keep on wondering what people possibly see in her. I would not wish for anyone's career to peak with Lizzie McGuire, but if her latest film Material Girls is any indication, Hilary Duff will be lucky if she still has a career by the time she graduates from college.

To call Material Girls stupid would be far too generous. Heck, calling it brain dead would be all too kind. The best way I can describe Material Girls is that it is the cinematic equivalent of a drooling lobotomy patient. Here is one of the most lifeless and pathetic excuses for a comedy I have seen in a long time, and no I am not forgetting last year's piece of cinematic pain, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. At least Rob Schneider's movie made me hate it with a passion. This movie is like staring at a brick wall for over an hour and a half, and about as fulfilling as banging your head against one for the same amount of time. The film's ad campaign would like you to believe that it is a parody of wealthy socialites who are famous simply for being famous. I'm all for the Paris Hiltons, Nicole Ritchies, and Olsen Twins of the world getting their cinematic skewering, but this movie is far too dim-witted to attempt even that. Labored and amateurish on just about every level, Material Girls is not so much a movie as it is an insult to the intelligence of Miss Duff's many young fans.

The plot centers around a pair of LA socialite sisters named Tanzie (Hilary Duff) and Ava (real life sister Haylie Duff) Marchetta. They are the heirs to their late father's cosmetics company, as well as the spokesmodels. Mostly, though, they are more famous for their fancy lifestyle and lavish party hopping. Tragedy strikes when a scandal is uncovered, revealing that one of the company's facial care products has severe side effects. The Marchetta sisters are instantly vilified by the press and media, and find their perfect and pampered world falling apart around them. With their company in financial jeopardy and their beloved mansion now a smoldering rubble (after the girls accidentally burn it down), they are forced to move in with their kindly former maid Inez (Maria Conchita Alonso), and find themselves being pressured to turn the company over to their long-time business rival Fabiella (Anjelica Huston, slumming it up in a minor role). Now that they are forced to rely on themselves for the first time, the Marchetta sisters will have to find a way to save their futures when they discover that the entire scandal may be a set up from somewhere inside the company.

When making Material Girls, director Martha Coolidge (The Prince and Me) must have forgotten that just because the main characters have low IQs doesn't mean that the screenplay and everything else has to match their level. Here is a movie so unfocused and below average that I almost find it hard to believe that a major studio backed the project. You can tell that nobody cared about this movie because in a large number of scenes, the dialogue isn't even dubbed to the lips of the actors very well. Characters will be talking, but their mouths will start moving a second or two later. Or someone's mouth will stop moving, but the dialogue continues over. I've seen Japanese monster movies dubbed better than this. Needless to say, it becomes distracting very quickly. Not that there's much up there on the screen to hold our interest, mind you. The insipid plight of Tanzie and Ava is all but impossible to care for because they never seem to have things that bad. As soon as their house burns down, they are welcomed with open arms by a loving and caring friend who supports them whole heartedly. And even though they are encouraged by this friend to get a job and earn their own money, not once do they actually work. There is a job interview scene, but then the movie forgets all about it, and never brings up the fact that they need jobs ever again. The Marchettas never seem to ever be in any real danger, especially since if they are forced to sell the company to their rival, they wind up with $60 million. So, let me get this straight, no matter if they win or lose, they still wind up richer than you or I ever will be for doing nothing at all? And we're supposed to be rallying behind them?

The young heroines seem to change drastically from scene to scene, almost as if the three screenwriters credited kept on trying out different versions of the characters on each page of the script. One minute, they're dim and clueless (they refer to the Spice Girls as "classic rock"), the next they're vain and egotistical, and sometimes they're sympathetic and smart (Hilary Duff's character has college aspirations of pursuing a major in chemistry at a prestigious school, but this plot point is quickly dropped and never quite resolved). The schizophrenic nature of the girls make it hard to exactly pin down just how we are supposed to feel about them. Are we supposed to be laughing at them because they're stupid? Are we supposed to be pulling for them? The movie seems to be just as confused as we are. Perhaps it is for the best, as there is not one single character in this movie worth our interest. Everyone in this movie is either a one-note personality, an offensive stereotype, or a bland pretty boy with no personality whatsoever. These are people who like to sling insults at each other that don't even make any sense. At one point, Ava Marchetta is told off by a guy when he tells her she's (and I quote) "all frosting without the cupcake". I heard the words coming out of the actor's mouth, but my brain could not register what it was supposed to mean, or why Ava was so offended by the remark. Maybe some things in life are better off left misunderstood. Or maybe Material Girls is just an exceedingly stupid movie. Take your pick, there are no wrong answers.

No performance, no matter how layered or researched, could survive a movie like this. And indeed, the below average acting of everyone involved is simply the icing on this cake of pain. (Or perhaps the frosting on this cupcake of pain?) Hilary and Haylie Duff have an obvious easy chemistry together, which should come as no surprise, but neither one are able to create a single memorable scene or moment, whether alone or apart. They seem to be simply trying to earn laughs by staring vacantly at the other actors or the camera. I can't tell if this is intentional or not, but I'm going to let them pass, since their characters are supposed to be idiots to begin with. They don't get to do anything particularly funny, and some scenes even seem to be building to them doing something funny, only to have it cut to the next scene before it happens. Former child actor Lukas Haas (who once starred alongside Harrison Ford in Witness) seems positively lost and bored as a free lawyer trying to help the girls out with their business problems. My guess is he was wondering how he went from co-starring with Harrison Ford to acting alongside the Duff sisters. Anjelica Huston is merely cashing a paycheck in a glorified cameo as the girls' vain business rival. Really, the only performance that seems even the slightest bit genuine comes from Maria Conchita Alonso. She at least is a voice of reason and gets to display some intelligence in a movie filled with very dumb people. However, since the characters and the movie itself decides to ignore her advice, she's simply fighting a losing battle.

To give you a good idea of the audience's reaction to this film, my screening was filled with Hilary Duff's core fan base of young girls and preteens. And throughout most of Material Girls, the audience was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. There was the occasional mild chuckle during some of the film's slapstick gags, but they could barely be heard over the film itself. This movie is a flat out failure almost as soon as the opening credits start up, and we are "treated" to the Duff sisters' rendition of the classic Madonna song that inspired the title of the film. I don't know what this movie was trying to do exactly. Duff's fans were disappointed, it didn't even try to make fun of its own socialite target, and it doesn't hold a single laugh or thought in its empty little head. By the time it was all over, I felt a little bit dumber having just watched it. And believe me, I felt dumb enough buying a ticket to another Hilary Duff movie to start with.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Snakes on a Plane

Who knew that the most fun I would have at the movies this year would come in the form of Samuel L. Jackson battling vicious snakes on a commercial airliner? Certainly not I. I love it when a movie takes me by surprise and just gets me completely wrapped up in the experience. And Snakes on a Plane is definitely a most pleasant surprise. Forget the massive amount of Internet fan hype that has been building up the past year, and forget the fact that the plot is ludicrous. This is the best example of "thrill ride" movie making I have seen in a long time. It's exciting, it's fast paced, it's thrilling, and it's even funny at times. For pure check your brain at the door entertainment, you can't do much better than this.

When a young man named Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) happens to witness vicious Asian crimelord Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) murdering an innocent man, it's up to FBI agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) to protect him when Kim's goons start coming after Sean. It would seem that Sean's only choice is to testify in court about what he saw, and the only way he can do that is to make a flight from Hawaii to LA under the personal care of Neville to make sure that Sean arrives at the courthouse safely. Unknown to the unsuspecting passengers and crew of the flight, Kim has smuggled aboard a time release box filled with poisonous snakes from all corners of the world. When the snakes are unleashed, they instantly set about destroying everything and everyone in sight under the influence of a chemical that makes them unnaturally aggressive. With the life of everyone on board in great danger, Neville must find a way to take the situation under control, keep Sean alive, and keep the plane flying to its destination.

While no one will certainly mistake it for art, Snakes on a Plane is so tremendously enjoyable, you really won't have time to care. Director David R. Ellis (Cellular) and screenwriters Sebastian Gutierrez and John Heffernan know how to walk that thin line between intentionally cheesy and all out camp, so that we are laughing with the movie and not at it. The first half hour is devoted to setting up the characters, and introduces us to the large variety of colorful characters that we will be spending the next hour and 40 minutes with, including everyone from a germaphobic rap star to a resourceful flight attendant (Julianna Margulies) who is taking her final flight for the airline before she moves onto another job. After that, all bets are off. As soon as the time release box holding the snakes is opened, the movie picks up speed and never lets up. It's almost amazing how the film knows how to make the best out of its confined environments without making the movie seem repetitive. The movie does this by presenting various problems and situations that keep on arising throughout the film. And yet, the movie never seems gimmicky or desperate. The movie creates plausible tension, and knows how to keep us nearly breathless as events unfold. Despite how silly the premise may sound in the above synopsis, the film treats it mostly seriously, with only some one-liners (which are actually funny for a change) or over the top gore scenes (I dare you not to shake your head and laugh at the outcome of the guy who finds a snake in the toilet.) to help lighten the mood.

And then there are the snakes themselves. Using a wide variety of different species and sizes (including one so large I almost can't believe that it's for real), the movie effectively creeps us out with a parade of the slithery serpents that seem to start coming out of the walls. These snakes are not played for laughs, nor are they given any personalities (thank God). They are single-minded killing machines that pounce and strike, and even turn on each other from time to time. They are portrayed in a somewhat realistic light, which I appreciated. They don't do anything that I find hard to believe that a snake doped up on aggressive drugs could pull off. More so than the snakes themselves, it is their accompanying attack scenes that make them so memorable. In a year filled with watered down PG-13 horror films, it's wonderful to see a movie like Snakes on a Plane depict the outcome of its victims in such hilariously over the top detail. Actually, the film was originally targeted for a more family friendly rating, but the filmmakers wisely decided to do some reshoots and bump the film up to a hard R-rating. Definitely a good decision this time around, as I don't think the film would be half as much fun in its original format. For anyone who grew up on the over the top horror films of the 80s, and have been lamenting the removal of all fun from recent entries in the genre, you will welcome this film with open arms.

Usually in a movie like this, the cast and characters are a mere second thought. While I certainly wouldn't call any of the characters in this movie developed or well-written, there are a number of surprisingly likeable characters in this movie, and not one single one got on my nerves, which really came as a surprise to me. Did anyone ever have any doubt that Samuel L. Jackson could carry a movie like this? If anyone did, they will be proven wrong. Jackson not only comes across as a great badass hero for this film, but his performance is immensely likeable. Sure, the role is not exactly deep, but Jackson makes the most out of it, and he delivers his one liners and dialogue with tremendous glee that carries out onto the audience. Julianna Magulies is a strong female lead, and it's certainly nice to see a female lead that does not end up as a love interest for the hero for a change. Also notable is Lin Shaye as an elderly flight attendant who gets a couple good scenes as she tries to keep the passengers safe, and is warm and winning in her performance. The passengers are mainly a faceless and personality-deprived collection of screamers and future snake victims, but there are a couple stand outs, chief amongst them Rachel Blanchard who is surprisingly funny and sympathetic as pampered rich girl passenger Mercedes.

While I was watching this film, I was reminded of another horror film that tried to combine thrills and laughs that came out in April called Slither. I wasn't very fond of that movie, as I felt it took too long to get to where it was going, and it wasn't very funny either. Snakes on a Plane does everything right that the previous film just couldn't grasp. It gives the audience exactly what they want, and it's entertaining to boot. I certainly wasn't expecting much walking in, but I wound up leaving the theater with a goofy grin on my face and laughing to myself as I thought back on certain scenes. That's the best kind of impression a movie like this can leave on its audience. While it probably won't earn a place on my "Best of the Year" list, if anyone ever asks me what movie entertained me the most, I will most likely say Snakes on a Plane.

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Step Up

The oh-so modest ad campaign for the new teen dance drama, Step Up, proudly proclaims that once in a while a movie comes along that speaks to an entire generation, and that this is supposed to be that movie. The announcer then goes on to say that it's the most fun you can have at the movies this year. Mind you, these are not quotes created by some hack critic who got bought off by the Disney-Touchstone studio, this is the actual ad campaign that they are using to promote the film. With promises like that, your movie has a lot to deliver, and Step Up just doesn't deliver the goods. Choreographer turned first-time filmmaker Anne Fletcher obviously never met a cliche she didn't like, and fills her film to the brim with just about every one she can think of. The fact that there was another dance movie released back in April that covered many of the same areas (Take the Lead) only makes matters even worse.

I could pretty much sum this movie's entire plot in one simple sentence, and that would be "Take every inner city and dance movie cliche you can think of and cram them together". But, for the sake of those of you who are actually insane enough to care about what this movie is about, I'll go into more detail. Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum from She's the Man) is a troubled high school student who hangs out with unruly gang members, jacks cars, and breaks into buildings. One night, Tyler is caught by a security guard after his friends and him break into a local school of the arts and start trashing a set for the play that some students are performing. He is sentenced to perform community service at the school, and one day while mopping the floor, he happens to notice a beautiful young dancer named Nora Clark (Jenna Dewan, who also starred in Take the Lead). Nora has a lot of problems of her own. A big dance show is coming up, and her partner recently injured himself, so he can't perform. Worst of all, if she doesn't win over the crowd at the show and get picked to join a professional company, Nora will have to go to a boring and stuffy old college that her unsympathetic mother (Deirdre Lovejoy) picked out for her. Desperate for a partner, she picks Tyler, and the two naturally start to hit it off with each other, even though they come from different lifestyles. Of course, Tyler's old hood friends start to feel betrayed that he's spending more time with her than with them, and Nora has a jealous boyfriend (Josh Henderson) who doesn't like the ill-mannered Tyler.

Although it suffered from many of the same cliches problems, at least Take the Lead had some entertaining and energetic dance performance scenes that grabbed our attention. It also had a good star turn from Antonio Banderas who made a likeable mentor to the troubled kids. Step Up, on the other hand, has nothing to help lift it above the pit of mediocrity it digs for itself. Despite having an almost 12 year history in the industry staging dance sequences (everything from The Mask to The 40-Year Old Virgin), choreographer and director Anne Fletcher just can't breathe any life or excitement out of her dance segments. The dancers are certainly talented, but they just don't do anything that we haven't seen done before, and they come across as being rather pedestrian and bland. That's a big problem when your film's main plot builds up to a big dance talent competition that's supposed to blow everyone away, and what we get looks like something out of an amateur music video filmed in a teenager's garage. Not once did a feel a rush or did my mouth crack a smile like watching good dancing can sometimes do. It would certainly be nice if we got to see a larger variety of dance moves, but a majority of the scenes are montages that feature Tyler and Nora trying to do the same moves over and over again. When your movie's about dancing, and your dance sequences cannot even excite an audience full of preteen girls, you know you're doing something wrong.

When the movie is not spinning its wheels with numerous uninspired dance sequences, we're treated to a plot we have seen done many times before and done much better. The screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg and Duane Adler (Save the Last Dance) just can't drum up enough inspiration to make us care about the characters or anything that happens to them. A lot of this has to do with how overly sanitized the entire film feels. For someone who supposedly comes from a bad side of town, and hangs out with career criminals, Tyler certainly doesn't seem to have it as bad as the movie would like to have us believe. He's supposed to have a hurried mother who doesn't have time for him and an alcoholic father, but both characters barely appear in the film, and the only family member we ever get to see is his adorable younger sister, so his home life doesn't seem that bad. Even when he's hanging out with his hood friends, things seem pretty dull. Aside from having a gun pointed at his face early in the movie, and the little brother of his best friend getting shot, the worst thing these kids run into is accidentally setting off a car alarm and running away. When he starts showing up at the school of the arts, he's supposed to be portrayed as a wild rebel who has a dangerous way of thinking, but he seemed to conform to Nora's standards pretty quickly, and hardly does anything that backs up his "bad boy" status. I guess the filmmakers felt that they needed to keep things fairly clean to ensure a "family friendly" rating, but it still makes it rather hard to buy Tyler as a rebel when he willingly joins Nora's ballet class without even rolling an eye or mouthing off.

The most uninspired aspect of Step Up, however, would have to be the performances. Not only does everyone look way too old to be in high school, but they simply don't have the slightest bit of charisma to carry a film. Channing Tatum seems to confuse mumbling and narrowing his eyes for acting, coasting through his entire performance with as little emotion as possible. Jenna Dewan holds up a little better, but she doesn't have any chemistry with Tatum during their scenes, not even when they're dancing. Their dances are supposed to be an extension of their relationship, and for most of the film, they act like two people who have never met each other before and are dancing together for the first time. The rest of the cast is mainly made up of minority actors playing tired minority gang and musician stereotypes. Not one single character stands out or rings true in this movie. They are just an interchangeable mix of faces that could be filled by any attractive early to mid-twenty something.

With absolutely nothing to help it stand out, Step Up quickly wears out its welcome, and you start checking your watch a lot sooner than you probably should for a movie that runs for almost two hours. It's never quite unwatchable, but there's just nothing up there on the big screen to warrant its existence. I really have no idea what the people at the Disney Studios saw in this movie that made them feel it deserved such an important-sounding ad campaign. Maybe they saw a different cut of the film than I did. All I know is Step Up slips up big time.

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Last summer, there was a little movie released around this time called Sky High. It certainly wasn't anything great, but it was enjoyable and had some good performances to its credit. Now we have Zoom, which shares a somewhat similar premise, but without the charm. Directed by Peter Hewitt (Garfield, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey), Zoom is a nearly 90-minute collection of music montages in search of a plot and a purpose. It claims to be a superhero comedy for kids, but there's too little action to keep kids excited (Heck, the villain of the story doesn't appear until there's only 10 minutes left in the movie.), and despite the best efforts of a game cast, no actual laughs to make the film worthwhile. While Zoom is nowhere near as bad as its ad campaign makes it out to be, it definitely falls short of everything it aspires to be.

30 years ago, Jack Shepard (Tim Allen) was known as Zoom, the fastest man in the universe and the head of a team of superheroes that were part of a top secret military project. Tragedy struck when an experiment to increase the team's powers went wrong, and turned Jack's older superhero brother Connor (Kevin Segers) evil. The entire team, except for Jack, was killed by Connor, and the two brothers had to fight each other. In the end, Connor was banished to an alternate dimension, and Jack stepped down from being a superhero, vowing never to use his powers again.

In the present day, Jack is forced back into service by the stern military General Larraby (Rip Torn). Connor is apparently set to return to Earth in just a few days, and Jack must train some young recruits for a new team. With the help of eager young scientist and comic book geek, Marsha Holloway (Courtney Cox), and old friend Dr. Grant (Chevy Chase), Jack has only a short time to turn this band of misfits into true superheroes. The new team includes a fat kid named Tucker who can expand every part of his body (Spencer Breslin), a shy outcast girl named Summer who has telekinetic powers (Kate Mara), a rebellious young man named Dylan (Michael Cassidy) with the power of invisibility, and a cute as a button little girl named Cindy (Ryan Newman) who possesses superhuman strength. With Jack's guidance, they will gain the ability to control their own powers and work together for the good of the world.

The motto during the making of Zoom seems to have been "When all else fails, throw in a music montage". I wouldn't be surprised to discover if there was actually less than an hour devoted to this film that was not set to a pop song. (Most of which are performed by Smash Mouth, giving the film a somewhat dated feel.) Screenwriters Adam Rifkin (Small Soldiers) and Michael Berenbaum (Elf) don't seem to know what to do with their own material, as they develop their characters as little as possible. We get some introductory scenes for Jack and the kids, they're brought to the military base, and then we get an endless series of music montages as the kids learn to use their powers, with scenes of Jack arguing with the Courtney Cox character thrown in-between. The kids themselves are either thinly developed or not given any personality whatsoever. (It's been less than an hour since my showing got out, and I honestly cannot remember one thing about that Tucker kid other than he could enlarge his body parts.) With nothing for us to become emotionally attached to the characters, we simply watch the scenes play out, not really feeling anything.

What's most bizarre is that for a superhero movie, there is surprisingly little threat or sense of urgency. The main plot revolves around Jack's evil brother returning to Earth, but nobody really seems quite as concerned as they should be. Heck, they even have time for a game of softball. (Set to a music montage, of course.) To be fair, Jack and the kids don't know the full extent of the urgency of the situation, but you'd think the group (especially Jack) would be suspicious as to why the military was suddenly starting the superhero program up again, and giving them such a strict deadline. Strangely, not one character asks why they're being placed under such rigorous training in such a short amount of time. And when evil Connor finally does show up in the closing moments of the movie, the battle is over so quickly that it almost doesn't seem to have even started. We never get a sense as to why Jack was such a famed hero that he got his own comic book back in his glory days, nor do we get a sense as to why the kids are suddenly ready to fight at the end, as they seem to have the same amount of control over their powers at the end of the movie that they did at the beginning. And a last minute revelation about Courtney Cox's character seems like a scream of desperation on the part of the writers.

If the movie itself stinks, at least the cast puts on a game face for the most part, and don't let it look like the material fazes them. Tim Allen pretty much gives the same performance he gave in the vastly superior Galaxy Quest (Still his best film to date, not counting the animated Toy Story films) as the sarcastic and self-defeated Jack who must look within himself to find the ability to believe in himself again. Courtney Cox is likeable, but the filmmaker's decision to have her be clumsy and trip over everything works about as well as it did for Julianne Moore in Evolution. (In other words, not very well.) Chevy Chase may be far from his glory days on Saturday Night Live and the original National Lampoon's Vacation, but he at least gives a spirited performance. The real stand out, however, is 6-year old Ryan Newman as the super strong Cindy, who all but steals every scene she's in, and generates the only laughs held within the movie. She's a relative newcomer who had a minor role in the animated Monster House previously, but I think she could be on to good things provided she can get some better material to work with.

Unlike the previously mentioned Sky High, Zoom does not seem to care about its characters or their personal problems. It's hinted from time to time that the kids have been dropped off in the program by their parents out of embarrassment of their powers, but this idea is not even fully developed or touched upon, the film opting instead to fill its running time with montages and scenes where the kids play pranks on the adults with their powers. You can see some workable ideas under the film's surface, but they are betrayed by the overall superficial feel of everything else about the production. Columbia Pictures and Revolution Studios were obviously hoping to cash in on the flood of superhero films hitting the cinemas the past couple years, but Zoom does absolutely nothing with itself and has only the cast to carry it. Unlike the heroes of the film itself, the cast just isn't enough to save the day in the end.

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Friday, August 11, 2006


I'd like to start off this review by talking about the good news concerning Pulse. That good news is we finally have a remake of a Japanese horror film that does not feature a ghostly woman with long black hair covering her face. Kudos to the filmmakers for that. Now that I have that out of the way, I can finally start giving this movie the critical thrashing it so rightfully deserves. If anyone wants a textbook example of everything that is wrong with modern day horror, one need look no further than Pulse. From the inept and ugly direction of relative newcomer Jim Sonzero, to the confusing and often incoherent screenplay co-written by horror master Wes Craven, this movie earns its place right along side the long list of awful "technology gone bad" horror films that include such "classics" as The Lawnmower Man and Ghost in the Machine.

Our heroine, Mattie Webber (Kristen Bell from TV's Veronica Mars), suffers an emotional blow when her isolated boyfriend Josh (Jonathan Tucker) hangs himself. Days later, Mattie and her small group of college friends start receiving eerie Instant Messages from Josh on their computers. Shortly afterward, computers and cell phones all over the world are infected by a bizarre virus that seems to be hooked up to a web cam that displays people killing themselves in various ways. As the virus spreads, people begin either disappearing off the face of the earth or losing their will to live. When all of her remaining friends succumb to this mysterious Internet curse, Mattie is forced to team up with a computer geek named Dexter (Ian Somerhelder, who looks more like an actor from a teen soap opera than any computer geek I've ever known in my lifetime), and try to discover the truth behind these strange disappearances, and the bizarre ghost-like apparitions that are suddenly starting to haunt Mattie everywhere she goes.

Pulse is a movie filled with workable ideas, but does not seem to want to clue us in on just what exactly is going on. From what I can gather, some guys in a computer lab were trying to make a new program and accidentally wound up discovering a way to connect with the afterlife through their machines. (Don't you hate when that happens?...) The ghosts are now spreading out into the world of the living through electronic devices, and are trying to suck the will to live out of every human being. Not only can the ghosts suck out our will to live, but they can also pull us into walls, and turn us into clouds of ash at random for reasons the movie decides to keep to itself. It seems the only way people can be safe from this ghostly menace is to isolate yourself from all technology. I'm seriously surprised nobody in this movie even once suggests that they pack their bags and move to an Amish community. I mean, sure, it'd take a while to get used to churning your own butter, but I'd take that over having my will to live getting sucked out of me by a ghost. Oh wait, that would make sense, and this movie makes none whatsoever. I'm sorry, I forgot about that little detail. Oh, and don't forget the only way to fend off the ghosts, which is to cover your doors and windows with red utility tape. Why is this able to hold back the evil spirits? Heck, I don't think even the filmmakers know. Would putting scotch tape over your doors have the same effect?

A lot of the reason why this movie makes little sense is that it seems to be overly edited. This film has been sitting on the shelf at Dimension Films for almost a year now, and has been pushed back through many release dates. The film was originally given an R-rating, only to be edited down to a more "teen friendly" PG-13. Yes, that's right, they tried to take a movie where mass suicides play a big role in the story, and make it okay for preteens. There's really something wrong with that logic. Because of this "brilliant" decision by the people at Dimension, the movie feels like it's been edited with a chainsaw. There is no coherency as the movie jumps from scene to scene, plot points and characters are introduced then dropped at random, and some scenes seem to be cut completely off before they could reach their climax. We never do learn why the departed Josh is sending his friends Instant Messages on their computer, nor is it ever brought up or seen again after it initially happens. The movie is too busy throwing numerous jump scares that we can see coming from a mile away at us, or expecting us to be scared of gray half-naked people (the ghosts) who keep on popping up out of just about everything from washing machines to the walls. The movie is not the least bit scary or thrilling, although there is one striking image late in the film where Mattie and Dexter see a flaming plane falling out of the sky as the technology-heavy world falls into chaos. However, this image is lifted directly out of the original Japanese film, so it doesn't count.

The movie is really ugly to look at, too. Sonzero seems to like to shoot just about every scene in dark grays, blues, and dull washed out colors that I guess are supposed to make everything look spookier and eerier, but only really makes everything look dirty and unpleasant. The sky is a constant ominous overcast gray in just about every scene, each sequence seems to be lit by the lowest wattage bulbs available, and everyone seems so gloomy and depressed even before they start to get the will to live sucked out of them. The cast is made entirely out of actors who were on hiatus from their youth prime time dramas on the WB network, or had a couple days to kill before their next magazine photo shoot. The characters are so thinly developed, they can't even breathe the slightest amount of life out of them. Pulse is simply depressing, and not for the reasons the filmmakers intended. It's depressing to think that uninspired junk like this can get a full theatrical release, let alone get greenlighted in the first place. It's depressing to think that good money was sunk into this film. Most of all, it is depressing that anyone involved with this project thought they were involved with something worthwhile while they were shooting this. Either something got lost somewhere along the way from script to screen, or everyone who sets foot in this movie needs to have a good long talk with their agent.

With the still flawed, yet lightyears better, The Descent playing, there's simply no reason for you to waste your money on Pulse. This apocalyptic supernatural trash is a cinematic dead zone where not one single ounce of entertainment or enjoyment can escape. Much like the ghosts in this movie, it sucks out your will to sit through any other horror movie ever again after seeing it. I was not a huge fan of the Japanese original, but compared to this, it seems like a horror classic. If Pulse doesn't wind up on my "Worst of the Year" list, it's only because either something worse comes along, or I decided that I hated the equally lame An American Haunting even more. Avoid at all costs.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

World Trade Center

Compared to the earlier film on the events of September 11, United 93, World Trade Center almost seems like a feel good drama meant to lift our spirits. Whereas the earlier film was a stark, brutal, documentary-style depiction of the ill-fated flight, controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone has decided to make his movie on the events of the tragic day an uplifting and inspiring tale of survival. While there's certainly nothing wrong with that, at the same time, the film winds up shooting itself in the foot. The movie narrows its focus on two men and their families, and doesn't give us enough of the efforts of everyone else involved. World Trade Center is far from a bad movie, but it certainly is not half the movie it could have been had they went for a realistic style instead of the "movie of the week" approach.

When Port Authority Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and his men arrive on the scene of the World Trade Center after the first plane has crashed into one of the towers, they find complete chaos all around them. The papers from within the offices of the tower are raining down onto the streets, people are diving out of windows, and a layer of smoke fills the air. John and a few of his men, including Officer Will Jemeno (Michael Pena from Crash), head inside the complex underneath the twin towers to search for supplies for their attempt to rescue the people from the second tower. While the men are in the complex, the second tower is hit by another plane, causing the entire ceiling to collapse in on them. John and Will are the only survivors (except for one other officer who decides to shoot himself shortly after the collapse occurs), and must try to keep each other alive, hoping that someone will hear their cries for help as they care held down to the ground by massive pieces of debris. Meanwhile, the wives of the individual men, Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Donna (Maria Bello), wait anxiously for any news about their husbands.

The big mistake that Oliver Stone makes with World Trade Center is that he simply aims too small. By focusing on only these two men and their families, he all but forgets about everyone else. Aside from a touching scene late in the film where Donna comforts a woman at a hospital who lost her adult son in the disaster, no mention at all is made of anyone who gave their lives. John and Will enter the underground complex with a small group of men, but as soon as the ceiling comes down, the other men who died are completely forgotten about. We never get to hear about their wives or families who were probably doing the same thing as Allison and Donna, only to be met with much grimmer news. And what about the officer who gives up hope of ever being rescued and shoots himself? As soon as he's out of the picture, he's never mentioned again, except for one single throwaway line late in the film. For a movie about such a tragic day and moment, the movie plays it far too safe. It wants to concentrate simply on these two men who everyone knows made it out alive. It doesn't want to shock, and it doesn't want to face reality that thousands of others were not so lucky. To be fair, the movie does list the names of some fallen officers at the end of the movie, but by that point, it's too little too late.

It's a shame that Stone loses his nerve as the film goes on, because the opening 15 or 20 minutes are downright brutal in their depiction of the chaos these officers found when they arrived on the scene. The film opens with such unflinching honesty of the horror of that day with fire rising all around, complete with people covered in soot and ash and blood. The men watch helplessly as people within the towers jump to their deaths instead of waiting to be rescued. There is so much detail and realism, it's almost like you're there. It certainly helps that Stone's eye for detail goes right to the billboards that are displayed on buildings and the sides of busses, as all of them are taken directly from the time of the event. No expense was obviously spared during these early scenes that it becomes almost baffling why Stone would do such a complete turn around and lose every bit of his nerve before the half hour mark. It's like looking at two different movies, the first half hour being directed by a man confident in his vision, and the second being directed by someone under intense studio pressure to turn this into a feel good movie that will lift our spirits. The two styles don't mix together, making World Trade Center seem disjointed. Equally disjointed are the number of subplots that are introduced, then either dropped completely or not given enough time to develop. Aside from a Marine who risks everything to make it to the site of the disaster (Michael Shannon), not one single character outside of the main characters' family is given any real screen time to develop.

The main thing that ultimately sinks the film is that it seems to constantly be trying to remind us it's only a movie. It takes us away from the action with some clumsily placed flashbacks or fantasy sequences that come out of nowhere. If they were used to develop the characters further, I wouldn't have minded so much, but they don't really tell us anything that their dialogue didn't already. The film is also not helped by a sappy and overly sympathetic music score that blasts throughout the film, trying to manipulate our every emotion. Everything seems so calculated and overly planned that it made me miss the unflinching chaos of the film's opening moments all the more.

Despite its flaws, the film is certainly well made in just about every way. All of the lead performances are strong, especially Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena, who are given the unenviable task of doing almost all of their scenes lying under piles of immense rubble. As their wives, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello are sympathetic and believable, even if the screenplay by Andrea Berloff could have gone deeper into their characters and the relationships with their husbands. The film also has a strong look and style. Aside from the previously mentioned eye for detail, Stone recreates the living nightmare that must have been the ruins of the Center itself. The special effects are realistic and never so grand that they take us out of the reality of the situation. I'm sure the real life situation for the two men must have been much worse, but I now have a much greater understanding for what they must have went through during that period they were trapped.

In the end, World Trade Center is just too narrow in its focus. Perhaps a lot of this has to do with the fact that Stone relied very heavily on the personal accounts of the two actual men. Instead of just focussing on the experiences of these men, I think Stone should have spent more time focussing on the nation itself. He gives us plenty of scenes of Americans and people all over the world watching the events unfold on TV, but he seldom lets us hear what they have to say about it, or what they are thinking. United 93 (which as of the time I am writing this stands as the best film of the year so far) took no sides. There were no heroes, no villains, and no lead characters. We were simply watching history repeat itself. Stone starts off with this approach, then loses his way when he follows these men into the building. I kept on wishing he had stayed outside.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006


I think when I look back on the year 2006 in the movies, I will think of it as the year computer animation jumped the shark. I have seen and reviewed eight animated films in just as many months, and there are many more on the way in the months to come. As the studios desperately clamor to swipe a piece of Pixar and Dreamworks' pie, I'm beginning to notice a certain "been there, done that" quality in many of the films I see in the genre. This weekend's entry, Barnyard, all but cements my notion that the studios don't care about the quality or the scripts. Just put some recognizable actors in a recording studio, throw in some goofy characters that will appeal to kids, and hope the children rush out to see it. Compared to last week's entry, The Ant Bully, Barnyard is enjoyable, but that's not saying much. The film is perfectly average, and does nothing to stand out from the crowd. Well, except for the fact that it features a cast of cows with udders who are voiced by male actors. Many have questioned during the months leading up to the film's release just what writer-director Steve Oedekerk (Kung Pow: Enter the Fist) was thinking here. My guess, he needed something to grab our attention since nothing else in this movie does.

In the world of Barnyard, the animals of the farm lead a secret life when the farmer is away. They talk, they walk on their hind legs, and they party in the barn to rock music all night long. The head cow who is in charge of making sure the secret goes undiscovered, and generally protects all the animals from outside harm, is Ben (Sam Elliott), a stern-talking yet understanding bovine who hopes his son Otis (Kevin James from Hitch) will one day take over for him and his responsibilities. Unfortunately, Otis is a party animal who has no interest in responsibility, and wants to spend his days joyriding with a group of Jersey cows, hanging out with his equally wild friends, and getting the attention of Daisy (Courtney Cox), the new cow who has just showed up on the farm. Otis is forced to take responsibility when Ben gives his life protecting the chickens from some evil coyotes that sneak onto the farm. With the animals looking to him for guidance, Otis must think back on the words of wisdom his father left with him if he's going to ensure everyone's safety when the coyotes come back.

As far as children's entertainment goes, Barnyard is strictly middle of the road material. There's nothing exactly here to offend, though parents may want to warn their kids that a death of a main character plays a big part in the film's plot. (I overheard one little girl say to her mom walking out of the movie that she didn't like it because she thought it was sad.) It's certainly nothing they haven't seen before in stuff like Bambi or The Lion King, however. Saying that, I do think the movie suffers from an identity crisis. The movie doesn't seem sure if it wants to be a goofy kid's comedy, a life lesson movie, or a 90-minute music video, since there are a large number of musical montage sequences set to pop songs throughout the film. And when there's no pop song on the soundtrack, the characters will sometimes be happy to break into song themselves. (When Ben is facing off against the coyotes, he breaks out into a rendition of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down".) The film is at its best when its trying to be a comedy, thanks to some occasionally smart humor from the screenplay by Oedekerk. I liked some of the pranks the animals play on the human characters, and an extended scene where the farmer stumbles upon one of their parties, and they try to convince him that he's dreaming got some of the biggest laughs from me. Even so, while there's enough fast-paced sequences, goofy characters, and bright animation to entertain the kids in the audience, there aren't enough laughs to entertain accompanying adults. The movie is content to play it strictly by the numbers, and not to surprise or offend.

Well, unless you count those udders. You know, I was really trying to make it through this review without mentioning them too much, but I can't help myself. The movie practically forces the fact that these male animals in this movie have the wrong sexual organ attached to their undersides in our faces. Heck, there's even a scene where a little mouse bounces up and down on Otis' large udder. Not to mention the guys frequently tell each other off by saying "milk me". I guess it's certainly better than displaying what the male member of the species have down there to kids, but still, it gives the film a kind of creepy Crying Game-like vibe all the same. The animators try to get around this by giving the girl cow characters bows in their hair in order to differentiate them from their male counterparts, but it just doesn't seem right. Looking past the anatomically incorrect cast, the animation has a just barely passable look and style that looks just slightly better than the stuff kids watch everyday on the Nickelodeon channel. (Nickelodeon's film division produced this film.) The characters have this appearance that makes them look like they're made out of plastic or rubber instead of flesh and bone. There's even one character in this film (one of Otis' party animal friends) that I literally had no idea what it was supposed to be until the end credits listed him as "Freddy the Ferret". I actually thought he looked more like a weasel, and even that was stretching it. There's also a character who not even the animals in the movie know what it's supposed to be. It's some kind of wild creature they keep locked in a cage, unleashing it only for parties, that looks kind of like a hairpiece with legs crossed with the Tazmanian Devil character. I guess Oedekerk and crew were trying to keep the designs simple, as the movie seems to exist to launch a regular TV series featuring the characters.

As for the cast, while Barnyard does not feature quite the A-list that The Ant Bully did, it still managed to round up some impressive voice talent that also includes Danny Glover, Wanda Sykes, and Andie MacDowell. As lead cow Otis, Kevin James is passable, but never really got any laughs from me. His performance is enthusiastic, though, and he certainly tries. Danny Glover is good as a wise old mule who was Ben's best friend, and tries to steer Otis in the right direction in his leadership duties. Equally good is Sam Elliott in his small, yet important role as Otis' father. Unfortunately, the female characters all but get shafted, and seem to barely register as cameos. Courtney Cox as Otis' love interest is passable and sweet, but she doesn't seem to have any real personality other than to be the standard love interest. Wanda Sykes is all but wasted in a minor role that doesn't even allow her to be funny. And Andie McDowell barely stands out as the head of the chickens who are constantly being targeted by the vicious coyotes. The film's supporting cast is made up mostly of veteran TV voice actors, who are all spirited in their line readings, much more so than some of the highly paid actors in the leads.

With so many animated films hitting the big screen just these past few weeks alone, parents should really ask themselves if they need to sit through another one. Barnyard should only be considered if your kids have not already seen Monster House, or if they have grown sick of Cars. The film is strictly average in every aspect, and will probably play better on a TV set than on the big screen anyway. I just hope the studios either start trying harder with their animated films, or that they just release them in fewer number. I would hate to see the animation market get flooded with mediocrity like this on a regular basis. Barnyard just doesn't try hard enough, and as such, probably won't be remembered by me months from now.

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Descent

After sitting through such overhyped horror tripe as High Tension, Wolf Creek, and Hostel, it's a nice change of pace that The Descent, an import film from Britain, actually manages to somewhat live up to its hype and the acclaim that its US release has been met with. Mind you, the key word here is "somewhat". While The Descent is definitely a notch above most of the horror films the hit the big screen, it's still lacking in a few crucial areas that prevent it from reaching the heights it strives for. Claustrophobic, eerie, and a dream film for gorehounds everywhere, The Descent does not let go until it reaches a terrible ending that was apparently changed from the original for the US release. I don't know who at Lions Gate studio thought it'd be a smart idea to give us the ending we got, but all I can say is we got the short end of the stick.

Adventurous thrill seeker Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) has been struggling to move on ever since her husband and daughter were killed in a car accident one year ago. Her best friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) thinks she's found the perfect adventure to get Sarah back to normal - a day trip to a mountain cavern located somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. Sarah agrees to the outing, and teams up with Juno, as well as a small group of acquaintances including Beth (Alex Reid), stepsisters Rebecca and Sam (Saskia Mulder and MyAnna Buring), and video photographer Holly (Nora-Jane Noone). Unknown to any of the girls, Juno has led them to a different cave than they were told they were going to, one that has yet to be named or fully explored. When the tunnel leading to where the girls entered from caves in, they become trapped in a strange system of underground caves that seem to stretch on for miles. With fear and paranoia quickly overcoming the girls, they must move forward and hope to find an alternate exit to the surface. Little do they realize that the animal bones that litter the ground in certain areas of the cave hint at a race of creatures who are watching them from the shadows.

Even though the premise may be somewhat similar to last year's embarrassing horror effort, The Cave, The Descent is truly in a class far above that cinematic atrocity. Whereas the former was messy and downright laughable straight to video junk that somehow found its way to getting a theatrical release, The Descent is genuinely unnerving, and that's well before the monsters start to show up during the one hour mark. A lot of this has to do with how writer-director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers) takes a more psychological approach to the material. More so than the flesh-eating mutants that are lurking in the shadows, it is the girls' own fear of their situation and each other that chills us. As the situation worsens, the girls start to distrust one another, especially when they learn that Juno has misled them, and that they are not where she told them they were. The tight spaces and darkness of their surroundings eventually starts messing with their minds, especially Sarah, who is haunted by visions of her young daughter amongst other things. It is this eerie human aspect that makes The Descent work most of the time. This is the rare horror film that actually emphasizes the human element of the story, and uses it to build the terror. The characters are not simply walking bags of meat designed specifically to die in gory ways. Sure, some of them do eventually fulfill that purpose, but before that, these are real characters that have actual relationships and personal fears. This aspect is aided by some strong performances by a cast of women who I have not seen in previous films, but would not mind seeing again, as they all do a good job of playing off of each other, and creating their own individual characters.

It is during the second act when the girls start getting stalked by vicious mutant cannibals that lurk in the shadows that the terror aspect starts to wind down a little bit, oddly enough when it is supposed to be cranking up. These "Crawlers" (as the end credits refer to them as) are blind killers that have evolved sense of hearing that allow them to hunt their prey, and look kind of like a cross between silent movie villain Nosferatu and Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They sneak about, croaking like bullfrogs, and pouncing upon anything that happens to be nearby that makes a sound. While the movie still holds onto the psychological aspect that made the first half work so well, it also runs the danger of becoming very repetitive. There's only so much we can see creatures suddenly popping out of the darkness to rip someone's throat out before we kind of start to feel as if we've seen it all before. It becomes a nearly endless string of monster attacks as the girls are forced to fight back if they want to survive. It never quite hurts the film, but it also starts to quickly become a game. We start trying to guess when the little monsters are gonna pop out, and most of the time, we are right, as there is no jump scare that Neil Marshall doesn't seem to try. When he's not trying to startle us with sudden attacks, he falls back on other cheaper methods such as having a swarm of bats suddenly come flying out of a dark tunnel, their sound amplified on the soundtrack in order to make the audience jump more. Still, even when the movie becomes a string of sequences for the special effects make up artists to earn their paycheck, I was having fun. Then, along came the ending, which is not only head-scratchingly confusing, but it leaves a lot left unexplained. I'm told that the original ending featured in the import version explains a lot more, so I guess I'll just have to wait until the DVD comes out to find out just what the heck that birthday cake had to do with anything in the movie.

When it comes to films set in dark settings, I generally become nervous. Not out of fear mind you, but because few filmmakers know how to shoot in darkness without making the film itself look muddled and dull. Fortunately, The Descent runs into no such problems here. The images are sharp and clear, and use the dark settings to their advantage thanks to the wonderful cinematography by Sam McCurdy. It helps transport us into the world of the story, so that we feel like we are experiencing many of the same feelings and emotions as the girls are. The production design has a tight and eerily plausible feel to it, helping to bring the feel of claustrophobia to life. There are also some extremely memorable sequences, such as the first time Sarah lays eyes on one of the Crawlers, or a later scene where two of the girls must lay lifelessly while one of the creatures draws near, hoping its hearing does not detect their presence. It almost makes me wish we saw less of the creatures, as when the movie becomes a stalking movie with Crawlers seemingly leaping out of the woodwork at the characters, it definitely loses a bit of the mystery and horror of the earlier scenes when we catch fleeting glimpses of something in the shadows, or some unidentified form gnawing on a dead carcass.

While it's not a complete home run, The Descent at least manages to stay afloat. Anyone looking for a fun horror movie that has touches of humor to help lighten the mood should look elsewhere, however. This is a deadly serious and sometimes depressing nightmare that does not let up. Then again, after sitting through such laughable fare as See No Evil and When a Stranger Calls, it really is refreshing to see a horror movie that centers on interesting adult characters, instead of mindless sex-driven teenagers. I definitely think Neil Marshall has the talent to create great horror, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next. The Descent definitely proves that there's still more to the horror genre than catering to 14-year-old girls who want to scream with their friends. Let's hope there's even stronger efforts on the way.

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Friday, August 04, 2006

The Night Listener

There's a very good two hour movie within the 80-minute long The Night Listener. Based on the novel by Armistead Maupin (which in turn was inspired by an actual event in his life), the film is a fascinating and intriguing mind trip of a dramatic thriller that comes up short in some ways simply because it doesn't quite dig deep enough into its own material. As it is, the movie is quite good, but I can't help but think that The Night Listener could have been really special if it just had a bit more time to flesh out its story.

When we first meet gay novelist and late night radio show host, Gabriele Noone (Robin Williams), he is deep in depression since his relationship with young lover Jess (Bobby Cannavale) has just recently soured. While Gabriele is sulking, a friend in the publishing business (Joe Morton) approaches him with a fascinating manuscript supposedly written by a 14-year-old boy living in Wisconsin. The boy is named Pete (Rory Culkin), and he is dying from a disease. Pete has written a shockingly brutal and honest memoir about his childhood growing up with a pair of sexually abusive parents who used to force him to participate in videotaped sex acts. These days, the boy lives in seclusion with a caring foster mother named Donna (Toni Collette). Gabriele is immediately drawn to the boy's story of hardship, and he becomes even more interested when he hears that Pete is a fan of his writings. Taking a chance, Gabriele calls Pete, and the two start a long distance friendship over the phone as the months pass by.

As the relationship grows, questions begin to arise. Gabriele starts to wonder why no one seems to really know or have ever even seen Pete in person. Furthermore, when Jess hears a recorded message that contains both Pete and Donna's voice, he thinks it sounds like the same person doing two different voices. It seems that every time Gabriele tries to arrange a meeting with the boy, something gets in the way. Looking for answers, the author decides to take a flight to Pete's hometown. His search for the truth turns into an obsession as he searches for any piece of evidence that proves Pete's existence. The local hospitals have never heard of this boy who is supposedly at death's door, and none of the locals seem willing to share information about the boy or the woman who cares for him. The deeper Gabriele digs, the more he begins to question everything that he's come to know about the situation.

With his countless work in mediocre family comedies and animated films, it's sometimes easy to forget that Robin Williams is actually a fine actor with the right material. The Night Listener is definitely a match for Williams' more subdued dramatic acting style. He is able to bring much vulnerability and sympathy to his character of a man driven to obsession to find out the truth. Williams has proven in the past that he is very capable in darker works such as Insomnia and One Hour Photo, and although he's not quite as memorable here as he was in those films, he is still able to carry the entire movie on his own, which he is pretty much forced to do in many scenes. The story built around the character of Gabriele is equally engaging. It is a slow burn thriller that starts off innocently enough and keeps on building to the point that the audience has no idea where the story is going to go, and they are captivated. The way that director Patrick Stettner builds the tension in the story is masterful, even if he does fall back on the trick of increasing the eerie music on the soundtrack to build tension only to have nothing happen a little too often. His use of small town Wisconsin in winter settings also add an appropriately cold and dark tone to the story that help further the atmosphere.

Furthering the film's credit is a wonderful turn by Toni Collette as the mysterious Donna. Her character runs a full range of emotions, from caring and sympathetic, to seemingly paranoid and dangerous at a drop of a hat. She wisely chooses not to play the character too broadly or over the top, and even comes across as being sympathetic at times. This makes the character very believable, especially when you find out her true role in the story. Also good is Rory Culkin in a minor yet important role as the elusive Pete. He never actually gets to act in the same scene as anyone else, and he's mostly heard as a voice on the phone, but he is still able to create a genuine and honest character during his few scenes. The rest of the cast are good in their respective roles, but not given enough time to develop, such as Sandra Oh (Sideways), who plays a close friend of Gabriele's who encourages him to dig deeper into the mystery.

With its wonderful cast and intriguing mystery story, it's almost a shame that The Night Listener seems content to almost keep us at a distance from the characters and their relationships. I find this surprising, especially since original author Armistead Maupin is credited as head writer of the screenplay. With his personal insight (both to the novel and the actual experience), you would think there'd be a wealth of information and characterization for the film to dive into. Unfortunately, due to the film's short running time, we feel like we are only skimming the surface. The relationship between Gabriele and Pete is never developed quite as strongly as it should be, so it kind of becomes hard to swallow that the man would become so desperate and obsessed with proving the kid's existence when questions begin to arise. The movie kind of gives us the bare essentials, then kick starts the plot just as we were getting to know the two. The film gives us a limited explanation, since we know that Gabriele is concerned for the boy's health, as he went through a similar situation with someone else in the past, but it's not enough. And although the film is mostly told at a leisurely (though never boring) pace, it still seems to be in a rush. Gabriele tracks down information too quickly in some scenes, often with very vague clues.

Though not free from faults, The Night Listener is a very nice adult alternative to the usual summer movie fare. I guess I liked what I saw so much that I wanted there to be more. But, I guess that's what the novel is for. I can't judge the film as an adaptation yet, but I can say that The Night Listener is a mostly successful dramatic thriller that knows how to hit the right emotional notes. With so many stories in the media about the integrity of certain memoirs being called into question, the film's subject matter is also a timely one. If anything, the movie should give anyone who sees it something to talk about.

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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

It's become almost a custom for big comedies to feature outtakes during the end credits. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is the first time I ever felt I was watching a movie made entirely out of outtakes. The movie seems as if it was improvised and made up on the spot, almost as if director Adam McKay (Anchorman) and his cast just showed up on the NASCAR circuit one day, and decided to make a movie. I certainly would not be surprised, as the end result is a slapdash comedy that is sporadically funny, but doesn't hold nearly enough genuine laughs to fill its overlong nearly two hour running time. You know the movie is in trouble when it starts showing actual outtakes during the end credits, and you have a hard time telling them apart from the movie you've just seen.

The film is intended to be a parody of every inspirational bio-picture ever made, and pretty much hits all the predetermined stops as it covers the rise, fall, and rise once more of dim-witted NASCAR champion, Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell). Born to a loving mother (Jane Lynch) and a deadbeat dad who walked out on the family years ago (Gary Cole), Ricky Bobby has only had one goal in life - to go fast. Ricky has used that desire to fuel his dreams of becoming a champion racer, and used his will to rise from lowly pit crew member to out of the blue sensation. Ricky's rise is almost instantaneous, and before long, he has a beautiful trophy wife named Carley (Leslie Bibb), and a pair of foulmouthed children named Walker and Texas Ranger (Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell). With the help of his best friend on the racing circuit, Cal Naughton Jr (John C. Reilly), Ricky seems to be unstoppable as he races forward to his dream of winning the big prize in the NASCAR world, thinking of little else except for himself.

The dream is shattered with the arrival of a new racing prodigy - a pretentious homosexual French racer named Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) who is gunning to take Ricky out of the top spot. A tragic accident puts an immediate end not only to Ricky's rise to the top, but also to his perfect life, as it forces his shallow wife to leave him for his best friend Cal. With nothing but despair ahead of him, Ricky will be forced to face his fears and insecurities, as well as turn to the father who abandoned him years ago if he ever wants to race again. Through his father's unorthodox teachings, Ricky Bobby will gain the confidence to take the prize he has always dreamed of.

Taking an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to its comedy, Talladega Nights fills just about every frame of its running time with some kind of gag. Unfortunately, only a scattered few actually work. Opening with a hilarious parody of inspirational phrases or quotes that often appear at the beginning of such underdog films, the movie offers hope right off the bat that the filmmakers know what they're doing. That hope slowly dies as the movie begins to lose steam shortly after the opening titles disappear. Many of the jokes do not work, and the few that do are scattered too far apart to make a real impression. With such a slapdash and amateurish approach, it's amazing that anyone involved with the project thought audiences would want to watch this for almost two hours. Is there just no more editing in Hollywood? Have studios become afraid to say "no" to directors and their vision? Why an intentionally stupid and featherweight comedy needs to run just a half hour shy of your average Oscar bait movie, I have no idea. The need for its length became even more questionable when I went to see The Night Listener immediately following this. If a somewhat intelligent and thought provoking dramatic thriller can tell its entire story in under an hour and a half in a satisfactory manner, then surely a film with no real plot to speak of can be happy with an abbreviated running time.

More so than the lack of laughs and the obscene running time, it is the character of Ricky Bobby himself that held me back. Will Ferrell plays him as a cartoonish Southern redneck who is so self-absorbed that he can't even realize that his life is a lie, and his friends only like him for his fame. While I suppose the character could be funny with the right approach, the way he is portrayed here, he comes across as an idiotic and hateful buffoon who deserves all the pain he gets during the middle portion of the movie. He is impossible to root for in the first and middle half, and his change of heart seems rather forced and unsatisfactory. I have a feeling the character is supposed to come across this way, but he is not funny or interesting enough for us to want to watch an entire movie about him. The other characters are either completely forgettable, or seem to be forgotten for long periods of time, popping up only when they can be the butt of the latest joke. In fact, the only character in the entire film who stands out is Ricky Bobby's French rival, and that's mostly thanks to the very funny and bizarre performance by Sacha Baron Cohen. His performance helps lift the character up from the tired cliche that he is, and generates some of the only laughs in the film itself.

The rest of the cast do what they can, but they are brought down by the weak screenplay. Will Ferrell overplays his role to heights unknown as he screams and mugs for the camera, but you kind of get the feeling that he's wasting a lot of energy for nothing, as he never gets to create an interesting comedic character out of Ricky Bobby. He's just another Southern stereotype played broadly for comedic effect with nothing original added to make him stand out. I could pretty much say the same for the entire cast, which includes some wonderful character actors such as Gary Cole and John C. Reilly who are stuck playing uninteresting or uninspiring roles that barely register. But, I suppose that's fitting, since few of the jokes manage to register as well. The movie often seems to be building to a punchline, only to either give us a disappointing pay off, or none at all. It's like the movie is in such a rush to get to the next gag that it completely forgets about the last one.

Talladega Nights is a lot like listening to a joke that all of your friends are in on, but you weren't there when it happened. They seem to be having the time of their lives as they look back and laugh at the memories, but you're forced to just stand there, nod your head, and smile. Likewise with this movie, the actors up on the screen seem to be having a great time, but it just doesn't carry through to the movie itself. It lacks the focus and the inspiration to be truly memorable. Despite a couple scattered laughs, Talladega Nights mostly comes across as a big load of wasted effort. Will Ferrell has always been a hit or miss comic with me, and this time, he misses by a mile.

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