Reel Opinions

Friday, December 29, 2006

The First Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

As 2006 draws to a close, it's time to reflect upon the year as it was in terms of cinema, and dish out a little payback in the process. Yes, my friends, it's time for The First Annual Reel Stinkers Awards. This is where I'll be jotting down my thoughts on what I thought the worst films of the year were. I paid to see 156 movies at the cinema this year, and I saw more than my share of stinkers. I sit through these movies so you don't have to, so hopefully my sacrifice will not be in vain.

What I'll be doing in this special article is first listing the top 5 worst films of 2006. Then I will list the "dishonorable mentions", the films that were bad, but not bad enough to make it to the top 5. After that, I will be handing out specific awards to different films in various categories. So, let's all share the pain together as we give one more look back at the films that wasted cinema space this past year, and then hopefully never think of them again.


5. Material Girls - The popularity of Hillary Duff has always mystified me, but never as much as in this movie. Material Girls is one of the most lame brained and forced comedies to hit the screen this year. It is a film that barely tries for laughs, and doesn't even attempt to ridicule the targets that it is supposed to be focusing on. It is simply an endless series of scenes where Hilary and real life sister Haylie Duff embarrass themselves to no end as they try to play spoiled heiresses, but fail in just about every way. Nothing works in its entire running time, and even Duff's young fans stayed away from this one.

4. Basic Instinct 2 - We got a lot of sequels this year that made me scratch my head and think, "They're actually making a sequel to THAT?". None more so than Basic Instinct 2. This long-in-development sequel had been stuck in development hell for years until it finally limped onto screens in the spring. Sharon Stone vamps it up, and seems to be having a lot of fun returning to her most famous role. Too bad nobody else in this movie seems to be. This is an erotic thriller that offers absolutely no thrills whatsoever, and even worse, very little of anything that could be classified as "erotic". It certainly doesn't help that Stone and her male co-star, David Morrissey, have all the passion of a corpse during some of their "steamier" scenes. Audiences stayed away in droves, but that didn't stop Sharon Stone from stating that she'd like to do a part 3 sometime. Considering the gap between the original film and this sequel, Basic Instinct 3 should hit sometime in 2018. Get the popcorn ready!

3. An American Haunting - The lamest horror movie to hit the big screen in 2006 (and trust me, there were a lot of them) was by far An American Haunting, a completely botched attempt to tell a supposedly "true story" about the infamous Bell Witch hauntings. The film was completely repetitive, repeating the exact same scenes over and over to the point that we start looking at our watches more than the screen. It fails to generate even the slightest scares, and eventually decides to forget all about continuity and editing, and just stops making any form of sense during its final moments. Somehow this movie was able to attract some talented actors such as Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek. Seeing them in a movie like this is just plain sad, as everyone who enters it deserves better. So does the audience.

2. Date Movie - The parody film genre was once proud, sporting such classics as The Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun. This movie represents not just the decline of the once revered form of comedy, but the apocalypse. Hands down the most pathetic comedy to limp our way this year, Date Movie is a pathetic satirical take on romantic comedies. The filmmakers often don't even try to parody the movies they're supposed to be making fun of. They simply throw as many movie and pop culture references up on the screen, and expect us to laugh out of familiarity. We wait for the jokes to come, and they seldom do. What's worse, the minds behind this movie are getting a second chance with Epic Movie, a parody of big budget spectacles. My advice to everyone when that movie comes out is to stay home, rent the classics mentioned above, and just laugh yourself silly.

1. Madea's Family Reunion - More than any other movie, Madea's Family Reunion filled me with the feeling that I was watching an absolute, unsalvagable train wreck. A head on-collision between crude, idiotic humor and melodramatic over the top family drama, the movie keeps on switching tone so often and at such breakneck speeds that the audience winds up getting whiplashed. One minute, we're watching some women talking about being stuck in a loveless and abusive relationship, and mere minutes later, we're watching an old man passing thunderous gas numerous times that literally booms over the theater speakers. This is one ugly, awkward, and vile movie that often had me shaking my head in total disbelief of what I was seeing. Throw in the fact that the film's title character is an old woman played by the director in drag in a completely unconvincing wig and make up, and it only adds to the overall tone of "who in their right mind thought this would work". I'd say you have to see it to believe it, but I don't want you to torture yourselves.

So, that concludes my counting down of the cream of the crap. Now let's take a look at the list of dishonorable mentions.


Grandma's Boy, Hoodwinked, Big Momma's House 2, When a Stranger Calls, The Pink Panther, Running Scared, Ultraviolet, The Shaggy Dog, Failure to Launch, She's the Man, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, Stay Alive, Scary Movie 4, American Dreamz, R.V., Hoot, Just My Luck, The Da Vinci Code, See No Evil, Stick It, The Omen, Cars, The Devil Wears Prada, Little Man, Lady in the Water, Miami Vice, The Ant Bully, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Pulse, Step Up, Zoom, Beerfest, How to Eat Fried Worms, Crossover, The Covenant, The Protector, The Black Dahlia, Jackass Number Two, Flyboys, All the King's Men, Open Season, Employee of the Month, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, The Marine, Flicka, The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, Marie Antoinette, A Good Year, The Return, Let's Go to Prison, The Nativity Story, Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj, Unaccompanied Minors, Eragon

But wait! We're still not done yet. It's time to hand out a couple more awards...



Basic Instinct 2


Big Momma's House 2


The entire cast of All the King's Men


Jessica Simpson in Employee of the Month


Borat (Come on guys, the movie was funny, but not that funny.)






Zoom, for it's annoying and dated Smash Mouth soundtrack




Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector


The Omen


All the King's Men


Little Man

And with that, I finally wind down this article. Those of you wondering about when I will publish my "best of" list, that's going to be a little while. A lot of the big year-end releases are still in limited release, so it's going to be a while before they come to my area, or until I track them down. I promise to do a "Best of 2006" before too long, though.

Before I close, I'd just like to thank those of you who have supported me during my first full year running Reel Opinions. I hope you continue to support and enjoy my work well into the years to come, because I'm not planning of slowing down anytime soon. See you all next weekend when I begin putting down my thoughts on 2007's films.


Monday, December 25, 2006

We Are Marshall

Every couple months, Hollywood opens up their playbooks, and gives us a paint-by-numbers inspirational sports movie. This time, the entry is We Are Marshall, an overly calculated and ultimately disappointing telling of what should be a very moving story. The story is based on a tragedy that hit a small college football town in 1970, and how the people were eventually able to rise above it. The problem is, director McG (the Charlie's Angels films) doesn't dig deep enough into his own material. This makes the film curiously shallow and distant. We never get a true sense of the town or the football team rising above the tragedy, and doesn't that kind of defeat the entire purpose of the movie in the first place?

The small blue-collar town of Huntington, West Virginia literally grinds to a halt when their prized Marshall University Thundering Herd football team are tragically killed while flying home from a game. The plane transporting the team from North Carolina is struck by a bolt of lightning while flying through some unsteady weather. It crashes nearby their hometown (the plane was just beginning to land when it was hit), and the entire team, coaches, and supporters are killed instantly upon impact. The town of Huntington seems lost as to what they should do, and some are even suggesting that they cut the football team completely, which is a major blow to the small handful of surviving Varsity players who were fortunate enough not to be on that plane that evening, deciding to get home by other means. The students are eventually able to convince the school's board to carry on with football, but with no coach and no team, they literally have to start back at Square One if they even want a chance. Enter energetic and fast-talking coach Jack Lyngel (Matthew McConaughey), who applies for the job of head coach because he wants to help the people move on past the tragedy that has controlled their lives the past couple months. With his quick thinking and unorthodox ideas, he will rebuild the Marshall University Thundering Herd from the ground up.

We Are Marshall is a movie that starts out confident and sure, but slowly sinks into a murky puddle of its own cliches, music montages, and bare bones characterizations. The opening moments are when the film is at it's best, as one of the University students (Kate Mara) narrates and tells us about life in Huntington. We are then introduced to the Marshall football team, and the events leading up to their ill-fated flight. Once again, everything seems okay here. First-time screenwriter Jamie Linden introduces us to some of the key players and their relationships outside of the team, and wisely does not rely on ominous foreshadowing, even though we all know what's coming. The plane crashes, and the movie honestly and realistically depicts a once lively town that has now gone into a near-standstill as everybody tries to come to terms with what has happened. Yes, the scene where all the students stand outside the building and chant "we are Marshall" over and over in order to show their support for a new team is a bit sappy and much, but up to this point, I was pretty confident that the filmmakers knew what they were doing. But, as soon as new coach Jack Lyngel enters the picture and starts trying to get everyone back on their feet, the movie gets dragged kicking and screaming into mediocrity. Losing the confidence and nerve that it displayed during its opening 20 minutes, We Are Marshall fumbles from this point on and never quite recovers. That's because the character of Jack Lyngel is so quirky and bizarre that he almost seems to have walked in from another movie. The way Matthew McConaughey plays him, with his constant toothy grin and overly cute Southern accent and charm, he's more like an imitation of a person than an actual flesh and blood human being. He's a fast-talking, quick-witted good ol' boy from the South who always has something clever or funny to say, no matter what the situation, and McConaughey lays on these traits so thick that we're sick of him before his first scene is over. I have no idea what the real life Jack Lyngel is like, or if this is an accurate depiction of the man. If it is, I would have a hard time taking him seriously, just as I did in this movie.

It's not just Jack Lyngel, but apparently the entire town that is affected by this shift of tone. Once Jack starts urging everybody to move on beyond the past, the townspeople characters who seemed so promising during the film's first half hour or so are suddenly forgotten about, so the movie can concentrate more on McConaughey's obnoxious performance. The people of Huntington become mere afterthoughts, so we never quite truly identify with their pain. Heck, even the new football team that Jack and his assistant coaches work so hard to put together are all but forgotten for pretty much the entire movie. We get a music montage where the new players are recruited, another couple music montages where they go into training, they play their first game, and then they literally disappear for a long portion of the movie before it's time for the big game at the end. The fact that this is supposed to be a movie about a man trying to help a town move on by assembling a new football team, but there's actually very little football to speak of during the film's running time, is quite puzzling to me. Equally puzzling is how little time the movie spends on the grieving townspeople, since this would be the natural direction the movie would take if it wasn't going to concentrate heavily on football. The characters are too depressingly one-note and underdeveloped for us to care. It sets up a couple characters who have potential, but never does anything with them. A key example is the young student who also acts as the film's narrator. She's a former cheerleader who was in love with one of the players who died in the crash, and since then, spends her time working in a local diner and sulking. She comes and goes from the movie as she pleases, so she never truly resonates as a character. This is a shame, because the way Kate Mara plays this character, you can tell she could be a stand out in a screenplay that actually cared about her character, instead of haphazardly inserting her from time to time to remind us she's in the movie also.

The rest of the cast are merely a sea of faces that get lost in an underdeveloped screenplay that can't be bothered to give them any depth. All of the players on the team exist solely for music montage moments, and to stand around while Jack gives "stirring" speeches about moving on. The townspeople are sketchily developed, and many serve no point in the movie itself. A good example are Jack's wife and children, who are given barely any screen time whatsoever, and mainly exist for window dressing. The few characters who actually do manage to break out and leave an impression unfortunately do not leave a very big one, since their characters never quite get off the ground. For example, Matthew Fox (TV's Lost) portrays the assistant head coach, who is dealing with the guilt that he was supposed to be on the ill-fated flight, but changed his mind at the last minute, giving his seat to someone else. While working for Jack, he is conflicted by his feelings of wanting to move beyond the past, and feelings of remorse that he should have died along with the rest of the team. He's good during the scenes that actually explore this idea, but most of the time, he's forced to merely stand in the background and let Matthew McConaughey give his loopy performance. The few surviving players from the previous team are even more awkwardly handled, as only one of them gets to create anything even remotely resembling a character, while the rest are pretty much forgotten about for the rest of the film.
We Are Marshall is a movie that has the right idea, but is betrayed by its overly sloppy execution and obnoxious lead performance. While watching the movie, you're not thinking about what's going on up on the screen or about the real life situation. You keep on thinking of how a better movie would have handled the story, fleshed out the characters, and given us something to actually care about. When we get the closing narration, telling us what happened to most of the people and players in the later years, we feel nothing, because the movie has made no effort to inform us. The story that We Are Marshall tells deserves a very up close and personal approach. This movie looks at the action through a pair of binoculars from the cheap seats in the stand, while a really obnoxious guy sits next to you, cracking jokes, and won't shut up.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Good Shepherd

Has being stuck with the relatives over the Holidays driven you to the point of insanity, and you desperately need some time away from them? For this, I can recommend The Good Shepherd. Clocking in at nearly three hours, the film should provide a long-enough of an escape for anyone seeking some quiet time alone. Unfortunately, those of you who may be looking for entertainment to go along with this may be disappointed. Actor Robert De Niro makes his first credited directing effort in 13 years since 1993's A Bronx Tale with this frigid and tepid drama that strangely never comes to life, despite a top flight cast and a premise that should provide plenty of suspense and thrills but never does. The Good Shepherd is not a complete waste of time, but considering the talent involved on and off the screen, it never seems to live up to the promise it holds.

The film follows the early days of the C.I.A. as seen through the eyes of fictional Agent Edward Wilson (Matt Damon). From his early college days in the late 1930s as a member of the secret Skull and Bones society at Yale, Edward finds himself connected to some very important and powerful people in the government, who start asking for his help. He begins by helping to spy on some professors on campus who may be secret Nazi supporters, and soon starts to get involved with overseas affairs. He is eventually approached by a man named Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro) to join a new organization that will eventually grow into the C.I.A. As Edward soon discovers, a life of secrecy and shadows is bound to lead to distrust of those around you. It also puts a terrible strain on his relationship with his estranged wife Clover (Angelina Jolie), who feels like she's never truly gotten to know the man she married, and son Edward, Jr. (Eddie Redmayne), who also eventually joins the C.I.A. in order to be closer to his father.

The Good Shepherd is a cold and isolated movie that constantly keeps us at a complete and total distance from everyone who walks onto the screen. Motivations and actions are murky at best, relationships are sketchy and sometimes even non-existent, and everybody walks around so melancholy and depressed at all times you almost start to wonder if the early C.I.A. Agents were actually robots unable to display anything related to emotion. The way that the screenplay by Eric Roth (Munich) tells the story is so dry and basic, there's really no excuse for the movie to run at the obscene length that it does. And yet, it keeps on going, moving at the pace of a turtle with lead weights tied to its legs. The length would not be a problem if the characters were interesting or the plot was engaging. Unfortunately, here, the movie almost seems to be on some kind of bizarre quest to make the characters as stiff and uninteresting as humanly possible. Nobody is allowed to show even the slightest hint of personality. It's impossible to get behind Edward Wilson as a protagonist, since the film refuses to let us know anything about him, nor does he ever get to show any sign of life. At first, Matt Damon's performance seems quiet and tortured. But, as the movie goes on, and he keeps that same stone-faced expression no matter what's happening in the story, we begin to realize that Damon just got stuck with a lousy role and he doesn't know what to do with the character. I also found it somewhat hard to swallow that although the film's story spans a little over 20 years or so, his character never seems to truly age. I had a hard time distinguishing the college age Edward Wilson at the beginning from the nearing middle age Edward we see during the later half.

That's one of the main problems I had with this movie. As The Good Shepherd jumps back and forth through different time periods to tell it's story, we never truly get a real passage of time, as Edward's son seems to be the only person capable of aging in a span of 20 years. Were it not for the numerous captions at the bottom of the screen, always there to tell us when we've jumped to a different time period or place, or the fact that the characters are talking about a different world situation (World War II, Russia, Bay of Pigs), the audience wouldn't be able to tell how much time is supposed to have passed. Aside from the change in world events, the dialogue remains wooden and stilted throughout. The characters talk in such a scripted and planned manner, they come across as if they know they're in a spy movie, and have studied how characters in these kind of movies are supposed to talk and act. Instead of watching a fact-based drama, we're watching an overly calculated genre film that knows what it's supposed to do, but can't figure out how to do so without drawing attention to itself that it is trying too hard. The film's not a complete lost cause, as it does work in bits and pieces. There is an especially brutal interrogation scene where a Russian spy is being questioned that features the intensity and tension that is missing from the rest of the film. There is also a moment late in the film concerning a woman on an airplane that is powerful, terrifying and tragic at the same time. It's during these brief moments that De Niro shows us the movie this could have been. He's actually very good behind the camera, and a lot of the scenes look great. They are just brought down by the fact that very little of interest ever happens within them.

Despite Matt Damon's phoned in lead role, there are a couple stand out supporting performances on display here, though nothing too strong. Angelina Jolie gets a couple scenes that would come across as powerful if the movie had spent a little bit more time developing her character, but she at least tries her best, and is one of the few actors in the movie who gets to display emotion. John Turturro also gets a couple choice moments as one of the other Agents, particularly during the previously mentioned interrogation scene. Other performances of note include Michael Gambon as Edward's professor in college, and Tammy Blanchard who is sweet and likeable as Edward's first love that he is forced to leave behind after Clover becomes pregnant, and he is forced to marry her. The rest of the big names featured in the cast, however, are mainly stuck in forgettable cameos that barely register. Robert De Niro, William Hurt and Joe Pesci (who has not acted on the big screen since 1998's Lethal Weapon 4) are given such limited screen time that you almost forget they're in the movie. Besides the performances, the only other feature of note is the attractive cinematography by Robert Richardson (The Aviator) that gives many of the film's scenes a handsome polish and creates the proper mood for each sequence.

The Good Shepherd is not the worst failed Oscar bait movie to come along, but considering how long this project's been in the planning stages (De Niro's apparently been wanting to make this movie for the past 10 years), I really was expecting more. Here is a movie that promises intrigue and suspense, and aside from a couple choice moments, just never finds the right tone. The film is lifeless and lethargic, when it should be tense and quick. Despite the film's ad campaign promising us an inside look at how the C.I.A. came to be, we feel just as informed at the end as we were at the beginning, which is to say not very. I wanted to be engaged and informed, and in the end, The Good Shepherd came up short on both counts.

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Night at the Museum

Here is a movie that does not quite deliver the magic that its clever premise promises, but never fails to deliver a good time. Night at the Museum should be viewed for what it truly is - A fun little piece of holiday escapism that kids will undoubtedly go nuts over, and parents will smile at. The movie is fast paced without ever being overly chaotic or frantic, and constantly keeps itself in check so that it never becomes too wild or scary for young children in the audience. Yes, the movie could be a lot better and smarter, but it still works as an instant crowd pleaser thanks to a game cast that gives it their all. It never offends, has a couple good laughs, and should fit the bill for anyone looking for simple "in one ear and out the other" entertainment.

Ben Stiller plays Larry Daley, a divorced father who has never been able to hold down a single job, and is always pursuing get rich quick schemes that usually end in failure. In danger of losing visitation rights of his young son Nick (Jake Cherry) unless he buckles down and tackles a serious career, Larry goes to an employment agency where the only job he's qualified for is to be the night watchman at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. The Museum has been downsizing, due to dwindling customer numbers, and Larry learns that he is replacing three long-time night watchmen who are finally retiring after years of service (played by Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs). When one of the retiring watchmen offers him a stern warning not to let anything out of the Museum after dark, Larry has no idea just how much he should heed the man's warning until later that night when he discovers that all of the Museum's displays come to life every night thanks to the magic of a legendary golden treasure located in the Egyptian wing of the building. What at first seemed to be a simple and mundane job turns out to be anything but, as Larry learns that it is his duty to keep order within the Museum after dark. He will have to take true responsibility on the job for the first time in his life if he wants to maintain some sort of control.

That Night at the Museum manages to mostly stay afloat came as a surprise to me, judging by some of the talent involved behind the camera. With Shawn Levy, director of the terrible Pink Panther and Cheaper By the Dozen remakes, at the helm, and a screenplay provided by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (who have shared writing credits on such stinkers as Let's Go to Prison, The Pacifier, and Taxi), let's just say I wasn't walking on air on my way into the theater. Much to my surprise, the film has a little bit more on its mind than just being a brainless holiday blockbuster, thanks to some generally likeable performances, and an underlying message that kids (and some adults) can take home that learning about history can be enjoyable. I liked the way that Larry develops different individual relationships with the various inhabitants of the museum, including Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Atilla the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), and Native American guide Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck). The movie even allows some of the historical figures to develop relationships with one-another, such as the way Roosevelt admires Sacajawea from afar, or how the miniature diorama cowboy and Roman soldier figurines (led by characters played by Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan) form an uneasy alliance having the share the same display room. The movie constantly teeters on the edge of falling into complete chaos, with hundreds of living wax figures and wild animals running around nearly every corner of the background action, but it never quite falls into the trap of letting the special effects and costumed figures completely overtake the movie.

A lot of what makes the film works has to do with the energy that carries through from the screen to the audience. The actors seem to be having a lot of fun, the special effects are convincing for the most part, and the sets are a more than passable replica of the actual museum. (The filmmakers were not allowed to shoot any interior scenes in the actual building, so they had to build their own massive sets that captured the essence of the place.) For a movie that's literally one major special effects or action sequence after another, the actors are able to give some generally well rounded and enjoyable performances, despite the chaos that erupts around them. Ben Stiller can play the role of the hard-luck loser in his sleep by now, but he comes across as likeable. Unlike a lot of his past roles, his character is mainly treated with respect, and does not exist strictly for a tool of humiliation for others. Yeah, there's a cute little monkey who constantly gets the best of him, but the standard Stiller embarrassment humor is kept relatively low key this time around. Robin Williams is surprisingly effective in his portrayal of Teddy Roosevelt, in that he mainly plays the character straight, and never goes into his usual manic comic act that he's known for. The stand out performances, however, belong to Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan, who deliver the film's biggest laughs as a pair of warring diorama figures. I also greatly enjoyed seeing Dick Van Dyke again as the previous head night watchman, and his highly energetic and mischievous performance. It's a shame that the film gives him (along with fellow veterans Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs) very little to do, even when his role in the plot is revealed.

If there is one thing that holds Night at the Museum back, it is that there is just no sense of wonder or magic. For a movie that promises magic in it's very premise, this is hard to forgive. The movie is so busy throwing elaborate special effects and action sequences up on the screen, that it forgets just how wondrous the things it is showing us are, and never stops to let us admire in awe what we are seeing. Though it never bothered me enough to look at the film in a negative light, I often found myself wishing that it would slow down from time to time, and just let us take everything in. Even with a fairly generous running time of just over 100 minutes, the movie seems to fly by in a blink of an eye. The film comes up a bit short in terms of plot, as well. Other than a plot development that occurs during the film's final half hour, there's never any real tension created in the story, and the movie simply consists of Stiller attempting to keep the inhabitants of the Museum under control every night. There are a couple romantic subplots, including one that Larry shares with a woman who works the day shift at the building (played by Carla Gugino), but this is mostly left underdeveloped, which is a shame because there is some sweet chemistry between the two actors during the few scenes they get to share together.

By all accounts, Night at the Museum is a movie that should not work due to its thin plot and over-reliance on elaborate set pieces. Somehow, it manages to pull through thanks to some undeniable charm and strong performances. My reaction's on the fence, but I did wind up liking it more than I thought I would. There's no question that kids will love it, however, and it might even get them interested in history. With so many family films existing solely to sell merchandise or peddle soundtrack albums, that's certainly admirable. Night at the Museum may not be a night to remember, but it's certainly one you won't regret seeing. With just a little bit more magic and awe added to the proceedings, it could have been something really special.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rocky Balboa

There are some movies that are designed only to speak to a certain audience, not to a large crowd. Right from the beginning, Rocky Balboa makes it known to whom it is supposed to be speaking to, and that is to the fans who have followed the character's highs and lows since the original film made Sylvester Stallone an overnight star back in 1976. I, unfortunately, am not part of that crowd. While I admit that the series has its place in cinema history, the underdog saga of Rocky never truly clicked with me to the point that I fully embraced the series. I suppose what I'm trying to say is your reaction to Rocky Balboa will vary greatly depending on how you view the franchise. Those who love it will undoubtedly love this entry, and see it as a fitting send off to a legendary screen character. Casual fans and regular filmgoers who find themselves watching it will find it a well made film with very little to attach to emotionally.

Since the passing of his beloved wife Adrian (played in flashbacks by Talia Shire) a couple years ago after a long bout with a disease, the former two-time boxing champ, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) has enjoyed a quiet and laid back existence. He runs a local Itallian restaurant named after his late wife, where he entertains the guests with the stories of his glory days, and spends most of the time reminiscing about the past with brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) and trying to connect with his emotionally distant adult son (Milo Ventimiglia). After years of relative obscurity, Balboa is thrust back into the limelight when a computer simulated match up on ESPN concludes that Rocky would win in a fight against the current heavyweight champ, Mason "The Line" Dixon (real life boxer Antonio Tarver making his acting debut). Mason has been having some image problems, and his managers think that a charity match in Vegas with Balboa would be a great boost to his career. As for Rocky himself, he finds he still has some fight left within him, despite those around him thinking that he's crazy for going back into the ring, due to his age.

Apparently, Stallone was not happy with the way 1990's Rocky V turned out, so he wrote the screenplay for Rocky Balboa to give his character the farewell that he felt he deserved. Stallone not only writes and stars, but he directed this entry as well. It's a pretty bold move to resurrect a character who has not appeared on the big screen for 16 years, and with the wrong approach, it could have made the entire film come across as a desperate attempt to squeeze one last bit of juice out of the story. Fortunately, you can tell that Stallone feels too attached to his own creation to do that. Rocky Balboa comes across as a respectful continuation and closing to the story that he stared 30 years ago. This time, the emphasis is not so much on the fighting, but on Rocky himself. With the character supposed to be nearing 60, it adds a new level to the story as he deals with age, how others see him, and how he sees himself in his later years. The movie kind of acts as a time capsule as Rocky looks back on his life over the years, and tries to figure out where he should be going. Longtime fans will most likely enjoy this approach, and view it as a quiet reflection on the series as a whole. Unfortunately, there is just too little to offer those who have not embraced the series as a whole. The movie spends too much time reminiscing, and not enough time moving the story forward. At one point early in the film, Paulie tells Rocky that he's stuck in the past. The same could be said of this movie, which seems to be designed strictly for fans and for fans only. I can understand that Stallone obviously has a deep personal attachment to the story and the characters, but I think he makes a mistake by aiming for too narrow of an audience with this story. Those who have not followed the story from the beginning, or lost interest along the way, will feel like they're missing something.

Because the movie is so bent on pleasing only the fans, the film itself suffers in other areas. The new characters who are introduced in this installment are given second-hand treatment, and generally come across as shallow and underwritten. One of the main subplots in the film is Rocky's budding friendship with a lonely bar waitress and single mother named Marie (Geraldine Hughes) who is struggling to raise her troubled son Steps (James Francis Kelly III). Despite the fact that Rocky and Marie apparently had a chance meeting once when Marie was just a little girl, their relationship never truly connects with the audience, nor does it ever become clear as to why Rocky becomes so attached to her. When Marie asks him why he's so nice to her in one scene, I found myself asking the exact same thing. Marie comes across as being underwritten, and as a stand-in for Adrian during the final fight, as she sits in the audience, wrings her hands together nervously when Rocky is taking a beating, and cheers him on when he's doing well. Her son Steps is even worse, and seems to serve no purpose whatsoever to the story, as the only scene where he gets to share any real dialogue with Rocky is when they're in a city pound picking out a dog. He could have easily been written out of most of the script, and nothing in the movie would have changed at all. There's also a subplot concerning Rocky and the strained relationship with his son, and how the son feels as if he is living in his father's shadow even as an adult. While this could have added some much needed drama to the proceedings, the movie handles this plot very haphazardly, and seems to forget completely about it for most of the movie. When it finally comes time for Rocky and his son to confront each other, the scene doesn't have quite the impact that it should, because it's mainly been ignored up to this point.

None of this will matter much to the long time fans, who will probably just be thrilled to see these classic characters one last time. And indeed, it is certainly nice to see some of them again. Stallone is as likeable as he's ever been in his signature role, and slips immediately back into form. Yeah, Rocky spends a bit too much time philosophizing about life and giving lectures to different people about not giving up and pursuing your dreams, but Stallone's performance has that same rugged tough guy with a not-so secret soft spot that has made the character endure for so long, making him impossible to hate. Series regular Burt Young as Paulie gets a couple good scenes as well, but his character seems strangely unfulfilled, almost as there was supposed to be more to his character but it got left on the editing room floor. I personally would have liked to see a couple more of the old characters return myself. I mean, would it have killed them to give a cameo to Mr. T? They give a cameo to Mike Tyson in this movie, so I say why not? Of the new characters, Geraldine Hughes comes across the best as Marie, even if her character is a bit underdeveloped. She has a likeable screen presence and makes the most out of her limited role. As Rocky's main rival, Antonio Tarver is an intimidating presence, but just like everyone else, he's given very little to do. The movie spends so little time establishing him as a character, he easily becomes the most forgettable rival to ever step in the ring with the Itallian Stallion.

Much like the character himself in this film, Rocky Balboa is a movie that's stuck in the past. It's great at playing up the nostalgia for the fans and in giving a proper send off for its main character, but everything else fails to click. Even the climactic boxing match is strangely uneffective, as the movie shows it mainly at a distance, so that we feel like we're watching the fight on a TV set, instead of being right there in the action. It's really too bad, because I actually felt a little pumped during the movie's early moments. Though I've never been a rabid Rocky fan, when the opening notes of Bill Conti's memorable instrumental theme started playing on the theater speakers, I admit I started to get a little excited. That excitement quickly faded when I realized the movie was simply meant to be a love letter to the fans. There's nothing wrong with that, I guess, and Rocky Balboa is certainly not a bad movie. It just doesn't do much more than preach to an already established choir.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

Given the fact that Will Smith usually specializes in playing larger than life characters, it always comes as a surprise to me when he can give such a personal and human performance, such as the one he gives in The Pursuit of Happyness. This is not the first time Smith has tackled a challenging acting role. He was memorable in such films as 1993's Six Degrees of Separation or 2001's Ali. But here, he is so vulnerable and real that we immediately forget his usual screen image, and he becomes completely lost in his character. The film that surrounds this performance is a rare kind of movie miracle, in that it is an inspirational story that actually inspires. Even though we're usually one step ahead of the characters, we enjoy the journey the entire time, and find ourselves caring about them a lot more than we initially thought.

The film is based on the true story of Chris Gardner (Will Smith), a man struggling to get by to support his family, including frustrated wife Linda (Thandie Newton) and 5-year-old son Christopher (played by Smith's real life son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith). A couple years ago, Chris invested all of his savings into a company that sells devices that test bone density. He's forced to make his way across the city, lugging the massive and bulky devices around, hoping to sell them to hospitals, but business has been bad since the very beginning and show no signs of improving anytime soon. With the bills and other expenses piling up at an alarming rate, Linda reaches the end of her rope, and walks out on Chris. Alone for the first time, Chris must find a way to build a better life for him and his son, and thinks he's found the answer when he learns of an internship program at a large stock broker firm. It is a competitive and cutthroat internship program, and one that pretty much guarantees failure, since only one person of the 20 selected will actually be chosen for a real career. When Chris is eventually evicted from his own apartment, and forced to move both him and his son through a large variety of temporary homes (everything from numerous homeless shelters to an empty men's room in a subway station), he becomes more determined than ever to prove to himself that he's worth more than anyone ever thought.

The Pursuit of Happyness (the alternative spelling of the word "happiness" in the title coming from a graffiti message found near young Christopher's day care) is the kind of formula film that works. It is the way the story is told rather than the story itself that is the key to its success. In making his US movie debut, Itallian filmmaker Gabriele Muccino has brought us a formula movie that works, because it avoids most of the traps that other similar films fall into. The movie strives for a somewhat realistic approach, rather than playing up the melodrama, and the characters are crafted realistically and in a likeable manner. The screenplay by Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) is too smart to fall back on familiar character types. I was especially impressed by how the character of Linda is handled. She is not portrayed as a monster for walking out on her family, but tries to understand her frustrations and her feelings. The movie does not try to vilify or look down upon her. She is simply a woman who has lost faith that things will get better, and can no longer hide her pain behind the forced smile she shows her son. Everything is treated in the same respectable fashion, and the movie never once talks down to us. All of the characters are well rounded and have dimensions, and although the story may be predictable, the movie earns its emotional response by not hitting us over the head with long-winded speeches or an overpowering music score designed to play up the emotion of the scene. The sense of realism can be found right down to the production design, which accurately recreates life in the early 80s due to a number of small touches and props that are taken straight from that point of time.

The strongest asset that The Pursuit of Happyness has is in its depiction of Chris Gardner himself. The movie is wise not to whitewash his character, or make him so much of a "saint" that we find the story hard to swallow. Chris is a flawed human being, and one that anyone struggling through life is sure to identify with. He becomes frustrated and sometimes takes his anger out on his son in a fit of yelling, he is once forced to flee from a cab when he discovers he doesn't have enough money to pay for the ride, and he often comes close to breaking down. Through it all, it is his determination and spirit that carries him through, and he comes across as a genuine individual instead of an overly glorified movie depiction of a real person. A lot of this credit goes to Will Smith, who gives an Award-worthy performance that immediately grabs our attention. It gets to the point that we feel we are not watching Will Smith playing a struggling single father, that's how completely he is able to disappear into his character. He never once draws attention to himself or steps out of character, and he is constantly believable and heartfelt in both his performance and his line delivery. There is a small scene where Chris is forced to take shelter in a public men's room, and is holding onto his sleeping son, as he attempts to hold onto what little faith he has left in himself. A lesser movie would have played up the melodrama of this moment, but this movie plays it small and honest, and his heartbreak is clear to see on his face without a single line of dialogue.

Having Will Smith's actual son play his character's son in the movie initially sounds like a desperate piece of stunt casting, and could have endangered the movie had it not worked out right. Fortunately, young Jaden Christopher Syre Smith knows how to be an appropriate little scene stealer without coming across as an overly cute or forced "movie kid". He gets a few difficult dramatic scenes, such as the sequences where he struggles to understand what is happening to his father and him, and why they are forced to move around so much. He is natural in front of the camera, and never seems to be playing or mugging for the screen. The supporting cast is equally strong, with everyone hitting the proper notes. The bosses at the stock broker firm are well rounded, and never come across as being overly stuffy, or overly sympathetic to Chris' plight, either. They come across as being just as genuine as the main characters, and include some fine performances from Brian Howe as the man who initially gives Chris the opportunity to take the internship, and cartoon voice actor Dan Castellaneta (best known as the voice of Homer Simpson) making a rare live action appearance as the teacher of the internship course.

Much like last weekend's The Holiday, The Pursuit of Happyness is a formula movie that knows how to play by the rules of the genre, but does so in a way that makes it stand out. It earns the emotions that it strives for not by trying too hard, but simply by making us relate to the characters and the situations. It is something that few "based on a true story" inspirational dramas know how to do. It respects us as an audience, and never once tries to make itself appear grander than it actually is by pumping up the portrayals of the people behind the story into stereotypes. By the end, we generally feel happy, not manipulated. It amazes me how few films are able to understand this. The Pursuit of Happyness certainly does.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006


If Eragon goes on to become a holiday blockbuster, it is only because of the legions of fans who have loved the books, and not because of anything the movie itself displays on the screen. First time filmmaker Stefen Fangmeier has crafted a lifeless and inert clone of such recent fantasy hits such as the Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia. And, just for good measure, the movie's plot lifts almost directly from George Lucas' original Star Wars movie almost to the point of plagiarism. The script is a mess and vastly underwritten, the performances are trite and uninspiring, and the special effects are often second rate and would be right at home in a made for TV movie on the Sci-Fi Channel. Eragon is the biggest misfire of a potential franchise I have seen since 2004's Van Helsing, which was also supposed to lead to many sequels, but stumbled right out of the gate.

Like the much better fantasy films that inspired it, Eragon begins with a land in turmoil as an evil ruler holds the people in constant fear. The evil ruler this time around is the rather generic King Galbatorix (John Malkovich), who has conquered the land with his vast army of demons and monsters, and now pretty much sits around in his castle, looking bored. As is to be expected, there is a prophecy that speaks of a "Dragon Rider" who will lead an uprising of people, and overthrow the king's rule. This idea does not appeal to Galbatorix, so he keeps the last-known dragon egg (which looked more like an oversized jelly bean, or perhaps a really big cold medicine tablet to me) hidden in his castle so that it can never find a "Rider". A brave young Princess named Arya (Sienna Guillory) manages to steal the egg, but is captured by the King's evil wizard Durza (Robert Carlyle) shortly after escaping. Fortunately, Princess Arya is able to cast a spell that teleports the dragon egg to a very convenient place, into the hands of innocent young farmboy Eragon (Edward Speleers). It seems that this very bland blonde-haired pretty boy who has the personality of a hunk of wood is the "Rider" the legends speak of. The egg hatches, revealing a dragon named Saphira, who eventually bonds with the boy telepathtically. (The dragon's telepathic "voice" being provided by Rachel Weisz.) Shortly thereafter, Galbatorix's demons start coming after Eragon. He must team up with a wise old warrior named Brom (Jeremy Irons) who will train the future Dragon Rider in combat so that he will be strong enough to lead a small band of rebels, rescue the Princess, and usher in a new film franchise that will make oodles of money for the Fox studio, provided people are stupid enough to fall for this movie.

The Eragon series began as a series of books that were written by a teenager named Christopher Paolini, and found a large audience with young readers hooked on the fantasy craze thanks to the Lord of the Rings films and the Harry Potter series. I have not read the books, so I cannot say with any certainty if the novels are as derivative or uninspired as this film adaptation is. The story does certainly read like it came from the mind of a teen who spent too much time watching Star Wars and playing fantasy RPG video games, and somehow got lucky enough to have his story get published. Eragon does not have a single original thought in its head, nor does it have a single moment we cannot predict, because we've literally seen everything before. We can predict who is going to live or die almost the second they walk onto the screen, because we've seen the exact same character types in other movies. The difference between this movie and the ones that it blatantly steals from is that these characters don't have a shred of life or personality within them. Everyone is simply going through the motions, acting exactly the way we expect them to, almost as if they've been preprogrammed and had anything resembling a personality removed from their souls before filming began. What few relationships the movie does decide to focus on (such as the one between Eragon and his dragon Saphira, or the one between Eragon and Princess Arya) come across as completely shallow and almost as a mere afterthought. The movie keeps on stressing that a Dragon Rider will grow stronger as his bond with his dragon grows, but because both Eragon and his dragon essentially stay the same way throughout the film, we never get the sense of a deep bond that I think the filmmakers intended.

Any chance of Eragon becoming a film franchise literally disappears right up there on the screen when you see how ineptly everything has been thrown together. The story is sometimes an incoherent mess, with things happening so quickly and with no explanation. (How the heck does Saphira the dragon grow from a weak little infant to a full-grown majestic beast in the course of less than two minutes?) There are also some very humorous plot holes, such as the way old warrior Brom somehow manages to show up to save young Eragon's life, even though the kid left him miles and miles behind, and there's absolutely no way the guy should have been able to make it to where Eragon was, unless he somehow possesses the magic of teleportation and the movie forgot to tell us. Everything is so completely underwhelming, you often wonder if the filmmakers were even trying. Eragon's world looks like it wishes it could be the Middle Earth depicted in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, the dragon itself never quite convinces and looks more like a video game character than a flesh and blood creature, and the evil demons are severely disappointing, most of them either looking like Swamp Thing's distant relatives or professional wrestling rejects that have been told to roll around in the mud so they'd look more menacing. The climactic battle between Galbatorix's army and the rebels is less than inspiring, goes on for all of five minutes (if even that), and seems to be over mere moments after it starts. It certainly doesn't help that we could care less about the plight of the rebels, since Eragon met them less than 10 minutes before the battle begins. I'm going to give the original novel's author the benefit of the doubt, and assume that this is a severely hacked screenplay that rushes through the book's main plot points in a desperate attempt to tell the story.

Equally uninspiring is the cast, who simply cannot breathe life into the characters, no matter how much they may try. Newcomer Edward Speleers makes a very disappointing screen debut as the film's title hero. He fits the standard young hero type physically, but there is no life in his performance. Of course, it would help if his character's dialogue wasn't comprised almost entirely out of pointing out the obvious. Much like young Mr. Speleers, Sienna Guillory is pretty and looks the part of the Princess being held captive, but the script gives her nothing to do or say. Jeremy Irons at least tries to bring some talent to his portrayal of the wizened warrior Brom, but his character exists simply to explain the film's backstory to both Eragon and the audience, almost to the point that he comes across as a Narrator who somehow wandered into the story. Even the lead villain roles are completely forgettable, as these are easily the most uninspired villains to disgrace a feature film in many a moon. John Malkovich bellows his lines and bulges his eyes as the evil King Galbatorix, screaming about how he wants Eragon dead, but he literally does absolutely nothing during the film's entire running time. The film's final scene hints that he will play a larger role in the next film, but we find it hard to care when we see how uninteresting he is throughout this movie. As the king's head dark wizard (or "Shade" as the movie refers to him as), Robert Carlyle looks kind of like the long lost relative of Marilyn Manson with his gore-faced goth make up, and never comes across as a serious threat no matter how much he hisses as he recites his lines. The biggest disappointment to me was how flat Rachel Weisz sounds as the voice of the dragon. She is a fine actress, but she sounds downright bored whenever she "talks" to Eragon through his mind.

The only way I can see Eragon continuing on as a franchise is if they completely forget the first movie ever happened, and go in an entirely different direction with a new director, new cast, and definitely with a new writer at the screenplay level. Of course, in order for the franchise to continue, that would have to require this movie to be successful, and I sincerely hope that does not happen. There's nothing to recommend here, and nothing you haven't seen before and done better. If Fox thinks this movie is strong enough to launch a successful series of films, they need to wake up. Eragon is not the worst film of the year, but it is definitely one of the most underwhelming.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Charlotte's Web

With so many family films playing to the lowest I.Q. number in the audience, here is that special kind of story that can speak to just about anyone who listens to it. The fact that Charlotte's Web can do this is certainly no surprise. The classic children's book by E.B. White has been doing it for years. What's surprising is that this glossy Hollywood version filled to the brim with celebrity voice actors and astonishing special effects to bring the personality out of the animal characters is actually able to bring every ounce of heart, wonder, and humor from the novel, and put it up there on the screen. Here is an adaptation that gets it just about perfect, and anyone who still holds the story close to them is sure to breathe a sigh of relief at the results. Charlotte's Web is charming from beginning to end, touching and sad, and easily the best family film of the year.

For you sad, deprived souls who went through childhood having never read the book, the story centers on Wilbur (voiced by 10-year old Dominic Scott Kay), a pig who is born the runt of the litter, and is spared the chopping block when the farmer's preteen daughter Fern (Dakota Fanning) takes pity on the creature, and volunteers to take care of him as her own. Wilbur doesn't stay a runt for very long, and eventually, Fern is forced to send the pig to the farm owned by her Uncle Zuckerman (Gary Basaraba) across the road, as he can no longer live inside a house. Wilbur spends some carefree days on the farm, making friends with the local barn animals and enjoying daily visits from Fern, until the farm rat Templeton (voice by Steve Buscemi) clues Wilbur in on his fate come Christmas time, and the Zuckerman family start craving a pork dinner. Fortunately for young Wilbur, he has unknowingly been watched since the day he arrived on the farm by a kind and intelligent barn spider named Charlotte A. Cavatica (voice by Julia Roberts). The two begin an unlikely, yet true, friendship, and Charlotte makes it her mission to make sure that Wilbur can live a full life. With the spider's help, Wilbur will learn many valuable life lessons, including how to let go of a friend when the time comes.

Whenever a beloved story is brought to the screen, there is always that slight hint of fear that something may be lost in the translation. For Charlotte's Web, that fear disappears almost from the moment the studio logos fade, and we hear a narrator (voiced by Sam Shepard) setting up the story in just the right way. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) and screenwriters Susannah Grant (In Her Shoes, Erin Brockovich) and Karey Kirkpatrick (Over the Hedge) are able to capture the true essence of the story, without staying so slavishly faithful to the novel that it feels like they copied every last word into the screenplay. This is a tricky balancing act for any adaptation, and this movie pulls it off almost effortlessly. What's equally astonishing is that despite the presence of a large star-studded cast and top rate special effects, the story never becomes lost or overwhelmed, and remains constantly in the center of the film so that we don't lose sight of it. Some of the actors who lend their voice talents as the various animals in and around Zuckerman's farm include John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey, Cedric the Entertainer, Kathy Bates, Reba McEnitre, Robert Redford, and Thomas Haden Church. Unlike some other films that boast an all star voice cast, they never become a distraction and they never get lost in the shuffle. While I wouldn't exactly call most of the outside animals "developed", they are given enough screen time to come across as memorable, and each one gets at least one or two of their own stand out line that made me smile.

Of course, it is the relationship of Wilbur and Charlotte that is most important to the story, and this is brought to life not only by the respectful screenplay, but by the wonderful vocal performances that help bring the characters to life. Julia Roberts may not seem to be the ideal choice as the quiet and wise spider, but she instantly feels right the second you hear her voice from the rafters of the barn. There is a certain "motherly" tone to her voice that fits the character, but never comes across as cloying or overly sweet. Her final scenes are handled maturely and with grace, as Roberts finds the perfect tone to describe to Wilbur what is happening to her character so as not to frighten young children in the audience. As Wilbur the pig, child actor Dominic Scott Kay is a real find, and always delivers the right line readings and emotion for every scene. Here's hoping the strong roles continue to come his way, so that he does not become a faded star as he gets older. More so than the fine performances, it is the special effects that seamlessly blend live animal footage with computer animation, that give the various creatures of the farm their unique personality. The effects artists never go so overboard that the animals appear to be acting like humans, but still give the proper illusion that they can talk or faint on cue. The effects also never become overwhelming, so that we don't spend too much time wondering how they were done, instead of focusing on the story being told.

In terms of supporting performances, no one quite matches the perfect chemistry of leads Roberts and Kay, but everyone is clearly giving it their all. Dakota Fanning, unquestionably the hardest working child actor today, delivers yet another fine performance as Fern, but she is given very little to do in the story once she is forced to give up Wilbur. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the limited role is beneath her, but still, just about any capable child star could have played the part just as well, and her casting was most likely simply so that they could put one more headlining name above the title. Of the supporting animal characters, Steve Buscemi easily gets the most attention as the shifty, yet secretly kind-hearted rat, Templeton, and therefore comes across the strongest. His voice fits the character to a tee, and is even able to deliver more than his share of groan-worthy pun lines without it coming across as cheesy or stupid. Outside of the film's performances, it is the general look and overall production of the movie that gives it so much warmth. From the beautifully shot farm landscapes, to the very fitting music score by famed composer Danny Elfman, everything comes together to create the proper mood and tone in just about every scene.

If there is any fault to be found in Charlotte's Web, it is only when the movie takes some unnecessary detours that have nothing to do with the story, such as an added subplot concerning a couple of dim-witted crows and their "battle" to outsmart a scarecrow. Fortunately, these moments do not come often, nor do they last very long. When the movie does work (which is mostly all of the time), it is that rare movie that is able to offer something for just about any viewer. With a touching and heartfelt story that is able to leave its mark without overstaying its welcome thanks to a breezy 95 minute running time, Charlotte's Web is a film that is bound to be watched by families for years to come, and will most likely become a regular viewing requirement for homes with young children. With so many books getting butchered in their big screen treatment, here's one that survived the journey completely in tact.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Blood Diamond

There's a big difference between a message movie and a soapbox movie. A message movie is subtle, and lets the message sneak in a natural way so that the audience is enraptured by the story it is trying to tell. A soapbox movie is often bombastic, hitting you over the head with its message, and coming across about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the noggin. Blood Diamond is a soapbox movie. It is a movie that contains many great moments, but they do not come completely together to make a completely satisfying film going experience. That's because director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall) is too self-obsessed with making his movie a grandiose epic that he hammers his message home so many times that the audience starts to become exhausted by the time it's over. The movie is well made, has some strong performances, and offers some haunting imagery, particularly concerning its depiction of brainwashed children toting automatic weapons for African rebels. But its ambitions are sunk somewhat by an unfocused screenplay, and main characters that could have walked in from a 1940s Jungle adventure film.

Our rogue hero is Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former African mercenary turned trader who specializes in smuggling diamonds out of Sierra Leone to overseas dealers. The movie's main message is that many of the diamonds mined in Africa and sold in jewelry stores here in the US are the result of bloodshed, slavery and cruelty. We witness this first-hand when the simple African fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is captured by rebels who force him into slavery to dig and panhandle for precious stones to further their cause. When the government stages a raid on the rebel group, Solomon is mistaken for one of them, and is sent to prison, coincidentally the same one Danny is currently confined to after one of his smuggling attempts went bust. In prison, Danny happens to hear that Solomon discovered and hid a particularly large diamond right before his arrest. When the two men get out of prison, Danny is forced to make an uneasy alliance with Solomon if he wants to get his hands on the diamond. He promises to help the fisherman find the family that he was separated from when the rebels initially captured him and attacked his village if Solomon will show him where he hid the diamond. The two are later joined by a spirited young American journalist named Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), who is in Africa to report the truth about "blood diamonds", and the money that is being made overseas off of the violence in Africa.

Blood Diamond is a movie that wants to make us think twice the next time we're in a jewelry store, and think about where some of these diamonds on display initially came from. What it basically boils down to is that it is a two and a half hour guilt trip disguised as a spirited African adventure movie. That doesn't mean that the movie does not work. There are many moments in this film that are downright eye-opening and almost hypnotic in its depiction of cruelty. The key moments of the film that really knock the wind out of the viewer are when we get to see how violent African rebel groups kidnapping young children, then turning them into soulless killers, giving them weapons training, and forcing them to target practice on live "dummies" until they are completely desensitized and brainwashed by the beliefs of the group. We witness this as Solomon's oldest son is kidnapped in another raid, and we see how he gradually loses his humanity as he is drugged and manipulated into joining the rebels. It is merciless in its depiction of children killing innocent people with glee, and makes for some of the most horrifying imagery to hit screens in recent memory. While these images are undeniably powerful, they are surrounded by an unfocused screenplay by Charles Leavitt (K-Pax) that doesn't know if it wants to be an eye-opening expose on the dirty deeds of mainstream jewelry dealers, a terrifying look at the turmoil going on in Africa (which has already been depicted in many recent films such as The Constant Gardener, Hotel Rwanda, and Catch a Fire), or an old fashioned adventure movie. It tries to be all of these things, and because it can never decide on a consistent tone, the movie ends up developing a multiple personality disorder.

While the film's intentions are noble, and it contains many unforgettable moments, it also is brought down by the "epic" quality that director Zwick brings to the entire story. You get the feeling that perhaps a smaller or more personal approach would have benefitted this story more, but anyone who has seen one of Zwick's past films know that this is not his style. He doesn't simply want to tell us what's going on in Africa, he wants to hammer the point home with numerous long-winded speeches where the characters talk about the situation in such a scripted manner that dialogue exchanges start to sound like public service announcements. The characters frequently break the action to talk about what's going on around them, and although it's supposed to open up the eyes of the audience, it comes across as forced, unnatural and overly-scripted. The film's depiction of its main characters don't help much, as they seem to have come from a writer's handbook on how to write a jungle adventure movie. The character of Danny is your charming rogue who chain smokes and tries to talk his way out of any situation, Solomon is your standard silent black man role who only talks when he is spoken to, refers to everyone as "boss", and is so single-minded in his determination in finding his family that the script forgets to tell us anything else about him, and Maddy is your typical female heroine type for this kind of movie who is feisty and spirited, able to resist the charms of the rough Danny at first, but soon finds herself falling for him. We've seen these character types many times before, and they only help add to the overall feeling that the storytelling is too artificial and overly plotted for its own good. Everything seems like its been planned with the utmost care, when it is the film's grittier and chaotic moments that wind up being the most memorable. If the movie had kept the terrifyingly honest tone that it holds during the scenes depicting the lives of the rebels, this could have been one of the great films of the year.

Despite the fact that the lead characters are underdeveloped cliches, the performances are top notch just about all across the board. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers yet another trademark fine performance, even if his accent that he is forced to use throughout the film is somewhat suspect at times. He plays the character of Danny in somewhat of a gray area, neither as a hero nor as a villain. Yes, he's mainly interested in himself and in finding the diamond that Solomon hid for his own purposes, but he is still able to make the character sympathetic without completely whitewashing over the negative aspects of his role. Djimon Hounsou is a powerful presence during some of his more dramatic scenes, but he is sorely underused, and forced to spend a lot of his scenes standing in the background, watching DiCaprio and Connelly talk to each other. Speaking of Connelly, her character seems to be rendered almost useless due to the fact that she is forced to leave the movie about half way through, and not appear again until the end. Still, during the moments she is on screen, she has good chemistry with DiCaprio and is able to create a likeable, if not cliched, heroine. Still, you have to wonder how she manages to stay so beautiful and dirt-free when she's running through the jungles and deserts of Africa, getting shot at by rebels, and plowing her way down mud and blood-covered roads. Despite the big names headlining the movie, the key stand out performance belongs to young Kagiso Kuypers who plays Solomon's son, Dia. His change from humble son to cold blooded killer for the rebel army is chilling and realistic, and he is able to handle many very difficult scenes with grace.

Blood Diamond is a movie with a lot of potential and great moments that are brought down by how overblown and epic everything is. We wish the movie would scale back on the chase scenes, countless shoot outs and characters giving grand speeches that ram the film's message home, and just focus on the heart of the story. When the movie is actually capable of doing this, we see just how great of a movie it could have been. As it is, Blood Diamond is a very imperfect movie that hints at greatness, but keeps on losing its nerve. When the end credits started to roll, I wasn't thinking about how I should think twice about where jewelry comes from before I buy it. I was thinking about how much better the movie could have been if it had just taken a more personable approach to the material. Something tells me that was not the kind of thoughts the filmmakers wanted me to have walking out of the movie.

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Monday, December 11, 2006


Here is a movie that immediately grabbed me almost from the word go. And then its grip loosened and loosened until I just didn't really find myself caring anymore. Apocalypto has mainly been getting attention due to co-writer and director Mel Gibson's arrest this past summer. Would audiences be willing to sit through another one of his movies after his now infamous rant? A better question is will audiences be willing to sit through another one of his movies after they see how little this one has to offer? The movie is breathtaking on the surface, with lavish jungle visuals and a sense of true tension that carries throughout the early half of the film. Then Apocalypto just keeps on hitting the same notes over and over, and we quickly end up looking at our watches, waiting out the film's overly long 136 minute running time. Beneath the film's stunning visuals and shocking violence, there's a story that's not much deeper than that of your standard video game.

Set during the final days of the Mayan culture, the film focuses on a man named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood). He lives a simple life in a remote jungle village, and is only trying to create a peaceful existence for his pregnant wife and young son. Early one morning, his village is attacked by a bloodthirsty Mayan army who slaughter most of the villagers, capture the rest, and plan to take the survivors back to their city to either sell as slaves or offer as a sacrifice to their god. Jaguar Paw is captured by the invaders, but not before he is able to ensure the safety of his family by having them hide in a deep hole during the attack. In the city of his captors, he is able to escape his fate of death and flees into the jungle, his captors close behind him in pursuit. His only desire is to outsmart his enemies, and find a way back to the waiting family that he left behind.

It's certainly a testament to Mel Gibson's popularity that he was able to convince the Disney-owned Touchstone Pictures to greenlight a multi-million dollar movie that features absolutely no big name stars whatsoever, and where the entire dialogue is spoken in a different language with English subtitles. Sure, he did the same thing with Passion of the Christ, but that was an independent film. This is a big studio release movie, and it certainly shows just what kind of power the guy has. As a filmmaker, Gibson certainly shows what he can do with Apocalypto. The movie is expertly filmed, and contains many sequences of beauty, terror, and sheer emotional power just with his images alone. He is able to use his settings to establish just the right mood, everything from the peaceful beauty of the jungle, right down to the smoldering ruins of past villages that the bloodthirsty army had attacked in the past. The movie certainly does not flinch away from the gore, either. However, Gibson is smarter than just using gore as a way to shock or horrify. The violence is necessary in telling the story, and although it can sometimes be overwhelming (such as a lengthy sequence where a group of men have their hearts ripped out, then their heads cut off), it can also be powerful and sad. A good example of this is a scene shortly after Jaguar Paw escapes from his captors, and stumbles upon a giant pit filled with headless corpses, all past villagers who were dragged from their homes in order to be sacrificed, just as his people were. Gibson wisely does not linger on the carnage, he simply lets us see the true darkness of the moment, and then moves on. It is a brief yet powerful moment that would have lost its effect had it lingered longer.

While I praise Gibson's vision, it is the story that accompanies the visuals that I find less than thrilling. The film is at its best during the opening moments, depicting the life of Jaguar Paw's village. Even during the attack on his village, I was still completely enthralled, fascinated in where the story was going to be taking me. My fascination quickly subsided when I began to realize that even the screenplay itself doesn't seem to know. The movie spends far too long depicting the journey to the Mayan city, where not much happens. When the movie arrived at the city, my interest picked up once again, and stayed up during the entire time as we witnessed the cruelty that the villagers are subjected to, and how the people of the city are manipulated into believing that their cruel actions are right and meant to appease their god. Then, as soon as Jaguar Paw escapes, the movie once again meanders for the entire rest of its running time. The movie becomes a non-stop chase as Jaguar Paw is pursued by his captors, and he slowly kills them one by one, luring them into traps or simply outsmarting them. It is during this point that Apocalypto really started to annoy me, because it turns into a brainless video game of a movie that is all action and almost no dialogue whatsoever. The villains are boring, because we learn absolutely nothing about them, so we feel nothing when they meet whatever grisly fate they happen to meet. The entire chase strangely never connects. We know that Jaguar Paw is trying to get back to the family that he left behind, but we find very little reason to care, because the movie never truly digs deep enough. The fact that the chase goes on for a good 40 to 50 minutes non stop doesn't help matters, and veers dangerously close to becoming overkill. For a movie to start out so strongly and sure of itself in depicting an old way of life, it certainly cops out when it turns into an imitation of an empty action movie.

That really is the problem at the core of Apocalypto. For all of its well-developed scenes and beautifully shot landscapes, there is absolutely nothing underneath. We can clearly see the effort put into each and every aspect of the filmmaking process, but I have a feeling that the screenplay did not get quite as much attention. We don't feel connected to Jaguar Paw's plight, nor do we feel a connection to most of the characters. Every now and then, the movie will cut away from its main story, and show Jaguar Paw's wife and son that he left behind as they struggle to escape from the hole they used to hide. Even then, we never quite feel like they're in danger until the film's final moments when it starts raining, and they are in danger of drowning. In the end, Apocalypto is a textbook example of style over substance. I certainly don't regret seeing the movie, but it's failure to click emotionally is very troubling to me.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Holiday

While no one would certainly be wrong in calling The Holiday formulaic and predictable, they would be foolish to look over two qualities that place it above most romantic comedies - It's brain and its heart. Here we have the very rare romantic comedy that is actually driven by characters, relationships, and the dialogue that they have with one another. This is a welcome change from so many films in the genre that rely on the Idiot Plot, and try to think of "clever" ways to keep the main characters apart from each other for the length of the entire movie. Writer-director Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give, What Women Want) has crafted a very sweet and immensely likeable film that works because it understands its characters, and has them talk about real things. I walked in expecting a pleasant diversion, and walked out quite pleasantly surprised that The Holiday has a bit more on its mind than being your usual Yuletide fluff.

Amanda (Cameron Diaz) and Iris (Kate Winslet) are two women who live on different sides of the world, but both are in desperate need in a change of scenery. Amanda, who is a Hollywood ad executive in L.A., has just broken up with her unfaithful boyfriend (Edward Burns), and Iris, a journalist over in England, is not doing very well coming to grips with the fact that the man she has longed for the past three years (Rufus Sewell) is set to be engaged with another woman. While surfing the Internet for a far off getaway, Amanda happens to see an ad placed by Iris who wishes to "switch lives" with someone else in the hopes of simply escaping from their individual problems. For two weeks, Amanda will live in Iris' cozy English cottage, while Iris will come to L.A. and live in Amanda's mansion home. Not long after the two women switch homes, two men enter their individual lives who may offer a fresh start after their previous failed relationships. For Amanda, she meets with Iris' charming brother Graham (Jude Law) shortly after arriving, and quickly realizes that there is a definite connection. As for Iris in L.A., she finds herself drawn to a sweet young film music composer named Miles (Jack Black), and even strikes up a friendship with an old man who lives nearby named Arthur (Eli Wallach), who is a legendary screenwriter from the golden age of Hollywood.

The central romance and the whole "life swapping" idea that drives the central plot of The Holiday could have been horribly contrived and tacky in the wrong hands. The screenplay wisely is able to avoid most "fish out of water" jokes as the women try to adjust to their new lives, although Meyers can't help but put at least a couple into her script, such as when Amanda has trouble driving down the opposite side of the street when she's in England. Thankfully, the movie does it best to steer clear of the usual contrivances we've come to expect, and instead gives us two separate relationships that are given a generous amount of time to develop, thanks to Meyers' often smart and real dialogue. The characters are given ample opportunity to grow and develop so that we can learn to like them, know them, and feel a certain connection to them. The individual relationships that both Amanda and Iris find themselves in are also treated with the same amount of care. Although at first I felt that Amanda's relationship with Graham was going a bit too fast, it does eventually become very satisfying when we realize that there is much more to Graham than just being a charming and handsome man who prefers a one night stand to a long-term relationship, which is how he at first comes across. Graham is eventually able to come across as a real person with genuine feelings and emotions, as is Amanda, and we begin to realize just how they can work as a couple. And although Iris' relationship with Miles gets less screen time than Amanda's, we are still able to develop a genuine affection for the characters and actually want to see them get together by the end. That's because the movie is able to rise above the standard cliche romantic comedy formula of the characters having a "meet cute", then they face a crisis that threatens to break them apart forever, only to have them go rushing back into each other's arms, either in the rain or at an airport moments before one of them is about to leave.

Perhaps the reason why The Holiday is able to avoid the standard cliches of the genre is because it understands that they are cliches, and has the characters actually talk about the formulas of movies in their dialogue. This is the first time I've actually heard a movie acknowledge a meeting between two characters as a "meet cute" in its dialogue. More than the two main relationships that carry the movie, it is the sweet and honest relationship between Iris and Arthur, the aging screenwriter, that really took me completely by surprise. Here is a movie where characters can talk about their love of movies, and not have it come across as corny or satirical. These references to other movies in the film's dialogue are not satirical or "hip" in any way, but rather, we feel like we are listening to a conversation about two people who love the art of film. This is a glorious thing, and I often found myself nodding my head in agreement with many of their conversations. I also love the way that the character of Miles gives some much needed respect to often overlooked film composers in his dialogue, since he is a film composer himself. There is a scene in a video store where Miles is talking about great music scores, past and present, with Iris, and although the scene comes dangerously close to being overly cute (especially a funny, but somewhat cheesy, cameo from Dustin Hoffman), we can still sense the genuine love in the dialogue for the topic at hand. It's very rare that a movie actually have its characters talk about their love of movies, and the power that they can hold on an audience. Other films have been quoted in dialogue before, or they've acknowledged cliches, but this is the most genuine depiction of film love that I've seen in a movie in a while.

It certainly helps that the cast is great all around, with hardly a weak link to be found. Both Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet are charming and funny, although Winslet won me over just a bit more. She came across as slightly more sympathetic all the way through, whereas Diaz seemed a bit over the top during the film's first half, only to have her character become more grounded in reality as the film went on. I did like some of the fantasy touches with her character, such as how she envisions the events of her life as a movie trailer from time to time, complete with an announcer. Winslet is also much better at body language, and expressing the sheer joy she experiences when she is exploring her new temporary home, or when she finally comes to a realization about the previous man in her life before she met Miles. As for the male leads, Jude Law is likeable throughout, and becomes even more so when the script reveals a few extra details to help us sympathize with him more. Jack Black gives a surprisingly sweet and vulnerable turn as Miles, proving that he certainly has what it takes to be a serious leading man. (A role I personally would like to see him pursue after seeing this film.) Finally, Eli Wallach gets many of the film's best scenes as the aging screenwriter who befriends Iris. His dialogue where he talks about the old days of Hollywood compared to today come across as tender and honest, instead of spiteful.

The Holiday is a prime example that a movie can be mostly predictable, but still surprise you in some other ways. I've often said a formula movie can still work as long as it's made well, and care has been put into it. Here is a formula movie that actually respects the intelligence of the audience and does not dumb itself down on our behalf. The characters act like human beings, talk about things that we don't usually hear people talk about in movies, and have dialogue with each other that serves a much greater benefit than to just drive the plot along. The Holiday understands that even a formula movie needs a strong human voice so that it connect with the audience. The voice that carries this movie is strong, much stronger than I initially anticipated.

One Final Note to my Readers: I'd like to apologize for the lack of updates lately. I've been fighting a cold, so I haven't been able to update as regularly as usual. But, I've reached the point of recovery, so you can expect reviews of Apocalypto and Blood Diamond soon.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Unaccompanied Minors

It always saddens me to see strong talent wasted in an aimless screenplay. Unaccompanied Minors has talent on and off the screen, but doesn't have a single clue as to how to use them. The director is Paul Feig, who has worked on a number of clever and highly regarded TV shows such as Arrested Development, The Office, and Freaks and Geeks. One of the stars is Lewis Black, a very funny comedian who is always a knock out on The Daily Show, but unfortunately can't seem to get a decent role when it comes to movies. Heck, even the kids who fill in the lead roles seem to be wonderfully talented and likeable. And yet, the screenplay they have been dealt with is a messy and obnoxious concoction that comes from the Home Alone school of holiday filmmaking. You know, the kind of holiday comedy that tries to combine Hallmark-style family sentiment with over the top gratuitous slapstick violence. While the film is not devoid of the occasional scattered laugh, everyone involved deserves much better than what Unaccompanied Minors gives them.

The film is set during the 24 hour period from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. A major snow storm hits the local area, grounding all flights at Hoover International Airport. As the passengers settle in for a night of waiting for the first morning flight the next day, the unaccompanied minors who are supposed to be traveling by themselves are sent to a room away from the adults. Five of the kids decide to break out of the room, and have some fun exploring the airport on their own. These kids include all-around everyman Spencer (Dyllan Christopher), pampered "princess" Grace (Gina Mantegna), tough talking tomboy Donna (Quinn Shephard), overweight outcast Timothy (Brett Kelly), and straight-laced Charlie (Tyler James Williams). Their break out is discovered by the Scrooge-like head of the airport, Oliver (Lewis Black), who naturally hates kids and hates Christmas. As the kids attempt to avoid detection from Oliver and his squad of inept security staff, they learn to put their differences aside and work together in order to help Spencer reach his younger sister Katherine (Dominique Saldana), who is holed up at a nearby hotel, and is worried that Santa won't be able to find her away from home.

Unaccompanied Minors plays by a wide variety of rules. Sometimes it wants to be a movie that speaks honestly and openly about preteens who either feel ignored by their parents, or simply feel like they don't fit in anywhere. Here, the movie takes on a vibe that almost sets the movie up to be kind of like a Breakfast Club for the preteen set, as the kids set aside their personal differences and social backgrounds, and talk openly with each other about their fears and personal problems. Most of the time, however, the movie wants to be a wild slapstick chase as the kids constantly outrun, abuse, and outwit a group of apparently mentally challenged airport staff. For a movie that wants to tug at the heart strings and spread Christmas cheer, it often helps if we can relate to what we are watching up there on the screen. Unaccompanied Minors is so out of touch with reality that it almost seems to be set on another planet. Consider and ponder to yourself some of these moments taken from the film...

-How is a kid able to buy a large, fully loaded Christmas tree with nothing but his cherished Aquaman action figure? The movie does not allow us the pleasure of seeing how this strange business transaction went down. He simply offers the tree salesman his toy, and the next time we see the kid, he's lugging a giant Christmas tree behind him. Based on this, we can assume that the salesman is either A: Incredibly stupid, or B: A rabid Aquaman fan. And since just about any comic book fan worth their grain of salt would tell you that Aquaman is one of the worst superheroes ever created, I'm leaning toward A.

-How is another kid able to stuff himself inside a suitcase, only to have some security officers pick it up, mistaking it as unclaimed baggage, and not hear the kid's moans and screams from inside the luggage as they carry it over to a conveyor belt? The scene gets even better as it depicts the kid's extremely dangerous journey as he is smashed by mechanical pressers, and dropped a good ten or twenty feet down pits and onto large piles of unclaimed bags. Of course, when the other kids discover him and free him the suitcase, he is perfectly fine without a scratch on him. I understand that this is a brainless kid's comedy and everything, but to assume that anyone could survive what this kid goes through and not be the least bit traumatized is pushing it even by this movie's standards.

-And I thought Deck the Halls had a climax that was hard to swallow. Along comes this movie to prove just how big of a fool I am. The film's villain, Oliver, has spent the entire movie relentlessly chasing after the kids, getting smashed in the face, punched in the stomach, falling over luggage, and sent down a dangerous bobsled chase after the children that climaxes with a crash that would kill most people, but in this movie, simply gives him a bloody nose. When he finally confronts the lead kid Spencer at the end, the kid hands him a novelty snow globe as a peace offering. This is apparently exactly what was needed to melt the old miser's heart, and fill it with Christmas cheer, not to mention completely forgetting the hell Spencer and his friends have put him through during the past 24 hours. This simple act fills Oliver with so much Christmas cheer that the next time we see him, he's dressed up as Santa Claus, and is handing out presents to all the passengers who were traveling alone for the holidays. Don't ask where he got the money to give presents to the hundreds of people, or where all the presents came from. And don't worry if you fear I've given away the ending, as the climax goes on for another 10 minutes after this point, and includes some even more implausible developments. I'll leave you to discover those on your own, should you see this movie.

The cast that has been gathered to tell this loopy yuletide tale are a talented bunch, perhaps too talented for this movie, as the material often gives them little to do. The kids at least seem to be having fun, and are genuinely talented enough for me to hope they appear in better work soon. The adult characters are mainly forced to act like cartoonish parodies of adults who are stupid enough for the kids to constantly outsmart at every turn. There are some subplots concerning Spencer's parents as they try to reach the kids (Spencer's dad drives cross country to the airport in an organically-fueled car, while his mom is stuck at her Christmas-obsessed sister's house.), but neither are developed enough for us to care. That would generally describe my reaction to this movie on the whole. It's competently made, but holds absolutely no imagination. Considering the talent involved with Unaccompanied Minors, they all deserved better.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

National Lampoon's Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj

Having seen National Lampoon's Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj, I am now convinced more than ever that there is a device somewhere in Hollywood where studio heads can feed a bunch of old scripts into it, and the machine will spit out a new script made up of bits and pieces of the old ones. How else can you explain how this movie shamelessly steals plot elements and scenes from past college comedies such as the original Revenge of the Nerds, Animal House, or the American Pie films? While I'm sure this device is handy in a pinch if a studio needs a script in a hurry, it apparently also features an unfortunate side effect in that it removes all the humor and joy from these scripts, leaving us with nothing more than a pale imitation. And that, really, is what Van Wilder 2 boils down to. Even if you are one of the deranged individuals who actually wished for a sequel to the original Van Wilder, you're bound to be disappointed with this half-assed attempt at making a franchise out of a forgettable film from four years ago.

Because the original film's leading man, Ryan Reynolds, was too busy making garbage like The Amityville Horror remake and Waiting to appear in this sequel, we're stuck with Kal Penn, who played Reynolds' Indian sidekick Taj in the last film, as the star this time around. To be fair, Penn has proven that he can carry a movie with the stoner comedy cult classic Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. But here, he is saddled with a script so lame that it is sometimes insulting. The story centers on Taj as he travels overseas to England to continue his education, and pass on the wisdom of his former mentor, Van Wilder, to just about anyone who will stop and listen. (The character of Van Wilder does not appear in this movie, but Taj literally never shuts up about him, so it almost feels like Ryan Reynolds is in this movie in spirit form.) When he arrives at his new college, he is immediately rejected by the stuffy fraternity that rules the campus and is led by the stuck up Pipp Everett (Daniel Percival). Instead, Taj finds himself in a run down dorm house known as "The Barn" that is made up entirely out of a small group of cliched college losers including the nerdy Gethin (Anthony Cozens), the large-breasted Sadie (Holly Davidson), an angry Scotsman named Seamus (Glen Berry), and a video game obsessed mute named Simon (Steven Rathman). Naturally, the sorry residents of The Barn are picked on by the snobbish Pipp and his friends, so Taj decides to change all that by passing on Van Wilder's wisdom onto his new friends, and turning them into proud winners who can hold their heads up high.

The whole "unpopular kids rising up to beat the popular kids at their own game" storyline is as old as the campus comedy itself, and Van Wilder 2 does absolutely nothing to set it apart from the crowd. The only thing it manages to do is make you look fondly back at the movies that were actually able to pull the idea off. You could pretty much watch any college comedy from the 80s, make a check list of all the things you saw, and you'll see them all over again in Van Wilder 2, only a lot lamer and with much less energy and enthusiasm. Does the movie feature a love interest for Taj who is initially in love with the bully villain, only to have her slowly realize that her current boyfriend is a jerk, and the much nicer "loser" characters are a better fit for her? You bet it does. Does the movie lead up to a competition between the two dorm houses where they have to compete in a series of campus games? Come on, you probably already know the answer. Will the bully villain try to discredit the hero by planting stolen test answers, and attempt to get Taj expelled by bringing this to the attention of the school's head Dean? I'm sure the answer to this question will come as a surprise to anyone who has not watched a campus comedy movie made in the last 25 years or so. Scene after dreary scene, the movie piles on the genre cliches as if they were somehow going out of style. Never mind the fact that you can practically see the mold growing on these old plot points, or that many of these cliches have already been skewered on TV shows like The Simpsons. What's worse is that not only can actor-turned-screenwriter David Drew Gallagher not think of a single funny thing to do with these aspects, but that he actually expects the audience to take them seriously.

I'm serious when I say that there's very little humor to be found in Van Wilder 2, and what little there is winds up being of the tired slapstick variety (Taj takes a paintball to the groin), or is simply lame and pathetic. In this film, Taj is not so much a character in a teen sex farce as he is a motivational speaker. He is constantly spewing lengthy speeches about the wisdom Van Wilder passed down to him, or encouraging everyone around him not to give up on their dreams that he hardly has time to say anything funny. Well, okay, I take it back, he does get one line that made me laugh, but that joke was already given away in the trailer, so that doesn't count. They may as well have cast Dr. Phil in the main role, since Taj spends so much time helping out other people with their problems. For what is supposed to be a raunchy teen sex comedy, there is surprisingly little raunch and/or sex to be found. Aside from the film's opening scene on an airplane, a scene set at a dog show that contains the film's sole gross out gag, and a party at Taj's dorm house late in the film, this movie could have easily walked away with a PG-13 rating. Something tells me the audience that would be drawn to a film such as this will be very disappointed by the movie's mysterious lack of sex and gross humor. And when it does give the intended audience what it wants, it is usually immediately forgettable. Nothing works in this movie, and it almost seems as if director Mort Nathan (Boat Trip) was simply at a loss at how to stage a successful comedy sequence. Then again, maybe this is not surprising to those of you who have seen Mr. Nathan's last film.

Since he is given so little to do, Kal Penn is completely wasted in a thankless lead role. Still, it's hard to feel sorry for him, especially since not only does he star in this movie, but he is also credited as one of the Executive Producers in the opening credits. That means he has no one to blame but himself. He does what he can, and he is at least able to show a sliver of personality (something nobody else who wanders onto the screen gets to do), but if he keeps on appearing in stuff like this, his career will be over before too long. The rest of the cast is blandly nondescript, and refuse to make even the slightest bit of impression. Everyone looks like they're simply going through the motions, hoping that the movie will be over soon. With such a bland cast, my attention started to turn to other things, hoping that I could find at least something to hold my interest. In the end, all I could come up with is that some of the scenery was nice, and the film's soundtrack was a lot more lively and fun than anything that happens in the movie itself.

It should come as no surprise that Van Wilder 2 is a bust. I mean, what was the last truly good movie you saw the National Lampoon name attached to? Throw in the fact that its main title is named after a character who doesn't even appear in the movie, and you can probably smell the fumes of a stinker from miles away. What is surprising about Van Wilder 2 is that it manages to go below even the lowest of expectations, and reaches some sort of level where you wonder if the movie was made because the cast and crew were being punished for some reason. I haven't seen an unnecessary sequel to a comedy this bad since 1993's infamous Weekend at Bernie's II, and that's something not to take lightly.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Nativity Story

Given the run away success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, it was almost a given that some major studio would try their luck with a movie about the birth of Christ. New Line Cinema has answered the call with The Nativity Story, a lethargic and strangely passionless telling of the well-known story that seems to lack any sense of life whatsoever. I'm sure Sunday School groups will flock to see this movie (It's rated PG, and shies away from much of the violence in the story, so parents need not worry about taking their kids along.), but the average movie goer will find very little to inspire them here. From its plodding pace to its cast who all seem rather uninterested in the story they're supposed to be telling, The Nativity Story will prove to be an endurance test to all but the most patient viewer.

When teenage villager Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes from Whale Rider) is visited by the Angel Gabriel (Alexander Siddig), and informed that she will give birth to the Son of God, she is faced with the difficult situation of how to explain it to her family. They have just arranged her to marry local man Joseph (Oscar Isaac), and she is required to remain "pure" and untouched until the day of their wedding. When Mary starts to show signs of pregnancy, rumors fly amongst her family and other villagers. Joseph is alarmed at first, but decides to stand by Mary's side when he is visited by Gabriel in a dream who calms his fears. The two embark on a long journey to the town of Bethlehem after the treacherous King Herod (Ciaran Hinds) orders a census that forces all the local villagers to return to their place of birth. The census is all part of a plan Herod is brewing in order to stop a prophecy from being fulfilled that speaks of a mesiah being born who will overthrow his rule. In another subplot, three wise men (Nadim Sawalha, Eriq Ebouaney and Stefan Kalipha) are following a star that they feel will lead them to the destined mesiah.

For what is supposed to be an uplifting and inspiring film that reminds us of the true meaning of the holiday season, The Nativity Story falls short in just about every aspect. Director Catherine Hardwicke (Lords of Dogtown) films the entire story with a curious lack of interest. The story of Christ's birth is being told, but nobody's heart seems to be into it. Screenwriter Mike Rich (Radio) does not liven things up very much with his extremely dry and slow moving script. The characters are kept at a complete distance from the audience, and there never seems to be any tension in the story, even with King Herod trying to track the baby down, and murdering dozens of innocent youths in his quest to find the child spoken of in the prophecy. That's because either the movie completely shies away from any tension the story might bring, or it simply pretends it doesn't exist by cutting away from the danger for so long. A good part of the movie is made up simply of Mary and Joseph's trip to Bethlehem, and the worst thing that ever happens is that Mary nearly drowns after the mule she's riding on is frightened by a snake, and throws her off into a body of water. She is rescued by Joseph less than a minute later, and then the movie goes right back into its comfortable routine of the characters making their way to their destination so slowly you'd think they had invisible lead weights tied to their legs. Even when the film reaches the point that the entire story has been building up to, and the Baby Jesus is born, it does not connect with us in any way, due to the bizarre stone-faced reaction of the adult cast who surround the child. They could have replaced the cast with some of those light up nativity scene figures you find on front lawns of peoples' homes every Christmas, and you'd get the same level of performance that these flesh and blood actors give.

The movie does try to liven things up by making the three wise men the comedy relief. Yes, you heard me right, the story interrupts the journey of Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem with routine comedy sequences that seem somewhat out of place and forced. They comically bicker amongst themselves about which way they're going, and other things. Does the story of the birth of Christ really need comic relief? To be fair, the characters are taken seriously in some of their scenes, but when the movie cuts away simply to display their antics, it screams out in desperation that Mike Rich needed something to pad out his screenplay in order to fill a 100 minute running time. The entire script seems padded, as so many scenes have little if anything to do with the story at hand. And outside subplots, such as King Herod's search for the child or Mary's cousin Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) going through her own miracle birth as she brings John the Baptist into the world, are so underwritten and underdeveloped that they almost seem to be afterthoughts. These plots do play a role in the story, but they and the characters that inhabit them are not developed in any satisfying way. Oddly enough, The Nativity Story comes across as if it is not even all that interested in telling its own story. We feel like we are simply getting bits and pieces of the least satisfying parts of the story.

Much like everything else in the film, the cast seems oddly uninterested and uninvolved, which really makes it hard to care about anything that's going on. As Mary, 16-year old Keisha Castle-Hughes shows none of the potential she displayed in her Oscar nominated performance in Whale Rider. She is severely stiff, seems to switch back and forth between two or three facial expressions, and spends a lot of scenes with her head hung down or looking at her feet. Oscar Isaac holds up a little bit better as Joseph, as he is at least able to display a wider range of emotions in his performance. But he still holds very little if any chemistry with his female co-star. Also surprising is the dull performance by the usually reliable Shohreh Aghdashloo, who was so memorable a couple years ago in House of Sand and Fog, but here seems as if she's having a hard time mustering up emotion with her underwritten role. As the three wise men, the actors possess neither the comic timing nor the sense of importance in their journey to make the characters work the way they are written. They simply come across as a distraction, rather than an actual part of the story.

The Nativity Story means well, but for all of its good intentions, it simply must be said that it hasn't been put together very well. There is no feeling, and there is very little reason to care about what you are watching up there on the screen. With so many awful Christmas movies preaching about commercialism and Santa Claus, it's nice that someone tried to do a movie tied into the true reason of the holiday. This is just the wrong way to do it. By the time it's over, we feel unfulfilled rather than inspired. For a religious epic movie like The Nativity Story, that's about the worst criticism you can give.

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