Reel Opinions

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Smokin' Aces

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie should be feeling pretty flattered by Smokin' Aces. Writer-director Joe Carnahan (2002's Narc) has obviously studied the past works of these filmmakers well, and matches them every step of the way in terms of visuals and juggling multiple crime plots. Unfortunately, this is a case of the artist knowing the music but not the lyrics. The movie is not as clever as it seems to think it is, and is also brought down by some thinly developed characters who certainly seem interesting, but never reach their full potential aside from a few stand outs. Though certainly energetic and never boring, Smokin' Aces adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

The action is set in and around a Lake Tahoe hotel and casino where famous Las Vegas magician showman Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven) has holed himself up in the hotel penthouse after agreeing to drop some names to the Feds about his Mob connections, including ailing mob boss Primo Sparazza (Joseph Ruskin). A $1 million contract is put on Buddy's head, and as soon as word gets out, every hitman and bizarre low life swarm to the hotel in order to claim their bounty. The long list of people gunning for Buddy's life include a bail bondsman named Jack (Ben Affleck), female assassin duo Georgia and Sharice (singer Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson), ex-cop "Pistol" Pete Deeks (Peter Berg), a deranged man who specializes in torture techniques (Nestor Carbonell), a master of disguise named Lazlo (Tommy Flanagan), and a trio of chainsaw-wielding brothers who look like they stepped out of a Road Warrior remake (Chris Pine, Kevin Durand, and Maury Sterling). Also headed for the hotel are FBI agents Richard (Ryan Reynolds) and Donald (Ray Liota), who are trying to get to Buddy before the hired hitmen do.

Even though Smokin' Aces is heavily inspired by the clever crime sagas of Tarantino and Ritchie, it winds up more closely resembling last year's Bobby, the movie that covered a large group of guests staying at the hotel the night Robert Kennedy was shot. Just like that film, the movie piles on so many characters that it is constantly in danger of becoming top heavy and collapsing on itself. Bobby managed to mostly stay afloat due to some interesting and well-written characters. The characters and the dialogue in Smokin' Aces just is not enough to grab our attention. Most of the characters are so thinly written that they may as well not even be there. They come across as sketchy caricatures instead of fully developed characters, and never come across as anything resembling three dimensional. This is not so bad for most of the movie, which is an over the top violent darkly comic crime fable. It is during this part of the film that is the most fun, and director Carnahan does a good job of handling the chaos that literally explodes up there on the screen. But then, during the film's final moments, the movie suddenly takes a deadly serious and almost somber tone that does not gel with the rest of the movie. This is when the weak characterizations comes back to haunt the movie. The characters are not developed strong enough to deserve such a serious and thoughtful ending, and it winds up lacking to connect emotionally with us. If the movie had kept its chaotic and fast-paced action tone throughout, I probably would have been able to overlook the uninteresting characters. I certainly think that if the filmmakers wanted the ending to work, they should have tried to get us more emotionally involved sooner.

One thing I certainly can't accuse Smokin' Aces of is being boring, however. The movie has an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach that works for most of its running time. The action sequences and shoot outs are frantic, but never confusing or overbearing. They have the right amount of energy to keep our interest. I also admired the film's twisted sense of humor, such as a scene where a man has a conversation with a freshly-killed corpse, moving the victim's mouth up and down and providing his "voice" in the conversation. There is also a subplot concerning a man (played by Jason Bateman) who survives an attack by one of the hitmen gathering at the hotel, and finds himself in the care of a strange old lady and her karate-obsessed hyperactive grandson that is very bizarre, but generates a couple good laughs. The main heart of the story moves with the pace of a speeding train, never slowing down for an instant until the last body has hit the ground. The only thing that holds it back is that the dialogue lacks the spark of the masters like Tarantino. It's never quite as clever as it seems to think it is, and it never manages to stand out as much as I think it was intended to. A lot of this has to do with the underdeveloped characters, who are more like violent cartoon characters come to life instead of real people. It also has to do with the fact that Carnahan's screenplay seems more interested in keeping the action moving than in dialogue. As enjoyable as the action can be, there is still a wall between us and the characters, and we never become as involved as we're supposed to be.

Even if the characters are largely forgettable, that doesn't mean there aren't any performances that manage to rise above the material. The big surprise is Ryan Reynolds, as one of the two FBI agents who is trying to get to Buddy in time. I have never been a huge fan of Reynolds' past work, but here, he is actually quite wonderful in his role as one of the few semi-moral characters to walk into the film. His character probably gets the closest thing resembling development in this movie, so he eventually becomes the slightest form of emotional center to carry the movie. He is rugged, yet sympathetic, in his performance and stands out in every scene he's in. Also of note is Jeremy Piven as the snitch that everyone's looking for. He does a good job of portraying Buddy's slow descent into depression and near-madness as the situation spirals out of control. The rest of the cast mainly disappear into the background, or exist simply to die in spectacular ways. Ben Affleck makes a surprisingly good crooked character in the closest thing he's had to a villain role, but his character isn't developed enough to create much of a lasting impression. The only actors who are stuck with underwritten characters, but still manage to rise above it, are Alicia Keys and Taraji P. Henson as the female assassins. They are both likeable and spirited in their performances, able to make the characters more memorable than they probably appeared to be on the written page.
There's nothing exactly wrong with the story or the ideas behind Smokin' Aces. Heck, there's really nothing wrong with the way the film has been shot and edited, or the performances. Despite how well everything seems, nothing seems to come together to make a complete and satisfying film. We can see flashes of good performances and high energy action sequences, but the screenplay and the sketchy characters betray everything that is good about the film. It never hits on the deeper level that its ending seems to want to hit, and that brings down what could have been a highly enjoyable dark comedy caper. I give Carnahan credit for trying. He certainly has the talent and the energy to spare. Now all he needs to do is figure out how to bring his ideas together in a more satisfying way. If he can accomplish that, I think the guy will be on to something.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Catch and Release

When a movie has sat on a studio's shelf for well over a year, and has been shuffled through various release dates before being released during the dreary days of January, that is usually not a good sign of the film's quality. I remember seeing previews for Catch and Release back in December of 2005, only for the film to vanish without a trace, then quietly resurface in 2007. Needless to say, this did not fill me with hope. That's why it was quite a pleasant surprise to discover that not only is the film very watchable, but actually has quite a bit of charm going for it. It's far from perfect, but there's really no reason why the studio had to be so afraid to unleash this movie upon the public. Especially when films like Epic Movie and Blood and Chocolate get released without any hesitation.

As the film opens, we're introduced to young grieving widow Gray Wheeler (Jennifer Garner) who is burying her fiance, killed in an accident, on what was supposed to be her wedding day. She moves in with two best friends, Sam (Kevin Smith) and Dennis (Sam Jaeger), and tries to start her life anew, although she is finding it hard to move on. It becomes even harder when Gray discovers some messages left behind on her fiance's cell phone from another woman that seem to suggest that he was not entirely truthful with her during their relationship. Faced with the sudden realization that the man she loved may have been involved with a massage therapist in LA named Maureen (Juliette Lewis), and that he may have even had a child with her, Gray finds herself desperate for any kind of support. She finds it in Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), a close friend of her fiance whom she initially despises, but as she gets to know him, finds that there may be more to him than she initially thought.

Making her directorial debut, screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich, In Her Shoes) has crafted a likeable romantic-comedy drama that plays it a little too bit by the book, but still manages to win us over. It is during the film's first half that the movie is at its best, as the movie treats Gray's grief over the sudden tragedy in her life honestly and with respect. The funeral is held on the day that was supposed to be their wedding, and there is a heartbreaking moment early on as Gray watches through the window as a man delivering wedding flowers is turned away, the flowers being replaced by funeral wreaths. As Gray slowly starts to piece together the secret life of the man she thought she knew, we become interested, and the movie knows how to hold onto that interest without falling into the trap of melodrama. When we do meet the other woman, Maureen, she seems a bit off the wall, but she is still portrayed as a real person, and one who eventually comes across as being very likeable. The screenplay by Grant is too smart to vilify this woman who is actually in the same position as Gray is, and did not know about the other life the man she loved lead. While the movie is fairly confident dealing with these heavier issues, it is when the movie tries to be light that the film starts to lose some of its sure footing. The key problem I think is in the portrayal of the budding relationship between Gray and Fritz. It seems rushed and forced, almost as if the characters are falling in love because the audience respects them to. Though they never come across as an unlikeable couple, the movie strangely spends so little time on them and their relationship that we never feel as emotionally connected to them as we probably should be. We care about Gray uncovering the truth behind the past and about her moving on, but we find ourselves caring less about whom she decides to move on with. This creates a somewhat uneven tone that carries throughout the film. It's not enough to hurt the movie, but it's still strong enough to leave a negative impression.

What mainly keeps Catch and Release afloat is the wonderful cast of characters, the performances that embody them, and the mostly smart and often very funny dialogue that they have. This is the rare film that treats the "best friend" characters not simply as advice givers or easy comic relief, but as real characters who get to be fully fleshed out and developed during the course of the film. Sam is dealing with some personal feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gray's fiance, which come to light a few days after the funeral, and Dennis has a few emotions that cause some problems for Gray. Their individual emotions and dramas ring true, helping the subplots flow naturally from the story itself, instead of feeling tacked on. And, as previously mentioned, even the character of Maureen is eventually able to rise above her initial obnoxious impression, and come across as being sympathetic. It's strange that these characters and their desires seem to be fleshed out so much better than Gray's efforts to move on with her life. It almost seems as if Grant became bored with the character of Gray once the dramatic part of her story was over, and decided to turn all of her attention to the secondary characters in the later half of the film. There's no denying that these characters deserve the attention the screenplay gives them, and they keep our interest when Gray's story starts to flounder.

Despite its very uneven tone, the film usually always manages to entertain thanks to some strong performances all around. Jennifer Garner is extremely sympathetic and likeable as Gray, as we can easily identify with her feelings and the situation she finds herself in. Even when she becomes a bit less interesting during the film's second half, Garner still manages to at least hold onto the nature of the character so that we don't forget why we liked her in the first place before the screenplay let her (and us) down. Timothy Olyphant as the new man in her life isn't nearly as interesting, mainly because we learn less about him. Regardless, he still has some good chemistry with Garner, and is easy to root for in his own way. In the supporting roles, the main stand out is Kevin Smith as the goofy, yet sweet-natured, Sam. Best known for directing and starring in his own series of raunchy slacker comedies such as Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy, Smith shows genuine charm from his opening scene and proves that he may still have what it takes to be a real actor outside of his own comedies. Juliette Lewis is also a find as Maureen, and gets to share a couple of great scenes both with Garner and Smith. A lesser actress probably would have played up the stranger qualities of the character, but Lewis is able to find the proper balance between strangeness and humanity that avoids making the character an over the top cartoon portrayal.
I got the sense while watching Catch and Release that writer-director Susannah Grant was really on to something here, but still managed to lose her way from time to time. The movie is constantly flipping back and forth between material that works and material that does not. Still, the movie left me with a mostly positive reaction, even if the ending seemed a bit too pat and neatly tied together for its own good. Perhaps another rewrite was in order so that the character of Gray and her relationship with Fritz could be given the time and attention it needed to succeed. Whatever the case, Catch and Release is still able to rise above the curse of the movie that's been sitting on the shelf for far too long, and come across as a mostly pleasant diversion during the bleak winter months.


Blood and Chocolate

You can accuse me of being a dreamer if you want. I just naturally assumed walking into a movie titled Blood and Chocolate that the film itself couldn't be as stupid as its title. Wishful thinking on my part, I suppose. I mean, with a title like that, I kept on envisioning the movie was to be about a disgruntled employee at the Hershey chocolate factory who goes on a shooting spree. The movie, however, is about werewolves. Not just any werewolves, but werewolves who like to jump around a lot like frickin' acrobats, stand around in bars, look moody and depressed a lot, and karate fight. There's very little chocolate to be found in this movie, and thanks to the film's PG-13 rating, even less blood. On the whole, the film disappoints, not even wanting to live up to its title. Theater goers should demand a refund after seeing this, and the filmmakers should issue an apology.

Our heroine is Vivian (Agnes Bruckner), a lonely young werewolf girl who has been living in Romania ever since her family (also werewolves) were killed by humans in the U.S. There are apparently a lot of werewolves running around, and they like to hang out in bars, picking up women, and gather in a forest where there are a lot of torches, and their leader, Gabriel (Olivier Martinez) rants and raves about how humans are inferior to their kind. One day, Vivian happens to meet a human named Aiden (Hugh Dancy). He's a comic book artist who just happens to be doing a story guessed it...werewolves. The two spark a shy, secret romance because Vivian doesn't want her werewolf brothers and adoptive family to know she's fallen in love with a human. Of course, they eventually do find out, and they are not happy. Aiden eventually finds out about Vivian's secret as well, and doesn't seem nearly as concerned as I think he should be considering he found out his girlfriend can turn into a four-legged carnivorous animal at will. (Maybe I'm out of the loop, but I would think most men would consider that a turn off in a relationship.) With the werewolves hot on their trail, Vivian and Aiden fight for survival and their love as they try to escape from Romania alive.

Head screenwriter Ehren Kruger certainly is no stranger to films with horror themes, having penned such films as The Ring, The Skeleton Key, and Scream 3. Perhaps that's why it's so strange that despite its horror undertones, Blood and Chocolate is completely tame and lacking the very slightest of thrills and excitement. Instead, Kruger and co-writer Christopher Landon have delivered some sort of bizarre werewolf love triangle melodrama. We're supposed to be enthralled by Vivian and her quest to create her own destiny with Aiden, instead of the pre-determined destiny that her werewolf peers have created for her. This is all but impossible, mainly due to the fact that the movie never clues us in on the ways of the werewolf society or their ways. They keep on talking about how the head wolf Gabriel might possibly take Vivian as a wife, or how the werewolves have big plans to change the world. Neither of these plot points are remotely touched upon, and if they are, they're done so vaguely that the audience is left to fill in the blanks. Same goes for the relationship between Vivian and Aiden, which pretty much builds during a two minute music montage as they goof around the city and lie in the grass, looking dreamily at each other. Because we never truly get to know these characters, we never understand why their love for each other is so deep that they are willing to risk their lives for one another. Characters who are barely developed come and go as the screenplay sees fit (such as Vivian's Aunt), and nobody manages to make even the slightest bit of an impression. This is one of those movies where I remember most of the characters having names, but I'll be damned if I can remember what they were, and I don't think I'll be crying over not being able to remember anything about this movie.

The storyline is loopy enough in itself, but German filmmaker Katja von Garnier (making her US film debut) decides to make it harder to follow with some slapdash editing. Scenes start rather abruptly, and end even more so. Everything has been filmed with the subtlety of a rock music video, with lots of stunt doubles running up walls and leaping through the air as if they were ballet dancers who learned how to defy the laws of gravity. And many of the scenes set at night are so murky and dimly lit that it gives the film a rather drab quality to most of its sequences. That really is too bad, because the day time shots and the exterior scenes filmed in Romania are actually quite beautiful, and are probably the film's sole highlight. Since there was very little going on with the plot or the characters, I often found myself admiring the backgrounds, and wishing I could see those places in person. When the movie's not allowing us to admire the setting, there's very little else to admire. From the lame dialogue to the underwhelming performances, this movie seems to be on some kind of strange quest to suck out any sort of entertainment the premise might have provided had competent people been behind it.

Speaking of the performances, who were the ones that told Agnes Bruckner and Hugh Dancy that they had good romantic chemistry together? The two never come across as being interesting as a couple. Part of this comes from the screenplay that refuses to clue us in on the attraction they share, and part of it comes from the fact that they are just not believable as a couple. There is no passion when they kiss or embrace, and most of the time, they seem to actually be wishing as if they were with someone else. We never buy their love for a second, and the movie fails largely because of that, since it is supposed to be what drives the main plot. Not that everyone else is much better. The werewolves, except for Gabriel, all look like rejects from a boy band, and come across as being about as menacing as one too. They simply glare menacingly at Vivian and Aiden, or they jump around as if they had kangaroos in their blood instead of wolf. There are a lot of side characters who pop up now and then, but don't really play any part of the story. There's a woman who runs the chocolate shop where Vivian works (hence the chocolate part of the title, I'm assuming), but I don't think she even had any real dialogue. Late in the film, a crazed pharmacist shows up, bulges his eyes practically out of his own sockets to show just how crazy he is, and then disappears shortly afterward. The movie keeps on tossing these throwaway characters at us one after another that we stop even trying to keep track of who's who.
Blood and Chocolate is based on a novel by Annette Curtis Klause, and apparently has a loyal fanbase. Checking the film's message board on the IMDB, a lot of the fans are upset with some major changes that the movie made. I will most likely never learn what these changes are, as I have no desire to enlighten myself on the literary adventures of Vivian and Aiden. Rather, I will choose to take the word of the fans and mark this off as a failed adaptation, and that there is a story worth telling in the shambles that is this movie. Movies about werewolves and monsters used to be fun, but now they're trying to mimic bad teen soap operas with this film. Where's Lon Chaney, Jr. when you need him?


Friday, January 26, 2007

Epic Movie

If last year's Date Movie was not enough to convince you that filmmakers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have no clue when it comes to successful parody, then their latest offering, Epic Movie, should prove beyond all reasonable doubt that they have no place behind the camera. A supposed parody of blockbuster films, the movie suffers from the same problems that plagued their last outing, in that they confuse cramming as many references they can into an 80 minute long movie for humor. It's not funny to just simply see references to Borat or Star Wars in your movie, you have to give them something actually funny to do. The screenplay by the directors can't figure that out, so the laughs never come. You'll recall that Date Movie wound up on my worst films of 2006 list. Don't be surprised if Epic Movie makes an appearance at the end of 2007.

The film tells the story of four young orphans who are united by a common destiny. Ditzy Lucy (Jayma Mays) was raised by a museum curator until he was murdered by a mysterious albino, and she was forced to follow some hidden clues in the Mona Lisa to lead her to destiny. Edward (Kal Penn) was raised in a Mexican orphanage, and dreams of becoming a Mexican wrestler. Susan (Faune A. Chambers) was on a flight to meet her new adoptive parents until the plane was attacked by snakes. And Peter (Adam Campbell) was a social outcast at a school for mutants, who could never get respect or a date from the sexy blue-skinned Mystique (Carmen Electra). The four come together when they find Golden Tickets to take a personal guided tour of the legendary chocolate factory owned by the eccentric and deranged Willy Wonka (Crispin Glover). When they learn that Wonka has devious plans for them (he wants to use their body parts in his candy), they run off and hide, discovering an antique wardrobe in the middle of a dusty old room. Stepping into the wardrobe, they discover the mystical land of Gnarnia, which is currently set in an eternal winter under the rule of the evil White Bitch (Jennifer Coolidge). The four orphans must accept their destiny as the future saviors and rulers of Gnarnia, seek out the half man-half lion Aslo (Fred Willard), and discover the power within themselves to become heroes.

In creating Epic Movie, Friedberg and Seltzer seem to be heavily inspired by the old Mad Magazine movie parodies that used to fill countless visual gags in just about every panel of the comic. The difference is that the Mad parodies knew how to use their references in a funny way, and how to tie them into the story. This movie seems like a bunch of random images from other movies mixed into a blender, a couple fart and urine jokes added for good measure, and slapped together with little care for humor or coherency. The fact that the evil White Bitch has Imperial Stormtroopers in her army, or that the heroes have James Bond and Chewbacca standing next to each other in their army, is not enough. The movie constantly misses the point time and time again, and unless you are easily amused, the movie's running time will tick by all so slowly as gag after tired gag sputters and dies right up there on the screen. When the movie's not missing the point, it's overshooting its own targets. A good example is when the heroic orphans meet up with Harry Potter who trains them in magic and sword fighting. In this film, the character is portrayed by comic actor Kevin McDonald as an impish middle aged man who claims to only be 14-years-old. I guess the filmmakers are trying to say that the kids in the Harry Potter films look too old to be playing their characters. But, I don't remember anyone ever complaining about the actors looking too old for their characters. The joke falls completely on its face because when you stop and think about it, it's not really even parodying anything in the first place. They go to extremes for laughs, and still end up coming up short.

The movie also can't seem to make up its mind as to what it wants to parody, as many of the films referenced in Epic Movie would never be considered "epic" by any stretch of the imagination. How far off the mark do you have to be to put references to movies like Nacho Libre and Talladega Nights in your parody of big budget films? It even goes so low as to throw in some jabs at MTV shows such as Cribs and Punk'd that are not funny and never really manage to go anywhere in particular. They're just there for the sake of being there. The movie is further padded by a couple of scenes where the characters suddenly break into rap numbers that are not even remotely amusing, and left most of the audience I was in attendance with staring blankly at the screen. (Though, to be fair, they were laughing quite a bit at the rest of the film, which really made me question if they were watching a different movie than I was.) The film is directionless and sloppy, throwing darts at random targets, not really caring what it hits. I will admit, there is one time that I smiled during the film, and that was during the fight scene between Aslo and the evil Albino. The sight of the obvious and intentional stunt double for Aslo made me grin, but not much more than that. You can tell that I was desperate to find anything resembling amusement if I consider that the sole highlight. Everything else the movie tried to pass as humor left me feeling very sad and depressed.
I have no doubt that Epic Movie will find its audience with easily amused teenagers and kids, as well as those who still consider tired pratfalls and extended gags about yellow snow the pinnacle of humor. Everyone else would be well advised to stay home. When I go see a movie like this, I just want to laugh and have a good time. I tried my best to push the memories of Date Movie out of my head, and hope that they could do it right this time. After all, blockbuster films are an easier target than romantic comedies. It would seem that even the most obvious of targets can still slip through when the talent behind the camera is so limited. I seem to remember reading somewhere that the filmmaking duo of Friedberg and Seltzer next want to do a biography film about the life of Liberace. It remains to be seen if they can screw up that genre as much as they did the parody film.


Friday, January 19, 2007

The Hitcher

Even after seeing it, I'm still not entirely sold on the idea that the world needed a remake of The Hitcher, a cult classic thriller from 20 years ago. Yet, I have to admit, this version turned out a lot better than I initially thought it would. A lot of this has to do with director Dave Meyers' decision to keep the action fairly tense and tight throughout. Even though Meyers is best known for his music video work, he does not rely on fancy camera tricks and gimmicks to tell his story. He keeps things fairly simple and appropriately fast-paced. Though no one will ever mistake it for art, The Hitcher at least knows how to keep the audience's interest.

When college sweethearts Jim (Zachary Knighton) and Grace (Sophia Bush from John Tucker Must Die and Stay Alive) set out on their Spring Break road trip, they have no idea what's in store for them when they come across mysterious stranded drifter, John Ryder (Sean Bean). They initially pass by him when they find him stranded in the middle of the road with a dead car, but when they run into him again at a convenience store a little bit down the road, they make the unwise decision to give the guy a lift to a nearby motel. John quickly reveals his true intentions when he pulls a knife on the couple as they're driving, and even though they are able to lose him by kicking him out the car door, they quickly find that this man is strangely persistent in pursuing them. Numerous murders begin to pop up as this mysterious psychopath tracks the couple down, and both Jim and Grace find themselves fighting for their lives and dodging the police as the bodies pile up. Meanwhile, John Ryder continues his seemingly single-minded mission to destroy their lives for reasons they don't even understand.

Clocking in at a very brief 83 minutes, The Hitcher certainly knows how to keep things moving. That is one of the strong suits of the film. Once the character of John Ryder is introduced, it very seldom if ever slows down. The movie is appropriately tense and fast-paced, and although it's not always entirely plausible, the movie remains entertaining throughout. A lot of this has to do with the way the screenplay by Jake Wade Wall (last year's remake of When a Stranger Calls) and Eric Bernt handles the character of John Ryder. The movie keeps his entire character a mystery, never once explaining a single thing about him. This works for this material, because it makes the character appropriately chilling and dangerous that we never fully understand his relentless pursuit of the young couple, just like the heroes. We don't get a prolonged "origin" scene that explains the nature of Ryder to slow the action down, nor do we get a scene where the character spells out his motives and intentions to the characters and the audience. The character of Ryder is kept mostly silent, speaking only when spoken to. He is an interesting character, as he remains a complete enigma to the audience throughout the film. It's certainly nice for once to have a movie psycho who doesn't spew out one liners and clever quips just as quickly as he slits throats. His silence makes him all the more chilling, as we never get a chance to truly understand him, which allows us to sympathize with the situation of the two heroes a bit more than we would in a lesser screenplay that would have over-explained its villain.

For the most part, The Hitcher keeps things fairly simple. It is a cat and mouse game where only the hunter knows why the hunted are being pursued. It is when the movie tries to pile on the gore that things cheapen quite a bit. Instead of shocking, the violence in this film seems rather exploitive and overly manipulative. A good example is a scene where Jim and Grace come upon a discarded car containing a slaughtered Christian family that had the misfortune of also picking up the mysterious John Ryder. As the two heroes gaze upon the remains of a murdered child in the backseat, the camera focuses on a blood-splattered children's storybook with a title that asks "will I get into Heaven"? I personally found this rather tasteless. The image of the murdered family was enough, this "shock" image was a bit much. Also pointless is the film's opening shot where a rabbit makes his way across a desert road, only to get run over by a speeding car. It certainly doesn't help that many of the film's more violent moments are also its most implausible. I don't care how silent of a killer John Ryder is, there's no way he should be able to wipe out an entire small town police station seemingly in under two minutes without the two heroes (who are in captivity in the station) hearing a single sound. And you'd think someone would notice the guy chaining up an innocent victim between two massive semis outside of what seems to be a heavily populated motel and rest stop area. And, like a lot of movie killers, John Ryder has somehow mastered the art of teleportation, able to pop up whenever the movie requires a jump scare, and grab someone from off camera. While the movie mostly aims for the more tense and exciting chase and hunt theme, it can't be denied that it suffers whenever it tries to shock us with graphic gore.

No matter how silly the film got, it remained mainly in my favor thanks to a chilling performance by Sean Bean. His steel-eyed gaze, twisted slight smile, and relentless nature certainly fits the character to a tee, and remains appropriately menacing throughout. His performance provides the film with most of its successfully tense tone, and he is succeeds at never cluing us in on what the character is supposed to be thinking. In the two lead roles, Zachary Knighton and Sophia Bush are passable, but not much more than that. The most noteworthy thing about Knighton is that he at times somewhat physically resembles Matthew Lillard's portrayal of Shaggy in the live action Scooby-Doo films. As for Sophia Bush, she gets more than her share of laughable lines (she seems to like to announce to everyone that she has a gun instead of actually using it), but she at least never becomes so annoying that you're rooting for the killer to put an end to her character. In a movie such as this, I guess that's all you can ask for in your leading heroine.
Even though I believe the original film did this story better, there's no denying that this remake is more effective than it probably has any right to be. The Hitcher is well-made throughout, and even has an effective soundtrack that underscores the action and keeps things moving. If the film had not tried so hard to shock us with its own violence, it probably would have been even more effective. As it is, The Hitcher at least manages to stay afloat. That's a lot more than I can say for some other recent horror remakes. I'll be surprised if anyone remembers this movie when the end of the year rolls around, but at least I won't remember it as being a total waste of time.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Alpha Dog

Here is a movie that wants to shock and disturb us. And it certainly does, but not for anything that happens on screen. Alpha Dog takes the possibly interesting true crime story of Jesse James Hollywood, the youngest man ever to be featured on the F.B.I.'s Most Wanted List, and turns it into an aimless, meandering, and plotless mess of a spectacle. Writer-director Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) wants to tell a story of overly privileged California teens who do terrible things to themselves and each other. The problem here is that he spends all of his time on the lifestyle, and no time whatsoever on story and character development. Instead of shocking us with the story, the only thing that ends up shocking is how anyone could have taken such strong material, and turned it into such a boring chore to sit through.

Since the real life criminal is currently awaiting trial, the filmmakers were forced to change the name of Jesse James Hollywood to Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch from Lords of Dogtown). At the age of only 18, Johnny has already become a notorious drug dealer, and is living the high life in his luxurious California home. Trouble arises when one of his friends, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster from X-Men III) can't come up with the money he owes Johnny. A violent personal war begins to brew between the two, which leads to Johnny kidnaping Jake's 15-year-old younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) when he sees the kid walking down the street alone while driving in his van with his two friends, Frankie (Justin Timberlake) and Tiko (Fernando Vargas). It turns out that Zack had run away from home after an argument with his parents (David Thornton and Sharon Stone), and finds the fast-living, drug-fueled, sex-charged lifestyle of Johnny and his friends more to his liking than the pampered suburban existence that he's used to. While Zack is enjoying his "kidnaping", Johnny is becoming increasingly fearful, especially since he could be facing life in prison if this situation blows up in his face. As Johnny becomes more desperate for a way out, he begins to consider just about every option, even murder.

Having sat on the studio's shelf for well over a year, Alpha Dog has all the markings of a movie that wasn't ready to be released. The storyline is practically non-existent, the characters are stiff and wooden, and the dialogue is an unmemorable and sometimes laughably bad string of obscenities where the actors use the F-word so much, you'd think they were being paid extra each time they slipped it into their dialogue. For a movie based on a true story, it tells us absolutely nothing about the people involved. We learn absolutely nothing about "Johnny", and how he became such a powerful drug dealer at such a young age. We learn nothing about his friends, or why they respect him or even why they put up with his verbal and physical abuse that he displays numerous times. We learn nothing about young Zack, and why he seemed so drawn to the life of his older brother. The movie instead wastes most of its running time on an endless series of drug parties, sex binges, and the actors sitting around, acting stoned, and screaming obscenities at each other. The movie never goes anywhere interesting, and when it seems to finally be going somewhere, it goes right back to where it was before. The characters are a faceless sea of people who wander in and out of the movie at random. For some reason, the film decides to inform us when a person who will be used as a witness in the trial happens to walk into the movie by displaying a subtitle underneath them. This ultimately proves to be pointless, as the trial itself plays absolutely no part whatsoever in the movie itself, nor will any of these "witnesses" ever be seen again. So, what was the point? We're left to simply sit around, waiting for something to happen, and it never does. Surprisingly, the film decided it should rob two hours of your life telling no story whatsoever. Just about any respectable filmmaker could have used those hours to make a very interesting movie out of this material. Cassavetes wastes no opportunity to screw it up.

The movie tries to take our mind off the fact that there's nothing going on up there on the screen with a lot of needless flash and fancy edits, such as split screen and a number of "documentary" sequences where the actors sit and talk to an off camera filmmaker, talking about the events of Johnny's life. These sequences are extremely pointless, as not only do they senselessly cut into the narrative, but they give us no additional information on the characters or the roles they play. A good example is Johnny's father, Sonny, who supposedly supplied his son's drug business and even helped him avoid the police for a while when things turned bad. For playing a somewhat large role in the story, Sonny barely even registers as a player in the overall plot of the film. Yet, for some reason, a majority of the interview sequences are focused on him. This is most likely because Sonny is played in this film by Bruce Willis, and if it were not for these sequences, he'd have maybe five minutes of screentime in the entire film. A later sequence where they "interview" Sharon Stone as Zack's mother is almost laughable, thanks to the unconvincing fat suit and make up that she is forced to wear to show how her character has changed since the events of the story. I must ask why these sequences are even here, since the movie is not the least bit interested in its characters. They only pad out the running time, and fool us into thinking there's a point to all this. Then again, I question whether these characters would be worth our attention, since a lot of them seem incredibly stupid. Not only does the reasoning of what to do with Zack seem more than a little off, but Johnny and his friends don't seem to have a single clue in the world, which is odd considering that these guys are supposed to be powerful criminals. Perhaps in the end, Alpha Dog is doing us a service by keeping us at a distance from these characters, as nobody who walks into this movie looked like someone I'd want to spend two hours hearing about.

The performances that tell this undernourished morality tale are a mixed bag from the passable to the downright scene-chewingly comical. Former boy band member, Justin Timberlake, comes across the best, as he is actually able to have some emotional scenes with young Zack as the two build somewhat of a friendship together. It's a shame the movie does not go deeper into their relationship, or into the dilemma he faces near the end, as he's the only one who gets a chance to create something of a real character. As the notorious Johnny Truelove, Emile Hirsch barely even registers. Yeah, he looks appropriately slimy and hateful, but there is nothing really there to his performance. In the scene-chewingly comical category, the lead candidate is Ben Foster as Zack's meth-addicted older brother. He screams and rants and raves through most of his dialogue, but never really plays any real role. The fact that his character completely disappears half-way through the movie doesn't help matters. The rest of the cast is mainly an interchangeable sea of unrecognizable faces, and that includes young Anton Yelchin as Zack, which is too bad as it really hurts the poignant mood that his final scene tries so hard to achieve. The adult co-stars such as Bruce Willis, Sharon Stone and Harry Dean Stanton as a dirty-minded old man who hangs out with Sonny are mere cameos, and barely have time to leave anything resembling an impression, let alone create a real performance.
Alpha Dog is just terrible filmmaking all around. It takes a workable idea, and then decides to waste every minute it has to spend talking about it. Although it's competently made, you get the feeling that you're looking at a lot of well-made nothing. No emotions are stirred, no feelings are brought forth, nothing is said, and in the end, we all feel like we've wasted our time. Everyone obviously made an effort, but that's hard to commend when the final result winds up being so little. Alpha Dog left me feeling empty and sad. Not because of what happens to the characters, but because I saw a lot of wasted potential. Life is too short for movies that give us nothing, and that's exactly what this film has to offer.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Freedom Writers

For an early January release that covers well-tread territory, Freedom Writers is surprisingly effective in a lot of ways. It's well made, it contains a bright cast of young newcomers, and it definitely has a couple moments that successfully pluck the heart strings. For everything it does right, the film still cannot escape the entire sense that we've seen it all before, nor can it escape the fact that everything seems all too neat and pat in the end. The movie overly glorifies its lead heroine, whereas her opposition are portrayed in such a negative light that the movie hardly seems to be playing fair. While the film is admirable, it just can't come together into a completely satisfying whole.

When spunky new teacher Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) enters Woodrow Wilson High School to teach Freshman and Sophmore English, she has no true idea what she's in for. Located in Long Beach, the local area is still feeling the after effects of the 92 Rodney King verdict when Erin enters the school in the fall of 94. She quickly learns that the students separate themselves, mainly staying with their own ethnic groups, and view one another as the enemy in a senseless gang war that carries from the streets into the classroom. Erin knows she could open some eyes if she had the proper resources, but no one at the school believes in the students or in her ideas. She decides to take matters into her own hands, taking various part time jobs to purchase proper English books and field trips to help her students realize that they are not alone in the pain they are experiencing. She also helps the students express their hopes, fears, and dreams by instituting a journal entry assignment that each student must fulfill, writing about their daily lives or their feelings. The writings and the class environment inspire the students to do more than they thought possible, and help them realize that despite their different backgrounds and ethnicity, they are very much the same.

Freedom Writers tells a story that has been told numerous times, but at least it tells it somewhat better than the norm. That's because writer-director Richard LaGravanese takes a somewhat honest and gritty approach to the material. While the movie has more than its share of inspirational heart-tugging moments, the movie never feels overly sappy or manipulative. The movie never shies away from the violence or sadness, which surprised me considering that the film has been given a PG-13 rating, which initially led me to think the film would be whitewashed for public consumption. Though there is always a glimmer of hope, the film wisely does not completely forget about where the students come from or the world around them. We get a true sense of the struggles, not just of the children, but of Erin herself, whose ideas make her stand out amongst the rest of the school's faculty and even her family, who feel she is spending too much time with children who have no future. It is because of the film's somewhat harsh tone that makes the uplifting moments actually uplifting. We feel like the characters have earned them. When the students read The Diary of Anne Frank and actually manage to meet the real life Miep Gies (the woman who hid the Frank family, who is portrayed in this film by Pat Carroll), it is a touching and powerful moment, not only because of what the meeting means to the students, but because of what they go through to make the meeting a reality. It is also touching when we hear the words of the students that they write in their journals. Not only because we hear the actors reciting the actual words of the real-life students, but because the film is able to present their words to us through voice overs or semi-fantasy sequences where we see the students standing in a spotlight, reciting their words to us. The students are not just urban cliches, but three dimensional characters, and these sequences help flesh them out. Compare this to the one-note jive-talking puppets that populate the terrible Stomp the Yard.

While the film reaches beyond the norms of the genre's cliches in many ways, it can't help but fall into a few traps. This is what ultimately holds Freedom Writers back from being an all-out success. While Erin and her students are handled in a somewhat realistic and three dimensional light, everyone outside of the classroom seem to be jerks who are so narrow-minded they're almost laughable. The entire faculty staff of the high school stand against Erin no matter what she does, what she proves, or what she tells them. It's almost as if they've been pre-programmed to agree against anything she says, and do so in such a way that it comes across as forced. These characters are portrayed as stuck up villains who won't hear a single thing Erin or her students have to say. If these characters were portrayed in a somewhat more realistic light, or at least if we got to know a bit more about them, their fears or why they have such a hard time believing Erin and her students can succeed, it would have been a bit easier to swallow. Instead, they are portrayed as melodramatic villains that the audience is supposed to boo and hiss each time they walk onto the screen. Even Erin's family (consisting of her husband, played by Patrick Dempsey, and her father, portrayed by Scott Glenn) seem strangely against everything Erin tries to do without even trying to understand, at least until near the end, when the father gives her an encouraging speech that seems tacked on considering everything that came before this scene. Erin also comes across as a bit too good. She's always got a sunny disposition and outlook on life, she's got this can-do spirit that's so strong I highly doubt anything could break it, and I really think the movie tries too hard to overly-sanctify her to the point that she sometimes doesn't seem like a real person. I don't know, maybe I'm wrong, and the real-life Erin Gruwell is actually like this. If she is, I'd like to know her secret as to how she stays so positive all the time, as the way Swank plays her, she's practically a ray of sunshine in human form.

Despite the somewhat unbalanced characterizations, everyone is obviously doing the best they can. Hilary Swank's portrayal may be a bit too sunny and cheerful at times, but she never rings so false that we don't like her. She gets a couple good dramatic moments where she drops the sunny disposition, and actually gets to show some emotion. These scenes are when her performance is at its best, and she truly grabs our attention. The film has also gathered together a very good youth ensemble to play the students. While a few of them look a bit old to be high school freshman, it doesn't come across as being too awkward, so we're not constantly concentrating at how out of place the "students" seem. The main stand out amongst the students is former stand up comic April L Hernandez as troubled student Eva. She acts as the central narrator amongst the students, and her subplot about how she is torn between pride for her people and her new awakening to the world around her makes for some interesting dramatic moments throughout the film. The supporting cast outside of the classroom are mainly given thankless and underdeveloped roles, but they at least give it their all, and never come across as if they know they're stuck in a one-note role.
When all is said and done, Freedom Writers is a step above the norm in the slew of "eager young teacher inspires a group of angry inner-city school kids" films that Hollywood turns out every year. It probably could have gone even further with a screenplay that wasn't so one-sided. There's a lot of stuff to like here. The performances are sound, its well-directed, and the movie doesn't go for cheap sentiments and instead tries to earn the audience's admiration. Maybe it needed another rewrite or two for it to completely break free and join the best entries in the genre, such as Stand and Deliver. As it is, Freedom Writers will have to settle for being a very good effort that comes just short of being great.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Arthur and the Invisibles

There's a very cute family film hidden somewhere here. Unfortunately, it's surrounded by the overly loud and chaotic movie that is Arthur and the Invisibles. In adapting his own series of children stories to the big screen, French filmmaker Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element) initially entices us with a story of magic and discovery, only to pull the rug out from under us, and reveal that his true intentions are to make a thrill-packed video game of a movie that will only appeal to very hyperactive children under the age of 10. Here is a movie that promises magic and wonder, and ends up only giving us a lot of excessive and pointless flash, and some horribly miscast celebrity voices.

Arthur, the film's title hero, is a 10-year-old boy portrayed in this film by Freddie Highmore from Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Arthur lives alone with his grandmother (Mia Farrow) while his parents are away in "the city" looking for jobs, as apparently times are tough for the small boy's family. The kid has a grandfather too (Ron Crawford), who was a great explorer and adventurer until he mysteriously disappeared a couple years ago. Arthur is fascinated by the stories of discovery his grandfather left behind in his personal journal, particularly the stories of a civilization of microscopic elf-like creatures he discovered during his travels called the Minimoys. Supposedly, there are numerous riddles and clues hidden within the writings of the journal that can help Arthur discover the way to the world of the Minimoys. The lad is determined to find this world, as it is rumored they are holding some priceless rubies that his grandfather hid and left behind years ago. With grandmother's house about to be foreclosed in just a couple days, those rubies could help pay off the greedy and evil people who are bullying poor grandma.

Being the resourceful and bright boy he is, Arthur cracks all of grandfather's riddles in the course of one night, and eventurally finds the gateway to the world of the Minimoys. It seems that these creatures make their home in the backyard of his grandmother's house, so if the evil developers have their way, the yard surrounding the house will be covered with concrete and the creatures will die. When Arthur transports himself into Minimoy world, he is shrunk and turned into one of the tiny creatures. He meets up with the wise King of the Minimoy people (voice by Robert De Niro), along with his spirited and headstrong daughter Princess Selenia (voice by Madonna, of all people), and her cowardly younger brother Prince Betameche (voice by Jimmy Fallon). The tiny creatures agree to help Arthur, but the problem is that his grandfather's rubies are being held by an evil creature who is trying to destroy their kingdom named Maltazard (voice by David Bowie). Arthur will have to come along on the Princess' quest to venture into Maltazard's domain in order to defeat the tyrant if he wants to get his hands on the rubies and have a chance to save his grandmother's home.

If the movie itself were as simple and easy to follow as the above synopsis, then Arthur and the Invisibles could have been a fun little family film. Unfortunately, the chaotic screenplay by director Luc Besson and co-writer Celine Garcia makes it all but impossible as very little in this movie makes sense, not even the title. The Minimoy people are very tiny, not invisible, so why they are referred to as "the Invisibles" in the title makes no sense at all, especially provided that the film's original title when it was released in France last year was "Arthur and the Minimoys". Did that title just make too much sense to MGM and The Weinstein Company when they bought the US rights to the film? If the title were the only thing not to make any sense, I could look past it, but there's so much here that the movie doesn't bother to explain. Where did those large African natives who suddenly pop up to guide Arthur to the gateway to the Minimoys come from? What is up with the sword stuck in the stone that Arthur and the Princess try to remove mere seconds after meeting each other? What was the point of the scene concerning those supposedly drugged up Rastafarian Minimoy creatures whose voices are provided by rapper Snoop Dogg and comic Anthony Anderson? Arthur moves at such a frantic pace that it has very no time at all to slow down and tell us just what we're supposed to be looking at. We eventurally start to feel like we're stuck in an endless video game with CG cartoon characters running around in every direction, fighting with each other, and we're stuck in the middle of it all with no idea how we got there or what anything has to do with what we're seeing.

If the movie were to slow down and let us admire the visuals, we might find something to like here. The world of the Minimoys is quite an attractive place, and it is brought to wonderous life by some richly detailed artwork created by an animation studio that Luc Besson built from the ground up for this film. While the Minimoys themselves kind of look like the distant relatives of those horrid Troll Dolls that were so popular years ago, the movie itself has an attractive fantasy vibe that appealed to me. The visual splendor of the animated world of the Minimoys is cheapened considerably however by some terrible voice casting choices for the English dub of the movie. You know your cast is bad when Madonna, a name not exactly associated with fine performances, comes across the best. Did I mention that Madonna does the voice of a teenage Princess who happens to get a crush on a 10-year-old boy? That's not exactly the kind of image I want going through my head while watching a family film. Regardless, the bizarre casting doesn't stop there. How about Emilio Estevez in a cameo as the voice of a grumpy old man who controls the gateways between Arthur's world and the Minimoys? Or how about Harvey Keitel in a thankless role as the voice of the King's assistant? Most of the big names listed in the cast seem to be simply cashing a paycheck, and are limited to bit parts that barely register. Why bother casting an actor like Robert De Niro if you're not even going to use him? Anyone could have done the voice of the King of the Minimoys, and it wouldn't have changed a thing. The only performance that registers as actually being fun is David Bowie as the main villain, and that's only because his performance brings back memories of his villain performance in the 80s fantasy film, Labyrinth.
I admit, I started out liking this film when it was set in Arthur's real world. There was a certain charm and a sense of mystery and adventure that only the best family films have. I smiled quite a lot during the film's opening moments. Then Arthur enters the animated world of the Minimoys, and the movie gradually lost me to the point that I just wanted the thing to be over with. Arthur and the Invisibles starts out with so much promise, only to betray every bit of promise it may have once held. Very young children may like it, but the movie is just too silly and lacking sense to appeal to anyone else. The only impression this movie will leave on adults are mental images of Madonna hitting on little boys.

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Stomp the Yard

Movies like Stomp the Yard are a dime a dozen, and quite frankly, everyone involved with this project got paid too much to make the same kind of movie we've seen one too many times before. I imagine this movie was not so much written, as it was the entire cast and crew gathered around a TV set, watched a whole bunch of teenage underdog movies, and then the director told the actors to recreate the scenes they just watched. There's not one single instant that we cannot see coming from a mile away, and not one single reason for us to care. Stomp the Yard has not a single thought in its empty head, other than to swindle some teens out of some money for a weekend or two, before it sits forgotten in the DVD bargain bins of video stores the nation over.

When we first meet our hero DJ (Columbus Short), he's just moved to Atlanta from L.A. after his brother is killed by some hoods in a dispute over money. In the film's opening scene, we learn that DJ and his brother were urban step dancers. But, since the tragedy, DJ's happy feet have grown sad, and he just doesn't feel like steppin' no more. Naturally, this new college that our hero has just started has two rival step dancing teams, both of them run by different fraternities on the campus. There is the "good team", who have not won a step competition in years, and then there is the "evil team", who is made entirely out of arrogant rich jerks, and have won the past seven competitions, and like to rub that fact in the faces of the good guys every chance they get. Both fraternities want DJ to join when they learn he has dancing skills, and there shall be no prizes given out for correctly guessing which side he will team up with. Naturally, the head dancer of the evil fraternity, a stuck up jerk named Grant (Darren Dewitt Henson), has a pretty young girlfriend whom DJ also falls for. The girl is named April (Meagan Good), and she realizes DJ is the right guy for her when she learns that DJ has figured out what her favorite color is all by himself, whereas the clueless and obviously heartless Grant has no idea, despite the fact they've been dating for years. April switches to DJ's side, and Grant decides to get his revenge by letting slip that DJ has a past criminal record before he came to Atlanta, hoping to get the guy suspended, so that he won't be able to guide his team to victory during the big step dancing competition that's coming up in just a few weeks.

There's really no point in recapping the plot of Stomp the Yard, since the plot serves no purpose other than to act as an excuse to have the actors stand around and pretend there's a point to this movie. It gets even funnier when the film starts to resemble a bad soap opera, and various twists and turns, as well as long-buried secrets of the past start popping up out of left field. The movie trots out so many plot cliches and overused character types, you'd think they were going out of style. Is the evil fraternity going to try to cheat by secretly videotaping DJ's dance moves so they can study them and pass them off as their own? That's kind of like asking if the sun is going to rise in the East tomorrow. Will there be some kind of last minute revelation that will save DJ from the fate of being suspended from school so that he can show up at the last minute of the dance competition and blow everyone away with his amazing skills? If you consider that last sentence a spoiler, you seriously need to get out of the house more often. Will the two teams be forced to go against one another in a "thrilling" tie breaker dance off? Okay, seriously, I'm running out of answers to these questions. You've seen all of this before, you know you've seen all of this before, and I have no idea why anyone involved with this project thought we would want to see them again. The film cannot be bothered to try anything remotely new or interesting, and simply goes through the pre-required motions that have been set in stone somewhere in Hollywood, and act as some kind of sacred law for every hack screenwriter trying to get their big break in the industry.

Then again, it would certainly help if we could see the action. I tend to enjoy movies more when they are in focus, not constantly shaking and jumping around, and look like they've been shot by someone who knows what they're doing. Clearly director Sylvain White does not agree, as he shoots many of the scenes in such a rapid fire music video style that it can be almost headache-inducing. When he's not jerking the camera around in a spastic motion that really gives the audience the sensation that they are watching the movie while suffering from a seizure episode, the camera will shake a little bit as if whoever is shooting the picture just couldn't get a firm handle on the camera equipment. The film's opening dance off scene literally had me scratching my head as to what I was supposed to be watching, or who was who, as the sequence is so confusingly shot. Things do improve during the big climax, but by then, it's way too late for you to care. Even if the direction and camerawork were sound, I seriously doubt there'd be much worth watching. The characters and the accompanying performances are strictly average in every sense of the word. The characters fall into the expected archetypes (the comical best friend/roommate, the caring yet tough parental figures for DJ, the stuck up father for main girl April, who doesn't want his daughter dating a "thug" like DJ), and the actors seem to know it, so they give just enough effort to make it look like they're trying, but not much more than that.
There's not really a whole lot to say about Stomp the Yard. It exists solely to show off some dance routines, and not much more than that. In order for a movie such as this to work, we have to care about the characters as well, and this movie gives us absolutely no reason to do just that. I can only hope the careers of everyone involved can reach a point so that they can laugh and move on when a project like this crosses their path. Something tells me a movie like this is not a good start to such a career. The best kind of films make us feel something when we walk out of the theater. By the time Stomp the Yard was over, the way I felt would be comparable to if I had just spent the past two hours staring at a wall.

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Friday, January 12, 2007


When judged solely as a musical experience, Dreamgirls is a highly energetic show stopper in every sense of the word. Problem is, massive amounts of pre-release hype has lifted this film up to a higher playing field - that of the prestigious "Award Movie". It is here that the film stands on slightly less solid ground. In adapting the 1981 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical to the big screen, writer-director Bill Condon (who is no stranger to bringing musicals to the screen, having penned the screenplay to 2002's Chicago movie), gives his film energy to spare thanks to some fantastically staged and performed musical numbers and a bright cast. If Dreamgirls were to make us care as much about its plot and its characters as it does its music, the movie would have been a complete grand slam.

The film chronicles the music career of three young black women in the early 60s who are struggling to make it as a musical act. The girls call themselves the Dreamettes, and include feisty and soulful lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), and the lovely back up singers Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose). After a strong performance at an amateur night talent search, they are approached by rising young music manager Curtis Taylor Jr (Jamie Foxx), who hires them on the spot as back up singers for established music artist, James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). The popularity of the girls eventually grows so enormous over the years, that Curtis is able to get them their own act without James, retitled The Dreams. Unfortunately, heavy-set lead singer Effie is pushed into the background, and finds the much more slender and more image friendly Deena promoted to lead singer, as Curtis feels the group will sell more albums with her in the front instead. The remainder of the film follows the turbulent rise of The Dreams through various hardships, clashes of egos and shady dealings behind the scenes, and the numerous trials of former lead singer Effie as she tries to create a career for herself after breaking away from the group, not wanting to be merely a background player.

For sheer musical entertainment, Dreamgirls delivers in spades as it accurately recreates the changing eras of music and times from the early 60s up to roughly the mid 70s. It does this through a vast amount of musical numbers that not only capture the style of music of the time period, but are genuinely tuneful and fun to listen to. The film follows your basic "Behind the Music" formula, and follows the career of The Dreams from their humble beginnings, up to their chart-topping peaks. The film works well as a time capsule chronicling the different music styles of the era, as we not only see the sound of The Dreams change from soulful R and B all the way to Disco, but we also see various other music groups as well that are modeled after actual bands such as The Jackson 5. The film's cast is more than willing and able to belt out the film's many show stopping numbers with appropriate gusto and passion that actually had many audience members at my screening applauding at the end of certain musical numbers, as if it were an actual stage production. The key musical stand out is Jennifer Hudson in her scene-stealing performance as Effie White. Not only does she have a commanding screen presence, but every time she sings, you literally cannot take your eyes off of her. Previously best known for her stint on the American Idol TV show, this movie is an absolutely perfect vehicle to display her amazing singing talents, that not only hold the audience in total attention, but truly convey the feelings of her character and the scene. A big surprise is how successful Eddie Murphy's songs come across. While it's true he had a short-lived recording career back in the 80s, here he perfectly nails the tone and pitch for each and every song he sings, as well as the choreography and stage persona of the womanizing and self-destructive James "Thunder" Early. Perhaps most surprising, however, is that the most established singer in the main cast, Beyonce Knowles, comes across as the least impressive. It's not that she's bad, and she certainly handles all of her numbers well. It's just compared to Jennifer Hudson, she never truly stands out.

When Dreamgirls is focusing on the music, the movie is a tremendous entertainment. Unfortunately, that pesky underdeveloped plot has to keep on sneaking in, making us wait for the next number to come along and pick things up again. This gives the film a highly uneven tone that keeps on switching back and forth from extreme highs to mediocre lows. There's nothing exactly wrong with the story in general, it's just nothing we haven't seen before hundreds of times before, and the movie doesn't spend enough time fleshing either it or the characters out. A majority of the film's running time is made up of the musical sequences, with only the bare minimum amount of dialogue in between to help move the story forward. This obviously causes the characters to suffer, as we never truly get a chance to know them outside of their stage personas. All throughout, the film is content to tell us as little as possible so that we can understand what's supposed to be happening, but not much more than that. Potentially interesting dramatic moments, such as Effie's gradual fall and rise into a solo career are simply glossed over, while a subplot concerning the secret relationship between James and Dreams member Lorell is never given enough time for the eventual outcome to hit as strong or as hard as I think the filmmakers intended. While these problems never hurt the overall entertainment value of the film, they do make you feel like you're not getting the entire story. When you compare the film's narrative to everything else, the difference is staggering. Everything is top of the line, you wonder why the screenplay didn't get the same amount of attention. It would seem that Bill Condon decided to stay too close to the stage production's original book, not venturing enough into the storyline to make us care about the characters as much as we should.

Perhaps the reason why the weak storytelling bothered me is because the characters seemed interesting and likeable, and the performances are lively and energetic. Once again, Jennifer Hudson takes center stage, since her character gets the most amount of screen time and development outside of the songs, giving her ample opportunity to give a memorable performance. As the other two members of The Dreams, Beyonce Knowles and Anika Noni Rose are serviceable, but not much more than that, since they're not given much to do in terms of dialogue or characters. Jamie Foxx gets to play against type as the conniving and scheming manager, but aside from a couple choice scenes, he too is surprisingly not developed deep enough for us to truly hate him as much as the movie seems to want us to. Aside from Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy gives the only other stand out performance, and that's because he finally gets to flex his acting talent after years of being stuck in mediocre family films and disappointing raunch comedies. Here, he gets to play an interesting and dramatic character, who is only short changed by the limited amount of screen time he gets in the movie itself, and how his character seems to keep on popping in and out of the movie at will. The film's ensemble cast also includes a good performance from Danny Glover in the small but important role as James' first manager, who winds up helping Effie getting back on her feet. Besides the strong performances, the film's visual style stands out in how it recreates the fashions and look of each individual era that the story covers.
If I seem to be stressing the negatives, I don't want to give the impression that Dreamgirls is a bad movie. It's highly entertaining on the surface level, there's just not a whole lot to grab our attention underneath. This is one of those films that pretty much requires that you see it in a theater with a crowd of people in order to fully enjoy it. Quite frankly, I can't see this movie working the same way at home on DVD. That being said, Dreamgirls is a fine little piece of imperfect entertainment, as long as you're not looking for substance. It may not stay with you after you've walked out of the theater, but you'll definitely remember having fun while it lasted.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Happily N'Ever After

According to the press notes for Happily N'Ever After, the film's entire production time from start to finish was 15 months, a record for an animated film. Given the final product that is playing on screens, I don't know if that would be something I'd be bragging about. Happily N'Ever After is yet another entry in the ever-growing number of "fairy tale spoof" computer animated films. The short amount of time the filmmakers spent on this thing definitely shows, due to the uninspired animation and character designs, the weak jokes, and the dull storytelling. It's a shame too, because the movie has a lot of good ideas that never get fully explored or even touched upon. If first-time director Paul J. Bolger had just spent some actual time on this thing, he might have been on to something.

The story is set in a mystical world of fairy tales that is ruled over by a gentle and all-seeing Wizard (voice by George Carlin). It is the Wizard's job to make sure that all the fairy tales play out the way they're supposed to. Apparently, in this world, the classic stories the characters are stuck in repeat in a continuous loop. Once the happy ending is achieved, the whole thing starts all over again. The Wizard keeps everything in balance with an all-seeing crystal ball monitor, and a magical scale that keeps the "good" and "evil" element in the fairy tales in balance. As the film opens, the Wizard has decided to take a vacation to Scotland to participate in a golf tournament, and leaves his two animal assistants, Mambo the cat (Andy Dick) and Munk the pig (Wallace Shawn), in charge of keeping things in order while he is gone. Poor Mambo is bored with how the fairy tale stories always end up the same way, and wishes that something exciting would happen to shake things up a bit. Little does the smart-mouthed feline realize he's about to get his wish, and then some.

Meanwhile, in the story of Cinderella, everything is going as is expected. Poor, put upon Ella (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is frequently verbally abused by her evil stepmother Frieda (Sigourney Weaver) and two wicked stepsisters. Ella wishes to go to the Royal Ball, and win the heart of the handsome and charming, yet dim-witted and arrogant Prince Humperdink (Patrick Warburton), little realizing that someone else already loves her, that person being the Prince's lowly servant boy Rick (Freddie Prinze, Jr). Ella gets to attend the ball thanks to the magic of her Fairy Godmother (Lisa Kaplan), gets the attention of the Prince, and everything seems to be going as it should. That is until evil stepmother Frieda happens to stumble upon the Wizard's chamber and discovers the secrets of his magic scepter that can change the course of all the stories in Fairy Tale Land. She easily overtakes Mambo and Munk, steals the scepter, and ushers in a new era where the villains win at the end of the story, and happy endings are no more. Rounding up an army of trolls, wolves, and monsters, Frieda seems destined to be the new ruler of the land, unless Ella, Rick, and the animal sidekicks can set things right once again before the Wizard comes home from vacation.

Happily N'Ever After carries a creative plot that screams out for clever ideas and a lot of fun, but sadly offers very little if anything. I was intrigued and interested in many of its ideas, but the movie never slows down enough for us to admire them. Take the whole fairy tale characters living in a continuous loop thing. The idea of them being forced to relive the same story over and over instantly brought back memories of the classic Bill Murray comedy, Groundhog's Day, and I started to imagine what a clever screenplay could do with this idea, especially in an animated film where anything is possible. Do the characters know they are stuck in a continuous loop, or are their memories somehow erased when the story starts over again? Do they ever get tired of reliving the same story over and over? Have they, like Mambo the cat, ever wished to shake things up and change things a little? Sadly, the screenplay by Robert Moreland doesn't even bother to touch upon these potentially interesting questions. It instead decides to parade out a series of uninspired rapid-fire gags that were hard pressed to bring forth more than a polite giggle from an audience nearly full of young children and their parents. Even the idea of Frieda the stepmother altering the Wizard's magical scale so that evil can overpower good is wasted. We get a couple barely amusing sight gags of stories like Rumplestiltskin and Little Red Riding Hood ending differently than they should, and then the movie moves on. We see so much potential wasted up there on the screen that it almost becomes hard to concentrate on the film itself. Most likely, since there is very little on the screen to engage and entertain, the audience is left to entertain itself and think of these ideas being used in a better way and in a better movie.

The characters suffer almost as much as the story, since they almost seem to be completely deprived of anything resembling personality. Ella is as colorless and bland as a fairy tale heroine has ever been, and the same goes for her secret love interest Rick. The comic relief animal sidekicks are more annoying than funny, and seldom have anything funny to say other than to scream and argue with each other. The only character who generates any kind of spark is the evil Frieda, and that's because the filmmakers have let Sigourney Weaver go all out, and just have a blast completely reveling in her over the top villain role. She's the only one in this movie who seems to be having any fun, and it's a shame they couldn't give her some better one-liners to go along with her energetic and enthusiastic performance. The supporting villains are a sorry and underdeveloped lot of generic fantasy monsters who literally do nothing but sit around in the castle and party to music all day. To further add to the film's long list of problems, the film's look is completely generic and as uninspired as can be. Everyone has this overly plastic look to their skin that makes them look more like living dolls than real people. Hair barely moves, and almost looks like it's been painted on top of their heads like a Ken doll or something. The character movements are limited, and the overall design and look of the movie would barely pass inspection on a Saturday morning cartoon. Seeing it blown up on the big screen only makes it worse. A movie like this calls for an imaginative look and art style, and all we get are some generic backdrops and designs that look like they were ripped right out of some hack artist's sketchbook.
There's a very good reason why most animated films take years to complete. The filmmakers spend the time fine tuning the script and the jokes and the story so that when it is released, it is hopefully as good as it can be. Happily N'Ever After is like watching a first draft of an animated movie. The ideas and concepts are there, but the characters need to be fleshed out more, and the jokes need to be funnier. Everything about this movie fails to impress, and if it were not for some of the big names it managed to attract to its cast, I find it doubtful this would cut it in the straight to video market. There are a lot of good reasons why an animated film should never be rushed to completion. Happily N'Ever After is proof positive of a lot of those reasons.

No Amazon listing to be found...sorry.


Code Name: The Cleaner

Considering the fact that Code Name: The Cleaner is being released on the first weekend of January (typically a dumping ground for films that the studio has no faith in), and the fact that the film has been sitting on the studio's shelf for almost a year, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that the movie is simply uninspired and forced, instead of being unwatchable. For director Les Mayfield, this is a step up from his last film - the awful Samuel L. Jackson/Eugene Levy action comedy, The Man. That being said, it still doesn't excuse why anyone thought a movie such as this needed to be made. It does very little to stand out, let alone entertain, and seems content to simply waste a workable premise. Even as a star vehicle for stand up comic Cedric the Entertainer, the movie falls flat on its face. All in all, Code Name: The Cleaner is an uninspired turkey that fails to impress.

When everyman Jake (Cedric the Entertainer) wakes up in a hotel room next to a dead body of the FBI agent, he is troubled to learn that he has no idea how any of this happened, let alone who he even is. His mind's a clean slate, not even able to remember his name, and all he has for a clue is a briefcase full of money. While trying to sneak out of the hotel, he is approached by a seductive beauty named Diane (Nicollete Sheridan from TV's Desperate Housewives) who claims to be his wife, and wants to help him. However, when Diane takes him back to what is supposed to be their home, something doesn't seem right, and he manages to make a narrow escape before she can reveal her true intentions. Jake finds himself on the run from various FBI agents and shady characters, all who either want to see him dead, or demand to know where a computer chip he supposedly hidden before he lost his memory is located. The only person he can seemingly trust is a lovely and feisty waitress named Gina (Lucy Liu), who works at a local diner and also claims to be romantically involved with Jake. Unlike Diane, Gina seems to not want to hurt him, so he is forced to trust her and try to find out more about his past, which doesn't seem to make any sense. After all, if Jake is just a janitor at a video game company, as Gina claims, then why does he have brief flashbacks of him being a war soldier on a secret mission? And why are there mysterious messages on his answering machine that refer to him as an "agent" of some sort?

At the very least, Code Name: The Cleaner does grab our attention right away with its opening shot of Jake waking up in a strange bed beside a dead body, and him pacing about the room, realizing that he remembers absolutely nothing, not even his identity. If the movie had played it straight, perhaps the story could have built from here. Unfortunately, this is an action comedy, and although this premise still could have worked in that genre, it just doesn't work here. A lot of this has to do with the character of Jake himself whom, after his brief few minutes of panic over the situation that he finds himself in, immediately turns into a wise cracking sitcom star trapped in a spy story. Almost as soon as he walks out of the hotel room, Jake seems to completely forget about the body back there. As soon as he meets Diane in the hotel lobby, he all but forgets the earlier scene, and starts obnoxiously wooing and sweet talking the girl. For a guy who has possibly murdered an FBI agent, and has no memory of the act or even who he is, Jake sure does seem to be taking it rather well. I don't think anyone in this situation would be throwing out one-liners left and right, and pulling off goofy martial arts moves while doing bad Bruce Lee imitations. That's because this movie doesn't care about the story or the potentially interesting plot. It's all simply a hook to hang Cedric the Entertainer's comic shtick for roughly 90 minutes. Once again, this could still work, but Cedric's humor is too uninspired and lame to muster even a chuckle. (The only time I smiled is when he has a war flashback in an elevator with an old lady, which leads to a very unfortunate result when Jake starts acting out his flashback with the woman.) Since the plot doesn't matter, we find ourselves caring very little about the character, or if he should ever get his memory back.

The characters that surround Jake are your standard types that usually fill these kind of mystery stories. There are crooked cops, an evil businessman behind it all, the woman whom the hero doesn't know if he can trust or not, and the femme fatale. All of the characters know their place and know what they're supposed to do in a story like this, but the screenplay by Robert Adetuyi and George Gallo give them very little to do otherwise. They're not allowed to be funny, because this is Cedric the Entertainer's star vehicle, so they're forced to just simply stand around and watch him be funny. They're not even allowed to be all that active, as there are surprisingly very few action sequences for a movie such as this. When the action does come, it is immediately forgotten, because the filmmakers just can't raise the excitement enough. The final battle scene seems completely pathetic, though it is probably the only time we're ever going to get to see Lucy Liu take out the bad guys with a pair of toilet plungers as weapons. As if that wasn't bad enough, the movie is too incompetent to even stage a decent cat fight between Liu and Nicollete Sheridan. Not only do we barely get to see it (We instead keep on seeing Jake, who is watching the fight, fantasizing about both of the women taking a bubble bath together for some reason.), but the fight itself lasts all of one minute, and can't even be bothered to give us the kind of stuff a good cat fight needs. It made me wonder why they even bothered at all, since the scene that leads to the fight seems horrendously tacked on, as if it were added in post production because someone at the studio felt the movie needed one.

When it comes to performances, The Cleaner comes up short. This is mainly due to the fact that Cedric the Entertainer and Lucy Liu have absolutely no chemistry together. Not as friends, not as partners, and certainly not as potential lovers. Cedric is a loud, obnoxious motor mouth in this film who is rarely funny, but keeps on talking as if he hopes that if he keeps his mouth moving, something funny is bound to come out of it sooner or later. The end credits feature a variety of outtakes where we witness his alternate takes and jokes on different scenes, all of which are improvised, and all of which are just as unfunny as the joke that made it into the final film. Lucy Liu is a bit more understated in her performance, and at least knows how to shut up when it is needed, but as mentioned before, she just doesn't seem to come across as an appropriate partner for Jake. You often find yourself wondering what she could possibly see in him, and why she would be attracted to him in the first place. Nicollete Sheridan has promise at first in her vampish role, but the movie forgets all about her as soon as Jake escapes from her house. She only gets to sit around talking about her plans for Jake in all of her scenes, and doesn't even get to participate in the film's final battle scene. A half-assed cat fight is no apology for neglecting your film's femme fatale. Aside from these three, the only actor who makes an impression is DeRay Davis, as a co-worker of Jake's from his life before the incident. And that's only because he's more obnoxious and motor mouthed than Cedric is.
Code Name: The Cleaner is a film that's bad, but not quite bad enough to even be memorable. It actually starts to leave your mind the second you walk out of the theater, and you find yourself having to strain your mind to think of anything worth noting. It's just up there on the screen, looking quite pathetic, and never really generating any feelings from the audience, either good or bad. All that's left in the end is some wasted potential and a lot of wondering how this script could have stood out amongst the thousands of scripts that probably pass through a studio every day. I can only assume something got lost from the page to the screen, or that everyone involved needs to be a little bit choosier in picking their projects.


Friday, January 05, 2007

Children of Men

I would describe Children of Men as a very good movie on the verge of greatness. It is a movie that I truly wanted to love, but something kept on holding me back. It certainly wasn't the direction of acclaimed filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron (Y tu mama tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), who brings us a gritty and terrifying look at the future that instantly captivates. And it certainly wasn't the ideas that the movie holds, many of which are certainly intriguing. Maybe it's the fact that I was expecting something more than an action chase movie with some interesting ideas behind it. I'm not saying that the movie is bad or substandard, I'm simply saying I was expecting more focusing on the ideas, and less watching the heroes running away from gunfights. Children of Men is a fine movie as it is, but never comes across as being quite as fine as it should be, other than the visuals.

Set in the not-too distant future of 2027, Children of Men explores the notion of mankind on the verge of extinction, due to the fact that women have become sterile for the past 18 years. With no new children being born, and many major cities now in ruins due to war and anarchy, it would seem that humanity is on a single-minded march to a predetermined fate. The hero of our story is a somewhat depressed and worn individual named Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a man who simply goes through the phases of his life and his job day by day, only truly coming to life when he pays visits to his former hippie friend, Jasper (Michael Caine). Theo doesn't seem to care much that the city of London is falling apart around him, or by the news that the last child to be born into the world was recently murdered. He seems to have already accepted mankind's grim fate, and is merely marching to his waiting grave like everyone else. That all changes when he is forcefully recruited by a former lover named Julian (Julianne Moore). Julian is with a group of rebels against the government, and her group has something that could change the very path of the world itself - namely the first pregnant woman in almost 20 years. That woman is Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), and Julian wants Theo's help in gaining Kee safe passage through London so that she can reach a mysterious group called The Human Project, where both she and her baby will be safe. Unfortunately, Theo will quickly learn that it's hard to figure out who to trust when the world around you is falling into anarchy. Kee and the hope for the future that she holds within her inspire Theo to risk everything he has in order to see her to safety.

Loosely based on the novel by P.D. James, Children of Men is a movie that gives us an eerie and bleak vision of the future. Yes, most movies set in the future usually don't paint a pretty picture, but what director and co-writer Alfonso Cuaron does different here is that he creates an eerily accurate portrait of a world that is just beginning to crumble. The movie does not spend much time explaining or discussing why women can no longer give birth, or what led mankind to its current fate. It throws us right into the thick of things, seldom looking back, and only explaining just enough to get us up to speed. The London that Cuaron creates looks like a combination of war-torn London from World War II, and a futuristic society run amok. Many buildings are mere hollowed-out shells caused by bomb blasts from extremists or the government, refugees from other countries who are trying to enter London (one of the last standing major cities, according to this film's vision) are rounded up in mass cages and held at gunpoint, and everyone seems to have their own agenda, whether it be religious or for their own personal gain. The way that this film depicts this future is with the ferociousness and violence of a war movie, mixed with the wonderings of how the human race would slowly start to fall apart if it could no longer reproduce. The movie wants to be an action film with a brain, and for the most part, it succeeds. The scenes with Theo and Kee racing down the streets of London as gunfire explodes around them are as tense and exciting as any action sequence has ever been. Of course, to call this a mere action movie would be a disservice to what it tries to do. Not only does it bring forth some fascinating questions to ponder in its premise of a sterile world, but the movie itself is a wonder to look at. Many of the sequences are shot in an unbroken series of shots that are flawlessly edited, and will have many wondering how director Cuaron pulled them off seemingly so effortlessly. Not only is the film's vision of the future fascinating to watch, but there are many sequences throughout the film that are worth watching more than once, due to the expert way they have been shot. This movie is a visual wonder through and through.

What I believe holds the film back from the true greatness it strives for is at the very core of the script itself. Aside from a couple stand outs, many of the characters are sketchy, or have murky motivations. It also never quite digs quite as deep as I thought it should in some areas. I understand its desire not to fully explain the cause of the disease, but other areas of the story seemed a bit too underdeveloped for their own good. The Human Project group that the heroes are so desperately trying to reach are kept in a very underdeveloped light, and never quite explained as to what they would do for Kee and her child once they arrived, or how they would manage to keep them safe. I also thought they could have gone a bit deeper into Theo's desire to aid the woman and her unborn child. Yes, there is Julian, and the movie seems to hint that part of the reason he is so determined to help is because he lost a child of his own to a flu epidemic. But, a true relationship between Theo and Kee is never truly built. They never seem to truly bond, because they spend a vast majority of the film running from people trying to kill them. That's what disappointed me the most about Children of Men. Though it is consistently well made and entertaining, it never quite fully explores its own ideas, and instead opts to set up chase scenes or violent shoot outs. We don't get to enjoy the vision of the future or the ideas behind it quite as much as I think we should have, because the movie hardly gives the characters a chance to catch their breath. If they're not running from violent rebels or traitorous former friends, they're stuck in the middle of a bloody street gunfight. Though it never harms the film so much that I found myself not liking it, I was constantly left craving for something a little bit more.

That's not to discredit any of the performances in the film, which are fine throughout. Clive Owen makes for a likeable beaten down everyman who is forced to look within himself in order to be the hero that Kee needs in order to protect both her and her child. He is vulnerable and honest in his portrayal of Theo during the film's more quiet moments, and he comes across as an unlikely but feasible hero during the more action-heavy sequences. As Kee, relative newcomer Claire-Hope Ashitey is a quiet and strong presence, making her believable as a woman who holds mankind's future. I only wish the script had given us a closer look at her character, as her dialogue seems to be limited. In supporting roles, Michael Caine comes across the strongest, and seems to be having a lot of fun in his small but important role as one of Theo's few friends. His sense of humor that he brings to the character is a welcome bit of comic relief to a movie set in a world that is mostly dire and without hope. Julianne Moore has less to do as the woman from Theo's past, but she makes the most out of her limited role and screen time, and is still able to create a likeable character that we can understand Theo following into a potentially dangerous situation.
Children of Men works on a lot of levels, but doesn't seem to be quite as strong in some others. Perhaps it's the result of having too many screenwriters working on the script. (I counted a grand total of five writers listed in the credits.) All I know is that although I liked the movie a lot, I was left with the feeling that I could have liked it even more. The movie is definitely worth watching, especially for its visuals and the ideas that it presents. It's also a movie that's bound to create some serious discussion afterward. If the movie had just gone a bit further with its own ideas, I think the discussions this movie will cause could have been even greater. Children of Men is a fine, but flawed, film. The emphasis here is on fine.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Queen

Even though the tragic accident that took the life of Princess Diana occurred 10 years ago, it is still hotly debated and discussed by many as if it had happened more recently. The Queen takes us back to the time when the world was stunned by the news, all of England was looking for support and guidance, and the Royal Family had seemingly isolated themselves from the people. Director Stephen Frears (Mrs. Henderson Presents, High Fidelity) tackles this subject matter with deftness and subtlety. The movie is not so much about how the "People's Princess" died that night in August 1997, but about the effect her death had on a country. Skillfully mixing archival news footage with wonderfully acted and directed dramatizations, The Queen is a thoughtful and intimate look at multiple sides of a very complex story.

Set mainly during the days leading up to Diana's funeral, the film follows the struggles of Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren in an Oscar-worthy role) and the rest of the Royal Family as they strive to hold a private family funeral for the Princess, away from the public eye. However, when news of Diana's death hits the media, the people respond stronger than anyone could have imagined, and demand a public funeral service, as well as support from the Royal Family. When the Family decides to remain discreet and not make a public announcement about Diana, Queen Elizabeth and everyone else are thrown into a negative light as they are vilified by the press and shunned by the masses. The public instead embraces newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), who has not only spoken openly about his grief at the recent tragedy, but is striving for change and a more modern approach to the way things are run. Elizabeth becomes torn between upholding old traditions of the monarchy that she has sworn to uphold, and answering the cries of the people who are hungry for change.

Those of you who are expecting a re enactment of the sensationalism and uproar that was directed toward the paparazzi during the aftermath of the accident will find none of it here. The Queen takes an almost sheltered look at this tragic moment, and allows us to look at it almost entirely through the eyes of the Royal Family. This gives the film a somewhat laid back, but no less powerful, tone that works. Rather than displaying something that was splashed all over the newspapers and television, screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland) takes an intentionally small and personal look. We view glimpses of the public's reaction through numerous pieces of archival TV footage that is spliced into the film, but the action itself is set entirely within the confined walls of Queen Elizabeth's home. This allows us to become closer to the true heart of the story, and the characters that inhabit it. The Queen's somewhat distant initial reaction to Diana's death was seen by many as an act of uncaring, especially since it was widely known that Diana was never exactly widely accepted by the family on the side of her former husband, Prince Charles (portrayed in this film by Alex Jennings). This film argues the case that Elizabeth simply wanted to uphold the traditions of the Royals, which has mainly forced them to seclude their private lives and feelings from the public. The movie is an intimate portrait of a woman torn between what she knows is expected of her, and the change that the public is demanding from her. She is having a hard time finding a balance that will please everyone, but never wavers in her notion that she is doing the right thing in whatever choice she makes. This approach of focusing solely on the Queen and the rest of the Royal Family, instead of the outside world, is a smart move, as it allows us to not only us to sympathize with the main character and her decisions, but it also humanizes a public and iconic figure in a way that no previous film ever has before.

When both Queen Elizabeth and the movie itself venture out into the outside world to meet and speak to the public, the film creates an appropriately touching and moving mood. The scene where Elizabeth walks along the gates of Buckingham Palace and sees the various flowers and notes of mourning that the people have left behind for Diana, is undeniably moving in its simplicity. It is a powerful reminder of just what the public image of the Princess meant to people, and a wonderful re enactment of one of the rare moments when the Royals put themselves before the public. Much of the film's success lies with Helen Mirren, who completely nails the role of Queen Elizabeth in such a way that we are not just watching a simple imitation, but that she embodies just about everything about the actual woman. Almost from her opening scene, we forget that we are watching an actor's portrayal, and become lost in her performance. She is very personal and open in her performance, allowing us to sympathize and understand her. The way that she is able to not just transform herself but to also open up her character's emotions and feelings to us is subtle and extraordinary. It is truly one of the great performances to be featured in a film released in 2006. She is backed up by a wonderful supporting cast, with Michael Sheen easily getting the strongest reaction in his portrayal of Tony Blair. He too is torn between the respect he feels for the Queen, and his strong desire for change. He fears for Elizabeth's public image, and sees it personally with the way that his wife and some of his associates speak of her.
The Queen is a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways. It could have come across as stuffy and dull, or it could have not dug deep enough into its characters. I am happy to report that this film avoids just about every pitfall that could have brought it down. Aside from the fact that a few of the Royals such as Prince Charles and Prince Philip could have been given more to do, there is very little to find fault with here. This is a completely involving motion picture that entices almost from the very beginning. Not only does it allow us to enter a world that is typically closed off, but it does so in a way that is understated and heartfelt. It makes the right choice by not only showing us a side of the story we haven't heard, but by also giving equal time to all sides of the situation, so that the movie is never in danger of becoming too narrow in its focus. The Queen is one of the great films of 2006.


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