Reel Opinions

Saturday, June 30, 2007


It takes a special kind of talent to take a seemingly sure-fire premise and a wonderful cast that Evening holds, and then completely rob it of every ounce of life and passion. Not since last year's ill-fated remake of All the King's Men have I seen such a large and wonderful cast of talent be wasted on so little. Evening so desperately wants to be a movie that moves us completely, but seems to struggle in mustering up even the slightest of emotions from its audience. Scene after dreary scene plays out on the screen, and the audience is just left adrift, looking for something to cling onto. Cinematographer turned director Lajos Koltai paints a pretty picture, but the hollowness behind it all turns the movie into an interminable bore to sit through.

As elderly mother Ann Grant Lord (Vanessa Redgrave) lies on her deathbed, she can't help but think back on the life she led and the man who got away when she was a young and carefree woman who aspired to be a singer. Her two adult daughters (Toni Collette and Natasha Richardson) are at her side as Ann thinks back to the time she found love for only one day. We witness in flashbacks the younger Ann (Claire Danes) as she arrives at the home of her best friend Lila (Mamie Gummer) for Lila's impending wedding ceremony. She reunites with Lila's alcoholic brother, Buddy (Hugh Dancy), whom she has always had a close relationship with. But while staying at the home, her eyes happen to fall upon a handsome young medical doctor named Harris Arden (Patrick Wilson). The two seem to instantly be drawn to one another and before long, they're sneaking off to be alone, naming stars in the sky after each other, and sharing their innermost emotions with one another. The love was not to be, however, and as the older Ann prepares to leave this world, she wonders if perhaps she made a mistake on the path life has led her up to this point.

If one were to only look at the surface of Evening, it would be understandable if you were fooled into thinking this was a good movie. It has a strong visual look, with some absolutely beautiful shots and scenic views. And just reading the cast list alone is enough to make any film fan drool. The cast includes such sure-fire talent as Vanessa Redgrave, Claire Danes, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Toni Collette, and Patrick Wilson - all of whom have all impressed me greatly in many past roles. But here, they are cast aside by a meandering screenplay that never really goes anywhere. In bringing the novel to the big screen, original author Susan Minot along with co-writer Michael Cunningham seem like they were lost in trying to bring the book's ideas to the script. The movie is severely fragmented, with neither of the two plots (the one in the present day, and the one in the past) truly joining together to form a complete whole. The film's editing is awful, with the movie jumping back and forth between both time periods without any rhyme or reason. Sometimes, the movie jumps to the next scene and a completely different point of time before the current scene we're watching seems to be finished. It doesn't help matters that the movie throws in some "fantasy" scenes as the elderly Ann hallucinates in her near-death state. Everything is so jumbled and incoherent, it becomes a chore to follow along.

Perhaps the greatest offense that Evening pulls on its audience is that it's a tear jerker that will be hard pressed to jerk a single tear from even the most sensitive audience member. The movie is far too emotionally distant and hollow to get even the slightest response. The supposed love affair that the younger Ann and this Harris Arden guy had for a brief period comes across as a joke, because we never learn just why they are so attracted to each other, or why their love is so strong after knowing each other for less than a day. Harris comes across as having the personality of a hunk of wood, and never once gets to display anything resembling a personality. The two share no real chemistry during their scenes together, and everything seems to happen because the movie wants it to, not because of the relationship building out of the characters. Heck, I had an easier time believing the friendship that grew between a young wannabe chef and a rat in the animated Ratatouille than I did believing Ann and Harris were in love here. The fact that the relationship never grows to anything remotely convincing obviously all but buries the film, since it is supposed to be what drives everything. We find ourselves wondering why the elderly Ann still looks back at it so fondly some 50 to 60 years later, since there's nothing on the screen to convince us otherwise. Because we don't believe in the love at the center of the story, everything else falls apart.

There's nothing more infuriating than seeing good talent wasted on bad material, and aside from a few stand out performances, everyone seems to have been shafted by this unworthy screenplay. Vanessa Redgrave and Claire Danes are both very good as Ann in the two main stages of her life that the film covers. Danes, especially, who initially comes across so charming and likeable when we first see her, it's a shame that the movie never makes her more interesting than just being a pretty face. Relative newcomer Mamie Gummer is beautiful and sympathetic as Ann's best friend, Lila, who on the eve of her wedding is starting to have second thoughts about her choice. She is actually the daughter of Meryl Streep (who happens to play the older version of Lila late in the film), and seems well on the way to living up to her famous mother's acting legacy. Most of the rest of the cast are either uninteresting or may as well have just stayed home. Both Meryl Streep and Glenn Close are restricted to mere cameos that barely have time to register. As Ann's adult daughters during the present day scenes, Toni Collette and Natasha Richardson never truly grew on me. They're not bad, exactly, it's simply that the film never gives them enough to do. As the two main men in Ann's life during the flashbacks, Patrick Wilson is a handsome bore with no personality, while Hugh Dancy gets to stumble around a lot and slur his words as Lila's boozing brother who has always had a secret thing for Ann. The emotionally distant screenplay prevents anyone from creating a genuine character, so everyone comes across as hollow shells always looking for something to do.
You can obviously tell that the people who made Evening did a pretty good job in fooling themselves into thinking they were making a worthwhile film. It looks great, the cast is game, and it just has this certain air of self-importance to the entire production. And yet, nothing in this movie convinced me that it was worth everything it received. The whole thing is just so mediocre and unmemorable, you start to wonder what everyone could have possibly seen in it. There must have been something about this story that made so much talent believe in it at one time. Whatever that something was, it's not up there on the screen. Evening tries so hard to touch our hearts that you almost want to give it points for trying. It's too bad the movie had to turn out so dry and utterly emotionless.


Friday, June 29, 2007


You have to certainly hand it to animation director Brad Bird. He never makes the same movie twice, and everything he's done has literally been the best in its genre up to that point. After mainly working on television animation with shows like The Simpsons, Bird launched into theatrical films with 1999's The Iron Giant, an affectionate and heart-felt nod to 1950s sci-fi that was one of that year's best films. He didn't reappear until 2004 with The Incredibles, which was once again one of my favorite films of that year, and still stands as one of the best superhero movies ever made in my opinion. Now he brings us Ratatouille, and those expecting something as fast-paced and exciting as his last film will be sorely disappointed. This is a movie that wraps itself in dialogue and wonderful characters, but never once becomes dull or talky. Kids will love the loveable rodent leads and the spellbinding animation, and adults will enjoy the wit and intelligence of the screenplay. Oh, and the spellbinding animation.

Remy (voice by Patton Oswalt from TV's King of Queens) is a very unusual rat. Unlike his rodent brothers, Remy has a very strong pallette which allows him to detect and recognize different flavors. His father (Brian Dennehy) uses Remy's evolved sense of taste and smell to sniff out rat poisons in food that they find, but the young rat dreams of something more. He idolizes a deceased French gourmet chef named Gusteau (Brad Garrett), and wishes he could use his talents to experience all the great tastes and flavors of the world. When Remy's rat pack find themselves forced to flee from their home, he becomes separated from the others. The path that he takes as he searches for his family leads him directly to Gusteau's famous restaurant in Paris, which is now under the management of the spiteful Chef Skinner (Ian Holm), who wants to sell out the Gusteau name with a series of frozen dinners and cheap gimmicks. While exploring the restaurant, Remy comes across a young man named Linguini (Lou Romano), a garbage boy with dreams of being a real cook, but no talent to achieve his goals. When the two discover they share a common bond and goal, Remy and Linguini strike an unusual partnership where the rat will coach and manipulate the aspiring chef in the ways of fine dining.

In a day and age when animated films seem to move a mile a minute, and don't want to slow down for anything, Ratatouille is almost daring in the way that it concerns itself not so much with plot and filling the screen with as many gags as possible, but with fleshed out and immediately likeable characters that audiences can identify themselves with. The opening moments that introduce us to Remy and how he stands out from his family and the rest of the rats is genius in the way that it allows us to immediately sympathize and attach ourselves with the character. We want to see the little guy succeed almost from the instant we see him. The movie only improves from there, as Remy is forced into the world of humans and fine dining. The relationship that he builds with the lonely dreamer Linguini works, because even though they can't directly communicate with each other (Linguini hears Remy's "words" as just little squeaks), they have an obvious understanding and wish for the same things out of life. The movie takes its time in letting their friendship grow so that, once again, we want to see them both succeed. The screenplay by Brad Bird does not let any character suffer or be pushed by the wayside. Everyone, even the lowliest comic relief, plays some important role in the overall story, so that not a single scene or line of dialogue is wasted. Less one think that this movie will be a bore for children, there is plenty of humor and slapstick that had the kids in my audience rolling in the aisles along with the adults.

There are so many little things to captivate while watching Ratatouille that it's almost hard to believe they're all coming from the same film. Everything comes together, though, and nothing seems out of place. There is a genuinely sweet relationship that develops between Linguini and a female chef named Collette (voiced by comic Janeane Garofolo with a surprisingly convincing French accent) that is surprisingly warm, honest and low key for a family film. But what is perhaps most surprising about the film is the handling of a certain character named Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole). Ego is a harsh and highly respected food critic who single handedly started the downfall of the Gusteau name when he released his scathing review years before. While he acts mainly as a heavy source of dread that hangs over the heroes as the restaurant starts to regain some credibility, he gets the very best moment of the film when he gives an intelligent monologue on just what it is to be a critic. Unlike last year's stinker, Lady in the Water (which also used a critic as somewhat of a villain character), Bird does not use the character as a source of ridicule to those who may not approve of his work, but instead, tries to understand them. He becomes a much deeper character than initially anticipated, and when he delivers his speech near the end, I couldn't help but nod my head. It certainly helps that O'Toole brings the right amount of gleeful menace and humanity to the character.

The cast is generally sound all the way around. Patton Oswalt strikes the perfect balance as Remy, so much so that I really can't picture any other voice coming out of the character. It's almost a shame he doesn't get to share any dialogue with most of the other actors in the film, since aside from his rat brothers, no one can understand him. In the other lead role, Lou Romano is a real find as the rat's human companion. Mr. Romano has worked behind the scenes on various animated films, and although this is not his first acting job, this could easily make him a star. Like Oswalt, he is pitch perfect in his line delivery, and is able to make Linguini into a character we generally care for. Aside from the previously mentioned Garofolo and O'Toole, Ian Holm is also a stand out in the supporting cast as the true villain of the film. More so than the actors providing the voices, I think it is the animation that truly brings this movie to life. From the stunningly realistic movements and gestures of the rats, to the beautifully realized photo-quality backdrops of Paris, this movie is an absolute marvel to look at. There's not a single scene in this movie that looks average, everything is a wonder. I look forward to watching this film again, just to spot the details that I missed the first time around.
Once again, Brad Bird has delivered a film that's pretty much guaranteed a spot somewhere when I think back on my favorite films of the year. Ratatouille is just a fantastic piece of entertainment, and is certain to reach just about anyone who watches it in some way. After the severely disappointing and flat-out boring Cars, this is a wonderful return to form for the Pixar studio. It certainly helps that the animated short that proceeds the film (a movie called Lifted, which is about an alien's training day as he tries to abduct a sleeping man from his home) is one of the freshest and funniest that the studio has ever done. There is only one word I can think of to describe my experience with Ratatouille, and that word is joy.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

There was a time when action movies had actual stunts, not just actors working in front of a green screen with the CG danger added in later. I look back fondly on that time, and whenever I see the lead character suddenly turn into an obvious computer animated video game character dodging out of the way of trouble, a little bit of my soul cries out for the good old days. A lot of those memories came flooding back while watching Live Free or Die Hard. To say that this movie left me with a big smile on my face would be an understatement. This is the most unashamed balls-to-the-wall action film I've seen in a very long time. Director Len Wiseman (Underworld: Evolution) has created not only a blissful little piece of popcorn entertainment, but has also given us a reminder of what real stunt work and action set pieces are all about. If only the movie was about a half hour shorter, it'd be perfect.

Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) may be a bit older and world-weary (not to mention balder) than the last time we saw him in 1995's Die Hard with a Vengeance, but he fortunately still hasn't lost his knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, John's been given a simple assignment to pick up a computer hacker by the name of Matt Farrell (Justin Long) and escort him to the FBI for questioning. When he arrives at Matt's apartment, he finds that the FBI aren't the only people looking for him, as some armed men are also gunning for him. John finds himself thrust into a dire situation that holds the very world in the balance. A team of cyber terrorists led by a disgraced man of the government named Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant) are planning to throw the nation into chaos over the 4th of July weekend by slowly taking control of and destroying the nation's technological structure, thus throwing the world into chaos. John now has to race against time to try to stop their plan, as well as keeping Matt alive long enough to find out what the terrorists want with him. And when McClane's estranged adult daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead from Grindhouse) gets involved as a captive of Gabriel's, all bets are off.

In the months leading up to the film's release, much has been made over the fact that Live Free or Die Hard has been given a PG-13 rating, instead of an R like the previous installments. If you were to listen to the fans on Internet chatrooms and message boards, they would lead you to believe that this is next to blasphemy and a crime against nature. To those people that uptight about a rating that appears in the bottom corner of a theatrical poster, I have this piece of advice: Calm down, take a deep breath, and then go see this movie and enjoy it. Despite the toned down rating, the latest Die Hard still delivers all the thrills, explosions, chase scenes, and over the top fights that you have come to expect. Yes, a couple of the villains' death scenes have been obviously edited in order to achieve the PG-13, but I must ask is a movie's worth measured by the amount of fake blood on display? Quite frankly, I was looking for some laughs, some white-knuckle thrills, and a lot of fun. The movie delivers, so I'm not going to get my underwear in a bunch just because there's slightly less gore on display and four letter words aren't flung about like they're going out of style. Like it'd actually be a better movie if it did have those things. I say those people can hold out for the "Unrated" DVD. Those of you who can look past the rating and see the movie for what it really is are certain to be satisfied.

I guess I should get off my ranting soapbox and actually talk about the movie, huh? Well, what is there to say really? This movie delivers on action and thrills more than any other movie this summer. Not only is this the best of the big sequels released so far this season, but it's also probably the most fun I've had watching a potential blockbuster movie this summer. Screenwriter Mark Bomback (Godsend) gives us plenty of danger for John McClane to get himself into, but he's also smart enough to pace himself so that there's a good amount of distance between the action sequences. This way, they don't become overbearing, and the movie doesn't start to resemble a mindless video game. Some of the highlights included in the film is a perilous scene where John must escape from a SUV that is hanging upside down in an elevator shaft. (How the SUV got inside the elevator shaft, I will leave up to you to discover.) The film's climactic chase scene concerning a very large truck and a jet that is shooting down a highway with missiles is also jaw-dropping in its wonder. The fact that these scenes are all done with no blatant CG imagery and actual stuntwork makes it all the more amazing. After seeing super heroes fighting giant computer animated monsters made out of sand, and pirates battling CG sea monsters, this is like a breath of adrenaline-soaked fresh air. The action sequences are well worth the price of admission alone, and I think it's safe to say that we won't see any better this summer or perhaps even this year. The one-liners and constant sense of humor help keep things fairly light in tone, without diminishing the sense of urgency or danger. It's nice to see that despite John McClane's obvious skill, he still takes quite a beating, and by the end of the film, he can barely even stand up. By my count, McClane should probably be dead by the 70-minute mark of this film or so, but hey, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief for his sake.

Let's face it, John McClane will probably be Bruce Willis' most iconic and remembered role of his career. At least in Live Free or Die Hard, he reminds us why. He's instantly likeable, and despite some of his near superhuman heroics that he pulls off, he still manages to remain down to Earth as a character thanks to Willis' charisma and humor. Justin Long (best known for the famous "Mac vs. PC" commercials on TV) makes for a likeable sidekick. He's comedic and quick-witted, without ever becoming annoying or tedious. He is able to play off Willis well, and create genuine chemistry. The only area in the major casting that makes a crucial misstep is Timothy Olyphant as the head villain. He's never a very threatening presence in the film, no matter how much he bugs out his eyes or sneers at the camera. I kept on thinking that some of the people working for him would have made a better villain, especially Asian actress Maggie Q (Mission: Impossible III). She plays his second in command and love interest, gets a memorable fight scene with John McClane about half-way through the film, and is able to convey a much better sense of cool and calculating menace than he ever does. It's a shame that she's not used more, but at least she does get one of the more notable fights in the film.
Live Free or Die Hard will never be mistaken for anything more than summer escapism, but it at least excels in the field it aims for. With a running time that stretches over two hours, the movie does come dangerously close to wearing out its welcome, and the final stand off is somewhat anti-climactic with everything getting wrapped up way too easily. Still, until the last 10 or 15 minutes, the movie is a wonderful reminder of what summer blockbuster entertainment is all about. If you can look past the "dreaded" PG-13 rating, I think you'll find that it's still the franchise you know and love. It may not be as memorable as the original film (which still stands as one of the all-time great action films), but in a summer filled with sequels that don't even seem to be trying, Live Free or Die Hard is the kick that audiences are looking for.


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Evan Almighty

It would seem that after doing 1995's Ace Ventura sequel, Jim Carrey has a clause in his contract that states he does not do sequels to his successful films. Anyone who actually saw Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls can probably understand why this clause was added. That still hasn't stopped studios from trying to do the job without him. The end result has brought us such stinkers as Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd and Son of the Mask. Now we have Evan Almighty, a loose spin off of 2003's Bruce Almighty, that was obviously greenlit to strike while the iron was hot after Steve Carell became an overnight star with The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Steve Carell had a supporting role in Bruce, and now he's been upgraded to leading man in Carry's place. The end result is a desperately unfunny and unnecessary film that not even Carell's genuine comic talents can rise above.

Smarmy news anchor Evan Baxter (Steve Carell) has just won the election to become a national congressman as the film opens. He leaves Buffalo, New York with his family and moves into a luxurious new home, and a great new office supplied by powerful and corrupt elected official Congressman Long (John Goodman). Long wants to buy Evan's support into helping a controversial land bill get past the Senate. The pressures of the job starts occupying Evan's entire life to the point that he no longer has time for his wife and kids. That's when God (Morgan Freeman) Himself decides to step in. He informs Evan that a flood is coming on September 22nd, and that he wants him to build an ark that can hold two of every animal, as well as the local neighborhood who will be affected by it. Evan, obviously, wants nothing to do with this, but God is very persistent, and is not afraid to use His divine powers to drive Evan to the breaking point before he finally gives in and agrees to God's plan for him. Evan's physical appearance begins to change to resemble that of Noah for reasons unexplained, which obviously puts his personal and professional life in jeopardy. With the entire media and the world mocking him, Evan must find a way to complete the task God has given him before it is too late.

In Bruce Almighty, the character of Evan Baxter was an obnoxious rival of the lead character who mainly acted as a comic foil. As a leading man, Evan has been downgraded to the cliched "dad who doesn't have time for his kids, and has to learn the importance of family" that we have seen one too many times before. It sometimes doesn't even seem to be the same character we saw in the last movie. I can understand that screenwriter Steve Oedekerk (Barnyard) was faced with a difficult situation to make a character we were supposed to hate originally come across as likeable, but he still should have tried harder to stay true to the original character. The Evan Baxter displayed in Evan Almighty is a colorless and bland "dad" character who doesn't seem to have a shred of personality or character. His wife is the typical understanding movie wife who doesn't really have anything to do with the story except have a couple scenes where she talks about how she's worried for Evan's sake when things start turning strange. And the kids are your typical cute movie kids who pop up when needed, say a quick one-liner, and walk away. They're your standard cookie cutter family through and through. Even when God shows up, and animals start miraculously popping up around Evan everywhere he goes, things are still not very interesting. I often found myself wondering why it was so hard for Evan to convince his family that something miraculous was going on. Take the fact that a magical beard suddenly forms on Evan's face that will not go away no matter how many times he shaves it off. Why would it be so difficult for him to prove that the beard grows back as soon as he shaves it off? Couldn't he just take them into the bathroom with him, shave it off, and show them what happens? But then I remember that would make sense, and the movie needed an artificially constructed crisis where the family leaves him briefly, thinking he's gone crazy.

The characters aren't even allowed to be funny, which leaves Carell in a very tight position. He's mainly forced to stand around a bunch of animals, and look confused as if he doesn't know what director Tom Shadyac (Bruce Almighty, Dragonfly) wants him to do. The humor in this movie falls around two basic categories, which mainly revolve around animal droppings and physical pain. There's maybe five instances where bird droppings are used as visual gags. Perhaps even lower on the humor scale is that there is a two minute long music montage devoted entirely to Steve Carell injuring himself and getting hit in the privates continuously as he starts construction on the ark itself. There are a lot of music montages in this movie to pad out the paper-thin and dull plot, as well as one during the end credits, where everyone seems to be having fun, but none of that fun caries into the audience. The only time the movie truly comes to life is during the film's climactic flood sequence, which is incredibly impressive given the mediocrity of everything else. It's been reported that this movie is the most expensive comedy ever made, with a budget that ballooned to over $200 million when it was all over. I can't say the five minute flood sequence was worth that much money, but I was grateful for something to finally stand out after sitting through everything that came before it. Still, by the time it came, it was too little too late.

Bruce Almighty may not have been one of my favorite films that year, but at least it had a cast that seemed to believe in the film they were making. Everyone here seems to know they're filming an unnecessary movie, and everyone seems to be thinking only of the paycheck waiting for them at the end of the day. Steve Carell gives his worst performance since hitting it big here. He's so artificial, phony and forced in his performance that he sometimes comes across as a really bad parody of a game show host than a character. He seems to know that the script has given him nothing funny to do, so he tries to compensate this by overacting and hoping to get some kind of laugh by bulging out his eyes and screaming every other line that comes out of his mouth. His performance just comes across as being sad and desperate. At least he's in good company here, as everyone seems to feel the same way. As his wife, Lauren Graham (from TV's Gilmore Girls and Because I Said So) is given such a cliched "wife" role that she probably wondered why she bothered to show up. They could have inserted any actress into the role, and have gotten the exact same performance. Stand up comic Wanda Sykes as Evan's personal assistant doesn't even seem to be inhabiting the same movie as everyone else, and acts more like she's doing one of her comedy routines, commenting on the action surrounding her rather than actually participating in any way. The only performance that comes close to genuine is Morgan Freeman, who is a very warm and welcoming presence as God. Whenever he's on screen, things pick up slightly, so it's a shame he's restricted mainly to brief cameo appearances off and on.
Is there any way Evan Almighty could have worked? The movie is such a glaringly desperate attempt to squeeze more money out of a successful film that I have to wonder. Everyone involved was obviously in it for the money, and it's painfully obvious in every worthless frame of film. This is a depressing film, because it's obvious no one cared. The studio may as well have just burned the film's budget if they had $200 million to spare. I'm sure Steve Carell will survive this film. His leading man career is young, and he's a natural talent with the right material. Evan Almighty is the kind of film I hope he avoids in the future. He's worked too hard to be where he is today to star in movies where he's forced to fall over stuff and be pooped on by birds continuously. I can only hope this will be a rare misstep in an otherwise great career, instead of an ominous sign of things to come.



What a wonderful little movie this is. I admit, my feelings toward Waitress were not exactly high praise as I watched the film's first few minutes. It was competently made, yes, but it didn't seem to be going anywhere and almost seemed to be trying too hard to be cute and clever. But then, the movie started building steam, and by the end, I was in love with this quirky and wonderful little romantic comedy-drama. Writer-director and co-star Adrienne Shelly (who was tragically murdered before she got to enjoy the success of her own film) surely would have gone on to great things, as this film displays such a sure directing and storytelling hand. It is truly tragic that we will never get to know what she could have done, but at least we have this movie to remind us of the talent she held. Waitress is one of the great films of 2007.

Jenna (Keri Russell) is a woman working in a pie shop in a small Southern town who is facing a crisis. A home pregnancy test has revealed that she is pregnant after her physically abusive husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) got her drunk one night a couple weeks ago. Jenna has dreams of running away from everything she currently knows with the help of some prize money she hopes to win in an upcoming pie contest, but this complicates matters. She knows she wants to keep the baby, but she can't share the enthusiasm of her two best friends at work (Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly). When she visits the doctor's office to get confirmation, she is instantly smitten with the charming and kind new town obstetrician Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). There's an instant connection between the two, even though they are both married, and they know that their affair is wrong. All of these elements come together to create a crossroad in Jenna's life where she must decide which path she will take, and who she will take the path with.

Waitress is set in the kind of Hollywood small town that I sometimes dread when I see it pop up in movies. It looks like some kind of living nostalgia of small town life, and everyone who lives there is so colorful and quirky that you either want to hug them or strangle them. Why, this town's literally even got Andy Griffith as one of its regulars down at the local pie shop! In the wrong hands, this setting can be disastrous to a movie, and really take me out of the story. Fortunately, writer-director Shelly is in control of everything, and never lets "quirkiness" turn into "obnoxious stupidity". The movie and the characters who inhabit it have off beat charm to spare, but it never overpowers the quiet and honest story at hand. This is a simple story about a woman who is about to face great change in her life, and must decide if things will always stay the way they were, or if she will go after her dreams of leaving everything behind, despite the rather large setback of becoming pregnant. The way that the movie handles its central plot is so subtle, honest and heartfelt that it actually took a while for it to hit me just how good it actually was. The movie is much deeper than it initially appears to be, and by the end, I was drawn in.

It's hard to pinpoint just the exact reason why Waitress works so well, because it works wonderfully in so many ways. The characters are off beat and quirky, but they are also human so that we can identify with them. They talk about things that people actually talk about, and they seem to care about the same things as well. The movie is also quite often very funny. There are some clever sequences where Jenna imagines a new pie recipe tied into the current events of her life that deliver some of the bigger laughs in the film. This is a movie where the humor is drawn out of the dialogue and the characters, rather than overused sight gags or Southern-fried cliches. But through it all, it is the honesty at which the material is handled with that really struck me. Jenna is an easy heroine to identify with, because her decisions are intelligent and actually seem to make sense. She is a somewhat battered woman who is stuck in a terrible relationship with a man she doesn't love. She obviously has talent, but no one but her best friends seem to realize it. We can see why she is drawn to the new doctor in town, because not only does he realize the talent she holds for baking, but he generally seems to understand her as well. It is a wonderfully sweet relationship that the two develop, even though they know they are both married. The way the film's ending handles the outcome of their relationship is quite surprising and, in all honesty, probably the only way it could have ended.

More than anything, though, I think Waitress will be remembered for its breakthrough role by lead actress Keri Russell. Russell has had a long history of acting in the past 15 years or so, most notably playing the title character on the TV series Felicity. However, her performance as Jenna is the first time I've ever really sat up and took notice of her. She is vulnerable and sympathetic in her performance, but we can also see a lot of the strength that she brings to the character. Jenna is a likeable, yet flawed, woman who always wants to do the right thing, but doesn't always know what the right thing is. Russell's performance brings out every aspect of the character, and makes her someone we generally feel for and want to see succeed. The rest of the cast is equally strong, with other stand outs including Jeremy Sisto as Jenna's husband, and Nathan Fillion giving a very likeable performance as the town doctor. In his first big screen role in years, Andy Griffith is also wonderful as the cranky old man who develops a generally sweet and winning relationship with Jenna. His character is fortunately not treated as a joke, and he actually gets to add to the plot, with the relationship they develop playing a very large role.
If there's any fault to be found with Waitress, it is that it leaves one side of the central relationship between Jenna and Dr. Pomatter undeveloped. We can certainly see why Jenna wants to leave her old life behind, but we never get a sense that Pomatter has things so bad. The one time we do get to see his wife, she seems generally caring and nice. It kind of makes the character seem somewhat unfavorable that he would be so willing to go behind her back for Jenna. If this was developed a bit more, it probably would have made the movie even stronger. As it is, Waitress has enough charm to overcome this problem, and just really hits every other right note. This is such a subtle movie, I didn't even realize how much I loved it till it was almost half-way done. The more I think back on it, I realize that this was the film's intention. We slowly fall in love with the characters, we feel for them, and when it's over, we're happy with where they ended up.


Friday, June 22, 2007


While doing some research before reviewing 1408, I was shocked to discover that this was the first time since 2004's Riding the Bullet that a film based on a Stephen King story had gotten the big screen treatment. Most of you probably didn't even see it, since I think it played in only a small handful of theaters for about a week before going to DVD. I remember when there was a time when there seemed to be a King adaptation in theaters every four or six months. 1408 marks somewhat of a comeback to the silver screen for the author after mainly working with television the past couple years, and it's a fine comeback indeed. Director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) has created the most atmospheric and downright tense thriller I can think of so far this year. The premise may be thin, and yeah, it doesn't always make a lot of sense. But damn, is it ever effective.

Mike Enslin (John Cusack) used to be a promising author until the untimely death of his young daughter, Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony). He walked out on his wife (Mary McCormack), moved to California, and now spends his time writing trashy paranormal novels about the world's most haunted areas. Mike does not believe in life after death personally, and pretty much does the job to pay the bills. He travels the world, doing research by staying overnight at places that are supposed to be haunted, gets some colorful background info that he can use for material, and then moves on to his next job. One day, Mike receives a postcard informing him of an old hotel in New York City called the Dolphin Hotel, which is supposed to have a room that has quite the history. Doing some private research, he learns that the Dolphin has had a long and tragic history of deaths, all of them surrounding the guests that have stayed in Room 1408. Mike books the room, despite the warnings of the hotel manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), who pulls out all the stops, even bribery, to change Mike's mind and keep him out of 1408. Entering the room, nothing seems ominous at first. But then, the room itself begins to take on a life of its own, and begins tormenting Mike with various ghostly apparitions, mind tricks, and even displaying his own painful past before him in various ways. With seemingly no way to escape (the door becomes locked, and the room alters itself so that there are no windows or other means of leaving), Mike must use his wits to save his own sanity before the evil of Room 1408 drives him insane.

1408 is the second thriller set around a hotel released in less than two months (the other being April's Vacancy), and is by far the superior film. The film is actually quite subtle in its way of creeping us out and disturbing us, which is a nice change of pace from the "bash you over the head with gore, when we're not boring you to death with the cheap characters" approach of films like Hostel: Part II. Rather than bombard the audience with ghostly special effects and gore, the movie gets under your skin and goes for a much more psychological approach. That's not to say there are no special effects used at all. The effects used to bring the room itself to life are quite impressive, but never become overwhelming or overpower the human actor in the middle of it all. This is not exactly a "haunted hotel room" story, as it is Room 1408 itself is alive and a very angry entity. As Samuel L. Jackson's character puts it at one point, "It's a f-ing evil room". The screenplay by Matt Greenberg (Reign of Fire), along with the writing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt), wisely does not even attempt to explain Room 1408. It's just a very evil presence that can somehow look deep within troubled souls, and torture them to death with their own personal demons. There are so many ways this idea could have gone wrong. In the wrong hands, this material could have been laughable, especially when Cusack's character starts hallucinating and having conversations with people that aren't even there. Even though the movie frequently flies into the realm of the unbelievable, it manages to somehow stay grounded.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that the film never loses its way, and become an excuse to throw as many special effects and jump scares into the movie as it possibly can. The human element of Mike Enslin is always at the center of the story itself, and its scares. The movie is built around the fact that he is forced to face his personal demons the longer he stays in his room, as well as try to keep his mind in check as various nightmarish hallucinations are paraded before him. The horror in this movie is very human, as well. Rather than having the hero being chased down by maniacs or vengeful spirits, he is being haunted by his own past, and the people that he has either betrayed or left behind. It's much more effective than the usual characters that have passed as villains in recent paranormal films (usually gray-skinned people with hair over their faces), and it never once becomes heavy-handed or preachy. This is also a tricky balance to pull off. When the room started showing him flashbacks of Mike's own past, I grew nervous, thinking that the movie was going to start hitting us over the head with morals. Fortunately, it never once loses its sense of the eerie, and remains appropriately unsettling throughout. The visions of Mike's past aren't here to teach him a lesson, they're here to scare the bejeezus out of him. I must admit, they do a very good job. This is a very tense movie, blowing every other horror film released this year out of the water. The tension builds slowly and takes its time settling in, but once it does, it rarely lets up.

At the center of the movie is John Cusack, who literally has to carry the movie almost by himself. This is essentially a one-man show for most of its running time, with fleeting apparitions being his main companions. Cusack has long been a favorite of mine since his beginnings in 80s teen comedies, and this is one of his stronger recent roles. He not only has to carry almost the entire film on his own, but he also has to convincingly act like he is slowly going insane without hamming it up, or losing his personality. Any actor can tell you that madness is a difficult thing to depict. Go too far, and you send your audience into unintentional hysterics. Don't go far enough, and you lose them. He strikes a very good balance, and remains believable throughout. Samuel L. Jackson is also notable in his small, but no less important, role as the manager who tries to talk Mike out of his decision to stay in the room. As Mike's ill-fated daughter, Jasmine Jessica Anthony should be applauded for being able to avoid most of the standard "creepy kid" cliches that plague just about every thriller this days. And then, of course, there is Room 1408, which is a character itself. The set designers, combined with the work of the special effects team, convincingly create a living entity out of the set itself. The way it is constantly changing itself, right down to the paintings on the wall, creates an effectively creepy atmosphere that is continuously bizarre, but never so much so that we lose our sense to believe.
1408 succeeds where so many other films have failed in that it is not about apparitions jumping out at the actors or lurking in dark shadows. It digs much deeper for its horror than simple jolt thrills, and becomes an effectively thrilling horror film. It could be argued that the whole thing loses some weight when we apply logic to the story. But seriously, who wants to apply logic to a movie about an evil hotel room that can read your mind? All I know is that for the 100 minutes or so this movie running, I was caught up in the moment, and loving it. When all is said and done, 1408 is a reminder of what horror can do. It can do so much more than thrill us. It can also make us laugh and leave us captivated. Perhaps what's more surprising than the fact that the movie can accomplish all that is that so few other horror films can.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

Nancy Drew

Having never read the various books, or watched the numerous movies and TV shows based around the character, I walked into Nancy Drew with no expectations or knowledge. I quickly came to realize that this may not be the best circumstances to watch this movie. It seems to delight in sending up the character and the stories every chance it gets, and almost seems to be one big in-joke. Nancy herself almost seems to be stuck in the same time warp that the Brady Bunch were in during the two theatrical films they got in the mid 90s. She still dresses like a teenager on a 1950s sitcom, and she's overly courteous, while the rest of the world around her has "evolved" into the cynical society we know today. It's admirable that she stays the same way she is at the beginning of the film, and does not let the outside world change her. As for the movie itself, it's not without its charms, but didn't really make me want to learn more about the character so I can be more in on the joke.

As the film opens, we find the famous teenage super sleuth Nancy (Emma Roberts) in her environment in the small old fashioned town of River Heights, where she is treated as a hero by the police and everyone else. She's forced to leave it all behind when Nancy's dad, Carson (Tate Donovan), gets a job opportunity in Los Angeles. While they're in L.A. for the summer, Nancy makes a promise to her father that she will be a normal girl and not get wrapped up in any mysteries. This promise proves to be hard to keep when it turns out the house they move into once belonged to an old-time movie actress named Dehlia Draycott (Laura Elena Harring), who disappeared for a couple years, made a surprising return, and then was found dead in her swimming pool shortly after she came back. More than uncovering the mystery that her new house holds, Nancy is finding it hard to fit in with the kids at her new school, with only a 12-year-old kid named Corky (John Flitter) supporting her. As she slowly gathers information and eventually tracks down Dehlia's lost daughter who was put up for adoption (Rachel Leigh Cook), Nancy finds her life in danger as mysterious men start leaving threatening phone calls and trying to run her down on the street. With some additional assistance from her best boyfriend from River Heights, Ned (Max Thieriot), Nancy just might be able to solve this decades-old Hollywood mystery.

Nancy Drew begins with a rather sweet tribute to the original stories, as we see a collection of the original books, and then are treated to some of the illustrations during the opening credits. From that point on, co-writer and director Andrew Fleming (Dick, The In-Laws) decides to go for less of a tribute approach, and gears more toward parody. I kind of got a hunch when stand up comic Chris Kattan showed up as an incompetent burglar whom Nancy foils in the opening scene, but when Nancy and her dad arrived at the spooky mansion that was to be their home in California, and the overly cheerful real estate lady happily points out "the strange, spooky caretaker who lives in the guest house down the hill", I knew that this movie wasn't exactly aiming to be a faithful recreation. The film is an odd mixture of in-joke parody, fish-out-of-water comedy, and preteen mystery. The problem here is that Nancy Drew often comes across as being directionless as it switches gears in each scene. It often feels padded and stretched out, as if the filmmakers couldn't figure out how to make it work. The mystery at the core of the story is a mess as well, and fails to capture our interest. Nancy seems to stumble onto clues with no explanation or effort, and some of her decisions don't even make sense. (Why would tracking down the long lost daughter of Dehlia help her if the daughter didn't know the actress was her mother in the first place?) There are some fun old-fashioned mystery elements in the film, such as using a flashlight to explore secret underground passages and riddles left behind by mysterious ghostly apparitions that pop up in the house, but these are underused and don't make as big of an impression as they should.

The main thing that keeps the film afloat is that it has a sense of fun that flows throughout, and the cast seem to be in generally good spirits. Young Emma Roberts comes from a very talented family (she is related to Julia Roberts), and although she still has a long way to go to matching up to some of the more famous members of her family, she still has a good spirit and likeable charm that at least makes Nancy easy to get behind. As her child sidekick, John Flitter squeezes off a couple good one liners here and there, and at least doesn't come across as being annoying. There's even a fun cameo by Bruce Willis who appears as himself when Nancy accidently finds herself on the set of a movie during one of her investigations. The only actor who doesn't seem to be having fun with his material is Max Thieriot, who seems so bland and uninteresting, you can't help but wonder what Nancy's attraction is to him. His line readings are dull and uninspired, and he almost seems to be half-asleep in some of his scenes. It's a sharp contrast to Roberts' spirited performance as the title character. Still, there are some other things to admire, such as a few action sequences that actually manage to build some real tension, and an overall attractive look to the film.
Nancy Drew is perfectly harmless kids entertainment that is sure to win over its target audiences, and not leave adults looking at their watches. I probably would have liked it even more if the film could decide if it wanted to be a tribute or a parody, as it sometimes tries to do both in the same scene. I personally liked the film best when it was being an old fashioned mystery, and focusing on Nancy herself, instead of making her a joke by having her stand out so much from the rest of society. As the film depicts her, Nancy is a positive person and an individual, not someone who deserves to be mocked or poked fun at. There's a lot to admire here, and even more to disappoint. The end result is a passable, but highly uneven, experience.


DOA: Dead or Alive

The journey that DOA: Dead or Alive took to the big screen is a long and complicated one. Originally set to be released in the summer of 2006, the film found itself lingering and sitting on the studio shelf as it waited for a release date. During this time, the film was released in numerous foreign countries over the past year, and is already available on DVD in many regions. You may wonder why Dimension Films would choose to give this movie a theatrical release now, when just about everyone who has wanted to see it has either already seen it, bought the import DVD, or watched it on line. That's a very good question, as this film would have probably been better suited as a straight to DVD release over here. At the very least, American filmgoers can now finally find out what viewers all over the world have known for the past year - Dead or Alive stinks.

Based on a series of fighting video games, the film is set on a remote island where a martial arts tournament is held every year by the evil Donovan (Eric Roberts), who wishes to use technology to study and copy the moves of the world's best fighters, and turn himself into the best martial artist by stealing all of their abilities. The competitors that the film mainly follows include a ninja princess named Kasumi (Devon Aoki), who is searching for her brother, after he competed in the tournament the previous year, and mysteriously went missing. Southern pro wrestler Tina Armstrong (Jaime Pressley) is fighting to prove that she is a real martial artist after years of being ridiculed for her scripted wrestling fights. Finally, professional thief Christie Allen (Holly Valance) has come not only to compete, but to also steal a fortune that is supposedly locked away in a secret vault somewhere on the island. The three girls eventually catch on to Donovan's evil plan with the help of Helena Douglas (Sarah Carter), the daughter of the man who originally founded the tournament years ago and believes Donovan is behind his death, and Donovan's former technology head, Weatherby (Steve Howey), who has had a change of heart, and wants to shut his former boss down.

Okay, let's be honest, I was not expecting DOA: Dead or Alive to be good. I mean, it's based on a video game series that is best known for being the first 3D fighting game to feature bouncing breasts on its female fighters. But, even trash can be fun if done the right way, and I geared myself up to be in the right mind set to enjoy this intentional cheese-fest. I quickly found myself fighting a losing battle, thanks to the uninspired direction by Corey Yuen (The Transporter). I do admit, some of the fight scenes are fun. Christy's introduction scene, where she fights off some federal agents wearing only a towel, is good clean campy fun. Unfortunately, very few of the fights contained within the film are fun or interesting. It's not that they're badly choreographed or that the fighting isn't up to par. It's just that many of them are rather unmemorable, and they eventually start to blend into each other. If you're going to build your movie around beautiful women beating up each other and other people, you should at least have fun with it. The women are all physically able, but don't seem to be enjoying themselves. It doesn't help matters that the performances are generally terrible all around. Devon Aoki really needs to learn more than one facial expression, or at least learn not to talk in the same tone of voice, no matter what line she's delivering. I also found Jaime Pressley's overly forced Southern drawl to be a bit much, even for a movie as goofy as this.

As I'm sure you can tell, the plot really doesn't matter here. It's all about the fights, and the T&A. Those who are seeking such things will probably have to wait for the inevitable "Unrated" DVD, as the film's PG-13 rating pretty much prevents the movie from going down the path it wants to go down. However, for a movie that obviously doesn't care about the plot, there sure is a lot of it. Everyone seems to have their own story and reason for fighting, but none of them are developed in any satisfactory way. The subplot that gets the most attention is Kasumi's search for her missing brother, so I will focus on that. Apparently, the people of her kingdom are upset that she left to fight in the tournament, and have sent a purple-haired assassin named Ayane (Natassia Malthe) after her to kill her. It's impossible to take this plot seriously, as not only is it completely underdeveloped, but with her unconvincing purple wig, Ayane looks more like someone costume playing at a Japanese anime convention, than a trained assassin. I'm assuming the filmmakers were trying to stay true to the original video game character (I have not played the DOA games, so I do not know if Ayane has purple hair), but they had to have known how ridiculous she looked as a live character, and maybe gone a different route.

There's one other point I feel the need to bring up. After seeing Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer yesterday and now this, I am completely convinced that writers have run out of good ideas when it comes to plots for their villains. Donovan's ultimate scheme makes Dr. Doom's evil scheme seem downright genius in comparison. So, Donovan wants to capture the ability of the world's greatest fighters using these little microscopic robots that he injects into the fighters during a screening process. These robots study and read their movements, downloading them into a computer. He can then use this gathered information to beam all of the fighting skills of everyone there into his body, thus making him the greatest martial artist in the world. Far fetched? Oh, hell, yes. But that's not the part that bothers me. What bothers me is his choice of how he decides to transfer this information into his body. The information can only be gathered when he's wearing this special pair of highly advanced sunglasses. As long as he's wearing the sunglasses, he's all powerful. Now, let me ask you something. If you're in a fight, don't you think the sunglasses would be hard to keep on your face at all times? Wouldn't they be far to easy for your opponent to knock off, thus rendering you helpless and vulnerable? I imagine that this Donovan person thought his evil scheme through for all of five minutes, gave himself a pat on the back, and didn't even bother to look at the obvious.
DOA: Dead or Alive obviously wants to be a fun, goofy romp in the style of the Charlie's Angels films. Only problem is that it's not a lot of fun, and it's hard to get involved with. Making an enjoyable trashy film is a very fine art, and I have great admiration for those who are able to pull it off. This movie makes so many mistakes, we stop concentrating on the fights and the beautiful women, and start concentrating on the numerous plot holes and chainsaw-style editing. (One minute, the girls are standing in a lab that's just been sealed off, and the next time we see them, they're being held captive in these oversized capsule containers with no explanation what happened, or who put them in those containers.) When it was over, I couldn't help but think of another phrase that DOA also stands for, and suits this movie so much better - Dead on Arrival.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

2005's Fantastic Four movie was not a favorite amongst the comic book fans, but it apparently made enough money to warrant a sequel, because here I am reviewing Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. I can hardly wait to see the massive Internet backlash that will ensue when the fans lay their eyes upon this movie. The original was no great shakes, but compared to the sequel, it looks like it belongs on the A.F.I. list. Wildly campy, woefully executed, and just plain wrong-headed in almost every frame of film, I have a strong hunch that this film will be spoken in the same sentence as past infamous comic book film bombs as Batman and Robin and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.

As we rejoin our superheroes, team leaders Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) have been trying to tie the knot for the past few months, but every time they try, some world catastrophe or villain shows up, and they have to postpone. As for the other members of the Fantastic Four, Sue's brother Johnny (Chris Evans) is trying to capitalize on the fame of their heroic exploits, and is looking for merchandising deals and corporate sponsorships, while the kind-hearted brute made of stone Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis)...Well, he's pretty much a guy made out of rocks, since the screenplay doesn't give him much to do in the film. Reed and Sue's latest wedding is interrupted by the arrival of a strange alien creature made of a metal-like substance who flies around on a surfboard, and whom Reed dubs the Silver Surfer (performance by Doug Jones, voice by Laurence Fishburne). The Surfer brings with him a dire and ominous warning that a powerful destructive force known as Galactus is coming to destroy Earth. The Fantastic Four find themselves hired by the military so they can exploit Reed's scientific knowledge to track down and capture the Surfer. Meanwhile, the Four's arch nemesis, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) is back, and he even seems to be helping the military in tracking down the alien threat. Of course, Doom has other things in mind, as he wants to use the Surfer's powers for his own evil ends.

No matter how bad a movie is, I always try to find a silver lining. The best thing that I can say about Fantastic Four is that at a breezy 90 minutes, the movie comes and goes in a blink of an eye. I'm not trying to be sarcastic when I say this. In a day and age when summer blockbusters are pushing nearly three hours in length, it's somewhat refreshing to see a movie that doesn't overstay its welcome. It's a good thing too, because if I had to sit through another hour and a half of this, I'd go mad. Returning director Tim Story obviously saw no need to fix the mistakes he made the first time around. He obviously only looked at the fact that the first film made money, so he figured he must be onto something. Too bad it's obvious he has no clue what he is doing. Such examples are the inconsistent special effects (Most of the film's special effects budget seems to have gone into making the Silver Surfer somewhat believable. All the other effects look like something you'd find in a video game.), to the horribly underdeveloped characters that don't show a single shred of personality or life, all the way down to the campy jokes and dialogue that sound like something out of the worst Saturday morning cartoon you remember watching when you were growing up. It certainly doesn't help that the screenplay by returning screenwriter Mark Frost and newcomer Don Payne (TV's The Simpsons, My Super Ex-Girlfriend) is switching gears so much that it becomes borderline schizophrenic. Some scenes are campy and cheesy to the point of overkill, while others are so melodramatic they become unintentionally laughable. It's almost like the writers were working against each other, fighting over control of the movie's tone, and just couldn't come to a compromise.

They obviously spent so much time arguing over the tone of the movie itself that they forgot to pay attention to the plot. Character motivation is pretty much all but non-existent here. There's a subplot about Reed and Sue considering disbanding the team so that they can lead normal lives after they finally get married, but this is dropped almost as soon as it's introduced, only to have it get resolved in a brief line of dialogue literally in the last minute or two of the movie. Johnny Storm gets his own subplot about his molecules being rearranged after an encounter with the Silver Surfer, so afterward, whenever he touches one of the other members of the team, he gains their power, and the person he touches gains his. Once again, absolutely nothing is done with this, as it exists mainly for cheap gags, and is once again resolved with a throw away line during the final moments of the film. Even the villain's plot doesn't really make much sense when you think about it. Victor Von Doom wants the Surfer's surfboard, because it gives the alien his power, and Doom wants the power for himself. However, the board itself is also apparently calling forth this Galactus creature that's going to destroy the world. Considering that the board will call forth someone who wants to kill him, I don't see the logic in Doom's decision to want it so badly. This issue is never addressed. Doom just wants it. Maybe he doesn't care what happens to him, but it sure does make him seem like a rather idiotic "evil genius" that he doesn't even realize that he won't even be able to enjoy the power the board contains if it's going to eventually lead to his own death. And you'd think the writers could come up with something for Ben Grimm (aka The Thing) to do other than just toss one liners. Actually, that's the key problem at the source of this movie. No one does anything most of the time. The powers of the Fantastic Four are mainly used as gags this time around, rather than actually helping or saving people. Other than a couple rare scenes, they're just special effects that serve very little purpose to the story itself.

Since the characters are treated so haphazardly, it's hard to care about them, or anything that's happening to them. We don't learn much about the Silver Surfer, other than a little bit about his background. Most of the time, he simply flies around and acts as an impressive special effect rather than a character contributing to the plot. Strange that he gets his name in the title, yet has so little to do in the actual movie itself. The fact that Laurence Fishburne delivers the Surfer's lines with such melodrama you'd think he was doing Shakespeare instead of a goofy comic book movie that's obviously aimed at kids doesn't help matters. The rest of the cast don't hold up much better. Ioan Gruffudd and Jessica Alba have zero chemistry, and both have the personality of a hunk of wood, so we can't concern ourselves much with them. Chris Evans' cocky sarcasm quickly grows tiresome. And Michael Chiklis seems annoyed, as well he should be. He had to get back inside that "Thing" costume, and barely gets to do anything for his trouble. The worst performance, however, is given by Julian McMahon, who just is not menacing or interesting as Victor Von Doom. Like everyone else, he's mainly stuck doing nothing until a very anticlimactic final scene where he's defeated in about a minute and a half after he flies around on the alien surfboard for a while. Everyone who walks into this movie seems to either camp it up, or seem rather bored and irritated. I have to admit, I could relate to the actors in the second group.
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer contains just about everything that can go wrong in a summer blockbuster. It's dull, it's corny, it's idiotic, and it often doesn't even make much sense. When you've got a superhero movie about people with amazing powers, and the best thing you can think of is to have the characters use their powers for cheap sight gags, something is very wrong and you have to look at things another way. It's a shame that nobody involved with this project ever thought of it. I can't see who this movie would appeal to, other than very young children, who are certain to find it funny and the Silver Surfer itself cool. Comic book movies have been fighting for a while now to be taken more seriously with audiences and critics. Fantastic Four takes all that effort, flushes it down the toilet, and sends everything back to the way it was before.


Saturday, June 09, 2007

Hostel: Part II

To hear writer-director Eli Roth talk in interviews, you'd think the guy was re-inventing the wheel and crossing major boundaries with his Hostel horror franchise. I hate to burst a person's bubble, but this is just absolutely not true. Hostel: Part II, the sequel to his surprise 2006 hit, is bound to put even the most devoted of gorehounds to sleep. He fills the movie with characters we couldn't possibly care about, and then expects us to be terrified when they are killed and tortured in gruesome ways. The problem is, Roth expects us to be terrified sheerly by bloodshed alone. Violence is not supposed to be the source of the horror, it is supposed to be the result. Roth never seems to quite grasp this, and as a result, Hostel: Part II comes across merely as a special effects make up demo reel surrounded by long stretches where nothing much of interest ever happens.

After a short prologue depicting the outcome of the sole survivor of the previous film (Jay Hernandez), we're introduced to our three heroines this time around. They include all around average girl Beth (Lauren German), slutty Whitney (Bijou Phillips), and over the top to the point of self-parody nice girl Lorna (Heather Matarazzo). They're traveling across Rome taking art courses, and during their travels, they wind up on a train that seems to contain every single obnoxious frat boy and creepy sleaze cliche that's ever existed in cinema history. During the train ride, they befriend an art model (Vera Jordanova) who tells them about a spa located in Slovakia. The three girls unwisely take the model's detour advice, and find themselves staying at the notorious Hostel from the original film, which acts as a secret operation for a group of wealthy people who pay handsome prices to torture and murder the unfortunate travelers who stay there. The girls party, get drunk, and discover too late just what they've gotten themselves into.

In a parallel plot, two wealthy American businessmen named Todd (Richard Burgi) and Stuart (Roger Bart) have decided to join the top secret torture club. They wind up winning the bets on our three young heroines, tell their families they're going away on business, and set off to find a sick thrill in murdering these girls they've never met. Todd is pumped at the idea, while Stuart seems less than sure, and almost seems to be having second thoughts as the two draw closer to their destination. I suppose Roth is trying to give us a look at both sides of the fence. Whereas in the previous film, the villains were mainly faceless killers who murdered innocent young travelers for twisted sport, here he tries to put a face and a personality to the evil. It doesn't work, because Roth doesn't give us enough to go with. We never really learn Todd's reasons for wanting to do this, while Stuart is apparently bored with his upper class suburban life, and is looking for a quick thrill. Stuart is clearly the most interesting character in the film, and cries out for a screenplay that dives deep into his character and his train of thought, which seems to constantly be wavering back and forth. Roth's screenplay, however, is content to only skim the surface of this potentially interesting character, and instead gives us more of the same.

Yes, despite the filmmaker's insistence that he is pushing the boundaries, Hostel: Part II truly is more of the same. We've got another group of travelers that are completely underdeveloped and unlikeable, the movie wastes too much time in pointless set up that seems to go nowhere, and then we're "treated" to about a half hour or so of torture before the end credits relieve the audience of their collective misery. The strange thing is, the torture and violence (the main selling points of the film) is kept mainly off camera this time around. Aside from a sequence that is a literal bloodbath, and a scene near the end that includes the removal of a man's private sexual organ, there's very little to shock or horrify. The movie merely spins its wheels, promising us that this is all leading up to something, only to laugh at us for getting our hopes up. We spend so much of the movie watching the three main girls partying, cut between scenes with the two villains traveling to their destination or talking to each other, that our interest begins to fade and we just want the girls to die so that the movie can be over with. The film throws a little bit of dark humor into the mix concerning some very violent little street kids (when they find a decapitated head, they act like it's no big deal, and begin playing soccer with it), but it can't hide the fact that there's not a single original thought in the screenplay. Even the supposedly shocking torture scenes that the movie leads up to are mostly forgettable, aside from the previously mentioned "bloodbath" scene. Watching the film, I couldn't help but wonder if either I was just becoming desensitized to over the top horror gore, or if Mr. Roth just wasn't trying hard enough.

Hostel: Part II makes the same mistake the original film did, in that it mistakes gore and bloodshed for genuine terror. Unless that violence builds from something, it's just fake blood being splattered on the screen. It also carries on the mistake of making it impossible to care for just about anyone who walks onto the screen. If you want a reaction to the death of the innocent girls, you have to give us a reason to react. The characters of Beth, Whitney and Lorna are so two-dimensional and uninteresting, all we can do is just sit there and think of how they're going to meet their individual end. They possess no personality for us to feel anything for them and, aside from their very basic character traits, are pretty much the same person. I even found it hard to take the character of Lorna seriously, as the screenplay goes to such extremes to display her naivety and sweetness that she looks like she wandered in from a parody of horror films. (While Beth and Whitney drink alcoholic beverages, Lorna is seen sipping from a child's juice box.) As stated before, Stuart is the closest thing this movie has to an interesting character. It's no surprise that Roger Bart's performance as the character is the closest thing the film has to a real performance as well. Having mainly seen him perform in New York theater and comedic films like 2005's The Producers, it was interesting to see his take on such a dark and tortured character, and I wish the movie had used him more.
I think that anyone who walks into Hostel: Part II looking for a good scare is going to be severely disappointed. Horror can do much. It can thrill us, make us excited, make us laugh...This movie does none of that, nor do I think it wants to. This is just another movie title that everyone involved can put on their resumes, and then move on. The idea of wealthy people betting for the chance to kill total strangers is a strong and workable one, but to see it wasted in this film is more terrifying than any death scene Roth can dream up. When it was over, I felt deeply disturbed, but not for reasons the movie intended. I was disturbed by the fact that a filmmaker can completely miss the point not once, but twice.


Surf's Up

Given Hollywood's current love affair with penguins, Surf's Up had to do something different in order to stand out. Fortunately, directors Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2) and Chris Buck (Disney's Tarzan) realized this, and made not a conventional animated film that one would expect, but rather a "mockumentary" in the style of filmmaker Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind). It's a great idea, and it makes the movie a lot more fun than it would be if it had taken a more standard route. That's because behind the film's unique approach, Surf's Up is pretty standard stuff that we've seen one too many times before. The plotting, humor, and characters are old standbys of modern day animated films, but the unique spin on it all makes it watchable for adults who will be taken to this movie by their kids.

Modeled after real life surfing documentary films like The Endless Summer, Surf's Up follows a little penguin named Cody Maverick (voice by Shia LeBeouf from Disturbia) and his dreams of being a great surfer like his idol, the legendary Big Z, who died years ago in a massive wipeout. No one in Cody's penguin community in Shiverpool, Antarctica believes in his dream until the day a little talent scout bird (Mario Cantone) arrives in his town, looking for potential surfers for the upcoming Big Z Memorial Surf Off on Pen Gu Island. Cody makes the cut to go to the competition, and quickly befriends a burned out chicken surfer named Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) and the beautiful penguin lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel). He also runs afoul of the current surfing champ, a muscle-bound bully penguin named Tank (Diedrich Bader). Cody's determination to be somebody drives him to be the best in the competition, and with the help of a mysterious island recluse (Jeff Bridges) who seems to know a lot about surfing and Cody's idol Big Z, he just may get his chance.

Surf's Up has a lot of fun with its documentary approach, and the moments when it steps away from the plot and shows us interviews with both major and minor characters are easily the most inspired moments of the film. The movie does a good job of representing an actual camera crew there in the action, and includes some intentional bloopers such as boom mikes getting into the shot, the off camera voices of the filmmakers sometimes commenting on the action, and the camera getting hit or knocked into, causing the screen to shake momentarily. While other animated films have used this approach for certain scenes, this is the first time I can remember that the "documentary" approach has been used throughout the entirety of a full length cartoon. The filmmakers know how and when to use this approach as well, so that it never interferes with the story being told. That being said, the story easily winds up being the weakest part of the film. The whole "follow your dreams" and "it's not about winning, it's about having fun" themes that the film preaches are old hat to anyone who's ever watched a cartoon in the past five years or so. With it's unique approach, I was hoping the filmmakers might try to have some fun with the plot cliches as well. Unfortunately, the style of the movie seems to exist solely to mask the fact that there's not a single original thought in the entire screenplay.

The jokes are largely hit or miss as well. Though always enjoyable and cute, Surf's Up doesn't deliver on very many laugh out loud moments for anyone above the age of 10. The opening moments in Antarctica, when the filmmakers are talking to Cody and his family and friends easily hold the biggest laughs. Once the plot itself kicks in, things become a lot more conventional. We even get a couple of the seemingly-standard "poo jokes" as well. The fact that Cody and his love interest, Lani, share a moment together in a pile of glo-worm droppings kind of tells you that this movie doesn't exactly aim for the heights with its humor. There's even some potential hidden drug humor with the character of Cody's friend, Chicken Joe, who talks like a burned out surfer stoner, and sometimes has a case of the "munchies" as he looks for his next "rush". Maybe I was reading too much into it, but the fact that the adults in the audience were laughing at the character more than the kids kind of tells me I'm not too far off the mark. It's disappointing that despite the creative approach, the humor is often juvenile. That's not to say all the jokes miss their mark, it's just that the "interview" segments are often so much more clever than the jokes featured in the story itself. The characters also seem rushed, and not as developed as they should be. Cody and Lani's relationship never really builds, they just find themselves liking each other. I also wish more could have been done with the greedy competition promoter who, as voiced by the always excellent James Woods, seems like a much more interesting villain character than the brainless and egotistical Tank.

Now, I don't want to stress only the negatives, as this is not a bad movie at all. Even if the movie doesn't always deliver on the laughs, it is often fun to watch. I liked the look of Surf's Up quite a lot. It has a much less "realistic" look to it than last November's Happy Feet, as all of the characters are drawn in a much more exaggerated cartoon style. Still, there are some impressive sequences, such as when Cody and Lani go flying down a winding volcanic path. And even if the characters aren't quite as memorable as they should be, the performances are generally top tier all the way around. Shia LeBeouf once again proves he's one of the best young adult actors working in Hollywood today, and I can't wait to see how his career progresses, as I think he's the real thing. He bring a lot of humanity and humor to his line readings as Cody, and makes him a character we can easily get behind. Jeff Bridges is also a stand out as the mysterious penguin who takes Cody under his wing, and teaches him about Big Z's philosophy on surfing. The film also includes a fun soundtrack featuring both modern and classic songs that fit the action nicely.
We may have seen it all before, but the unique approach and generally strong production values help lift Surf's Up a little higher than it would if the filmmakers had chosen the more standard route. If anything, the film is a step up from Sony Animation Studio's last attempt - the terrible Open Season. This movie has plenty of charm and good ideas, but it lacks the intelligence in its humor to go along with it. With a smarter and tighter sense of humor, this could have been a blast. As it is, Surf's Up will have to settle for being very cute and entertaining, but just a little bit too slight for its own good. If anyone ever tries to do another animated "documentary" film, may I suggest hiring Christopher Guest to do the screenplay? He's certainly got the experience.


Friday, June 08, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen

George Clooney, star of the Ocean series, has stated that making the films has been almost like one big party. If that is so, then Ocean's Thirteen is the last remaining hours of that party. The guests are kind of just hanging around, refusing to leave, and all of the energy from before is gone. That's not to say the movie is completely devoid of entertainment. It's just compared to 2001's energetic remake of Ocean's Eleven, this movie seems rather tired, except for a few brief moments of comic inspiration. The entire cast seems to be on auto pilot, no one seems as interested as before, and only the natural charm of its large cast keeps Ocean's Thirteen from sinking completely into mediocrity.

The con that drives the plot of the latest installment finds the slick Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his band of cohorts trying to sabotage the grand opening of a luxurious Las Vegas hotel and casino. One of Danny's close friends (Elliott Gould) was originally a partial owner of the hotel, until his shifty and greedy partner in the project, a millionaire named Willie Bank (Al Pacino), conned him out of his part of the deal and forced him to sign entire ownership of the resort to him. Danny's friend is now bedridden after suffering a heart attack brought on by the backstabbing. Determined not to let Willie get away with his scheme, Danny and his team of professional con men set up a grand series of schemes to ruin the hotel. These include rigging the games, simulating earthquakes underneath the hotel, seducing Willie's most trusted associate (Ellen Barkin), and teaming up with a former rival (Andy Garcia) to pull off their most complex scheme yet.

To say that one needs to check their brain at the door in order to truly enjoy Ocean's Thirteen is an understatement. Any poor sap who tries to apply logic to a movie where the heroes can spend millions of dollars on a massive drilling device, place it underneath the hotel and casino, and simulate an earthquake without anyone noticing them hauling the thing around underneath the streets of Vegas is fighting a losing battle. This is the kind of movie where Danny and his team of ultra cool and slick con artists can do no wrong. They never get in any real danger, any problem is solved in less than five minutes, and all of their enemies either have Jell-O pudding for brains, or are easily manipulated by their charms. I guess it helps if your group of cons include guys as handsome as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. If you've seen the previous two Ocean films, you pretty much know what to expect here. Danny Ocean and his men use their wit, charm and good looks to pull off a seemingly impossible heist or job, and avoid getting into trouble. The formula may be the same, but that doesn't mean there's no fun that can still be had. As implausible as the con is, it can be pretty entertaining to watch them pull it off. There's also some genuine laughs here and there, such as an unfortunate hotel critic (David Paymer) who finds himself at the butt of Danny's pranks, and a scene that displays the effects an episode of Oprah can have on men.

The problem here is not exactly with the planning or the set up. Rather, it is the execution that makes Ocean's Thirteen just not quite as much fun as its predecessors. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh is known for his slick visual style, but here, it seems curiously flat. Not one sequence truly stands out, except for a couple moments that utilize a multiple split scene late in the film. By then, it's too little too late. Most of the original cast from the past two films return, but strangely Julia Roberts is missing in action this time around. Danny Ocean doesn't have a female counterpart to play off of this time around, and her presence is definitely missed. The cast members who do return bring their charm and likeable performances along with them, but something still seems missing. Maybe it's the fact that aside from Clooney, Pitt and Damon, none of Ocean's gang have much to do in this film. Oh sure, they all play a part in the job of sabotaging the hotel, but their characters are so thinly developed that they spend most of the action standing around. The film's large cast is made up of an impressive roster of talent including Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Carl Reiner, and Eddie Izzard. It's too bad the film seems to be grasping at straws at how to use them successfully. We keep on waiting for them to get their moment to shine, and it never comes. While I was never bored by Ocean's Thirteen, I did find myself severely disappointed on a number of opportunities, watching so much untapped potential standing around.

That's not to say all the performances suffer. Al Pacino seems to be having fun as the back-stabbing villain, but never gets carried away into his trademark ranting and raving. He's cool, calculating, and often very funny. Ellen Barkin as Pacino's partner in crime is given slightly less to do throughout the film, but she still manages to come out on top, thanks to her last couple scenes. Not much else stands out about the film, however. Ocean's Thirteen is strictly by the numbers, and most of the returning cast seem to realize that. It's no surprise that since Pacino and Barkin are newcomers to the franchise, their performances are the most energetic to be found. Not even the usually energetic vibe of the city of Vegas itself can bring much life to this movie, as the film strangely uses very little of it. The city is mainly used for establishing shots, and most of the major action takes place within the confines of the fictional casino that Danny and his boys are trying to bring down. A bit more variety in a city as crazy as Vegas would have been appreciated. Last month's mediocre comedy-drama, Lucky You, benefitted from using the city to its advantage. It's a shame that Soderbergh and his crew narrowed their focus so much.
Ocean's Thirteen is not without entertainment, but you really get the sense that the franchise has stretched itself thin. I truly hope that this is the final job for Danny Ocean and his men, as I don't know if adding another number to the title will be enough. Those who have followed it from the beginning are sure to find something to like here, just maybe not as much as before. The charm of the cast can only carry this movie so far. Sooner or later, the filmmakers are going to have to add some substance behind the cool vibes and attitude. If they don't, this series will sink fast, and I don't want to see that happen.


Saturday, June 02, 2007

Mr. Brooks

At the very beginning of Mr. Brooks, the following words flash upon the screen...

"The Hunger has returned to Mr. Brooks' brain. It never really left".

I smiled a little when I read that. It sounded like the opening sentence of some kind of trashy murder novel. And if you strip away the big name actors and sleek production values, that's what you'll find Mr. Brooks is. The movie piles on so many serial killers, double identities, blackmailers, and ominous people that it becomes hard to take the film seriously as it goes on. It's not enough to have the lead character be a serial killer. No, there has to be a wannabe one, a potential one, and one who's just there for no real reason. The movie becomes bogged down in so many plots and characters, when all we really want is the title character himself.

The name in the title refers to Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner), a seemingly upstanding middle aged man who runs a box factory, and is the pride of his local community. What his loving wife (Marg Helgenberger) and trusting young adult daughter (Danielle Panabaker) do not realize is that mild mannered Earl is leading a double life. At night, he sometimes likes to sneak into people's homes after spying on them for a short while, and murder them. His signature is always leave a bloody thumbprint of his victim's somewhere in the room, thus being dubbed "The Thumbprint Killer" by the media. Earl has been able to resist his murderous urges for two years now, but thanks to the nagging of a twisted voice inside his head, who takes the form of an imaginary man named Marshall (William Hurt) that only Earl can see and hear, Brooks is starting to get back into the murder business. Hard-boiled detective, Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore) is hot on Earl's trail, but she also has to deal with her ex-husband who is trying to scam millions out of her in divorce settlements, and an escaped convict who is trying to murder her, since Tracy put him behind bars in the first place.

To make matters even more complicated, the night when Earl committed his most recent violent act, he was unknowingly seen by a slimy photographer and peeping tom by the name of Mr. Smith (comic actor Dane Cook in his first dramatic role), who just happened to be spying on the couple that Brooks murdered. Smith decides to blackmail Earl. He won't go to the cops with his photographic evidence if Earl will teach him how to kill. So, not only must Earl try his best to ignore this imaginary man named Marshall urging him to kill again, he's got this wacko trying to learn his private business. But that's still not enough for this movie. There's also a subplot concerning Earl's daughter, and a secret that she may be keeping from the rest of the family. Everything threatens to explode all at once, and poor Earl becomes tortured trying to make sense of it all, as does the audience.

For a movie with such a simple title, Mr. Brooks sure is complicated. The movie seems to want to be a look into the mind of a normal man who is helplessly addicted to murder, and the rush that it gives him. The way that it handles this is somewhat clever, with William Hurt taking the physical form of Brooks' darker side. The conversations that Costner and Hurt have in all of their scenes together are actually an internal back and forth debate, with both the rational and murderous side of Brooks' brain struggling for control of the man. Costner represents the sane side of his character, while Hurt camps it up with evil glee as the side he chooses not to show people. When the movie is dealing with the main character's struggle within, it is constantly on the verge of being interesting. Co-writer and director Bruce A. Evans (a man who has had a very diverse screenplay career, ranging from the very good coming of age drama Stand By Me, to the awful mid-90s pirate film, Cutthroat Island) has a lot of fun with this idea, even adding some intentional dark laughs in the back and forth between the actors representing both sides of the character. The problem is, the movie doesn't seem to have enough faith in this clever idea, and thinks we'd be more interested in seeing Detective Tracy Atwood's divorce struggle.

I want to know who looked at this screenplay and thought this would be a good idea. If the movie is called Mr. Brooks, why does it keep on trying to turn our attention away from him? While Costner gets plenty of screen time during the film, a lot of his scenes either don't deal with his internal struggle enough, or they don't deal with it at all. Instead, we get a lot of scenes of him driving around with the wannabe serial killer, Mr. Smith, observing various people. And even though the character of Tracy Atwood is supposed to be on his trail, she never seems really determined to the case as she should be. Most of her scenes revolve around being angry at her ex-husband, or being on the run from another serial killer who is trying to wipe her out after escaping from prison. This other serial killer character is completely unnecessary, distracts us from the killer we're supposed to be concentrating on, and is just a plain bad idea that should have been written out of the script at an early stage. He brings nothing to the film itself, has nothing to do with the actual plot, and acts only as pointless filler. For some reason, the filmmakers thought the movie needed another serial killer and/or deranged individual. My question is why? You've got a great thing with Mr. Brooks and his internal struggle. Heck, I would have loved to have seen a movie that just revolved around Costner and Hurt's characters, as their scenes are the only moments the film displays any actual thought. The rest is your standard string of moldy serial killer cliches that have been seen in too many bargain basement thrillers and prime time TV cop dramas.

Outside of the two male leads, the rest of the cast just don't live up. Demi Moore looks wonderful, and looks like she hasn't aged in the past 10 years or so. Her character of the smart and sharp-tongued detective holds a lot of promise, but unfortunately, she plays a very small role in the film's main plot. Aside from questioning people in the building across from where Earl's victims lived, her character really does not play any part. She never gets to do any scenes with Costner, and spends most of her time griping about her ex-husband than she does investigating the murder. In his first dramatic role, comedian Dane Cook is passable, but not very memorable as the man who wants to learn Brooks' secrets of the murder trade. He's appropriately slimy and untrustworthy, but there's nothing there in his performance. He's all attitude and crazed looks, and no real personality. As Earl's wife and daughter, Marg Helgenberger and Danielle Panabaker are woefully underused, and barely even register. Panabaker gets a couple potentially intriguing moments as the daughter, but she never gets to fully exploit the possibilities other than a sequence late in the film that winds up being a total cop out.
Much like this weekend's other major release, Knocked Up, Mr. Brooks would have greatly benefitted from a less is more approach. You can literally see potential everywhere you look, but it is drowned out by cliches and numerous pointless subplots vying for our attention. I wanted to know more about Earl Brooks himself. We know he's been killing people for a long time, but for just how long? How long has he been "talking" to Marshall? What ultimately pushed him down the road that we find him when the movie opens? If Brooks actually existed and gave you an in-depth look into his past and his mind, anyone would probably have a wealth of information to create a great story. It's too bad the writers of this movie didn't bother to dig deep enough into the mind of their own character. They'd have one heck of a movie if they had.


Knocked Up

2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin was comic actor Steve Carell's ticket to becoming a leading man. Now Virgin's director and co-writer, Judd Apatow, is hoping to do the same thing with Seth Rogen, one of the co-stars of the earlier film. Rogen's star debut is Knocked Up, a strange mesh of juvenile guy and stoner humor and a chick flick dealing seriously with couples, intimacy issues, and unplanned parenthood. Just reading that last sentence, you probably have a hard time picturing the genres working well together. While it's not a total disaster, Knocked Up lacks the charm of Apatow's previous effort, and never settles on a consistent tone. I kept on wanting to embrace this movie, but it lacks a star-making lead performance from Seth Rogen. That's not to say he's bad, I just think I prefer him as a supporting actor rather than a leading man.

As the film opens, we meet two very different people. Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) is a young woman who lives with her control freak sister (Leslie Mann) and her sister's husband (Paul Rudd), who has just learned that she's been promoted on her network TV job from working behind the scenes to being on camera. Alison and her sister go to a local club to celebrate, and it's there that they meet Ben Stone (Seth Rogen). Ben is a "professional slacker" who smokes pot with his slacker friends, and who has been living off of an accident settlement from 10 years ago. In his spare time, he works on a website devoted to female nude shots in movies. Ordinarily Alison and Ben would have nothing in common, but after one too many drinks, they're sneaking off to Alison's bedroom for some unprotected sex. The morning after comes, and Alison realizes the mistake she's made. Weeks later, she realizes something else - She's pregnant. Determined to make something good come out of this experience, the two try to get to know each other's ways. Alison must deal with her new job while being pregnant, while Ben must finally take responsibility for something for the first time in his life, and grow up so to speak.

Writer-director Judd Apatow got his start writing for television, and it plainly shows in his new film. For all intents and purposes, Knocked Up is a feature length sitcom, only with four-letter words and crude humor. The characters trade zingers and one-liners so rapidly that the addition of an off camera laugh track would not feel out of place. Ben surrounds himself with a small group of stoner friends that behave exactly like the "wacky" supporting neighbor characters in your standard sitcom. They pop up, say a few gags, and then disappear until they are needed again. The characters even talk about subjects that have long been the topics of many sitcoms, such as how men and women view certain aspects of a romantic relationship differently. That's not to say Apatow's screenplay is entirely on auto pilot. There are some very sharp and funny observations throughout. One of the highlights is a lengthy monologue given by a bouncer outside of a dance club about his job, and his life in general. The movie also handles Ben and Alison's reluctant relationship in a very mature and almost sensitive manner. The screenplay is wise to let us slowly see the love between them develop, so that it never comes across as being forced or mechanical. Only problem is that the characters weren't very interesting to me. I know Ben is supposed to be obnoxious and crude, but he never came across as likeable to me so that I could forgive him. And we never really learn anything about Alison, other than she interviews celebrities on the Entertainment Channel, which gives the movie numerous celebrity cameos to flaunt, none of which are memorable.

What held Knocked Up back for me is that Apatow does not know when to quit. He surrounds the moments that work with so much needless filler that the movie falls victim to too many dry spells where the film just failed to grab my attention. With a running time that extends to well over two hours, the movie is filled with moments that could have easily been trimmed or cut out completely in order to create a much more tolerable 100 minute long movie. Ben's stoner pals are a prime example, as they exist simply for crude humor that have nothing to do with the film itself. They take us away from the relationship of the two leads, which really should be the central focus. They start to become an annoying distraction, and I found myself dreading their next appearance. With seemingly each scene taking a somewhat different tone, the film also comes across as being severely fragmented. Apatow seemed to be uncertain this time around of just what kind of movie he was trying to make. His characters suffer, because they're forced to act differently in almost every scene. We never get a clear look into the minds of these characters, because they seem to change their minds so frequently. Ben's personality shifts from obnoxious gross out slacker to kind and sensitive guy seemingly at a drop of a hat. Part of this may be contributed to Seth Rogen's performance, who never seemed to come across as a proper leading man to me. Even a comedic leading man playing a likeable slob has to have charm, and Rogen never struck me in the right way to convince me he could carry a movie on his shoulders. It's not for lack of trying, as he's certainly energetic in his performance. He just works better for me in smaller roles.

The rest of the cast share his enthusiasm, but few get any breakout moments of scenes. Katherine Heigl from TV's Grey's Anatomy probably comes across the best. She's light, quick and charming, but also sensitive and sweet during some of her more serious moments. The only problem is, as I mentioned before, the screenplay forgets to give her a personality. She only talks about her work and the situation at hand. With almost all of her dialogue tied into the plot, she doesn't come across as being likeable enough. Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd have a few likeable moments as the feuding couple whom Alison lives with, but once again, the movie never dug deep enough to make me care about them. A potential crisis between the two is pretty much solved off camera, as they go their separate ways, Rudd's character goes on a mushroom-fueled trip to Vegas with Ben, he starts to regrets his actions, and the next time we see him, he's back with Mann's character. The characters don't get the resolution they deserve. As I said, everyone gives it their all, it's just that Apatow's screenplay is more concerned with dropping as many pop culture dialogue references into the script than in actually getting us to like these people.
I liked The 40-Year-Old Virgin, mainly for Steve Carell's instantly sweet and winning performance. When I walked out of that movie, I knew this was going to be a star-making film for him, as he had only performed in bit parts up to that point. Knocked Up seems to hope lightning will strike twice, with Seth Rogen becoming the next talk of Hollywood, but I just wasn't convinced. Judging by the reviews I have read from my critical peers, I am in the minority of this opinion. The audience I screened this movie with seemed to love it as well. This is an opinion blog, after all, and I understand that not everyone will agree with me. I was disappointed by Knocked Up, but I know there will be many who will not be. More power to them, I say. This movie just left me feeling cold.


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