Reel Opinions

Friday, August 31, 2007


There are a lot of people who believe that critics have a natural bias against slasher films, and horror films in general. This, of course, is absolutely not true. We can admire any type of film when it is done well. John Carpenter's Halloween was definitely done very well, and still stands up as a genre classic to this day. It knew exactly how to play with its audience, without ever resorting to cheap thrills. It earned its thrills, and it made us actually care about the characters that were being stalked by the seemingly-unstoppable Michael Myers (who back then, was just referred to as "The Shape"). It would usher in a string of generic imitations that studios trotted out in unbelievable numbers throughout the 80s. And yet, no matter how often someone tried to make lightning strike twice, no one, not even Carpenter himself, was able to recapture just what made Halloween so memorable.

Now, musician turned filmmaker, Rob Zombie (House of 1,000 Corpses, The Devil's Rejects) has brought us an expanded update of Halloween. Having seen his version, I have to wonder if he knew he was supposed to be doing a remake of the original movie. This version has none of the tension, suspense or fear that the original generated seemingly so effortlessly. Instead, we're left with a sloppy and chaotic body count movie that resembles more the countless imitations and inferior sequels than the movie it's supposed to be emulating. Not only is it almost completely devoid of thrills, but the once-memorable characters have been reduced to mere shells of their former selves. It's strange that the director claims to be a huge fan of the original, and when the remake was announced, boasted that he was going to make Michael Myers scary again. All his movie does is show complete contempt for everything that made the original what it was.

Part of what made the original so effective is that we knew so little about the villain. That flies out the window right away, as the remake gives us a good 45 minutes or so describing Myers' past. As a 10-year-old kid (Daeg Faerch), Michael lived with his trailer trash family, was verbally abused by his alcoholic father, ignored by his older sister, and picked on by bullies at school. Michael's mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) does what she can to help her awkward boy feel comfortable in a world that doesn't seem to understand him, but even she seems to be at a loss of what to do with him when the school principal reveals her son's hidden passion for mutilating animals. Michael decided to move up in the world from animals to people by first torturing his bully in the woods nearby the school, then going home that night and murdering his father, sister, and her boyfriend seemingly out of anger and also out of spite because his sister wouldn't take him trick or treating on Halloween. Yes, that's right, Michael Myers may be a cold-blooded psychopath, but deep inside he's just a lonely little boy who just wanted his Halloween candy. I can't wait for the Nightmare on Elm Street remake where we discover that Freddy Krueger turned psycho because his mom didn't let him stay up past his bedtime.

After the murders, Michael is shipped off to a local asylum where he is placed under the care of Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell). Loomis tries to reach through to the boy and discover why he committed the murders, but young Michael clams up after months of exhaustive therapy. He hides his face behind crude hand-made Halloween masks for seemingly no reason, and refuses to speak to anyone. Flash forward 15-years later, and the now-adult Michael (Tyler Mane) decides to escape from the mental hospital around the anniversary of the murders. Michael Myers, who spent the past 50 minutes or so as an angry, abused boy, has somehow grown into Michael Myers, unstoppable human tank who bursts through walls like the frickin' Kool-Aid Man (Every time he came charging through a wall, I kept on waiting for him to scream "Oh yeah", while holding a pitcher of the sweetened drink.), rips open doors as if they were made of cardboard, and goes on a neighborhood killing spree, murdering horny teenagers as he tries to find his long lost baby sister who was given up for adoption after Michael's mom killed herself during the aftermath of his first rampage. His sister has grown up to be Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), who is an unassuming teenage girl who is planning to spend Halloween night babysitting, unaware of the man from her forgotten past watching her in the shadows.

Right off the bat, Rob Zombie's Halloween goes off the rails in trying to portray the young Michael Myers as a scared and misunderstood boy who went off the deep end, and then just somehow grew up to be a silent killer for reasons the movie keeps to itself. At times, the movie seems to be trying to paint the young Michael in a sympathetic light. Then, he starts cursing up a storm (Zombie's screenplay seems to be in love with a wide variety of four-letter words, and uses them as if they were going out of style), and killing people. One thing that prevents us from truly getting behind the character in the first place is that the movie never really gives us a close look at what makes Myers tick, like it wants to. He has a family of creeps that look and act like cartoon caricatures of scuzzy rednecks. It doesn't dig deep enough for us to care, and it's too silly and broadly overacted to take seriously. There's a hideous music montage where the movie keeps on showing little Michael sitting on a street corner looking sad, because all the kids are trick or treating, and he's not. For no reason whatsoever, the scene keeps on cutting to his mom at work as she dances at the strip club. I have no idea what Zombie was getting at with this sequence, and it's probably best that it remains that way. Once the kid's in the asylum, the movie speeds right along to when he's an adult and its time for him to kill a bunch of people during his escape. We never get a true sense of his sessions with Dr. Loomis, as we only get to see brief glimpses, then he goes off and supposedly writes a book about the kid and giving lectures about his time with Michael.

Almost as soon as Michael's out on the streets, the movie stops trying to tell anything resembling a story, and turns into a series of random gore scenes combined with a CliffsNotes version of the original film. The movie speeds right through the plot, doing recreations of key scenes from the original film, but giving us absolutely no reason whatsoever to care. The lead heroine, Laurie, is about as underwritten as any lead character has ever been, the most we ever learn about her being that she doesn't have a boyfriend. The thing that set the original film apart from its many imitators is that it took its time to get us to know the lead characters, and get us attached to them. There was always a sense of menace, due to the fact we could see the shadowy figure of Michael watching them in the background at times, which was very subtle and effective. Here, all subtlety has been thrown out the window for a nonstop barrage of over the top death scenes that aren't even that interesting or well-staged in the first place. There's plenty of blood, but there's no originality. We're just watching him bashing heads and throwing people around like the Incredible Hulk over and over again. Michael's victims seldom if ever get any chance to be developed or even show a shred of humanity before they wind up face to face with the masked killer. Speaking of which, for a large guy, Michael Myers sure does get around a lot. He seems to be able to teleport about the neighborhood at will, and pop up suddenly in places where he should have been plainly visible to the future victim. I know, this is a common trait in slasher movie villains, but it still gets me every time it happens.
Watching Halloween, you can see potential in just about every scene. The movie has a decent cast, including a few genre veterans such as the previously mentioned Malcolm McDowell and Brad Dourif (best known as the voice of the Chucky doll) as the town Sheriff. There are even a few good actors who are able to rise above the screenplay and give a good performance, such as Sheri Moon Zombie, who gives the role of Michael's mother the right amount of warmth, fear, and sadness that the character needs. Unfortunately, even the best performances can't shine through enough to make this junk work. This movie is a flat-out mess from beginning to end. You know the movie is in trouble when it utilizes the classic theme music that John Carpenter himself composed for the original film, but it doesn't even manage to raise the slightest amount of tension. Anyone who has heard it knows that it's one of the more tense orchestral themes composed for a film, ranking right up there with John Williams' Jaws theme, in my opinion. And yet here, it seems muted and unmemorable. This is a cheap and misguided movie that's likely to be forgotten long before the real holiday arrives. Sometimes, you just have to look at the positives, and the fact that the original will remain a classic while this will likely be forgotten, much like the ill-fated remake of Psycho back in 1998, is a thought sure to bring a smile to any fan's face.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Balls of Fury

I laughed quite a bit at Balls of Fury. In fact, I sometimes found myself laughing twice at the same joke. The first time, I would laugh at how stupid and/or absurd the joke was. And then, I would find myself laughing at myself for laughing at it. There is a certain innocence to this movie that so many recent parodies have lacked. Unlike films like Epic Movie, that simply rehash storylines of popular films and try to fit as many fart jokes and movie references into 90 minutes as they can, Balls of Fury takes its sweet time and tells a likeably loopy story that probably won't stick with you long after you've walked out of the theater, but you'll remember having a good time while watching it.

Former ping pong child prodigy, Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) has fallen on hard times ever since he choked during a competition in the 88 Summer Olympics Table Tennis event. This once-promising star of the sport is now a fat, out of shape has-been doing ping pong stunt shows in Reno to a mostly uninterested audience. After one of his performances, an FBI agent named Ernie Rodriguez (George Lopez) approaches him with a dangerous mission. The government wants Randy to go undercover and infiltrate an illegal underground life and death ping pong tournament that's held every year by the mysterious and seldom-seen super villain, Master Feng (Christopher Walken). In order to get his skills back up to speed so that he stands a chance in the tournament, Randy is placed under the watchful eye (so to speak) of the blind ping pong wizard, Master Wong (James Hong) and his beautiful niece, Maggie (Maggie Q). When Randy arrives at the island where the tournament is held, he finds that there's much more going on than a high stakes game of table tennis, as he uncovers the evil Feng's secret weapon lab and much more.

What struck me the most about Balls of Fury is how fun and simple it is. Rather than target a specific movie, the film goes after certain genres (namely sports underdog films and martial arts movies, with a touch of James Bond as well), and mixes them together in such a way so that the movie never feels like its biting off more than it can chew. It manages to stay focused on the cliches of each of its targets, and usually is able to deliver at least one laugh consistently. Not all of the jokes are successful, and the movie does start to lose some steam during the third act, but the film never failed to at least keep me entertained. Like the best of parodies, this is a movie that plays it completely straight. The actors pretend like they don't know the material is completely ridiculous, and that's part of the fun. No one is allowed to mug for the camera or play up the fact that this is udder nonsense. None of the performances quite match the expert deadpan comic timing of Leslie Nielsen in classics such as Airplane or The Naked Gun, but everyone has at least studied the right material and knows what they are doing.

There is one aspect in this film that is brilliant both in its performance and in its casting, and that is Christopher Walken in the role of the lead villain. This is Walken's best comedic performance in quite a while, and he seems to be having a ball. Part of what makes him so hilarious is how intentionally miscast he is. His character is supposed to be your cliched martial arts Asian villain who could have been the best student of the wise old master, but greed overcame him, and he walked away and turned to evil before he could finish his training. (Of course, this time, it's ping pong instead of kung fu.) His face has never been seen, but the FBI has a composite sketch that makes him look like Mr. Sulu from Star Trek. When the evil Master Feng is finally seen for the first time, the characters are surprised to see not what they expect. We the audience, unfortunately, are not since the commercials have featured Walken prominently in them. I almost wish the ad campaign had not given away this gag, and that he had gone uncredited, as I think the joke would have worked much better. Still, none the less, it works. Walken does not play the character as an Asian stereotype, which is a wise decision, especially after seeing Rob Schneider's embarrassing performance as a gay Japanese man in this summer's I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. He plays it as if he's wandered in from a different movie, and that's what makes the performance so funny. It's tough to explain, but he manages to make even little incidental bits of dialogue, such as directing someone to the bathroom, and get a laugh.

The rest of the cast don't quite rise to Walken's level, but everyone still does their best, and walk away with at least one memorable moment. In his first big screen lead role, comic and stage actor Dan Fogler is good, and manages to get a couple laughs throughout the film. It was nice to see an overweight lead actor who did not rely on his weight for his humor. There are no pot shots made at him, nor is there any scene where he sits on a piece of furniture and breaks it. (And trust me, I was waiting for it to happen.) He's able to make a comic character without any obvious or easy jokes. In the key supporting roles, George Lopez makes for a likable sidekick, even if the character is a bit underwritten and is forced to stand in the background for most of the film. When the movie allows him to step forward, he gets off more than a couple good lines. Another actor who doesn't get enough screen time is the lovely Maggie Q, who impressed me earlier this summer as one of the main villains in Live Free or Die Hard, and comes across as a lovely yet strong presence here. She proves that she's more than capable at getting laughs, as well as handling some real fight scenes. She has a good screen presence too, it's a shame she disappears for a good part of the film. I hope I can soon see her in a role that truly exploits her talents.
When I go to see a comedy, I try to judge it on how often I laughed. I laughed enough at Balls of Fury to say that it definitely qualifies as a guilty pleasure. I walked in not expecting much, but walked out with a silly grin on my face. As mentioned before, the movie doesn't always work. There are some dead spots, especially during the later half, and some of the gags either don't work or could have been so much more. (The running gag concerning the villain's gay male sex slaves seem like a wasted opportunity that could not be fully exploited unless the filmmakers bumped the movie up to an R-rating.) Still, I was entertained enough to say that this movie took me by surprise. If you're in the right mood, Balls of Fury should not disappoint.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

Mr. Bean's Holiday

I cannot exactly claim to be an expert on the Mr. Bean character. The number of episodes that I've seen of his TV show can be counted on one hand, and I have only vague memories of the last attempt to bring him to the big screen (1997's Bean), the strongest memory being that I wasn't very fond of it. So, I walked into Mr. Bean's Holiday with a clean slate of expectations and was ready to be amused. Maybe a clean slate wasn't the best condition to watch this movie. In order to get the fullest out of this movie, you have to be a die-hard fan of the character. And by die-hard, I mean be willing to tolerate the character's backwards English gibberish talk for a full 90 minutes. I was able to tolerate it some of the time, but long before Mr. Bean had reached his final destination of his trip, I had taken more of my fill of the man and his antics.

The plot is simple enough, as is to be expected. The accident-prone Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson) has won a dream vacation to France and the beaches of Cannes in a church raffle. Almost immediately, Bean finds a way to turn what should be a luxury vacation into a nightmare. He loses just about everything he brings with him, except for a camcorder, gets separated from his train, and has to make most of the journey on foot or by any means of transportation he can find. Along the way, he befriends a boy (Max Baldry) who is trying to get to Cannes as well to reunite with the father he got separated from. He also hooks up with a lovely young actress (Emma de Caunes) who is on her way to the Cannes Film Festival, where she is featured in the latest art house film/vanity project by pretentious American filmmaker, Carson Clay (Willem Dafoe) that's set to debut at the Festival. By the time Mr. Bean has reached the beaches of Cannes, he has acted as an extra in a World War II movie, chased down a runaway chicken, and is mistaken for a kidnapper and a fugitive.

The idea behind the character of Mr. Bean appeals to me, because it reminds me of many of the great silent film comics of yesteryear. Rowan Atkinson is a skilled physical and visual comic, and playing Bean allows him to exploit this talent, as the character mostly speaks through pantomime, or through grunts and whistles that sometimes resemble English, and sometimes sounds like its own made up language. A majority of the film is made up of a series of loosely connected skits that are strung together, where Mr. Bean finds himself in over his head, or in a situation where he doesn't understand what's going on. Some of these moments are very funny, such as a sequence early in the film where Bean finds himself having to stomach an unappetizing seafood platter at a fancy restaurant. This scene not only showcases Atkinson's comic timing, but also his gift for physical comedy. A majority of the sequences don't work quite as well, unfortunately, and Mr. Bean's Holiday quickly becomes repetitive because of it. We know each time a new scene starts up that Bean is going to start some form of trouble, and we begin to wait for it to happen. I can see this kind of comedy working in a half hour television format, but when stretched to feature length, it becomes tedious. It doesn't help that many of the physical jokes either don't work, or are dragged out to the point that some scenes become endurance tests to watch.

What really struck me odd about Mr. Bean's Holiday is that there is a curious mean streak that runs throughout the film. The movie has been rated G, but some of the humor is too dark for the family audience that it wants to attract. There is a scene where Mr. Bean accidentally leads a man to commit suicide that left me scratching my head at how the MPAA thought this joke was appropriate for a G-rated film. Other scenes that don't belong in a family film include Bean dressing up like a German military soldier and doing a goose step march, while giving the Nazi salute. I bet parents are going to have a grand time explaining that one. It's hard to consider Bean as a hero, because he frequently comes across as a self-absorbed twit who drags innocent bystanders into situations where they are severely injured or sometimes killed, and he does not even seem to care or notice. It's one thing when his own cluelessness leads to accidental antics to himself, but when he starts injuring people for no reason, it's hard to laugh.
Mr. Bean's Holiday is not without scattered moments of amusement, but the entire thing is just too dragged out to work. I found myself in a very strange position while watching the film. I liked the idea behind the character of Mr. Bean, but I did not like Mr. Bean himself. I think the movie needed a softer approach, so that his antics did not come across as being cruel. I understand that the character has a loyal fanbase, and they are certain to enjoy this movie. I enjoyed it myself from time to time, but most of the time, I found myself noticing that 90 minutes spent with this guy was more than any viewer should have to endure. I guess like a lot of things, Mr. Bean is an acquired taste.


Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Nanny Diaries

Watching The Nanny Diaries, I couldn't help but think the movie should come with a little label that reads "Sanitized for your protection". This is a movie that constantly flirts with being biting, sarcastic, and intelligent. And yet, it can't help but throw in some moments of misunderstanding for no reason at all other than the script requires the characters to misunderstand each other. Despite its constant flirtings with the Idiot Plot, The Nanny Diaries is not a terrible waste of time. The end result is just something far less than what it should have been.

Recent college graduate, Annie Braddock (Scarlet Johansson), is at a crossroads in her life. She's trying to pursue the career she's told herself she's always wanted, only to discover at a job interview that she can't even answer a simple question of who she is. While walking through Central Park, pondering herself and her future, she has a run-in encounter with an Upper East Side New York mother, and her precocious young son. The mother (Laura Linney), whose name is never identified and is simply referred to as Mrs. X in Annie's narration, has just had her son's previous nanny leave her. When Annie introduces herself, Mrs. X mishears her name as "nanny", and almost hires her right there on the spot in a moment of complete implausibility that I don't think anyone in the audience will be able to buy. Regardless, Annie figures that a job as a nanny would pay well until she figures out what to do with her life. She takes the job, and discovers that looking after the young child named Grayer (Nicholas Art) is a much harder job than she could have ever imagined. It doesn't help matters that Mrs. X is a woman who seems to care more about holding benefits and shopping than she does for her own child, and the seldom-seen husband, Mr. X (Paul Giamatti) is an unfaithful and charmless lout who's always being called away to Chicago on "business trips". Annie quickly discovers that the lives of the New York upper class are not as picture perfect as it would seem, and were it not for the eventual bond she builds with young Grayer and the cute guy who lives in the same apartment building, whom Annie dubs "Harvard Hottie" (Chris Evans), Annie would probably not even survive this strange new world she finds herself trapped in.

The Nanny Diaries is based on a book unread by me that supposedly told many shocking true stories and encounters that the authors experienced while working as nannies for different upper class families. The book won a lot of praise for its honest and unflinching look at its subject. Something tells me the movie won't win quite the same amount of praise. While I wouldn't exactly pass it off as being a failure, the movie is often too tame and sometimes even resembles a TV sitcom rather than an eye-opening expose on the world of the upper class. It never digs its own claws deep enough into the characters, and instead gives us the same aloof, stuck up cliches that we have seen too many times. That's not to say that the movie does not have its moments of honesty. Despite being marketed as a fairly lighthearted and breezy comedy, there are many moments where the actors take the material seriously, and start to resemble real people instead of sitcom caricatures. These moments are when the film is at its best. I also liked the film's clever use of narration. In the opening moments, we see Annie making her way through the Museum of Natural History. As she starts describing the different kind of people one can find in New York in her narration, she passes by museum-like exhibits of the people she's talking about, complete with lifelike wax figures. The first 10 minutes or so have a fun and almost whimsical tone, without being cheesy, that immediately grabs your attention. It's a shame that the film has to completely abandon this approach and never come back to it, except for a brief reference from time to time.

The writer-director team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (2003's wonderful indie film, American Splendor) show so much promise and creativity during the opening moments, that you have to wonder why they would just drop it and focus on a formulaic comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family? Was it studio pressure? Did they just not have enough faith in the material? I started out loving this movie, but my heart gradually sunk as it went along when I realized this movie had nothing else new to show or tell me. I never grew disinterested, but I just couldn't stop thinking about the movie it could have been had The Nanny Diaries not lost its nerve to be original. After the promising beginning, the movie falls into standard dilemmas where the parents are constantly fighting and ignoring the effect it has on those around them, the shy young woman can't admit her feelings to the cute guy whose obviously attracted to her, and the kid who acts like a monster, but he's not that bad really, he's just acting out because his parents pretend he doesn't exist. We also get some moments where the movie gets dangerously close to dipping into Idiot Plot territory. A key moment concerns Annie not wanting her mom to know she's taken a nanny job, since her mom thinks she went to New York in order to pursue a business career. So, when mom comes to visit, Annie most convince her best friend to let her borrow her apartment, and create an illusion life to convince her mom of her lie. The scene sounds like something out of a bad sitcom, and it plays like one, too. It's artificial, it's completely ridiculous, and no one in their right mind would think of something like this, nor would anyone agree to help out with it if someone actually did have the idea.

There's a fine cast assembled here, and they're able to make the thing mostly work, even when things dip into the realm of the ludicrous. Scarlet Johansson continues to prove that she's one of the best young adult actresses working today, making Annie out to be an instantly likeable and mostly intelligent (except when the script forces her to act incredibly stupid) woman. Her key acting moment comes late in the film, when she leaves an alcohol-fueled video message for her employer. Some actresses could have easily gone over the top or played the anger and emotion too broad, but Johansson nails it, and it's one of the best scenes in the film. Although Johansson is required to pretty much carry the entire film, she has a strong supporting cast who do not go completely to waste. As her employers, both Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti bring the right tone to their respective roles. Linney's character is a woman who is so detached from reality, she feels she has to fake a pregnancy in order to get attention from her husband. She is someone who pretends to have it all, but really has nothing, and it clearly shows in the sadness in her face in many of her scenes. The movie often skims the surface of this potentially complex and interesting character, but Linney's performance at least gives the character the attention that the screenplay neglected. Giamatti has a more difficult role, since he's supposed to be hateful, cold and distant. The love that he shows for his family is an act, and his child is too young to recognize that there is nothing there. He wisely does not humanize his role, or try to make us understand him. He lives in a world outside of his family, and Giamatti brings a great cold atmosphere to his performance. Even young Nicholas Art comes across as a natural child talent, and gets to share a couple great scenes with Johansson, whom he spends much of his screen time with. He already has a good screen presence, and knows how to come across as a natural kid instead of an "actor" kid.
While watching The Nanny Diaries, I started to wonder if there was another version of this movie lying somewhere on the floor of the studio editing room. I imagine it to be a smarter, thoughtful, and more real telling of the story. We can see glimpses of this movie from time to time, which brings our hopes up. And although it doesn't hold these hopes up for very long, it never becomes unwatchable and it never goes so wrong that I gave up on it. I really wish this movie had carried through with the promise the first half shows. This could have been something great. As it is, The Nanny Diaries will just have to settle for being heavily flawed, yet passable.


Resurrecting the Champ

Samuel L. Jackson has always been an actor who could completely disappear into the role he was playing to the point that you are forgetting you're watching a performance. In Resurrecting the Champ, he not only makes you forget, he makes you remember just what a true talent he really is. Jackson plays a street person who says that he is Bob Satterfield, a once-rising prize fighter who could have been the best, but a string of bad luck brought him to where he is now. Jackson does not play Satterfield as a crazy drunk, or as an overly mystical philosopher like some other actors would. There is an intelligence to his performance that makes it a wonder to watch, and receives my vote for one of the best performances of the year.

The movie that surrounds Jackson's performance is pretty good, too. It opens with those infamous words "inspired by a true story", and then goes on to give a "screen story" credit, which means that something similar to what we're about to see happened in real life, but the writers mainly chose to make everything up. It may not be based entirely on fact, but it's still a good story. A struggling sportswriter named Erik (Josh Hartnett) is tired of having his articles reduced to blurbs in the back of the paper. His boss (Alan Alda) tells him that his stories lack inspiration. Erik wants to move up in the world of sports journalism, but he feels he'll never get the chance as long as he's forced to cover local boxing fights. While walking away from the arena one night, he happens to notice some hooligans beating up an old street person, who turns out to be the Samuel L. Jackson character. Bob Satterfield is an open and talkative man, and is all too happy to share his story with Erik, which begins an unusual friendship between the two men. Obviously, Erik also considers this the discovery of his lifetime, and realizes that an article about Bob could shoot him to the top of the field. He doesn't know much about Satterfield, but Bob is all too happy to fill in the details.

That's as far as I will go, fear of revealing anymore. Resurrecting the Champ starts out as being a heart lifting story about two men from very different walks of life being brought together. There's a lot more to it than that, though. The main theme that keeps on popping up throughout the film is that of the relationship between fathers and sons. Erik has a 6-year-old boy named Teddy (Dakota Goyo) from a failed previous marriage, and the kid worships his dad, as most boys that age do. Bob has a son too, though they have not spoken to each other in years. Even Erik's father, who died recently of lung cancer, is a continuous presence in the story since his father used to be a famous sports journalist and radio announcer, and Erik is constantly living in his shadow. All of these themes come together in the end to make this much more than the inspirational sports story that we expect when we're walking in. It's still inspirational, but it's about so much more and so many different things. This is the kind of movie that makes you think you've figured it out, but then switches gears in a good way about halfway through. I was surprised by the development that pops up, and was even more surprised that the movie managed to handle this change in a mature way so that it did not seem awkward or far fetched.

That's what really impressed me about this film. The movie knows how to walk a fine line, and never becomes overly sentimental or sappy, although the desire to do so must have been enormous for the filmmakers. Director Rod Lurie (2000's political thriller The Contender) and screenwriters Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett tackle the story in such a way so that the emotional feelings that the film brings forth are earned, instead of forced or overly manipulated. The characters and their situations grow on us because the movie gives us time to get to know them. Bob Satterfield captures our attention from the moment he walks onto the screen, and he only becomes more interesting as the movie goes on. He is a proud, but very flawed, man who seems real, not just because of Jackson's performance, but because of the way his character is written. He does not seek pity from others because of his situation, nor does he not spread wisdom and offer advice to anyone who talks to him. He is a man living in the past, and who simply wants to share his story so that he won't be forgotten. The way Jackson plays him is fascinating, because there is an edge to him. He's seen a lot in his life, and has lived through a lot more, which is clear to see on his face and in the way he talks. In the other lead role, Josh Hartnett is passable, but pails in comparison to the performance right next to him in a lot of scenes. His Erik never quite captures our attention the way that Samuel L. Jackson does. He's good at least, and that's what counts.
I had never heard of Bob Satterfield before walking into this movie. It made me interested enough to look up some information on line about the real person, even though I do not follow the sport of boxing. That, I believe, is one of the true merits of a film such as this. If you can get your audience to look more into the real story when they get home after seeing your movie, you've done your job. Resurrecting the Champ does its job and does it very well. This is a surprising and heartfelt film that deserves to be seen, at least for Jackson's performance, which I hope will be remembered come Oscar time. This is a movie that takes what we would expect and then expands upon it into something even better.


Friday, August 24, 2007


When will Hollywood directors learn how to use the Asian action stars they've been handed with? Just weeks ago, I watched Rush Hour 3, which featured a tired and uninterested Jackie Chan who seemed to only be there because there was a nice paycheck waiting at the end of the shoot. Now here comes War, which features the extremely talented Jet Li, yet for most of its running time does not even bother to exploit him or his talents. Now, War is not a bad movie at all, and is easily a superior film to Rush Hour 3. I just can't get over the fact that they hired Jet Li, and then told him to stand around for almost the entire time. When the movie finally delivers the goods, it's a lot of fun in a brainless sort of way, but there's a lot of dead weight to sort through first.

Ever since hard-edged FBI agent, Jack Crawford (Jason Statham), witnessed his agent partner and his partner's family get murdered by a mysterious assassin who goes by the name of Rogue (Jet Li), he's been obsessed with tracking the man down, so much so that it has all but ruined his personal life outside of work. It's been three years since that tragic day, and after a lengthy period of going underground, Rogue has returned out in the open, and he seems to be planning something. He has betrayed the Japanese Yakuza crime family that he's served for years, and switched sides over to a rival Asian gang that is vying for control of the streets. Jack is not sure what his enemy is planning, but violence between the two crime syndicates seems to be on the rise, and a war seems to be almost inevitable. As Jack digs deeper into the mystery, it seems almost as if Rogue is playing both sides, fanning the flames for his own personal gain.

I will not go any further with the plot, in order to prevent any spoilers. That being said, War has a pretty winding and sometimes convoluted plot for what is mainly a piece of "check your brain at the door" entertainment. There are enough double crosses, double agents, double identities, and double meanings to fill two movies. While the film's main twist that comes at the end does come as a surprise, the movie does seem to enjoy toying with us a bit more than it probably should. The film's ad campaign promises that we are to see Jason Statham and Jet Li, two of the biggest action movie badasses working today, going at war with each other. And yet, oddly enough, the number of scenes the two lead characters share together could be counted on one hand, and the number of fights they share together could be represented with just a single finger. To say this is disappointing would be an understatement. Here is a movie that gives us a variety of elaborate action scenes, many of which are shot well, yet very few of them actually concern the men we've come to see fight each other. Of the two leads, Jason Statham gets the most screen time and attention. There are some weak attempts at making Jack out to be a real character (he became distanced from his wife and child when he became obsessed with hunting down Rogue), but most of the time, he snarls as only Statham can and practices police brutality on just about everyone who looks at him cross eyed. Jet Li's Rogue is mainly left as an enigma, says very little, and does even less for most of the film. It may seem annoying, but when you see where the movie leads to, it at least makes sense at the end. And when the film finally lets Li do his thing, it is a thing of beauty.

The rest of the cast exists mainly as target practice for both of the main characters to pick off until it's time for them to finally go against each other. We're introduced to the head members of the two warring Asian crime families, but they are developed to the absolute minimum. On the side of the Yakuza, we have the daughter of the head of the criminal gang (played by Devon Aoki from D.O.A.: Dead or Alive) giving most of the orders in her father's place. She's supposed to be a femme fatale, but she actually comes across as being pretty boring since she never gets to kill anyone, nor does she get in any fights. This is further complicated with the fact that Aoki refuses to show any facial expression other than a somewhat blank, vacant stare that never seems to say anything. She has done this with every performance I've seen her in, which makes me wonder if she might be one of those body snatchers I saw in last week's The Invasion, which would explain her inability to show any emotion whatsoever. The head of the rival crime gang fears for the safety of his wife and daughter as the flames of war begin to grow, but not enough is done with this idea, nor are these characters developed in any way.

Now, I don't want to stress only the negatives, as War really is not that bad of a movie. The film's opening action sequence suffers a bit from the infamous "shaky cam" syndrome, which kind of made me worried about what I was in for. Fortunately, the cameraman seems to get a better hold of the action from that point on, and the upcoming action sequences are much easier to follow. Some highlights include a battle between the two warring crime gangs in a Japanese restaurant, an intense motorcycle chase and battle, and the entire last half of the film when the filmmakers finally take the invisible weights off of Jet Li that have been holding him down for the entire movie, and let him finally do his stuff. The battle between Li and Statham that the movie has been building up to could have been longer and more dramatic, but it's still entertaining, and that's what counts. The film's fight choreography is by Corey Yuen, who has a long history of staging stunts and fights in both Hollywood and Asia. This isn't his best work, but at least it looks like he made an effort to make the action sequences as brutal as possible.
War delivers plenty in the big, dumb action that we're looking for. It just doesn't deliver when it comes to the two men we want to see get involved in them. Jason Statham gets plenty of opportunities, but I kept on waiting for them to truly use Jet Li. The movie disappoints in some ways, but it's not a complete failure, and certainly not one that the studio should have been afraid to release without screening for critics. There's been much worse films that have gotten screenings, many of them from the same studio. As the title would suggest, War is a noisy and violent spectacle that's not afraid to show the hero torture a dying villain by pressing his finger deep into an open wound, hitting bone. You should probably be able to tell if this movie is for you just by reading that last sentence.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Invasion

When food is reheated over and over again, it tends to dry out and lose its flavor. In a way, this would also describe The Invasion. As the fourth cinematic adaptation of the classic sci-fi horror story, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which was previously filmed in 1956, 1978, and 1994), The Invasion has its share of effective moments, but they don't seem quite as fresh as they once were due to the fact the story has been told so many times. It tries to modernize the story and tie it into some recent events such as the war in Iraq, but it doesn't go far enough with its own premise, and often comes across as warmed over cinematic left overs that has long lost the flavor and originality it once had.

Single mom and therapist, Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman), isn't sure what to think when a female patient walks into her office early in the film, and tells Carol that her husband is not her husband. The patient had been going through some troubles with her husband in the past, but now he is eerily calm and doesn't even seem to be the same person he once was. Slowly but surely, strange yet similar reports start happening all around Carol. People begin changing, losing their personality, and becoming hollow shells of the person they once were. The change seems to be caused by an alien virus that arrived on Earth when a shuttle crashed just days ago, and is now slowly infecting all the people of the world. With the help of her close friend, Ben (Daniel Craig), Carol is able to realize what is going on and also discovers that some are immune to this bizarre virus, including her young son Oliver (Jackson Bond). Oliver is currently being held captive by Carol's ex-husband, Tucker (Jeremy Northam), who has fallen victim to the alien disease and is under its control. With the virus attempting to take control of all the world's population, those who are immune will be exterminated. Carol must make her way through a world where no one can be trusted in order to track down her son before it's too late. Most importantly, Carol must stay awake, as she has been infected herself and if she falls asleep, she will become one of them.

The events that unfolded during The Invasion's trip to the big screen are almost as dramatic as anything that happens in the movie itself. The film was originally set to be released in the summer of 2006 under the helm of German director, Oliver Hirschbiegel. When his version scored poorly with test audiences and was deemed too slow, the studio ordered massive reshoots. Because Hirschbiegel was no longer available, the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix Trilogy, V For Vendetta) were brought on to direct the new segments, even though they are not listed in the credits. It's painfully obvious watching the film when you're watching the material that was added on, as the film turns from a somewhat intriguing sci-fi paranoia thriller to an action thriller filled with lengthy car chases, shootouts, huge explosions, and a tacked on happy ending that seems like it was attached at the last minute and hastily thrown together. Before the sudden shift in tone during the third act, the movie at least manages to hold our interest, even if we have seen it all before too many times before. There are a number of effective scenes tied into the story's central theme of not knowing who to trust. As Carol makes her way through a city that is slowly falling apart, she is forced to show no emotion so that she can pass herself off as one of the infected. This leads to some powerful and painful moments, such as a scene where she is forced to watch two uninfected people leap to their deaths from a roof and try her hardest not to react, since she is surrounded by the infected and does not want to give herself away.

One odd thing that the movie does with his narrative is that he shoots the story somewhat out of sequence. The film opens with Carol frantically looting a pharmacy/grocery store, hoping to find any pills or caffeinated beverages that can help keep her awake. We can also hear someone pounding on a nearby locked door nearby. It then heads to the very beginning of the story, before the virus arrived on Earth. This is somewhat understandable, and a good way to get the audience's attention right off the bat. But then, at numerous other times throughout the story, he uses this technique again, and it's not as successful. At various times, he uses this "flash-forward" technique to explain how she escapes from other chases and situations, which obviously kills the tension more than just a little. A much more straight forward approach, where the fear and the paranoia would slowly build would have been a lot more successful and, most of all, appropriate for this kind of story. The film is also annoyingly simplistic at times, repeating its message over and over as if it thinks the audience somehow does not understand. Early in the film, during a dinner party, a man tells Carol that if there was no wars or poverty, we would not be human at all. Sure enough, when the alien virus starts infecting people and changing them into emotionless shells that barely resemble people, we keep on seeing news reports on the TV about the US suddenly pulling out of Iraq, the crime rate falls, and North Korea stops its nuclear program. It's an intriguing idea for sure, and it's an interesting criticism on human nature itself. But at the same time, it keeps this notion in the background the entire time, using only news reports to touch upon it. It keeps on repeating this idea, but never goes anywhere with it, which makes me wonder if there was more to this in a previous version of the film.

Despite its many problems, this is not an unwatchable film. The Invasion is handsomely filmed, using its Washington DC setting to its advantage, and carries a strong cast of talent that help keep things believable no matter how out there the story gets at times. Nicole Kidman handles her role of Carol with the utmost seriousness, and makes us sympathize with her completely as she goes on a mad dash through a world gone insane to find her son. Even though this isn't usually the kind of material she's drawn to, she doesn't act like the material is beneath her, and creates a realistic heroine that we can relate to. As the male lead, Daniel Craig does the most of what he can with his underdeveloped character, and at least shows that he has good chemistry with Kidman during their scenes together early on in the film. It's a shame that his character is eventually dropped and almost forgotten about roughly half-way through, only to just suddenly show up again. The early half of the film concentrating on his relationship with Carol shows a lot of promise.
I have a feeling that the original version of The Invasion that the studio received still had its share of problems, but I'm willing to bet that it did not cop out so completely during the all-important final moments. Perhaps a longer running time (the film is just over 90 minutes long) would have helped the movie flesh out some of its own intriguing ideas. It's obvious that everyone's heart was in the right place, but the movie never comes together due to the fact that the version being released in theaters is the result of massive tinkering and trying to guess what the audience wants out of the film. They should have let the film speak for itself instead of trying to second guess the people watching it.


The Last Legion

Compared to grandiose digital epics like 300, The Last Legion seems downright small and quaint. There's nothing wrong with that in theory, and in a way, its simplicity is somewhat charming. All the same, I had a hard time getting enthralled with the story it tried to tell. A lot of this most likely has to do with the past works of director Doug Lefler, who has worked mainly with television. A story like this needs to be big and grand, but Lefler still seems to be shooting for the small screen. While not unwatchable, The Last Legion nonetheless disappoints.

The latest descendant of the Caesar bloodline, a young boy by the name of Romulus (Thomas Sangster from Nanny McPhee), has just taken the throne as Rome's Emperor. Not long after he accepts the title, Rome is attacked and overthrown by an army of invading forces. After watching his parents slain in battle, Romulus is captured along with his personal teacher Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley), and sent to an island prison. It doesn't take long for the Captain of the Roman Guard, Aurelius (Colin Firth), and his few surviving soldiers from the initial raid to rescue the two with the help of a female warrior named Mira (Aishwarya Rai). Now in the possession of a powerful sword that belonged to one of his ancestors discovered deep underneath the prison, the young Emperor Romulus and his protectors must make a perilous journey to Britain, where the last remaining soldiers who still support Rome are located. However, not only do his former captors follow him, but the brave band discover that the entire land is under the rule of a tyrannical man who is seeking both the legendary sword and Ambrosinus.

Based loosely on the novel by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, The Last Legion tries to tie the legend of King Arthur with Roman history in detailing how the famed sword Excalibur was forged, and found its way into the hands of the future King. The movie is pretty loose with its historical accuracy, and the decision to cast all the Roman characters with British actors is a bit odd to say the least, but I can live with all that if the movie is entertaining. While not a complete success, the movie does have a certain sense of innocence to it. The filmmakers were trying to create an old fashioned adventure yarn in the tradition of the great 50s and 60s B-movie epics that used to be shown on weekend afternoons when I was growing up. You constantly see potential all around. There's a great cast who may not be giving their best performance of their careers, but at least are making an effort and don't seem to be sleepwalking through their roles. The story has some interesting ideas, as well, particularly during the last moments of the film when they tie everything into the Arthur legend. For all of the effort and the feelings of nostalgia this film brought forth, the one thing it could not truly do is make me care about the characters or what was going on up on the screen. This is where The Last Legion begins to falter despite its very good intentions.

There are some battle sequences and vast landscape shots that are supposed to invoke feelings in the audience of past adventure epics such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And yet, the movie keeps on contradicting itself with its overall small and minor tone that it keeps throughout. The battles are instantly forgettable, and though competently filmed, seem to be over in a blink of an eye. The attack and conquering of Rome that happens about 20 minutes into the movie seems to be over in all of five minutes, if even that. We see a lot of swords clanging and bodies falling, but the movie treats it almost as if it doesn't matter. It just wants to move right along, and get to the next scene. This is just the wrong way to do it. If you're going to do a scene detailing the fall of one of the great Empires of its time, you don't just gloss right over it and skip to the aftermath. Not only does this rob us of the spectacle we came to see, but it also cheapens the rest of the film, since the heroes are supposed to be traveling and fighting to protect the young Emperor who saw his parents killed in battle. All of the film's major action sequences seem to suffer the same problem, and don't last long enough to make much of an impression. The only action sequence that the movie does seem to take some decent amount of time depicting (the escape from the island prison) is made somewhat laughable due to the incredible ease with which the heroes discover this fabled legendary sword that has been lost for years, yet the heroes stumble upon in about three minutes, and find the sword lying out in the open.

Unlike most recent historical adventure epics, The Last Legion is fairly short and keeps things well under two hours. This is both a blessing and a curse, as this means the film never drags for too long, but at the same time we also don't get to know the characters as well as we should. The movie moves along with the pace of an action video game, zipping from one battle and major sequence to the next, seldom giving us time for the characters to slow down. The young Emperor Romulus barely has time to mourn over the death of his parents, nor does he seem that troubled by it in the first place, before he is whisked away on an adventure where his situation is seldom ever mentioned again, nor is he ever given more than one line of dialogue at a time. This child is supposed to be the element drives the story, but he often comes across as a prop that the adult actors are dragging along with them, since he never plays much of a role in the story itself other than a walking plot device. The adult lead characters, played by Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley, are equally underdeveloped. Firth plays Aurelius as being somewhat bland and emotionless, which is a shame, since he's supposed to be the romantic lead in this movie as he develops a relationship with the female warrior Mira. (Their relationship seems to come out of nowhere, and is severely underdeveloped.) Ben Kingsley seems to be channeling both Obi-Wan and Gandalf in his performance as the wise old personal teacher of Romulus who has hidden magical abilities. Compared to some of his other recent performances in films like Bloodrayne and Thunderbirds, this is an improvement, but it is still nowhere near the level of what he is capable of.
The best word that I can think of to describe The Last Legion is mediocre. This is a mediocre film through and through, never quite being good while never quite sinking to the depths to be awful. Children in the early double digits might find some enjoyment in this movie, but anyone older has seen it all before and has seen it done much better. Still, in the end, this is not as bad of a movie as one would expect given the fact that the film has been sitting on the studio's shelf for over a year. According to the film's press notes, the filmmakers spent six years working on this script. You'd think with all that effort, we'd have something that's a little bit better than just being average.


Friday, August 17, 2007


Hype can be a dangerous thing, especially for a comedy. Months before its release, Superbad was already being hailed by many as one of the great comedies of the year. Of course, these same kind of words were spoken of before Knocked Up was released in June, which was made by and features many of the same people as this film. I was not a fan of Knocked Up, as I thought it was nothing more than a generic sitcom-quality romantic comedy plot with four letter words and pop culture references, combined with thinly developed and unlikeable characters who I just didn't care about. The fact that Superbad was met with much of the same amount of hype, and had already spawned its own catch phrase and T-shirts before most people had even seen it worried me greatly. Would I be setting myself up for another disappointment?

Much to my relief, Superbad really is a truly funny movie, and a much better film all around in my opinion than Knocked Up. Where the previous film unsuccessfully stuck stoner and geek cliches into a moldy plot where they didn't even belong in the first place, Superbad focuses solely on the characters and lets them be themselves. The movie is crude and sometimes quite tasteless, but it is never disgusting, and we never stop wanting to see the characters succeed, even in their most perverse of goals. For all of its laughs, this is a very human story about friendship and growing up at its core. It's mind may sometimes be in the gutter, but its heart is always in the right place. Superbad may not be one of the great comedies of 2007, or even one of the great films, but it is a highly entertaining one, which is what counts more than all the hype and T-shirt sales in the world.

Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are life-long best friends who have never been popular in school, so they have always relied on each other. With high school graduation just weeks away, combined with the fact that they will be separated after the summer due to the fact they are off to different colleges, the two are determined to close their time together with a bang. The best way to do this, they figure, is to finally lose their virginity during a graduation party. And the best way to do this, they realize, is to score some alcohol for a party, which will presumably automatically give them a chance with the women they have individually longed for through most of school (Emma Stone and Martha MacIsaac). They rely on someone even less popular than them, a nerdy outcast named Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), to score the booze after Fogell obtains a fake ID with the assumed name of "McLovin". The simple act of buying alcohol with a fake ID becomes complicated to the extreme when the store is held up during the act of purchasing the booze, and Fogell ends up in the company of two crooked cops (Seth Rogen and Bill Hader) who take him on a wild night on the town. As for Seth and Evan, they will be forced to take many detours as they try to find an alternative way of getting a hold of some alcohol and try to make it to the party on time.

The fact that the two lead characters share the same first names as the two credited writers, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, is no coincidence. The two supposedly grew up as friends, and wrote the screenplay back when they were 14-years-old, loosely basing the film on their own experiences and views on adolescence. The script's obviously been touched up quite a bit over the years, but it's clear that this is one of the key reasons why Superbad works. There is a certain honesty to the film that captures perfectly what it is like to be an awkward teen who never fits into any sort of social group or cannot be narrowed into a clique. The movie is quite often hilarious in its depiction of the various misadventures of the three leads that they are forced to overcome. While the movie is a bit overlong, and sometimes shifts focus too frequently away from Seth and Evan, it never truly drags and manages to keep a consistent comic momentum running throughout. And yet, that's not what impressed me the most about Superbad. What impressed me is how much the movie truly cares about all of its characters. It's not just Seth and Evan, but everyone for the most part is written as an honest depiction instead of a caricature. The teenage characters are written in a very real way so that they come across as people you may have known yourself in high school, instead of the standard cliche types we've come to expect. The movie does lose its way a little bit in the two cop characters whom Fogell spends most of the night with. While everyone else has a somewhat realistic tone to them, these guys seem to have wandered in from another movie. It never becomes a huge problem, but they did stick out just enough for me to notice. They also seem to take over most of the middle section of the movie, taking attention away from the central characters.

When the movie is on track (which is most of the time), it really is a very enjoyable film. The fact that this may be Seth and Evan's last big adventure with each other is constantly in the back of the movie's mind. For all of its talk of booze and sex, this really is a movie about these two life-long friends being forced to grow apart from each other. This is brought home in the film's quiet and subtle final scene at a mall, which not only ends the film on a perfect note, but ends it in a very realistic way that is somewhat open ended instead of neatly tied up. A lot of what makes the characters work are the performances of Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, who actually have a certain chemistry together that make you believe they have been friends all their lives, despite their differences. Jonah Hill has acted in a couple teen comedies the past two years or so, but this is the first time he's truly had to carry one, and he does a great job at it. He gets some of the film's biggest laughs (such as when he imagines different methods and outcomes of trying to steal some liquor from a store), and is able to handle the large range of scenes and emotions that the character goes through quite well. He can be giving a foul-mouthed rant one minute, and can be sweet and compassionate the next. Michael Cera is a bit more subdued in his performance, but is nonetheless equally effective as the much more down-to-earth Evan. The supporting cast is equally talented, with newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse being a stand out as the nerdy Fogell. He's able to avoid most of the "nerd" cliches that we expect when we first see his character, and create a somewhat honest, but nonetheless hilarious, portrayal.
There's so many things that Superbad does right that when it does slip a little from time to time (mainly the material concerning the two cops), you notice it, but don't really mind since the movie always manages to get back on its feet. The movie manages to pull off a tricky balancing act between raunchy humor, honesty, and heart. I was thinking about a lot of things walking out of the movie. I wasn't just thinking about my favorite jokes, but also some personal memories of myself that the movie had brought up. I wouldn't be surprised if some other people have the same experience. This is a nostalgic and heart-felt film that has a lot of laughs, but most of all, the courage to bring it all together and not cop out.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Daddy Day Camp

If Rush Hour 3 is a textbook example of a cash-in sequel where everyone is just back for a paycheck, then Daddy Day Camp is a textbook example of a sequel where the studio couldn't pay the original actors enough to star in it. This isn't just a bad movie, this is an inhumanly bad movie that should be used only for purposes of torture and/or blackmail. Harsh words? Yes, but perhaps if you saw this movie you would understand. This is a blemish to any cinema that shows it, the actors forced to act in it, and the crew that put it together. If anyone thought they were making a successful family film at any point in the making of Daddy Day Camp, I'd like to know what they were smoking.

In this weary sequel to 2003's modest hit, Daddy Day Care, Cuba Gooding Jr has the "honor" of stepping into Eddie Murphy's shoes as Charlie Hinton. It's been a couple years since he set up his home-run day care business with best friend Phil (Paul Rae), and while business is still booming, his mind is on his now seven-year-old son Ben (Spencir Bridges) being anxious to go to summer camp. Charlie never had a positive experience when he was a child at camp, and is determined not to let his son share the same emotional scars that he has. He decides to expand the Daddy Day Care name and buys a run down summer camp called Camp Driftwood, hoping that Phil and him can turn it into a success. He quickly finds that the Camp itself is beyond repair, the children are unruly, and the popular rival camp next door is run by his old childhood nemesis, Lance Warner (Lochlyn Munro), who caused much of Charlie's anxieties when he was younger. With Lance looking to tear Driftwood down and expand his own property, Charlie becomes determined to save his business venture by any means possible, and will have to rely on help from his military Colonel father (Richard Gant), who he has always had a strained relationship with.

Less than a week after Daddy Day Camp was released, Sony Entertainment tried to put a positive spin on its meager opening weekend box office earnings by stating that the film was originally intended to be a straight to DVD release, cost practically nothing to make, and was only given a theatrical release because someone at the studio thought they could make a quick buck off of it during the dog days of August. It's painfully obvious that this film was a total rush job just by looking at the film. Not only has nobody from the cast of the original film returned, but almost no one behind the scenes, save for one of the writers, worked on the first movie as well. This wouldn't be so bad if the new cast was talented, but everyone seems to have no idea what they're supposed to be doing. This movie's idea of humor is to have Cuba Gooding Jr mugging and making goofy faces for the camera while kids run around him, screaming. Multiply that scene by about 50, and you have the entire 90 minutes of this movie. Were it not for watching Who's Your Caddy just weeks ago, I would say that this is the most depressing experience I've had at the movies this year. In fact, the two movies have something in common, in that they both feature an actress named Tamala Jones, who played the main love interest in Caddy and plays Charlie's wife in this movie. My advice to Miss Jones would be to fire your agent as quickly as possible, or start actually reading the scripts before you agree to do them.

Former 80s child star, Fred Savage, directs the film. You would think that his experience with growing up in the Hollywood system would have given him plenty of experience on how to handle kids. If Daddy Day Camp is any indication, he doesn't remember much of the lessons he learned while acting on The Wonder Years, which was one of the more realistic portrayals of childhood ever captured on television at the time. The kids in this movie are a mess of personality-deprived hellions who have maybe one signature character trait, and that's it. There's a nerdy kid addicted to video games who wants to talk to the cute girl in the camp, there's a bully kid who is actually a softie at heart, and there's a kid who always throws up. (This being a PG-rated family comedy for kids, we get a lovely slow motion shot of him shooting out projectile vomit in the face of the villain late in the film.) The kids are stock types that hack writers have relied on before even the days of Ernest Goes to Camp. The movie is not interested in giving the kids a single honest emotion, feeling, or anything remotely interesting to say. They exist simply to scream and cause chaos until it's time for the standard climax centered around a series of games where the two rival camps compete against each other. Only then do the kids learn to work together, beat the evil team by any means possible (sometimes even by cheating), and send the kids in the audience watching the movie home with the message that winning is all that matters. And if you can make your enemy look like a jackass, that's even better. What a great moral to pass onto our youth.
If there was a single redeeming performance, moment, or even an instant found within this movie, I would be talking about it right here. As much as I try to strain my brain, I can't think of one single bright spot. This is the most cynical, trashy, and just plain wrong excuses for childrens entertainment that I can think of. Please don't think I'm only trashing this movie because I'm an adult, and this movie wasn't made for me. The children in my audience weren't laughing either. Daddy Day Camp is a horrible, horrible movie and everyone involved in the making of it should think long and hard about what they've done. If this was a movie that could appeal to children, I'd at least give it that. This movie appeals to nobody. Way to go, guys.



So, say you're making a werewolf movie. Not only that, but you have the support of Stan Winston, one of the more famous special effect artists in the industry today doing the creature effects. Would you exploit this opportunity, or would you have your "monsters" stay in human form for about 90% of the film? Mysteriously, the makers of Skinwalkers chose the second route. Maybe they knew that all the special effects in the world couldn't save this overblown turkey that looks like it'd be right at home as a made for TV movie on the Sci-Fi Channel, yet mysteriously is playing at a theater near you. The only good thing that comes out of Skinwalkers ties into the makers of this year's earlier release, Blood and Chocolate. The people involved with that movie are no longer tied to the worst movie about werewolves released this year.

According to a brief prologue at the beginning of the film, "skinwalker" is an old Native American term for werewolf. As the movie opens, a young boy named Timothy (Matthew Knight) is set to turn 13 in a couple days. Unknown to him or his mother, Rachel (Rhona Mitra), Timothy is a part of an ancient prophecy that could end the curse of every skinwalker in existence, and make them mortal. There's a group of evil skinwalkers who ride around on motorcycles that are trying to kill the boy before his birthday, because they don't want to become human. They're led by evil, yet incredibly bland Varek (Jason Behr). Timothy and Rachel live with some extended family, who apparently are all skinwalkers also, though the mother and son are not aware of this. How this entire large group of people have been able to keep the fact that they are werewolves secret from these two people for 13 years, your guess is as good as mine. When Varek and his band of goons come riding into town looking for Timothy, the family secret is finally revealed, are forced to flee in a dusty old van, and must try to stay ahead of the pursuing skinwalkers in order to keep the kid alive.

If Skinwalkers proves anything, it's that Lionsgate studio will give just about any movie a theatrical release. How else can you explain how such a cheap, low budget, unintentionally hilarious stinker that should be sitting in the dollar bin at your local Blockbuster is currently playing on over 1,000 screens? (Not for much longer, I would assume.) It's not just the fact that the screenplay by James Demonaco, Todd Harthan, and James Roday is a jumbled mess of action-horror cliches and wooden dialogue I wouldn't wish on any actor. Everything is so blatantly cheap about this movie. The town that Timothy, Rachel, and the rest of the good skinwalker family live in during the first half of the movie is apparently occupied solely by them, and a single man who sits in a chair outside of a store. There are absolutely no extras during the town scenes, and it looks like it was shot on an abandoned set from another movie. This of course allows the two skinwalker groups to get in a violent gun battle in the street without having to worry about innocent bystanders or even police presence, since no cops ever show up. This gun fight scene does give us one of the film's biggest (unintentional, I'm thinking, but I have my doubts) laughs when an old lady who is actually one of the skinwalkers protecting the boy pulls a giant gun seemingly from out of nowhere, and starts blowing away the evil skinwalkers like an action movie badass. If the rest of the movie was this hilariously loopy, I could have enjoyed Skinwalkers in that "so bad, it's good" kind of way. Unfortunately, the movie goes downhill from there to being just plain bad.

There's two more major action sequences after that - one set at a hospital (which once again seems to lack anything resembling security, and allows the skinwalkers to break out the guns and start shooting at each other without anyone raising as much as an eyebrow), and another set at a factory that doesn't really seem to make anything except steam and fire for atmosphere as the lead skinwalkers on both sides are stalking each other. The rest of the film is made up of silly exposition dialogue that never really explains anything to begin with, and feeble attempts at characterization. Timothy and Rachel never talk about anything except for what's currently happening in the plot, so we learn very little about them. The skinwalkers themselves are single minded in their individual goals, and don't talk about anything else. The movie doesn't even exactly explain the creatures that well. For example, the evil biker skinwalkers are guided by a falcon that flies around, seeking out the kid they're looking for. They then somehow automatically know where the kid is. How do they do this? Do they have some kind of psychic link with this bird? And if they do, then why don't the good skinwalkers seem to have any kind of link with it? Is the falcon itself just evil naturally, and is helping out the bad skinwalkers on its own free will? Are they controlling it? I guess we'll have to wait for the "Director's Cut" to find out, which is certain to also explain why the good skinwalkers didn't just hide Timothy as his 13th birthday approached, instead of leaving him out in the open. Even if the evil ones didn't know where he was until early on in the film, it probably would have been a good idea.

The actors who signed onto this film seem to have known what they have been stuck with, and their displeasure shows in almost every scene. Rhona Mitra looks downright bored and is given very little to do as the mother of this kid who will supposedly change the fate of all skinwalkers. You'd think discovering your child is part of an ancient prophecy would create some kind of emotion, but she usually keeps the same facial expression in every scene. Matthew Knight as the much sought-after Timothy comes off a little bit better, but he'd better hope some better scripts come his way soon if he wants to continue having a career past the point of puberty. As the leads of the warring skinwalker groups, Elias Koteas (the leader of the heroes) has appeared in some good stuff in the past, and really should have known better than to take this job. As the lead villain, Jason Behr is completely miscast, as he is never that threatening or menacing. He looks more like the "bad boy" member of a boy band, than someone who is trying to hunt down and kill a child. Everyone else simply disappears into the background, as they are either given little to no dialogue, or they are not worth our attention to start with.
By the time the title creatures finally take their monster forms during the last 10 minutes of the movie, it's too little too late. Skinwalkers is a joke of a movie, and I can't for the life of me figure out what made someone think that this was worthy of a theatrical release. The fact that a majority of the violence has been watered down or kept off camera in an obvious attempt to turn an R-rated film to a more "family friendly" PG-13 only makes it even worse. There's nothing here to recommend, and if you really are dead set on seeing it, I'm sure it will be on DVD in about two months and on cable in less than a year. Even then, I wouldn't suggest you spend your time with it.


Rush Hour 3

If there was ever a textbook example of a cash-in, hopelessly tired sequel, it would be Rush Hour 3. While the previous two films weren't exactly classics, they had a lot more life than this. Director Brett Ratner (X-Men 3: The Last Stand) is back, as are the two lead stars, Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. And yet, everyone seems to just be here because the studio wanted another movie, not because they want to be there. The humor and chemistry is forced and worn, and everybody looks like they wish they were somewhere else. Not that I blame them, obviously, but Rush Hour 3 is just a pathetic excuse to milk a cash cow that is long past its prime one last time.

Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) and Detective James Carter (Chris Tucker) have apparently gone their separate ways as the film opens. The dialogue mentions that a rift appeared between them because of a woman, but not much information is given. Carter is now working as a traffic cop (although why a homicide detective would be working as a traffic cop is anyone's guess), and Lee is currently assigned with protecting a Chinese diplomat while he is visiting L.A. to give a speech that holds top secret information on a world-wide crime syndicate. The diplomat is shot by an assassin named Kenji (Hiroyuki Sonada), whom it is eventually revealed that Lee has a past with. Carter eventually gets involved, and the two former friends and partners are forced to work together again when they promise the diplomat's daughter, Soo Yung (Zhang Jingchu) that they will track down the man who tried to kill her father. They track down Kenji to France, where they discover that the crime syndicate goes a lot deeper than they could ever imagined. They're chased down by various assailants, get anal raped by a French police detective (played by filmmaker Roman Polanski in a bizarre cameo), they have repeated run-ins with a snooty French cab driver who initially hates Americans, but learns to like them when he discovers they can kill others for no reason, and go through the same kind of friendly bickering that we've heard all before in the last two films, only not as lively or funny.

That's the best way I can describe Rush Hour 3. It's everything you've come to expect, only less. Tucker and Chan are back playing their cultural and racial odd couple act, but there's something strained and forced about it here. Chan looks tired and constantly seems to be waiting for the scene to be over with so he can cash his paycheck. Tucker at least tries, but very few of the jokes he lets fly with his trademarked high pitched motor mouth line delivery actually hit with any degree of certainty. You sometimes wondered if anyone involved was interested in anything rather than a pay day, especially concerning the plot. Was this storyline even scripted, or did they just make it up as they went along? I know the synopsis above makes it sound like a plot-driven movie, but to tell the truth, the plot is nearly incoherent with people popping in and out of the story with little to no reason. Everyone basically exists either to fight the two heroes, or for Chris Tucker to rant at and crack jokes at. This seemingly all powerful criminal empire is barely even touched upon, and its members are usually only glanced at for one scene, and then disappear. There's one villain who is identified only as "Dragon Lady" in the credits, and is played by the talented Japanese actress, Youki Kudoh, who was previously seen in films such as Snow Falling on Cedars and Memoirs of a Geisha. She is an assassin working for the syndicate trying to kill the two detectives, and although she constantly shows promise, the movie never does anything with her or develop her as anything other than a faceless drone to throw knives at Jackie Chan during random action scenes. It's a waste of her considerable talent, and makes me wonder if a majority of her role was left on the cutting room floor, since her name appears fairly early in the opening credits, but her final role is restricted to barely a cameo.

Her character is not the only victim of this screenplay that reads like a first draft that somehow wound up being filmed. The movie races forward from scene to scene with little rhyme or reason. It never stops to let characters say more than two words, unless it's a one-liner or a zinger. It also never stops to develop even the slightest bit of characterization. Lee and Carter were not exactly deep and complex in the previous entries, but here, they are just hollow shells of their former selves. We learn early on that they've had a falling out while visiting New York together a couple years ago, but it is barely touched on, and the emotional wounds that these two men share is solved in a simple and cheesy music montage that I couldn't tell if it was supposed to be a joke or taken seriously. So, the jokes aren't as fresh or funny, and the characters are cheap imitations of the ones we've come to know. How's the action? Well, I will say this, it's a sad day when I start seeing Jackie Chan being replaced by an obvious stunt double, or sometimes CG trickery for a lot of his stunts. The guy's acting performance isn't the only thing tired, he just looks exhausted in general. While he still has some life during his action scenes, he's a far cry from what he once was, and doesn't even seem to be enjoying himself. Even the outtakes are made up mostly of Chan blowing his lines, instead of the failed stunts we've come to expect. The most impressive action sequence in the film is set at the Eiffel Tower, and doesn't even come until the last 15 minutes or so, never mind the fact that it makes very little sense to begin with. If you were the mysterious head of a powerful secret crime organization, would you stage a fight and hostage situation in the city's most famous tourist attraction with everyone watching?
I could talk about the film's horrible waste of Max Von Sydow's acting talents, or when Chris Tucker and an old Asian man do an unfunny take on the classic "Who's on First" routine, but why bother? I think I've made my point clear. No one cared about making Rush Hour 3 a good movie, and their lack of effort is right up there on the screen for everyone to see. To its credit, the movie runs by in a blink of an eye and doesn't waste too much of our time. Still, even 90 minutes of watching two actors cashing a check is too long. Even as mindless popcorn entertainment, Rush Hour 3 is uninspired, and comes across as a waste of time for everyone involved and those unfortunate enough to pay to see it.



August is usually regarded as the time of year when the studios release their lesser summer movies. All the blockbusters have been trotted out, so we have to go through a month of the movies the studios knew wouldn't cut it. That's why it's such a surprise to see a movie like Stardust released around this time. Maybe Paramount didn't have faith in it, but they should have. This is a highly entertaining, original, witty, and just plain fun fantasy adventure film. That's not to say the film doesn't have its problems, but to banish it to the dog days of late summer seems somewhat extreme. Whatever the reason for being released so late in the summer, Stardust is some of the most fun I've personally had watching a movie this season.

The hero of the story is Tristan (Charlie Cox), a young man who lives in the village of Wall, named so because it is surrounded by a wall that the townspeople are forbidden to cross over. Tristan is lovestruck by a young woman in his village named Victoria (Sienna Miller), and in order to prove his love for her, he tells her that he will track down a star that they saw falling from the sky late one night, find where it landed, and bring it back to her. This means he will have to cross past the wall into the forbidden territory that lies beyond it. On the other side, he finds the magical fantasy world of Stormhold. He quickly tracks down the place where the star fell to earth, and finds a young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes) in its place. She claims that she is indeed the star, and that she only wishes to return to her rightful place in the sky. She's not happy about the idea of Tristan using her as a present for his love, but the two eventually work out a compromise where he will return Yvaine to her home after he presents her to Victoria. Unfortunately, Tristan is not the only one seeking Yvaine. The three greedy sons of a dead king (Peter O'Toole in a funny cameo) are looking for Yvaine, because she holds a piece of jewelry that could make them officially the new King of Stormhold. They're willing to do whatever it takes to reach her before anyone else, even eliminate the competition looking for her. Not only that, a trio of evil witches led by the powerful Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer) seek Yvaine, because if they were to cut out her heart and eat it, they could retain their former beauty and power.

With a two hour plus running time and a multi-layered plot competing for our attention, it's a small miracle that co-writer and director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) manages to keep the action moving constantly in Stardust without ever slowing down or without allowing the story to become overwhelming or complex. Based on the acclaimed novel by Neil Gaiman, Stardust is a grand fantasy adventure that is wise enough to not take itself too seriously and has a wonderful sense of humor throughout. The movie is wise to its own cliches, and plays against our expectations, without drawing attention to itself. This is not exactly a parody, where the characters seem to be in on the joke, but rather a movie that is smart enough to give us credit to know that we've seen all of this before, and puts a slightly humorous spin on it without ever cheapening the drama of the story. The closest film I can compare Stardust to is 1987's masterpiece, The Princess Bride. Though it's a far cry from that classic, it does have the same knowing sense of wit about the film. Stardust is filled with wonderful sights and characters, brought to life by some impressive special effects and some wonderful performances by the cast gathered. There are no wasted characters, as everyone plays some part in the story, and even the smallest supporting character gets his or her own moment to stand out. In particular, Robert De Niro gives a great comic performance as the gruff Captain of a band of sky pirates who fly through the skies in an airship, and hides some certain secret flamboyant tendencies behind his mens' backs. In lesser hands, the character may have stood out negatively and seemed to have walked in from a different movie. But the screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman knows how to make him and all the other characters that inhabit Stormhold into believable and likable characters that we can attach ourselves to.

The film is not always about having fun with itself, and also knows how to be serious when the need arrives. The drama surrounding Tristan and Yvaine's quest to return to the village of Wall is filled with dangers, and the movie knows how to bring about a heightened sense of tension. A memorable sequence where Yvaine is unknowingly lured into a trap at an Inn set by the witches is suspenseful and appropriately thrilling as the scene unfolds. There is a genuine sense of danger that runs throughout the adventure, so we find ourselves wanting to see the characters succeed and reach their goal safely. And yet, the movie is never so scary or dark that young children in the lower double digits could not watch it. It is rated PG-13, but contains nothing that kids probably haven't seen in some of the later Harry Potter films. The movie knows how to balance the fantasy whimsy, the humor, and the darker elements in a way that they lead and blend into each other, instead of making the movie seem like its schizophrenic and switching gears every couple minutes. I guess if I were to find any fault with Stardust's narrative is that although it does a great job of juggling multiple plots and characters, some could have been trimmed. A good example is the running gag involving a group of ghosts who follow along with the adventure and add somewhat of a commentary, which never quite takes off like it should. I can understand why it's there, as it fits into the story, but at the same time it just doesn't work as well as the filmmakers probably intended.

In an adventure story such as this, casting is important, since we have to be able to identify with the characters despite the impossible situations they find themselves surrounded by. In his first lead role, British actor Charlie Cox is a real find as young Tristan. He makes a great everyman, and yet, it is also believable when he becomes more of a hero as the film goes on, and finds himself determined to protect this strange woman he's discovered. He's vulnerable yet strong at the same time, which makes him easy for the audience to identify with. Claire Danes has a much more difficult task, as she must portray someone who is not even human actually. She is spirited and sweet, and yet there is something appropriately alien about her performance. Like she fits in with the rest of the cast, but at the same time, we can tell that she doesn't belong in the same world as all the other characters. She is the heart of the film as she discovers her feelings for Tristan and for the people she encounters, and Danes is able to convey every emotion of this very complex character. In her second "villain" role in less than a month after July's Hairspray, Michelle Pfieffer seems to be having a ball as the witch Lamia. She's appropriately threatening and cunning, but not without a sly sense of humor. Everyone, in fact, seems to be having a great time, especially the previously mentioned De Niro who gets the opportunity to play somewhat against type. The fun that these actors are having carries throughout the film, and gives the film a wonderful boost of energy.
In a summer where films that have emphasized style over substance have been rewarded with big box office (Transformers), it would be a crime if Stardust went undiscovered. Here is a movie that has all the action, special effects, exotic locations, and wonder that you could want in a summer blockbuster, but has genuine heart, emotion, and wit to spare. This is a wonderful film, and I can only hope the late summer release does not turn people away. Stardust is captivating and entertaining in a way that few films this season have been. It's able to amaze us with its technical feats, but it is also able to make us feel for its characters and the story it tells. Quite a rare combination, if you ask me.


Rocket Science

How ironic is it that Rocket Science is the story about a young man finding his voice, yet the movie itself has no original voice of its own? Writer-director Jeffrey Blitz (2002's winning Spelling Bee documentary, Spellbound) wants so much to bring forth memories of the films of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) and Napoleon Dynamite that he shamelessly apes their formulas. There's nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from someone else's work, as long as you can give us a reason for us to sit through what we've already seen one more time. Rocket Science is a darkly quirky comedy-drama that just doesn't work, because it can't give us enough of a reason to care.

Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) is a put-upon teen with a lot of problems in his life. He has a terrible stuttering problem, which prevents him from truly speaking his mind, and obviously makes him the target of bullying and ridicule at school. His family life is a shambles, as well. His father walks out right at the beginning the film, his mother has hooked up with a bizarre Asian man, and his older brother (Vincent Piazza) frequently physically and verbally abuses him. Into his life walks Ginny (Anna Kendrick), an intelligent and confident young woman who is a member of the school's debate team. She sees great potential in Hal, despite his verbal handicap, and seems to be determined to shape and mold him into someone who is confident in his voice and abilities. This is the first time anyone has ever believed in Hal, and he finds himself for the first time believing that he can be more than the shy, awkward teen who never says anything.

For what is being billed as a comedy, Rocket Science has a very dark and somewhat mean streak running throughout it. This is not exactly the kind of underdog story where the shy, awkward teen rises to the top and finds success that the synopsis above would lead you to expect. Rather, it is the story of a person who finds out that life can screw you over, and learns to live with it. There's a lot to admire at the core of Rocket Science. I liked the performances, with both Reece Thompson and Anna Kendrick delivering realistic portrayals of young teens that are seemingly complex at first, and promise to have a lot more to them than we initially expect. The movie is also competently made, even if it does seem to be mimicking the style of Wes Anderson, right down to the deadpan narrator. The positives end there, however, as we peel back the movie's layers, and discover that there's just very little going on underneath. You can see potential in nearly every scene and every character, but the movie is content to skim the surface, and never quite go deep enough. It never gives us a real reason to care about these people, especially Hal, which is one of the film's biggest failings, and something that should have been corrected at the screenplay level.

The truth is, for all of his problems, Hal never comes across as a character that we can get behind. We learn so little about him, and he gets to display so little personality that it's hard to root for him. He's highly derivative of other awkward teens that we've seen in other films just like this, such as the underrated 80s classic, Lucas. The movie never makes him as interesting of a character that he should be, because it never quite seems to be very interested in him in the first place. It surrounds him with a cast of quirky and interesting characters that it's almost a shame when the movie keeps on going back to focus on him, when anyone else who surrounds him would have made a much more interesting protagonist. The character of Ginny is a good example. She's very complicated, and is not the angelic nice girl that you would expect in a story like this, who decides to give the outcast a chance out of the goodness of her heart. As the movie goes on, we learn that she has some personal motives, and that everything is not what it seems. Her character, and the performance by Miss Kendrick, hold the most interesting moments of the film, and it's no surprise that the movie picks up whenever she is on screen. Unfortunately, about halfway through, her appearances in the story become less frequent, and it focuses much more heavily on Hal, who could have been interesting if the screenplay was willing to go deeper with him.

If it was just this, I might have been able to give Rocket Science a pass for trying, but the movie just doesn't seem to hold an original bone in its body. We see elements from other films throughout that it turns into a game of "spot the reference", and we start paying more attention to what may have been the inspiration for the scene we're watching, rather than the scene itself. It's very distracting, and left me feeling bored before it was over. You keep on wanting the material to work and to find its own voice, but instead, it just keeps on putting stuff up on the screen that we have seen too many times before. The film's problems lie strictly at the screenplay level. I understand that this is Mr. Blitz's first attempt at writing a fictional screenplay (although it is apparently semi-autobiographical and based somewhat on his own experiences as a teen), and maybe he decided to play it safe. I think he played it a little too safe here. He seems to want to break through and do something really great with these characters. We can see it from time to time, especially during some of Ginny's finer moments in the film. He just keeps on holding us back, and holding back his own creation as well.
Rocket Science has already become the critic's darling, and has been honored at film festivals, but I personally see an Emperor without any clothes. This is not a terrible movie, just one that should have found its own voice instead of trying to be like everyone else. I didn't laugh very much, and I didn't care for the characters most of the time. When it was over, I was thinking more about what it could have been rather than what it was. I hate it when I walk out of a movie thinking things like that. I want to walk out thinking about the director's vision, and the story I just saw. Here, all I was thinking about was it was a shame the director couldn't find his own voice to tell the story he wanted to.


The Ten

If The Ten proves anything, it proves that it takes more than a great concept and a talented cast for a film to work completely. The movie is a collection of intentionally crude and juvenile sketches that are loosely based on each of The Ten Commandments. The cast that has been gathered to tell these stories include a number of likeable actors including Paul Rudd, Liev Schreiber, Gretchen Mol, Winona Ryder, Famke Janssen, and Oliver Platt just to name a few. By all accounts, it should work, and most of the time it does. The Ten is certainly crude with its humor, but never so gross that we become turned off. Something else entirely turns us off before the film is finished, and that's the fact that the movie runs out of steam far too quickly, and that many of the skits go on long after we get the joke.

In The Ten, our host is a man named Jeff (Paul Rudd), who tries to set up each sequence in the film, but is interrupted either by his long-suffering wife who he has secretly been cheating on (Famke Janssen), or by his bubble-headed new girlfriend (Jessica Alba). Each skit is supposed to be a modern day example of the lessons the Commandments teach us. For example, to help teach us about not being jealous of our neighbor's possessions, we get a sketch where two warring neighbors try to one-up each other when one of them brings home a CAT scan machine, and the two men start filling their homes with hospital equipment to try to make the other one jealous. The skit that is supposed to tell us to honor our fathers and mothers tells a bizarre story about two young black men who have a white mother, only to discover that their father is Arnold Schwarzenegger. When the men want to meet their father, the mother can't arrange it, so she hires a second rate Arnold impersonator (Oliver Platt) to act as their father. Many of the characters and situations carry over each other from each skit. For example, in the very first skit ("You shall have no other gods before me"), a woman played by Winona Ryder watches her fiance become an overnight celebrity after he jumps out of a plane without a parachute, and becomes stuck in the ground. She leaves her fiance, but returns in the "You Shall Not Steal" skit, where she falls in love with a ventriloquist dummy, steals it, and goes on a sex binge with it.

To call The Ten random would be an understatement. Director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) was involved with a popular mid 90s sketch comedy show on MTV called The State. Many of his former co-stars from that show return in this film. For the most part, I admired what they tried to do here. Some of the skits are very funny, such as the story about a librarian (Gretchen Moll) who goes on a vacation to Mexico, only to find love with a local who turns out to be Jesus Christ, who is just killing time on Earth, waiting to start The Rapture. Another highlight is the two-part story concerning a medical doctor (Ken Marino) who teaches us "you shall not kill" in a sketch where he leaves a pair of surgical scissors in a woman after he operates on her as a prank. No one else finds it funny when the woman dies, and he is sent to prison. His story continues in "you shall not covet your neighbor's wife" when he starts a relationship with another inmate in prison, even though he's already officially the "bitch" of his cellmate. Like the recent Hot Rod, the movie has a certain "anything for a laugh" mentality that I really admired. There is a certain inspired incoherency to the film, with no two of the comedy sketches being exactly alike. A wide variety of humor is used, from clever word play, to gross out humor, and even animation. You can tell that everyone involved with this film was having a good time making it, and for a while, it carries out into the audience.

It's hard to keep this kind of inspired lunacy running for a full 90 minutes. The movie eventually starts to drag, and this is where The Ten starts to fall apart. The later skits are nowhere near as clever as the ones during the first half. While the first half of the film has a couple misses here and there (the previously mentioned one about Arnold Schwarzenegger falls flat, despite a funny idea), the movie seems to run almost completely out of inspiration as it goes on. By the time the film is coming to an end, we're thinking more on the earlier material that worked rather than the stuff we're currently watching. A skit concerning a man who decides to start making up excuses so he doesn't have to go to church, and instead prefers to hang around his house naked, goes nowhere and is dragged out long after we've gotten the joke, which wasn't that funny to begin with. The laughs eventually become fewer and further between one another, and the dry patches where we're waiting for something to happen become longer. It's almost as if Wain and co-writer Ken Marino kind of lost interest in their own project as they were writing the script. The performances are still lively and the movie never quite loses its energy, but it all seems to be a waste if the script isn't there backing it all up.

While it may be an uneven experience, at least the cast is completely game for everything the movie throws at them. The movie is made up of a variety of stand up comics who you will recognize from various TV shows, and even features some actors who you wouldn't expect to see in a movie like this, such as Liev Schreiber as one of the feuding neighbors in the CAT scan sketch. Some other highlights include Winona Ryder, who is given the unenviable task of having a lengthy and passionate sex scene with a dummy, yet still somehow manages to retain a strong performance. Rob Corddry from TV's The Daily Show also gets some laughs as the inmate who wins the "affection" of the doctor currently being held for murder. Since much of the cast has experience with sketch comedy, everyone seems to be in their environment. That's why it's such a disappointment when the jokes stop coming. Everyone's obviously giving it their all, why can't the movie itself do the same for us?
I watched The Ten with growing interest during the first half, and then little by little, the movie betrayed that interest. I was disappointed, and yet I still found myself admiring the movie in some way thanks to the actors. I don't think this is a bad movie, just one that lost its way somewhere down the line. It seemingly has everything going for it, and the filmmakers didn't take full advantage of what they had. Something tells me they should have filtered out the best material, and used them for something a little bit more worthy. There's good stuff to be found in The Ten, but it's surrounded by stuff that just shouldn't even be there in the first place.


Sunday, August 05, 2007


The Disney studios' attempts to bring beloved cartoons to live action has been a mixed bag so far, ranging from the enjoyable (1997's George of the Jungle), to the downright disposable (1999's Inspector Gadget). Underdog, fortunately, does not fail quite as severely as Gadget, but it does very little to entertain anyone above the age of the single digits. Kids will doubtlessly find the antics of the crime-fighting dog enjoyable, while adults will most likely spend a good part of the time looking at their watches. The film is intended to be a satire of recent superhero films, but it's not smart or clever enough to come across as anything other than a mediocre time waster.

Disgraced police dog Shoeshine (named so because of his knack to lick people's shoes) finds himself on the street and without a friend after a botched attempt to sniff out a bomb. It's not long after that the little beagle finds himself in the clutches of the vertically challenged mad scientist, Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage), and his dim-witted cohort Cad (Patrick Warburton). Barsinister is working on a fiendish plot to turn animals into powerful beasts that will obey only him. Shoeshine manages to escape from the lab, an accident occurs during the process, and the dog is doused with a mixture of chemicals during the chaos that gives him various super powered abilities above normal canines, including the ability to speak English, his voice now provided by comic actor Jason Lee. After the incident at the lab, the little dog wanders into the home of awkward preteen Jack (Alex Neuberger), who in compliance with the unwritten laws of family films, has a dead mother and a dad who doesn't pay enough attention to him (James Belushi). When Jack finds out his new dog can talk and has super powers, he decides that Shoeshine could use his powers to help protect Capital City, which is currently under the grips of a massive crime wave. Taking the secret identity of Underdog, Shoeshine quickly gains media attention as a hero, and wins the heart of the sweet local dog, Polly Purebread (voice by Amy Adams). The media attention unfortunately also brings Shoeshine to the attention of the evil Barsinister, who has built a new lab in the sewers underneath the city, and wants to capture the hero and use his powers toward his own ends.

The problem I had with Underdog is that it is content to not have enough fun with its own premise. Here is a movie about a dog who suddenly gains the ability to speak, fly, and has super strength. And yet, the best thing it can think of to do is to have the little canine fly around and smash through buildings. Think of the numerous possibilities you could use with this idea, and screenwriters Adam Rifkin (Zoom), Joe Piscatella, and Craig A. Williams pretty much ignore them. The movie's obviously been granted a fairly healthy special effects budget. The illusion to make the various animals talk, fly around, and other impossible things are pretty convincing for the most part. And yet, I found it hard to care, because Shoeshine himself is not a very interesting character. You would think a talking dog would have some interesting things to say at the very least. There are a couple moments where Shoeshine's owner, Jack, tries to teach him the way of the world and human society, but these are underutilized or not as much fun as they could have been. We actually get to see very little of Underdog in action or foiling human criminals, which kind of defeats the purpose of the movie in the first place, doesn't it? What fun is a movie about a super powered dog if he's mainly going to stay in regular dog form? Yeah, he talks plenty, but I wanted to see him do even more.

The movie surrounds Shoeshine/Underdog with a variety of character cliches, but once again doesn't want to do anything we haven't seen in countless other movies. We've got the lonely preteen boy who's misunderstood as being a troublemaker, and longs for the sweet girl at school (Taylor Momsen). And, of course, we've got the well-meaning workaholic dad who doesn't seem to understand his kid. I'm quite frankly tired of seeing these character types inhabiting just about every live action family film, and wish they'd either go away, or that screenwriters would find something different to do with them. The movie tries to have a little bit of fun with Shoeshine's relationship with little dog Polly, and they almost come across as a canine version of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. This is not as clever as it could have been, and doesn't get as much screen time as it should. Everything that is wrong with this movie goes right back to the point that it just doesn't go far enough with its own ideas. After the initial joy of seeing a dog flying around and talking wares off, we're sad to discover that the movie has already used up all of its bag of tricks, and just keeps on giving us the same scenes over and over again.

I cannot claim to have much knowledge of the original cartoon that inspired this film, as aside from the theme song and the fact that the character always rhymed when he talked, age has clouded over most of my memories of the show. I cannot say with any certainty how close Jason Lee comes to capturing the character, but he does at least rhyme a lot when he's playing Underdog, and his voice performance does come across as being likeable. He has a certain "everyman" quality to his voice that I liked. Same goes for Amy Adams as the voice of his love interest, and I wanted to see more of her and her relationship with Shoeshine. As far of the human cast goes, everyone is serviceable, but not much more than that. As Shoeshine's human owner, young Alex Neuberger doesn't really bring anything that no other semi-talented child actor could bring. Even the villains, who should be over the top and cartoonish, come across as disappointing. Peter Dinklage and Patrick Warburton are given very little to do, nor do they get any moment to chew the scenery like a good comic book villain should. You know your movie is not working when the villains are just as bland and underwritten as the lead kid's workaholic dad.
Underdog is a movie that should have been less willing to stick to tried and true traditions, and instead play by its own rules. It seems to have everything going for it. The dog is cute, the premise is ripe for clever satire, and the cartoon it is based on has already brought in a built-in audience. The fact that it constantly ignores its potential in each scene frustrated me to no end. The filmmakers have no one to blame but themselves for making such a lackluster film. This is not a terrible movie, but it is an extremely underwhelming one. Sometimes, being underwhelming can be even worse. This is one of those times.


Rescue Dawn

No one will ever deny that Rescue Dawn is well-made, well-acted, and looks great. And yet, there is an undeniable emotional distance between the audience and the characters up there on the screen. This is a movie that literally cries out to be great, and although it comes close to it at times, it never quite takes off. It's far too content to fall back on military movie cliches and follow a lead character so whitewashed and optimistic, he barely seems human. Rescue Dawn is far from a bad movie, but it is an extremely disappointing one, because I could see so much more potential.

Set in 1965, young Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is on his first mission, flying over Laos in Vietnam. The film is set before the Vietnam conflict became a full scale war, so at this point, the soldiers really had no idea what they were getting into. Before Dieter takes his mission, we see him and his fellow soldiers mocking an instructional film about how to survive in the jungle. During the flight, however, Dieter is shot down, captured, and thrown into a prison camp. He befriends a few of his fellow captives, including a man named Duane (Steve Zahn) who does not seem to hold much hope for rescue, and a burned out hippie named Gene (Jeremy Davies). Dieter rallies the men to not give up hope, and is determined to escape from the prison. Despite the perils of the jungle just outside of the camp, Dieter is determined to find his way to his fiance waiting back at home, and refuses to die in the camp.

This is not the first time that acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog (2005's documentary Grizzly Man) has told the true life story of Dieter Dengler. Back in 1997, he did a documentary film on the man called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. I have not seen that film, but I have a hunch it has to be a more realistic portrait of the man than this dramatization. One of the key problems with Rescue Dawn is that Dieter never once loses his optimism, or seems to have a moment where he comes across as being vulnerable. No matter what hardships or tortures he endures, he keeps on plugging away without a moment of weakness. Herzog obviously has great respect for the man, but I think he goes a bit too far in romanticizing the man and making him come across as a protagonist who can do no wrong. His fellow prisoners are equally one-note. They are great performances seeking for a character to inhabit. Most of the characters that surround Dieter come across as underdeveloped, or not strong enough to capture out attention. Zahn's performance as Duane is an example. For most of the film, he is rather subdued and not very interesting. It is not until the prisoners actually attempt to make an escape that the performances start to come alive. It's at this point that the movie itself comes alive as well.

The depiction of Dieter's escape not only from the camp but from the jungle itself is when things finally pick up. It is not portrayed as an action film, but as a realistic and often dangerous quest for survival. We follow Dieter and Duane as they attempt to make it to some kind of civilization, or to signal the helicopters they occasionally see flying overhead. These sequences are tense and quite involving as we watch the two men try to survive against the elements. It's also at this point that Dieter finally starts to resemble a real person, and looks like he's beginning to lose a little bit of his continuous spirit. Unfortunately, all of this comes literally during the last half hour of the film. Up to this point, the film is not bad really. It just never comes across as being as engaging as I thought it should. We learn nothing about Dieter or any of his fellow prisoners, and most of the scenes revolve around them sitting around talking about escaping, or studying the movements of the guards. One thing I did like about the prison camp sequences is that they do not offer subtitles for when the guards are yelling at the prisoners. It helps put you in the same position as the men, being in this foreign country, and not knowing what's going to happen next or what the men containing you are planning to do with you. Herzog was obviously trying for a realistic approach with this film, but at times, it is just too leisurely paced to be engrossing, and we find ourselves just sitting there, waiting for something to happen.
Rescue Dawn is a flawed film, but one that is probably worth watching at least once for the good moments. There's a lot to like here, they just never came together for me. I was just expecting a deeper look into these men who found themselves captives in a land they didn't understand. It at least made me interested in tracking down the original documentary film, as I'd like to hear about Dieter's experience in his own words. Something also tells me that film gives us a slightly less whitewashed and romanticized depiction of the man. I wanted a movie that really got deep into the soul of the story and the people who were there. What I got was a movie that I felt just skimmed the surface.


Saturday, August 04, 2007

Hot Rod

I would best describe Hot Rod as an interesting misfire. It doesn't quite work, but it's certainly not for lack of trying. There is a certain inspired incoherent lunacy that I really liked about this movie. The humor is irrelevant, and seems to be trying to capture the feeling of the classic Zucker Brothers comedies and Wayne's World films at times. I found myself laughing a few times, and smiling even more. However, the movie has too many jokes that just don't hit to make the movie come across as successful. I admire director Akiva Schaffer (TV's Saturday Night Live) and writer Pam Brady (Team America: World Police) for trying something different, but the end result is just too uneven to recommend.

Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg) is a wannabe stuntman whose brain and maturity level seemed to stop growing when he was a child back in the mid-80s. That's okay, because all of the friends he hangs out with seemed to stop maturing back then as well. His main ambition in life to pull off awesome stunts on his moped bike and live up to the legacy of his dead father, who used to work for Evel Knievel. His other main ambition in life is to beat up his stepfather, Frank (Ian McShane), who frequently verbally and physically abuses him and refuses to respect him until Rod can beat him in a fight. Early in the film, Frank is revealed to be terminally ill and will die unless money can be raised for a risky heart operation. Not wanting Frank to leave this world before he gets a chance to beat him senseless (Frank tells Rod it wouldn't count if he beat him up while he was dying), Rod decides to raise the money for the operation himself by performing a series of auto stunts, building up the grand climax - jumping 15 school busses on a motorcycle. Along the way, Rod will also try to win the heart of a childhood sweetheart who is back in town (Isla Fisher), and try to get her away from the jerk she's currently dating (Will Arnett).

Making his big screen debut, Saturday Night Live comic Andy Samberg seems to be trying for the combination of male ego-driven plotting and bizarre humor that has made Will Ferrell a comic star. (In fact, Ferrell is listed as one of the Executive Producers of the film.) Samberg seems to dip a bit more to the irrelevant and the just plain random in his humor, however. Hot Rod comes across as a loosely connected series of skits hung together by a thin plot. There's nothing wrong with that, and the movie does hold quite a couple laughs with it's "anything goes" mentality. I was a bit confused by the appearance of Charles Dickens' famous antihero, Ebeneezer Scrooge, late in the film (and no I'm not kidding), but I certainly admired that the movie was willing to go so far to get a laugh from its audience. The cast generally seems to be here to have a good time instead of telling an actual story. Sometimes this method works quite well, and it carries out into the audience. Other times, we just sit there and either stare blankly at the screen or smile politely. A sequence where Andy and his stepbrother, Kevin, have an entire conversation out of saying "Cool beans" to each other over and over in different ways and a different tone of voice each time annoyed me more than amused me. But then, a couple minutes later, I'd find myself laughing again, such as when Rod goes into a tribute to a musical number from Footloose for no reason at all, only to have the sequence end with him falling over the face of a cliff and hitting himself along the jagged rocks for about a full minute. Some other personal favorite moments include an inspiring rock anthem music montage that turns into a city-wide violent riot, and Rod calling upon the animals of nature to lend him their powers before he makes a difficult stunt jump.

The problem with Hot Rod is that there are long stretches where the jokes just don't hit. The characters are also completely one-note, and fail to capture our interest. I understand that in a parody movie like this, we're supposed to be concentrating on the jokes and not the characters. But at the same time, we still need something resembling a human element to latch onto. Rod Kimble is a one-note man-child doofus who gets hurt a lot, and seems to be trapped in some kind of mid-80s time warp where the world has not progressed for him ever since hair metal band Poison was played regularly on the radio. I can understand how this can be funny, but the movie never goes deep enough for him to come across as anything more than a simple oddity who lives in his own world. His relationship with the girl next door that's supposed to lend the film a small romantic vibe never works, because we can never understand what she sees in the guy. Maybe that's the joke, but I still wanted more. Rod's friends are a small group of stoners and geeks who get laughs from time to time, but never come across as characters existing in a screenplay. They're just there. As Rod's parents, Ian McShane and Sissy Spacek seem to just be cashing a paycheck with their underdeveloped roles. The movie just doesn't know how to make the characters interesting, so while we find ourselves laughing at them on occasion, we just don't feel anything.
Hot Rod is too random and uneven to work, but I have to admit, I liked it more than I probably should have. With so many cookie cutter comedies being churned out by studios, here's a movie that at least attempts to be different. I encourage Andy Samberg to continue pursuing a film career, he just needs to find a role that can both engage us and make us laugh. I think he has the ability to do both with the right material, and I encourage him to try writing his own screenplay the next time around and show us what he can really do. If he can accomplish that, I can see him joining the ranks of the few Saturday Night Live stars who adapted successfully to movies. Hot Rod is a start, now he needs to knock one out of the park. I wish him luck.


Friday, August 03, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

Jason Bourne is a man of few words. Then again, The Bourne Ultimatum is a movie of few words. I mean that as a complement. In the third entry in the Bourne franchise, returning director Paul Greengrass (United 93) has created a nearly two-hour long cat and mouse chase movie that hardly slows down long enough for Bourne or anyone else in the movie to get any long moments of dialogue in. Not that you'll mind. This is a tightly edited and paced adult action thriller that ranks amongst the top of the summer movie line up. It comes close at times to becoming too much, but it always manages to stay in the safety zone, and not come across as an over the top mindless video game of a movie.

Having spent the past couple years trying to remember his forgotten past, former assassin Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is getting closer to uncovering the truth behind the mysterious random flashbacks that continue to haunt him. The CIA now views him as a bigger threat than ever before, and head operations director Noah Vosen (David Strathaim) is determined to wipe him out by any means necessary. This puts him at odds with agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), who is not convinced that Bourne is a national threat, and that Noah's methods are extreme. As Jason Bourne pieces together the final parts of the puzzle that is his past, he finds himself outrunning, outthinking, and outfighting the various agents that are tracking him and trying to silence him. Along the way, he gains an ally in the form of agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who actually puts her life and career on the line to help him. However, time is quickly running out, and people who hold the clues Bourne needs are being hunted down and killed off.

I will admit that up until this week, I had not seen the previous two Bourne films. I wanted to make sure I did not walk into this one completely unknowing. Fortunately, The Bourne Ultimatum is fairly easy to follow, as there is plenty of helpful flashbacks and dialogue to events that took place in the earlier entries before the action kicks in. After that, pretty much anything goes as the movie follows Bourne around the world in his search for answers. The energy contained within this movie is enough to hold probably two summer blockbusters, as the movie flies from one sequence to the next with very little time for exposition or character building. While this does somewhat stunt the growth of the characters, and prevents them from truly connecting with us, the movie more than makes up for this shortcoming with its absolute desire to amaze us and entertain us with its amazing action and suspenseful plotting. An early sequence where Bourne and an ally must elude capture in a massive train station is quite clever and manages to keep the tension high for the entire 10 or 15 minutes that it runs. Another highlight is a sequence where Bourne must track down a motorcycle-riding assassin who is out for not only an important person in his past, but also Nicky. These sequences are very long, sometimes seeming to clock in to almost a half an hour. And yet, the sequences never become dull or repetitive. The action is tense and fast-paced enough, and is constantly changing as Bourne is faced with new challenges, sometimes when he is still trying to tackle a previous one. It's a credit to the director and the screenplay by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi that they can keep on thinking of ways to hold our attention for such long periods of time without making it seem like the action is being dragged out.

The action is incredibly well-shot and edited, with only the memorable sequences contained within June's Live Free or Die Hard matching it in terms of sheer "wow" factor. And yet, at the same time, it all comes with somewhat of a price. The characters come across as being somewhat thin because the movie seems to constantly be moving. Jason Bourne is still a great action hero, but he never really comes across as being anything but that. His dialogue is very short and to the point, and except for the film's final moments, we never really learn anything about him. He's a single-minded man on a mission, and he never really gets any time to do anything else. That certainly doesn't mean he's not interesting to watch. Matt Damon has certainly grown into the character, and he's much more believable as an unstoppable physical specimen than he was in the original film. (Damon's face doesn't look quite as boyish this time around as it did in the original.) He's also more than physically capable to successfully carry out the challenges that the film throws at him. I have a feeling if I had seen this movie before the previous two, Bourne would come across as somewhat of a one-note character, and not very interesting. The few moments the movie allows him to slow down and have a real conversation with someone, he doesn't come across as being very deep, but Damon brings a certain vulnerability to the character in his performance that at least makes him seem human and aware that he might be getting in over his head this time around.

In the supporting roles, Joan Allen and Julia Stiles come across the strongest, since they get the most amount of screentime outside of Damon. Even though Allen's character has very little interaction with Bourne during the course of the film, she's able to create genuine concern for him, and does a good job of conveying her feeling toward him and his mission to discover more about his past. Julia Stiles gets to share more screen time with Damon, and she does certainly have an easy chemistry with him during their scenes together. Her motives for joining up with Bourne are a little shaky and forced, but for the most part, she's a welcome member to the cast and gives him someone to play off on for part of the film. The main weak link in the cast is David Strathaim as the evil agent who wants Bourne dead. It's not that he's bad in the role, it's just that the character is severely underwritten to the point that he is just evil for the sake of being evil. He also never comes across as threatening as he truly should be, since he spends most of the film standing around and barking out orders to other people. He doesn't make for an interesting villain, and many of the people he sends after Bourne come across as being more menacing and interesting.
The Bourne Ultimatum is pure popcorn entertainment that requires very little thought to watch. The fact that it's targeted at adults instead of teens or kids helps it stand out a little bit more from its summer competition. Audiences are sure to get the action they come for, and fans that have been following the story from the beginning are sure to be satisfied. But, it still could have been even more with a screenplay that dared to dig a little bit deeper into the characters. As it stands, Ultimatum is fast paced and fun, if not slight, and is a good way to help the wind down of the summer movie season go down a little bit easier.


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