Reel Opinions

Friday, November 30, 2007


A lot of thrillers these days build themselves around the premise of the lead character being tortured with incredible pain, but no means to escape. Awake stands out amongst the lot in two major ways. The first is that it is somewhat more plausible and realistic than the others, in that the victim here is a patient putting his life in the hands of some shady doctors during a surgical procedure, and that there are no masked villains with multi-million dollar torture palaces under their home. The second is that it is actually character-driven, and not entirely about torture. First time writer-director Joby Harold shows a gift for effective premises and creating a tense psychological atmosphere. Where he needs improvement is in simplifying his plot, and in casting his lead characters.

The film centers on a young millionaire named Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen). Clay is one of the most financially successful businessmen in New York, but he is constantly living under the shadow of the father who he inherited the business from, and whom he barely remembers, since he died at Christmas when Clay was very young. His overly protective and somewhat domineering mother (Lena Olin) has kept Clay on a short chain most of his life. She genuinely cares for him, but is afraid to let him go, since her son was born with a weak heart and he requires a very risky heart transplant operation. A donor has been found, and Clay wants to go against his mother's wishes, and have the operation performed by a doctor friend named Jack Harper (Terrence Howard). Jack does have a history of malpractice suits, but Clay trusts Jack, because they are friends, and he did save Clay's life once when he had heart complications the year before. This is not the only way Clay is deceiving his mother. He's been involved in a secret relationship with his mother's personal secretary, Sam Lockwood (Jessica Alba), and has already proposed to her. He's been forced to keep the relationship secret, and Sam is quickly growing frustrated. Clay wants to be his own man, no longer living in the shadow of his family name, and has decided to make his own decisions by marrying Sam in a last minute ceremony and letting Jack perform the heart transplant.

Anyone who has seen the ad campaign for this film already knows that Clay will grow to regret one of these decisions. The anesthetic is applied as it should be before the operation begins, and although Clay is put into a sleep-like state, he is still conscious of his surroundings. He can hear everything the doctors are saying, and he can feel the pain as they begin to cut him open, but he cannot move, speak, or do anything to alert those around him that he is aware of what's going on. The movie is clever in how it depicts the character in this state. We get an internal monologue as Clay lies on the operating table, wondering why he can still hear the doctors talking, and wondering if he's supposed to be feeling this incredible pain as they start to make their incisions. He tries to distract himself with memories of Sam, but other thoughts start to creep in there as well, things he doesn't want to think about. I'll have to be careful here not to go into spoiler territory, but I will say that Clay begins to hear the doctors, including his trusted friend Jack, talking about things that no one wants to hear their doctor talking about while performing surgery. A lot of things are not what they seem, and the movie turns into somewhat of a mystery as the clues pile up, and Clay races through his thoughts and memories trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The subplots pile up, more and more twists are thrown at us, and although the movie remains enjoyable, I started to feel a bit let down that writer-director Harold didn't have enough faith in his initial terrifying and much more simpler premise.

Awake is a movie that works thanks to its initial premise, and some creative ways that it gets around some obvious roadblocks. After all, it wouldn't be very interesting if we were just watching a man on an operating table for the hour or so that the movie covers the process (the movie itself is roughly an hour and a half long). We follow Clay in his mind, where he is free to roam around, and revisit past memories and jumps from one moment to the next, piecing together the information from what he hears the doctors saying about how he wound up in his current mess. The movie is at its most effective when it is dealing with the basic primal fear its simple premise provides. The movie informs us in subtitles right at the beginning that a small percentage of people remain in a conscious state during surgery, and that they remember everything that happened during the procedure. Anyone who has ever had surgery can imagine how terrifying this could be, and the movie does a great job in tapping into that fear with the monologue aspect, and taking us inside the mind of the character. The movie also does a great job unsettling us just by showing us the procedure itself. Anyone squeamish about blood or viewing operating procedures would be wise to pick a different viewing choice, as the movie does go into some detail in the heart transplant process. That being said, I do have to question the fact that so few doctors and nurses would be assigned to someone like Clay. Considering that this guy is a powerful and young tycoon, you'd think the hospital would be surrounding this guy with the best available, instead of three individuals with a history of malpractice. You'd also think the media would be breaking down the door for information.

Its only when the movie starts overstuffing itself with plot that things falter just a little. We've got shady characters, double crosses, more plot revelations to throw us off track than a movie of this type would ever need, forgotten pasts, shady dealings, and a dead guy in a Santa Claus outfit all coming into play. The only thing that keeps the film running is that it constantly knows how to hold our attention, and it keeps on managing to go back to the stuff that works. The scenes in the operating room and inside Clay's head are done so well, I started to wonder why we needed all that other stuff. I think Awake would have been better served as a short film, where it could concentrate on its single strongest suit, and cut out all the mystery filler. Even so, some recasting would need to be done. Although neither of the lead actors are necessarily bad, both Hayden Christensen and Jessica Alba are not as convincing as they should be. Christensen is somewhat dry and wooden in his early scenes, and although he does eventually do a good job of bringing across his panic and pain (the man sure can scream), his more quiet and emotional scenes with either Sam or his mother are lacking something. Alba has always been known more for her looks than her acting ability, and she definitely seems to at least be trying here. She's still hard to buy, especially when some later plot twists put her character into a completely different light that Alba does not seem comfortable with. She's good early on, but she seems to be stretching it during her later scenes. The main stand out is Lena Olin, who does a good job with her tricky character, who must be controlling and unflinching, but also sympathetic so that we can believe in the choices she makes late in the film.
I'm recommending Awake, based mainly on the genuine tension it manages to create during most of its running time. It held my interest, even when the movie started overstuffing itself, and it's well made enough for me to say I enjoyed it. The movie was not screened for critics, but it is nowhere near the turkey that would usually imply. Maybe the studio didn't have enough faith in the project, which is too bad, as the movie is nowhere near being so flawed that it deserves to be buried and forgotten. I do feel I should once again stress that you should avoid this movie if you are either turned off by watching surgery, or if you are about to go into surgery yourself. Something tells me this will not be a favorite amongst anyone in the medical profession.


Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Mist

When you think about it, it's surprising that it's taken so long for writer-director Frank Darabont to get around to adapting one of Stephen King's horror stories. After all, the guy shot to fame with his 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption, and found more success in 1999 with The Green Mile. Having proven his skill bringing King's dramas to the big screen, he is now faced with bringing one of the author's more famous horror stories. The Mist has been a long time in coming, having languished in development hell for nearly a decade. Now that it's here, I have to say that most audiences should find it worth the wait. This is a satisfyingly suspenseful film that is only held back by its somewhat limited budget, and an ending that is sure to bring more discussion with people walking out of the film than just about any other this year. Aside from some slight annoyances, The Mist continues the trend of successful King adaptations after this summer's 1408.

After a small town is hit by a damaging freak storm, local man David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) head to the local grocery store for some goods and supplies until the power can be restored. While inside the store, a mysterious mist that comes from the nearby mountains sweeps over the town, and seemingly brings an unseen presence with it. Anyone who dares to venture into the mist is never heard from again, or seemingly ripped apart by a monstrous creature lurking somewhere within it. David and the other locals trapped within the confines of the store start seeing terrifying shapes emerging from the mist outside in the form of giant insects and strange tentacled creatures. As paranoia and fear begins to set in with the people trapped inside, they start to form different groups of beliefs and how to survive this seemingly impossible situation. Some do not believe there is anything in the mist, some wish to venture outside and look for any kind of help, and a growing group led by a religious zealot named Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) believe that this is the result of God's wrath and that the end of the world is at hand. David, and a small group of followers, are only interested in tracking down their loved ones, and finding a way to safety.

Though mainly being billed as a special effects monster movie, The Mist is much more about the evil within people than the creatures lurking about outside. As the people trapped within the store form different alliances, they slowly start to turn against each other and try to recruit others to their way of thinking. One of the key things that I admired about Darabont's film is that he mostly casts unknown actors as the characters, with Thomas Jane and Marcia Gay Harden probably being the most recognizable names in the bunch. It gives the film a much needed sense of realism that helps with the illusion that we are watching small town people fighting for survival, rather than an all star celebrity cast hiding out in a grocery store, which would have really hurt the drama of the whole situation. The movie does a great job of building the suspense and paranoia of the situation. During the early moments, we see some fleeting glimpses of the creatures lurking outside. Maybe some wandering tentacles, a shadowy silhouette or two. Just enough to get us enticed. Darabont knows that the real terror lurks within the store, with the human cast. As they divide amongst themselves, and eventually even start plotting against each other in a vain attempt to prove superiority, we start to realize that the story is just as much a psychological study of its characters as it is a monster movie. The characters are not exactly deep, but they are developed just enough for us to care about them, and what should happen to them.

Setting a thriller within a confined space can be a risky venture, especially for a movie that runs just over two hours. Fortunately, the action never really lags. The Mist does a good job at keeping us guessing, wondering just what the characters are going to try next, and who is going to turn against whom. The escalating hopelessness of the situation really gives the movie a sense of genuine dread that few other horror films achieve. In fact, it's when The Mist does play by conventional horror rules that the movie falls short. The film's limited budget really shows whenever we get a good look at the creatures lurking outside. While not exactly bad in design, they are not nearly as terrifying as they should be, and sometimes look blatantly like CG special effects that have been sloppily pasted into the live action film. It does take us out of the action for a little bit, but the movie always manages to go back to what makes it successful. That success lies mainly with the characters, who are brought to life by a spirited bunch of character actors. Everyone's in the right mind set here, and even the more well known actors such as Marcia Gay Harden don't overplay their parts to the point of ridiculousness. The movie keeps a sure footing throughout, and only when the characters intentionally act stupid does the movie lose its spell over us. (Ask yourself this: If you were just attacked by a tentacled monster, and you had chopped off one of the tentacles, and it was lying on the floor with plenty of blood everywhere, would you be worried about there not being enough evidence to prove to everyone else that there was a tentacled monster outside?)

What most people are sure to remember the most about The Mist is the ending, which has been changed from King's story. I am trying desperately to tiptoe around spoiler territory here, but it has to be said. This is one of the most polarizing endings I have seen all year. The combination of rapid discussion amongst some and angry mutterings amongst others in the audience at my screening when it was over all but proves this fact. How you view it depends on your personal preference and taste. I, for one, admire Darabont's desire to end his story the way that he did. It may not be the way we want the story to end, but it is certainly amazing that he was able to get away with what he did in a commercial horror film being released over a holiday weekend. It does not feel manipulative or desperate, and perhaps the feelings that it brings forth to its audience are what makes most people so uncomfortable with it. This time, I think the more comfortable and conventional choice would have cheapened it. It may not be the same ending as the original story, but it is effective in its own way.
I am recommending The Mist, but I do not recommend it for people looking for a good time. This is not escapist horror, or the kind of horror film that you laugh about with your friends when it is over. This is a very serious-minded film that has a lot to say, and a conclusion that is sure to invoke controversy. I found it effective for the most part, and I believe it accomplished what it set out to do. It unnerves us, it makes us uncomfortable, and it leaves us feeling more than a little shaken when it is all over. If you don't want to feel that way, don't go see The Mist.



It would seem that video game movies are starting to become a sort of event for fans only. Last year's Silent Hill movie was criticized for being hard to follow unless you had actually played the games. Now we have Hitman, which is so incoherent in its narrative, I don't even know if playing the game would have helped me understand what was going on. The movie is kind of like The Bourne Identity, only with a much less likable lead character and a story we can't care much about. The movie throws presidential assassinations, conspiracies, women in peril, and a bald guy with a bar code tattooed on the back of his head, but can't think of a way to throw these things together into a story that holds our interest. Maybe the film's writer, Skip Woods (Swordfish), had his mind on other things when throwing together the screenplay.

The precious little amount of background info we receive is that there is some secret organization called The Agency that takes unwanted children, trains them to be soulless killers, then shaves them bald and brands them with a tattoo of a bar code on the back of their head. You'd think that alone would make these people easy to spot, let alone identify, but the movie keeps on insisting that these trained killers are like ghosts and have never been caught. The Agency apparently has ties to the church, but the movie keeps this to itself, and no mention of religion is ever brought up in the film other than using "Ave Maria" during the opening credits, and someone stumbling upon a small cross with writing upon it at one point. The film follows the exploits of an assassin who goes by the name of Agent 47 (Timothy Olyphant). With his shaved head, distinctive tattoo, and blazing red tie that he usually always wears, he certainly seems to stand out in a crowd, and makes me wonder why no one has caught him yet. Yet, he's being pursued by Interpol Agent Mike Whittier (Dougray Scott), who has devoted his life to catching the guy.

Early on in the film, Agent 47 is charged with the task to kill Russia's new President, Mikhail Belicoff (Ulrich Thomsen). He blows the guy's brains out in the middle of a public media event, only to later be watching TV, and discover the Russian President being alive and well. (And yet, the reporters do not even question how the President could still be alive, not even the reporters who were shown getting sprayed with the President's bloody chunks during the earlier assassination attempt.) 47 knows he's been set up by his own organization but, for reasons he decides to keep to himself, he decides to take another job from them, this time being assigned to kill Belicoff's abused mistress and prostitute, Nika (Olga Kurylenko). 47 does not kill her, realizing she may be able to help him find out who set him up within his organization. Once again, how or why is a mystery, but he shoves her in his car trunk anyway. Despite the fact that the guy is frequently verbally and physically abusive to her, Nika finds herself falling for 47. Our hero, meanwhile, kills a lot of people and doesn't really say a whole heck of a lot. Then again, neither does anybody else, who seem just as lost as the audience in trying to figure out what's going on. When they do say something, it is usually something trite and meaningless, such as how Nika suddenly tells 47 out of the blue, "When I was a child, my father used to raise grapes", the comment not really going anywhere after that. Yeah, thanks for that.

Hitman is a movie that tries so desperately hard to be cool, but the strange thing is, it doesn't even seem to know how to be. Not even the film's numerous "stylish" gun battles are all that stylish or interesting to watch in the first place. The only action sequence in the movie that even comes close to being a highlight is when Agent 47 must battle three other fellow Agents, but even this isn't nearly as exciting as it should be. The movie drowns itself in plot, throws multiple twists and double crosses our way, and piles on the characters to the point that we need a chart to keep them all straight and what role in the story they play. The problem is, the movie is so consumed with moving ahead that it forgets to give us any reason to care. The characters are completely shallow and non-existent to the point that they almost are comical. Agent 47 is such a lifeless and dull lead, it's impossible to want us to see him succeed in his mission (whatever it may be). I know the guy is supposed to be a soulless killer, but does that mean he has to have no personality whatsoever? Nothing that comes out his mouth sounds cool or interesting, and he's mainly required to just give a blank stare to everything that happens around him. I guess this is supposed to make him come across as a badass, but it unintentionally made him come across like there was nothing going on upstairs. French director Xavier Gens seems only concerned with keeping the action moving, little realizing that the action has to be interesting in the first place.

Since everyone is forced to play emotionless robots, the entire cast comes up short. In the lead role, Timothy Olyphant lacks any ounce of character or even personality. This is most likely intentional, but the way Olyphant underplays everything, it just comes across as one of the big "nothing" performances of the year. This is the second big disappointment from Olyphant this year, as I was also not a fan of his handling as the lead villain in last summer's Live Free or Die Hard. I'm hoping someone can finally find a role that suits him. As love interest Nika, Olga Kurylenko is nice to look at, but not much more than that. She at least brings some amount of sympathy to her character, but she's forced to act like such an idiot for most of the film it's hard to root for her. Tell me girls, would you fall for a guy who stuffed you in a trunk most of the time and drugged you when you tried to have sex with them? I'm sort of glad the movie didn't go further with their relationship, as I'd hate to see what their first date would include. Dougray Scott is equally bland, as his single-minded character is given nothing to do but chase around the world after Agent 47, seldom stopping to give us a reason to be attached to him.
Like most failed video game adaptations, Hitman is a jumbled mess of stylish cool and pleasing the hardcore fanbase. Based on some comments I've read from fans of the video games on various message boards, the movie even failed to fulfill that. Why the Fox Studio decided this could be a big holiday weekend release baffles me. There is nothing here that is done particularly well, nor is there anything especially interesting or special about it. I won't go so far as to say the movie is worthless, as there are a couple scenes that look good and have been shot well. What little bit of style the movie does have does not make up for the complete lack of interesting substance found within Hitman.


Friday, November 23, 2007

This Christmas

Given the surprising (some, including myself, would say mystifying) success of filmmaker Tyler Perry, it comes as little shock that other studios would try their hand at his formula. What is shocking about This Christmas is that it is much more watchable than anything Perry has put out so far. The key to the film's almost-success is that it has a lot of heart, and doesn't bang home the melodrama to the point that we start laughing at the movie unintentionally. The only thing holding the film back is that it's a bit too bland and safe for its own good.

As the holidays approach, the extended Whitfield family are returning home for Christmas with plenty of emotional baggage in tow. Head of the clan, Ma'Dere (Loretta Devine) is still emotionally hurt over her husband walking out on her to pursue a career in music years ago. This not only makes it hard to truly open herself to the new man in her life, Joe (Delroy Lindo), but it also forces certain members of the family to keep secrets from her, especially youngest son "Baby" (Chris Brown), who aspires to be a singer, but knows his mother would never approve of his choice. Oldest son Quentin (Idris Elba) owes some money to some lowlifes, and is trying his best to lay low. Daughters Lisa (Regina King) and Kelli (Sharon Leal) are both having man trouble. Kelli can't seem to find the right guy, and Lisa won't admit to the fact that her husband, Malcolm (Laz Alonso) is cheating on her. Finally, Claude (Columbus Short) is a Marine officer with a couple secrets, the most pressing being that he recently married a lovely young white woman named Sandi (Jessica Stroup) without anyone knowing. Looks like Sandi will fit right in with this family, as she has a secret as well in that she is pregnant.

Writer-director Preston A. Whitmore II (Crossover) certainly shows his skill in juggling multiple plots and characters with This Christmas. Though constantly on the brink of being overstuffed, he juggles the film with almost pinpoint precision, giving each plot just enough time to resonate with the viewer. We never feel lost or overwhelmed, and the stories do eventually overlap with one another so that they become a complete whole. The movie makes a lot of smart choices, the most notable being that it seems to exist in a world that resembles our own. That right there gives Mr. Whitmore's screenplay a leg up on Tyler Perry, whose films seem to exist in another dimension of cross dressers and contradicting morals. Though often cliched and pat, the movie has a lot of charm and energy, thanks mainly to the energetic cast, who all know how to sell the emotions of their characters without going over the top. This is safe, non-offensive holiday viewing that delivers plenty of the good cheer that the film wants to create, and has been made with some degree of care. The movie is shot well, the soundtrack filled with some catchy renditions of holiday favorites is lively, and the movie never gets bogged down in taking itself too seriously or going so broadly that we lose interest.

If anything, the only fault that can be found with This Christmas is that it plays it a little too close to the book. There is some intelligence in the script, as evidenced by how expertly it balances its numerous plots. It's a shame that Whitmore didn't try to cut loose a little bit. We pretty much know everything that's going to happen long before the characters do. The movie is at its best when its focusing on the characters and quiet moments with each other. It avoids sappy manipulation, and the characters come across as being honest and genuine, both in how they are written and the performances. These characters deserve to be in a story that is much less derivative of past dysfunctional family gathering films. That's not to say there are no moments worth remembering. "Baby's" rendition of "Try a Little Tenderness" at a club is a crowd pleaser, and the film's final sequence that has the entire cast dancing and giving personal holiday messages is a fun and interesting way to close the film. The rest of film is depressingly "by the book", and mainly coasts by on the charm of the cast, and the better than expected quality of the dialogue.
This Christmas is not a total success, and probably doesn't need to be seen on the big screen. But I do have to admit, it's made with more skill than I expected, and managed to win me over from time to time. If anything, it makes Tyler Perry's over the top live-action cartoon style all the more stale. This is not a great movie, but it has a good heart, some charm, and a lot of spirit. I don't know if I'll remember the Whitfield family Christmas by the time December 25th rolls around, but at least I'm not left with any regrets from watching it.


August Rush

Sometimes a movie just tries too hard. August Rush tries so hard to be sweet, likable, and uplifting that I almost hated having a sour reaction to the film. The only thing that held me back from not giving into its forced charms? This isn't a very good movie. This is the kind of movie that is so manipulative and overly calculated in its good feelings that I almost felt insulted watching it. I'm sure August Rush will have its fans, but they will most likely be the kind of people who either don't like things like conflict in their stories, or they don't care what they watch, just as long as it has a happy ending.

The hero of our story is a boy named Evan Taylor (Freddie Highmore), a doe-eyed innocent who thinks of nothing but music and tracking down the parents who gave birth to him a little over 10 years ago, but supposedly gave him up to the shelter for boys that he currently lives in. He believes with all his heart that him being here is not the result of his parents not wanting him, and if only he could find a way to contact them, they would come for him and they could be a family again. We learn in flashbacks what happened. A pampered young classical musician from a well-to-do family named Lyla Novacek (Kerri Russel) had a one night stand with a rising rock singer from a poor neighborhood named Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). The two never saw each other again, due to the fact that Lyla's stern father (William Sadler) didn't want his daughter to have anything to do with someone like Louis. Lyla became pregnant with Evan after her night with Louis, but was hit by a car late in her pregnancy, which forced the doctors to remove the child from her body prematurely. The father used this as an opportunity to give the baby up for adoption, then tell Lyla that it was dead when she eventually came to in the hospital.

Evan is determined to track down his parents, so he runs away from the shelter, and finds himself in New York City, where he quickly discovers that he is a musical prodigy who can learn to play just about any instrument in mere seconds. The first to discover this is a street musician named "The Wizard" (Robin Williams), who has a group of homeless children that play music for cash on the street. The Wizard is the man who gives Evan the stage name of August Rush, and tries to launch the kid's career. When that sours, Evan is discovered by a local minister who is so impressed with the kid's ability to compose symphonies in a matter of minutes that he sends the kid straight to the most prestigious music school in New York. The kid becomes a celebrity there, and his symphony is chosen to be played at the next concert in Central Park. As for his parents, Louis (who is now a businessman in San Francisco) has never forgotten Lyla, and is desperately trying to track her down. And Lyla finds out about her child after her father tells her the truth on his deathbed, so she teams up with a New York social worker (Terrence Howard) to track down her son.

August Rush is being billed by its makers as a modern day fairy tale, but this movie stretches the realms of believability even by those standards. This is a story made entirely out of contrived coincidences and pat circumstances. The movie moves at a brisk pace, but perhaps it's a bit too brisk. The story seems rushed and unsatisfying, due to the fact that it simply moves from one major event to the next, like it's in a hurry to get done. Despite this, the movie still manages to run for almost two hours. This rushed tone gives the movie an unintentionally comical effect. I love the way that Lyla seemingly leaves her father on his deathbed, without even waiting for him to pass away, to go look for her son. The father is never mentioned again, and it looked like she didn't even go to his funeral. Young Evan's journey to child prodigy genius is equally breezed over, as he apparently learns to compose symphonies in the course of one afternoon, and is accepted to Julliard music school seemingly by the next day. There is no sense of time passing in this movie, with everything seemingly happening instantaneously. Not only does this make the film hard to believe, but it also prevents us from getting truly close to the characters. It's rushed and episodic nature allows characters to just pop in and out of the story as the film pleases, and we never find ourselves getting closer to anyone.

The movie is also completely lacking in conflict or suspense. Even when Evan is on the street, he never seems to be in any danger, because he immediately meets a friendly group of street kids who take him under their wing. The Robin Williams character is the closest thing this movie has to a villain, as he tries to exploit Evan's musical talents for his own gain, and is very possessive of him, not letting him look for his parents. But even he doesn't come across as being so bad most of the time. The screenplay by Nick Castle (The Boy Who Could Fly) and James V. Hart (Sahara) only wants to tell an uplifting story, and has sanded off any rough edges it might have had. But, even uplifting stories need some form of crisis or moments when hope seems lost. It makes us want to see the hero pull through. We never get that in August Rush. Evan's journey from boy in a homeless shelter to conducting his first symphony in Central Park goes mainly without incident. The same goes for his parents' individual journeys, who both seem to fall upon the right clues so that they can coincidently be in the right place at the right time. We never feel like the characters earn their success, more so it just falls in their lap. When the expected happy ending arrives, it is just as forced and coincidental as everything else in the movie, leaving me not with warm feelings, but left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

The cast that has been assembled is certainly not without talent, but they are at the mercy of a screenplay that doesn't care about their characters. Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) once again finds himself playing a "golden boy" type. He's been good in past films, but here, he mainly just stares at everything in doe-eyed wonder and smiles that shy little innocent grin of his. He never comes across as an interesting character, due to the fact he is never developed as anything but a total innocent. As his parents, Kerri Russel and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are both passable, but once again, are never developed beyond their individual single-minded goals. The one actor who comes across the best is Robin Williams, who at least gets to show different shades to his character. His character is a seemingly kind person with a dark undercurrent. The fact that he is the only person in this movie with anything resembling darkness within them makes him stand out. Terrence Howard is wasted in a throwaway role as a social worker who is trying to track Evan down. He pops up from time to time, but none of his scenes allow him to truly grab our attention.
August Rush is a movie that is brought down by its own good intentions. It's so forced and mechanical in its good feelings that we find ourselves at a distance from the characters and everything that is up there on the screen. I quickly found myself not caring about the movie, and it never really tried to recapture my interest. The movie just rushes right through its story, never really stopping to wonder why we're supposed to care about these people. At the end of the movie, a young boy gets a chance to share his gift with the world, loved ones are reunited, and the end credits rolled. That last part filled me with more joy than anything that had happened in the movie itself.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007


There are a lot of family films that are charming, and some that are smart. Enchanted is that rare film that manages to be both. A big part of the reason the film works so well is its lead actress Amy Adams, a woman who has been appearing in films for almost 10 years, but has never quite got the attention she deserves. I have a feeling that will change when audiences get a glimpse of her here. She's so charming, funny, beautiful, and smart here that her performance and her character are almost impossible to resist. It's a good thing the movie that surrounds this performance is pretty clever and often very funny itself. This is the sort of holiday blockbuster where the care that went into the making of the film is right on display on the screen.

The story begins in the far-off animated fairy tale world of Andalasia, where the lovely Giselle (Amy Adams) sings and dances with the local forest creatures while she waits for her Prince to come. He arrives in the form of the gallant Prince Edward (James Marsden), who immediately falls for the maiden after rescuing her from a troll. Unfortunately, the Prince comes with a wicked stepmother attached - A spiteful woman named Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) who does not want her stepson to marry, since that would mean she would have to step down from her throne. On Giselle and Edward's wedding day, the Queen disguises herself as an old hag and leads Giselle to a "wishing well", which is actually a portal to another world. The world that she finds herself in is our own, specifically right in the middle of Times Square in New York City. The film switches from animation to live action at this point, as Giselle finds herself completely out of her element. Eventually Edward and Narissa will cross over to our world as well, looking for her for different reasons, and become flesh and blood as well.

As Giselle tries to make her way through this strange land she finds herself in, she has the fortune to encounter a single father named Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey), and his six-year-old daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey). Morgan is young enough to recognize that Giselle is a Princess like the ones in her storybooks immediately, but Robert initially thinks she's just a crazy woman who has lost her way. This notion becomes harder to believe when he witnesses Giselle's ability to call upon the local animals to tidy up his apartment. (Of course, Giselle is surprised to discover that instead of the cute forest animals she was expecting to heed her musical call, she receives some of New York's regular residents - namely pigeons, rats, flies, and roaches.) The more time he spends with Giselle, he begins to fall for her, which is a problem, since he is already planning to propose to his current girlfriend, Nancy (Idina Menzel from Rent). It also doesn't help that he happens to be a divorce lawyer who doesn't believe in "happily ever after". As the world of Andalasia begins to collide with our world, the stakes will grow higher, and Giselle will have to learn sometimes a woman has to take a stand for herself instead of waiting for her Prince to rescue her.

As directed by Kevin Lima (Disney's animated Tarzan) and written by Bill Kelly (Premonition), Enchanted is not just a loving tribute to the past animated fairy tales of the Disney Studio, but it's also a wonderful, fun, and inventive film all on its own. Thee premise opens itself to a lot of imagination, and for once, the movie actually takes advantage of that fact. Though sometimes predictable, the movie has a constant charm and intelligence to it. This is not a movie that has been severely dumbed down for the sake of children. Yes, there is plenty of slapstick gags and cute CG animal effects to make them laugh, but there is a surprising amount of wit and laughs in the dialogue. It's a nice change of pace compared to recent family films like Bee Movie and Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, which were pleasant and watchable, but didn't really offer any big laughs. The movie's fish out of water element, with the overly kind and whimsical Giselle encountering some of New York's less savory individuals, is often quite clever. Giselle never once comes across as an idiot, she is simply someone completely out of her element, and is struggling to adapt. She does eventually learn her way around our world, and this fact makes her all the more endearing to us. She has a brain, she has a heart, and we want to see her succeed.

What impressed me the most about the film is the way it pokes fun at fairy tale conventions. The filmmakers do not go for the "hip" and "cool" approach, like the highly overrated Shrek series, the crummy Hoodwinked, and the awful Happily N'Ever After followed. This is a movie that knows the cliches and conventions, and has fun with them, rather than ridiculing them. The opening 15 minutes of the film, set in the animated world of Andalasia, look like they could have come right out of one of the Disney classics. Even the film's musical numbers, written by Broadway veterans Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz (who both have written songs for past Disney films like Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, respectively), are catchy and clever in their melody and lyrics. It understands what made these films endear for so long, and doesn't feel the need to mock them. Once again, the movie finds clever ways to mock its source material. In the animated world, Giselle has a talking chipmunk friend named Pip, who crosses over to our world with Prince Edward to look for her. When Pip enters New York, he discovers he can no longer talk, as he finds himself limited to squeaks and chirps like a chipmunk in our world. His attempts to make the other characters understand what he is trying to say bring some of the biggest laughs in the film.

There is also a surprising amount of heart and charm in Enchanted as well. The shy love that slowly builds between Robert and Giselle is sweet and winning, with a touching bit of sadness as well, since they know in their hearts they can never truly be together in their current state. As stated before, Amy Adams pretty much makes Enchanted. Her performance starts out almost as a self-parody of the Disney Princess archetype. Her gentle, almost naive, grace perfectly fits the character. She becomes even better when her character starts to become more "human" in nature, and figures out for herself how to survive. This is a tricky performance, as she must be a living cartoon character and a sympathetic and strong woman at the same time. Adams pulls this off flawlessly, giving what I consider to be one of the stand out performances of the year. As Robert, Patrick Dempsey is mainly stuck with the straight man role, but he nonetheless never comes across as being dull or under developed. He genuinely cares for Giselle the more time they spend together, so he never comes across as the bland love interest who falls in love with the lead character because the script requires them to. They get to share some nice moments together, the highlight being a dance that they share, which is just as romantic as any moment in an adult-targeted love story.

In the area of supporting performances, James Marsden plays his Prince Edward very broadly, but it is appropriate in his case. What impressed me is that the screenplay does not make his character into a total buffoon or vainly egotistical, like Princes are usually depicted in recent fairy tale comedies. Like Giselle, he is out of his element, and just has a harder time adapting than she does. Susan Sarandon seems to be having the time of her life chewing up the scenery as the evil Queen, and delivers all of her scenes with the right amount of gusto without going over the top. Credit also has to be given to Idina Menzel, who plays Robert's current girlfriend, and finds herself in a difficult position as she slowly realizes that his attention is not with her. The way the movie handles her character and story arc is heartfelt and genuine. She's not a bad person, and she does love Robert. It's a tricky situation, but the screenplay handles it well, and at least manages to give her a happy ending of her own.
So many films have great ideas, but fail to exploit them to the fullest. The makers of Enchanted seem to have realized they found gold with their idea, and made the most of it. Almost nothing has been overlooked here. I say almost, because I would have liked a little bit more of Giselle and the other characters from the animated world discovering New York. These scenes are mostly reserved for the early moments before the plot on our world kicks in. The movie does miss a few possibilities for satire here and there, but makes up for it with a lot of other bright ideas that I didn't see coming. There is enough charm, laughs, and invention on display here to leave just about any viewer satisfied. With so few family films truly offering something for everyone, Enchanted stands out because it actually does.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Into the Wild

Face it, we all have dreamed at least once of casting off the shackles of our everyday lives, and running off into wherever the road would take us. It's hard not to fantasize about such things as we are confined to our mundane jobs. Very few people ever act upon this dream, but in 1990, a college graduate named Christopher McCandless decided to do just that when he realized he had reached his fill of modern society. He donated all the money he had, burned his Social Security Card, and ran away from the family that he felt had oppressed him for so long. His journey lasted two years, and that journey is now the basis for the remarkable new film, Into the Wild. Writer-director Sean Penn (2001's The Pledge) has created an unforgettable movie that joins the ranks of the growing number of great films being released at the end of the year.

The story is told out of sequence, and begins near the end of the journey when Christopher (portrayed in the film by Emile Hirsch) is taking shelter in an abandoned bus in the middle of a snowy wilderness. Flashbacks provide the answers that fill us in on the story thus far. As he graduates from college, he is not looking forward to the commercial and material-driven society he is expected to succeed in. His emotionally distant and always fighting parents, Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) are further proof to convince him to leave the human race behind, and return back to nature. We follow his journeys and the various people that he encounters along the way, including a pair of aging hippies (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener), a grain harvester (Vince Vaughn) who hires and befriends Christopher for a short time, an aspiring teenage singer (Kristin Stewart) who experiences her first love with Christopher, and an old widower (Hal Holbrook) who not only welcomes the young man as a friend, but even offers to adopt him.

Into the Wild is constantly walking a tricky and very thin line, particularly with the character of Christopher himself. He is a very self-centered young man who cuts off all ties from his family and friends, and sets off on his own. Throughout the film, we get a narration from his sister (Jena Malone) back home, who wonders not only where her brother has gone, but also what could have become of him, as he told no one of his plans. We see the pain and grief that the family goes through, and if done the wrong way, this could have easily made Christopher completely unlikable as a lead. While it's true that he did not grow up in the best of families, as evidenced in flashbacks to the childhoods of him and his sister, his decision to just cut all ties does seem rather harsh. Christopher is depicted as a dreamer, and perhaps a foolish one at that. Although he feels he is well prepared to face any danger or obstacle on his journey, he eventually soon finds himself in over his head, and even longing somewhat for the people he left behind. The last words that we see him write about his experiences near the end of the film tie into the ultimate message of the film - all the experiences in the world mean nothing if you have no one to share them with.

The film effectively combines two different genres, that of the road trip picture and that of the survivalist movie with man pitted against nature. The road trip part of the film reminded me of David Lynch's criminally underseen 1999 film, The Straight Story. It shares the same laid-back tone that captures the beauty and feeling of seeing the country on your own, as well as the same episodic story structure with the different experiences and people that he meets along the way. The survivalist half of the story reminded me of the recent documentary, Grizzly Man, which was also a film about a man who gave up just about everything he had to fulfill his passion about bears and to live in the wilderness. Both halves are equally compelling for different reasons. The different encounters that Christopher has along the way bring about some of the film's most memorable moments, the ones concerning the teenage singer and the old widower being the main stand outs. The second half of the film gives the film a somewhat darker and more desperate tone, as Christopher realizes that he will have to survive, hunt, and find various ways to keep his sanity as the loneliness and isolation closes in on him. The more laid back "travel" segments and the much more intense "survival" sequences form a completely satisfying film that manages to end on a very poignant note, bringing its ultimate message across in an effective and natural way.

Despite a running time of two and a half hours, the film never once lags, or loses our interest. There's very little to complain about here, and that especially goes for the cast. Although relatively new to leading roles, Emile Hirsch (Alpha Dog, Lords of Dogtown) completely nails the very complex character of Christopher McCandless. He does have a cocky and arrogant side to him, but he is not brash, stupid, or unlikeable. He comes across as a young man excited at the opportunities that lie before him, and as someone who feels he can overcome anything. Hirsch is forced to literally carry the entire movie almost by himself, and he does so with relative ease by making his character into a very realistic and sympathetic one, despite his sometimes single-minded nature. The rest of the cast don't get nearly as much screen time, but they are all effective nonetheless. The main stand outs include William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, who are both very effective as his parents whose anger over his disappearance quickly turns to remorse. Vince Vaughn gets a chance to finally break free of the comical slob he's been stuck as for his past couple films, and deliver a fine performance. But the real performance to watch for is Hal Holbrook, who enters late in the film, and almost steals the movie away from Hirsch. His performance is worthy of a nomination for Supporting Actor come Award time, and his character is bound to stick with just about any viewer.
It's nice to see 2007 ending on a very high note so far, after so much mediocrity leading up to now. Into the Wild is easily one of the great films of the year, and if it didn't have so much competition, may have shot right to the top. This is a wonderful movie all around that does what all films based on a true story should do - It made me want to know more about the actual person and the story that inspired the film. Walking into the film, I expected at least some beautiful scenery. I certainly got that, thanks to the beautifully shot nature photography from Eric Gautier. But I also got a wonderful story that took me through a broad range of emotions. The movie even ends on a perfect note, creating a completely satisfying experience from beginning to end. That in itself is a rarity.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

There's nothing wrong with Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium that a little bit of plot, or Heaven's sake, some character-driven tension couldn't fix. This is a series of ideas (some good, some needing more fleshing out) in search of a movie to hold them in. Writer-director Zach Helm (Stranger Than Fiction) has not only set his movie in a toy store, he often seems like a child lost in one. His screenplay is overflowing with ideas and potential, and he keeps on showing them to us, but he can't think of a way to bring them together into a narrative. This saddens me, because there are a lot of touching and whimsical moments that hint at a much better movie than the one he's given us. When your movie contains an out of the blue cameo by Kermit the Frog, and you can't give the poor guy anything to do, you're definitely not working hard enough.

The title refers to a magical toy store set in the middle of New York City that is run by the eccentric genius, Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), a 243-year-old man who has literally seen it all. (Among his many achievements, he gave Thomas Edison the idea for the light bulb, and played hopscotch with a young Abe Lincoln.) His store is like no other, as it is alive, as are all the toys within it. His two best friends are a woman named Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a former piano prodigy who works at the store, and a lonely little boy named Eric (Zach Mills), who doesn't have any friends and narrates the story. Edward's time on this world is running short. He knows this because once when he was young, he bought enough shoes to last his entire life, and he is on his last pair and they're almost worn out. In preparation of leaving this world, he has hired a straight-laced accountant named Henry (Jason Bateman) to balance his books and receipts, something he hasn't done in the hundreds of years he's run the store, and has also decided to leave the store in the care of Molly, who has no idea how she's supposed to keep the magic of the store running. She's been trying to write a piano concerto for years, but has run into a mental block, and no longer believes in herself or her ability. The store itself is equally unhappy with the news that Edward is dying, and begins to act out in its own way, first by having the toys run amok throughout the store, and then simply by just losing all its color and becoming lifeless. Molly must find a way to recapture the feeling of confidence and magic that she once held within her in order to make the store great once again.

Watching Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium was a strange experience, as I would be sitting there, not really caring much about the film, but then a particularly well done scene would come along that would cause my interest to spike up. This is a movie that teases you into thinking that it's finally starting to go somewhere, only to go right back to where it was before. The screenplay sets up numerous plots, but aside from the plot concerning Molly trying to regain the magic of the store, none of them are resolved. When the movie comes to literally an abrupt end (meaning it felt like the final scene wasn't even finished yet when it faded to black), I wondered if perhaps there was more that was left on the cutting room floor. The big problem is that the movie seems far too concerned about the special effects and the magical toy store, and not enough about the people within it. I have read in interviews that when Zach Helm made this film, he was made to add more effects shots by the studio. That right there, I think, is where the movie goes wrong. There is a heart in this script, and the characters are likable. They're just left constantly fighting for our attention amongst the chaos of the magical toy store. And yet, I'm in an odd position here, because I liked the store also. It's a triumph of set design, and a lot of thought obviously went into it. I just think it gets too much of the attention, and should have let the characters take center stage more often.

When the movie does turn away from the store and onto the characters, this is usually when it grabbed my attention. It's the subtle moments that made me want to like this movie more than I did, and also hinted at what it could have been. I liked the children's storybook-style approach to the film, with the story being divided into "chapters". I liked the sweet mentor/student relationship between Edward and Molly. I liked the friendship that eventually built between shy little Eric and Henry the accountant. These are great characters, they just need a movie that's more interested in them. The performances, none the less, are at the top of their game. I was very worried when I initially heard Dustin Hoffman speaking with a comical lisp, fearful that the movie was taking the wrong approach almost right from the get go. Surprisingly, as the movie goes on, Hoffman manages to make Edward into a very human and heartfelt character, instead of the goofy eccentric that he initially comes across as. There is a soul to the character, and by the end, he has endeared himself to us. Natalie Portman is equally strong as the young woman who has worked with Mr. Magorium for years, and is now at a crossroads in her life as to wether she should stay where she is, or if she should look for the strength she has long lost to follow her dreams. Aside from a moment where she is forced to laugh at something, where her laugh sounds far too forced and unnatural, she gives a very realistic performance, and is a nice contrast to all the chaos around her. Jason Bateman tops off a very busy year (the guy's literally popped up in something every two months seemingly) with yet another performance that I admired. And child actor Zach Mills makes Eric into a very natural and believable kid, instead of the cloying and scripted kid I initially expected.

The moments of the film that impressed me the most, however, come with the handling of the inevitable death of the title character. The movie does not treat it in a heavy way, or in a way that would scare young children. In fact, it's beautiful in a way, and makes me wonder all the more what this script used to be before the studio told the filmmakers to add more special effects and zaniness. The screenplay and Hoffman's performance deals with the topic with appropriate grace and pathos. These moments are the ones that get the biggest reaction from the audience, because the movie finally steps away from the contrived and mechanical plotting and effects, and actually speaks to the audience. I have to say, the tenderness of these moments caught me off guard. Hoffman's final scene with Portman, and his exit from the movie itself is much more magical than the toy store could ever hope to be, and almost made me wish those scenes and the dialogue were surrounded by a different movie. The movie is wise to make these moments not depressing or heavy handed. It is simple, sweet, and beautiful. That the movie loses its way once again almost as soon as these moments are over not only frustrated me, but made me want to somehow rewind the film and watch those scenes over again.
Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is not quite as magical as the title would imply, but at the same time, it's not as torturous and obnoxious for adults as the film's ad campaign would want to lead you to believe. This is a movie that has obviously been tinkered with, and not in a beneficial way. It's a movie where the heart and the characters are fighting a constant battle for attention with the thin storytelling and the special effects, and the lesser elements keep on hogging the spotlight. I can only hope that the next time Zach Helm steps behind the camera, he has the strength to stick closer to his original vision, or that the studio has more faith in a film that is intelligent and wise, and doesn't feel the need to constantly distract us from what was working so well in the first place.


Friday, November 16, 2007


Much like 300, Beowulf is an attempt to bring an ancient story into the present with modern day computer wizardry. Whereas 300 put live actors in a digital world, Beowulf decides to go completely digital, replacing the actors with CG recreations that often resemble the actual people. The end result is a visual triumph to be sure. While it at times resembles a high end video game, this movie is stunning to watch. You're certain to remember many moments, such as when the title hero hangs on for dear life on the back of a rampaging dragon, or when he is engaged in a life or death struggle with some ferocious sea monsters. What you'll most likely remember less is the storytelling and screenplay, which is somewhat talky and dry. Although the visuals and the accompanying script don't always mix together, the end result is a mostly satisfying experience while you're watching it that quickly fades almost as soon as the end credits start to roll.

The story of Beowulf is set in the ancient kingdom of Heorot, which is living in fear of a monster who lives in a cave nearby named Grendel (Crispin Glover). The ruler of Heorot, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) sends out a request for any soldier brave enough to rid his land of the cursed creature. The request reaches the ear of a traveling warrior named Beowulf (Ray Winstone), whose exploits of bravery are already famous. Beowulf arrives at the kingdom with his followers, prepared to slay the beast. His arrival and boasts of certain victory are met mostly with skepticism, particularly from the King's advisor Unferth (John Malkovich) and the lovely young woman named Wealthow (Robin Wright-Penn), who nonetheless is drawn him. Beowulf does manage to succeed in his battle with Grendel, but his victory is short-lived when the mother of the demon he slayed (Angelina Jolie), a seductive and vile temptress creature, arrives seeking vengeance. When Beowulf goes to confront this new monster, he ends up making a decision that will not only control the remainder of his life, but also the very kingdom that he eventually rules and swears to protect.

As the first computer animated film targeted at older viewers to get a theatrical release since 2001's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Beowulf deserves at least some credit for attempting something different and very adult. Despite a PG-13 rating, the film is often quite graphic in its depiction of violence and nudity that would most certainly have earned it an R if the characters were flesh and blood. The way the film dodges around the nudity issue (no nipples on bare breasts, objects placed cleverly in the foreground to cover up any private areas Austin Powers-style) is somewhat comical, but it doesn't take us out of the experience as much as it probably should. Director Robert Zemeckis continues to experiment with Motion Capture Animation, a technique he first used with 2004's The Polar Express. What this basically means is that rather than having the characters be animated in a traditional sense, the actors perform the actions of the characters on an empty set. The actors are covered with sensors that read their body and muscle movements, and feeds them into a computer. Since we are mostly watching the movements of live actors, it allows more fluid and lifelike animation and facial expressions. Compare the characters and overall look of Beowulf to his earlier effort, and you'll see that the technique has come a long way in a short time.

The animated characters have been designed for the most part to resemble the actors who play them, and the end result is almost uncanny in an eerie, but definitely cool, way. Close ups of the characters faces reveals a great attention to detail, right down to the facial imperfections and the movements of individual parts of the body when they move or speak. We're never quite under the illusion of the characters being real, and we never forget that we're watching a computer animated film, but this is still probably the closest anyone has come to creating a near-photo realistic interpretation of a human figure in an animated film. Where Zemeckis and his team of animators still need to work is in the eyes of the characters, which have a very strange glassy and artificial look to them. It may sound like a minor detail, but it really becomes an issue during some of the film's more dramatic or emotional moments. When the characters are having a dramatic conversation, but their eyes are nearly lifeless as they look at each other, it really takes you out of the illusion of the film. Despite this, everything else about the film's look and design is spot on. The snow-topped surroundings outside the castle walls have a deceptively real appearance, and sometimes l mistook them for physical backdrops instead of settings generated from a computer.

If there is any one reason to see Beowulf, especially on the big screen, it is the film's many impressive action sequences that definitely stand above most other films I can think of this year. The film uses the freedom of animation to the fullest, creating some truly memorable battles, particularly the grand climax. With two different versions currently playing in theaters, one on regular screens and the other in 3D on IMAX screens, it's pretty much needless to say that it needs to be seen in IMAX for the full effect. Regardless, however you see the film, it's almost certain to impress. The combination of the actors' original performances, which served as the basis for the character animation, with the computer generated settings and creatures that inhabit the world created by the artists is nearly seamless and creates a visual experience that truly captivates. It's a good thing too, as the screenplay and storytelling never seem to quite reach the heights of the visuals. The screenplay by Neil Gaiman (Mirrormask) and Roger Avary (Silent Hill) has a hard time picking up the slack when the action isn't grabbing our attention. It sometimes seems to delve into the realm of total silliness, such as how many of the characters bellow their lines at the top of their lungs like professional wrestlers. The story has been fleshed out from the original source material, but the characters never truly seem human or developed, and this is the film's main flaw.

For all of the technical wizardry and marvel that is on display, Beowulf is disappointingly thin when it comes to characters and emotion. There are plenty of opportunities for the movie to grab our emotions, but the movie fails to exploit on almost all of them until the third act of the film. Relationships are hinted at and mainly kept at a distance, and when they do take center stage, they seem cold and artificial. Wealthow's reaction (or lack thereof) to Beowulf's not so secret affair with another woman is left mainly in the dark, and we never get a true sense as to why she is so forgiving toward him and the other woman. Likewise, their relationship in the first place is almost completely skipped over, as the movie simply flashes forward to them having been together for most of their lives, without any real information as to why they've been together so long or what the attraction was in the first place, other than physical. The characters seldom have time to think or feel anything that has nothing to do with the plot at hand. To their credit, the actors do what they can with the roles they've been given, with the main highlights being Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover, and Brendan Gleeson as Beowulf's loyal friend and soldier. These actors rise to the occasion, while a few others such as John Malkovich and Robin Wright-Penn, somewhat disappear into their paper thin roles.
I'm recommending Beowulf mainly as an experience. As a film, it has stunning visuals with a plot that could have and should have been much more developed, especially considering the screenplay has been in the works for roughly 10 years. This is the kind of movie that will most likely lose something on DVD. I can picture the film's narrative and character flaws being much harder to ignore when the wonderful images aren't surrounding you on the big screen. As an attempt to break free of the "family" mentality that has long been associated with computer animated films, Beowulf is a good if not flawed attempt. The technology and the skill is definitely there. Now all we need are screenwriters who are willing to keep up with it.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007


This is a movie that has been made with some degree of care for a horror film, but the immediate question that comes to mind is why? For all of its fancy filmmaking and above average acting, P2 is an overly bare bones thriller that's been stretched to the breaking point at 100 minutes. This is a premise that cries out for tight editing and a breathless pace. Instead, all we get is a sluggish slog through moldy "girl trapped in a building with a psycho" cliches that take way too long to unfold. Aside from some over the top gore scenes that seem ridiculously out of place with the rest of the film (to the point that they seem to have been inserted to wake up the audience), this is a movie that will find it hard to raise the pulse of even the most timid of filmgoers.

Set entirely in a Manhattan high-rise on Christmas Eve, a woman named Angela Bridges (Rachel Nichols) is working late and is being pressured by both her boss to finish her current project, and her family over the phone who are expecting her for the holidays. As Rachel starts to head for home, she finds that her car has died on her, and every way out of the building has been closed off and blocked. Apparently, Angela works in the rare business building that does not have an emergency exit for employees to use. The only other person she manages to find is Thomas (Wes Bentley), a lonely parking garage security guard with two secrets. The first is that he has been admiring Angela from afar for months now, and knows all about her. The other is that he's a raving psychopath. Thomas takes advantage of the opportunity of them being alone, knocks Angela out, then brings her to his private office where he chains her to a chair and forces her to celebrate Christmas with him. He insists he just wants to be friends, but the whole chained to a chair thing says otherwise. Angela manages to escape, but can't find a way out of the building, nor can her cell phone get a signal so that she can call for help. I guess not only does the building not have an emergency exit, it also does not have a fire alarm she could pull to alert some form of help.

I will say this for P2, compared the numerous other "woman being physically and mentally tortured by a psycho" movies I've forced myself to sit through this year, this is probably the best of the crop. Then again, saying you're better than Captivity isn't really something anyone should consider an achievement. The movie is made well enough. It makes good use of its Christmas setting, with a soundtrack of joyful holiday tunes that kind of give the film a touch of irony when you consider the scene that the song is accompanying. P2 (named after the level of the parking garage where a majority of the action takes place) has also gathered a somewhat stronger than usual cast than these films usually collect. Rachel Nichols (Resurrecting the Champ) makes for a better heroine than the norm, because the decisions she makes usually make some form of sense, which is a welcome change of pace. It's not her fault she's trapped in a bizarre building that was obviously designed by idiots who don't value the safety of the people inside. She at least makes the best with what she's got, and actually manages to come across as being somewhat sympathetic. As the villain, Wes Bentley makes for a fine unhinged maniac who goes from overly meek and nice guy to screaming psycho at the drop of a hat. Yeah, he generates a couple unintentional laughs during some of his tirades, but really, you can't blame him for hamming it up just a little in such a role.

The problem that sinks the movie is that for all its above average surface trappings, this isn't a very good movie underneath. The big problem is pacing. A movie such as this should be fast and intense, and we find ourselves forced to watch Angela sneaking around in the dark with nothing happening for far too long. Eventually, the screenplay by director Franck Khalfoun, along with co-writers Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur (High Tension, 2006's The Hills Have Eyes), starts to go around in circles. We learn pretty early on that Thomas is a psychotic nut, and once we do, he's forced to just wander around in the dark as well, calling out Angela's name over and over to the point that I'm sure this movie will eventually inspire a drinking game where the players chug each time her name is called out. The movie would have been a lot more successful if it had portrayed Thomas as a much more cool and calculating villain who plays with his victims. Instead, he seems just as lost as Angela. The premise is workable, but the movie stretches it out to laughable lengths. As we quickly become frustrated, we start hoping that something will eventually happen.

Something eventually does, but these moments seem to be over almost as quickly as they start. The movie throws in random gore scenes that seem to have been added at the last minute so that the movie could receive a hard-R rating. Now if only they flowed better with the rest of the script. The sequence where Thomas kidnaps a fellow office worker who once tried to rape Angela while drunk, then beats him severely and smashes him up against the parking garage wall with a car is certainly brutal, but meaningless, since the character of the office worker exists simply for shock value. The scene, and the character himself, exist for no other reason than an excuse to put the special effects make up artists to work. The movie would be no better or worse because of it. A later scene where Angela is forced to defend herself from Thomas' vicious attack dog fits a little bit better into the plot, but the cruelty of the sequence once again seems to be emphasized just for the sake of shock value and nothing else. There is a place for gore and shock in horror films, but they have to come from the storytelling, not just there so the gorehounds in the audience can get their kicks.
While better than some of its competition, P2 still comes up way too short to be enjoyable. If the filmmakers wanted to make an intentionally slower paced thriller, they should have added more psychological elements to the plot or the characters. Maybe they could have given Angela some phobias, and have Thomas play upon those, since he's been secretly stalking her for months. As the thinly developed characters they come across as, there's just nothing for us to grasp onto. The best thing I can say about this movie in the end is at least they tried.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lions For Lambs

Robert Redford's Lions For Lambs is a lot like those old "What Would You Do?" movies they used to show us in high school. They were the films that would set up a situation, then the movie would stop and ask us to discuss the situation and what we would do if we found ourselves in it. This is basically a 90 minute variation on the same idea. It sets up some different points about the War in Iraq, and then we the audience are supposed to discuss amongst ourselves afterward. The problem is, there's very little to entice here. The screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also wrote a very different film about the very same war, The Kingdom) is emotionally inert, and seems more suited for the stage or a classroom than the big screen. Aside from some above average performances by a strong cast, there's just nothing to grab our attention.

The film covers three separate storylines that all occur within the same hour. The first is set in Washington DC, and covers a television journalist named Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), who is interviewing Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) about a new military plan that will supposedly turn the tide in the war and lead us to victory. Janine realizes that Jasper is just using her to sell her and the public on the plan, and begins to question the media in general, and their responsibility in "selling" the War on Terror to the American public. In Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers Arian Finch (Derek Luke) and Ernest Rodriguez (Michael Pena) find themselves wounded and trapped behind enemy lines in a rocky, snow-filled mountain area with the enemy slowly closing in on them, and little to no chance for rescue. Finally, in California, a political science professor named Stephen Malley (Robert Redford) is having a meeting with one of his students (Andrew Garfield), who seems to have lost interest in his class and in the American government in general.

Lions For Lambs raises a lot of good questions and a lot of good points, but doesn't know how to do so in such a way so that we don't feel like we're being talked to directly. We're not watching a movie here, we're watching a series of lectures and preaching disguised as character dialogue. This is a "talking head" picture, where the very talented cast spends a vast majority of the time sitting in chairs or at desks, and talking either to the camera or to us. It gets very distracting, especially the editing, which bounces back and forth from one character to the next like a ping pong match. Very seldom are the two characters talking in the same scene displayed in the same shot, so the camera is constantly bouncing between them. This kind of material would work as a stage play, and while watching it, I could actually envision how it could successfully be pulled off. As a movie, the dialogue is just too wordy and the action too lethargic. Characters seldom move or even change their position, to the point that it feels like we're stuck watching a lecture. As a filmmaker, Redford has proven himself many times, but here, he's stuck just pointing and shooting at the actors, seldom giving us anything to grab our attention.

The sequences that do come the closest to creating tension and generating actual interest are the scenes set in Afghanistan. Here, the film does a good job of putting us in the middle of the action, by mainly keeping the enemies in the shadows. Their voices are heard, and we sometimes see shadowy figures darting about in the distance. It does a good job of capturing the confusion of the battlefield. The story of the two soldiers ties into the plot of the college professor, as we witness a flashback of when they were in his class and decided to enlist for the War. This leads to more politically-charged banter that is not as smart as it seems to think it is. The topics discussed by these characters have largely been discussed for years, and the movie just doesn't bring enough new to the table to warrant the audience having to listen to highly paid actors talking about it for 90 minutes non-stop. We keep on waiting for the movie to really hit hard about some topic that hasn't been talked about very openly, but they just keep on covering the same old stuff, some of which has been covered in the many other films about the Iraq War that have been released the past couple months. When the end comes, and the audience is left to discuss what they've seen, they'll find themselves talking about things they've probably talked about before.
It would be a different matter if the dialogue was vibrant and varied, but everything's so scripted and rehersed here, it's hard to stay interested. It's tough to say just what audience Lions For Lambs is supposed to be speaking to. Audience members brought in by the star-studded cast will probably be disappointed that the biggest names don't do anything except sit behind a table and debate topics that have been debated to death. Those looking for challenging or fresh questions or thoughts will not find what they're looking for. This is a message movie with a message that is easily predicted. There's just not enough life or energy in this movie to make it worth listening to all over again.


The Darjeeling Limited

Since coming onto the scene with films like Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, filmmaker Wes Anderson has not strayed far from the signature quirky, yet thoughtful, style that's been with him since Film One. Some people have coined him a one-trick-pony, but I happen to think that he shows some emotion growth with his latest film, The Darjeeling Limited. While it features his standard visual style and offbeat jokes that seem to sneak up on you rather than make you laugh out loud, he seems to be trying to make us care about the characters a lot more here. This is not his funniest film, nor is it his best. The Darjeeling Limited is, however, easily his most heartfelt film.

The film takes a rather loose and random plot structure that despite a screenplay credited to Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, almost plays like it was made up as the shooting of the film went on. The bare bones plot concerns three brothers who have not spoken or seen each other since their father's funeral a year ago. They include control freak, Francis (Owen Wilson), whose head is covered in bandages after a recent motorcycle accident, soon-to-be family man Peter (Adrien Brody), who is still struggling over the fact that he's going to be a father in just a couple weeks, and love-lorn Jack (Jason Schwartzman), who recently had a fling with an ex-girlfriend in Paris. (Which we witness in a short 13 minute film that precedes the main feature called Hotel Chavalier.) Francis has brought them together for a "spiritual journey" across India. He has an air-tight itinerary so that they can hit all the temples and mystical sights in India, and hopefully come closer together during the trip. He also has a secret agenda - He plans to track down their mother (Anjelica Huston), who has run off to the Himalayas to become a nun, and didn't show up for their father's funeral. As they board the train that will take the three across India, they will be faced with many emotions and questions, the most pressing one being if they could be friends if they weren't brothers.

Strange as it is to say, The Darjeeling Limited is about baggage, both literal and emotional. All three of the brothers carry a massive amount of baggage on their trek across India, which often makes their quest look clumsy and awkward. They also have brought a lot of emotional baggage with them, which is evident almost from the moment they are reunited for the first time in a year in their private room on the train. Francis has organized their entire trip almost step by step, and even goes so far as to order for his two brothers when they visit the dining car. This immediately brings back feelings for Peter and Jack as to why they haven't seen each other the past year. The baggage continues to grow as the trip continues. Peter buys a poisonous snake which he keeps in a box, which adds to the already massive pile that they are carrying around with them. The emotional baggage builds as well, and it is only a matter of time before tempers will begin to flare between the three. All the holy places and meditation techniques won't do them any good unless they learn to let go. This is the key message of the film, and it is illustrated beautifully in a scene late in the film where they are running late for the next train. I won't ruin it for you, but it is a well-deserved moment for all of the characters.

Some critics have accused the film of being shallow, and of not digging deep enough into the three brothers for us to get attached to them. This is certainly true in some ways, as we don't learn anything about them that we don't hear about in dialogue. At the same time, I believe this is intentional. Their relationship is strained after all, and they would not exactly be open with one another. They tell each other the basic parts of their lives, keep secrets from each other, and don't even seem to trust each other that much. Anderson is able to bring out some laughs and drama out of his characters, and the fact that even though they are brothers, they are really nothing alike. Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman are all fine individually in their performances, and if they never seem to quite reach that brotherly level of bonding or connection, well maybe it's because they aren't supposed to. Even though they have become much closer by the end than they were when we first met them, we get the feeling that they still have a long way to go before they can see "brother" as something more than just a seven letter word. Like the best films, there are no easy answers to be found here, and the problems of the characters cannot be solved in the 90 minutes this movie runs.
There are a few big laughs scattered throughout the film, and a lot of moments that shine on their own and would probably make a great short film. The question is do they come together to complete a whole satisfying experience. As I mentioned before, this is not Anderson's best film. The laughs are few and far between, and there are some small stretches where my interest waned a little. But, I've found myself thinking a lot about The Darjeeling Limited after I saw it. This is a very subtle movie that has a lot to offer, even though it may not look like it while you are watching it. This is not a movie that wears its heart or its emotion on its sleeve. I'm recommending it, but this is not a movie for everyone. It may help if you have brothers yourself, and to think back on your own relationship. When all is said and done, The Darjeeling Limited is a film journey worth taking.


Friday, November 09, 2007

Fred Claus

Sometimes something looks a lot better than it actually is when compared to its competition. Such is the case with Fred Claus. This is a highly uneven movie that works in fits and spirts, and sometimes just seems to lose energy for long periods of time. It also suffers some severe tone shifts, and seems confused wether its trying to appeal more to adults or kids. And yet, the important thing to note is that it actually manages to work sometimes. That's more than I can say for some of the recent dead on arrival Christmas offerings of the past couple years like Christmas With the Kranks or The Santa Clause 3. Fred Claus doesn't always work, but it has its heart in the right place, and a lot of good ideas. If these ideas were exploited even further, we'd be looking at one heck of a movie.

Ever since they were children, brothers Fred (Vince Vaughn) and Nicholas (Paul Giamatti) Claus have been at odds with one another. That's quite easy to understand considering Nicholas grew up to become Santa Claus, beloved the world over, and seen as a Saint who can do no wrong. Fred, on the other hand, is a Repo Man who is hated by just about everyone, and his relationship with the woman he loves (Rachel Weisz) is hanging by a thread. It can't be easy to be the brother of Santa Claus, especially when the holidays roll around. It's gotten to the point where Fred is forced to attend special support group meetings for less famous brothers of celebrities, and has to confide in the lesser known real life siblings of Sylvester Stallone, Bill Clinton, and Alec Baldwin. As Christmas approaches, Fred finds himself hard up for money, and is forced to turn to family. He travels to the North Pole, and offers his services helping out around Santa's Workshop. Family tensions immediately flare up, as Nicholas' wife, Annette (Miranda Richardson), thinks Fred is a hopeless case, and wonders why her husband even agrees to help. It doesn't help matters that a straight laced and cold efficiency expert named Clyde (Kevin Spacey) happens to be hanging around during Fred's visit, analyzing Nicholas' production methods and threatening to shut down the Workshop if he finds things are not up to speed.

Fred Claus is a movie that wants to be a lot of things, but at the same time, doesn't really know what it wants to be. It's a movie that veers wildly from adult-innuendo humor (Santa having trouble with the Mrs. is referred to as Santa being unable to "get his sleigh up".), Vince Vaughn's trademark motormouth ranting comic style, heartfelt sentiment, and childish slapstick humor that is accompanied by a barrage of cartoon sound effects that seem really out of place. This is a needlessly complex movie that is at its best when it is simply concentrating on the characters. The heart of the story revolves around the sibling rivalry between Fred and Nicholas. Here, the movie is sweet and winning. It never dips into the territory of mawkish melodrama, and although it may be a bit formulaic and simplified, there's no doubt I found myself caring about the characters during these moments. That's because the movie strips away the special effects, freaky elves (more on that later), and forced holiday cheer, and just lets the characters be who they are. I enjoyed these moments the best, and it seems that stars Vince Vaughn and Paul Giamatti did as well, as they have a likable chemistry together during these moments.

Unfortunately, it would seem that screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Cars) has never heard of the phrase, "Keep it simple, stupid". He fills his script with so many ideas that he doesn't even seem to have time to explore them all. This is a real shame, because there are some good ones here. I was especially intrigued when I learned early on that when Nicholas Claus achieved Sainthood, it gave him and the entire Claus family the power of immortality. Now think about this for a moment. You're Fred Claus, you resent your family, but you're forced to live alongside them for eternity. You never asked for immortality, but you got it anyway because of your brother. How would this make you feel? How would you live your life knowing you were going to live forever? How would you even explain it to friends and loved ones who would obviously wonder why you don't age along with them? The movie avoids these tricky questions by ignoring them completely. Not once is the immortality brought up after it is established. When Fred's girlfriend discovers that he is the brother of Santa Claus, I kept on waiting for him to bring up the whole "immortal" thing, but he never does. I'd think that would be the first thing you'd want to talk about in a relationship. If I may offer some advice to Fred, he should start saving up some money now for the couples therapy sessions he'll have to pay for when his girlfriend starts aging, and he doesn't.

I would best describe Fred Claus as a movie that has a lot of heart and good intentions, but not a lot of sense behind it all. Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) seems like he's constantly wrestling with the screenplay he's been given, which leads to the film's continuous shifts in tone. Some scenes seem targeted at children, while others aimed squarely at adults. There have been many family films that have been able to blend these elements effortlessly, but this movie has a back and forth manner that gives the movie a schizophrenic feel. There are also some elements that left me scratching my head, which brings me back to the freaky elves I mentioned earlier. Using the same technology employed in last year's failed comedy attempt, Little Man, all of Santa's elves are played by midgets that have the heads of other actors digitally pasted on top of their bodies. This way, they can have celebrity cameos show up as elves, such as rapper "Ludacris" popping up as an elf Disc Jockey! (There's a sentence I never thought I'd have to type in my lifetime.) Fortunately, the movie does not rely on this gimmick very often, though it does give the film a somewhat uncomfortable creepy vibe when they have the head elf leering after Santa's buxom blonde assistant who shows quite a bit of cleavage for a family comedy. (I told you this film was schizophrenic.)
This review probably doesn't sound like the most ringing of endorsements, but it's actually not quite as bad as I've probably made it sound. The moments that do work in this movie work quite well. They're just surrounded by a lot of stuff that doesn't work at all. The end result is a highly uneven movie that I think will have a hard time reaching either adults or kids, since it doesn't even seem sure as to which audience to go after. Fred Claus wants to have its cake and eat it too, but it simply winds up falling on its face. All this movie needed was a more focused screenplay, and a less gimmicky approach. Nicholas and Fred are interesting characters, and I think a great movie could be made about them. All it needs is less special effects and more direction.


Saturday, November 03, 2007

American Gangster

A couple weeks ago, I watched We Own the Night. That was a formulaic crime drama that borrowed too heavily from the ones that came before it, and was almost workmanlike in its plotting and execution. The new drama, American Gangster, is probably just as workmanlike and most likely borrows almost as much. The difference here is that director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, A Good Year) handles his material in such a way so that it seems just as fresh and intoxicating as it was the first time we saw it. This is so much more than a mere retread, this is a finely crafted piece of filmmaking from everyone involved. The movie is completely engrossing, and keeps up a snappy pace that never once falters. Considering that this is a nearly 3-hour long movie, that's quite a feat.

American Gangster is a crime epic that spans a number of years in the lives of two men on opposite sides of the law. On one end, we have Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), who starts out as a low-level driver working for a powerful Harlem crime boss in 1968. When his boss dies, Frank knows he has carry on his traditions. He decides to get into the drug trafficking trade, and he wants to go straight to the source. He enlists the aid of a family member fighting over in Vietnam to help score him some pure, untouched heroin straight from the jungles of Bangkok. He brings the product back home hidden in military transport, markets it as "Blue Magic", and sells it at a competitive price far lower than the competition. Before long, Frank has more money and power than any crime boss in history. He buys a beautiful new home for his mother (Ruby Dee), enlists his brothers and other family members into his business, and finds himself the champion of both the criminal underworld and a rising celebrity who is invited to lavish parties and events.

In a parallel plot, we meet Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a police detective who is trying to balance his work, a losing battle with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) over the custody of their son, and passing the necessary exams so that he can become a lawyer. Richie is an honest cop stuck in a sea of dishonest and crooked ones. When he turns in nearly a million dollars that his partner and him find stashed in a car trunk, his fellow officers turn against him. He is increasingly frustrated with the blatant corruption he sees in his precinct, even his own partner, who is eventually revealed to be a heroin addict himself, which leads to his murder. While identifying his partner's body, Richie comes across a packet of Blue Magic on the corpse, and becomes obsessed with discovering what it is and who produces it. It becomes an obsession as Richie is placed at the head of a special anti-drug task force, and when evidence seems to point toward Frank Lucas, a man who seemingly came out of nowhere and rose to absolute power, his obsession only grows in finding out more about the man himself.

Obsession plays a key role in American Gangster, as well as in the lives of the two lead characters. Both men follow their individual goals doggedly, and thinking of very little else. Frank is a man obsessed with power and wealth, who counteracts this by passing himself off as a man who emphasizes and stresses the importance of family. As he draws his brothers and cousins into his business, he is ultimately leading them into oblivion, but he does not see it this way, and has convinced himself that he is helping them. Richie, on the other hand, is a man who is so self-obsessed with his job and personal ambitions, he can scarcely think of anything else. This has led him to shun family, friends, and just about everyone in his life who is not involved with the current case he's working on. Their personal obsessions have led to different paths of life. Frank seems to have everything because of it, and Richie seems to have lost everything. When the two men finally do meet late in the film, they (and the audience as well) can both feel that they are not far apart from each other, despite how different they are in everything else.

In telling the story of these two men, director Ridley Scott has delivered what is probably his strongest and most surest film in years. He manages to tell the different twisting stories and characters in such a way that the movie keeps on moving, and important characters never get lost in the shuffle. The screenplay by Steven Zaillian (All the King's Men) is energetic, with a great ear for dialogue. There's not a single moment that rings false, and no scene that drags down the action or comes across as being unimportant. The script is just as interested in these two characters as we are, and gives them many chances to show off their complex personalities. Frank can be a warm and inviting man, such as the scenes we see with his family and closest friends. When one of his brothers tells him "I want to be you", we can understand why. He has power and money to spare, but he never has forgotten who he is and where he came from. And even though he has a ruthless side, which he must display in his line of business, even here he shows a twisted sense of mercy, such as in the film's opening scene where he sets an enemy on fire, then shoots him shortly afterward so he doesn't have to go through the agony of burning to death. These are complex men, accompanied by equally complex performances by Washington and Crowe.

Both actors are able to transform themselves into their respective characters to that rare point that we don't feel like we're watching a performance, but are rather so wrapped into the story that we focus solely on the character up on the screen, and not the celebrity portraying them. This is key for any docu-drama, and one that so many are strangely lacking. A lot of this most likely has to do with the fact that the actors got to actually interact with the real people they were portraying on the set of the film, but their performances never come across as an imitation. Washington breezes easily through charm, rage, and intelligence. His Frank is someone who knows just what to do and what to say in any situation, and we can understand why people are drawn to him and what he has. Crowe's Richie looks kind of like a beaten down, world-weary man who is just looking for what's right in the world. He sees corruption everywhere, and even though he's made a lot of mistakes himself, he's determined to hold onto what little bit of decency he has left within him. The performances bring out each individual aspect of the characters, and that is what ultimately makes them appear so real to us. The actors are not playing for the camera, nor do they get any big staged monologue to ruin the illusion. For the film's entire running time, we are lost in the world of these two, and it is an engrossing and fascinating one.
American Gangster hardly ever takes a wrong step, other than a few minor characters could have been developed a little bit more. Needless to say, it is a very small thing compared to how well everything else flows together. The direction, the acting, the editing, even the choice of background music transports us into the story and refuses to let us go until the end credits start to roll. When those credits did come, I felt completely satisfied and certain that I had just had a great experience. This is certain to be remembered by me as one of the great films of the year.


Martian Child

Here is a movie constantly on the verge of taking off, but never quite does. Martian Child is a movie that has all the right ingredients, but can't mix them together to create an engaging experience. A lot of this may have to do that the film was a troubled production that went through numerous release dates this year alone, and has even been reported to have gone through some last minute reshoots under a different director (an uncredited Jerry Zucker). The film's troubled history is not blatantly obvious right there on the screen, like the recent Across the Universe. Actually, it seems like a great movie on the surface with some wonderful performances and a message that will resonate with both adults and kids. The problem lies underneath in the fact that the movie never quite grabs us like it should.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by David Gerrold, Martian Child follows a rising sci-fi author named David (John Cusack), who is seeing his career just recently taking off after writing a novel that is set to become a franchise, is already being adapted into a big budget movie, and his agent and publisher pushing him for a sequel. His private life seems to be at a standstill, however, as he's not sure how to fill the personal void he's felt ever since his wife passed away. He decides to take a big chance and adopt a child, despite the warnings of his sister, Liz (Joan Cusack), who has two children of her own, refers to them as "The Omen One and Two", and thinks he's better off being single. At the orphanage, David is drawn to a mysterious and eccentric young boy named Dennis (Bobby Coleman). Dennis believes he hails from Mars, and has come to Earth to study human nature. He initially lives inside a giant cardboard box to protect himself from the sun, will only eat Lucky Charms, and wears a belt around his waist that he believes keeps him grounded, as Earth's gravity is too light for him and he thinks he'd float away without it. David is drawn to the child, half out of fascination and half out of his own traumatic experiences growing up, and how he used to turn to fantasy in order to cover up his pain. With the help of a friend named Harlee (Amanda Peet), David invites Dennis into his life, and tries to teach him how to open up and be human in a way.

Martian Child does a lot of things right, particularly the underlying message of the movie, which deals with isolation and how we cope with personal pain and alienation. It is something almost everyone can relate to. Young Dennis lives inside a world within himself, almost as a way to explain to himself why he is so different from everyone else. In the title role, child actor Bobby Coleman is a real find, as he is able to give the character the right amount of emotional distance, while at the same time, offer subtle hints to the other characters and the audience that he is a normal child who wants to break free of the illusion shell he has created for himself, and be like everyone else. John Cusack is also wonderful as David, a man who seems to be a bit conflicted in how to raise Dennis. He has an understanding with the child, as he himself used to escape into fantasy when the world would hurt him, and he eventually found a way to make a living out of that talent. He wants to embrace Dennis' gift of imagination, while at the same time, helping him understand the child's own true human nature. The way these two are brought together, and the bond that they eventually build is sweet and genuine, and it raises a lot of intriguing questions about what a single parent would do with such a challenge.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't want to answer a lot of its own questions, and that is its key flaw. While it's always watchable and frequently interesting, it never seems to do enough to hold onto that interest. It's too safe and sanitized, with no real conflict, and problems that seem to be solved in a matter of seconds. One way in which the film has been smoothed over is the highly publicized fact that the real-life author who the lead character is based on is gay. Obviously, we're not going to see a gay character in the lead role of a family film in our lifetimes, so the character of David in the movie has been changed to the cliched single parent grieving over a dead spouse. While I'm certainly not surprised by this change, it does upset me a little, as it could have given the movie some much needed edge that it desperately needs. Disappointingly, the movie eventually relies far too heavily on music montages to represent David and Dennis bonding, instead of having them bond through thoughtful dialogue. There are a couple good scenes, such as when Dennis experiences death for the first time, and must learn what to do with the emotions he is feeling. These sequences, as good as they are, make the film all the more frustrating, ad we can see the potential that the rest of the movie should have had.
Martian Child has been made with great care, has a wonderful and endearing cast, and even has a lot to say about a lot of interesting topics. It's only fault lies in the fact that the filmmakers never seemed to have as much confidence in their own material as they should have. This is certainly not a bad movie, you're just left constantly wondering about the great movie it could have been if it just tried a little bit more. Martian Child is a near miss. I enjoyed parts of it, but the movie kept on losing its nerve and frustrating me. This is a movie that should have been approached with great gusto and passion. Instead, the filmmakers almost seem to be afraid of the questions their material raises, when they should be attacking them head on. With the right attitude, this movie would have truly been something to see.


Bee Movie

If there was a word that could be used to describe Bee Movie, that word would be pleasant. Charming would probably work too, because that's exactly what this movie is. It generates few really big laughs, but I smiled a lot, and I admired the imagination that went into it. Kids will undoubtedly love it, and adults won't be bored. Those adults who are looking for the same kind of humor used in Jerry Seinfeld's sitcom will be disappointed. He's playing to a younger crowd here. But the movie packs in plenty of charm, energy, and likable characters to overcome this.

Barry B. Benson (voice by Jerry Seinfeld) is a young bee who is excited to start his life, only to discover he'll be spending the rest of his natural life working for the hive. His best friend, Adam (Matthew Broderick), is thrilled at the opportunities that lie before both of them becoming worker bees, but Barry just can't share his enthusiasm, and wants to see what else awaits him besides working himself to death. Instead of choosing a career that will control the rest of his life, Barry decides to leave the hive and explore the city outside. Amongst the many strange things and hostile humans that he encounters, he has a chance meeting with one human who seems different from the rest. She is Vanessa (Renee Zellweger), a florist who saves Barry from being crushed by a much smaller-minded human's (Patrick Warburton) boot. According to this movie, bees have always had the ability to speak, but are not allowed to reveal this to humans. Vanessa's heroic act of kindness leaves such an impression on Barry that he decides to break this rule, and strike up a conversation with her. The woman is shocked at first, but the two gradually build a genuine friendship, and before long they are explaining the ways of their individual worlds to each other. One of the things Barry discovers about the human world is that they have been stealing honey from the hives for years. Barry is disgusted by this, and decides he needs to take action. With Vanessa's help, Barry sets up an unprecedented lawsuit against the "Big Honey" corporations. What the two don't realize is the consequences on the environment and the world around them that will result due to their actions.

Bee Movie is light, airy entertainment that whizzes by in a blink of an eye, and doesn't leave a big impression on the viewer. What it does have while you're watching it is a massive amount of charm and a sense of fun. For most of its running time, directors Steve Hickner (The Prince of Egypt) and Simon J. Smith give this movie a quick pace moves fast enough to keep the breezy story running, but never comes across as being manic or obnoxious. The movie takes somewhat of a more serious turn during the third act when an environmental message is thrown in, but even then, the movie never becomes heavy-handed or preachy, and still manages to keep up its sense of fun while still getting its message across. The screenplay was written by Jerry Seinfeld himself, along with some other writers who used to work on his show. As mentioned earlier, the humor is much softer and a bit more youth-oriented than fans of the show might be expecting. That's not to say there's no smart satire targeted at adults to be found. What came as a great relief to me is despite the film's PG-rating, the writers did not use this as an opportunity to put in a lot of crude, inappropriate humor. There's not a fart joke in sight (though a guy does get stung in the butt at one point), and nothing that parents should find offensive. In fact, kids will probably learn quite a lot about bees by watching this. As a long-time bee hater, I learned a few things myself about the little guys.

What really surprised me is that for all of its fast pacing and equally fast-flying jokes and bee-related puns, the movie does take enough time to slow down and allow the characters to develop quite nicely. The friendship that evolves between Barry and Vanessa is genuinely sweet, and is helped even more by the strong voice acting by Seinfeld and Zellweger in the lead roles. They play off of each other well, and have a chemistry that really made me smile during their scenes together, especially the more quiet moments that the characters share together, talking about the worlds they come from. The movie is wonderful to look at, as well. The world of the bees is very bright and rounded, and it looks like a lot of imagination went into the making of it. It doesn't try to make it look like a smaller bee-inspired version of our world, although they do have little cars and such, but rather makes it look like a world that could never exist in our own. This is the method I always prefer in animated films, as I always find it boring when animated films take the extraordinary, and then try to make them and their world exactly like ours. This is a movie that understands that animation should show us things that could never exist in our world. When Barry enters the human world, it is accompanied by a stunning and lengthy sequence of him flying and exploring New York City, which gives us a "bee's eye view" of the world. The sense of scope and size is awesome, and almost makes me wish Dreamworks had released an IMAX version of the film just for this sequence alone.

A lot of effort has obviously gone into Bee Movie, and I found a lot to like. If there's any one problem that stands out it is that the movie itself never quite leaves as big of an impression as it should. The movie is continuously pleasant and charming, but never quite rises above that. Maybe it says something about the movie that I wanted more. I liked it enough as it was, but wanted the movie to impress me more. Aside from the previously mentioned sequence where Barry explores the city for the first time, no scenes have any "wow" factor. The movie is filled with celebrity cameos, which for the most part don't come across as being out of place or a desperate case of stunt casting. Rock musician Sting and actor Ray Liota come across as great sports in their brief self-mocking cameos as themselves. A few other cameos, such as Larry King, come across as being a bit too cute. And then there is one that left me scratching my head a little. Talk show queen, Oprah Winfrey, provides the voice of the Judge presiding over Barry's case against the honey corporations. My question is why did the movie need her? She only has about three minutes worth of dialogue total, it doesn't exploit her, and it just seems to be an attempt to add another celebrity name to the credits. The movie wouldn't have been any worse or better without her, and if you're not going to use a celebrity's talents, why bother using them? If they wanted to use her, why not have her play herself, and have Barry go on her show or something?
Bee Movie is nowhere near strong enough to knock down the current animation champ of 2007, Ratatouille, but it is entertaining enough that I am recommending it. Kids will have a lot of fun, and adults will enjoy it on a different level, though not as much. The movie has charm and energy to spare, it just needed a little more smart humor to lift it up to being something truly special. As it is, I'm certainly not complaining. This is a movie parents can feel good about taking their kids to, and that in itself is a rarity.


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