Reel Opinions

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The 2nd Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

The year is drawing to a close, and we all know what that means. It's time for me to take one last look back at the films that wasted my money and my time. That's right, it's time for me to recap the worst films of the year. As usual, I'll be recapping my top 5 picks, followed by the Dishonorable Mentions, and then I'll be handing out some individual awards. I truly hope no one has to come in contact with these movies, and if you paid good money to see them like I did, then I truly apologize. So, what do you say we get started, so I don't have to waste anymore time thinking about these movies.


5. DADDY DAY CAMP - Easily the worst sequel to hit theaters this year, this was a nightmarish attempt to turn a forgettable Eddie Murphy family comedy from a few years ago into a franchise. Murphy was too smart to be suckered in, as was the rest of the cast from the original film, so instead we got Cuba Gooding Jr giving what should be a career-ending performance as a dad trying to save a struggling summer camp. The jokes in this movie will make you long for the sophisticated humor of Ernest Goes to Camp, and the obnoxious kids who constantly scream through the movie will make you long for a bottle of headache medicine or a baseball bat so you can destroy the film projector and end the misery sooner. Completely unwatchable, and one of the worst family films to come in years.
4. PERFECT STRANGER - This lame erotic suspense thiller has very little that could be considered erotic, and even less of anything that remotely resembles suspense. Halle Berry and Bruce Willis embarrass themselves in this movie that tries to fool us into thinking it's going somewhere and that we're supposed to figure it out. The problem is, the movie never goes anywhere, and the film's final twist is so out of left field and comes out of nowhere, it's impossible for the audience to even try figuring it out. Not that it really mattered anyway, since there are no right or wrong answers here. Just one very stupid movie that constantly toys with us and then blows up in our face, leaving us walking out of the theater very angry.
3. EPIC MOVIE - There have been a lot of lame parody movies the past couple years, but none quite as bad as this. A hodgepodge of movie references and lame visual gags, the makers of this film often don't even try to be funny. They just try to throw in as many movie references as they possibly can into one movie, and hope that we laugh out of recognition. Of course, it's not funny just to put Storm Troopers or James Bond in your movie, you have to give them something to do to make us laugh. This movie plays like the worst Mad Magazine movie parody ever made that somehow got turned into a movie. The worst part is the makers of this film aren't done killing the parody genre yet, as they have a parody of 300 called Meet the Spartans coming next year. I truly hope that after Date Movie and now this, America realizes these guys have no talent for comedy, and lets their next movie die at the box office so we can all move on.
2. CAPTIVITY - Horror movies can do a lot of things other than just scare us. They can thrill us, they can make us laugh, and they can sometimes capture our imagination. Captivity doesn't want to do any of these things. It's a 90 minute geek show where an innocent woman is captured and tortured over and over again. There is no plot and there is no point, other than watching this woman make stupid decisions so that she can be tortured some more. It all builds to a predictable, yet still completely ludicrous, final plot twist that the audience can see coming a mile away. It's kind of hard to keep the identity of your madman a secret when there's only 4 or 5 characters in the entire movie. An ugly, vile, and stupid movie that should have gone straight to DVD, or better yet, not even been made at all.

1. (TIE) NORBIT AND WHO'S YOUR CADDY? - When I reiviewed Who's Your Caddy back in July, I said that it had taken the crown as the worst film of 2007 away from the previous holder, Norbit. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize just how deserving both of these films were. They're both modern day Minstrel Shows, showcasing negative black and racial stereotypes for cheap amusement. They're both virtually unwatchable. And they're both deserving of the title of Worst Film. The only difference is that Norbit actually made money, had a big budget, and had a big marketing push. It simply boggles my mind that movies that exist simply to disgust and enforce dated stereotypes can still get made in this day and age. Both of these movies made me feel more disgusted than any other bad movie I walked out of this year, so they are both more than worthy of the title.

Now that we have the big guns out of the way, let's take a look at the movies that almost made it. Even if they didn't make it into one of the top spots, these movies are still right up there with the previous films.

Code Name: The Cleaner, Stomp the Yard, Happily N'Ever After, Arthur and the Invisbiles, Alpha Dog, Primeval, Blood and Chocolate, Because I Said So, Daddy's Little Girls, Ghost Rider, The Number 23, Wild Hogs, Premonition, Shooter, The Hills Have Eyes 2, Peaceful Warrior, Are We Done Yet?, Firehouse Dog, Pathfinder, The Condemned, Kickin' It Old Skool, The Invisible, Delta Farce, The Ex, Mr. Brooks, Hostel Part II, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, D.O.A. - Dead Or Alive, Evan Almighty, Evening, License to Wed, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, I Know Who Killed Me, Underdog, Rush Hour 3, Skinwalkers, Mr. Bean's Holiday, Halloween, Dragon Wars, Mr. Woodcock, Good Luck Chuck, Feast of Love, The Game Plan, The Final Season, The Comebacks, Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour, P2, August Rush, Hitman, The Perfect Holiday, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, P.S. I Love You, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, The Bucket List
Daddy Day Camp
The Hills Have Eyes 2
Steve Carell in Evan Almighty
Rob Schneider in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
Knocked Up
Happily N'Ever After
Modern day Minstrel Shows (see Norbit and Who's Your Caddy?)
Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour
(tie) Who's Your Caddy? and Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
Well, there you have it. These are the movies that made me question my love for film in the first place. With this article, I draw a curtain upon them, and hope I never have to watch or speak of them ever again. My list of the best of the year is still on the way. I'm still waiting for a couple films to get out of limited release, but I promise to have it up soon.
As 2008 approaches, here's to hoping the next year holds a lot of promise. Happy viewing to one and all.


Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep

If you've seen E.T., The Iron Giant, and the countless other "Boy and his Creature" movies that have been made over the years, then there's no reason for you to see The Water Horse - a well intentioned, but ultimately bland and derivative film that never quite sparks the feelings of magic and wonder that it wants to. It certainly tries, though. The cast is strong, it's well-shot, and the special effects used to bring the creature to life are convincing. It's just missing that certain something that made those previously mentioned films classics. It's too content to play by the rules and copy past successful formulas, instead of finding ways to stand out on its own.

The main story is told in flashback, and set in Scotland during the height of World War II. A 10-year-old boy named Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel from the criminally underseen and far superior family film, Millions) visits the beach everyday, mainly to think of his father who has gone off to fight in the war. One particular day, he finds what he thinks is a large rock, only when he takes it back to his home, he discovers it is an egg. A tiny sea creature hatches from the egg, and before long, Angus and his older sister Kirstie (Priyanka Xi) are trying to keep the little monster out of sight from their mother (Emily Watson). This proves difficult, as the creature is naturally curious, frequently wanders off on its own, and Angus' house is currently swarming with military soldiers, who are using the home as somewhat of a base of operations. The only other person who knows of the creature's existance is the family's handyman, Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin), who identifies it as a Water Horse - a sort of mythical water spirit. When the Water Horse grows too large for the children to keep it a secret in the house, Angus is forced to make a difficult situation to let it loose into the open water. Soon after, sightings of a giant monster swimming about in the waters of Loch Ness sweep the town and the media into a frenzy. With the local military and other hunters trying to track down this "Loch Ness Monster", Angus sets out to rescue his friend before any harm can come to it.

The Water Horse is a movie that spends way too much time in familiar territory, and not enough time giving us a reason as to why we should be listening to the same story once more. The direction by Jay Russell (Ladder 49) and the screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs (Flushed Away) meanders along, hitting all the expected notes, but without the expected or needed energy. The creature is cute and all, but its antics are all too predictable, and it never bonds with young Angus in such a way that we never feel our hearts being tugged when the two friends are forced to be apart. The human characters come across as hollow shells that have not been developed to their fullest. Most of all, the movie never really explains why we're supposed to be watching it in the first place, and never seems to try to speak to a certain audience. Kids will like the scenes where the creature gets in trouble around the house, but these moments are few and far between. The film's pace is far too leisurely and lethargic for them to get involved, if the fidgeting children at my screening are any indication. Likewise, the movie is too simple and juvenile to truly appeal to adults. They'll enjoy the exotic Scottish scenery and the above average production values, but there's very little to capture the imagination here.

There are a few moments where the film seems to be close to coming alive, but these highlights are rare and often cut short. The only time the movie comes close to capturing that all-important element of magic is an extended sequence where Angus rides on the back of the Water Horse, who takes him on a journey through the sea. My spirits lifted during this scene, thinking the movie was finally going to pick up, but as soon as the creature drops the boy off at a nearby pier, all the life and energy of the earlier scene seems to flee from the film. The cast is filled with capable actors, but they have all been stuck with shallow characters who mainly stand around, waiting for the screenplay to give them something to do. Even the lead character, Angus, seems to be curiously lacking in personality and dialogue. When the movie reaches its climax (which seems to be somewhat of a bizarre combination of E.T. and Free Willy), it's hard to actually feel anything for the characters involved, since we know so little about them.
Obviously, there are much worse films your children could drag you to see, but The Water Horse just isn't even memorable in the slightest. These kind of films are the hardest for me to review, as they invoke no feelings or real genuine opinions. They're just there on the screen, and when I walk out of the theater, I find myself at a loss to describe what I felt. This is that strange kind of film that does nothing wrong without exactly doing anything right either. It simply exists to make some quick cash over the holidays before it will be ultimately forgotten before too long.


Alien vs. Predator: Requiem

2004's Alien vs. Predator disappointed a lot of fans of the two sci-fi horror franchises because it had been watered down from the expected R-rating to a bloodless PG-13. I personally was disappointed because it wasn't a very good movie, but my cries were drowned out by the legion of fans who apparently thought the movie would have been better with a couple more gore shots. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem is the studio's attempt to apologize to those let-down people. It's R-rated, and it has plenty of carnage, although it is often hard to see thanks to the murky and dark look of the film. Just like the first one, it's not a very good movie. Hopefully now that the lust for blood has been appeased, people who see this movie will tell the studio to make the next one good, and the studio will listen.

Set shortly after the events of the first film, a Predator spaceship becomes overrun with the deadly acid-spewing Aliens, and crashes on Earth in a forest near a cliched small town filled with cliched residents. On the Predators' home planet, a lone warrior witnesses what has happened, and decides to go to Earth himself to hunt down the alien menace. But before we get to what we paid to see, we have to sit through a much too-long sequence where the movie introduces way too many characters and plots that we could hardly care about. There's troubled rebel Dallas (Steven Pasquale) who has just come home around the time the invasion is about to begin. There's Dallas' younger brother, Ricky (Johnny Lewis), a pizza delivery boy who is forced to hide his feelings for a cute local girl (Kristen Hager) because she's dating the town bully. There's a police officer named Morales (John Ortiz), who finds it hard to keep the peace in town when a series of bizarre and gruesome murders start popping up all over town. And finally there's a military woman (Reiko Aylesworth) who has just returned home from a tour of duty, and finds that her young daughter (Ariel Gade) doesn't know how to react to her, since her mother's been gone for so long.

Obviously, no one cares about these half-baked human subplots, and they're only here to pad out the running time. If you want more evidence that the human characters don't matter, all the publicity photos on line feature the monsters, but none of the humans. It's quite clear that screenwriter Shane Salerno (2000's Shaft) doesn't care about them, as he paints these characters in such broad strokes, they literally come across as walking-talking stereotypes instead of flesh and blood people. They might as well all be wearing signs around their necks that read "Insert generic character type here", because they're not developed in the slightest beyond the information given in the synopsis above. Of course, this is to be expected, as the monsters are the real stars here. As the Aliens begin to breed and multiply rapidly, they eventually make their way from the forest to the town itself, immediately throwing it into chaos. Here, the human characters become even more generic, as they pretty much exist to run around and scream, or get killed by the monsters in some nasty way. That's when the Predator shows up, and starts taking out the Aliens, as well as any human unfortunate enough to get in his path. The Aliens, meanwhile, take over a nearby hospital, and use the building for their evil plan to turn it into a massive breeding ground for their species.

This action probably would be pretty cool if done the right way. After all, the Aliens and Predators are some of the coolest movie monsters to come along in the past 20 years, and an all-out battle royale between the two creatures has long been a fanboy dream. The film's directors, Colin and Greg Strause (a pair of special effects artists who cut their teeth directing music videos), claim to be big fans of the individual franchises, and wanted to do them both justice with this film. If they wanted to do justice, they should have given us the opportunity to actually see what is going on during some of the film's more action-heavy moments. The action is dark, but not in an artistic or stylish way. It's murky, it's muddied, and it's edited so rapidly I sometimes didn't tell who was being killed, or who was killing who. The much-hyped increased gore and violence also disappoints, as the movie usually cuts away right before the kill shot, or its filmed at such a tight angle we sometimes can't tell what we're supposed to be looking at. You'd think a movie trying to tell such a simple story of some generic humans caught in the middle of a deadly galactic war would have the decency to at least give us a good look at the action. But the dimly-lit scenes and the sloppy editing make it hard to get excited about anything in particular.
There's nothing exactly memorable about Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, and at the same time, it's not so terrible as to invoke feelings of anger. It's just there, killing time and sucking up the money of the studio and anyone who pays to see it. It takes up valuable theater space that could have gone to a more deserving movie, and doesn't even feel the need to impress its audience or make them feel anything. If you're doing a movie with these two creatures pitted against each other, and you can't even bring about excitement or tension in your audience, you're not trying hard enough. That's exactly what happened when the Strause Brothers set out with Requiem.


Charlie Wilson's War

Here is a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways, but is quick enough on its feet to avoid any pitfalls. Charlie Wilson's War looks at a very important fairly recent event in American history, but it does not get bogged down in the details, nor does it come across as a history lesson. It's sharp, it's quite often hilarious, and it constantly seems to know just what it's doing. This is a very bittersweet movie that is sure to leave its audience walking out of the theater with very mixed feelings about the story they've just been told. It's also highly entertaining, and easily one of the better films of the year.

Based on the best selling non-fiction novel by George Crile, Charlie Wilson's War takes a look at how our current problems in Afghanistan may have been our own fault in the first place. It starts in 1980, when womanizing Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) sees a news report on TV about the Soviet Union and its violent invasion of Afghanistan. The report focuses on a group of Muslims who are trying to fight back against the invasion, but their weapons are primitive, and they are quickly losing the battle. Shocked that the U.S. has little to no intention of aiding the anti-Soviet movement in Afghanistan, Charlie decides to use his own political power to double the amount of money the U.S. is spending on the situation. This brings him to the attention of wealthy socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a woman who is very interested in helping Afghanistan, and convinces Charlie to take a trip overseas so that he can see the situation for himself firsthand. What he sees during his time there opens his eyes to the suffering of the people over there, and when he returns home, he is more determined than ever to change things around. With the help of sharp-tongued CIA officer Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Charlie begins a covert operation to secretly arm the Afghan soldiers with the high tech weaponry they need to fight back against the Soviets.

Charlie Wilson's War is a movie about a lot of things. It is a movie about how one man without a lot of political power changed the course of part of the Cold War. And even though it is never mentioned or brought up, it is somewhat about how the militant Taliban was formed. It's impossible not to think about the group during the film's later scenes, especially during a moment when Hanks' and Hoffman's characters are standing on a balcony, and Hoffman somewhat tries to warn his friend that their actions may come back to haunt them someday. Most of all, the film is about how one man can make a difference, wether that be good or bad. It is a fascinating story, and although some of the details have been changed, as is to be expected, the story's power still comes through. The movie is accurate without being dry or preachy. It's not here to give us a history lesson, rather it's here to tell a fascinating story about a moment in American history that was not very well known until fairly recently. It does so with a surprising amount of sharp wit that is quite often laugh out loud funny, and a quick tone and pace that makes sure the story never gets bogged down in the details, while at the same time giving us all the information we need for it to be effective.

Veteran filmmaker Mike Nichols (Closer) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (TV's The West Wing) work together to keep the action moving. I can easily say that of the many Middle East-themed films that have been released just this past fall alone, this is by far the best and most interesting to watch. The movie avoids being preachy and, at a surprisingly brief 97 minutes, stays away from being long-winded. The characters are one of the key reasons why we find ourselves so drawn into the story. The title character's change from womanizing, drinking, fun-loving political party boy, to a man who finally finds a cause to fight for that he truly believes in, is subtle enough that it doesn't seem to happen suddenly or overnight. Charlie Wilson himself has many flaws. In fact, while all this is going on, he's fighting to hold onto his office, as an investigation as to wether or not he recently did cocaine at a party is starting to get underway as he tries to set about getting help for the Afghans. The movie makes Charlie into a three dimensional character who is complicated and fascinating to watch. He may be rough around the edges in a lot of ways in his personality, but the screenplay and the performance by Hanks knows how to play up every aspect of the character so that he turns into a fully rounded character instead of a cardboard cutout.

Indeed, this may be one of Tom Hanks' better recent performances, as it perfectly blends his talent for drama and sharp verbal comedy. The Southern drawl he gives his character sounds a little funny at first, but the more you listen to it, the more you start to appreciate it. It's not a cartoonish imitation of the accent, and he doesn't lay it on so thick that we're not constantly concentrating on it instead of his performance. Like the character he plays, it is a performance that has a lot of layers and matures during the course of the film, and it's fascinating to watch. Meeting Hanks' performance every step of the way is the always-reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman, who after giving an Award-worthy turn in The Savages just weeks ago, gives yet another one here. Hoffman has long been one of my favorite actors, and with the year he's been having, I hope this makes more people take notice of him. As Charlie Wilson's head assistant, the wonderful Amy Adams, who recently catapulted to fame with her charming lead performance in Enchanted last month, gives yet another winning turn. It's hard to pick out who gives the best performance here, but it's somewhat easier to pick out the cast member who doesn't seem to be trying as hard as the others, and that would be Julia Roberts. She's not exactly bad, mind you, she just never stands out as much as her co-stars. A lot of this could have to do with the fact that her part is fairly small in comparison, but for some reason, Roberts seems a little out of place in the movie.
Nonetheless, Charlie Wilson's War is the best of the films closing out the year that I've seen so far. It's a perfect blend of acting talent, a smart and clear-headed screenplay that only gives us the facts and nothing unnecessary, and a filmmaker I have long admired, who I'm extremely happy shows no sign of slowing down in terms of talent. This movie will grab you and make you think about the past and the present, but more than that, it will leave you feeling entertained. Usually when this kind of talent assembles for a movie that's obviously designed to win awards, the results can almost reliably be dry or disappointing. Here's one rare instance where the awards talk is not just a lot of talk. Charlie Wilson's War really is that good.


The Great Debaters

If The Great Debaters did not entirely click with me, it's certainly not for a lack of trying. Making his second directorial effort after 2001's Antwone Fisher, Denzel Washington certainly shows that he knows how to shoot a beautiful picture and get some wonderful performances out of his cast. The story, though somewhat overly worn and cliche, is also undeniably effective, and even moving at times. The only thing holding the film back is that despite holding a fairly generous run time of just over two hours, the story frequently seems rushed, and the characters not quite as alive as they could and should be. This is a movie filled with many wonderful scenes and moments that stick out surrounded by a bunch of scenes that either aren't developed enough, or just don't have the strength to stand out.

Inspired by a true story and set in the racially-charged South in 1935, the film follows a stern yet understanding college professor named Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) who led three of his bright young students at Wiley College into history as the first African American college debate team to compete against one of the top schools in the country. The students who broke down the borders of race include the strong-willed Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), team leader Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), and the youngest student on the campus, 14-year-old James Farmer, Jr (Denzel Whitaker). As they make their way through the debate tournament mostly undefeated, the students will come face-to-face with racial prejudice, and their own personal demons, such as Henry's addiction to alcohol and women, and James feeling like he's not respected on the team due to the fact he's so much younger than everyone else. There's also talk that Professor Tolson is in trouble with the local law, and that it may jeopardize the team's future, which many people including James Farmer's father (Forest Whitaker) are concerned about. It goes without saying that the movie climaxes with a big debate tournament, as the three students go up against Harvard University in a historical match.

In bringing the story of the Wiley College debate team to the big screen, director Washington and screenwriter Robert Eisele have changed some major facts, most notably the fact that the historical match that concludes the film was not against Harvard but a completely different school. Nonetheless, The Great Debaters knows what its doing when it comes to being uplifting, inspirational entertainment for the most part. All three of the young actors who play the students on the debate team handle their roles effortlessly, particularly Denzel Whitaker (no relation to actor Forest Whitaker, who plays his father) as the youngest member of the team. This is the first I've noticed him in a film, though he has already racked up some credits. As the son of a local preacher who is forced to hide his feelings for debate teammate Samantha due to the age difference between them, his character has the most emotional story arc of the main characters, and his performance is immediately likable and easy to relate to. His fellow students get their own subplots, such as the shaky relationship that slowly develops between Henry and Samantha, and Henry battling his own personal demons. However, neither of these get quite as much screen time as young Whitaker's character, and so he is able to almost single-handedly walk away with the entire film.

That right there leads me to my major concern with the film. The movie has been made with obvious care, holds great performances, and has a number of memorable scenes tied into the racial tensions of the time, such as when Tolson and the students come upon a lynch mob while driving late one night, or when young Whitaker and his family run afoul of some pig farmers. The memorable moments stand out, but seem strangely out of place with the rest of the movie. The reason is mainly because the rest of the movie is so pedestrian and by the book that it's hard to get excited about almost everything else that happens during the course of the film. It's not just the fact that we've seen it all before in numerous other films. The film keeps us at a continuous distance, never letting us get as close as we want to. Professor Tolson almost seems to come across as an afterthought, as he has very little interaction with the students during the course of the film, and never quite comes across as a source of inspiration like he should. The students' debate career is mostly handled with montages or off camera. One of the most frustrating and oddest choices of the film is when James Farmer, Jr nervously takes the debate stand for the first time, and supposedly leads to the team's first loss. We don't get to see this, however, which kind of seems like a cheat. It also somewhat lessens the climax, when young Farmer is forced to take the stand again.

Perhaps what is more frustrating is The Great Debaters' inability to resolve even its major story arcs. The love triangle between the three students never quite seems to get resolved to any reasonable degree. The scene we expect the characters to sit down and talk it out never comes, and the subplot really is just left hanging when the end credits appear. I find this curious, since this is a major cause of friction within the team, and to have it completely dropped is quite sloppy on the part of the screenplay. The characters seem to come together as a team at the end almost for no reason at all. Professor Tolson's subplot seems to come and go, almost like the character himself. He disappears for long periods of time as the movie decides to focus solely on the students, then comes back, almost as if to remind us he's in the movie also. There's something very wrong with an inspirational teacher movie when the teacher comes across as such a minor character. His lessons and wisdoms that he imparts to his students come scattered throughout the film, but it almost comes across as if the students did everything by themselves, and that their legendary year was the result of solely them. This is most likely because Washington wanted the movie to focus on the young actors instead of him, but at the same time, he should have given his character a somewhat heavier presence in the overall film.
The one saving grace that lifts the film up from being completely forgettable is that the movie does know how to pull the proper heartstrings when it is needed. The competition scenes may be somewhat predictable, but they are still exciting to watch, and they don't fall back on forced manipulation and feelings. The Great Debaters wants so desperately to be a spirit-lifting crowd pleaser, and it would have succeeded with me if it had just dug deeper into its characters. If the scenes of the characters struggling to win the debate tournament were effective in its present state, imagine how much more effective they would have been had the characters and their relationships been given more of a chance to take center stage. The Great Debaters is passable, but not much more than that.


P.S. I Love You

There are moments sometimes when I know I'm watching a bad movie. I stare blankly at the screen, not exactly sure how I'm supposed to be reacting. I kind of fidget in my seat, all the while feeling trapped. I try to calm myself down and think of the positives. I try to ask myself is it really that bad? It did not bode well for P.S. I Love You that I was asking myself this during it's opening scene. The first 10 minutes of the film is devoted to an argument between a young married couple. The wife, Holly (Hillary Swank) is accusing her husband, Gerry (Gerard Butler), of saying the wrong thing to her mother during a dinner party they've just come home from. The argument they have sounds like no argument ever in recorded history. It is too rehearsed. The characters are talking too quickly, and they know just how to respond without any pause or thought. Every word they say sounds forced and scripted, even the angry one-liners they throw back and forth to each other that sounds like something out of a lame sitcom. They storm out opposite sides of the room, and then seconds later, they're embracing and making passionate love. The scene goes on for what seems like forever, and it just gave me a sour taste in my mouth. It wasn't funny, it was annoying. Here I was watching two actors I had admired in past films forced to act like screaming idiots and recite dialogue that was far beneath their talents. Then the opening credits started, and I realized I was going to be in for one very long movie. If only I knew how right I was.

After the credits are over, we flash forward an unknown amount of time later, and we discover that the husband Gerry has died of a brain tumor, and all of his friends have gathered at an Irish pub to mourn and remember him. Rather than focus on the grieving wife, the scene instead mostly focuses on Holly's best girlfriend, Denise (Lisa Kudrow), who decides to use the funeral of her best friend's husband as a way to pick up guys. She walks up to various guys, and asks them a series of questions. First she asks if they're single. Then if they're gay. Then if they have a job. This scene is repeated over and over again as she tries it out with various guys there to mourn Gerry. Once again, the scene gave the wrong impression to me. Shouldn't this scene be about Holly, or maybe tell us a little bit about this Gerry guy who we only met 10 minutes ago, and has suddenly died without warning? So, what about Holly, you ask? The death of her husband has hit her so hard that she locks herself in her apartment, not talking to anyone, and takes solace in old Bette Davis and Judy Garland movies. Her mother (Kathy Bates) and friends soon intervene, and take her out for her birthday, thinking she needs to rejoin the outside world after shutting herself away. Where do they take her? They take her to a trendy gay bar. Because that's where any mother would take their grieving recluse of a daughter.

For some reason, getting drunk at a gay bar with her friends, and throwing up on the nice guy who's concerned and not-so-secretly interested in Holly (Harry Connick Jr.) doesn't seem to help the hurt she is feeling inside after losing her husband. That's when a mysterious birthday present is delivered to Holly's apartment. It's a cake and a mini tape recorder from her husband, Gerry. Apparently during the short time before he died, he set up a program where Holly will receive a series of letters with tasks that are supposed to help her move on with her life without him. The tasks start out simple, such as getting rid of his stuff from the closet so that she'll have more room for herself. But, pretty soon, he's asking her to buy a sexy outfit and wear it while singing at a bar. He's even arranged an all expense paid trip for Holly and her girlfriends to Ireland, so that she can have a chance encounter with a cute guy. This must have taken a lot of careful planning and calculating to plan this out, and let everything go off without a hitch. Given the unreliability of the postal service, I imagine it took some sort of small miracle to have everything mailed to Holly on the exact day he planned them to be. Of course, we're not supposed to ask questions like that. We're supposed to be swept away in the romantic fantasy of the premise, and not talk about such silly things such as logic.

I'm capable of believing a lot of things while watching a movie, but I absolutely refused to be taken in by the sappy, sub-moronic drivel that makes up a majority of P.S. I Love You. Director and co-writer Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers) tries to blend romantic melodrama with generic sitcom humor, and the end result is a movie that is impossible to like. It's a movie that often switches tone, often numerous times in the same scene. The scene will start out sad and sappy, then Holly's girlfriends will come barging in, and start cracking sex jokes. Then as soon as they leave, the mood turns somber again, only to once again have someone start throwing one-liners. This is such a confused and utterly stupid movie, I often couldn't believe what I was watching. Even the movie's very structure is questionable. Why does the movie expect us to care about and relate with Nancy's feelings of remorse to her husband when they don't even bother to truly tell us what their relationship was like? Aside from the previously mentioned argument scene that takes place before the opening credits, Gerry only appears as a figment of Holly's imagination, or in brief flashbacks that don't really add to much. There was a very good drama released a couple months ago called Things We Lost in the Fire that dealt with a wife's complex feelings about losing her husband and moving on in a very intelligent and thoughtful manner. Hardly anyone saw that movie, but if they were to watch this movie and that one back to back, it'd be a perfect example of how to and how not to handle such a subject in your movie.

That the movie has absolutely nothing to say about relationships or moving on is quite odd considering it is the very basis of the movie. The screenplay would much rather throw music montages, and desperate comic situations such as when Holly and her girlfriends are out on a boat, lose their oars, and are forced to just sit there and wait for help. So much of the humor is of the TV sitcom variety, an off camera laugh track would not be out of place in this movie. The girlfriends talk like the "wacky neighbor" character, everyone has some snappy response to any comments that is made, and not one single scene or emotion is genuine. To be fair, the movie flirts with some possible honesty during the scenes between Holly and her mother late in the film. Kathy Bates gives the character of Holly's mom some warmth and much needed humanity that everyone else in the movie seems to lack. When she's talking to her daughter about moving on, or about her own experiences of losing the man she loved (her husband walked out on her), her performance lets go of all the artificialness that everything else in the movie has. Compare her dialogue in those scenes compared to almost every other scene in the movie. She talks like a real person, and doesn't sound like she's reading her lines off of cue cards. These seem to be the moments when lead star, Hillary Swank, is also the most comfortable. Pity they have to come almost at the end.

I really can think of few things that are more annoying than a movie that takes the wrong approach to its material. P.S. I Love You is so wrong-headed in its humor and the handling of most of its drama, it's not even funny. The characters are not the least bit interesting, nor are they ever developed into anyone we could attach ourselves to in the first place. There's a subplot concerning Holly possibly finding love with a guy who works at the Irish bar she always hangs out. He's been written so blandly, he all but disappears into the background, and you quickly realize that the movie would be no different with or without him. Harry Connick Jr has to fill the shoes of this underwritten character, and he seems to spend most of his scenes with Swank's character wondering the same thing we are - What does he see in her? The movie keeps their potential relationship at such an extreme distance that when their storyline reaches its end, we meet it with casual indifference instead of the feelings we're supposed to be experiencing. When Holly meets another man during her trip to Ireland, we don't even find ourselves thinking about the guy she left behind back at home. The movie seems to forget about him as well, as he's hardly ever mentioned after that.
I mentioned Things We Lost in the Fire earlier in this review, but thinking back, I also remembered another comedy-drama called Catch and Release that also dealt with a woman seeking help from her friends and family after the death of her husband. It's yet another example of the material done better. P.S. I Love You does almost nothing right. It's hard to watch almost from the first frame, and even though it's just over two hours long, it feels a lot longer than that while you're watching it. When the long-overdue end credits started to roll, I was left feeling depressed and angry. That's something only a truly awful movie can do to me.


Monday, December 24, 2007

National Treasure: Book of Secrets

2004's National Treasure didn't leave a big impression on me. In fact, I had completely forgotten about it until posters started showing up for the film's sequel, Book of Secrets, at my local theater. I remember the first movie involved a lot of Nicolas Cage solving centuries-old riddles and puzzles in a matter of seconds. The sequel contains more of the same, and does not exactly fill me with the desire to refresh my memory on the events of the first movie. National Treasure: Book of Secrets is as ludicrous and as silly of a Hollywood blockbuster as they come. I know, it's supposed to be so, but even when I tried to put myself in the proper mood and enjoy it as the popcorn entertainment it wants to be, it still didn't work for me. This is an obnoxious and bloated spectacle where people continuously scream at each other while stumbling upon one clue after another through circumstances so contrived and coincidental, I suspect the credited screenwriters had a hard time typing this stuff down into their word processor with a straight face.

Our returning treasure-hunting hero, Ben Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage), has just recently discovered that one of his family ancestors may have had a hand in the assassination of President Lincoln. A man named Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) presents a missing page from the diary of John Wilkes Booth, which lists a member of the Gates family as one of the co-conspirators. Not wanting the family name to be tarnished, Ben gathers up his father Patrick (Jon Voight), his ex-girlfriend Abigail (Diane Kruger), and wise-cracking sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha) to search out a series of clues that can lead them to the fabled location of the Lost City of Gold. How does this clear the Gates family name? Your guess is as good as mine. They examine the missing page, discover it holds a hidden treasure map, and off they go looking for the Lost City. Their search will force Ben and his friends to look for clues in the Statue of Liberty, Buckingham Palace, and even the White House, where Ben will lure the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) away from his own birthday party to go treasure hunting with him through some secret underground caves. And if that doesn't sound ludicrous enough, wait till they discover the inside of Mount Rushmore is a complex series of caves and traps that looks like something out of Indiana Jones or The Goonies.

Okay, obviously National Treasure: Book of Secrets is intended to be check your brain at the door entertainment. But, I just can't check as much of my brain that this movie asks me to in order for this thing to work. Look past the fact that Ben and his friends have the unique ability to solve riddles and mysteries that have baffled mankind for centuries in less than 30 seconds. Look past the fact that Ben can crash the President's birthday party and "steal" the President with minimal effort, all without having the entire nation's armed forces shoot him on sight. Look past the fact that we're informed early on that Ben and his ex-girlfriend, Abigail, are no longer on speaking terms, yet when he breaks into her house to get something he needs for his search, she immediately agrees to help him without a second thought, and the couple seem to completely forget that they're supposed to hate each other. Look past all that, and you have a great big void of nothing. The screenplay is built upon a shaky foundation of coincidences, plot holes, unexplained events, and situations so contrived you almost feel insulted that the filmmakers are asking you to accept them. The characters that we're supposed to root for are an insufferable band of screaming idiots who are either screaming at each other, screaming out plot points, or screaming dialogue like "Let's go!" or "We don't have time!" It doesn't help matters that Ben is joined on his quest by his father and mother (Helen Mirren), who spend most of their time together (you guessed it) screaming and arguing with each other. The way the cast keeps on screaming their lines, you'd think they were being paid by the decibel.

In order for popcorn entertainment like this to work, we need to not only identify with the characters, but there also has to be a sense of fun and danger throughout. National Treasure can't seem to muster the least bit of excitement or danger, as aside from a car chase early on and the extended sequence inside Mount Rushmore, the characters rarely find themselves in life threatening situations. They hop to different locations around the world, solve a puzzle, and then move onto the next one. The movie tries to create tension by having Mitch and his band of goons following Ben around and tracing his phone calls, but this goes nowhere, as Mitch doesn't turn out to be quite as evil as initially believed, and his hired goons completely disappear without any explanation eventually. Even silly movies need to make some form of sense, but there are no rules or structure. It takes us by the arm, and leads us head-first through an increasingly preposterous globe-trotting adventure, never stopping to explain itself. Yeah, the exotic locations are sometimes neat, and some the puzzles are interesting, but it's all just fluff to distract us from the fact that there's nothing going on underneath. Not even the film's subtitle makes much sense when you think about it, as the Book of Secrets is nothing more than a plot device that is brought up in one sequence, then never seen or mentioned again.
This is the kind of holiday entertainment that families go to when they don't care what they watch, just as long as there's a lot of flash and explosions to entertain them. National Treasure: Book of Secrets is completely bankrupt in terms of imagination and storytelling. It's one part Da Vinci Code, two parts Indiana Jones, three parts Tomb Raider, and all nonsense. I don't ask for all movies to make sense, I just want to be entertained. This movie can't even fulfill that most basic necessity. Watching the movie, I could obviously see that it was expensive to make. But all I kept on thinking to myself is that I was watching millions of dollars being burned right there on the screen for no reason.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

With films like Epic Movie and The Comebacks clogging up theater space this past year, it's hard not to think that the parody genre is all but dead. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story doesn't exactly bring it entirely back to life, but it proves that there's at least a spark left. Co-writer and director Jake Kasdan (Orange County) knows that it's not enough to just reference as many movies as you can, hoping you can make your audience laugh out of recognition. There is a delightfully silly and often inventive sense of humor to the screenplay, and although it has its share of misses, there's always another laugh waiting in the next scene. Like only the best comedies can do, Walk Hard made me forget about my problems, and just made me laugh for a good 95 minutes or so.

A blade-sharp parody of recent music biography films like Walk the Line (Johnny Cash) and Ray (Ray Charles), we follow singing sensation Dewey Cox from his humble beginnings as a young boy being raised in the shadow of his multi-talented brother, Nate (Chip Hormess). The brothers are enjoying a "perfect day" of messing with rattlesnakes and enraging bulls, but the fun comes to an abrupt end when Dewey accidentally cuts his brother in half with a machete in Dad's barn. Dewey's estranged father (Raymond J. Barry) bitterly turns against his son, telling him "the wrong kid died". (A fact the father is all-too willing to remind him every time Dewey sees him.) A chance encounter with some men playing Blues music at a local store makes Dewey realize he has a gift for music, and thus begins his road to destiny, as Dewey grows from a local sensation, to a world-wide phenomenon. Portrayed from Age 14 and up by character actor John C. Reilly, Dewey's road to stardom is paved with many obstacles along the way, including many failed marriages and a drug problem that will take him in and out of rehab numerous times throughout his life. His second wife and back-up singer, Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer), tries to stay faithful to Dewey, but the allure of the evils of fame may be too much for both of them to handle.

Walk Hard hits all the usual notes that we would expect in a bio-pic about a famous music legend, and then skewers them with an inspired sort of lunacy not seen since the days of the Zucker Brothers (Airplane, Naked Gun). The opening moments, detailing Dewey's childhood, literally had me forcing back tears of laughter as it expertly parodies the "childhood trauma" moment that always haunts the lead in these kind of films. Kasdan and co-screenwriter Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) have studied the structure of these movies well, and know just how to play off of our expectations. I liked the way the characters would constantly name drop other artists' names in the dialogue to the point that it becomes intentionally and hilariously awkward. When Dewey meets with The Beatles, their dialogue consists mainly out of saying their full names, and what band they belong to over and over again. I also enjoyed the running gag about Dewey getting addicted to various drugs throughout his career due to the "help" of one of his bandmates (Tim Meadows), who constantly urges Dewey not to get involved in drugs, while at the same time going on and on about the advantages of getting high. Looking back at my attempts to describe these highlights, I'm quite sure I have not done justice to them. The performances and the writing are so sharp and satirical, it's really something to appreciate. It's the kind of movie where you laugh first at the joke, and then you laugh at yourself for laughing, since the joke is usually pretty stupid to begin with.

Unlike numerous other failed spoof movies, this movie is smart enough to know that its funnier when the actors pretend they don't know they're supposed to be in a comedy. The actors treat the material like it were a true drama, and these are characters we're supposed to care about. Surprisingly, it does lead to that very effect. As ridiculous as his situations frequently got, I found myself caring about Dewey Cox. A lot of this has to do with the lead performance by John C. Reilly, who plays Dewey not as a mugging for the camera buffoon, but as a real person who doesn't even realize how absurd his story truly is. This, I feel, has always been an essential ingredient to parody. Your actors have to act like they're not in on the joke. That's half of the joke in the first place. If parody is played broadly, such as in The Comebacks, it falls flat on its face and we don't laugh. The entire cast shares Reilly's attitude toward their performances, so everybody's on the same level here. It's rare to see a comedic cast come together this well. Even when the jokes don't work (such as an animated sequence where Dewey has an acid trip with The Beatles, or a running gag involving Dewey shattering sinks whenever he's in a fit of anger and sadness), the actors still give it their all, and never once dip in their performance.

The thing that is perhaps most surprising about Walk Hard is its soundtrack. While many of the songs are intentionally bizarre (I particularly liked Dewey's 1960s protest song about the rights of midgets), they are well-composed, smartly written, and actually entertaining to listen to. The soundtrack covers a large variety of genres representing Dewey's 50-year career. John C. Reilly has to perform a majority of the songs himself, and does a fine job fitting his voice to music ranging from country, cheesy 70s pop, blues, and rock. It's rare that I walk out of a movie and think of immediately going to a nearby store to seek out the soundtrack, but it happened here. I've heard some people say that should Reilly's acting career ever hit the rocks, he could easily make it as a singer. Watching his performance here, I'd have to agree with them. Though the songs are often goofy, you can tell that just like the movie itself, some genuine care has been put into the music to make them not only funny, but genuinely good to listen to. I'd be thrilled to see Reilly singing one of the songs from the film at next year's Oscar ceremony. Here's to hoping the Academy can look past the usual ballads and pop songs they nominate without fail, and give one of the film's many deserving songs a nod.
Walk Hard is not exactly a great movie, and it has its share of dry spots, but I don't remember laughing this much or this hard at a comedy since Hot Fuzz earlier this year. Mostly, I was simply happy to be watching a parody movie that remembered that it's more than just referencing movies, while throwing in some urine and fart jokes. The filmmakers have studied not just the films they are spoofing well, but also the past great spoofs for inspiration. The way it treats Dewey Cox as if he were a real person instead of as a joke is commendable. The way that it is actually funny is even more so.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I have watched many local and professional productions of Stephen Sondheim's musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The one thing that has always amazed me about the show is what a difficult line of balance there must be in order for the show to work. The story is a dark and ultimately tragic story of revenge, but there is also a wicked sense of humor throughout. The humor is quite vicious, and we sometimes find ourselves laughing at ourselves for laughing at the terrible things the characters talk about, or do to each other. It doesn't always leave its audience feeling comfortable, but when it works, it is an unforgettable piece of theater.

The movie adaptation by filmmaker Tim Burton (The Corpse Bride) did not entirely work for me due to one essential reason. It places too much emphasis on the torture and pain of the story, and not enough on the devilish humor. As I was watching the movie, I kept on asking myself why the story and the characters weren't clicking the way they usually do when I watch the show. It was a question that bothered me even on my way home. The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that this is a mostly joyless production. All the gothic melodrama, the murder, and the violence of the story have been left in place. If anything, the violence has been increased to such a point that the film's R-rating should definitely be taken into consideration for any parent who has a teen that wants to see this film. What the movie lacks is that sense of false hope, false light, and the wicked sense of humor. Burton's interpretation takes itself way too seriously and focuses so much on the dark that it forgets to have fun with itself from time to time. Though this is a mainly faithful adaptation (only a few songs have been removed, shortened, or switched in order), the tone of the movie is all wrong.

Set in 19th Century London, a man named Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) has escaped from a prison he was sentenced to 15 years ago for a crime he didn't commit, and has now returned home using the alias Sweeney Todd. During his time away, he's thought of nothing but seeking revenge on the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who ruined his life in the first place, and being reunited with the wife and young daughter who were left behind. He heads straight for his home, only to be informed by the woman who runs the pie shop below his old barber shop, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), that his beloved wife took her own life after the Judge raped her, and that his daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), is now Turpin's adopted ward. Fueled even more by revenge, Barker/Todd decides to go back into the barber business, only under more sinister intentions. His plan is to build a name for himself so that he can eventually lure the Judge into his shop, and slit his throat while the man who destroyed his life sits in his barber chair. The ever-resourceful Mrs. Lovett sees further business opportunities in the plan, realizing that his victims could make good fillings for the meat pies she sells. As their twisted business partnership grows in popularity and the victims pile up, it can only be a matter of time before the characters learn that "the path to revenge can lead to hell", as the show's closing number (which is not included in the film) states.

I will definitely say this for Burton's take on Sweeney Todd, this is the most beautiful (in a gothic sort of way) interpretation of the story I have seen. The movie uses a mostly muted color scheme to the point that some of the characters almost seem to be in black and white. Indeed, one of the most visually stunning sequences of the film is when we see Todd and Lovett sitting together in the middle of a sun-filled park, but the small space around them remains dark and overcast, almost like those old cartoons where a character would have a rain cloud constantly hovering over their heads. This film is certainly not cartoonish in its overall look, however. It is a menacing, gritty, and probably realistic interpretation of old time London. Rats and sewage scurry and flow on the streets. The tall, almost menacing, buildings are built too close together and seem to reach so high that they could block out the sun, if the weather in Sweeney's world wasn't constantly overcast except for a few brief instances. The overall visual design by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End) is dark and claustrophobic, but in an artful way. This is part of the reason why the film's often graphic depictions of Sweeney's murders are so striking. The blood that literally sprays forth from his victims' necks (sometimes covering any actor unfortunate enough to be standing too close head-to-foot) seems almost out of place with the movie's drab color scheme. Of course, this is intentional, and it makes the sequences more effective and stand out more. Even the opening credit sequence is beautiful, as we follow a trail of blood through places and machines that we will become very familiar with during the course of the film. I almost feel like recommending the movie for its visual style, and I hope it's recognized come award time.

As anyone who has ever performed musical theater can tell you, the musical scores of composer Stephen Sondheim are some of the best around, yet also some of the most complex as well. Sweeney Todd definitely lives up to this reputation, as it has long been one of my favorite scores from the theater world. Almost all of the songs are represented in the film, though there are a few glaring omissions, particularly the show's main theme, "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd". The song is present in an instrumental version played various times throughout the film (most memorably the opening credits), but it's such a perfect way to set up the story and get you involved, it's almost a crime the lyrical version wasn't included in the final film. Most of the songs that were included are heard in their entirety, although some major numbers such as "God, That's Good" (sung by the customers sampling Lovett's meat pies, not knowing what they're made of) have been shortened and taken out of their proper sequence. Nonetheless, the important question is how well are they sung? The fact that the film's main cast does not include one star especially known for their musical talents is something that has worried many fans of the original show, myself included, during the past year. Fortunately, there is little reason for anyone to worry. Johnny Depp portrays a very different take on Sweeney Todd than most fans are used to. He's somewhat quieter and sometimes more subtle in his growing madness, but he is no less intense than any performance I have seen on the stage. I do have a harder time accepting Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, however. She's often comes across as being far too quiet, somewhat mousey, and even timid to successfully pull off the character. Her voice is also often quite soft, sometimes being drowned out by the orchestra accompanying her off screen. It's not a bad performance actually, she simply lacks the power and confidence the character needs.

If that were my only complaint, I could easily let it go, but I fear that there is a much larger problem lurking at the core of this movie that prevents me from giving it a full-hearted recommendation. There were a lot of decisions I did not agree with watching the film, the biggest being I did not agree with the way the show's deliciously devilish sense of humor has been muted to the point that it's either not as funny as it usually is, or it's just not there at all. A very good example is the musical number "A Little Priest". This is the number that closes the first half of the play and film, and it is a darkly comic one as Todd and Lovett devise their twisted business partnership, and crack each other up by making sick jokes about the kind of pies she will sell, and who they will be made from. The way the film interprets it, there is absolutely no evil glee. They don't seem excited by the possibilities as they describe their plans to each other, nor do I remember them even cracking a smile. This is supposed to be a grand, rousing number that gets you excited about the evil possibilities in store for the rest of the story, but the movie plays it so muted and almost mopey, I couldn't get excited like I always do when I hear the song properly performed. This is not the only way the film has changed, and not for the better. There is a Beggar Woman who pops up throughout the story, and ultimately plays a very large role, though we do not learn what until almost the end. In the film, Todd has very little interaction or encounters with this woman, which really hurts the revelation her character plays. Almost all of Todd's encounters with the woman have been cut from the film, which is a big mistake, since it was his often cruel treatment toward her that made the final reveal all the more tragic. This aspect is still there in some sense, but it didn't hit quite as hard as it usually does.

I understand some things in a musical need to be cut in order to fit the preferred two hour time limit of Hollywood, but some of these cuts wound up greatly disappointing me, particularly at the end. The film's ending is highly anticlimactic and seems to simply just stop instead of coming to a proper end. The show's final dialogue and closing number have been removed, and because of this, the movie ends with a bloody whisper instead of a bloody bang like it should. That could kind of describe my feeling of the film's entirety. Although it is beautifully filmed, well-performed for the most part, and remains mostly faithful to the source material, there is a sense of grandness missing from the overall production. Everything except the violence seems more quiet, more subtle than it should be. I have seen some performances of Sweeney Todd on the stage that were small in scope and scale. Heck, I even saw one production last year in New York that had no orchestra, where the actors played the instruments when they were not singing. They made up for the lack of scale and scope with their powerful voices, and with the devilish glint of evil glee they tackled the story with. There's very little glee found here, and the moments of power are scarcer than usual.
While I cannot give this take of Sweeney Todd a full endorsement, I do have to say that what it does, it does very well. Those who are not familiar with the original musical are bound to enjoy it, provided they can stomach some over the top gore. And besides, any movie that can introduce more people to the works of Sondheim deserves at least some sort of praise from me. That being said, the movie just didn't fill me with the usual emotions that I feel. If you find yourself liking this film, I highly recommend you track down one of the many CD recordings of the original production, or even the DVD of a live performance from a national touring company that was running in the early 80s. I'm on the fence with this one, I'm afraid. There are a lot of good ideas here fighting for space with ideas that don't work the way they should.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Alvin and the Chipmunks

What is perhaps most surprising about Alvin and the Chipmunks is that I found it watchable. After months of being subjected to the film's obnoxious ad campaign (and to make it even more annoying, its trailer was usually placed before a majority of the movies I've watched the past couple months), I was not exactly walking into the theater with high spirits. To my surprise, the movie does not offend. It's far too bland and sweet to offend. What we have here is a movie that is almost certain to delight children. The kids at my screening seemed to be having a ball. Accompanying adults will have a hard time sharing their enthusiasm, but at least they won't be staring at their watches for 90 minutes.

The Chipmunk characters were the brainchild of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr., who took the bizarre idea of singing rodents, and turned it into a multi-million dollar empire that spanned for decades. It's almost shocking when the album covers of every Chipmunk recording ever made are displayed during the film's end credits, and you realize they span a course of over 50 years. I'd wonder what the world is coming to when an album called Chipmunk Punk is embraced by music listeners, but then I remember that I used to watch the 1980s Saturday morning cartoon inspired by the characters religiously as a kid. There is a definite charm to the characters, and the movie at least makes an effort to capture that charm. It does a better job at representing the characters than the ill-conceived Garfield live action movies, that turned the fat cat from a dryly sarcastic feline to an obnoxious motor mouth who never shut up. Yes, there is some out of place toilet humor (such as the infamous fecal matter scene that was displayed in the very first trailer), but for the most part, the movie's heart is in the right place, and it manages to reach its target audience of the 10 and under crowd.

The film chronicles the rise to fame of the three Chipmunk brothers, which includes out-spoken Alvin (voice by Justin Long), brainy Simon (voice by Matthew Gray Gubler), and chubby mild-mannered Theodore (voice by Jesse McCartney). They start out as regular woodland creatures, who for some reason know how to talk, sing, and walk on their hind legs. The movie does not explore the notion if all the creatures of the forest are the same way. Their tree home is cut down to be used as a Christmas tree, where it is shipped off to the Jett Records office building with the Chipmunks in tow. It is there that they meet Dave Seville (Jason Lee), a man working in advertising who wants to be a song writer, but the head of the music company, Ian (David Cross), tells him his songs are no good. The Chipmunks stow away in a basket of muffins Dave has with him, which he doesn't realize until he unknowingly brings them inside his house, and they immediately start ransacking the place. Dave wants the little guys out of his place until he discovers they can sing. Realizing he's hit upon a musical gold mine, he starts a musical act with the Chipmunks singing his songs. The act becomes an overnight hit, and before long, Ian is banging down his door for a recording contract. Things get out of hand when the popularity of the group grows too quickly, and Ian sets about luring the young Chipmunks away from Dave with promises of money, fame, and expensive material possessions. As Ian starts working the poor creatures to the point of exhaustion during an extensive world tour and merchandising blitz, Dave has to figure out a way to get close to Alvin and his brothers, and let them know that they are like a family to him.

In updating the characters to the present day, director Tim Hill (Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties), and the screenplay by Jon Vitti (The Simpsons Movie), along with screenwriting team Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi (Snow Day, TV's The Adventures of Pete and Pete), at least manage to pay homage to the characters. Those who still hold the Chipmunks close to their hearts will be delighted to learn that none of the characters have gone under any severe personality or attitude changes. There is a definite sweetness during the first half of the film, that details the growing bond between Dave and the three Chipmunk brothers. I may not have laughed, but I did smile a lot during these moments. Having written that, I feel I have to be honest. I did laugh at one point, and it's during a scene when we discover what a Chipmunk sounds like when his voice is under the influence of helium. Call me a sucker for an easy gag, but it worked with me. We get musical sequences devoted to the standard Chipmunk hits ("The Christmas Song", "Witch Doctor"), we get some cute antics from the little CG cartoon characters, and Jason Lee in the lead human role does about as well as can be expected, considering he has to spend most of his screen time with characters who weren't even on the set with him. There's a romantic subplot for Dave with a woman who lives next door (Cameron Richardson) that never really goes anywhere, but I was able to live with it. Mostly, I was just happy the movie wasn't turning out to be the flat-out stinker I had initially pegged it to be. At the very least, the movie seemed to be on solid ground.

Where the movie began to lose me is with the character of Ian, who acts as the main villain. It's not that he's not evil, and it's not that David Cross doesn't do a good job coming across as someone who is easy to hate. The problem is that he does too good of a job. There's something off-putting about seeing a malicious character being evil toward three little cute cartoon characters. I even started to feel uncomfortable a little during the scene where he picks up the Chipmunks by their tails, and throws them across the room. In fact, the movie's entire portrayal of the music industry in general is mishandled. It doesn't dig deep enough, and it seems to be afraid to be satirical. With how ridiculous egos have gotten in the music recording business, there's plenty of room for humor, and it misses almost every golden opportunity that comes its way. You'd think a movie about singing chipmunks would have a lot to do with music, but most of this part of the film has to do with the Ian character being cruel to them, and working them to the point that they literally collapse. I think a much more satirical and light-hearted approach would have been preferable to the sudden mean streak the movie develops later on. I probably wouldn't have minded so much if the villain didn't get some sort of payback at the end, but he gets off way too easy. Most of the film's other subplots are left hanging at the end, too. I can't tell if this should be interpreted as sloppy writing, or if it's a not so subtle hint from the Fox studio that more Chipmunk movies are on the way.
At the very least, Alvin and the Chipmunks doesn't go so off course that I can't recommend it to viewers of a certain age. Anyone over the age of 13 can find better things to do with their time, and most likely will. Before I close this review, I want to bring up a point I find curious. What was the purpose of hiring celebrities like Justin Long to do the voices of the Chipmunks in the first place? Since their voices are sped up and completely unrecognizable, doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of hiring famous voices? That, and the fact that their voices have been altered to sound like the original cartoon voices. Wouldn't it have been easier and cheaper to hire the voice talent from the 80s and early 90s cartoon series? Just seems to make more sense to me.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Perfect Holiday

Every great or even good actor has a moment in a movie that he or she never lives down. Terrence Howard is a fine actor, but there is one moment in The Perfect Holiday that I bet will haunt him for a very long time. In the movie, he plays Bah Humbug, a kind of anti-Christmas angel whose job is to make people miserable. This is my best guess, as the movie is never quite clear as to who he is supposed to be, or what he has to do with anything in the movie. Anyway, he assumes different forms to torment the characters throughout the movie, and at one point, he assumes the form of a child. This is where the moment comes, where Howard is forced to look at the camera and say in a childish voice, "I gotta go dookie". If Terrence Howard ever earns some kind of Life Time Achievement award late in his career, something tells me the clips they play commemorating his career will not include that scene.

But that's just the kind of movie The Perfect Holiday is. A pea-brained holiday comedy that will only appeal to the easily amused or those who don't care what happens in a movie, just as long as there's nothing offensive and it has a happy ending. When I say nothing offensive, I mean there's nothing objectionable in the material itself. The movie is likely to be offensive to anyone with an average adult intelligence. How stupid is this movie? It's a conventional Idiot Plot romantic comedy that's narrated by a pair of angels who are there for no reason whatsoever. To combat Howard's grouchy Bah Humbug character, there's a good Christmas spirit played by Queen Latifah named Mrs. Christmas. The fact that the movie would be no different with or without them all but proves just how unnecessary both of these characters are. They barely interact with the characters, have nothing to do with the story, and seem to only exist because Queen Latifah is listed as one of the Executive Producers of this mess. This is one time she would have been better off behind the camera, or perhaps she should have just avoided this thing all together.

The plot (such as it is) centers on a single mother named Nancy (Gabrielle Union). Nancy used to be married to a multi-millionaire rapper named J-Jizzy (Charlie Murphy, brother of Eddie), but they're divorced now, and she's stuck raising their three kids by herself. All Nancy wants is to meet a nice guy who would complement her. Her youngest daughter, Emily (Khail Bryant) hears her mother's wish, and decides to ask the local Mall Santa to send a guy for her mother. Santa turns out to be Benjamin (Morris Chestnut), a struggling song writer who immediately is attracted to Nancy. He uses the information he learns from little Emily to impress Nancy when he "accidentally" runs into her at a dry cleaner. The thing is, Nancy wants a normal guy, no one fancy. For some reason, Benjamin thinks Nancy wouldn't like him if she discovered he was a song writer and a Mall Santa. Why, you ask? Why indeed. The movie never quite elaborates on Benjamin's fears, but he lies to her anyway, and tells her that he sells office supplies. They fall hard for each other, even though they barely share any dialogue throughout the course of the movie, and most of the time they spend together is covered in music montages.

There are complications, of course. Nancy's oldest son, John-John (Malik Hammond) is still faithful to his birth father, and doesn't like the idea of his mom dating again. The poor kid seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that his father is an egotistical lout that doesn't care about him, and that Benjamin is a much better guy all around. He tries to halt Benjamin's advances on his mother with a series of pranks and traps, but that doesn't stop the guy from trying to bond with the kid. Another complication shows up when Nancy's ex-husband gets his hands on Benjamin's demo CD, and wants to put his song on an upcoming Christmas album. (Never mind the fact that this movie seems to be set well into the holiday season, and if this J-Jizzy guy doesn't have his Christmas CD out yet, he's not going to get many big sales off of it.) Benjamin finds himself forced to lie more to Nancy, not wanting her to discover that he's been hired by her ex. All this, and I haven't even mentioned Benjamin's best friend (Faizon Love from Who's Your Caddy?) posing as a bounty hunter in order to impress his girlfriend, Nancy being ensnared in a custody battle for her kids, and a ludicrous climax where Benjamin must rescue one of Nancy's kids after he gets stuck on top of a giant Christmas tree when his toy race car sends him flying. In a movie this stuffed with plot, why did we need the Christmas Angels?

The Perfect Holiday is one of the most poorly constructed movies I've seen this year. It's as if co-writer and director Lance Rivera (The Cookout) and the three others credited to the screenplay just threw whatever ideas they could think of, and hoped no one would notice there's no rhyme or reason to it all. The movie tries to combine elements of romantic comedy, childish slapstick, music media satire, and the supernatural all into one hideous package. And just to pad things out even more, there are numerous music montages thrown throughout that serve no purpose. Nothing in this movie makes any sense. Not the plot, not the motivations of the characters, not even some of the jokes. Take this scene for an example. Benjamin is having a meeting with J-Jizzy, so he can't make it for the Mall Santa job. He calls his best friend to stand in for him, since the friend usually plays the role of Santa's elf at the mall. Now Benjamin's friend is a very large and fat man, so what does he do? He tries to put on Benjamin's fat suit that he wears when he's playing Santa. Why does he do this? Just for the simple reason that we can laugh at a fat guy struggling to put on a padded suit that will make him even fatter. But it's not funny, because the joke doesn't make any sense in the first place. It's simply a cry of desperation on the part of the filmmakers, and an opportunity for the actor to humiliate himself.

The plot that we are supposed to care about (Benjamin and Nancy's relationship, and Benjamin trying to get closer to her kids) is equally mishandled due to the fact that none of these characters have been written with a scrap of integrity or intelligence. Benjamin has no personality other than he's a nice guy who makes very stupid decisions. Nancy doesn't even seem to have a job, despite the fact it looks like she lives in a home most single mothers (or people in general) would kill for. And her kids are smart-alecky sitcom clones that always have a snappy response for everything. At one point, Nancy sees that her ex-husband is trying to put her kids into some ugly matching clothes, and comments that the outfits make the children look like The Jackson Five. One of the kids immediately fires back that he's not going to be Michael. Who talks like this? The kids are treated like trained seals. They exist simply to look cute, and perform on command with some kind of one-liner comeback, or smart response that no child would ever say. Did the writers actually laugh as they wrote this dialogue, or did they simply sigh, close their eyes, and think of the paycheck that was to come? I'd like to think it was the second scenario, but I have my suspicions that they actually thought they were making something worth while here.
A couple weeks ago, I reviewed another holiday comedy called This Christmas. It was a pleasant enough movie, but nothing special. And yet, compared to The Perfect Holiday, it looks like Citizen Kane. This is a movie that's been made without an ounce of care or thought. It's only goal is to bilk ignorant people looking for holiday-themed entertainment out of their money. Just like the spirit characters portrayed by Latifah and Howard, it has no reason to even be here in the first place. A brief run at your local theater before it winds up forgotten would be the most wonderful Christmas gift of all.


I Am Legend

When you've seen as many movies as I have, you eventually start to feel like you've seen it all. That's why the opening moments of I Am Legend are so thrilling. The movie so realistically creates a post-apocalyptic New York City that you just have to sit back and marvel at it. I don't know how they did it, and quite frankly, I don't want the illusion shattered. Having just returned from New York myself, the sights the movie creates of the city abandoned were all the more chilling and effective. Perhaps the special effects and sets used to create the illusion of one of the most populated cities in the U.S. being a ghost town are too good, because when the movie starts relying on more conventional special effects, I was let down.

That's not to say this is a bad movie. In fact, for the first hour or so, I Am Legend is a great movie. Director Francis Lawrence (Constantine), along with screenwriters Mark Protosevich (Poseidon) and Akiva Goldsman (The Da Vinci Code) do such a great job during these moments detailing how a man would live on his own in an abandoned post-apocalyptic metropolis. These scenes are so engaging, thrilling, and fascinating that I couldn't help but be a little disheartened when the movie started to rely on cheap monster movie theatrics. While the movie remains enjoyable throughout, the first and second halves of the film are almost like watching two completely different films. The first and far more effective half is a thrilling tale of survival, while the second is your genuine Hollywood thriller blockbuster that is not without its moments, but just can't quite live up to the first. After you've seen the wonders of something new, the standard computer generated monsters leaping out at the main character from the shadows just doesn't seem to cut it anymore.

The story kicks off in 2012, where a former military scientist named Robert Neville (Will Smith) wanders the abandoned streets of New York City alone with his dog, Sam. Through flashbacks, we learn that a virus spread throughout the world, wiping out a good part of the human population, and turning a majority of them into demonic zombie-like ghouls referred to as Night Stalkers, since they can only venture about and feed in the dark. Robert is one of the very few who was immune, and has devoted his life to trying to discover a cure in the remains of his lab, and sending out radio frequencies, hoping to find other survivors like him. Robert does his best to survive day-by-day. He hunts for food, trying to track down the various wild animals that now populate the streets of New York, and he tries to lead as normal of a life he can when he's at home. Even so, the memories of the night New York was evacuated still haunt him, and he has begun to lose hope that anyone but him is out there. With the Night Stalkers apparently becoming more intelligent and more aggressive with each passing night, and a hope for a cure to the virus constantly out of his reach, it might not be long before he himself no longer exists.

One of the more difficult challenges for any actor is to literally carry an entire movie by themselves. It's something that's not really been attempted in a big budget studio film since Tom Hanks in Cast Away. With I Am Legend, Will Smith proves that he is not only up to the challenge, but that he has matured quite a bit as an actor since the days that he was mainly known for summer blockbusters like Men in Black and Independence Day. The days of the cool and cocky "Big Will" are behind us, and we now have an actor who is much more sympathetic and human. His Robert Neville is a man who tries his hardest to keep hope alive, even though the harsh reality is constantly staring him in the face. He tries his best to lead a normal life. He talks to his dog as if it were his best friend, and he's set up mannequins at some of the nearby abandoned stores he frequents for something that resembles a human for him to talk to. He's not crazy or delusional, he's just trying desperately to cling to anything that resembles personal contact. Smith does a great job at convincing us he is a man who is grasping at the last bit of his humanity, and perhaps sanity.

It is during these moments when the film is dealing with Robert and his life in this nightmare he has found himself in that I Am Legend is nearly pitch perfect. The movie is almost like a bizarre documentary, as we watch the everyday life of the "last man on Earth". How would he find food? How would he entertain himself? What would be his daily routine? The movie finds some interesting answers to these questions, and it creates some memorable images, such as when Robert is hunting wild game through the abandoned streets of Times Square, or when he is playing golf off the deck of a military battleship. He keeps his spirits up with old movies and classic music, particularly Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds", which is put to great use in the film's soundtrack. He pretends things are still the same when he's at home by watching old tapes of morning news programs while eating breakfast. We are drawn into the character and his life to the point that we start looking forward to the next scene, learning what we will discover or learn next. It's a wonderful thing when a movie fascinates you with its very ideas, and even better, acts upon that potential. For the first hour or so of the film, which is devoted almost entirely to Robert and his dog trying to survive, I Am Legend is a gripping and fascinating experience. I was loving each passing minute, and grew increasingly excited about what I was seeing.

Then those pesky Night Stalkers have to show up and turn the movie into something far more conventional. It's hard not to venture into spoiler territory here, but if you were to walk out of the theater at the moment when Robert begins to lose all hope, you could easily be convinced you had seen a great movie. Dare to stick around, and that great movie downgrades itself to simply a good movie right before your eyes. You can almost pinpoint the exact moment I Am Legend goes on autopilot, and it's right about the moment he runs over a group of the creatures with his car. The fascinating story of a man trying to survive in an abandoned world is abandoned, and we're left with a sci-fi thriller occupied mainly by CG monsters that look like they'd be more comfortable being gunned down in a video game than in a big budget movie. While there are undoubtedly some tense moments, and the sequences have been made with care, they do not hold the intelligence or wonder of the earlier half of the film. And besides, we've seen it all before. Here is a movie that devotes its first hour to things we haven't seen, then decides to just forget everything, and fall back on "monsters lurking in the dark before they jump at the camera" cliches. It's almost as if the screenwriters lost interest in the project half-way through. Like they just didn't want to think anymore, so they just threw the second half together. It's a crime for a movie to spark our interest so long, then betray it by not living up to it. Great movies need a great finish, and this movies final 40 minutes or so seem slapped together.
Now, I don't want to get the wrong point across. I am recommending I Am Legend, because I think it is effective for a large majority of the film. I just grew upset when the movie started to short change itself. Instead of the fascinating and intriguing film we were watching, we get the usual dumbed down shoot outs, car chases, and things jumping out at us while loud noises bang on the soundtrack. The first half of the movie has these moments, but when they started to dominate the entire later half of the film, I couldn't help but feel disappointed. If Protosevich and Goldsman had found a way to end their movie as intelligently as it began, we'd probably be looking at one of the great films of 2007. As it is, it will just have to settle for an "honorable mention" when I look back at the films I enjoyed this year.


The Savages

It is perhaps fitting that I saw The Savages immediately after I saw Juno. Both are movies about people who are forced to use humor to deal with difficult situations. The Savages is not really a comedy, however, despite being billed and advertised as one. It is a drama where you feel like the humor is there to lighten the mood. The movie deals with some very difficult topics, and pulls no punches. Writer-director Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills) has written a hard-hitting and often sad story about people who are forced to come together when the person who initially messed up their lives in the first place needs their help. While there are some laughs scattered throughout the almost two hours the film runs, I can't quite convince myself that Jenkins was aiming for straight-out humor here.

Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney) Savage are estranged siblings who are forced to reunite with each other when Wendy receives a call that their elderly father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), is suffering from dementia and can no longer live on his own. Both of them have reservations about going to see their father, as Jon and Wendy are still harboring childhood memories about the physical and mental abuse Lenny used to give them. Wendy, in fact, is trying to get someone interested in a semi-autobiographical play she's written about her life growing up. Nonetheless, they must find a nursing home for Lenny, and are all reunited for the first time in years. The pains of the past are evident almost from the moment they are in the same room with each other for the first time. Jon and Wendy are faced with conflicting feelings about helping this man who has given them so much pain in the past. They feel sorry for him, because he has no one left to help him as he slips into his illness, but they also harbor resentment toward him. At the same time, they are also forced to deal with each other, as they are not exactly on good terms with one another to begin with. Wendy moves into Jon's apartment in order to be closer to their father during the time he's adjusting to his new surroundings, and their time together digs up some long-buried emotions and resentments for each other that boil over the longer they are together.

Much like this year's earlier release, Away From Her, The Savages deals with a very difficult subject of a loved one or family member slowly slipping away mentally. You can be there to support that someone, but there's really nothing you can do except watch the illness take over their body. Unlike the earlier film, however, The Savages is a much more brutal and hard-hitting look at the topic, because of the complex feelings behind it. Jon and Wendy seem to be helping their father out of guilt, rather than out of love. Neither of them wants to be with either their father or each other, but they're trying their best to make it work, because they are needed. They start out guarded, hiding their emotions behind smiles and forced tenderness, but very soon these shields begin to break down, and they start to show their real emotions. Jon and Wendy argue about everything, right down to the kind of nursing home their father should be put in. Wendy wants a beautiful and well-landscaped home, but Jon fails to see the point, as he thinks the beauty is just a facade for the misery going on within the building itself. We also get a sense that even though Lenny is slowly slipping away, he regrets many of his past actions. There is a great scene where Lenny sits in a car, while Jon and Wendy are standing outside arguing. As the argument continues, Lenny can hear them, and begins to tear up. He can't say anything to help them, and he also knows that he is somewhat responsible. The fact that his children don't even notice this makes the scene all the more poignant and sad.

And yet, there are many problems in the lives of the characters that the father cannot be blamed for. Both Jon and Wendy are somewhat self-defeated, never living up to their fullest potential. Wendy is a woman who has never quite enjoyed true success the way she's wanted to, and finds herself sometimes forced to lie out of desperation to have someone be impressed with her. When she lies to her brother, telling him her writings have won her a grant, we feel that she is doing it out of the vain hope that he may actually be happy for her for once. When he learns the truth, he ridicules and hurts her. Jon himself seems to be going nowhere with his talent. He is a professor and has been working on a book for a number of years, but never seems to be truly advancing on his own projects and dreams. Both of them hurt each other in order to feel better about themselves, and are trying to prove to themselves and others that they're not failures in life. Both of them are not in control of their lives. Jon just pretends he is, while Wendy seems to be falling apart at the seams as the realization dawns on her that she may never find the happiness she seeks. The bleak and snow-ridden Buffalo landscape that serves as most of the film's setting seems fitting, as it's often just as barren and cold as the lives of the main characters have become.

In a character-driven film such as this, performances are key, and The Savages definitely does not disappoint here. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney make a great match here, and bring the right emotion to their scenes together and their characters. Linney has a particularly difficult job with her character, as she has to make Wendy seem somewhat frantic and frazzled without making her come across as shrill or annoying. She finds just the right pitch with her character, and turns her into someone we can relate to. Hoffman passes his character off as a dismissive and often angry man who finds imperfections in others just so he doesn't have to dwell on his own. And yet, he gives a very human and vulnerable performance here. He is not so smug that he comes across as hateful. It is a very natural performance, and one of the better ones this year. Philip Bosco also does a commendable job, especially considering he has to play a man who is slowly dipping into madness and losing his personality. He doesn't have a lot of dialogue during the course of the film, but he does a great job expressing himself with his face and reaction shots.
The Savages is not exactly something I would call escapism. Despite the fact it's being marketed as a comedy for adults, I think the poignancy, drama, and honesty of the film stand out more than the humor. You may not exactly feel good walking out of this movie, but you will feel you've watched some wonderful performances and watched a film that was worth your time. Walk into The Savages with the right expectations, and you're almost certain to agree that although Tamara Jenkins may not have made a very funny movie, she still managed to make a good one.



There have been quite a few films released these past couple months dealing with unplanned pregnancies. Waitress took a somewhat quirky, small town Southern look at the topic, but came out on top due to the intelligence of the screenplay. Knocked Up unsuccessfuly tried to combine formulaic romantic comedy plotting with stoner pop culture humor. Bella was dry, dull, and hardly worth remembering. Now we have Juno, which takes a somewhat sarcastic and bittersweet look at the issue of teen pregnancy. While it's true the topic has been covered many times before in films, there is a certain honesty here that makes this one of the better examples. The film is filled with talent, both new and old, and everything comes together to create one of the better comedies of the year.

16-year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is faced with a difficult situation when she discovers she's pregnant after a passionate night in a chair with local high school track runner, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera from Superbad). She knows she's not ready for a child, and her first thought is to get an abortion without letting her parents know. However, the words of a fellow student protesting outside the abortion center stick with Juno, and she can't go through with it. That's when her best friend clues her in to a special page in the want ads where couples who can't have children seek out those who do not want their soon-to-be-born children, hoping they can work out an adoption plan. Juno is forced to come clean and tell her loving father Mac (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother Bren (Allison Janney) about her plans for her unborn child. The couple she chooses are a well-off young married couple named Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark Loring (Jason Bateman). Vanessa is eager to have a child of her own, and a deal is set that they will adopt Juno's child after it is born. However, the more time Juno spends with husband Mark, the more she wonders if he shares Vanessa's enthusiasm for what is to come.

The real success story behind Juno is first-time screenwriter, Diablo Cody, whose background story on the IMDB probably would make a good movie in itself. Originally working as a stripper and eventually a phone sex operator, Cody worked her way up to better things. Her screenplay for Juno became a hot item in Hollywood, and rightfully so. There is an intelligence in the writing that so many recent films lack. While the plotting and the situations may be nothing innovative, the humor and the dialogue are so quick and smart, it's almost surprising that it is the work of a first-time writer. There are many in Hollywood with a long list of credits who don't match up to this. The screenplay knows how people talk. None of the dialogue sounds forced and artificial. The way it handles its situations also have a ring of truth to it. When Juno is forced to tell her parents that she is pregnant, a lesser movie would have had the parents screaming, breaking down, and going into melodramatic hysterics. Here, Mac and Bren are naturally shocked and surprised, but they are also obviously trying to be as calm and collected as they can. They don't really know what to say, so they make nervous attempts at humor, and they do their best to understand and support their daughter. It's a great and honest scene in a film filled with many.

Last year, director Jason Reitman (son of famous comedy filmmaker Ivan Reitman, of Ghostbusters and Twins fame) rose to acclaim with Thank You For Smoking, an intelligent and witty satire that looked at both sides of the tobacco war. He continues that tradition here, as Juno shares his first film's smart observations and knowing sense of humor. The jokes are entirely dialogue-driven, and never contrived. They also seem appropriate and never out of place. Even the pop culture references in the dialogue, with nods to Diana Ross, Soupy Sales, and underground B-rated gore movies, are smart and earn their laughs. Reitman doesn't really do anything fancy with his directing style in telling this simple story, but it is never dull or boring to watch. When the film dips into some slightly more dramatic topics during the later half of the film, he wisely keeps the same somewhat laid-back tone as the rest of the film, instead of going for sappy or manipulative melodrama. He's able to bring out the right emotions in a subtle way without forcing them out of his audience. Like the film's writer, Reitman has shown true talent in his field in a very short amount of time, and I truly hope he continues to go on to great success.

The one thing that is sure to strike anyone who watches Juno, however, is the wonderful cast that has been assembled. In the title role, young actress Ellen Page once again proves that she is someone to watch for. She first captured my attention last year in the psychological thriller, Hard Candy, where she played a seemingly-innocent teenage girl who turned the tables on an Internet sexual predator. Here, she proves that she has a keen comedic sense. She is able to give Juno a smart mouth and a sarcastic edge, without making her come across as bratty or unlikeable. She is a young girl who thought she knew it all, finds herself in a situation she has no control over, and mainly uses her sarcastic sense of humor as a weapon to battle the complex feelings she's feeling. It's one of the finer young performances this year, and is easily worthy of awards. Michael Cera, as her somewhat dweeby love interest, doesn't get as much screen time, but he still captures that vulnerability and sweetness that made him stand out in Superbad. The adult cast is also a stand out, with particular praise going out to J.K. Simmons as Juno's understanding father, and Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman as the young couple who will adopt Juno's child. Bateman, in particular, has been having quite a year, appearing in no less than 6 movies in 2007 alone. This is easily the best performance he's given out of all of them, and this is also the best film he's done this year.
More than the fact that it frequently makes us laugh out loud, Juno knows how to make us relate to its characters and situations. It never forces us to feel for them, it comes naturally out of the smart dialogue and the performances that ring true. It is quiet and subtle in its execution, but powerful in its impact, simply because it knows just how to reach its audience. This is a movie that's sure to leave a lasting impression on just about anyone who watches it, and everyone is sure to take away something from it. Moving by at a very quick and breezy 90 minutes or so, Juno doesn't stick around for long, but it's sure to stay in your mind long after it's over.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Golden Compass

In reviewing The Golden Compass, I will not mention the controversy surrounding the film, nor will I talk about its religious views. The reason for this? All material related to religion in the story has been edited out of the adaptation, in an attempt to bring in a wider audience, and so as not to offend anyone. I will instead focus on a much bigger issue at hand. The issue, I feel, is not the views of the story or the original author, rather it is that The Golden Compass is not a very good movie. Oh, I have no doubt that the stories that inspired them have their entertainment value, as there are some good ideas lurking under the surface. The problem here is that writer-director Chris Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) has made a film that is told in such an episodic and choppy manner that it's bound to confuse and frustrate anyone not familiar with the fantasy world created in the books by Philip Pullman.

The Golden Compass is set in a world similar to our own, but apparently is populated by various races that include humans, talking polar bears (called Ice Bears in this story), witches, and various other people that are hinted at, but never really developed to any degree. The people in this world are linked with Daemons, animals that reflect and represent their souls, and are their closest companions. These are definitely intriguing ideas for a fantasy adventure, but Weitz fails to truly dig into these ideas. He keeps us at arm's length the entire time. There's also something called Dust, which apparently is the key to unlocking other alternate worlds, and plays a major part in a war that is brewing between the people of the world, and an oppressive society that controls the world with an iron fist known as The Magisterium. The film's explanation of Dust and The Magisterium itself is vague at best. We only learn what precious little we need to move the story along, and then it just leaves it at that. Nothing is developed beyond the bare essentials, not even the characters, and I quickly found myself irritated by Weitz's shaky and underdeveloped screenplay.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. The story at hand is that a precocious and feisty young girl named Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) resides at a private school with her friends, and her Daemon Pan (voice by Freddy Highmore), who is constantly shape shifting into different animal forms, as he has not yet figured out the most appropriate form to represent Lyra's inner soul. Lyra's Uncle is an explorer named Lord Asrial (Daniel Craig), and he has discovered what he believes to be a gateway to other worlds somewhere up in the North. The evil representatives of The Magisterium try to halt his journey, but they are not successful. Instead, they decide to go after Lyra, and send a woman named Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to befriend the girl, hoping to gain her trust. Lyra and Pan, doing some investigating of their own, discover that Marisa has ties to an evil organization that are kidnaping children and forcefully separating them from their Daemons through technology. Lyra escapes, and finds herself snatched up by a band of rebels who are trying to rise up against the oppressive Magisterium, and rescue their children who have been captured by them. Lyra's journey to find her Uncle and discover the truth about the world will take her far to the northern arctic, where she will have to rely on the aid of her new friends and an exiled Ice Bear named Iorek Bymison (voice by Ian McKellen) to discover her destiny.

With a running time of just under two hours, watching The Golden Compass is a lot like getting all of the major details of the story, without getting anything in between. The movie hits all the right notes, but doesn't know how to bring them together. We're constantly enticed with wonderful sights and ideas, but the movie speeds right past them almost as soon as they're introduced. We never feel any connection to the story or to the world itself, not in the way we did in other recent fantasy epics like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Those films take their time, let us understand the world and its rules, and lets us get attached to the characters and their plights. This movie speeds right through like a runaway train, never slowing down, so that when the end credits show up, they not only feel like they've come way too soon, they feel like the movie has stopped just as the story was about to begin. I understand that this is intended to be an introduction, and that there are more movies on the way should this film have a big opening weekend (which it surely will). But at the same time, this film is supposed to get us involved in the world and the characters. It didn't do this for me. The world was disappointingly kept in mystery, as we get to see so little of it. And what we do see resembles either our world, or places we've seen in other fantasy worlds depicted in films. Nothing excited me, and the areas Lyra does explore hold a curious lack of imagination and wonder. If you're going to show us a kingdom of talking warrior polar bears, show us the kingdom, not just some glaciers and a throne room that looked dull and mundane.

More than the film's lack of wonder and speedy pace, it is the characters that ultimately disappointed me. Nobody comes across as being interesting, because the movie is far too interested in moving the story along to stop long enough to make us care about them. Young Lyra is plucky and spirited, but that's really all we ever learn about her. She never comes across as a genuine character in this movie, she's just to act as a tool to move from Point A to Point B in the story. The evil Marisa Coulter, and indeed The Magisterium itself, is especially disappointing, as they never come across as a real threat. They lurk about, talking about oppressing the people and destroying all free will in the world, but they never actually act upon their actions. In her performance as Marisa, Nicole Kidman is supposed to come across as icy and easy to despise. But because the movie barely touches upon her character (indeed, her character is so underdeveloped, she barely plays a role in the story itself, and almost comes across as a cameo), I never became involved with her or her evil plans for Lyra. The movie keeps on throwing characters and conflicts that, in a fleshed out film, would be interesting. But here, they are shallow and empty. Iorek the Ice Bear has a tragic story where he was exiled from his own kingdom. When he returns to his kingdom, the sequence holds absolutely no drama or suspense. It is just a three minute sequence that is forgotten about and never even mentioned again afterward.

I really think the film's central problem is that writer-director Chris Weitz is not the right man to be telling this story. It's not just the fact that he has absolutely no experience helming a big budget special effects story, and sometimes seems overwhelmed at the task at hand. It's that he handles the story in such a dry manor. You get the sense watching the film that he flipped through the pages of the book, made a checklist of every scene he wanted to include, and then wrote his screenplay based solely on this checklist. This causes the scenes to not flow together. Each scene is a major event, but there is nothing in between to lead us from one event to the next. This causes everything in the movie to suffer. The performers are forced to stand around, move the plot along in their dialogue, and wait for the big climactic battle scene. And when the battles do come, they are disappointing, thanks to the somewhat flat and uninspired direction of Weitz. Even the special effects are inconsistent. Computer animation is used heavily throughout The Golden Compass to bring its large talking animal cast to life. And although many of the effects are good, some of them (such as the evil monkey Daemon who follows around Kidman's character) look no better than the stuff you see in a recent Playstation or Xbox game. The animals are voiced by some celebrities, but you wonder why the filmmakers bothered, since aside from Highmore's Pan and McKellen's Iorek, none of them have much dialogue.
In their advertising campaign, New Line Cinema has made the not-very-subtle suggestion that The Golden Compass is likely to join their Lord of the Rings film trilogy as the next great fantasy epic. While this certainly isn't a complete disaster like last year's Eragon, this is still far from the lofty heights the studio would like to compare it to. Should this movie make enough money to ensure the story continues, I hope they put someone else behind the camera, and I hope that they actually take the time to explore the world and the characters. I was intrigued early on, but that was quickly replaced with frustration when I discovered the movie didn't even want to tell its own story. For the sake of this potential franchise, I hope this treatment will not become the norm in further sequels.


No Country For Old Men

Here is a movie that is subtle and silent, but also as tense and involving as just about any movie I can think of this year. No Country For Old Men does not have a lot of action, but it is more exciting than any action movie to come out this year. A majority of the film uses very little or sparse dialogue, but it is more fleshed out than most dialogue-heavy films. And when they do speak, their words seem to have been chosen carefully, and they always have something interesting to say. This is the very definition of a slow burn thriller. A movie that slowly wraps you up, and by the time your pulse is racing and you're completely involved, you haven't even noticed it coming.

The secret? Filmmaking duo Ethan and Joel Coen (Fargo, Raising Arizona), in adapting the acclaimed novel by Cormac McCarthy, know just how to tell this story in such a way where even the tiniest detail seems bigger than it would be in lesser hands. Even though this is a minimalist production, with a majority of the film only covering two people (one being on the run, the other looking for the other one), the movie never once drags or loses our interest. It knows exactly how to use these characters, and how to use its supporting players so that they don't get in the way. No Country is a chilling crime story, a thrilling game of cat and mouse, and a morality tale all wrapped into one. Walking into the film, I was a bit concerned of the hype and acclaim it had received, as I have been let down before in the past. (Brokeback Mountain is a recent example.) This time, the praise is warranted. The skill of the filmmakers, the cast, and everyone involved is up there on the screen.

The action starts out in and around a Texas trailer park community, where a Vietnam Vet named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, who is having a very good year with this and American Gangster) comes upon what looks to be a massacre after a drug deal went bad while he is out hunting in the desert. As he follows the crime scene, he comes upon a bag filled with two million dollars. He takes it, little knowing that there is a tracking device within the bag, and that a serial killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is on a state-wide killing spree looking for it. Other parties involved with the botched deal are looking for it as well, and before long, Llewelyn is forced to send his trusting wife (Kelly Macdonald) off to her mother's so that she won't get involved. Llewelyn himself goes on the run, trying to stay ahead of the people chasing him. All the while, a tired and weathered Texas Sheriff named Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) gets involved as the bodies continue to pile up in the wake of these mens' actions, and tries to get the help of Llewelyn's wife to contact her husband and get him in touch with him before it is too late.

The Coen Brothers are certainly no strangers to crime stories, as they have proven their skill in past films such as Blood Simple (their first movie), Miller's Crossing, and Fargo in dealing with some of the worst that humanity has to offer. They've always expertly blended drama, shocking violence, and knowing dark humor in their stories, which has made them one of the more successful filmmaking teams in the past 20 years. No Country For Old Men more than lives up to the reputation of the previously mentioned films, and works as a very nice companion piece to them. The way this movie gets under our skin and wraps us into the story is strangely enough, its use of silence. So many scenes contain very little or no dialogue, but the tension grows, because we are constantly wondering what is going to happen next. A majority of the film follows a very simple, but effective, cat and mouse formula as Llewelyn tries to stay one step ahead of his pursuers, while the very calm and chilling killer, Anton, gets closer to tracking the money down in each scene. We know that eventually their paths will cross, and we anticipate what will happen. The movie does not let us down when it reaches this point, but the outcome is not the one we are expecting. This is a movie that not only keeps us wondering what's going to happen next, but also keeps us involved, by taking the unexpected route, which I will not reveal in this review.

Even though the film mainly centers on the growing chase between Llewelyn and Anton, everyone has an important role to play. Even characters who initially seem to have little to do with the story, like the Sheriff in some of his early scenes, eventually grow on us and play much larger roles. This is not a simple black and white movie, and even the "hero" of the story starts to make us question his true motives. Llewelyn is ultimately motivated by greed, and seems little concerned about the consequences his actions have brought him, even though they are staring at him right in the face, until it is too late. He's the one who lets the situation escalate as far as it does, and although he reasons his own actions out to himself, we wonder if he really has the best of intentions for himself and everyone around him. All Sheriff Ed Tom Bell can do is sit back, and wonder just what he can really do. He can try to keep the streets safe as much as he can, but he can only do so much. He knows that the violence in this world will continue long after he is gone. He acts somewhat as a moral center to the story, but he is also sad and somewhat tired of everything he sees around him every day.

The performances of both of these characters, provided by Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones, are some of the best work both men have done recently. Brolin is forced to carry a majority of the film almost by himself, says very little, but gives such a wonderful and expressful performance that he seldom ever needs words. We can see it in his face. He also expertly pulls off some of the films most tense scenes, such as when he is sitting on his bed, certain that someone is looking for him right outside his door. Although his gun is drawn and aimed at the door, we can see that he is uncertain if he'll even survive what is to come. His performance in this scene, and the genuine tension the scene itself creates, is a highlight in a film filled with many highlight scenes. Jones is understated, but very effective, as a character who has obviously seen a lot more than he's ever cared to see in his lifetime, and is starting to question just how much good he really is doing. His character grows in importance as the film goes on, and he grows on us as well. This is one of the finest characters Jones has gotten in years, and it's wonderful to see such a heartfelt performance accompanying it.

The main stand out in the cast, however, is Javier Bardem. He is an actor who I have not noticed much before in the past, but here as the soulless killer Anton, you can't take your eyes off of him. This is easily the most chilling and haunting performance of a serial killer I have seen in years, and I highly doubt anything can top it. The audience finds themselves tensing up every time he's on the screen. He is a man who kills with hardly a second thought, and so every time he approaches a person, we wind up holding our breath. It is the cold and calm demeanor that Bardem gives his character that makes him so effective. He basically views people as animals waiting to be slaughtered, and we can tell that he seldom even thinks twice about this notion. What makes his character all the more chilling is that the movie seldom lets us see the aftermath of his actions. We know what the outcome was, but we sometimes don't get to see it. When we do get to see him kill, it is brutal and as powerful as a punch to the gut. Javier Bardem's work is easily worthy of Award nomination, and easily is the most unforgettable performance in the film. This is the kind of performance that not only makes a career, but makes a film as well, and it is certain not to be forgotten by me anytime soon.
No Country For Old Men is yet another example that 2007 is going out stronger than any year in recent memory. It is subtle, but it is also more frightening and chilling than any horror film you'd care to name that was released this year. It's rare to see so many things come together this well in a movie, but when they do, it is a wonderful thing. And indeed, everything does come together. The filmmaking is flawless, the editing is tight, the cinematography of the Texas landscape captures out attention, and the performances are some of the best of the year. This is not just a return to their filmmaking roots for the Coen Brothers, this is one of the best films they've made in a career that includes many fine films.


Sunday, December 02, 2007


"If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans" - Opening line of dialogue in Bella.

This is an appropriate line to open a movie such as this, as Bella is about two people who think they have their lives planned out, only to have fate throw a wrench into their plans. The two build a friendship together, and as they spend the day together, their friendship grows. I can see this material working, but Bella is far too laid back and uneventful for its own good. This is a movie that I desperately wanted to work, as there seemed to be plenty of opportunities for good scenes and drama. But it doesn't seem to want to build to anything, and never engages. Bella is not a terrible movie, but it is an unmemorable one. Sometimes that can be even worse.

The two friends in the lead roles are Jose (Eduardo Verastegui) and Nina (Tammy Blanchard). They both work at a Mexican restaurant in New York City - He as a cook, and she as a waitress. The owner of the restaurant (Manny Perez), who is also Jose's brother, fires Nina early on because she's been late for work a lot lately. We learn that she was late on this day, because she found out she was pregnant. Jose leaves his work station in the kitchen to follow Nina, and the two begin to walk around New York City as they talk about their lives, and how they both wound up at this point. We witness in flashbacks that Jose used to be a rising soccer star, until he accidentally ran over a small child who darted out into the street while he was driving to a press interview. He went to prison for a few years, and never played again. This is the kind of movie where a lot of things trigger flashbacks of that fateful day Jose's life changed. Every time something reminds Jose of the accident, we see a little bit of the story. We don't get the full story until he actually tells it to Nina, but we have figured it out long before he tells it. A majority of the film deals with the two friends talking about their lives, a large family dinner, and Nina contemplating if she should keep her baby or not.

All of these elements could work in a movie, but director Alejandro Gomez Monteverde doesn't know how to grab our attention. The movie kind of meanders right along with the characters. They're talking about interesting things, but the dialogue between them never comes alive and never grabs our attention. I quoted the opening line at the beginning of this review, because it's the one line of dialogue that actually grabs our attention. Pity it comes right at the beginning. The characters fail to grab our attention as well. They don't seem to have any personalities, and don't even seem like people in the first place. I never felt the illusion that a good movie creates that I was watching two people. The entire time, I felt like I was watching two actors pretending to be friends and reciting scripted dialogue to each other. There's nothing particularly memorable about Jose and Nina. They seem like nice people, sure, but they never seem interesting enough that anyone would want to make a movie about them. Nina has a sweet smile, knows how to tear up on cue, and that's about it. The most distinguishing thing about Jose is that with his shaggy beard and hair, he looks like he's auditioning for the title role in a local production of Jesus Christ: Superstar.

A lot of the people I've heard praise Bella say that they liked it because there was no swearing, no nudity, and aside from a tiny bit of blood displayed during the accident scene, no violence. In other words, they like this movie for what it doesn't have rather than for what it does have. I never quite understood this way of thinking. Are people so desperate for entertainment that they like a movie just because it didn't make them feel anything? Despite some dramatic aspects to the story, there's surprisingly very little tension or actual drama to be found. We get a couple scenes where Jose and Nina tear up, but then the movie cuts to the next scene. When Jose is telling his story about the day that changed his life, the movie eventually cuts out the dialogue, and we just see him sobbing and pounding his fist over and over while Nina looks at him with concern, then it's over. After all the build up, the movie constantly interrupting the story every 15 minutes or so with small flashbacks, it seems like a bit of a tease that we don't even get the full scene, or hear the entire conversation. All the negativity and sad thoughts have either been smoothed over or edited out, so we wind up feeling nothing.
Bella is such a curiously understated and bland movie, I'm surprised it's being labeled as a crowd pleaser. The movie doesn't make an ounce of effort to get us involved, and nothing stands out about it. That's not the kind of movie you want to make if your plot involves such life-changing things as abortion and a man feeling guilty over the death of a child. This is the kind of film where you remember watching it, but nothing about it stays with you. This movie, and the characters who inhabit it, deserved better than that.

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