Reel Opinions

Friday, February 29, 2008


Will Ferrell seems determined to bring his demented male ego-driven humor to every sports movie conceivable. He's already covered soccer (Kicking and Screaming), NASCAR (Talladega Nights), and figure skating (Blades of Glory). He tries his hand at basketball with Semi-Pro, an odd and uneven movie that doesn't seem to know if it wants to be a parody of sports movies, or a genuine sympathetic crowd pleasing sports underdog movie. There are laughs to be had, and the cast is loaded with energy, but first-time director Kent Alterman and screenwriter Scot Armstrong (The Heartbreak Kid, Old School) don't seem to know which basket they're shooting for when it comes to choosing an audience or tone.

Sporting a comically oversized fro so everyone will know the movie is set in the 70s (1976, to be exact), Ferrell is Jackie Moon, a man who used the profits from his one-hit wonder song, "Love Me Sexy", to purchase the struggling American Basketball Association team, the Flint Michigan Tropics. He's not only the owner, but also the coach and a player on the team. When he discovers that the ABA will be merging with the NBA, and that only the top four teams will be picked to go pro, Jackie is realistic, and tries to inspire his team to shoot for fourth place. Unfortunately, Jackie Moon is better at staging stunts to bring people into the stands (some of his promotional stunts include "Free Gerbil Night", and a halftime show where he wrestles with a bear) than he is at coaching a winning team, so he decides to bring in a former NBA player named Monix (Woody Harrelson) to the team. Monix has his own personal demons to deal with, but he believes in the team enough that he just might be able to lead them to an unprecedented victory.

Watching Semi-Pro was an odd experience. The movie would just be meandering along, not exactly being awful, but not impressing me at the same time. And then, from out of left field, a big laugh would come out of nowhere that would almost make me forget everything that came before. The movie seems to be continuously in this starting and stopping motion, giving the film an uneven tone throughout. I don't know if it was a problem with the script, or if there was trouble in the editing room, but the film's tone seems to constantly switch from scene to scene. One minute, the movie will be goofy and over the top, bordering on parody. Foul mouthed sportscasters, crazy stunts, and random out-of-nowhere bear attacks are the name of the game during these moments. Then, a couple minutes later, the movie will completely switch gears, and show the characters in a realistic and sympathetic light. There's a completely out of place subplot concerning Woody Harrelson's character trying to reconcile with a former girlfriend (Maura Tierney) who he betrayed in the past. The movie plays these scenes mostly seriously as if it were a drama, but then it will throw in an equally unnecessary gross out gag right in the middle of it, when the girlfriend's current boyfriend catches her having sex with her former fling, and he starts getting off on it and masturbating. This is a perfect example of the film's "Jekyll and Hyde" mentality that prevents it from ever finding solid ground.

I liked the movie the best when it was being silly and fun. These are mostly the scenes that center on Ferrell's character, who is often so off the wall, he seems to have wandered in from another movie at times. He's loud, brash, optimistic to the point of stupidity, and prone to almost child-like tantrums. In lesser hands, Jackie Moon would be the kind of character I would dread to see whenever he walked onto the screen, but Ferrell somehow makes him work. Most likely it's because he's played this exact same character many times before. He's mastered the big, dumb likable lug character almost to a science by now, but he still manages to get laughs, such as when an escaped bear is rampaging through the stadium, he advises the screaming crowd to find a small child and use it as a shield. I laughed a lot during Ferrell's scenes, and this is why it always kind of disheartened me whenever the movie would focus on another character. The more uplifting storylines, like the one centering around fallen professional sports star Monix, and a Tropics teammate named Clarence "Coffee" Black (Andre Benjamin) who has dreams of professional stardom, are fine but don't seem to belong in the same movie as Ferrell. Instead of being a major character in a story, Jackie Moon almost comes across as comic relief who steps in to liven up the story. This is strange, since he carries a good part of the movie.

For all of its inconsistencies and rapid shifts in tone, Semi-Pro is still watchable, thanks to a breezy pace that doesn't overstay its welcome, and a talented and energetic cast that take on the material with plenty of spirit. Even if the movie didn't seem to be going anywhere for a time, I was still admiring the lead performances of Ferrell, Harrelson, and Benjamin. The main fault lies with the final confused film that wound up on screens. Equally curious is the film's R-rating, which seems to exist for no reason. I'm not saying the movie didn't get the rating it deserved, as the obscenities and four letter words certainly do fly fast and furious in a lot of scenes. It's just that it seems unnecessary. If a movie wants to build itself around harsh language, it has to feel like it's part of the story, or that it's appropriate to come out of the characters. Here, the characters sound like a bunch of preteens trying to sound like adults by throwing in random obscenities into their conversations. It especially seems pointless during the film's later half, when it aspires to be a feel-good, stand up and cheer sports movie.

I savored the moments in Semi-Pro that made me laugh out loud, and tried my best to keep a positive attitude when the movie wasn't exactly going well. My reaction ended up being just as split as the movie itself. I'm certainly not sorry I saw it, but it's too random and scattered to recommend. Someone in the editing room really should have tried to stick to their guns and found a proper tone. Semi-Pro tries to be a little bit of everything, and falls short because of it.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Charlie Bartlett

Usually when a movie has been sitting on a studio's shelf for over a year, it's not a good sign for the film's quality. Charlie Bartlett is a welcome exception to the rule, and made me wonder if perhaps MGM was nervous about releasing the movie because they didn't know how to market it. Charlie Bartlett is an odd mixture of teen comedy, a sharp and honest look at the failure of public education, a biting satire on psychiatry and prescription drugs, and a drama that takes a serious look at acceptance both at school and at home. The screenplay by first time screenwriter Gustin Nash doesn't always balance these elements successfully, and it takes a little while for the movie to find its footing. Once it does, however, Charlie Bartlett is a movie that covers some familiar territory, but in an unconventional way.

The title character is portrayed by rising young star Anton Yelchin (from Alpha Dog), and when we first meet Charlie, he's just been expelled from a private school for selling fake drivers licenses to the other students. His slightly ditzy mother, Marilyn (Hope Davis), decides that her son should try his hand at a public school. Almost as soon as he steps into the world of public high school, Charlie realizes he's going to have to play against the rules if he wants to make a name for himself in this strange new world. He concocts a plan where he sells prescription drugs to the other students that the many narrow-minded therapists his mom sends him to (who seem more interested in doping Charlie up rather than listening to his problems) keep on trying to put him on. Furthermore, his talent for listening to other people's problems and helping them inspires him to open a counseling service right in the school's restroom, where students can anonymously step into the bathroom stall, and tell him their troubles. Charlie quickly becomes the talk of the school, and he wins the attention of the entire student body. The school's alcoholic and emotionally distant principal (Robert Downey Jr) eventually begins to catch on that the balance of power in his school is starting to shift to this student who came out of nowhere, and becomes further threatened when Charlie begins dating his daughter, Susan (Kat Dennings).

There's nothing in Charlie Bartlett that hasn't been said before, but the way the movie says it in an intelligent and thought provoking manner. This is a movie that remembers when the most important thing in a person's life is to be "popular" and to be seen as someone important in the eye of his or her peers. While this desire exists in some form in nearly every stage of life, it is almost pivotal in those awkward teen years, where nothing else seems to matter. For Charlie, acceptance is especially important. His mother turns a blind eye to his problems, the many therapists he sees seem to think the answers lie at the bottom of a bottle of Ritalin, and his father's sitting in prison on a tax evasion charge. He finds that listening and helping others not only takes his mind off of his own problems at home, but also helps him earn that all-important popularity. With his talking and listening skills, he is able to win over the school bully (Tyler Hilton), and even reach a few teens who couldn't be reached before. One of the film's strengths is that it portrays its characters and situations in a realistic manner. While it is mainly being billed as a comedy, the movie walks along a delicate tightrope as it veers from one tone to the next. Sometimes the change in tone is quite abrupt and jarring (we go from a light-hearted party sequence, to one of Charlie's peers attempting suicide by overdose in the very next scene), but for the most part, editor turned filmmaker Jon Poll does a good job of tackling the film's many sides.

If there's any problem with Charlie Bartlett, it's that it seems to draw inspiration from one too many past films. Its most closest relative is the early 90s Christian Slater film, Pump Up the Volume. It's tone is not quite the same, but many of the plot points are similar. Viewers may also draw comparison to other teen films as Rushmore, or even a little bit of Ferris Bueller. What helps the movie set itself apart is the intelligent screenplay by Nash, and the talent on display. Anton Yelchin obviously relishes his role, as he is able to nail all of his character's personality, quirks, and faults almost to a tee. He makes Charlie Bartlett into someone who is crying out for attention, and has been forced to grow up a little too quickly due to his home situation. As his love interest, Kat Dennings is able to take a somewhat underwritten character, and turn it into a charming performance that makes it easy to see why young Bartlett is drawn to her. The real stand out performance, however, belongs to Robert Downey Jr as a Principal who is probably ill-equiped for his career of managing young minds, and drowns his sorrows in self pity and alcohol. There's a scene late in the film between Yelchin and Downey, where the two have a final confrontation, and Downey's performance here is honest and heartbreaking. He's a deep, rounded character who comes across as being much more than an out of touch adult that a lesser screenplay would have treated him as.

Charlie Bartlett plays almost as an independent movie that somehow got major studio backing. This is both to its credit and works against it. The studio obviously didn't know what to do with the film, so they shuffled it through various release dates the past year or two, until finally dumping it into late February. It's a shame that this movie has almost been prevented from finding an audience with teens, as the film has been given an R-rating due to a few "F-bombs" and some partial nudity. This is a smart movie that all teens could probably take something away from, but they won't be able to see it until it comes out on DVD. Too bad, really. Aside from the fact that the movie suffers from somewhat of an identity crisis, and sometimes tries to cover too much material, this is a movie worth seeing, and is certain to reach its target audience.

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The Best Films of 2007

As usual, it's late in coming, but here at last is my list for the best films of 2007. I thought it appropriate to put this list up today not only because it's the Oscars tonight, but also because I needed to set my mind on some good movies after sitting through Witless Protection. As an average paying filmgoer, I have to wait and see movies that come to my area, so that also adds to why this list is late every year, as I have to wait for certain films to widen their release before they'll come closer to me.

The movies will be ranked just like last year. I start off with what I felt was the best film of 2007, then I list my choices for the great movies of the year, followed by the honorable mentions, and then close things up with my favorite performances. I want to stress that aside from the best film of 2007, none of these movies are ranked in any particular order. I don't like trying to rank all of the movies I enjoyed during the year, so I try to view them as equals in whatever category they fall under. Now that I've got that out of the way, let's get on with the important stuff.


NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN - It was tough to decide the best film of 2007, as so many great films came out during the fall and winter months. After much soul searching, I chose No Country For Old Men, simply because it was probably the most emotionally effective film I saw last year, and it stuck with me the longest. Like a lot of the movies by the filmmaking duo, the Coen Brothers, this is a movie I appreciated the more I thought back on it. This is a tense and gripping slow-burn thriller that is more frightening than any horror film released in the past couple years. Nothing has been left to chance here, and everything comes together to create the most satisfying thriller I saw in 2007. More than that, this is just a great movie by itself.


INTO THE WILD - Here is a movie that should have been more recognized by the Oscar voters this year, especially for Best Picture. Sean Penn directed this quiet but engaging true story of a young man turning his back on human society, and going to live on his own in the natural regions of the U.S. Hal Holbrook has been rightfully recognized for his performance as an elderly man who befriends him at one point, but the entire cast is wonderful, particularly Emile Hirsch in the lead role, and William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as his emotionally distant parents who play a big part in the young man's decision to leave everything behind. This is a movie that never quite found an audience, but it should have, and hopefully will be discovered on DVD.

ZODIAC - Filmmaker David Fincher has always been known for his violent and sensory films like Fight Club and Seven. With Zodiac, he tackles one of the most infamous unsolved serial murder cases in recent memory, and does so with considerable skill and a strong sense for detail and realism. A strong, talented cast have been gathered including Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr, and Mark Ruffalo - all of whom give noteworthy performances. More than that, the film is a gripping and historically accurate recount of the case. The movie creates a great atmosphere that transports the viewer back to the time of the murders, and it doesn't take long until the audience is hooked. One of the best ensemble dramas of the year.

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR - This is a movie that divided many of its viewers. Some thought the movie tried too hard to be cute and funny. I personally found it to be a hilarious, informative, and fascinating look at an important time in recent history. This bittersweet comedy-drama focuses on Texas Congressman, Charlie Wilson, and his personal efforts to arm Afghanistan against the invading Soviet Union. Tom Hanks is a notable stand out as the womanizing Congressman who couldn't have realized what his actions would ultimately lead to. Equally noteworthy is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who continues to prove that he's one of the best actors of the current generation with his take as a sharp-tongued CIA officer who becomes Wilson's right-hand man in the operation. This is one of the most entertaining films I saw in 2007, and I think it was highly underrated by a lot of people.

WAITRESS - It may seem strange to put this movie on the list, but this was truly one of the most pleasant surprises of last year. This is a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways or drowned itself in corny cuteness, but writer-director Adrienne Shelly draws us into this simple but effective story of a small town pie shop waitress (Keri Russell) who finds her plans for escaping her small town life and her abusive husband interrupted with the arrival of an unplanned pregnancy. The movie is smart, very funny, and often bittersweet as we follow her attempts to build a better life for herself and her unborn child, and the different paths she's faced with along the way. It's a true shame that filmmaker and co-star Shelly was murdered before the film's release, and never got to enjoy her film becoming a sleeper hit. If Waitress proves anything, we lost a talented and budding filmmaker much too soon.

GONE, BABY, GONE - Actor Ben Affleck made one of the strongest directorial debuts of last year in this adaptation of the novel by Dennis Lahane (Mystic River). What starts as a mystery of a young child being abducted from her bed late one night grows even bigger as a private investigator (Casey Affleck) discovers that there's much more going on here than just a simple kidnapping. The movie is not just an engaging mystery story, but it's also a fascinating look at the effect the ensuing media circus created by the kidnapping has on the people of Boston community. The movie has a great eye for detail, creating some realistic characters and a real sense of transporting the audience into the middle of the action. A completely effective and fascinating piece of work.

BREACH - This film was released back in February, and didn't get quite the attention it deserved. I am especially saddened that star Chris Cooper wasn't recognized for an award, as his performance here is one of my favorite of the year. He plays Robert Hanssen, a government agent who was found guilty of selling US secrets to foreign enemies back in 2001. The movie is not a mystery or a who done it. Rather it is a psychological thriller as a rookie agent (Ryan Phillippe) is intentionally placed under Hanssen's guidance so that he can spy on Robert's actions, and get some real evidence against him. A relationship between the two grows as they work together, and it quickly turns into a control for power as the two men play mind games with each other, struggling for dominance. A rare early year release that truly stood out.

HOT FUZZ - This outrageously funny spoof of Hollywood action movie cliches gets my vote for the best comedy of 2007. The makers of the hit horror comedy, Shaun of the Dead, reunited for this story of a British supercop (Simon Pegg) who is so good, he makes the rest of the force look bad. Because of this, he's reassigned to a sleepy little community where nothing seemingly happens, until a serial killer starts dispatching the locals. No one in town believes him, as they keep on brushing the murders off as accidents. (Oddly enough, the town has the lowest murder rate anywhere, but the highest accident rate anywhere.) His decision to take the law into his own hands leads to one of the funniest moments of 2007, as the conclusion builds to one of the most elaborate and over the top violent shoot outs ever caught on film. A great comedy that makes me anxious to see what this creative team does next.

RATATOUILLE - Hands down, the best animated film I saw in 2007, this is a wonderful return to form for the venerable Pixar studio after 2006's highly disappointing Cars. Director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) continues to prove his skill in this simple and sweet tale of an unlikely friendship that grows between a wannabe chef and a rat with a keen sense of taste, smell, and food preparation. Sweet, heartfelt, and very charming, this was one of the most appealing films of last year.

AMERICAN GANGSTER - Ridley Scott's nearly 3 hour crime epic has been criticized about its historical accuracy by some people. I don't think that takes away from the fact that this is a highly entertaining and superbly crafted story that talks about the rise of a powerful drug kingpin in the late 60s and early 70s. Denzel Washington portrays the charismatic kingpin, Frank Lucas, while Russell Crowe is the police detective assigned to shut him down. Both of their performances are noteworthy in the way that they were able to completely transform themselves completely into their characters, making us forget we're watching performances, and to simply concentrate on the story at hand. And what an involving story it is. Despite it's lengthy running time, the movie almost never slows down or lags. A great movie all around.


Catch and Release, Music and Lyrics, Bridge to Terabithia, The Astronaut Farmer, 300, I Think I Love My Wife, Reign Over Me, Year of the Dog, The Last Mimzy, Disturbia, Fracture, In the Land of Women, 1408, Live Free or Die Hard, Sicko, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hairspray, The Simpsons Movie, No Reservations, The Bourne Ultimatum, Stardust, Superbad, Resurrecting the Champ, Balls of Fury, Arctic Tale, Away From Her, 3:10 to Yuma, Shoot 'em Up, Eastern Promises, Michael Clayton, 30 Days of Night, Things We Lost in the Fire, Rendition, Dan in Real Life, Bee Movie, The Darjeeling Limited, Enchanted, The Mist, Juno, The Savages, I Am Legend, Walk Hard, The Orphanage, Atonement, There Will Be Blood


Amy Adams (Enchanted), Casey Affleck (Gone, Baby, Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James...), Javier Bardem (No County For Old Men), Jason Bateman (Juno), Halle Berry (Things We Lost in the Fire), Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age), Nikki Blonsky (Hairspray), Adam Brody (In the Land of Women), Josh Brolin (No Country For Old Men), Steve Carell (Dan in Real Life), Don Cheadle (Reign Over Me), George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Chris Cooper (Breach), Russell Crowe (3:10 to Yuma and American Gangster), John Cusack (1408), Belnicio Del Toro (Things We Lost in the Fire), Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), Robert Downey Jr (Zodiac), Jennifer Garner (Juno), Jake Gyllenhaal (Zodiac), Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson's War), Marcia Gay Harden (Into the Wild), Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson's War and The Savages), Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild), William Hurt (Into the Wild), Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terabithia), Samuel L. Jackson (Resurrecting the Champ), Tommy Lee Jones (No Country For Old Men), Daniel Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood), Laura Linney (The Savages), Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises), Ellen Page (Juno), John C. Reilly (Walk Hard), Annasophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia), Belen Rueda (The Orphanage), Keri Russell (Waitress), Amy Ryan (Gone, Baby, Gone), Adam Sandler (Reign Over Me), Molly Shannon (Year of the Dog) Will Smith (I Am Legend), Denzel Whitaker (The Great Debaters), Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton)

All in all, 2007 turned out to be a wonderful year for the movies. The later half of the year held so many great films, it was almost certain I saw something I liked just about every weekend. I can only hope 2008 ends up on an equally high note. I hope that you will join me for the year to come, and see what lies ahead. Happy filmgoing to you all, and enjoy the Oscars tonight!


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Witless Protection

When I walk into a Larry the Cable Guy comedy, I expect a few things. I expect a lot of dumb redneck humor, a lot of bodily fluid humor, and a lot of unfortunate shots of Larry's exposed butt crack. His latest film, Witless Protection (and yes, the title is funnier than any of the jokes in the actual movie) takes things one step further. This is the first movie headlining the popular stand-up comic that I have found virtually unwatchable from beginning to end. I'm not saying that his past cinematic efforts like Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector and Delta Farce were good, but I'm also not exaggerating when I say I was thinking of bolting for the exit within the first five minutes. The only thing that kept me in my seat was the bizarre fascination to see if it could get worse. It did with each passing minute. If there's anything more uncomfortable than watching an awful comedy, it's watching an audience being subjected to an awful comedy. Just listening to the dead silence of a moderately filled theater clued me in to the fact that I was not alone in my hatred for what was being passed as entertainment.

In all of his movies, Larry is always the same character, just with a different job profession. I suppose Larry is supposed to be a sort of variation on the Ernest P. Worrell character that late comic actor, Jim Varney, made popular in the series of Ernest films back in the 80s and early 90s. The difference here is that the character of Ernest may have been a dumb redneck, but there was a certain sweetness to him and the desire to always do the right thing. The Larry the Cable Guy character is a racist, dim-witted, slob who seems too stupid to even want to do the right thing. He just stumbles upon doing good by accident. This time around, he's a sheriff's deputy in a backwater hick town who mistakes a woman under FBI witness protection as being kidnapped by crime lords. The woman in question is Madeleine (Ivana Milicevic), who is on the run because a crooked business tycoon named Arthur Grimsley (Peter Stormare, sporting the worst fake British accent ever captured in the history of film) is after her and some information she holds that could incriminate him. Larry doesn't trust the FBI agents escorting her, thinking they're crooked, so he snatches up Madeleine, and the two go on a cross country chase trying to figure out the truth behind the whole situation.

I really want to know who the Larry the Cable Guy character is supposed to be intended for. I have not seen much of his stand up act, but judging by his movies, his humor seems too juvenile and immature to appeal to any reasonably intelligent adult. But, I wouldn't even dare let a child watch one of his films, as every other thing out of his mouth is a sexual innuendo, or a play on a sex act. (The scene where he refers to an "evacuation" as an "ejaculation" is one of the film's more subtle and tasteful moments.) When he's not pushing the PG-13 rating to the limit with his constant talk of sexual acts, he relies on gross out humor, usually relying on farts, or other bodily fluids. The scene where Larry has to remove a key that he accidentally swallowed by projectile vomiting, then digging through his own puke to look for the key is the only scene that got a reaction from the audience at my screening, and it certainly wasn't laughter. I was never sure what to make of his character, as the movie keeps on sending us mixed messages. One minute, he's trying to help this Madeleine girl, and the next he's handcuffing her to a toilet. He's supposed to be a big, fat lummox who eventually grows on you, but all he did was make me want to never watch another movie featuring him ever again.

Writer-director Charles Robert Carner obviously didn't think Larry was reason enough to react in disgust, so he adds a couple other things into the mix to ensure watching Witless Protection is as painful as humanly possible. There's a chase scene fairly early on between Larry and the FBI agents at a pig farm that is shot in sped-up motion and handled so ineptly, I almost couldn't believe what I was watching. Everything is shot so amateurishly, and the performances so off, I was shocked that previous works popped up under Mr. Carner's name when I checked his credits on the IMDB. He drags some decent actors down with him as he mishandles each scene in this sinking ship of a movie. Aside from the previously mentioned Peter Stormare, the usually likable dramatic actor Joe Montegna pops up in an off the wall cameo as one of Larry's cousins - a redneck mad scientist with a passion for obese women. Montegna bugs his eyes out of his sockets and talks in a goofy voice, but he can't generate the slightest amount of personality or comic energy. He has shown an obvious knack for comedy, particularly when he pops up on the TV cartoon The Simpsons as the town's resident mob boss, but here he's working too hard for no reason.

Witless Protection is an absolute misfire in a way that few bad movies ever achieve. It lacks the slightest bit of energy, and it certainly hasn't been made with even the tiniest bit of thought or skill. It is a humorless, vile film that plunders the very bottom of the barrel, and then tries to scrape even lower than that just because it can. I will concede the fact that Larry the Cable Guy's stand up act is popular with many, but if this movie goes on to find an audience, I will lose hope in humanity's desire to be entertained. If there's a worst movie than this to come along in 2008, I don't want to see it.

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Be Kind, Rewind

Before I begin this review, I would like to advise that cynics and those who cannot take a leap of faith with a film's premise would be wise to stay away from Be Kind, Rewind. The film's plot is so ludicrous, loopy, and somewhat off the wall in an affectionate sense that naysayers will probably spend almost the entire film picking out its faults. With me, the movie worked, because I found myself wrapped up in the spirit and good-will of the movie itself and the cast that has been gathered. Writer-director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) gives his film such a goofy, warm-spirited feel that I couldn't help but get pulled in. The premise is thin, and yes, it could be argued that this is a one-joke movie. While these are obvious faults, this time, I didn't find myself caring quite as much.

The film's title takes itself from the name of a video store in New York where most of the action takes place. It's one of the last "mom and pop" stores that focuses entirely on video instead of DVD. The store is run by kind old Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), who insists the building has history, as a famous jazz musician was born where his store is now. The other two main characters are Mike (Mos Def), who works at the store and sees Mr. Fletcher as an almost father figure, and Jerry (Jack Black), who spends half of his time hanging out in the store, and the other half of the time creating conspiracy theories about and secretly plotting to sabotage a nearby power plant. The story kicks in when Mr. Fletcher leaves on a trip to spy on some of the competing rental stores, leaving Mike in charge. Shortly after this happens, Jerry's planned sabotage of the power plant goes wrong, and he winds up getting electrocuted. This doesn't kill him, rather it causes him to become magnetized. Therefore, the next time Jerry enters the store, the magnetic waves coming from his body wind up erasing all the tapes available for rent. Mike is now in a tight spot, as he has to think of a solution before Mr. Fletcher comes back, and what's worse, one of the store's few regulars, a somewhat loopy woman named Miss Falewicz (Mia Farrow) wants to rent Ghostbusters. The solution? Mike and Jerry film an extremely low budget remake of the movie in question, starring them and some of the other locals, hoping that Miss Falewicz won't notice, as she's never seen the movie before. The plan surprisingly works, and before long, customers are lining up for more of Mike and Jerry's on-the-cheap remakes of popular films.

The message in Be Kind, Rewind seems to be one of a community coming together. As word of the homemade remakes get around, more people get involved, and eventually the entire town starts popping up in their movies that covers remakes from the classics like 2001, Carrie, and The Lion King, to more contemporary films like Rush Hour 2. This is what gives the movie a lot of its sweet charms. The screenplay by Gondry wisely does not make the community into a bunch of colorful locals. (Although there are certainly some oddballs here and there.) They're mostly the kind of people you'd probably expect to find in the kind of neighborhood the movie is set in. The movie is sympathetic without ever becoming manipulative or heavy-handed, and it even gives the film a certain strange Frank Capra feel of the little people coming together to preserve what they believe in. That being said, the movie is definitely not conventional by any stretch of the imagination. Aside from its bizarre and implausible premise, the movie has an equally bizarre and quirky sense of humor to itself. Some may find this irritating, and indeed, the film does come dangerously close to drawing too much attention to itself by being weird just for the sake of being weird. For me, the movie managed to avoid becoming obnoxious, because despite it all, it knows where its heart is, and I found much of the humor to be genuinely entertaining and very funny.

A lot of this has to do with the cast, who seem to be completely game. Jack Black and Mos Def make a good odd couple, with Black playing the more comical of the two, and Def playing the long-suffering straight man to his friend's schemes. I have heard other critics saying that Black's performance is annoying in this film, but I personally didn't find him so. He finds the right balance between playing an off the wall character who builds his life around movies and crackpot conspiracy theories, but doesn't go so over the top that I didn't find myself laughing at him. He doesn't seem to be trying too hard, and I actually ended up liking his personality and his continuously positive spin on the situations he finds himself in. Mos Def doesn't get as many laughs as Black, but he seems to know he's not supposed to. He does a good job of balancing out his co-star's energetic performance, with a more subdued one that not only acts as a good counter-balance, but also makes his character extremely likeable and easy to get behind. I also liked Melonie Diaz, who plays a woman named Alma that joins up with the two lead characters movie idea early on, and winds up encouraging them the entire way through. The entire cast has a charm that carries through to the audience, and helps ground the movie a little, no matter how silly it may get.

If there's any visible fault that can be found, its that the film's premise is paper thin. Aside from some scenes dealing with Mr. Fletcher trying to prevent his building from being condemned and torn down, and a later scene when the government gets involved with Mike and Jerry's unauthorized remakes, there's no real sense of plot or conflict. The movie often comes across as a loosely connected series of skits that just barely manage to tell a coherent story. It's to the film's advantage that it contains such a strong, likable spirit, and the humor is often quite funny. Otherwise, I think this movie would barely have been able to get off the ground. I was also somewhat disappointed that the movie doesn't do enough with its own premise. Aside from the Ghostbusters remake (which easily holds the biggest laughs of 2008 so far), we get to see very little of the other ones, as most of the other films are covered in montages or brief glimpses. The end credits inform us we can see more of their movies on the film's official website, and I highly advise you do so after seeing this movie. A slightly less viable complaint is that the movie misses a golden opportunity when Sigourney Weaver pops up in a cameo as one of the government workers who tries to put a stop to their remakes. The fact that she starred in the Ghostbusters movies, and this film doesn't even have a little bit of fun with that seemed like a bit of wasted potential to me. It is funny, though, that she appears in two different movies this weekend, and both times, she barely registers.

I am recommending Be Kind, Rewind, but with reservations. I think the movie manages to stay afloat because of the cast's energy, and the fact that I got wrapped up in the film's good hearted nature and silly humor. This is not a movie for everyone. There's bound to be a lot of people who will grow frustrated with the movie's cute and loopy tone. I certainly won't argue with that. It worked enough for me to say that I enjoyed it. It's not anything that anyone needs to rush out and see, but with the right environment and the right frame of mind, a good time can be had.

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Vantage Point

If you're going to build your movie around a gimmick, you have to find a way to rise above it, and make the audience feel like they're watching a real movie instead of a filmmaking experiment. Despite its best efforts, Vantage Point never gave me that feeling. It's not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It's very attention-grabbing for most of its running time, features a talented cast, and I have to admit, the gimmick the filmmakers have given us here is an intriguing one. However, the film's approach ends up being its own undoing, as it leads to a lack of suspense and tension as it starts to wind down. There's also a surprising lack of mystery on display, given the premise. First time feature filmmaker Pete Travis and screenwriter Barry Levy both try their best, but come up short with their own ambition.

The film's central premise take place during a nearly half-hour time frame. This is the amount of time covered when the President of the United States (William Hurt) arrives at a public summit and rally in Spain, takes the podium to begin to give his speech, and then is shot down by an assassin's bullet. The chaos that erupts is only heightened when two bombs (one off in the distance, the other right in the square where the President was) go off, killing and injuring hundreds more. Once this scene has run its course, the movie literally rewinds itself, and starts over again from the beginning, only this time showing it from a different perspective. We get multiple perspectives of different people who were there at the event. The first view we get is hard-nosed network news producer, Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver). Then we see things through the eyes of Secret Service Agent, Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), whose hunt for the truth of what happened is constantly haunted by his own past. We eventually also get the views of a tourist named Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker), who just happened to catch something on his handheld camera that might hold some answers, a shady person in the crowd named Javier (Edgar Ramirez), and even the view of the President himself. Each of these people saw something different either in the events leading up to the chaos, or right before it happened. The story slowly reveals itself each time we watch the events through different eyes, and we're supposed to follow all of their stories to the ultimate conclusion of what really happened.

To its credit, Vantage Point is certainly never boring, and keeps things moving at a pace that never once slows down during its tense and quick 90 minute run time. The opening 10 minutes or so that depicts the event in question is some of the most attention-grabbing stuff I've seen in a movie in a while. Director Pete Travis does a great job of showing the carnage and aftermath of the event, despite the film's PG-13 rating. It's terrifying, gritty, and makes us simultaneously intrigued and frightened at the same time. When the film's central gimmick of rewinding time and showing the same event from a different point of view initially starts to play itself out, I was even further intrigued, and found myself getting excited that I had stumbled upon a rare early-year release gem. Although it took a while, that excitement generally began to fade. The movie eventually begins to abandon its own premise, giving us a final 20 minutes or so that doesn't focus on anybody, and just gives us a standard action movie conclusion with plenty of shoot outs, double crosses, and car chases that are shot well, but don't really offer anything new to the long-standing tradition of car chase scenes. I wondered to myself why screenwriter Barry Levy didn't believe enough in his own idea to carry it through all the way. He does such a great job of balancing multiple storylines, characters, and scenarios without making things confusing, that I felt a bit saddened that he threw it all away for a conventional Hollywood ending. Was it studio pressure, perhaps? Whatever the case, the movie never quite lives up to the promise it gives itself.

The true glaring flaw of the film does not reveal itself until about halfway through. That's when we start to realize that the movie is never giving us anything to figure out for ourselves. There is no mystery in Vantage Point, no clues it gives us so that we can try to follow the information to the ending. The movie keeps everything hidden from us, only to reveal it later on for us. During one of the early scenarios, Secret Service Agent Thomas Barnes runs inside the news van on the scene, asking to look at their live tapes of the attack. He sees something on one of the tapes that makes his face go white with fright, and when he orders the news crew to freeze the tape, we don't get to see what he's looking at. He just runs out of the news van, and we don't hear from him or find out what he saw until the movie is good and ready to explain everything to us during one of the film's later scenarios. It keeps on hiding things from us, only go explain everything away later on. This approach gives us nothing to work with, so we eventually start to feel like outsiders, instead of truly being involved in the story in some way. Another flaw that eventually comes to light is that in covering the same event over and over, a lot of the tension is eventually lost. It never becomes dull or repetitive, since we're looking at it through fresh eyes, but I eventually found that I just wasn't as excited as I initially was about finding out what happened as the film started to rewind itself each time.

The gimmick of Vantage Point that allows us to see things through the eyes of different characters pretty much ensures that there is no one lead character. Some characters do get more attention than others, though. Dennis Quaid's Thomas Barnes character has the most fleshed out backstory, as we learn why this is his first time on duty with the President in almost a year. The fact that he becomes one of the main central focuses during the film's final half when it ditches its own concept makes him probably the closest thing this movie has to a "hero" that the audience is supposed to identify with. The rest of the characters are given either no background or story at all, or very limited information given about them in their dialogue. The only other character who truly stands out beside Quaid is Forest Whitaker's character is probably the most human, in that he's the only one in the film who finds himself trapped in the chaos that comes across as frightened for his own life, while at the same time wanting to do the right thing. The other performances seem to be mainly there for a pay check, especially Sigourney Weaver as the news producer, whose part is so small you wonder why she bothered to show up in the first place. Even William Hurt as the President doesn't get to play as large of a role as we hoped when we eventually get to learn the truth about his side of the story. Though the performances are never bad, they are often given little to do, aside from the previously noted exceptions.

When you build your movie around a gimmick as Vantage Point does, it's always a tricky balance to pull off. You can tell that everyone involved with this project gave their best effort, and for a good part of the movie, that effort pays off. It doesn't take long for the cracks to start showing in the film's own premise and approach. The effort put behind the film manages to keep everything together somewhat, but the cracks are still on display. A movie like this also deserved a better pay off than a conventional and increasingly ludicrous action movie conclusion. Vantage Point starts out playing things smart, then for whatever reason, decides to dumb things down just a little.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Step Up 2 the Streets

I don't remember 2006's Step Up being a huge hit, but according to reports around the web, the movie was a sleeper and managed to make money. So, here's a name-only sequel called Step Up 2 the Streets. Well, the "name only" part is not entirely true, as the movie does make one vague attempt to connect this film with the first when the original film's star, Channing Tatum, pops up in a cameo at one point. Other than that, this is yet another urban dance drama with a bunch of gorgeous 20-somethings with wash board abs posing as teens at a dance school. Even if there wasn't a movie just like this released only weeks ago (How She Move), Step Up 2 the Streets would still be pretty pointless.

Our troubled hero this time around is Andie (Briana Evigan). She's been hanging out with a dangerous gang of street dancers, and the woman she's been living with since Andie's mom died is at the end of her rope, threatening to send her to live with family in Texas if she doesn't straighten up and fly right. Andie's last chance is to take classes at the Maryland School of the Arts. The head of the street gang Andie used to hang out with (Black Thomas) feels betrayed, and her former friends dump her right before a big street dancing competition is about to come up. Fortunately, there's a lot of misfits and outcasts at the school just like Andie who happen to love street dancing. The local cute guy, Chase Collins (Robert Hoffman), introduces Andie to some kids that the school doesn't know what to do with, and with his help, the two start a new group to participate in the big street dancing competition. Of course, first they'll have to win the respect of Andie's former friends, and make Chase's snobby brother, Blake (Will Kemp), realize that street dancing can be just as beautiful as professional ballet.

To say that Step Up 2 the Streets' plotline is not exactly gripping would be an understatement. It's not just that we've seen it all before, it's that the characters are so feeble in their construction, it's impossible to really get involved. As is to be expected, the dance sequences are really the only moments where the movie comes to life. Just like in the recent How She Move, head choreographer Hi-Hat knows how to kick the energy level up a couple notches by displaying some wildly inventive and exciting routines for the performers. The film's opening dance sequence on a subway train is particularly exciting. The actors were obviously cast for their beautiful bodies and abilities on the dance floor, and it's during the musical sequences that the cast truly comes alive. When they're stuck reciting the awful dialogue given them by writers Toni Ann Johnson and Karen Barna, they sometimes look nervous or like deers trapped in headlights. Both Briana Evigan and Robert Hoffman make for attractive leads, but their best efforts can't breathe any real life into their characters that are as flat as the actors' stomachs. The same goes for the rest of the heroes, who are introduced in a montage sequence, then pretty much stay in the background for the rest of the movie, only taking center stage during the dance numbers.

There's really not a whole lot to say about Step Up 2 the Streets. The cast has talent on the dance floor, but that's not enough to make watching a 100 minute long movie about them enjoyable. This is an ideal movie for DVD, where you can skip ahead to the film's best moments and completely cut through all the stuff in between. Maybe I'm burned out on urban dance dramas that tell the exact same stories and feature the exact same characters over and over again. All I know is that Step Up 2 the Streets left me feeling rather uninspired for the most part, despite the energy on display.

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The new movie Jumper wants to ask audiences what you would do if you had the ability to teleport, and could go anywhere in the world? I have an even better question. What would you do if you had the chance to do a movie about people who have the ability to teleport, and could go anywhere in the world? Would you create an intricate background story, describing how this power came to be? Would you look closely at the privileges and consequences of said power? Would you let the imaginative premise and the wonder behind it carry the film? Director Doug Liman (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), and screenwriters David S. Goyer (The Invisible), John Uhls (Fight Club) and Simon Kinberg (X-Men: The Last Stand), obviously didn't want to ask these questions. They dive head-first into the premise, never really giving us a reason to care about what's going on. Though never unwatchable, Jumper is a lot of wasted potential.

When he was 15-years-old, David Rice (Hayden Christensen) had a near-death experience. He fell through some shallow ice into the water, and only survived became he somehow teleported himself out of his dire situation and into a public library. Realizing the power he had, David used it to escape from his alcoholic father (Michael Rooker), and start a life of his own. David now lives the high-life in New York City. He uses his powers for his own personal gain, teleporting anywhere in the world, as well as warping himself into bank vaults to swipe some quick cash. Despite his big city lifestyle, David still longs for the girl he left behind back in his hometown of Ann Arbor. So, he heads back home, and reunites with an old flame named Millie (Rachel Bilson). Not long after the two go on a whirlwind tour of Rome, David not only discovers that there are others with the same ability as him who call themselves Jumpers, but that there is also a religious extremist organization chasing the Jumpers down, as they believe their power is unnatural in the eyes of God. The extremists are led by a man named Roland (Samuel L. Jackson), and David soon finds himself in a war between the two sides when he meets a fellow Jumper named Griffin (Jamie Bell). His only choice is to fight for his own life, and protect Millie, who gets dragged into it all.

When I say that Jumper dives head-first into its own premise and never looks back, I mean it. The movie keeps on throwing intriguing ideas and concepts that could be interesting, but never does anything with them. It doesn't care who the Jumpers are, how they came to be, or even how their power came to be. When David teleports for the first time early on, his reaction looks more like that of a person debating what to pick up at the grocery store. Likewise, when Millie encounters David for the first time in 8 years, the movie doesn't even allow her to be awed or even relieved by his arrival. Considering the last time she saw the guy was when he nearly drowned, only to have his body seemingly disappear without a trace, I'd say she handles the situation of him suddenly walking back into her life rather well. They take off for Rome moments after being reunited, but never really gives them a chance to get close together, as the movie keeps on throwing them into action sequences that are so tightly shot and poorly edited, they're sometimes hard to follow. We don't learn much about the militant religious group chasing David down, either. We know that they're against the Jumpers, because they think they're unnatural, but the movie never goes any deeper than that. The villains exist simply to chase after and shoot at the heroes with bizarre high tech weaponry that the movie also never explains how they came upon. With all the gadgets and futuristic weapons the evil Roland has at his disposal, I kept on waiting for Jack Nicholson to pop up, and ask where he got all those wonderful toys.

A lot of the film's problems seem to stem from a lot of heavy editing that happened before it hit theaters. Running by at a very breezy and fast-paced 88 minutes, the movie rushes ahead, never really developing the characters or the numerous plotlines. The movie does offer hints at some drama that is never fully realized, and makes me wonder if it wound up on the cutting room floor. There's are scenes that hint that David's father is truly sorry for the way he used to treat him, and desperately wishes to reconcile with him. Nothing is truly done with this, and it seems like a wasted chance for some human emotion amidst all the teleporting and fighting. Also underdeveloped is the plot concerning David's mom (Diane Lane in a small cameo), who walked out when he was only five, and is later revealed to play a much bigger role in the story in a plot twist that I will not reveal here. Just like everyone else, David never gets a chance to react to the film's revelation, and treats it with casual indifference. To its credit, the film obviously had a healthy budget to allow a lot of exotic scenery, setting up situations in places like Rome, London, Tokyo, and Egypt. It's too bad the characters "jump" out of these places almost as soon as they pop up most of the time. If we can't attach ourselves to the plot and the characters, the filmmakers could have at least let us marvel at the scenery. Other than an extended action sequence in the Roman Coliseum, it never truly takes advantage of it.

It's one thing to not care about what's going on or the characters, it's quite another to just not even like the characters. I did not like David, who often comes across as a smarmy, egotistical, arrogant jerk. While I sort of like the idea of a lead character with super powers using his abilities for his own needs in a way, David is just too hard to root for the way he's been written. We never want to see him escape from his current situation, or make amends with Millie. It also doesn't help that Hayden Christensen (an actor who has often been accused of wooden and forced performances) has all the personality and charm of a brick wall in this movie. Either the director told him to react to everything with as little emotion as possible, or the guy really doesn't know what he's doing. In the other lead roles, Rachel Bilson and Jamie Bell are pretty much cast adrift by a screenplay that cares little for their characters. Bilson never comes across as anything but a pretty face running alongside David, and Bell's character is surprisingly underwritten, considering how important he seems to be for David to learn more about what he is. As for Samuel L. Jackson, it quickly becomes ridiculous how thinly written and uninteresting his villain character is, and how little he actually has to do with anything.

Jumper shows a lot of promise with its premise, big budget, and exotic scenic locations. The film's fleeting promises are brought down by an underdeveloped screenplay, and a fast-paced directing style that never lingers long enough for us to enjoy what we're looking at. The best moments of the film come right at the beginning, when David and Millie are teenagers, and played by Max Thieriot (Nancy Drew) and Annasophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) respectively. These two young actors have more personality and chemistry than their adult counterparts who drive the main section of the film. The opening scenes with young David discovering his powers also hold a lot of imagination and the hope of great things to come. It's too bad Jumper has to betray everything it sets up before the movie has hit the 20 minute mark.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

The Spiderwick Chronicles

There are some critics who say that The Spiderwick Chronicles is too intense and not appropriate for the youth audience it's seeking. These people have obviously forgotten that children are fascinated by the unknown, especially the things that may make them uneasy. When I was a child, my friends and I would create imaginary adventures sometimes, and the stuff we dreamed up was frequently much more intense than the stuff the kids in this movie face. The movie is thrilling for kids of a certain age, without being too scary or inappropriate. The Spiderwick Chronicles is a spirited fantasy adventure that will capture the attention and imagination of its young audiences, and accompanying adults may find themselves more involved than they imagined, just as I did.

The background story concerns a man named Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathaim), who discovered that mythical creatures from far-off magical realms dwelled in the woods that surrounded his home. Some of the creatures could only be seen when they wanted to be, while others were invisible to the naked eye, and could only be seen with the aid of a magical device known as a Seeing Stone. As time passed, Arthur built friendships with the many fairies, goblins, and griffins that lived right outside his home, began to study them, and wrote down everything he learned about the different beings in a private journal he called "Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You". However, not all of the magical inhabitants of the woods were his friend, and a shape-shifting Ogre king named Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) wanted to use the book's information to learn the weaknesses of all the other creatures in the forest, so that he could rule over all the magical inhabitants. Arthur was forced to create a magical barrier around the house to protect the book and the secrets it held, and mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again.

Flash forward to the present, and a new family who are direct descendants of Arthur Spiderwick have moved into his long-abandoned home. Recently divorced mother, Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker), is looking for a fresh start, and brings her three children to the home to begin a new life. The children include twin sons, Jared and Simon (Freddie Highmore in a dual role), and older daughter Mallory (Sarah Bolger). Jared is a rebellious and somewhat moody child, prone to causing trouble. That's why the family doesn't believe him when he starts complaining of hearing something moving around inside the walls of the house, or catching very brief glimpses of what looks like a tiny person just out of the corner of his eye. Doing his own private investigating of the house's unexplored regions, he stumbles upon the attic where Arthur Spiderwick studied the creatures, and discovers the Field Guide within. Breaking the seal upon the book somehow alerts the creatures that it has been found, and the evil Mulgarath begins to send out his armies to surround the house and discover a way past the barrier that was placed years ago. Jared is eventually able to convince his two siblings of what's going on right outside their front door, and with the aid of a tiny house-dwelling creature named Thimbletack (voice by Martin Short), he will have to learn the secrets behind the ancient writings if he wants to protect his family.

Based on a series of childrens fantasy adventure novels by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, The Spiderwick Chronicles doesn't quite reach the heights of the Harry Potter series, but it's definitely a step up from some recent failed franchise attempts like Eragon, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and The Golden Compass. Having not read the original stories, I cannot say how accurate the screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick (Charlotte's Web), David Berenbaum (Zoom), and John Sayles (Silver City) is. What I can say is that the movie does a great job of holding our attention with a skillful blend of mystery, adventure, and fast-paced action that never seems to let up, but never becomes so overbearing that the movie starts to lose itself to chaos. The film's opening prologue scene centering on Arthur Spiderwick and his research definitely sets up a wondrous, if not ominous, tone that the movie successfully carries throughout. This is a family adventure film that does not talk down to children, nor does it shy away from them being placed in life-threatening danger. Mulgarath and his army of monsters are willing to kill our heroes if it means getting the book, and they come pretty close many times throughout the film. And yet, the movie is wise enough not to dwell on the dark nature of the story, featuring a generous amount of wonder and discovery to balance it all out. This is primarily a movie about discovering other worlds that exist right outside your front door. It's a theme that just about everyone can relate to at some point in their life, and the film exploits that natural desire of discovery wonderfully.

Obviously, any film that builds itself around special effects is in danger of letting the effects work take control of the film, dragging the story and the characters down with it. This is fortunately not the case here, as director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Just Like Heaven), keeps the attention focused on the three young leads, while making sure that we get enough time to admire the creature design. With the focus on the human cast, it almost makes you wish there were better actors in the lead roles, which brings me to my main complaint. While the performances are adequate and never offensive, I kept on thinking it could be better. Popular child actor Freddie Highmore (August Rush, Finding Neverland) has the daunting task of not only playing two characters, but also attempting an American accent (he's British in real life). You can tell that he's trying, but he never quite completely convinces. As sister Mallory, Sarah Bolger can come across as being somewhat shrill, though she never annoys. The most disappointing performances, however, are the two main vocal performances from comic actors Martin Short and Seth Rogen (who gives his voice to a cowardly hobgoblin that befriends the children named Hogsqueal). They're supposed to infuse the story with comedic energy, but never quite earn their laughs.

While I could have wished for a better cast to tell the story, the way the story has been told left me very engaged. The effects work, while not exactly what I would call "realistic", is still effective, and I liked the designs of a lot of the creatures. Seeing the griffin make its first appearance almost made me wish it had appeared in the movie sooner, and afterward, made me wish the movie had used it more. Most of all, though, I admired the way that the film did not talk down to its audience. Though the ad campaign tries to pass it off as a rollicking adventure for kids, there is a sort of bittersweet undercurrent to the story, a lot of it having to do with the broken family at the center of the film. Though seldom seen, the childrens' father plays a large role in the story. Most of the concern with those critical to the movie, however, comes from the dark fantasy elements, including shots of the kids being dragged along the ground by invisible monsters, and having bloody claw-shaped wounds suddenly appear on their arms and legs. It's nothing that will send kids in the upper single digits or close to hitting 10 running out of the theater, but very young children would probably be better off at home.

Those of the right age, and their parents, are certain to find something to like at least. The Spiderwick Chronicles holds a lot of imagination, and lives up to a lot of the promise that it holds. This is a movie that taps into the feeling we all have when we are younger. When a yard surrounding a house can indeed be a way into other worlds. The Spiderwick Chronicles brought a sense of wonder and discovery that stayed with me throughout it. When it was over, I had a lot of good memories. Both of the movie itself, and of the adventures I used to have in my mind.

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Definitely, Maybe

It's hard to review Definitely, Maybe without making it sound more complicated than it really is. One of the characters even needs a flow chart to keep track of all the characters in the story, and how they're connected. Let me assure you that not only is the movie easy to follow, it's well worth your time to do so. After such lightweight stinkers as 27 Dresses and Over Her Dead Body, here is a romantic comedy-drama that has a real heart and real characters who actually act like human beings that inhabit this planet. There's not a lot that surprises in Definitely, Maybe, but there is a lot to like.

Known mainly for his roles in immature comedies such as Van Wilder and Waiting..., Ryan Reynolds gets to tackle a mature role as Will Hayes, a soon-to-be divorced dad whose 10-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) has just reached that age where she is curious about how she came to be. The fact that her school has recently started a sexual education course only heightens her curiosity, and during their weekend time together, Maya asks how her parents came to be together. It's not just curiosity driving the question, as young Maya also seems to hope that perhaps making her father reflect back on the past, he will remember the love he once held for her mother. Will reluctantly agrees to tell the story of the many loves that ultimately led to him getting together with her mother, but he changes the names of the women in the story, creating a sort of "love story mystery", as Maya calls it.

The story flashes back 16 years to January 1992, when Will was an ambitious and idealistic college student in Madison, Wisconsin who leaves his college sweetheart, Emily (Elizabeth Banks), for New York to work for Bill Clinton's initial Presidential campaign. During his time in New York, two other women walk in and out of Will's life. They include young journalist Summer (Rachel Weisz), and free-spirited Clinton campaign co-worker April (Isla Fisher). During the years the film covers, these three women play different roles, including romantic interest and best friend confidant. As the times change, Will's life changes as well, with his political ambitions taking a back seat to trying to find a place in the world where he belongs. The film flashes back and forth from its main plot in the past, to the present, as young Maya listens intently, trying to figure out which of the three women represents her mother.

Writer-director Adam Brooks certainly has some experience with romantic comedies, having contributed to the screenplays to such films as Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Wimbledon. His experience shows in Definitely, Maybe, in that he is not only able to tackle multiple storylines and characters in an expert manner, but he does so without sacrificing a single character. This is the rare romantic comedy where we find ourselves interested in all of the main characters, not just the ones we know will get together in the end. Everyone has been written as an intelligent human being with their own personal quirks, ideas, interests, and concerns. They're not contrived pawns existing simply to manipulated by the plot, and we become drawn into the characters and their lives. The movie itself is equally honest. The humor seems to grow out of the conversations these people have, instead of set-up situations or a "wacky best friend" character, and there is a bittersweet and somewhat sad center to the story on the whole. It's quite clear throughout the film that Brooks tried his hardest to identify with the story he was trying to tell and the characters inhabiting it. The end result is that although we may have seen it all before, it seems fresher than it should, thanks to the well-defined characters.

This approach allows the film to contain not a single dull character, or one who seems unnecessary. The three women in Will's life are all written as interesting characters, so although the question of whom Will ends up with in the end does not exactly surprise, we find that we'd be happy if the final answer was any of the women. The movie is also great at humanizing Will, who could have easily come across the wrong way in a less capable script. As we follow him from a hopeful young man fresh out of college, to the somewhat more world weary man he is in the present day, we can identify with him every step of the way. Part of this is due to Ryan Reynolds' performance, which is much more subdued and emotional than audiences are used to seeing, but most of it is due to the fact that the character has been written as someone who is obviously flawed, but likable enough that we want to stick with him. Another aspect of the film that I admired is its usage of time. Through archival television clips and dialogue, the movie accurately recreates the periods of time Will's story covers, without coming across as if it is name dropping or being gimmicky. It serves a purpose to the story itself, and wraps us further into the story, instead of distracting us.

Besides Ryan Reynolds' surprisingly heartfelt lead performance, the film is further aided by his female co-stars, who all grab our attention in different ways. As his initial girlfriend Emily, Elizabeth Banks comes across as being very sweet, held back only by the fact that the movie doesn't spend as much time with her as the other two women. As the career-driven Summer, Rachel Weisz is able to bring about a certain sureness and determination, without losing any feminine charm that allows us to understand why Will would be attracted to her. The real scene-stealer, however, is Isla Fisher. Her April is immediately likable, and becomes a lot more complex as the movie explores her character further. Both Will and her are torn about their feelings for each other over the years, and we are fascinated every step of the way. Credit also has to be given to young Abigail Breslin, who not only holds her own to Reynolds in every scene they share, but is able to create that rare child character who seems realistically inquisitive, without coming across as annoying or phony.

Definitely, Maybe is being released to capitalize on Valentine's Day, but this is a romantic comedy that works even without the holiday tie in. Like last year's similarly winning Valentine's release, Music and Lyrics, it is smarter and funnier than most of the competition. The movie starts out as a pleasant diversion, but as the story and the characters grew, I found myself more involved. Writer-director Adam Brooks seems to realize that people themselves can be pretty funny and dramatic on their own, without the aid of contrived situations. What's surprising is that so few other movies just like Definitely, Maybe seem to realize this.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins

Somewhere in Hollywood, there must be some sort of unwritten law that any movie featuring a prominently black cast must revolve around at least one of these things - Family, religion, road trips, love, or a black comic actor dressed in drag and a fat suit. Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins hits upon all of these notes, except the last one thankfully. Quite frankly, given how derivative this movie is of many films quite like it, I kept on waiting for Tyler Perry's Madea character to pop up any second. Given the fact that the movie contains a talented director and supporting cast, I walked into the movie with some hope that this would be something I've been searching for some time now - a funny Martin Lawrence movie. The quest continues.

Roscoe Jenkins (Martin Lawrence) is known to the world as Dr. RJ Stevens, the host of a trashy talk show that seems to be a cross between Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer. He's got fame, an overly superficial fiance named Bianca (Joy Bryant), and a young son from a previous relationship (Damani Roberts). His fast-paced L.A. lifestyle has forced him to lose contact with his family back home in Georgia, but when the 50th anniversary of his parents (James Earl Jones and Margaret Avery) comes around, Bianca talks him into attending the family reunion party, thinking a show about his family would be good for ratings. Roscoe quickly learns that while he may be a celebrity to the rest of the world, to his family, he's still the same person he was growing up - insecure and desperate for attention. Roscoe is reunited with his extended family including older brother Otis (Michael Clarke Duncan), fast-talking cousin Reggie (Mike Epps), overweight, straight-talking sister Betty (Mo'Nique), and most importantly, cousin Clyde (Cedric the Entertainer). Since they were children, Roscoe has had an extremely competitive relationship with Clyde. The fact that Clyde arrives at the party with a girl Roscoe has secretly pined for since he was a teenager named Lucinda (Nicole Ari Parker) only rekindles the competitive spirit within Roscoe, and the family weekend turns into a battle of respect for everyone involved.

Writer-director Malcolm D. Lee (Roll Bounce, Undercover Brother) hasn't been making films for very long, but he comes from a talented family, as he is directly related to filmmaker Spike Lee. Unlike his more famous cousin, Malcolm Lee usually specializes in smaller films that are supposed to be fun. I've admired most of his past films, but with Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, he seems to be bogged down with expectations. He knows what is expected in a family reunion comedy, and makes no attempt whatsoever to break free of the norm. Softball games, obstacle course races, food fights, and lots of old family secrets being discussed and brought up are the nature of the game with the screenplay. Since the movie is set in the country, he can throw in some country cliches as well, such as having Roscoe getting sprayed in the face by a skunk. There's not a single moment we can't see ahead of the characters, not a joke we can see coming a mile away, and not a single instant to have the cast mug their faces for the camera is wasted. Things get so broad with most of the cast bulging their eyes, waving their arms, and twisting their faces with such extreme force that you start to think there was a contest on the set to see who could overact the most. It makes the later scenes, when the movie tries to go for a low key and sentimental approach with Roscoe having unfinished personal issues with his father, seem awkward and out of place.

The movie's message is supposed to be you can go home again, and that family is more important than success and material possessions. While I think its heart is in the right place, I don't know why Roscoe, or anyone for that matter, would want to get back in touch with this family. The entire supporting cast have been directed to act almost as live action cartoon characters, except for the parents, who pretty much spend most of the time in the background, except for when Roscoe's mom accidentally gets hit in the head by a stray softball during a family game. They're loud, obnoxious buffoons who are prone to getting into slapstick fights, such as the lengthy and childish wrestling match Roscoe and Clyde get into, which winds up destroying part of the family home. The movie never really seems sure as to why we're supposed to like the Jenkins. Aside from his obviously gold-digging fiance, there didn't seem to be anything terrible about his successful life. I guess we're supposed to be happy that Roscoe gets to go after Lucinda, who is obviously much better suited for him. I would be happy if it didn't take Roscoe nearly the entire length of the movie to realize this. As is standard with the Idiot Plot, the male and female leads are not allowed to realize what the audience realizes 10 minutes in until near the end.

Looking at his credits on the IMDB, I notice that Martin Lawrence has been given starring roles in movies for a little over ten years now. Looking over that list, I've seen just about all of them, and there's only one that I remember remotely fondly. That would be Life, a 1999 comedy-drama he did with Eddie Murphy. I have never found Lawrence to be very funny, or that interesting of an actor. As Roscoe Jenkins, he doesn't so much act, as he simply bugs out his eyes and flairs his nostrils whenever something happens to him. He basically exists in this movie to be abused and humiliated by the supporting cast or by small animals. Lawrence is never sympathetic enough for us to want to see him rise above the problems the movie faces him with. The only actor who leaves the movie with any sort of dignity intact is James Earl Jones, who seems to be appearing in a different movie than everyone else. The movie he's in is much more thoughtful and sweet. It's a shame he's kept in the background for a good part of the film, as whenever he's on the screen, the movie picks up ever so slightly. To my shock, this is Jones' first live action role (meaning not a voice acting role) on the big screen since 1996's A Family Thing. I don't know where he's been all this time, but it's great to see him again, and I wish it could have been under better circumstances.

With a nearly two hour running time, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins long overstays its welcome. A movie where the comedic highlight is two dogs making wild love does not need to be almost as long as your standard Oscar-bait epic. The movie's climax concerns Roscoe making a surprise visit at his parents' anniversary dinner, where he makes a heartfelt speech about love and family. Severed ties are repaired, relationships are rekindled, and the movie is over. The last part was my favorite.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Fool's Gold

Though it's not the best trailer I've seen, I have to commend the people behind the ad campaign for Fool's Gold in making the movie looking like a potentially fun little romantic comedy adventure yarn. The movie itself, running nearly two hours, isn't nearly as lively or energetic as the two minute trailer. It's oddly talky, leisurely-paced, and lacks even the slightest of romantic sparks between its two lead stars. The two of you who have been haunted by many sleepless nights, wondering when Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson would reunite after 2003's How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, will no doubt finally be able to rest easy with the arrival of Fool's Gold. Everyone else will be greeted with a perfectly mediocre film that never quite takes off like it should.

Free-spirited treasure hunter and adventurer Ben Finnegan (Matthew McConaughey) is having both the best and worst day of his life as the film opens. He's finally discovered what he believes to be the key to a long-lost sunken treasure that he's been searching for years. Accompanying this discovery is the fact that his boat blows up in a freak accident, some hired goons from a criminal who he's largely in debt with are trying to kill him, and his wife and long-time treasure seeking partner, Tess (Kate Hudson) has just made the divorce papers final. She's tired of Ben's slacker attitude, and wants to go back to Chicago to finish school. Fate brings the two together when Ben winds up on the private yacht of millionaire, Nigel Honeycutt (Donald Sutherland), and his spoiled, clueless socialite daughter, Gemma (Alexis Dziena). Tess just happens to be working as a steward on the ship, and finds herself drawn back into Ben's world of treasure hunting when he reveals what could be the piece to the puzzle they've long been seeking when they were working together. As their search for the sunken gold begins anew, the previously mentioned criminals after Ben are right on their tail. Led by a rap artist and notorious gangster named Bigg Bunny (Kevin Hart), the crooks will do everything to make sure that Ben and Tess don't arrive at the treasure alive.

Fool's Gold was obviously intended to be a fun, romantic adventure about a couple who rekindles their love for each other while outrunning outlaws and rival treasure hunters, while solving dangerous traps and cryptic riddles. The formula worked back in 1984 with Romancing the Stone, and I think it could have worked here with the right approach. It's easy to see why McConaughey and Hudson are starring in a movie together again. They have a good chemistry during their scenes alone, they're both beautiful people, and they make a great pair. The problem is director Andy Tennant (Hitch) doesn't give them enough chances to truly create a relationship beyond physical attraction. The movie gives the audience plenty of time to admire both of their bodies. So much time indeed that McConaughey spends probably 90% of the movie with his shirt off, which is sure to draw in just about all of his female fans. The problem is, beyond the physical attraction, there's nothing there. We never truly learn much about Ben or Tess as a couple, other than Ben is great in the sack. We don't learn much about what initially brought them together, and why they stayed together for the time they did. There's the shared interest in history and seeking lost treasures, yes, but that's about it besides the whole sex thing. They never seem like an actual couple, rather they seem like two people brought together by a casting director with a good eye.

It's not just the relationship between the strangely uncharismatic leads that seems waterlogged, it's the entire movie itself. For an adventure film, Fool's Gold sure does spend way too much time in the cramped confines of a luxury yacht. The characters sit around, deciphering old texts and digging up information, but it never really grabs our attention. There's strangely very little action or a sense of danger, since the film's villains barely even show up, and come across merely as an afterthought. All the action-oriented sequences depicted in the trailer of the heroes dodging explosions, riding motorcycles through a jungle, and attempting to perform a water landing in a private plane literally happens during the final 20 minutes or so in the movie. I do admit, the movie does definitely pick up at this point, and there are some well staged action sequences during these moments. But, obviously, it's too little too late by this point. The movie seems focused on the characters, but at the same time, the characters are not developed enough for it to spend so much time on them. The screenplay by director Tennant, along with co-writers John Claflin and Daniel Zelman (Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid), kind of spins its wheels under the mistaken impression that we're just as interested in the legend of the sunken treasure. Therefore, we're "treated" to overly long scenes where the characters spend way too much time describing the same background story we get at the very beginning of the movie in a couple brief subtitles that pop up before the opening credits.

This is a movie that I kept on waiting to grab me, but it never quite went all the way with its own potential. Aside from a couple cute moments concerning Donald Sutherland's character putting up with his ditzy adult daughter, the script contains barely a humorous moment that wasn't already given away in the trailer. Fool's Gold is not a terrible movie, just an extremely disappointing one. It takes a beautiful cast and beautiful tropical scenery, and then does nothing with the scenery and forces the cast to read books and walk around underwater. If it winds up never being a complete waste of time, it's only because of the natural charm of the stars, not with anything in the actual film itself. There's nothing new to see here, and what there is to see, there's no reason to see it again.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Strange Wilderness

Here's a quick test to see if Strange Wilderness is the movie for you. Does the sight of a man being attacked by a wild turkey while he's taking a leak in the middle of the woods make you laugh? Let's go a little bit further. Picture that man running around with the turkey attached to his bare crotch, screaming. Now picture that guy being sent to the hospital, where the doctor and the man's friends are trying to figure out a way to remove the bird. The option they decide on? Yank the turkey off the man's privates, complete with a graphic close up of the guy's penis being stretched almost to the other side of the room, the bird still stuck on. If that description made you break out into tears of laughter, than you've found your movie.

I strive myself in truth in criticism, and I'll admit, I laughed when the gag started. The sight of seeing the guy running around with the turkey stuck on him somehow reached my inner 10-year-old child who used to think fart jokes were hilarious, and I laughed even though I knew I shouldn't have. Then the gag just kept on going, getting grosser and more graphic, and I just stopped laughing. That kind of explains my entire reaction to the movie. I found myself laughing quite a bit during the film's early moments, and I even started to wonder if I had stumbled upon a rare comic gem. Then the energy of the movie and the laughs just kind of sputtered out, and I sunk in my seat. Co-writer and director Fred Wolf (a long time writer on Saturday Night Live, who has also provided screenplays for the Chris Farley comedy Black Sheep, and the David Spade vehicles Joe Dirt and Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star) seems energized at the beginning, but then he loses interest and just puts a whole bunch of filler material and music montages. I never quite found myself hating the movie, but I did find myself wishing it hadn't lost its way.

The premise is appropriately simple, and doesn't have much to do with anything other than serve as an excuse to get its characters into the woods. Peter Gaulke (Steve Zahn) is the host of a struggling wildlife show that was once at the top of the ratings back when his now-deceased father was the host. His boss at the network (Jeff Garlin) is threatening to shut the show down, but Peter thinks he's found his last chance to save it. A reclusive mountain man (Joe Don Baker) has stumbled upon the whereabouts of Bigfoot, and even has a map that leads directly to the legendary creature's cave. Peter knows that footage of Bigfoot could save his show, so he gathers up his ragtag film crew, and they set off. He is accompanied by his best friend and sound man, Fred Wolf (Allen Covert), burned-out stoner, Junior (Justin Long), all-around oddball Cooker (Jonah Hill), the beautiful Cheryl (Ashley Scott), and recovering alcoholic animal handler, Whitaker (Kevin Heffernan). Their race to find Bigfoot before a rival nature show crew does puts them face to face with some bizarre characters, including a mentally unstable military man (Robert Patrick), and a travel guide with a rather unfortunate name (Blake Clark).

The opening moments that initially gave me hope focus on the show itself, which features the Peter doing bizarre voice overs to actual nature footage. The early scenes at the TV studio showed some promise too. The movie had a very goofy and fun sense to itself, and it looked like the actors were having a good time. I started to get caught up in the mood, and was actually starting to think they might be able to pull it off. Then Peter and his crew go off to look for Bigfoot, and it's almost as if someone let all the air out of the movie, and we're forced to just watch it deflate and go flat. The screenplay by Peter Gaulke and Fred Wolf (And no, it's no coincidence that the two lead characters share their names.) seems to run out of ideas right when the movie should be building steam. Instead, they pad out the movie with numerous footage of the actors walking through the woods to music. Characters who seemed comically offbeat during the opening moments are pushed into the background, and never really given anything to do. A good example is the character of Junior portrayed by Justin Long. We figure out early on that he's a stoner, and them the movie pretty much stops there. He has very little dialogue, and pretty much spends most of the time standing around, looking at the trees. The actor who plays him, Justin Long, has been building momentum in his career lately. I can only hope he took a pay cut for this role.

There were a lot of times while watching Strange Wilderness where I didn't feel like I was watching a movie. Rather, I was watching a bunch of friends standing around in a soundstage made up to look like a jungle or forest, trying to improvise. It's amazing that this movie has assembled a strong comedic talent such as Steve Zahn, Jonah Hill, and the previously mentioned Long, but they seem absolutely lost here. The scenes that don't look improvised often have a weak pay off, or none whatsoever. A scene where Peter and Fred have to have emergency dental surgery is absolutely pointless, and seems to be built entirely around a bloody sight gag that's more gag-inducing than funny. Even the crew's ultimate run-in with Bigfoot doesn't work. It's not that I can't picture the scene being funny. When I think back on what happened, I actually smile a little. It's just the movie stages it all wrong, so it's not as funny as it should have been. I could actually picture a lot of the movie working, and my spirits would start to lift every time it hit upon an idea that could be funny in theory. At best, I cracked a smile for the effort that was made, but I never quite laughed the way I did during the film's first 15 minutes or so.

I tried my hardest to hold onto the good feelings the movie initially gave me, but I gradually discovered I was fighting a losing battle. The film is produced by Adam Sandler's production company, Happy Madison, and shares a lot in common with most of the films his company puts out. It's an excuse for some of his comic friends to get together and have fun while making a movie, but that fun doesn't quite carry out to the audience. Strange Wilderness is not about to join some of the lowest moments of the Happy Madison history, like Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo or Grandma's Boy, but it's not going to make me forget them either.

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Over Her Dead Body

When the end credits for Over Her Dead Body initially start, we see the words "A Film by", but they are not followed by the name of writer and first-time director, Jeff Lowell. Instead, those words remain at the top of the screen, and the credits play underneath them. I guess this is Lowell's way of saying that everyone involved with the making of the film put this thing together and that it was a collaborative effort, rather than taking sole credit himself. It's an honest and sweet gesture when you think about it. Or, given the movie we have just seen, maybe he thought everyone needed to share the blame.

Over Her Dead Body is a dreary and brain dead romantic comedy that isn't really about anything in particular. It features a ghost, but it's not really about her or the afterlife. It features two people falling in love, but it's not about them either. They are just pawns to be manipulated and moved about by the screenplay that kind of casts out a couple workable ideas here and there, but mainly just meanders about aimlessly. The action kicks off when a bride-to-be named Kate (Eva Longoria Parker from TV's Desperate Housewives) is running about, trying to make the final preparations for her wedding to a guy named Henry (Paul Rudd). Henry's a vet, and Kate never has a specified job, but she is clearly an extreme perfectionist and enjoys bossing people around. She has a fit when she sees the angel ice sculpture for the wedding doesn't have any wings. Due to circumstances too contrived to recap here, the scene ends with Kate dead, crushed by the sculpture. She goes to Heaven briefly, but doesn't get to stay there very long, as she fades away for no reason whatsoever. The movie then forgets about her for such a long period of time that I started to wonder what had happened to her.

Back on Earth, Henry's still upset over the death of Kate one year later. His sister, Chloe (Lindsay Sloane), decides it's time he moved on, and enlists the help of a caterer and part-time psychic named Ashley (Lake Bell). She gives Ashley Kate's diary, so that Ashley can have an arranged meeting with Henry, pretend she had a visit from Kate's ghost, tell him a bunch of personal stuff from the diary so that he will believe her, and then tell him that Kate's spirit says it's time he moved on. Funny thing is, during the meeting, she actually takes a liking to Henry, and so does he to her. That's when Kate's ghost pops up, and she's not happy that her former fiance is moving on. She makes her presence known to Ashley (the only one who can see and hear her), and starts playing various pranks to try to sabotage their relationship. She keeps Ashley up all night telling rambling stories of old pets she had as a kid. She hovers over the couple while they are trying to make love. She even makes overly loud flatulent noises while Ashley and Henry are trying to be intimate. Thrown into the plot is Ashley's best friend and partner in the catering business, Dan (Jason Biggs), who is secretly in love with her, but has been pretending to be gay for the past 5 years due to a misunderstanding Ashley made early in their relationship. And yes, the character of Dan and the story that surrounds him is just as dumb and as pointless as it sounds.

When Jeff Lowell was writing this script, did he ever stop and wonder why anyone would want to watch a movie about these people? Henry and Ashley are the blandest pair of lovers to walk into a romantic comedy in a while. Aside from a couple small bits of witty sarcasm thrown into their dialogue, the two hold no personality, nor do they possess any reason to fall for each other except for the fact that the movie requires them to. When they kiss or make love, it feels forced and lacking warmth. We start to wonder what they see in each other. More so, we wonder what Henry ever saw in Kate. From the very first scene, Kate is irritable, nasty, manipulative, selfish, and mean. The movie seems to know this, as according to the IMDB, one of the early working titles for this film was "Ghost Bitch". So, just who are we supposed to be rooting for when we watch this movie? Do we root for the bland, personality-free lovers, or do we root for the invisible screaming harpy trying to break them up? The movie never quite decides which side it's on, so when it reaches its happy ending (which includes the often-used romantic comedy cliche of a character running through an airport, trying to stop another character from going off with the wrong person), we don't feel anything. To be fair, the movie does add an interesting twist to the airport climax scene. This is the first time I've seen a character running through an airport with a parakeet that is possessed by the spirit of his dead fiance screeching advice to him.

What irritated me the most is that the movie doesn't even seem interested in itself. Here is a movie about a ghost trying to break up a relationship. Think of the possibilities you could dream up with this concept. All this movie can think of doing is having the ghost do childish pranks. It doesn't even explain where the ghost of Kate came from. She just suddenly pops up and starts tormenting them. Was she watching Henry and Ashley the entire time, and finally just decided to make her presence known? What was she doing all that time? How has she gotten used to being dead? Like I said, she goes to Heaven, fades away for no reason, and then about a good half hour or so later, she suddenly appears in front of Ashley and starts making her life a living hell with no explanation. The movie can't even make up its mind on the rules that Kate's spirit should follow. Some scenes, she is able to pass through people and solid objects. And yet, she can sit on chairs, couches, and beds without having her body fall through them. Maybe it sounds like I'm nitpicking bringing up this point, but it bothered me for some reason. It doesn't help matters that nobody here seems to be having fun. This is plainly evident in the usually talented Paul Rudd, who here looks like he wishes he were somewhere else in just about every scene he's in. I certainly sympathized with him, but I think it was for the wrong reason.

There's absolutely no reason to see Over Her Dead Body. It's completely amateurish in just about every way, and doesn't hold a single bright idea or amusing moment in the 95 minutes it lasts. No one cared while making it, as evidenced by the bargain basement special effects and the lackluster performances. Audiences should find no reason to care either. The only people who should celebrate the arrival of this movie are the people responsible for 27 Dresses. Thanks to Over Her Dead Body, they no longer hold the title of the dumbest romantic comedy of 2008.

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The Eye

After last month's awful One Missed Call, I wasn't really in the mood to watch another remake of an Asian horror film. The only thing that kept my spirits up walking into The Eye was that I had seen and was actually fond of the original 2002 Chinese film that inspired it. I'll give it to you straight. Yes, The Eye is a much better movie, and yes, that is not saying much. There are a lot of effective ideas, moments, and even a surprisingly strong lead character to be found here. Surprisingly, the main thing French filmmaking duo David Moreau and Xavier Palud (making their English language film debut here) get wrong is what should come easiest for a film of this type - the thrills and scares.

Ever since she was blinded at the age of 5 during a mishap with a firecracker, Sydney Wells (Jessica Alba) has made the most of her life, and hasn't let her handicap prevent her from living and following her dreams of being a violinist for the local symphony. Still, she's always desired to be able to see again, so when her sister Helen (Parker Posey) discovers there's a transplant surgery that can restore her vision, Sydney agrees. The procedure is a success, and Sydney is immediately put under the care of Dr. Paul Faulkner (Alessandro Nivola), who will help her adjust to seeing again after relying on all of her other senses for so long. There's something about her new eyes that no one in the medical profession can probably help her with, however. Almost as soon as the bandages are removed, Sydney starts seeing disturbing ghostly visions. These visions come in a variety of ways. She sees ghosts of the past who are forced to relive their tragic deaths over and over again, or sometimes she sees demonic shadow figures leading the recently deceased to the afterlife. Most of all, she is haunted by the visions of people trapped in a flaming building, and sometimes her very apartment changes and morphs into a completely different building that she's never seen before. Desperate for answers and for someone to believe her, Sydney is eventually able to convince Paul to help her track down the name of the donor who supplied her eyes, so that she can perhaps understand what these visions are trying to say and why this is happening to her.

Though being billed as a supernatural thriller, The Eye is actually much more effective as a drama about a woman who has learned to live without sight, and is suddenly thrown into a world she doesn't understand when she can see again. The film's first half mainly deals with Sydney's conflicted feelings and confusion when she is faced with sights that are familiar to her by touch or sound, but are completely foreign to her now that she is seeing them for the first time. There is a great scene where her sister Helen perhaps unwisely arranges all of Sydney's friends to be waiting for her at her apartment when she comes home from the hospital for the first time. Sydney can only recognize these people when they talk to her. The movie does a great job of putting us in the shoes of the character by intentionally shooting the scene out of focus, as these blurry images and faces come toward the camera. It gives what should be a happy and friendly moment a very strange and alien tone. It also helps us identify with what Sydney is going through. The screenplay by Sebastian Gutierrez (Snakes on a Plane) is wise to make her the central focus of most of the film. She has been written as a strong-willed and intelligent woman who we can immediately identify with, and we want to see her succeed. It's a nice change of pace from most of the heroines who inhabit horror films, who usually have their boyfriend or lack thereof as their most distinguishing character trait. The scenes that focus on Sydney and her adjusting to these new experiences are honest, intelligent, and sometimes more frightening than the scenes with the ghosts themselves.

That last sentence right there probably says a lot of why The Eye doesn't entirely work. The scares are virtually non-existent, because the movie can't think of anything for the ghosts that Sydney sees to do. They just kind of stand there in the background. Sometimes they're on fire, or sometimes they lunge at the camera in a cheap attempt to jolt the audience. But overall, the movie just can't seem to find a way to make them scary, and it winds up falling flat on its face when it tries to thrill us. Even scenes that should be effective, like how whenever Sydney looks at her reflection in the mirror, she sees someone completely different (she only discovers this when someone takes a picture of her, and she realizes her picture is different from the reflection she sees), don't quite work the way that they should. The movie is far too tame, almost as if it's afraid to truly go all the way and be scary. It thinks up ideas that could be frightening, but then it kind of just stops there. I don't know if this is a case of studio tampering or not, as the movie does not seem to be overly edited in any way. If this is indeed the vision of the filmmakers up on the screen, it's unfortunate. The movie wastes a lot of potential with the idea of Sydney trying to figure out this strange new world, while at the same time dealing with these bizarre visions and incidents. Also sloppy is how certain plot elements are raised and dropped at random, or unexplained all together. The ghost of a young boy who haunts Sydney's apartment building has absolutely no pay off or resolution whatsoever, even though the movie seems to be hinting it will be important when the child's mother briefly appears. The mother never appears again, nor is the moment Sydney meets her ever mentioned after that.

When it comes to the performances, there's nothing particularly special to note about here, though none of the acting is particularly bad. Jessica Alba is forced to pretty much carry the entire movie, and while she's not entirely successful, she pulls off the job much better than I expected. She's often been criticized of being strictly eye candy, but you can tell that she is at least trying here. She does a good job of displaying both the strength and vulnerability of Sydney. The only thing she has to do is learn a few more facial expressions, as she seems to cycle through the same ones over and over again. Coming across somewhat more blandly is Alessandro Nivola as the doctor initially assigned to help her adjust to seeing, and winds up risking his job to track down confidential medical information. We never quite get a grasp of what he thinks of her character, or why he's so willing to give up getting caught and fired from the medical profession for Sydney. It doesn't help that the thing that stands out the most about his performance is that he's in desperate need of a shave. As Sydney's sister, the very talented Parker Posey is merely cashing a paycheck in a thankless role that didn't even need her in the first place. I can only hope they money she got from this movie helps finance a much more interesting role for her.

I started out watching The Eye with growing interest and fascination, but grew somewhat bored when the special effects and ghouls started taking center stage. The main thing that held my attention throughout was the character of Sydney, and how I wanted to see her get through the situation she was in. Those expecting a fast-paced thrill-a-minute will most likely be disappointed. The movie is surprisingly timid, and will be hard pressed to raise the heart rate of even the most easily scared. That being said, this is not a bad movie in the least. There's quite a bit I admired here. It's just unfortunate none of it had to do with the horror aspects of the story.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Even if There Will Be Blood was a bad movie, it'd almost be worth seeing for Daniel Day-Lewis' lead performance. It's a chilling and gripping portrayal of a man slowly gripped by madness and power, and we watch his character descend from scheming con man to flat-out monster. Fortunately, there's more to recommend here. Acclaimed writer-director Paul T. Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love) tries something different with a period piece set around the turn of the 20th Century, and the career of a conniving Oil Man. Loosely based on the novel "Oil!" by Upton Sinclair, There Will Be Blood is a mostly mesmerizing film that only starts to lose its hold ever so slightly during the final half.

When we first meet Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), he's a struggling prospector mining for gold. He discovers much more than he bargained for when he comes across an underground oil supply in the earth. Flash forward a couple years later, and Daniel is one of the most powerful men in the oil industry. He travels the nation with his partner and son, H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier), to look for more oil-rich land to appease his growing business empire and personal lust for fortune. He receives a tip from a man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) that his family's ranch property is rich with the substance Daniel desires. Daniel buys the ranch property, under the false intention that it will help the local community, and immediately is overcome with greed as he sets his men to work. Not even his own family seems to eventually matter, as when his young son loses his hearing after a freak explosion accident, Daniel simply sends him away and abandons him. Despite interference from Paul's twin brother, a local preacher and faith healer named Eli (once again, Paul Dano), Daniel obtains the wealth he so desires, despite losing just about everyone else around him.

Despite its attention-grabbing title, There Will Be Blood is mostly leisurely and laid back in its pacing. In fact, the film's opening 15 minutes or so chronicling Daniel's initial discovery of oil and the beginnings of his business, contains virtually no dialogue whatsoever. Where the movie instantly grabs your attention is in the details. It creates an accurate portrayal of the time of history where the story is set, and also in the process and dangers which were common in extracting oil from the land back in the day. The story is told mostly through the point of view of Daniel, and he is such a complex character, it's amazing that the film can keep up with him. He is simultaneously charming, sympathetic, sly, strong, scheming, smart, loving, angry, and all around complicated. He begins the film as a smart and somewhat dishonest businessman, but during the two and a half hours or so that the story runs, we watch his personality change into something much more bitter and hateful. This is not so much an epic detailing the early oil industry, rather it is a study of a man who loses his mind and his soul to his own greed and passions. Writer-director Anderson makes Daniel a character impossible to turn away from, no matter how repulsive his character becomes to the audience. He does this by slowly drawing us into his mind and his world, so that while we may not sympathize with him by the end of the story, we have spent enough time with the character that we can see and understand how it led up to where we find him in the film's later scenes.

More than the character of Daniel himself, it is the performance by Day-Lewis that is the real revelation here. He has been rightfully nominated for his work here, and if there is any justice, he will win. This is the most captivating performance of any film I can remember from those released in 2007. He is able to make the character menacing, yet also charming and strangely human at the same time. He is someone who is literally torn in two emotionally for a good part of the film. On one hand, his never-ending desire for wealth and power forces him to isolate himself from just about everyone around him. And yet, at the same time, we can also see some form of compassion, such as the way he looks at his son before the accident. We sometimes can't tell if that look of love is genuine, or as false as many of the promises he makes to those around him, but there is always a glimmer of humanity in the performance that allows us to remain attached to him. It is one of those rare performances that makes us truly forget that we are watching an actor on the screen. Day-Lewis believably portrays the character at different stages in the 30 or so years the story covers in his life, so that by the time the film is winding down, we feel as if we've been right there along with him the entire time.

If none of the other performances quite captivate as much as his, then it's certainly not for lack of trying. The film has rounded up a strong all-around cast, with special praise deserved for young Dillon Freasier as Daniel's son. The character is a particularly tragic one, as he is probably the most loyal to his father, only to be betrayed by the man he has trusted over the years. The final encounter between Daniel and the now-adult H.W. is a heartbreaking scene, and a perfect end to the relationship between the two characters. Paul Dano also deserves mention, especially for his intense portrayal of local preacher Eli. He matches Day-Lewis' performance in just about every scene they share, and it's almost hard to believe it's the same guy who played the mostly-mute and emotionally distant teenage son in the 2006 indie hit, Little Miss Sunshine. Perhaps more so than the performances, it is the technical credits that also get us involved. The sweeping barren landscapes shot by cinematographer Robert Elswit gives the film an appropriately isolated and desolate tone, while the music score provided by Jonny Greenwood (of the band Radiohead) provides a growing sense of dread that matches Daniel's moral descent during the course of the film.

It is not until the film is winding down that There Will Be Blood starts to lose some of its sure footing. Aside from the final sequence between Daniel and his son, much of the ending seems dragged out, and lacks the human touch that has been present throughout. In the final moments, Daniel almost seems evil in a cartoonish sense, and while the performance is still wonderful, I felt like I had lost my connection with the character. Up until the final 20 minutes or so, this is a nearly pitch-perfect film that hits almost all the right notes, aside from a couple sequences that easily could have been trimmed. These flaws prevent There Will Be Blood from being my favorite film of the year, but it easily contains my favorite performance of 2007.

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