Reel Opinions

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Hamlet 2

Just thinking back on the premise of Hamlet 2 makes me laugh. So why didn't I laugh very much while watching the movie itself? This is, I'm afraid, a case of a wonderful idea being combined with a somewhat unworthy execution. Co-writer and director Andrew Fleming (Nancy Drew) can't seem to find the right tone with his characters, or with the movie itself. It wants to be an off the wall romp, but the laughs are far too sporadic, and many of the gags fall flat. I found myself constantly switching views on the film while I was watching it. When it did hit upon a joke that worked, I found myself laughing in a way that only a great comedy can. But a majority of the time found me sitting there wondering why this movie wasn't working like it should.

The film centers on a struggling actor turned high school drama teacher named Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), whose main credits in the acting field include a couple commercials. Dana's life seems to be going nowhere. His wife, Brie (Catherine Keeger), is losing interest in their relationship, since he can't seem to produce a baby with her. His drama class is comprised of only two over-eager Teacher's Pets and a large group of troubled youth who could care less, and his stage productions of popular Hollywood movies like Erin Brockovich have been a flop with audiences and his sole theater critic (a young boy who barely seems to be 12 who writes for the school paper). Dana learns early on that the school is planning to cut the drama class completely from their curriculum, so he decides to go out with a bang by staging his dream project - a musical sequel to Hamlet that involves the title character traveling through time with Jesus Christ to save the lives of everyone who dies at the end of the original play. The show's controversial subject matter and central theme song, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus", infuriate the local religious groups, and Dana is forced to hire a lawyer named Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) to keep the play alive after the school refuses to produce the show.

Hamlet 2 has a couple clever jokes that anyone who has ever worked in an amateur theater production will be able to pick up on. But the movie doesn't really want to be real, it wants to be a goofy satire on the industry...Or maybe it wants to make a statement on Hollywood's insistence on happy endings (the whole play is conceived because Dana hates the fact that everyone dies at the end of Hamlet)...Or maybe it wants to be about censorship...Or maybe it wants to be a parody of inspirational high school dramas about a teacher who reaches the lives of troubled students. The movie tries to take a swing at a number of subjects, but never quite hits a home run. That's because the screenplay by Pam Brady (Hot Rod, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut) and Fleming is largely unfocused and scattered. This uncertainty carries through to almost every aspect of the film, right down to the performances. It gets to the point where the actors almost seem to be inhabiting completely different movies.

A very good example is the relationship between Steve Coogan and Catherine Keeger. Maybe it's supposed to be part of the joke, but I never once bought them as being a couple, because he frequently acts as if he hails from Planet X, and she seems far too intelligent and acidic in her wit and mind to be hanging around the goofball, or even in some form of a relationship with him. Coogan is a comic actor who I have admired in a lot of other films (he made his small role in the recent Tropic Thunder very memorable), but here, he doesn't seem to know if he should play Dana as an outcast, or as an escapee from an asylum, and seems to be trying a different approach in each scene. Therefore, the character veers wildly from being likable and offbeat, to being flat-out annoying. Likewise, his students never truly get developed into any sort of characters we can care about. The characters that did work with me don't appear often enough. Amy Poehler is funny, but comes in too late as the lawyer who attempts to save the show. And Elizabeth Shue is used very well in a caricature of herself as a faded actress who got tired of Hollywood, and moved to Tucson, Arizona to be a nurse, but isn't used nearly enough.

That's not to say all of Hamlet 2 is bad, as there are definitely some very big laughs which seem to owe a debt to writer Pam Brady's South Park days. The film opens by showing some "highlights" of Dana's career of appearing in commercials, and these are pitch-perfect parodies. I also liked the fact that the film's music montage is set to the song "Maniac" from Flashdance performed by the "Tucson Gay Men Chorus" (the choir Dana hires to perform the chorus in his musical). And of course, the climax where we finally get to see the finished product produces some laughs. I just wish the film's ad campaign hadn't given so much of it away. It's also a shame that these kind of laughs don't come often enough. This is a movie that should be alive with comic energy, and it certainly is from time to time, but not enough to recommend paying full price for it. Maybe I was expecting more, given the premise of the film and the talent behind it.

Hamlet 2 was a big hit at the festival circuit earlier this year, but I think it was one of those "you had to be there" kind of moments. The movie doesn't come alive often enough. I almost wished that the writers had tried another couple drafts, as they were definitely onto a great idea here. I wanted to love this movie. Instead, I walked out thinking about how much better it could have been if things had just been handled a little bit differently.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Disaster Movie

At the beginning of Disaster Movie, our hero Will (Matt Lanter) is having a dream where he's a caveman living in 10,000 B.C. After falling face-first in mammoth dung (six seconds in the movie, and we already have our first excrement joke), he is challenged by an American Gladiator, only to have an encounter with a sabre toothed Amy Winehouse (Nicole Parker), who informs him that the world is going to end, and he must find the Crystal Skull in order to prevent disaster. Will awakens from his dream, only to find his girlfriend Amy (Vanessa Minillo) is leaving him because he refuses to commit to their relationship.

Meanwhile, it's Will's birthday, and he's having his sweet 16 party MTV style, even though he's 25 years old. All of his friends are there, including Dr. Phil, Javier Bardem from No Country For Old Men, and Jessica Simpson. Amy is there too with her new boyfriend - a Calvin Klein underwear model. Will's friends, Calvin (Gary "G Thang" Johnson), Lisa (Kim Kardashian...Yes, THAT Kim Kardashian), and pregnant sarcastic teen Juney (Crista Flanagan) try to cheer him up by staging a High School Musical. Their singing is interrupted by a sudden meteor attack. They race outside of the building to find the city in chaos, and the local superheroes (Iron Man, Hulk, Hancock, Batman, and Hellboy) are powerless, since most of them get crushed by cows being flung from a damaging Twister. Our heroes soon befriend an Enchanted Princess (Nicole Parker again), who rises up out of a manhole, and try to find a safe place to hide. Unfortunately, everywhere they go, they are confronted by someone, whether it be the Sex and the City girls, or Alvin and the Chipmunks, who have developed a taste for heavy metal and human flesh.

Will eventually remembers his dream from earlier that day, and realizes he has to find the Crystal Skull in order to stop all of this. But first, his friends and him must make their way to a magical museum of natural history where the exhibits come to life at night, and where Amy is currently hiding. They arrive at the museum, only to be confronted by a naked Beowulf and a Kung Fu Panda, and then they meet Indiana Jones, who is played by Tony Cox from Bad Santa, and...You know what, I'm not even going to go on. If you read the above synopsis and did not laugh, there's a very good reason. Disaster Movie simply checks off its references, instead of doing anything funny with them. Of course, those of you who are familiar with the work of filmmakers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer will not find this surprising. It's a formula that they've been employing with a disturbing amount of success since bursting onto the scene with 2006's Date Movie, along with their follow-ups, Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans. They shoot these movies as quickly as possible, then they dump it on a slow weekend, hoping to lure in some bored teens with the promise of fun, only to supply more boredom.

Disaster Movie is probably their chintziest production yet, since the film only started production back in May, and it's already playing in theaters. Yes, you heard me right. This movie, which is supposed to parody all of this year's summer blockbusters, was made before half of the movies referenced within it even hit theaters. Friedberg and Seltzer were somehow able to con a studio head into buying a screenplay that was written after a massive session of watching trailers for upcoming movies, then throwing references to those trailers into the script. I guess that explains why the movie is so vague with its own references, but it doesn't explain why anyone thought this movie was a good idea, or why it needed to be rushed into production. I cannot think of any movie that has stooped to this low of a level for its humor. The movie doesn't even bother to truly parody Cloverfield, which is the obvious inspiration for its main plot. Considering how ripe for parody that movie was (especially the shaky handheld camera style of that film), you'd think it'd be an easy target. But then you remember who is behind this movie, and you just go with it.

I'm starting to find the movies that Friedberg and Seltzer put out harder and harder to critique. Not because they're getting better, but because they stay the same. They make the same mistakes, they keep on missing the same point, and they keep on churning out the same stuff over and over again, this time a lot faster than normal. (Disaster Movie is their second release in 2008.) I feel like I'm repeating myself each time I review their movies. These guys obviously plan to milk this thing as long as they can. More power to them, I guess. But then, I think of all the much better screenplays that were probably passed over because of this. Or the lives that could have been saved with the money put into this project. For a movie that's supposed to make you laugh, Disaster Movie sure leaves some depressing thoughts in your head...

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!



Crude humor can often be very funny. There is nothing funny, however, about College. This is a movie that wants to be dirty, sickening, push the limits of an R-rating to the point we question where an "R" ends and "NC-17" begins, and stupid fun. It focuses so much on the first three qualities that it forgets the fourth and most important aspect. Director Deb Hagan seems more concerned with having her characters drinking booze out of a guy's ass crack (and every other part of the body you wouldn't want to drink out of) then in setting up some genuinely funny situations. Now that I think about it, the fact that this sexist and homophobic movie was directed by a woman is the funniest thing about it.

This nearly blatant Superbad rip off concerns three high school friends who are only looking for a weekend of booze, sex, and drugs when they head off for Fieldmont University. Our heroes include Kevin (former Nickelodeon star, Drake Bell), the sensitive straight-arrow who was recently dumped by his girlfriend because he's not "fun enough", overweight Carter (Andrew Caldwell), who only wants a good time, and nerdy "McLovin" wannabe Morris (Kevin Covais from American Idol). Kevin and Morris were headed to the campus for weekend visitation, and Carter decides to tag along when a friend in the school cafeteria tells them about the wild weekend he had there. They arrive at the dorm they're supposed to stay at for the weekend, but when they discover it's occupied by a porn addict with an eternal boner, they head over to a nearby fraternity instead, since Carter tells his friends that his cousin was once a legacy there. The guys of the Beta Phi fraternity house are bored, since they have no new pledges to abuse (one of their members is in a body cast after he was dropped off the balcony in a hazing ritual), so when Kevin and his friends show up, they decide to torture them for their own twisted amusement.

How misguided is the humor in College? Remember that scene I just told you about when they discover the guy living in the dorm they've been assigned to is a porn addict? He comes out the door, with something uncommonly large sticking straight out between his legs, making it look like he's hiding a sub sandwich down there. For some reason, the movie doesn't think we get the joke, so it cuts to a close up of the "bulge" in question. I guess the movie was afraid we wouldn't notice, so it helps us out. If you have to spell out your jokes, you're doing something wrong. Or how about the scene where Morris wakes up with a hangover, and discovers he's late for his meeting to apply for a scholarship? He races off to the building, not realizing that the guys of the frat house have written various obscenities on his face with a magic marker. When he arrives at the meeting, the movie can't think of anything funny to do. The college board members simply look disgusted at what is written on his face, while Morris stares blankly. I'm sure anyone reading this review could think of a better prank, as well as a funnier pay off. Or how about the cameo from pint-sized actor Verne Troyer, who portrays himself as a foul-mouthed angry drunk who apparently likes to hang out at frat parties? Having appeared in The Love Guru and now this, he now holds the honor of starring in two of the worst comedies of the summer.

The movie has a dirty mind, but that's it. It's a one trick pony shoving booze, vomit, and fecal matter in our faces for a little over 90 minutes. Actors turned screenwriters Dan Callahan and Adam Ellison pad their skeletal screenplay out with non-stop partying and gross out stunts, but never seem to reach a point. There is a romantic love interest for the guys, as well as some male bonding scenes late in the film, but they feel tacked on. It's like the movie is apologizing for everything that came before. The women who fall for the three guys (mistaking them for college freshmen, not knowing they're high school students) act either like drunken bimbos, or sensitive and smart women. It all depends on what the current scene requires. As for the performances? Drake Bell is a crashing bore in his first "adult" role, where as Andrew Caldwell as his overweight and party animal friend is strictly obnoxious. Only Kevin Covais gets to display anything resembling charm. Now all he needs is a better movie, and a role that doesn't cannibalize a character from a much better raunchy teen comedy.

College has been sitting on the shelf for a while, gone through two different distributors, and many more release dates. Now that it's out, I can safely say the wait wasn't worth it. The movie is shameless, and not in a good way. What College doesn't understand is that it's not funny when characters are intentionally offensive. They have to not be in on the joke. These are the kind of people who drink alcohol out of people's private areas because they want to, not because they're forced to, or because they find themselves in over their head. I certainly didn't need to see a movie about people like that, and I doubt there's a large audience for that kind of thing to begin with.

No Amazon info found - Sorry


Friday, August 29, 2008

Babylon A.D.

Were Babylon A.D. merely just a bad sci-fi movie, I could just brush it off. But Babylon A.D. isn't just bad, it is inept. It is also sloppy, ugly to look at, poorly acted, and looks like it's been edited with a hacksaw. It's been well documented that co-writer and director Mathieu Kassovitz (Gothika) clashed with the studio over final control of the film. This movie has all the earmarks of an out of control production that's been reshot and re-edited numerous times in a vain attempt to salvage a doomed project. The most glaring evidence? It's so-called climax and conclusion that seems to have a good 15 or 20 minutes cut out, and hardly manages to make any sense to begin with.

The movie is set in a non-specified time in the future, but it doesn't really matter. It's a post-apocalyptic world where half the planet looks like a gravel pit, and the other half looks like a video game recreation of the world Ridley Scott created in Blade Runner. Problem is, the movie spends so much time in the gray, rocky and ugly side of the world. If you're going to set your movie in a future, give us something to look at, not just a ghetto with a lot of people who look like they'd give their left leg for a hot shower and a warm meal. The movie doesn't even attempt to set up how the world got this way, or who the people are who inhabit it. We're just thrown directly into the life of a gruff mercenary with the unfortunate name of Toorop (Vin Diesel). He's approached by a fellow mercenary named Gorsky (Gerard Depardieu, slumming it up in a cameo) who wants Toorop to do a job for him. The job involves going to Russia where he must transport a young girl named Aurora (Melanie Thierry) and her guardian named Sister Rebekah (Michelle Yeoh, who should have cut her losses after The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) to New York.

Why is Aurora so special that she needs a mercenary to protect her? From what I can gather from the badly butchered screenplay, she's a genetically engineered girl that a religious cult wants to use as their Messiah, so that they can become the dominant religion in the world. Her guardian, Rebekah, has always known there was something strange about the child, but doesn't know what she truly is, since she's been raising her since she was abandoned at her doorstep. At one point, she tells Toorop that Aurora was able to speak by the age of twenty nine different languages (and yes, that's exactly how she says it, complete with the dramatic pause). You'd think a girl who could speak twenty nine languages by the age of two would be kind of hard to keep a secret, but somehow Rebekah has managed keep her locked away from the world. Now that Aurora is out in the open, the cult is trying to hunt her down, as well as another group which is led by a mysterious man who has a lot of robotic parts covering his body. Maybe at one point this movie made sense, but in the studio's mad desire to keep the movie around 90 minutes, the story has been slaughtered beyond almost all comprehension so that no one seems to play any major role, and the plot seems to be flying by the seat of its pants.

Watching Babylon A.D. is a lot like trying to put a puzzle together with 80% of the pieces missing. Character motives are rarely hinted at, and often not even explained at all. Why does Toorop start to warm up and become so protective of Aurora? The movie only gives us bits and pieces. What is this evil religious cult trying to track the girl down? Heck if the movie knows, or even cares. These are but vague ideas for it to throw out, fooling us into thinking it is going somewhere, only to ignore it for long periods of time, or not even bother to bring them up again. I actually forgot the cult played a part in the story, since they disappear for almost the length of the entire movie after they're introduced. This is something you don't want your villains to do in your action film. Speaking of the action, it's unfocused and edited in a spastic fashion to rival last weekend's Death Race. If you're going to cast Michelle Yeoh in your movie, let us get a good glimpse at her fighting before you cut away to your next image.

I'm willing to blame most of the movie's problems due to the fact that the studio interfered way too much. But, Kassovitz cannot escape all of the blame. He is, after all, responsible for directing these performances up on the screen. Vin Diesel talks in a constant mumble of a slurred voice, making him sound like he's recovering from a hangover rather than a trained mercenary. His sluggish movements, combined with the fact that he looks like he'd rather be anywhere but in the movie he's in, make him someone to pity, not someone we can cheer. In playing the young Aurora, Melanie Thierry's main direction seems to have been to stare off into space and look mysterious. Due to the film's fragmented and butchered tone, no one gets to stand out or even do anything worthwhile. You get the feeling that everyone would have been better off staying at home. Given the wooden performances on display, I think half the cast was thinking the same thing.

Babylon A.D. has not been screened for critics, and is being released on Labor Day weekend, a notorious weekend for stinkers. These signs should have been warning enough, but this is such a poorly constructed movie, it actually surprised me by how misguided it was. Someone must have believed in this project at one point, because it's out there. Whatever that something was, it didn't make it into the final product. I'd say maybe it got cut out during the massive editing period, but what I did see of the movie didn't want to make me see more of it. 90 minutes of this was enough.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Don Cheadle is a quiet actor. He's the kind of actor who doesn't have to say a lot, we can see a lot of his internal conflict on his face. He's also very good at expressing emotion. This trait comes in favorably in Traitor, an uneven but ultimately satisfying story of terrorism that asks a lot of hard questions, but intentionally doesn't give a lot of easy answers, or any answers at all. With the Labor Day weekend usually treated as a dumping ground for studios, it's surprising that this thought-provoking drama showed up. Even more surprising is that it sprung from the mind of comic actor Steve Martin (who is credited with the story and as a Producer), and screenwriter turned filmmaker Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who previously wrote the disaster epic from a few years ago, The Day After Tomorrow.

Here, Cheadle plays Samir, a Muslim acting as a deep-cover agent on a mission to infiltrate and gain the trust of terrorist operatives. He must keep his identity and true purposes secret at all times, the only person being aware of his true motives being an agent and handler by the name of Carter (Jeff Daniels). Since the FBI are unaware of Samir's existence, a pair of agents named Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough) mistake him for being a threat to the nation when images of Samir begin appearing near bombing sites and in the company of wanted terrorists. Because of the nature of his mission, Samir is forced to make difficult situations every day, even ones where he must decide if innocent people live or die. He tries his best to earn the favor of the terrorist groups without having to hurt innocents, but naturally, sometimes the explosives he sets up claim lives he did not intend, despite his best efforts.

Traitor leaves us guessing where Samir's loyalties lie for quite a while. He is simply a man fighting to continue to practice his religion peacefully without having to fear being persecuted. He is a devout Muslim, and in this post-9/11 world, that leads to automatic suspicion. His aim is to shut down Muslim extremists so that he can have religious freedom again. He's seen too many people sacrificing themselves for their beliefs, and is trying to do his part. We learn why this is important to him in the film's opening scene, when we witness a flashback to Samir's childhood when he witnessed his father killed in a car bomb. He is a constantly conflicted man who is in danger of going in too deep undercover. He develops genuine friendships with some of the people that he's supposed to be stopping, and as mentioned, he has innocent blood on his hands. This leads to some obvious tension as Samir finds himself questioning not only his own motives and intentions, but also just what kind of good he is actually doing by going this deep undercover into the world of the enemy.

Writer-director Nachmanoff finds the right tone to tell his constantly twisting tale of loyalty. The movie is not exactly fast-paced and action heavy, but it is also not lethargic or drawn down by lengthy scenes of dialogue. Cheadle is able to say so much with just his face and his performance, he often doesn't have to say a word. There is an instant connection with the audience as soon as he steps into the frame of the camera. All of the performances are fine here, but this is clearly Cheadle's movie, and will have you wondering why he is not a bigger star. Despite the film's mainly quiet tone, it does a wonderful job of bringing up the suspense when it is necessary, or leaving us wondering just how Samir is going to get out of the situation that he's currently in. The screenplay does take a few wrong turns here and there (an extended sequence in a prison early on in the film kind of slows things down a little), but they are not enough to distract the audience from what works so well.

What does distract is the occasionally clunky dialogue, such as when tough-talking FBI agent Max Archer tries to muscle some information out of a suspect, and says, "Sorry, guess I left my Bill of Rights at home". Traitor also seems strangely muted, due to its PG-13 rating. This is a film obviously targeted at an adult audience, and a more appropriate rating probably would have made some of the movie's more shocking scenes hit a lot harder. The film's oddly bloodless terrorism violence kind of sticks out like a sore thumb given the central theme and conflict of the film itself. When a young terrorist is chased down and killed by his former allies because he may have jeopardized their mission by talking about it to a family relative, the fact that the outcome is kept mainly off camera really lessens the impact of what should have been a tragic and powerful scene.

Traitor is a flawed film, and sometimes a bit too fond of its own twists and winding plot for its own good. But, thanks to Cheadle's performance and a mostly effective tone that doesn't take sides and provides no real answers, it sticks in your head long after you've walked out of the theater. My only fear is that it will have a hard time finding an audience, as teens are bound to stay away, and adults might ignore it due to its release date. This is a rare late summer movie that actually has a brain in its head, and that's something that cannot be ignored.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Sunday, August 24, 2008

The House Bunny

I am of two minds of The House Bunny. On one hand, the movie seems confused about what it wants to be. The fact that the movie is about a Playboy Bunny, has its first few scenes set at the Playboy Mansion, and even features Hugh Hefner himself in a supporting role would lead you to believe that this would be a raunchy R-rated comedy for adults. But The House Bunny is PG-13, is fairly clean in its content, and seems to be targeted at young girls. Normally, this conflicting tone would be irritating, but I have to admit, I laughed a couple times throughout the film. Most of those laughs are contributed by its star, Anna Faris, a gifted comic actress who has started to grow on me. The plot is contrived and formulaic, and there's nothing new here we haven't seen before, but Faris makes the thing watchable despite its confused tone and obvious flaws.

Faris plays Shelley, one of Hefner's top Bunnies, whose entire life revolves around the Mansion. Her only desire in life is to be Miss November and a centerfold in an upcoming issue. Unfortunately, one of the other Bunnies is also gunning for the spot, and decides to employ treachery to get Shelley out of the running. She forges a letter from Hefner, telling Shelley that she's been fired and has to leave the Mansion. Now homeless, Shelley eventually finds her way to a nearby college campus, and through a series of circumstances too complex to summarize here, ends up becoming the House Mother to the Zeta sorority house. As is the case in these kind of campus comedies, the house is home to the school misfits who are ridiculed by the more prettier and popular sororities. But the head girl in the Zeta house, the brainy yet nerdy Natalie (Emma Stone, who can also be seen in this week's The Rocker), realizes that they can use Shelley's ability to attract men to help them gain popularity on the campus, and maybe even save the Zeta house from being lost due to a lack of pledges.

It's not surprising to learn that The House Bunny was written by the same screenwriters as Legally Blonde, as this film shares quite a few similarities with that film. It also borrows from just about every college comedy ever made, from cult classics like Revenge of the Nerds, all the way to last year's slight but likable Sydney White. The movie manages to remain sweet and pleasant throughout, but never really gets any genuine laughs except for whenever Anna Faris is on the screen. This seems to be intended to launch her into leading woman territory, and she certainly seems to be giving it her all as she gives her character a ditzy yet sweet personality that immediately draws the viewer to her. Some of her clueless observations throughout the film get the biggest laughs, such as when a character states "a little bird told me", and Shelley responds with, "I've gotta meet this frickin' bird!". Or when she's giving make up tips to the girls of the Zeta house, and stresses how important the eyes are, as "eyes are the nipples of the face". Her willingness to do or say just about anything for a laugh is infectious, and helps lift the movie up with a lot of energy and spirit.

If everything else matched Faris' performance, we'd really have something here. Too bad director Fred Wolf (Strange Wilderness) doesn't seem to be interested in anything or anyone but her. The girls of the Zeta house never really get a chance to shine, either as characters or as comic creations. They all have one-note personalities which are never truly explored for emotions or laughs. One of them talks in a raspy voice, one of them wears a body brace, one of them is filled with angst, and there's one that's so shy, she remains inside a closet at all times, texting the other girls when she wants to speak. When Shelley starts teaching them how to open up and be popular, we don't really get a chance to see their transformation, as most of the girls are shoved in the background for the remainder of the film. There is a subplot where Shelley helps the head Zeta girl, Natalie, admit her feelings to a cute guy on campus, but very little is done with this subplot. The other main romantic subplot in the film, involving Shelley falling for a guy named Oliver (Colin Hanks, son of Tom) also never seems as strong as it should. Hanks is given very little to do in his scenes, other than give his co-star strange looks because of her bizarre behavior and observations. The only thing that held my interest is how much he resembles his famous father.

Because of the presence of Anna Faris, I wanted to like The House Bunny a lot more than I did. The movie creates a memorable lead character, but doesn't give her a memorable movie to inhabit. I wanted a movie that held the same warped view as Shelley, and instead got a very conventional and forgettable college comedy made from the parts of those that have come before it. We've heard the film's "girl power" message about being yourself one too many times, and despite Faris' talent, it's not enough to make us forget that.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Death Race

I think we've reached a point where movies stop merely resembling video games, and pretty much have become live action non-interactive video games that we watch. Case in point - Death Race. The movie features a group of prison convicts who drive around in souped up cars that look like something out of Mad Max or...well...a video game. They're equipped with various weapons like machine guns, missiles, drills, and even napalm. But there are rules. The driver can only use his weapon if he drives over an icon that's printed on the street they're driving on. If they drive over a "sword" icon, they can use their main weapons. If they drive over a "shield" icon, they can use their rear weapon. If that description makes Death Race sound like "Mario Kart from Hell", you're not too far off.

Death Race is a very loose update/remake of the 70s cult classic, Death Race 2000. The original film's creator, B-movie master Roger Corman, is credited as one of the Executive Producers of this movie, which made me smile. However, aside from the basic idea of convicts driving cars, and a couple similar names, this film is completely different. Writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson (Alien vs. Predator) was obviously more inspired by reality TV and video games when writing his script. The movie is loud, very dumb, and can sometimes be fun in a loud and very dumb way. It isn't fun enough to recommend, though. Thanks to the film's spastic and rapid editing during much of the racing scenes, I couldn't tell who was in the lead or sometimes or had just gotten killed, until their face was displayed on a computerized ranking screen that pops up now and then to show who has died, and who is still in the race. It's almost as if the movie is helping us make some sense out of the chaos whenever it does this.

Does anyone care about the plot in a movie called Death Race? Nonetheless we get one, albeit one that's barely there. Set in the year 2012, former pro race car driver Jensen Aames (Jason Statham) has the worst day of his life when he loses his job, has the SWAT team called on him when his fellow workers and him protest their meager last paychecks before the factory he works at closes, and then comes home to see his loving wife get murdered by a guy in a ski mask, only to be framed for the crime. Six months later, he's being shipped off to a prison on Terminal Island. The prison is run by a cruel warden named Hennessy (Joan Allen, in total "Ice Bitch Queen" mode) who runs an event called Death Race. A handful of prisoners are picked by her to participate in a series of three races where the only rule is to win and stay alive. Hennessy lost her best racer during the last game, a prisoner who called himself Frankenstein and hid his identity behind a mask. Due to Frankenstein's popularity with the audience who pay to watch Death Race on line, she wants another man behind the mask, and thinks Jensen is her man. She promises his freedom if he wins, but Jensen quickly begins to suspect that she may be responsible not only for him being sent to the prison, but also for his wife's murder so that he'd go to prison in the first place. (You figure it out.) With the help of a wise old prison mechanic named Coach (Ian McShane) and his car navigator and co-pilot from the women's prison, Case (Natalie Martinez), Jensen may just survive as long as he can stay ahead of Frankenstein's old rival on the track, a homosexual murderer who calls himself Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson).

At the very least, Death Race doesn't pretend to be anything it's not. After a brief set up explaining why Jensen is in prison and the rules of the game he's forced to participate in, it's pretty much non-stop tires squealing, bullets flying, and nameless convicts getting killed in over the top R-rated fashion. It's pretty easy to figure out who's going to make it to the final round, as it only concentrates on a small handful of characters to begin with. The rest of the racers are just waiting out their time. Some of the vehicles are kind of cool looking, and come equipped with a variety of James Bond-like gadgets and hidden weapons. Too bad that constantly shaking camera prevents us from truly enjoying it. Since the races are the main draw of the film, you'd think Anderson would have been extra careful in editing them. Instead, he's changing shots and angles every split second, barely giving us a chance to see what we're looking at. The movie is constantly bombarding us with sights and sounds that I had a hard time making things out. There's a big moment during the final climactic race where I seriously had no idea what just happened until one of the characters actually spoke up and explained what we just saw. I saw an explosion and some of the convicts cheering, but until that one character opened his mouth, I was clueless.

There's a lot of opportunity for wicked satire in the movie, none of which is utilized. Anderson only seems interested in blowing stuff up real good, which is amusing for a little while, but I eventually wanted the movie to just slow down once in a while. The actors are pretty much required to look focused when they're driving, and scowl and yell when they're talking to each other. At least they cast the right guy in the lead role, as Jason Statham pretty much does nothing but scowl. Seeing him do the same in numerous other action films, I'm beginning to wonder if the guy can smile in real life without making it look like he wants to kick your ass. In the other lead roles, Natalie Martinez and Tyrese Gibson get very little opportunity to do anything with their characters, while Ian McShane looks downright bored at times. Only Joan Allen seems to be having fun with her "Devil in High Heels" role. Is she too talented to be appearing in a movie like this? Oh, absolutely. But at least she seems to be making the most out of a bad career move.

I knew what I was getting walking into Death Race, and the movie certain delivers on that. The question is, does anyone need what this movie wants to give? Maybe if the movie had more of a sense of humor about itself, or maybe a sense of satire. It would have at least given the impression that some thought went into the screenplay. As it stands, this is a dumb body count movie that tries to entertain us with non-stop violence and carnage. Maybe it's time for Paul W.S. Anderson to put down the video game controller, and realize there's so much more to filmmaking than mimicking the game you're currently playing.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Friday, August 22, 2008

The Longshots

I suspect that somewhere in Hollywood, studios keep people locked away in a room, paging through hundreds of old sports magazines and newspapers, trying to find something that would make a good inspirational movie. They buy the rights to the story, then set about adding the usual ingredients - Have the star player character be an outcast, give them a coach or family figure with a past, and set the story in one of those small towns you only see in movies - The ones where everyone is involved in everybody else's business.

The Longshots has all of those things, but it also has two performances that make the movie almost worth watching. At the heart of the film is Keke Palmer, a young actress who I first noticed as the title character in 2006's Akeelah and the Bee. She was very good in that movie, and she's just as good here as Jasmine Plummer, a brainy and withdrawn 11-year-old girl who discovers a hidden talent for football the more time she spends with her Uncle Curtis (Ice Cube). Jasmine doesn't want anything to do with Curtis at first. Her mother (Tasha Smith) pays him to watch her daughter after school when she has to start working longer shifts at her job. Curtis is a washed up drunk stuck in the past, when he used to be the star player on the high school football team until an injury cut his dreams short. When he discovers his niece has a talent for the sport, he starts to straighten up and becomes determined to see her succeed at something for once by having her try out for her school's team. The plotting may be as old as the hills, but Palmer is a very natural talent. She plays Jasmine as a real girl, and never acts for the camera. Her reaction to everything seems very honest and is never forced.

I liked Ice Cube a lot also, even if he is playing the same kind of character he usually plays in movies these days. He fills both "the family figure and the coach with a past" role, since he takes over as head of the team when the coach has a mild heart attack during practice one day. He may be playing the gruff loser who secretly has a heart of cold, but he is able to give Curtis a very appealing down to Earth personality. I didn't like the character at first, as the movie has to constantly remind us he's an alcoholic by having him carrying a beer bottle in a brown paper bag at all times, even when he's inside Jasmine's school for career day. (Something tells me the teacher would make a bigger deal about that than she does in this movie.) But the movie drops the "angry drunk" angle with the character fairly soon, and starts treating him somewhat more like a real person. That's when both the character and the performance started to grow on me. The quiet and personal scenes he shares with Palmer are very sweet, and the two have good chemistry with each other. It got to the point that I found myself thinking I wouldn't mind an entire movie just about them.

Unfortunately, the movie isn't just about them. It's also about their town, and how it starts to come together once it looks like Jasmine's team might be heading for the championship. When it looks like the team won't have enough money to make it to Florida for the big game, the entire town pitches in. Even the homeless people give what little they have to help little Jasmine live her dream. Heck, the homeless people in this town even help lead the team to victory by shouting advice to the players from the sidelines. I kept on picturing the sign on display as you're driving into this town, and imagine it would read "Home of the nicest street people in the world" under the town's name. The movie asks the kind of questions we'd expect it to ask. Of course the boys on the football team are not happy about having a girl playing with them. Will they accept her? And Jasmine has a dead-beat dad who walked out on her when she was young, only to have him come back when she starts getting national media attention for her football skills. Will she welcome him back into her life? And naturally, the movie has to ask if the team will make it to the big game. The answer to the question may be obvious, but at least the outcome of the climax isn't as much.

The Longshots has certainly been made with more care than I expected walking in, but I could never get over how standard everything was except the two lead performances were. Were it not for them, this would probably be a lost cause. There is one unintentional laugh at the very end, though. After the last scene fades out, we see a picture of the real life Jasmine Plummer, with a caption underneath informing us that she was the first girl to play football in the Pop Warner football tournament. Like the movie didn't just already spend 95 minutes telling us that.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Rocker

If there was ever a movie that needed Jack Black, this is the one. The lead character in The Rocker almost seems to be written with him in mind, and I don't know, maybe it intended to be a starring vehicle for him at one time, but other projects got in the way. Whatever the reason, it's impossible not to think what kind of energy he'd bring to this film - Energy that Rainn Wilson (the actor who does headline this movie) cannot supply, despite his best efforts. At least he seems to be trying, which is more than what I can say for this overly conventional film that barely manages to hold our interest.

Wilson plays Robert "Fish" Fishman, a washed up drummer who lost his chance at stardom back in 1986 when he was the drummer for a rising heavy metal hair band named Vesuvius, only to have his bandmates ditch him right before fame came knocking for the group. His attempt to stop his former friends from running away from him brings about an inspired comic sequence, where Fish seemingly develops superhuman abilities while chasing after their fleeing van. He can run at impossible speeds like a human Terminator, and he then leaps on top of the van, and punches holes through the roof with his drum sticks, causing his bandmates to scream in terror. I laughed a lot at this sequence. I liked its goofy tone, which seemed to be parodying horror films, and it set my mind at ease early on that director Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty) would be giving the movie a likeably offbeat sense. As soon as this sequence ends, however, the movie goes on total auto pilot and never looks back.

Robert is now jobless, homeless, and holding a major grudge against his former band, which has gone on to chart-topping success. Opportunity comes knocking while Robert is living at his sister's house, trying to get his life together. His nephew, Matt (Josh Gad), is in a high school garage band called ADD, and they have recently lost their drummer right before their first gig at the school's prom. Matt asks Robert to fill in as a last resort, much to the dismay of his two fellow bandmates - lead singer and songwriter Curtis (Teddy Geiger), and cynical guitarist Amelia (Emma Stone). They eventually welcome Robert into the band, since he can get them other gigs, and they find their popularity quickly building, especially after Robert becomes an Internet sensation when a video of him drumming naked becomes a hit on Youtube. Seemingly in a matter of weeks, the band is going on tour, selling out massive concert halls, and releasing hit CDs. If this movie proves anything, all you need to break into the music business is a gig at a local bar, and less than a week later, you're on tour.

The Rocker seems to know just how derivative it is, as it races through its various pre-required stops, almost as if it was checking its cliches off one by one. Robert gets a love interest in the form of Curtis' mom (Christina Applegate), who accompanies the band on tour. Despite Applegate getting second billing in the cast, though, her character barely registers, and her plot hardly goes anywhere. There are relationships within the band itself, as young Matt has his eyes on a girl who appears at all of their concerts, and Amelia and Curtis keep on exchanging meaningful glances at each other, but can't speak their feelings. These are dealt with the same lack of interest, almost as if the screenplay is just throwing these ideas out there, but doesn't want to do anything with them. And of course, there has to be turmoil amongst the bandmates. There's a slimy manager who pops up now and then to manipulate Curtis into turning against Robert, but this brief spat is resolved about two scenes later, so we're left to wonder why the movie bothered in the first place. This film is so haphazard and lazy in its tone that even the band getting arrested and going to prison isn't a very big deal in this movie.

Instead of creating characters or situations that we can care about, we're left with a lot of music montages, which seem to make up 80% of the film's middle. I admit, a lot of the music is good, and it will probably help sell a few CDs. But, how about letting us watch the movie first before you advertise the soundtrack? But, at least the music was able to distract me a little from most of the film's humor, which seems to be under the rule that seeing Rainn Wilson getting hit in the face or the privates gets funnier each time it tries it. When he's living at his sister's house early on in the film, it seems to be designed for him to hit his head or fall backwards over something, almost as if The Three Stooges had built the house. I can just picture someone on the construction crew while the house was being built asking why they were making the ceiling and boards in the attic so low, and the head foreman saying, "Trust me, it will be funny when some guy has to live up here someday". Of course, it's not funny to us, because we can see the jokes coming as soon as he sets foot there. Even when he's not in the house, he seems to be a magnet for bees flying in his mouth, tree branches smacking his face, and TV boxes in hotel rooms striking his crotch.

Despite its message of embracing a rebellious spirit and never giving up on your dreams, The Rocker is completely substandard and instantly forgettable. This almost seems to be the kind of movie the month of August was made for. It's not exactly bad, but there's absolutely nothing that stands out about it. Now that the big summer movies have come and gone, it's time for the movies that won't be remembered a month from now. If only the movie had kept the same level of insanity of its first five minutes. Then The Rocker would be a movie worth seeing.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Sunday, August 17, 2008


Whenever I'm watching a movie with promise take a dive into straight-out silliness, my heart sinks a little. My heart was sinking a lot while watching Mirrors. It holds some interesting ideas behind its plot and some good atmosphere with its central setting (the burned remains of an upscale department store), but then wastes its time (and ours) with lots of cheap scares, even cheaper gore shots, a ludicrous climax, and an even worse final scene. It's almost as if co-writer and director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, 2006's The Hills Have Eyes) slowly lost all sense of reason himself the further the film went into production.

The idea behind Mirrors is that there is another world behind the glass, a much darker and more evil world, and what happens when this world can start affecting our own. Although it's not listed in the credits, this film is a remake of a Korean movie called Into the Mirror. I have not seen the original inspiration, so I cannot compare the two movies. All I can say is that this film takes so many wild turns into so many different directions, I started to ask myself where it was going to go next, and not in a good way. At least the movie is slow in getting to the silliness. Perhaps a bit too slow. Aja seemed to be trying to make a slow-burn paranormal thriller here, but there's only so many times we can see the lead hero stepping around in the dark with a flashlight, cautiously eyeing every mirror or piece of reflective glass he comes in contact with, before it starts to lose its effectiveness. There's not enough material here to fill Mirror's nearly two hour running time, and the end result is a needlessly pokey and ultimately contrived thriller that never quite thrills.

The plot: Kiefer Sutherland plays a former New York police detective named Ben Carson, who quit the force over a year ago after he accidentally shot a fellow officer. Ben hasn't been quite the same since, having problems with alcohol and popping pills, and it has taken its toll on his wife Amy (Paula Patton from the recent Swing Vote) and two young kids. As the film opens, he's living with his sister Angela (Amy Smart), and hoping that his new job will be a step toward rebuilding his life. He takes a job as the night watchman at the condemned Mayflower department store, a once-lavish shopping center that was ravished by a deadly fire five years ago. Ben is supposed to patrol the remains of the building every few hours, and as he does, he notices something strange about the mirrors in the store - they seem brand new and untouched by the flames. Even stranger, he keeps on seeing nightmarish visions of people screaming and in agony in their reflective surfaces. You'd think this would be enough to convince Ben to look into a different line of work, but he becomes obsessed, especially when the mirrors start delivering messages to him that appear in cracks in their surfaces. Of course, these messages consist of a vague clue, in this case a name - "Esseker". The ghosts obviously know the cliches of the movie they're in, which states that they can never come right out and say what they want.

As Ben races about the city, trying to find out who Esseker is and what the mirrors want with him, his family begins to find themselves in danger, as the ghosts can apparently move themselves to mirror surfaces outside of the store as well. This is not really explained very well. They apparently start attacking people close to their victim if he or she is taking too long to decipher their cryptic riddles. Don't the ghosts know they'd get what they want quicker if they were more helpful and not killing people? Basically, it's the movie painting itself into a corner by changing the rules. If the ghosts can appear in any reflective surface they want outside of the store, why are they picking on the night watchman? Why not someone more important who would have access to the information they want, or someone who's close to this Esseker person? It's hard to get wrapped up in a supernatural thriller when you keep on finding logic holes in the ghosts' plan. It's also hard when the director apparently gave orders to Kiefer Sutherland to ham up his performance as much as possible. I don't think there's a scene in this movie where he's not frenzied, screaming, or a combination of both.

Mirrors takes itself way too seriously. It doesn't even have fun with itself when Ben starts trying to protect his wife and kids by covering all their mirrors with paint and putting newspapers up over their windows. What would the neighbors think? I kept on waiting for a scene where one would show up, and he'd have to try to explain to them what he was doing. This never happens, as Ben just keeps on racing around, trying to find Esseker. I won't reveal what he finds, but I will say that it's at this point that the movie goes from being an underwhelming ghost movie and becomes an even more underwhelming rip off of The Exorcist. The film's climax (which is clumsily shot with rapid edits, so we can hardly tell what's going on) made me feel like I was watching a Celebrity Wrestling match between Kiefer Sutherland and Linda Blair. Now there's a movie! Forget the possessed mirrors and spooky visions, and just give us that fight. Even after all this, the movie still has enough time to throw an uninspired twist ending at us, which would probably be right at home in a lesser episode of The Twilight Zone.

I started out intrigued by Mirrors. I liked the production design of the charred department store, and a few of the early jump scares were cheap but effective. But then the movie keeps on relying on the same tricks over and over, and I grew impatient as the plot unraveled itself much slower than necessary. It's almost as if the screenplay is killing time, instead of actually exploring its own ideas. Alexandre Aja is a filmmaker who is known for fast paced, gory horror. Here, he tries for something a bit more leisurely, but still gory. The problem is he forgets to engage us while he's taking his time. All this movie gives us is a lot of glass surfaces, a silly and contrived plot, and constant wondering of what this movie could have been in the hands of someone who knew how to make this work.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Friday, August 15, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

So, it has come to this. I think it's safe to say that The Clone Wars pretty much flattens any last shred of credibility that the Star Wars franchise may have held. The disappointing prequel trilogy gave us warning signs that all was not well in LucasLand. This disappointingly shallow, dull, and unneeded side story all but rams the point home. All the imagination and awe from the original films is gone, replaced with a frantic and bombastic assault on the senses that seems to be made by and for 10-year-olds on a major sugar rush.

The solitary purpose of The Clone Wars is to introduce a new animated TV series that will be debuting on the Cartoon Network later this year. Now kids will be able to follow the further adventures of Obi-Wan Kenobi (voice by James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter), set chronologically between Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. But, hold on a minute. Did executive producer George Lucas or anyone else involved with the project realize just how pointless this idea is? We've seen the original trilogy, we've seen the prequel trilogy. We pretty much know what's going to happen to the characters, since their fates have pretty much been public knowledge for about 30 years now. Where's the suspense in that? Why should we tune in to see if these heroes are going to make it out okay if we already know they obviously did? It's a core problem in the movie as well. When Anakin faces down the evil Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, one of the few original actors from the actual Star Wars films who lends his voice to this cartoon) late in the film, the fight seems completely needless, since we hold advance knowledge that the characters do not.

The story that director Dave Filoni and his writers have come up with can best be described as a very basic and shallow hook to hang a seemingly endless string of interminable space dogfight battles, and lightsabre duels. Jabba the Hutt's infant son, Rotta, is kidnapped by mysterious assailants. The kidnappers are working under the devious Dooku, who plans to use the baby Hutt to frame the Jedi, leading Jabba to believe that they are responsible for the abduction. Obi-Wan and Anakin already have their hands full battling the evil droid army that is spreading out across the galaxy, and now they must track down the young creature before the Hutt clan declares war against the Jedi and the Republic. While Obi-Wan and the clone soldiers try to hold off the advancing armies, Anakin, along with his young Padawan apprentice Ahsoaka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), must try to return Rotta to his proper home. Call it Adventures in Hutt-Sitting.

The Clone Wars literally starts with a bang, throwing us directly into the middle of a battle with little explanation, other than a hastily-spoken narration voice over that sounds like it was read by a game show announcer. From there, the characters are briefly re-introduced to us in the thick of battle. Obi-Wan and Anakin exchange a couple weak one-liners with each other, while Yoda (Tom Kane) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) are pretty much restricted to barely registering cameo roles as they watch on the sidelines. Once the situation with the missing baby Hutt is established, the movie literally never slows down. It's one exhausting fight scene or action sequence after another as Anakin and Ahsoaka race across the galaxy to reach the planet Tatooine, as they're pursued by various aliens, droids, and whatever else the filmmakers feel like throwing in. It doesn't take long for the movie to start to resemble a hyper-active video game, as it never slows down long enough to allow the characters to do anything but run and shoot at things. But then, given the wooden dialogue on display, maybe it's a good thing. While the actual Star Wars films were not exactly known for their dialogue, I have to admit I choked on my soda just a little when I heard Anakin's new Padawan refer to him affectionately as "Sky-guy".

It's quite clear that the main appeal of the original films were the special effects, not to mention the imaginative worlds and creatures. So then why does The Clone Wars look no better than the stuff you see in a Saturday morning cartoon? I know, the movie is intended to be a launching point for one, but that doesn't explain how cheap everything looks here. The characters suffer from a very shiny and "plastic" look that makes them look more like animated action figures than actual people inhabiting the story. The hair on the characters don't even move. It's molded and painted onto their heads, kind of like a Ken doll. I'm also still trying to figure out the filmmakers' decision to give everyone such limited facial movement, making the entire cast look like they just received a massive Botox implant. I didn't believe for a second that I was watching a genuine story, or even a continuation of the Star Wars universe. I felt like I was listening to a bad fanfiction story written by a fanboy hopped up on way too much caffeine, acted out by poorly rendered video game characters.

Unless you're the most forgiving fanatic of the franchise to walk this green Earth, or are under 10-years-old, there is absolutely nothing appealing to be found within The Clone Wars. It's nothing but a lot of noise and explosions that assault the senses for 100 minutes, then leaves you walking out of the theater with no real thoughts or impressions. It's not even enjoyable in one ear and out the other entertainment. I'm sure the TV series will probably be no different, but at least you won't have to pay to watch it. You can also change the channel, something I wished I could have done many times watching this film.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tropic Thunder

I see a lot of comedies. Some I laugh at, a lot I don't. Tropic Thunder is the first comedy I can remember in a long time that has made me laugh as loud and as frequently. Heck, the laughs start even before the official studio logo comes up. (I'll let you discover that treat for yourself.) This is a movie that earns just about every gag it attempts, and certainly never plays it safe or backs down. If this film proves anything, it's that Judd Apatow isn't the only name in town when it comes to take no prisoners R-rated comedy. Compared to last week's uneven Pineapple Express (an Apatow production), this movie is gold.

The premise is nothing we haven't heard before - A group of actors are shooting a movie, in this case a Vietnam film. Something happens where they find themselves wrapped up in the real thing, and for the longest time, they think they're still making the movie, not realizing the danger they're in. It's the intelligence and the sheer number of big laughs in Tropic Thunder that lifts this film beyond other films using the same idea. Co-writer, director and star, Ben Stiller, is not just content to recycle plots here. He's here to give Hollywood, and everyone in it, a merciless skewering. The fact that he has wrapped up some big names as his co-stars and in cameo roles all but proves just how right he got it with his take on the industry. The film within the film here is an over budget and troubled war film that has its director (Steve Coogan) at the end of his rope. Despite bringing together some of the biggest names in Hollywood, he can't work with their clashing egos. The writer of the book on which the film is based, a grizzled war vet with a hook for each hand (Nick Nolte), suggests they drop the pampered actors into the middle of the jungle, shoot the film with hidden cameras, and make the most realistic war movie ever made.

The main cast includes fading action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), who is trying to revive his career after his attempt at an Oscar-bait drama called Simple Jack, where he played a lovable mentally challenged farmhand, fell flat with critics and audiences. Also along for the ride is multi-award winning Australian method actor, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr), who underwent a controversial cosmetic surgery to change the color of his skin so that he could play a black soldier in the film's platoon. While this could easily be offensive in the wrong hands, Stiller shows his intelligence at the screenplay level by teaming him up with rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), who not only fails to see the logic in casting an Australian in the role of an African American, but frequently calls the method actor on the fact that he continuously stays in character, even when the cameras aren't rolling. It's biting satire on Hollywood's insistence on having a "name" actor in the leading role, no matter how ridiculous it may be sometimes, and it really works here.

Joining the cast is Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a comic actor best known for a series of comedies called The Fatties, where he plays every member of an overweight flatulence-prone family. Finally, there's relative newcomer, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). Each of the main cast are obviously based on people that Stiller, and co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, have had personal experiences with in past films. It's not hard to see the inspiration in a lot of them. Black's Jeff Portnoy somewhat physically resembles late comic, Chris Farley, while his films are obviously modeled after Eddie Murphy's current work. But the movie goes beyond the simple and obvious targets. It's not afraid to expose a mirror to ruthless studio heads, clueless agents, and just about everything the filmmaking community stands for. Yes, it's true that Tropic Thunder is not the first "inside Hollywood" film to look at such things. But rarely do those films match the insight and biting wit on display here.

The plot officially kicks in when the stranded actors come across an Asian pirate drug cartel who take most of the cast and crew hostage, while attempting to kill the others. This leads to a number of ridiculous and over the top action sequences. Much like last week's Pineapple Express, this movie tries to blend laughs with often graphic violence. Heading home from the movie, I wondered to myself why it worked for me here, but not in the other film. A big part I think has to do with the fact that Stiller and his co-stars play their roles as pompous, comedic caricatures. They're just as over the top as the situations they find themselves in, so it does not seem quite so out of place here. The movie finds a consistent tone, wether they're tossing one-liners, or tossing grenades at drug-crazed 10-year-old Asian kids. There's a certain unbridled ferociousness to the comedy that's very admirable here. You get the sense that the cast will try just about anything for a laugh, and although there are some occasional clunkers (a subplot concerning Nick Nolte's character being captured along with the film's explosive's expert, played by Danny McBride, never quite takes off, and is wisely dropped early on), the many jokes that do work deliver such large laughs that it can be easily forgiven.

Though Tropic Thunder frequently flies into the realm of bad taste, the energetic cast keep the atmosphere fun, instead of disheartening. While Stiller, Jack Black, and Steve Coogan as the suffering director all get their share of stand out moments, they are all outshadowed by Robert Downey Jr, who continues his summer winning streak after Iron Man with his riotous portrayal of a man so in love with himself, he fails to see how ridiculous he truly is in his most recent role. It's a risky role, and one that easily could have damaged his career, but he pulls it off by having his character not be in on the joke. He's not making a racial statement, he's making a statement on egotistical actors here. There are also a lot of fun cameos, including a not-so-secret appearance by Tom Cruise as an overweight and balding studio head who curses like a sailor and dances to hip-hop, and Matthew McConaughey as Tugg Speedman's agent, who seems more concerned with hooking his client up with Tivo, as his contract clearly states, rather than his client's own safety.

Tropic Thunder has already drawn some fire from the easily offended, and they have accused the film of being racist and using negative stereotypes of the mentally handicapped for easy laughs. Taken out of context, I can understand how this could be assumed, but that's not what Stiller set out to do here. This movie is not embracing the stereotypes, it is a satire Hollywood's continued use of them. This movie is fun, it is frequently hilarious, and it is some of the most fun I've had at a comedy in a long time.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2

Even though I have never seen the original Traveling Pants movie, I kind of had a good idea what to expect walking into The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2. I expected there would be a lot of female bonding (accompanied by soft piano music), a lot of break ups (piano music), a lot of make ups (yes, more piano music), and "girl power" dialogue such as, "The only one who can diminish your potential is yourself". (The piano should get its own credit by now...) I got what I expected, and sadly, not a whole lot else. If the filmmakers really wanted to be honest, they would have titled this film "Chick Flick Screenwriting Class 101".

The title refers to four girls who are lifelong best friends who, despite going their separate ways in life, they share a common bond - a pair of jeans that somehow is able to be a perfect fit for all four of them. Each girl wears the jeans for a week, then mails it off to the next girl along with a letter of what is going on in their lives. I'm assuming they also wash the jeans once in a while, since they've apparently been doing this for three or four years now as the film starts. However, the movie never goes close to a laundromat. The first film covered their high school years. Now they're young adults and, much to the sadness of one of the girls, Carmen (America Ferrara), they're starting to drift apart as they go their own ways in life. Can the magic of the traveling pants keep them together? This is just one of the many tough questions this movie asks. I won't spoil the answer for you, but I will say that the last half hour of the film is driven by the crisis of the pants having gone missing.

Despite the fact that the girls are now in their 20s, their personalities and problems still seem rooted in teenage soap operas. The previously mentioned Carmen is a shy and kind of quiet girl who is constantly kept on the sidelines by one of her friends, a snobby blonde named Julia (Rachel Nichols), who we can immediately spot as being a stuck up witch from the second she walks on screen, but Carmen doesn't realize until much later, when she's ready to deliver that quote about "diminishing your potential". Carmen works backstage at a theater company in Vermont, where Julia is a star player. But then, a handsome young British actor named Ian (Tom Wisdom) takes a shine to her, and forces her to audition for the female lead in their production of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale". Carmen gets the role, while snobby Julia is stuck with a minor role. With Carmen getting not only the lead but all the attention from Ian, Julia sets about a devious scheme to bring her friend down, by pretending that Ian is in love with her instead, and badmouthing Carmen behind her back with the director and other actors. These are the kind of plots that used to fuel after school teen dramas on Nickeloden and MTV. Now they're carrying our summer movies.

The thing is, America Ferrara is quite likable as Carmen, and has a lot of personality in the role. It's just that the tired screenplay does her no favors. The same goes for the rest of the Sisterhood, which includes sporty Bridget (Blake Lively), sarcastic Tibby (Amber Tamblyn), and nice girl artist Lena (Alexis Bledel). They're fine actresses in their respective roles, and the characters that they play are quite likable. Bridget goes off to Turkey to participate in an archeological dig, but leaves early to reunite with her estranged grandmother (Blythe Danner) whom she hasn't seen in years, and helps Bridget comes to terms with the suicide death of her mother. Tibby has a brief scare when she thinks she might be pregnant after having sex with a guy she's been seeing for almost a year, and the condom breaks. Lena is going to art school, and finds herself torn between two guys - the nude model who poses for her in class whom she has struck up a relationship with, and an old flame from the original film who broke her heart, but has come back. Despite the performances and the characters being likable, their storylines and problems are so generic and straight-forward, it's really hard to care about anything that happens to them.

Part of the reason why the stories never quite connect emotionally is that the movie feels like it's constantly pulling us in different directions. The film glaringly jumps from one plotline to the next with very little rhyme or reason. It's almost as if director Sanaa Hamri had strict orders that no scene could be longer than two minutes in length. Just when we're starting to get drawn in a little, it suddenly jumps to a completely different story, and then just as rapidly jumps to the one after that. Of the four main plots, Carmen's is probably the one that the film spends the most amount of time with, so she comes across as the most fleshed out of the girls. The other members of the Sisterhood seem to get a bit shafted, especially Bridget. The movie spends very little time with her and her grandmother, so we never get a true sense of their connection, which is so key to her storyline. Her final scene with her father, which is supposed to be the emotional climax of her plot, is so brief it almost seems like an afterthought.

I am aware that I am not the intended audience for The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, but I will openly admit to finding much to admire and even liking other movies that were obviously intended for women. Here, I found myself mainly ticking off the well-worn cliches in my head, and counting the minutes until that ever-present soft piano music would kick in on the score. Were it not for the likable lead performances, there would be nothing to recommend here. Even with the performances present, there's very little to excite or even engage to be found.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Pineapple Express

If the credits behind Pineapple Express sound weird (the movie reteams Superbad screenwriters, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and pairs them up with director David Gordon Green, a filmmaker more known for serious thought-provoking indie dramas), then the movie itself is even stranger. Here is a movie that tries to combine raunchy stoner humor, with gratuitous, graphic, off the wall violence. Try to picture what would happen if Cheech and Chong wandered into one of the movies Schwarzemegger or Stallone used to make back in the 80s, and you won't be too far off. Though certainly watchable, nothing quite gels together in Pineapple Express, and (like just about every movie comic producer Judd Apatow has made) the movie is far too long to the point that it wears out its welcome long before it's done.

Just like Superbad, the movie deals with two friends who find themselves in a series of escalating adventures just because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) is a process server who spends half of his time handing out legal summons, and the rest of his time either getting high with his best friend and drug dealer, Saul (James Franco, in a rare and surprisingly effective comic role), or trying to avoid the parents of his underage high school girlfriend Angie (Amber Heard). After Dale picks up some rare weed from Saul known as Pineapple Express, he goes back to work, and happens to witness a murder where he sees a dangerous drug kingpin named Ted (Gary Cole) and a crooked cop (Rosie Perez) executing a rival. In his panic to escape, Dale accidentally drops his joint, and Ted recognizes it and its source. Dale and Saul are forced to go on the run, trying to stay ahead of the hitmen that Ted sends after them, no longer sure who they can trust.

Pineapple Express is the sixth release from Apatow's production company in the course of a full year (from last August when Superbad came out, to now), and this movie obviously shows some strains. While there are still some fleeting laughs throughout the film, they're not as big as they should be, and they definitely did not come very often to me, or anyone else at my screening. Much of the humor is of the lazy stoner variety, which we have seen far too many times before, and the movie does very little to convince us why we need to see it again. This is a fairly aimless and meandering comedy that takes its sweet time in setting up its premise, then pretty much puts it aside for long periods of time, giving Rogen and Franco plenty of chances to do some pot-assisted hijinks. While I'm still not fully convinced that Seth Rogen has what it takes to be a leading man, James Franco seems more than up to the challenge of playing the surprisingly sweet-natured and almost child-like Saul. Not only does he get the best lines in the film, but he also throws himself full-tilt into his off-kilter character, and makes him into someone we can get behind. He's obviously the character that got the most attention at the screenplay level, as no one else even comes close in the film. No surprise, considering Rogen had initially written the character for himself.

Much like the two half-baked lead characters, the movie seems to be in a continuous daze. It never really focuses on its plot, its characters, or anything much in particular. The villains and hitmen after Dale and Saul kind of wander in and out of the story. They're there to fuel the more action-heavy moments of the film, but not much more than that. Equally mishandled is the character of Dale's girlfriend, Angie, who is set up early on to play an important role in the film, then kind of just peters out without so much as a resolution. We're supposed to be amused by the antics of the two friends at the center of the film, and while I was for a while, they're not strong enough to carry a nearly two hour long movie. At least the title characters in the Harold and Kumar films come across as interesting and somewhat intelligent people. Though Franco's Saul is likable, neither him or Dale come across as people you'd want to spend an extended amount of time with. Even stoner comedies need something we can attach ourselves to, and this movie gives us very little in terms of character.

What sets Pineapple Express apart from most comedies of its kind is its occasional action sequences, and surprisingly graphic depiction of violence. While the sequences are done extremely well (a highlight being a wonderfully staged car chase sequence half-way through the film), they do give the film a severe personality disorder. The film's climactic and gory shoot out is surprisingly brutal, especially considering that this is the same movie that features a fellow drug dealer whose running gag is that he cannot die, no matter how much he gets shot, mangled, or blown up. It's last 20 minutes or so suddenly seems to take a rather serious turn on its violence, and we're left with mixed signals. The characters seem out of place with the violence and chaos erupting around them, and while that's perhaps the joke, I still found it hard to chuckle when a character who was mainly played for laughs was crushed to death by a speeding car.

Pineapple Express never quite finds a consistent tone, nor does it find a reason that it has to be as long as it is. There are a couple laughs and some stand out action sequences, but they're not enough to hold up an entire film. I liked the character of Saul, but everyone else I could do without. For me, this movie only strengthened my belief that Seth Rogen should stick to supporting characters, where I actually find him funnier. He doesn't have the personality or the charm to carry a leading role, and when that leading role is attached to an uneven and mainly uneventful film, he sinks even faster.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

There's a part of me that revels in over the top cheese entertainment like The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. It's the same part of me that gets happy when I come across an old sci-fi movie on TV that features cardboard space ships, and the ship's main computer is represented by blinking Christmas lights and a box. 1999's The Mummy and 2001's The Mummy Returns were able to tap into this part of me, so that I could find enjoyment in them despite their obvious flaws. Dragon Emperor, however, was never able to win me over. Director Rob Cohen (Stealth, The Fast and the Furious) gives us a lot of stuff that should be dumb fun, but it winds up being more dumb than fun. He knows the music, but he doesn't know the lyrics.

I certainly have to give him credit for effort, though. This movie contains stuff like ancient jewels with magic powers that can only be activated when the blood of someone "with a pure heart" comes in contact with it. This is also the kind of movie where explorers discover an ancient tomb and accidentally set off some booby traps, killing off some of the faceless hired help in their expedition. The explorers merely brush off the death of their comrades with a casual "comes with the territory". And just to top it all off, there's shape-shifting mummies, not one but two armies of the undead, and immortal witches who can summon a band of yetis when the heroes are outnumbered in battle. It sounds fun, and by all accounts it should be, but something is off. The humor and one-liners are muted, and save for the returning cast members, everyone seems to be taking this stuff a little too seriously. This is supposed to be mindless popcorn entertainment, and somehow the movie fooled itself into thinking it was epic.

Things start off on the wrong foot with an overlong and overly serious back story about the Dragon Emperor (Jet Li), an ancient warlord who swept across ancient China to conquer the land with his massive army. He eventually wished to become immortal, and enlisted a local witch named Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) to guide him to a secret magic scroll that could grant his wish. The Emperor fell in love with the woman, but her affections fell to his head General instead. The Emperor has the General killed, and in an act of revenge, Zi Juan curses the Emperor and his entire army, turning them to stone, where they are eventually entombed. The immortal Zi Juan and her daughter, Lin (Isabella Leong), have been guarding the tomb for centuries, but that doesn't stop it from being discovered by young tomb raider, Alex O'Connell (Luke Ford). Alex finds out too late that he has been used by an evil Chinese army, who wish to revive the Dragon Emperor and take over the world. Alex must team up with his father, Rick (Brendan Fraser) and mother, Evelyn (Maria Bello, stepping in for Rachel Weisz from the first two films), who both obviously have a lot of experience dealing with evil world-conquering mummies. Along for the ride is Evelyn's brother and comic relief, Jonathan (John Hannah), and a pilot named Mad Dog (Liam Cunningham) from Rick's old days as a soldier.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is never as fun as it seems to think it is, or as thrilling. It keeps on throwing a lot of over the top action sequences at us, including a scene where Rick and his friends are in a car driving down the streets of Shanghai as they pursue the Dragon Emperor in a ghoulish horse and carriage. A scene like this would probably inspire some sort of wonder in a different movie, but here, it's just a lot of CG and fireworks going off. The movie seems more concerned about throwing it's budget all over the screen, rather than actually entertaining us. There are so many scenes that initially start off as being promising, only to be let down by the total lack of imagination put into the screenplay by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. Just imagine the expectations I had when the heroes were battling with the evil Chinese army in the Himalayas, and the witch Lin summons a group of yetis to come and aid them in battle. Then imagine my disappointment when the yetis were basically restricted to not doing a while lot but throwing people around over and over, and a lame sight gag where one of the monsters throws a soldier over a goal post-shaped gate like a football, then does the "touchdown" hand gesture. It doesn't help matters that the yetis come across as The Incredible Hulk crossed with Ewoks to begin with.

Now the previous Mummy films weren't exactly classics, but at least the cast seemed to be having fun. Here, everything's done on a lower level. Brendan Fraser does what he can, and is still as likable as ever as Rick, but the one-liners he's been given this time around aren't as good, and he seems to know it. At the very least, at least he's not restricted merely to standing around while things fly at the camera like in his other recent adventure film, Journey to the Center of the Earth. While Fraser at least seems to be trying, his co-stars seem lost at sea. Maria Bello is a poor replacement for Weisz, as she lacks the chemistry with Fraser. She constantly comes across as a stand-in, rather than the character we've come to know. The same goes for Luke Ford as Rick and Evelyn's adult son. Fraser and Ford are never able to create a real father-son bond, and seem more like distant friends than family. A lot of this probably has to do with the fact that Ford is only 12 years younger than Fraser in real life. John Hannah is back as the wise-cracking Jonathan, but much like Fraser, his comic material is lacking this time around.

What's probably a bigger disappointment are some of the new characters to the franchise, especially when you consider the talent that's been gathered. Jet Li makes for a surprisingly dull and unmemorable villain, who acts more as a plot device than an actual character in the story. He has the power to control the elements and can change his form into a three-headed dragon or a giant beast-like creature, but he seldom utilizes these abilities, preferring instead to stand around, narrowing his eyes at everything and everyone around him. The equally talented Michelle Yeoh is wasted also in her role that barely registers as a supporting part. It seems a crime that the confrontation between these two legendary martial arts stars comes across as a 20 second afterthought, before the movie goes right back to throwing CG in our face. The lovely young Isabella Leong is nice to look at, but mainly spends her screen time being enamored with Alex for little to no reason, since Alex doesn't do much during the course of the film.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor comes across as a desperate last gasp to drag out a franchise that is about seven years past its prime. While it's not unwatchable, there's just no reason why this movie needed to be made in the first place. Everyone else has moved on, you wonder why the filmmakers didn't. Because they couldn't leave well enough alone, we're left with a movie that's too silly to be epic, and not fun enough to be a guilty pleasure like the other films were. It's just a lot of bloated budget thrown at a project that didn't deserve it in the first place.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Friday, August 01, 2008

Swing Vote

I am sitting here, gathering my thoughts on Swing Vote, and find myself of two minds. On one hand, the movie is contrived, predictable, implausible, and never quite seems sharp enough when it is concentrating on the topic of politics or political satire. At the same time, the movie manages to be likable, sweet-natured, and contains some stand-out performances. If co-writer and director Joshua Michael Stern seems a bit confused as to what kind of a movie he wants to make (A political satire? A family melodrama?), at least the good stuff in Swing Vote is good enough to balance out its glaring flaws a little.

One thing that the movie fortunately understands is its star, Kevin Costner. Despite the fact that much of his professional career has been tarnished due to some very bad choices throughout the 90s, I still can find him likable in down to earth everyman roles. Here, he plays Bud Johnson, a middle-aged blue collar man whose life is in shambles. He lives in a trailer with his serious-minded young daughter, Molly (Madeline Carroll), his debts are piling up, he recently lost his job, and he is so irresponsible to the point that Molly often comes across as the parent in their relationship, making breakfast for him and practically running the house when he's too drunk to even stand up. Molly has an interest in politics, and is trying to convince her dad to vote in the upcoming Presidential election. When Bud lets her down by not even showing up at the voting center, the girl decides to take matters into her own hands, and secretly votes for him. Unfortunately, a computer glitch erases the vote. In the coming days, it is revealed that the numbers for the next President are too close to call, and it all rests on Bud's single vote once his identity is quickly tracked down by a rising young TV anchorwoman named Kate Madison (Paula Patton).

Bud's run down trailer in the middle of the New Mexico desert suddenly becomes the center of the world as the news media, curious onlookers, and members of the two presidential campaigns swoop down almost overnight. The two competing nominees, current Republican President Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and Democratic opponent Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper), are advised by their respective campaign managers (Stanley Tucci and Nathan Lane) to do whatever it takes to get Bud's vote and confidence. They try catering their views to his wants, and even resort to bribes to win his favor. As the situation escalates out of control, Bud finds his sudden celebrity status confusing, while young Molly only wants her dad to listen to the common people once letters from all over the nation start piling in, reminding him of what he should be standing and voting for.

In terms of political stance and satire, Swing Vote is about as sharp as a butter knife. I do like that the film does not take sides. It is neither pro or anti Republican and Democrat, and both candidates are treated relatively the same, even if both individuals come across as being easily swayed and all too willing to flip-flop with whatever the situation demands. The movie obviously wants to be a simple, laid back, and almost Frank Capra-style fable about a common blue collar everyman who never cared much about anything, who suddenly finds himself in a position where his voice and decision can affect the lives of millions. The movie doesn't try to make any startling statements about politics, and doesn't say anything that hasn't been said a hundred times before. While this is not all bad, I sometimes wanted the movie to get a little bit more fearless sometimes. It seems so determined not to truly offend or say anything challenging in any way, shape or form, that it almost seems to be holding itself back. The movie has some fun with some clever and witty campaign commercials with both candidates switching their views based around whatever Bud happens to say in a news interview. This obviously alienates their past supporters, and I wish the film had gone more in depth with this idea, as we never get a true sense of how these two men are hurting themselves by redesigning their entire campaigns on the whim of a single man.

Despite the main emphasis on the election, the movie is actually strongest when it steps away from the campaign race, and focuses on Bud and Molly's life at home. This is what gives Swing Vote most of its heart and charm. While there are a few scenes that seem somewhat emotionally forced, such as Molly running away and discovering what her estranged mother has become over the years, these scenes are genuinely heartfelt and seem more honest than any of the political stuff. The fact that their family life plays a big role in the film itself is mainly what helps lift the film up above its flaws. Bud and Molly are written as real people, and despite their vast differences in personality, we can sense true love and chemistry between the two. Bud is written as a man who has pretty much given up on the world, with only his daughter left. Molly is a girl smart beyond her 10 years who refuses to give up on her dad, even if he has already given up on himself. The screenplay by Stern and Jason Richman (Bad Company) gives them enough moments together that not only do we get a feel for their relationship, but it becomes the strongest aspect of the film, carrying us through its two hour running time.

A big part of this appeal has to do with Costner and rising young child star, Madeline Carroll, who after this movie, I can easily see joining the ranks of Dakota Fanning and Abigail Breslin at the top of the child actor heap. Carroll has had some small roles in past films such as Resident Evil: Extinction and The Santa Clause 3, but this is her first major character, and she not only manages to keep up with Costner, she actually surpasses him in more than a few scenes. I'm anxious to see her again, and to see her career build from here. Speaking of Costner, this is one of his most natural performances in years. While he occasionally comes a bit close to playing up the "aw shucks" good old boy routine a bit too far, he never loses the heart of his character, and makes Bud into someone we want to see change for the better, just like his daughter does. With these great performances and material, it's a shame that the outside stuff involving the election and an underdeveloped subplot concerning TV reporter Madison never seems to go anywhere.

I've come this far, and I'm still of two minds with this movie. I guess I liked Swing Vote enough, but I wanted it to go even further. The movie is pleasant, certainly doesn't offend, and showcases what will hopefully be a bright young talent. I guess the soft approach works better for the family drama material rather than the political satire, which shouldn't be very surprising. Swing Vote is sure to make a decent rental when it comes out on DVD, but it's not much more than that.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at!


Powered by Blogger