Reel Opinions

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Is there a harder movie to review than one that is well-made and well-meaning, but muddled in its execution? The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is filled with lots to admire. It offers an intriguing look at World War II through the eyes of a young boy who is the son of a Nazi commandant. He is too young to understand the horrors of war, and what his father does for a living. How can his father be a terrible person? But, he receives mixed signals, first from his grandmother who does not support the Nazi cause, and then from his mother, who slowly begins to realize the horrors that her husband is participating in during his duty. It sounds powerful, and indeed it should be. Surprisingly, the turmoil at home is treated with limited energy, and never truly hits as hard as it should. It's not until the film's final 15 minutes that the movie realizes and uses its own power in a gut-wrenching, but extremely contrived, conclusion.

There is a brilliant and quiet little scene during the opening credits which sets up one of the main themes of the film. Eight-year-old Bruno (Asa Butterfield) and his friends are joyfully running and playing down the streets of Berlin. At one point, they pass by some Jews who are being herded at gun point into trucks to take them into concentration camps. Bruno and his friends do not even notice what is going on right in front of them, and simply go running by playing in front of those who we know have been given a death sentence. It's a perfectly staged moment, because it does not draw attention to itself. The camera is focused on Bruno's joy, not the misery going on around him. As soon as young Bruno returns home, he learns that his father (David Thewlis) has been made the head commandant of a concentration camp, and that the family must move to a home nearby the camp until the war is over. Bruno does not want to leave his friends and school behind, but his mother (Vera Farmiga) tries to put on a good face, and make the best of the situation for young Bruno and his older sister Gretel (Amber Beattie).

The house that the family is moved to is an unwelcoming one with high walls and soldiers just outside the main gate. With no friends and no one to talk to other than his stuffy at-home tutor, Bruno quickly starts looking for ways to escape and explore outside the wall surrounding his home. He finds a door that leads to a path through the woods out back. Following the path, he comes upon an electrified fence, where a boy about his age in "striped pajamas" sits on the other side. The boy is Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), and we know that he is a prisoner within Bruno's father's camp. But young Bruno does not quite understand the situation, and in a way, neither does Shmuel. They bond by talking to each other through the fence, and before long, the child on the outside of the fence is beginning to realize his father's actions. Shmuel looks nothing like the prisoners he sees in propaganda films, where the Jews are shown doing fun activities and being treated well when they're not at work. The boy Bruno talks to is withered, hungry, and losing hope. He begins to see his father in a more questionable light, while meanwhile, his mother struggles on her own to come to terms with the horrors going on so close to home.

Based on the novel by John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas gives us an innocent and somewhat naive, but no less powerful, look at a human tragedy. The story is told entirely from the point of view of a child who does not fully understand what he sees and hears around him. The concentration camp is a "farm", the uniforms the prisoners within wear are "pajamas", the numbers on their uniforms are part of a game, and young Bruno considers his new friend lucky that he gets to be around so many people, while he's stuck in his house all the time. It may be a bit of a stretch that a boy Bruno's age who is the son of a head Nazi officer would not be aware of what's going on around him until just now, but it didn't bother me too much while watching it. Writer-director Mark Herman forces us to see things through the eyes of Bruno, so that even though we are surrounded by one of the worst moments in history, they are mainly kept in the background. Even if some of the scenes between the two children come across as being somewhat manipulative, the natural performances by Asa Butterfield and Jack Scanlon keep things in check. Young Scanlon in particular gives a very understated performance as a boy who knows he has been locked up, but doesn't understand why, or what happened to some of his friends and loved ones who went into the camp with him, but he hasn't seen since then.

If these moments between the two children made up a majority of the picture, you'd probably be reading a rave review. Unfortunately, the movie has to keep on turning to scenes within Bruno's house, which should be emotionally satisfying, but suffer from a surprising lack of emotion. Despite a noteworthy and highly emotional performance by Vera Farmiga as the mother, her dealing with the realization of what her husband is truly doing never quite hits as hard as it should, because the movie seems to keep on cutting away from her. She's kept in the background for most of the scenes, while we get Bruno trying to make sense of his tutor's lessons that all Jews are evil, and trying to sort through the things he sees and hears from his father and propaganda films, and what he sees for himself whenever he visits Shmuel. The drama here is oversimplified, and sometimes heavy handed. (Most of Bruno's internal struggle is dealt with him wandering through the house while we hear the voice of his father and others echo in his head in voice over.) We keep on waiting for the scene where tensions within the family will explode, but it never comes. Everything is so strangely muted, even the argument that Bruno's parents have with one another is kept off camera.

It's not until the film's climax that finally we get a sequence worthy of the emotional power the movie should have had all along. And yet, at the same time, it relies on a series of coincidences, misunderstandings, and convoluted storytelling. It's the Holocaust used as plot manipulation, which may offend some audiences. This is what makes The Boy in the Striped Pajamas such an interesting, yet curiously unsatisfying movie. It's well-performed and well made for what it is, but when we look back on the film, we see all the manipulations that it took to reach the ending. This is a flawed film, which I was glad I got to see anyway. There's quite a lot to admire, and if it had a little more, I could give it a full recommendation.

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Friday, November 28, 2008


Whenever a director impresses me, such as filmmaker Baz Luhrmann did with his visionary and imaginative musical Moulin Rouge, I find it hard to wait to see what he or she will do next. I never expected the wait to be seven years, nor did I expect to be as disappointed as I was with the ultimate results. Australia is a sweeping and stunning epic visually, to be sure. Cinematographer Mandy Walker fills the screen with vast, sweeping landscapes, and a handsome look that brings to mind classic 1940s films. But what should be the most important aspect of a film such as this (the heart) feels cold and mechanical underneath all the visual trappings. This is a sweeping, but curiously detached romantic epic that never comes to life.

If you're going to expect audiences to sit through a movie that runs for nearly three hours, there has to be something there in the story. Everything here is either overly calculated, or meandering to the point of near-madness. After a while, the grandeur of the visuals wears thin, and we start looking toward the characters to supply us with emotional attachment. The uneven script opens in 1939, and tells the story of Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), a British aristocrat who heads for Australia to be with her husband, who is currently trying to turn the luck of a cattle ranch called Faraway Downs around. Her husband is murdered before she can arrive, and so Sarah finds herself inheriting the land and the workers. In order for the ranch to survive, she must sell the cattle to the military stationed in Darwin. The main supplier of beef and cattle in Darwin, the Carney Cattle Company, has been intentionally sabotaging the Faraway Downs ranch, hoping to buy the land for its own purposes. Not wanting to lose to the oily King Carney (Bryan Brown) or his son Fletcher (David Wenham), Sarah decides to make the treacherous cattle drive herself with the aid of a grizzled cowboy named Drover (Hugh Jackman), and a young Aborigine boy named Nullah (Brandon Walter) who lives on the ranch in secret, since he is a half-breed or "creamy", and would be sent to Missionary Island if anyone discovered him.

During the course of the cattle drive, Sarah and Drover develop a supposedly close relationship, even though the movie never quite delves as deep as it probably should. We get a lot of impressive shots of the open landscape of Australia, and an equally impressive action sequence where the evil Fletcher and his men set a stampede, and Sarah, Drover and their group must prevent the cattle from running wild. But, the movie meanders most of the time here. It never quite finds sure footing, and its tone seems to change scene to scene. The early moments between Sarah and Drover are treated like a mischievous romantic comedy, and the narration by young Nullah hints that the movie will have a whimsical and charming tone. But it never lives up to that promise. It never finds a consistent tone, nor does it figure out how to endure these characters to its audience. The relationship that builds between Sarah and Drover is contrived, instead of natural. They fall in love not because of scenes they share together, but because they are the stars of the movie. The movie takes the easy way out, and sets most of their bonding off camera, or in brief montage sequences.

For the third act, the film plunges right into the early days of World War II, with Japanese fighter planes approaching mere months after bombing Pearl Harbor. The movie tries to build tension by separating the three heroes. Little Nullah has been discovered and sent to Missionary Island (which is in danger of being the first place the planes will bomb), Sarah is trying to get to Nullah so that they can be together, and Drover has gone off, pretending he doesn't care, but we know he does because he's the rugged hero. (He only left in the first place, because he holds a lot of painful memories of when his wife died, and doesn't know how to open up in relationships.) The tension is supposed to be supplied by the fact that these three characters are trying to get to each other, and information is limited as the attacks start up, so they often don't know if the ones they're looking for are even alive. Once again, the fact that we don't know these characters very well dampens the dramatic impact. The visuals of the planes diving and bombing the landscape is occasionally breathtaking, but there is no emotional center. It's simply an undercooked romantic melodrama set against a historic backdrop. The fact that it takes place during World War II has little consequence. If you think this sounds a little like Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor film, you wouldn't be too far off.

And that's the problem. Instead of truly exploring its setting or its own ideas, Australia is content to simply recycle an age old love story with a fresh coat of visual paint. This was intentional, as co-writer and director Luhrmann has stated he based his characters on classic film roles. Unfortunately, Sarah and Drover don't have half the life or personality as the characters they're modeled after. For example, Sarah is supposed to be modeled after Katherine Hepburn's character in The African Queen. But Nicole Kidman lacks the charm of Hepburn's classic performance. She's a typical spoiled aristocrat cliche who is supposed to go through a transformation for the better because of her experiences, but she never turns into a very interesting character. Likewise, Jackman's Drover is a surprising bore. Yeah, he's rugged and handsome, but he seems to have no real personality or motivations other than to look rugged and handsome. Both Kidman and Jackman have impressed me many times in the past, and they're certain to again. Here, they're stuck with character descriptions instead of genuine personalities. It's as if Luhrmann gave both of them one or two basic character traits, and then told them to build their entire performances around that. There's no heart behind their performances.

If it had been done right, Australia could have been a magical and sweeping movie. The film obviously wants us to be swept away in its epic romance, but the uninteresting characters at the core of that romance hold us back. When the lovers are brought together or torn apart, the movie seems to be trying its hardest to generate emotion, but we don't react. Even a hopelessly romantic tale such as this needs some substance. The climax of the film is a key example of just how this thing goes wrong. It's a convoluted set up built around reunions, chance circumstances, attempted murder, and contrived heroics by a character who's been watching from the outside the entire time, only to suddenly step in at just the right moment and prevent disaster. It's the kind of ending that's supposed to have us cheering, but I was left shaking my head. It's not that I'm a cynic. After all, Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge used many of the same melodramatic elements this film does, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But here, because we have no involvement with anything except the scenery, it seems cornball.

Australia is the kind of movie where you find yourself asking, "why isn't this working" while you're watching it. All the elements are there, but they don't come together. Even when you realize it's not coming together, you keep on hoping that something's going to happen to make it worth the wait. After all, the film supposedly cost over $100 million to make. This is a prime example of a lot of money being thrown into a project, with very little to show for it other than some pretty pictures.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Four Christmases

Compared to recent family holiday cinematic turkeys like Christmas With the Kranks and The Perfect Holiday, Four Christmases is a step above. The plotting is completely conventional and mundane, so much so that it's amazing it took four different credited screenwriters to dream it up. Fortunately, Vince Vaughn is here to add some unexpected sarcasm and general humor to the generic proceedings. He's put to much better use here than he was in last year's holiday comedy, Fred Claus. His presence doesn't quite turn the movie into something I can recommend, but he sure does make the whole thing go down easier.

Vaughn is backed up by a talented cast who don't quite make the same impression he does, but give it their all. Reese Witherspoon is his main co-star. They play Brad and Kate respectively - A wealthy and self centered couple who don't believe in a lot of things. They don't believe in marriage (complicates what they think is a strong relationship), having children (ditto), and especially visiting their family for the holidays, as they both have personal skeletons in their closet concerning their families they'd rather forget. Each Christmas, the couple make up an excuse as to why they can't visit (usually revolving around volunteer work in another country), and then take off on a dream vacation together. This year, their destination is the islands of Fiji, but a heavy fog grounds and cancels all the flights. A local anchorwoman is at the airport covering the widespread cancellations, and puts Brad and Kate on the air, which blows their ruse about doing volunteer work. Their families just happen to be watching, and immediately invite them over for the holidays.

The title comes from the fact that both Brad and Kate's parents are divorced, so the couple must hit four separate homes in one day in order to be with the entire family. The strong casting continues when they visit the first home, and meet Brad's redneck father (Robert Duvall) and his two violent brothers, Denver and Dallas (Jon Favreau and Tim McGraw). Next, it's off to Kate's religious mother (Mary Steenburgen), where Kate's past as an overweight and awkward child comes back to haunt her, and the couple find themselves suckered into playing Mary and Joseph in the church Nativity play. After that, they pay a visit to Brad's mom (Sissy Spacek) for an embarrassing game of Taboo, where the couple learn they don't know as much about each other as they thought. Finally, they hit Kate's dad (John Voight), where Brad and Kate finally begin to question if they really have all the answers, and if there's more to life than just themselves. Due to the film's brisk pace and 82 minute running time, we spend little time getting to know their individual families. In particular, John Voight and Sissy Spacek could have grabbed their paychecks and ran, considering the little amount of screen time they each get.

Four Christmases is harmless and fairly safe entertainment where we feel like we're constantly a step ahead of the characters. We know as soon as Kate holds a baby in her arms during their first home visit that her maternal instincts are going to kick in, and that she's going to start questioning where her relationship with Brad is really going. This is going to cause a rift between the couple, which will add some drama in the third act. A lot of the physical gags are equally predictable. We know that one of those babies that winds up in Kate's arms is going to spit up on her, even if we didn't see the shot in the trailer. And why would Brad be up on his dad's roof doing handiwork if he wasn't going to fall off? Director Seth Gordon (who just last year brought us the wonderful and witty documentary about video games, The King of Kong) knows how to play ball, and doesn't attempt anything fancy. To its credit, the movie does have a number of warm and honest moments in between the broad and predictable gags. It avoids manipulative sentiment, and stays fairly true to its nature, which is a little bit darker than the norm when it comes to holiday comedies.

Why darker? Well, the characters who populate this movie aren't the usual sympathetic types. The movie paints all of its characters in shades of gray, which is one of two unexpected things it does. The other unexpected thing is how surprisingly sharp the comedic wordplay between the characters is, especially Vince Vaughn, who gets most of the film's biggest laughs. A lot of the best dialogue seems as if it were improvised there on the set. It's almost as if the actors knew what kind of a movie they were in, and decided to liven things up the best they could. It certainly helps keep the movie from getting bogged down in its own predictability, but never quite turns it into a success. The humor is wildly uneven, and is usually at its best when it allows its two lead stars to just talk to each other. Despite rumored reports of Vaughn and Witherspoon having a rough time working together on the set, they have strong comic chemistry together on film. They carry this movie, even when the script itself is throwing well-worn material at them.

Four Christmases is one of those films that is nothing special, but I didn't mind watching. There are some moments of genuinely funny dialogue, the performers are game, and the whole thing has a light and breezy quality to it. Still, director Seth Gordon deserves better, and if he wants to break into mainstream Hollywood, I advise that he be a little bit choosier with his next project. I'd hate to see him go the same way as many other talented independent filmmakers who threw their talents away on mediocre big budget productions. He doesn't bomb here, but something tells me things would have turned out differently if he didn't have such a talented and quick on their feet cast to work with.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Transporter 3

When did it become an unwritten rule that action sequences must be edited so quickly that we miss out on most of the good stuff? I remember watching Transformers last year, eagerly awaiting the climax where the Autobots and Decepticons (two childhood icons of mine) battle it out in live action glory. What Michael Bay gave me was what looked like various indistinguishable pieces of metal being slammed against each other while explosions boomed on the soundtrack. More recently, Quantum of Solace had the nerve to cast James Bond as an uninteresting video game hero who did nothing but shoot people in sequences that looked like they were well done, if only the camera would have slowed down to let me admire them.

Transporter 3 is the latest film to join this list. Director Olivier Megaton (With a name like that, of course he's directing an action film!) has hired Corey Yuen, one of the best in the business, to do the fight choreography. But the action has been edited in such a rapid fire manner, our eyes and brains barely have time to register what we're watching, which makes Yuen's presence unnecessary to begin with. Why are the filmmakers trying to hide what we come to see in the first place? To be fair, the movie contains a long middle section where there's very little action, so the camera stays fairly dormant. The only problem is this is also the least interesting part of the film, and focuses us to concentrate on the inane and wooden dialogue supplied by screenwriters Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. So, the movie doesn't slow down enough for us to appreciate the good stuff, and slows down too much on the parts we're not interested in. Talk about a lose-lose situation.

Since its inception back in 2002, the Transporter franchise has been one of those B-List action films that don't get a lot of attention, but make just enough money so that the sequels get a theatrical release instead of going straight to DVD. The third entry is unlikely to change anyone's mind. Jason Statham is back as Frank Martin, a professional driver who will transport anything for a price. This time around, he's forced into his latest job by a villain named Johnson (Robert Knepper) who wants Frank to transport a "package", which turns out to be a Ukranian woman named Valentina (Natalya Rudankova). Johnson has kidnapped Valentina, as she is the daughter of a powerful political figure. He plans to use her to force her father to sign a document that will allow toxic waste dumping, and basically wants Frank to stay on the road, following Johnson's directions by phone, until her father agrees to give in to his demands. In order to make sure that Frank plays ball, both Valentina and Frank have been equipped with metal bracelets that will explode if either one of them are 75 feet away from the car. Naturally, the bracelets can't be removed.

There's a surprising lack of urgency here, so much so that I found myself forgetting about the exploding bracelets, since they're seldom brought up after they're introduced in the plot. The only real instance where the bracelets become an issue is a sequence where Frank's car gets stolen, and he has to chase after it, staying within the 75 feet area so it doesn't go off. It also plays into the climax, but it seems more like a formality, since the problem is solved by Frank quite quickly. Also adding to the surprising lack of urgency is the limited number of times our heroes find themselves in real danger. There's a karate fight here and there, and a rare car chase, but the action never really picks up until the very end with an intentionally big and dumb sequence where Frank first drives his car off a bridge to land on top of a train, then actually manages to drive his car INTO the train itself. (I'll leave you to see how he accomplishes this feat yourself.) Despite the ad campaign focusing on the aspect of over the top action, the movie is disappointingly laid back, and mostly revolves around Frank and Valentina driving around and waiting for orders of where to go next. It's like paying for a Monster Truck Rally, and getting a Sunday drive.

At 100 minutes, this is the longest film in the Transporter series, but the movie doesn't take advantage of this fact. This is brainless entertainment stretched to the breaking point. The characters aren't even interesting, which partly may be due to the actors getting bored with the whole thing. Jason Statham doesn't seem to be very interested behind the wheel this time around, and Natalya Rudankova doesn't add a lot to liven things up. The villains are poorly developed, so much so that their true intentions are somewhat murky for most of the film's running time. As the lead bad guy, Robert Knepper is in close competition with Mathieu Amalric from the recent Quantum of Solace for the award of "least interesting villain of 2008". At least Amalric got to sneer a little. Aside from shooting one of his henchmen in a scene, Knepper spends most of his time here on the phone. If your hero is supposed to be a badass like Frank is, you'd better be sure that your villain matches him.

Transporter 3 is completely forgettable fluff, which I guess is the whole point in the end. Still, it's not a lot of fun to watch. Fans of the series might get a kick out of seeing Statham as Frank again, but even they will have to admit this is pretty middling entertainment. The whole thing seems like a labored attempt to stretch out a story that wasn't that great to begin with.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008


In Bolt, a small American White Shepherd dog has amazing adventures, not realizing that none of it is real. The little guy (whose voice is provided by John Travolta) is actually the star of a highly rated action show for kids, but the show's director (James Lipton from TV's Inside the Actor's Studio) is a believer of method acting, and wants the dog to think the things that happen to him on the show are real to get a more natural performance from him. On the show, Bolt the dog (named so because of the lightning bolt mark on his fur, which he doesn't realize is actually make up) travels with his young human owner, Penny (Miley Cyrus), cross country searching for Penny's father, a scientist who has been kidnapped by the diabolical madman, Dr. Calico (Malcolm McDowell). Bolt has been genetically enhanced to have super canine abilities (actually special effects that are performed right there on the set), and uses those abilities to battle Calico's forces.

The concept of an actor on a TV show living in a make believe world, and not realizing his every move is being filmed by hidden cameras reminded me greatly of the Jim Carrey drama from 10 years ago, The Truman Show, and made me wonder if this was going to be another look at the same idea aimed at a much younger audience. The movie drops this idea fairly early on, and turns into a standard road trip comedy, but I wasn't disappointed. Despite an idea told many times before, Bolt has plenty of wit, charm, and heart to go around. Bolt is forced to hit the road when he believes Penny is in danger. The most recent episode ends with a cliffhanger where the girl has been kidnapped by Calico. After the shoot, Bolt is sent to his private trailer as always, but believing that Penny has actually been kidnapped, he breaks free and ends up accidentally inside a shipping box which is sent to New York City. In his strange real world surroundings, Bolt initially doesn't understand why his "powers" don't work like they usually do, and initially believes it's the result of the packing styrofoam that filled the shipping box, thinking it's a form of Kryptonite. He's still determined to track down Penny, even in his supposed weakened state, and forcefully brings an alley cat he finds named Mittens (Susie Essman from TV's Curb Your Enthusiasm, wonderful here) along for the ride, believing that she has ties to the evil Dr. Calico and can tell him where his human is.

The relationship between the delusional dog and the street wise, sarcastic cat is at the heart of Bolt, and also what makes the film work above all else. I loved the way that Mittens the cat initially goes along with the act, but when she begins to realize that this dog really does think he has super powers, begins to genuinely feel sorry for him, and begins to train him in the art of being a real dog. Bolt has been living a fantasy his entire life, and has never even experienced the joy of playing with a chew toy or sticking his head out an open window with his tongue flapping in the breeze. With so many animated films forcing the idea that animals are just like us, only with fur, here is a movie that starts with a dog who acts like a super human, and eventually learns to accept reality and enjoy the simplicity of a natural life. I liked that angle, and I liked the way that Mittens slowly warms up to Bolt's situation. She's a cat with a past, as she used to belong to some people who were forced to abandon her when they moved. She doesn't understand Bolt's devotion to Penny, as she believes humans can only hurt. They both teach each other what they know, and while this is nothing new, the screenplay by Dan Fogelman and co-director Chris Williams lets it develop slowly and sweetly. The spot on vocal performances by Travolta and Essman also add a lot.

Also along for the trip is a pudgy little hamster named Rhino (Disney animator Mark Walton), who is familiar with Bolt through watching his adventures on the "magic box" from his cage. He joins up with the duo, getting around by running about in his plastic ball. He's mainly there to provide comic relief, and though kids will likely enjoy him, I found him a little grating. Fortunately, the movie never allows him to take center stage and distract from what works. I was surprised by how sympathetic Bolt is, and how much I ended up caring for the characters. Even young Penny gets some effective moments. The preteen actress has always felt bad about having to lie to the little dog, and make him think their adventures were real. When he runs away, she feels responsible. As mentioned earlier, Penny is voiced by pop singing sensation and actress, Miley Cyrus, and this movie hints that she may have a future after the Hannah Montana fad comes to an end. I can only hope the Disney studio allows her to continue to branch out beyond her household name image like this.

The film is wonderful to look at, too. The visual style is bright and vibrant, and the character designs carry a lot of personality. When we see Bolt as a puppy at the very beginning of the film, playing with a toy, it's filled with much more character and emotion than any of the live human actors can muster in this weekend's other big release, Twilight. I also greatly admired the attention to detail in many of the film's settings. There's a brief montage where the three traveling animals visit different landmarks as they make their way cross country, and a shot of them watching the famous "water show" outside the Belagio hotel in Las Vegas looked like the real thing. This movie makes even the well animated Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa pale in comparison. The fact that this movie has some actual soul and heart behind it, unlike that mediocre cash-in sequel, certainly helps.

Over the years, the Disney studio has been trying to catch up to the works of Pixar with some of their own in-house computer animated films, and the results have up to now been middling. (Does anyone really remember Chicken Little or Meet the Robinsons?) Bolt is by far their best effort to try to capture the tone of a Pixar film, and while the film takes a few wrong steps (mainly with its unfunny comic relief character), it's definitely the closest they've come to their league. Bolt proves you don't always need original ideas as long as you have a lot of genuine emotion and likable characters on your side.

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Friday, November 21, 2008


Here's a few things Twilight teaches us about vampires...

-There are two kinds of vampires walking amongst us - Those that feed on people, and those who call themselves "vegetarians", due to the fact that they exist peacefully with humans and only feed on animals.

-Vampires can exist in our society without anyone raising an eyebrow, despite the fact that many of them have pale skin, look like they're wearing bright red lipstick, can zoom around at speeds that rival Speedy Gonzalez, and possess inhuman strength. Even when they display these abilities to others, no one seems all that shaken or curious.

-Most stunning fact that this movie teaches us? They love to play baseball. However, they can only play baseball during a thunderstorm, because their inhuman abilities cause them to whack that ball so hard, they need the crack of thunder to cover the booming sound, so the people around them don't become suspicious. Now think about this for a second. Think how hard it would be to time the swing of a bat to the precise moment thunder would roar. Watching this scene of a vampire family playing baseball together sent my head spinning with a possible spin off - An inspirational sports story about a vampiric baseball team beating the odds and making the championships. I had a mental image of the opposing human team carrying small wooden stakes hidden under their helmets. Someone in Hollywood must greenlight this idea.

Unfortunately, Twilight doesn't follow these intriguing ideas through. Instead, we get a traditional love story about two people from different walks of life falling for each other. The twist here is that the girl is a human, and the guy she falls for is a vampire who would kill her in an instant, if he didn't fall under that "vegetarian" category. The girl is Isabella "Bella" Swan (Kristen Stewart), who was recently sent from Arizona to live with her dad in a small, dreary-looking town in Washington State where the sky is almost always overcast. On her first day at her new school, she meets Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), the vampire in question. They're assigned to be lab partners in science class, and Edward has to muster all the strength he has within him not to pounce upon her and kill her when she sits down next to him. (Makes me wonder if he goes through a lot of lab partners...) Regardless, the two develop a shy friendship, and Bella starts to notice a few things about him.

His eyes change color every time she sees him, and he seems to follow her wherever she goes. He's even seemingly able to come flying out of nowhere and save her life, such as when she's almost hit by a truck that is sliding on the ice, and he suddenly appears next to her and is able to stop the truck with his bare hands (leaving a large dent on the truck). Bella is intrigued, and Edward isn't keen on giving any answers. After a few Google searches, Bella is able to deduce that Edward's "not from around here", and that he's a vampire. This isn't enough to scare her away, and he welcomes her into his world which probably isn't the best of ideas. He invites her to his family's house, where they do a poor job of pretending they're normal people. The movie misses a keen moment of satire here, as I would have loved to have seen a family of vampires trying to pass themselves off as a normal household. (Can you imagine the family around the dinner table?) But Twilight is unwavering in its devotion to focusing on Bella and Edward's relationship. So much so that nothing else seems to matter. The fact that another group of vampires (those that feed on humans) is going on a murder spree across the town doesn't matter much in this movie, and is treated as an undeveloped subplot that plays no part in the story until the two lovers get involved.

The story of Bella and Edward's romance is nothing new to young girls the world over, as the series of books that have inspired this film are the biggest things to hit the world of youth books since Harry Potter. Whatever has captivated readers across the four books that make the series has not carried over to Twilight the movie. This is a lethargic and labored story about people we don't care anything about saying dialogue that makes the two lead characters sound like they learned English by reading grocery store romance novels. It's also a story about obsessive love, and a girl who is too young to understand, which adds a highly disturbing level to the proceedings. What else are we supposed to think when Edward tells Bella that she is like a drug to him, that she is "his heroin". Yes, Bella swoons when he compares her to an illegal addictive substance that can normally kill a person. He even goes so far as to sneak into her bedroom at night to watch her sleep, which oddly does not unnerve her in the slightest. Edward never seems to have Bella's best interest in mind, but he's attractive and has big red pouty lips, so I guess we're supposed to forgive him.

Director Catherine Hardwicke (The Nativity Story) and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (Step Up) never quite capture the mood they're looking for. The romance is stilted, and filled with dumb dialogue, while the suspense and horror elements never take off. The story teases us with the approaching arrival of the evil vampire clan, killing various random people as they make their way closer to town, but their entry into the actual plot is haphazard and almost seems like an accident. They never build into a real part of the story, and seem inserted at the last minute to put Bella's life in some sort of danger. Until then, we get a lot of scenes of Bella and Edward making longing glances at each other, blended with scenes of Bella hanging out with her friends at school, whom also don't have anything to do with the plot, and disappear halfway with little consequence. The movie just kind of sits there, almost as if it was asking the same question I was - Why are we supposed to care about these two people? Okay, I get it, they come from different worlds and he could kill her if he ever lost control and obeyed his basic instinct. The movie never goes deeper than this, and never lets the two develop into real characters. They're an idea, nothing more.

They're not even allowed to be fleshed out ideas. Maybe the sequels develop them further, but the problem is, nothing in this movie made me want to learn more about Bella and Edward. At least they're portrayed well by the actors. Kristen Stewart is a young actress I've admired since she played Jodie Foster's daughter in 2002's Panic Room. And rising British actor Robert Pattinson (whose claim to fame so far has been a small role in the Harry Potter films) hides his accent well playing an American teenage vampire, and manages to recite some of his corny dialogue with a straight face and a game performance. The thing is, the characters they're playing don't allow them to truly stand out. They're being held back by their underwritten roles, and the fact that the movie can't think of anything interesting to do with them together. Here's a story that climaxes with a girl taking a vampire to the school prom, and all it gives us is them sharing a dance together. The way the scene played out in my mind was much more interesting.

My problem with Twilight isn't that it's an unwatchable movie, just that it's an extremely dull one where nothing happens. I walked in intrigued to find out what all the hype was about, and walked out feeling like I had been promised the moon and given very little. My screening was attended by a mob of young girls, many of whom were skipping school for this motion picture event. Walking out of the theater, I heard the girl in front of me complaining about how much of the book they had cut out. I'm sure this is the case. Too bad the movie bored me so much, I don't really care to find out what I missed.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Quantum of Solace

In the past, I've always considered James Bond as somewhat of a live action comic book hero. How can anyone blame me really, with all the gadgets he possessed and some of the villains he's gone up against in the past? 2006's Casino Royale toned that aspect down quite a bit, but there was still plenty of fun to be had, and he still felt larger than life in some way. In Quantum of Solace, Bond is turned into a completely different kind of hero. He now resembles the protagonist of a video game, visiting exotic locations only to shoot the bad guys, and not even stopping to have fun with women. Where's the joy in that?

Daniel Craig is back as Bond, and he still has that steely and menacing glare that worked so well in Royale. He's a much colder Bond than what we're used to. If the last movie didn't convince you, the fact that Bond spends pretty much the first half hour or so going all over the world killing almost anyone who crosses his path will pretty much ram the point home. He's somewhat of a tortured soul here, still feeling the pain over the death of Vesper Lynde at the end of the last movie. He travels the globe, seeking information, and also seeking info on a mysterious organization that seems to have eyes everywhere, even within his own agency. His search for the truth leads him into a plot being hatched by a villain named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), who isn't planning to take over the world, he really just wants control the water supply in Bolivia and increase demand by creating a drought. A fairly small fish for Bond to fry, considering some of the bad guys he's tangled with.

Thrown into the mix is a woman named Camille (Olga Kurylenko, recently seen in Max Payne), who has the body and dangerous skills of a classic "Bond Girl", but none of the personality. Like Bond, she is driven on a quest for revenge, since Dominic's scheme has him dealing with the man who murdered her family and burned down her house when she was a child. I missed the foreplay here, since the movie never lets the two heroes have any fun together. They come together and are motivated simply by revenge and killing, and never get to share any intimate or private moments. (And when they do, they talk about revenge and killing.) What happened to the sexual innuendos and the devilish fun? Even Casino Royale had a little bit of that element, with Bond and Lynde teasing each other now and then. There's another woman who plays a role in the story, who has the wonderful Bond-style name of Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton), and even gets to share a brief bedroom scene with him. Too bad she exits the story not long after (Her body is discovered dead on a hotel bed covered completely in black oil, and I couldn't help but think of the poor housekeeping staff member who had to clean up that mess.), and we don't even get to hear her first name during the course of the movie. (She is simply referred to as "Fields" throughout, and we don't learn her full name until the credits.)

Director Marc Forster is usually a more serious-minded filmmaker, with dramas like Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction, and The Kite Runner under his belt. He seems uncomfortable in the world of Bond, and indeed in the realm of action films, due to how spastically he shoots many of the numerous big action set pieces. He relies on rapid cuts and the ever-infamous "shaky cam" technique to obscure the action whenever possible. We often can't tell who is doing what to whom in some of the sequences. In fact, many of the action scenes seem inspired more by the Jason Bourne films than anything in the Bond franchise. Quantum of Solace keeps its hero running and gunning for most of its running time, but never quite gives us a reason to care. I got the sense that if the movie didn't come from such an esteemed and long-running film empire, audiences would not be very excited here. Bond himself comes across as a video game hero with the screenplay manipulating him at the joystick, moving him from one location to the next. And the evil Dominic Greene is one of the lamest villains to go up against the superspy in recent memory. He's not interesting, nor does he ever present himself as being much of a threat.

As the movie went on, I found the only thing holding my attention was Craig's performance. He once again is fascinating to watch, and has the cold attitude and physical ability down pat. He's simply not allowed to build to anything beyond the basics. I was fascinated by the idea of a Bond driven by a personal vendetta, so much so that his superior, M (Judi Dench), is trying to hunt him down, fearing that he is getting too reckless in his mission. Even though this is technically a direct sequel to Royale, it never feels like one. With its numerous action sequences that never quite connect, it often feels like just another generic sequel. Only when the movie slows down and concentrates on the potential does it feel like more. This is what I wanted to see more of. The movie never finds a proper balance between the action and the story, and it gives the entire thing a somewhat hollow and empty feeling.

Quantum of Solace is the kind of movie video game programmers dream of, since the filmmakers have pretty much done all the work for them in designing the game tie in. (Not surprisingly, a game based on the movie is sitting on store shelves even as we speak.) That's well and good for them, but anyone seeking a little bit more fun to go with the violence will be disappointed. I have no doubt the movie will make money, and we'll get another movie. I just hope the next one remembers that Bond has a lot of personality to go with his fighting ability, and utilizes it more.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Role Models

I feel I should admit something up front - I have never seen the appeal of Seann William Scott. I didn't like him in the American Pie movies, not in Dude, Where's My Car, and most certainly not in The Dukes of Hazzard movie. For a long time, I questioned what people saw in the guy. But in Role Models, he finds the right character at last. He's very funny here, and actually kind of sweet to the point that the performance started to grow on me. That in itself is a small miracle. An even bigger miracle is that the movie itself is consistently funny.

2008 has been a great year for adult comedies, with films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Tropic Thunder and Sex Drive delivering a lot of genuine laughs. There have been some films I haven't been able to fully get behind, like the recent Zack and Miri Make a Porno or Pineapple Express, but even those films had their merits. I think Hollywood is finally starting to understand how to make a comedy targeted at adults, without having to go overboard on the gross out factor. (A problem that plagued a lot of R-rated comedies the past few years.) A lot of this has to do with comedy producer and writer, Judd Apatow, who was involved with a few of the films I mentioned above. He was not involved with Role Models, but one of the film's main stars, Paul Rudd, has worked with him a lot and has obviously learned from him. Rudd is credited as the head screenwriter of the film, and his co-writers and him should be credited for creating a script that finds humor in the characters and the things they say, instead of broad situations.

In the film, Rudd and Scott play Danny and Wheeler respectively, two friends and co-workers who drive around to different elementary and middle schools promoting an energy drink called Minotaur. Danny is a bitter pessimist, believing there's more to life than trying to convince kids not to take drugs and to drink energy drinks instead. Wheeler, whose job involves dressing up in a Minotaur costume and dancing around while Danny speaks to the kids, is perfectly happy where he is in life. Danny's bleak view on himself and the world is starting to affect his private life as well, which causes his live-in girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks, in her third film in about a month) to move out. The heartache over the break up leads Danny to crash the company truck the two men use to drive to different schools, and they find themselves facing a prison sentence for destroying school property and resisting arrest. Fortunately, Beth is a lawyer, and she is able to give them a second option of filling 150 hours of community service with a Big Brothers-type child mentoring program called Sturdy Wings.

When Danny and Wheeler enter the program and meet the head of the organization, the movie shows its comedic invention. The head and founder of Sturdy Wings is a woman named Sweeny (Jane Lynch), a former coke addict who's a bit too open about her troubled past, and mixes inspirational and hopeful messages with horror stories of her drug-riddled former life. In a comedy such as this, we expect the head of the organization to be a hard-nosed tyrant, but the character here and the performance by Lynch is a wonderful surprise and gets the first of many big laughs. After this, we are introduced to the two kids that they will serve as mentors to. Danny is assigned to a nerdy teen named Augie Farks (Christopher Mintz-Plasse from Superbad), who is obsessed with an elaborate fantasy role playing game where he and other obsessed individuals dress up in costumes, speak in bad Old English, and battle each other in the park. As for Wheeler, he gets stuck with the organization's most troubled kid, a little black boy named Ronnie Shields (Bobb'e J. Thompson), who talks as if he got his pre-school influence by watching old Richard Pryor comedy concerts instead of Sesame Street.

Once again, with the introduction of the kids, Role Models could have gone wrong and did what we expected, but it doesn't. It manages to go a little bit deeper into the characters of Augie and Ronnie, and make them a little more than just the cliched "nerdy kid" and "vulgar kid". Both of the kids give fine comic performances here, even if Christopher Mintz-Plasse is pretty much giving the same "McLovin" performance he did last year in Superbad. I'm hoping he won't become another Jon Heder, who is supposedly doomed to repeat his breakout Napoleon Dynamite role in almost every movie he does. His performance still works here at least, as does young Bobb'e J. Thompson, who finds the right note in his performance so that we're laughing at and not offended by the words coming out of his mouth. It's a tricky balance to pull off, and Thompson does so, which leads me to believe he'll have a long career in comedy when he gets older if he desires it.

As for Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott, they also deliver some of their better comic performances I've seen in a while. I've always admired Rudd, and here he plays a great relative straight man with a darkly sarcastic look on life, who learns to open up and be more accepting of others. And as I mentioned before, Scott brings a likable almost child-like quality to Wheeler, a man whose mental maturity peaked when he was 14, and is more than willing to preach the virtues of rock group Kiss to anyone who will listen. They have great chemistry with each other, and with their younger co-stars. There's a lot of energy in the performances and this, combined with the genuinely funny dialogue, carries over to the audience. I also liked the little comic touches, such as the way the guy who plays the "King" in the fantasy role playing game frequently hangs out at a burger joint in costume, and has his followers (also in costume) feeding him and wiping his mouth for him.

The end of the year is usually reserved for big budget family films and Oscar hopefuls, so I'm hoping a little comedy like Role Models will not go unnoticed. The fairly large audience I saw it with seemed to be having a great time, so it does have the potential to be a word of mouth sleeper hit. If it does, it will be easy to understand why. This is light and fun entertainment that manages a lot of big laughs and never takes a wrong step. It may have a lot of competition, but Role Models is still one of the funnier films of the year.

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Soul Men

As a film tribute and final farewell to the work of late comic actor Bernie Mac, Soul Men really shows just what an energetic and funny performer he really could be. He puts so much into the film, and gets a lot of laughs here. It certainly helps that he's been teamed up with Samuel L. Jackson, and that the two have such wonderful chemistry together. They make the somewhat tired buddy road trip comedy premise work. Fortunately, there's more than the lead stars to the film's appeal. Soul Men offers up some genuine laughs, and even a bit of heart, which I wish was explored just a little more.

The premise of the film is certainly nothing new, where two former friends with many differences between them are forced to come together and confront their old insecurities and pent-up frustrations with each other. 40 years ago, Floyd Henderson (Bernie Mac) and Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson) were part of a successful Motown singing trio called Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal. Lead singer Marcus (John Legend) continued on with a successful solo career, while Floyd and Louis basically faded into obscurity. Floyd got rich running a car dealership, but is unhappy after many failed marriages and is now "waiting out the clock" in a retirement community. Louis spent time in prison after a botched bank robbery attempt, and has now pretty much shut out the rest of the world. The two are forced to reunite when Marcus Hooks dies of a heart attack, and they are asked to perform at a memorial concert being held at the Apollo theater. As the two drive cross country from L.A. to New York, old emotional wounds between the two are opened as they try to sort out what went wrong with their lives, and who was to blame. Along the way, they experience the usual misadventures one finds in a road trip comedy (It's an unwritten law that the heroes must experience car trouble in the middle of what appears to be a desert area in a road trip movie.), and pick up a young woman named Cleo (Sharon Leal) who may or may not be the daughter of one of the two men, since her mother was a woman they both loved.

While Soul Men doesn't attempt to rewrite the rules of its own genre, it is gifted with a sharply comic script by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (2005's Man of the House), as well as a tight pace that constantly keeps things moving. The script and the direction by Malcolm D. Lee (who recovers nicely here after directing the lame Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins back in February) keep the energy level of the movie high, and never lets it sag. However, most of this energy are provided by the two lead stars, who not only are a great team in this film, but manage to create great individual characters. Mac's Floyd is a man who doesn't want to slip quietly into obscurity. His nephew recently took over his car business, and despite what he's told, he knows he's been sent to the retirement community where he lives to generally be forgotten. This memorial and reunion concert is one last chance to do what he loves and be appreciated for it. Jackson's Louis would probably be happy if the world forgot about him, and has pretty much increased his efforts to make sure it does. Despite their constant comedic bantering, there is a lot of sadness behind both men - One which is probably easy to relate to when someone gets to be the age of the characters.

The humor in this movie is usually of the broad and raunchy variety. I don't know if it holds the record for the most four letter words used in rapid succession, but it certainly shoots for the goal. The two characters seem to use "F-bombs" as if they were conversation starters. There is also quite a bit of sexual humor, which is actually very funny here. When the movie started bringing up Viagra, I grew worried that it was going to take the easy way out. Fortunately, the script is a little bit better than that, and creates some genuinely funny situations, such as when Floyd has an encounter with a woman (Jennifer Coolidge) who gives him her version of a "velveteen rub". Despite the frequently broad humor, the movie never offends, because it knows just how far it is supposed to go, and when to pull back. It also has some genuinely sweet moments throughout the movie, such as the scene when Floyd and Louis are stranded while trying to fix their car and they begin to bond for the first time in years while listening to Marvin Gaye's "I'm Your Puppet". The introduction of the third member of the road trip, Cleo, also brings a lot of humanity to the proceedings, and I only wish her character and her relationship with the men was developed more.

I greatly enjoyed Soul Men when it was focusing on Floyd and Louis, and was giving me a lot of time to enjoy the fine performances provided by Mac and Jackson. (Not only is this one of Bernie Mac's final performances, it's probably the best one.) When the movie cuts away from them, it loses some of its charm. The nerdy obsessed fan whom the concert promoter sends to help the two reach the Apollo theater probably could have been written out of the script without any consequence. There's also a pointless subplot involving a gangster rapper who abuses Cleo before Floyd and Louis take her away from him, and how he follows after them cross country trying to kill them. It never builds to anything, and is completely unnecessary. The two lead characters bring more than enough drama and tension to the film, it doesn't need car chases and killer thugs gunning at them. Fortunately, the movie never allows itself to dwell too long on the stuff that doesn't work, and never lets it dominate the central focus of the two leads.

The movie ends on a bittersweet note, with a touching video tribute to Bernie Mac during the closing credits, which includes some improvised comedy routines he did for the cast and crew during filming, and also some interviews with him talking about his career. The tribute also covers the great music performer, Isaac Hayes, who has a small role in the movie as himself and died exactly one day after Mac did. Although the filmmakers obviously had no idea it would happen while they were making the movie, the tribute to the men fits the theme of the film itself. Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes were two men who did what they loved right up to the end of their lives, and this film is a fitting tribute to their talents.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa

The visual artistry in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa is certainly impressive. Compared to the somewhat visually dull 2005 original (it wasn't a bad looking movie, just nothing stood out about the film), this movie pops right off the screen and is awash in lush colors, vibrant animation, and beautiful scenery. I can only imagine what this film looks like on an IMAX screen. (I, unfortunately, had to watch it in a standard theater.) There's obviously a lot of talent at Dreamworks animation studio, now they just need some writers who can come up with an actual plot. Though entirely watchable for kids and adults (kids especially will love it), Madagascar 2 is saddled with a slight and derivative plot that never allows us to care about anything but the visuals.

Although the original Madagascar was not my favorite animated film, it certainly had its charms thanks to a talented voice cast and a sharp sense of humor. The sequel makes a big mistake by separating the main characters for most of its running time, and giving each one his or her own individual storyline, none of them really coming together. The movie picks up where the original left off, with Alex the lion (voice by Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) leaving the island they've been stranded on. With the aid of some covert-minded penguins and the loopy lemur king, Julian (Sacha Baron Cohen), the animals have managed to piece together a crude airplane that can hopefully get the four friends back to New York and the Central Park Zoo where they belong. The patched-up plane falls apart mid-flight, and the group find themselves lost in a different kind of wilderness - the wilds of Africa.

When the animals crash in Africa, the movie crashes along with it. In Africa, the four main characters discover others of their own kind, and go their separate ways. In a flashback that opens the film, we learn that Alex was originally the cub to a proud king named Zuba (late comic actor, Bernie Mac), until he was snatched away by hunters and eventually made his way to New York, where he became a celebrity. Now back in Africa, Alex is reunited with his father and mother (Sherri Shepherd), and plans to join his parents to rule over the other animals. Unfortunately, a scheming lion named Makunga (Alec Baldwin) wants to rule, and tricks Alex into being banished. If you think this sounds somewhat similar to Disney's The Lion King, you're not alone. As for his friends, Marty finds a herd of zebras that look, talk, and act exactly like him, which makes him feel like he doesn't matter or stand out in any way. Meanwhile, Gloria looks for love with another hippo named Moto Moto (recording artist and writer,, not realizing that Melman has long held feelings for her. And trust me, the thought of a giraffe and a hippo in a romantic relationship provided much more entertainment to me than anything in the screenplay.

Though not without its moments, Madagascar 2 is not as funny as the original, and the returning characters don't get to stand out as much due to the fact they're surrounded by the uninspired new cast. Returning directors and co-writers Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath seem at a loss as to what to do with these animals. Each of the storylines that have been written for them never quite develop. We never get a real sense of the relationship between Alex and his parents, because they're not given enough time together. The scheming Makunga never develops as a true villain, since he pretty much pops up to cause trouble, then leaves the movie, almost as if he was added in as an afterthought. And the memorable supporting characters from the last film, like the penguins and lemurs, seem to be here because they were in the first movie. The screenplay can't quite find a way to fit them in, so it cuts away to a cute skit concerning them, then goes back to the action. The fragmented nature of the film never allows the numerous characters and subplots to come together. I often felt as if I was watching a series of failed ideas for short cartoons rather than one complete feature.

Besides the visuals, the main thing to recommend in Madagascar 2 are the performances. Despite being given very little to do, Ben Stiller, Jason Schwimmer, Sacha Baron Cohen, and comic Cedric the Entertainer (as Julian's right-hand lemur) at least hit the right notes in their voice acting. Jada Pinkett Smith and Chris Rock get some individual moments to shine, as do the actors who play the penguins (they seem to get all the best lines), but the rest of the cast is mainly as uninspired as the characters they're playing. It gives the movie an all around generic feeling that one usually finds in those straight to DVD movies and sequels the Disney studio used to put out on a regular basis. Even when a real crisis shows up late in the film (the watering hole dries up), the movie fails to get us involved and simply uses it as an excuse to pretend there's a point to this movie other than to milk more money out of something that was perfectly all right three years ago, but not much more than that.

This is the kind of movie that doesn't really stand out, but at least does its job. Kids will be entertained, and adults will get a couple laughs out of the jokes that will fly over the heads of kids. But, it all boils down to the fact that anyone over the age of 10 will find it hard to generate much excitement over this movie. The team behind this movie obviously put a lot of effort into making a great-looking animated film. Now they just need some real substance to back it up. Madagascar 3 has already been confirmed for a 2011 release, so there's hope. Frankly, I'd concentrate more on the penguins next time around. They get the best scenes, and their own movie is long overdue.

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Filmmaker Kevin Smith has always had a talent for combining the profane with pop culture. When you consider this, it's probably not surprising in the least he would do a movie called Zack and Miri Make a Porno. What was surprising to me is how disappointing the end result turns out to be. Though far from terrible, the movie seems to view sex and sometimes even love the same way a 10-year-old boy views a stash of Playboy magazines he finds hidden under his older brother's bed. Despite the provocative title, the movie isn't really about sex, or even about making a porno. Strip away all the dirty talk and controversy, and you're left with a perfectly standard idiot plot romantic comedy about two people who are a little too bland to be likable.

Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) have been best friends since the first grade, and now are roommates together in a run down apartment. They're behind on the bills, and Zack's job at the coffee shop isn't pulling in enough money to pay the rent and utilities. (Miri supposedly has a job also, but it's never shown, nor do I remember if it was even mentioned.) Maybe that's because the pair spend a lot of their money foolishly on sex toys they find on line. In typical Kevin Smith fashion, the two are very open and frank about their sex lives and talk about it in great detail in public, not seeming to care who might be listening. I usually find Smith's dialogue very smart, but here, it seems a bit forced. Some of the stuff Zack talks about within earshot of customers at the coffee shop would have him fired on his first day, but supposedly he's been there for a while now. The best example of Smith's trademark dialogue in this film is when Zack encounters a gay couple (played by Justin Long and Brandon Routh) at his 10-year high school reunion early in the film. Long is particularly hilarious in this scene, and I started to wish the camera had followed that couple out of the building instead of Zack and Miri.

Back to the plot: Zack and Miri are so behind on their rent that they have their power and water utilities shut off. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Zack quickly comes up with the idea that they could make a porno sex tape and sell it. Zack obviously is a little behind on the times, and doesn't realize that people get their porn on line these days, but no matter. They gather up a few of their friends to help them make it including Zack's co-worker Delaney (Craig Robinson) who funds the movie and cameraman Deacon (Jeff Anderson), and a cast that includes some locals like Lester (Kevin Smith regular, Jason Mewes), a bachelor party performer named Bubbles (real life adult film star Traci Lords), and Stacy (Katie Morgan, who in real life has nearly 200 adult films to her credit). Their initial idea is to shoot a porno parody of Star Wars called Star Whores, but when this falls through, the group decides to shoot their film right in the coffee shop after hours. This somewhat reminded me of Kevin Smith's breakthrough film, Clerks, which was shot after hours at the convenience store where he was working at the time.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno seems to want to ask the question what good is sex without love? It's painfully obvious to the audience that the title roommates and friends have feelings for each other, and have had them for a long time. But they don't seem to realize it until they have to shoot a sex scene together for their movie, which winds up being a lot more awkward and eventually passionate than one would usually find in a porno. Even after that, they still deny their feelings for each other, and go through cliched and manipulative misunderstandings that could easily be solved with a few little words, which they of course never say. We're supposed to be on the edge of our seats as to wether or not Zack and Miri will say those little words and admit they love each other, but I found that I could care less. They were not interesting people to me. With his scruffy beard and bushy hair, Seth Rogen kind of looks like a foul mouthed teddy bear here. He lays on the "aw shucks, I'm just a big ol' lug" charm, but it didn't work on me. I'm still not convinced that Rogen has what it takes to be a leading man, despite the fact he's had three leading roles now. As for Elizabeth Bank's Miri, she never quite develops as a real character. She mainly only reacts to what's currently going on, or to what Zack is currently talking about. She gets a couple good lines here and there, but never quite comes into her own.

What disappointed me the most about the film is the awkward transition from the raunchy and crude sex humor, to the sweet and cliched romantic comedy material. It wasn't convincing to me, because I didn't care enough about the characters. One recent comedy that was able to handle the transition between crude to sweet was Sex Drive (a movie nobody saw), where the romantic characters were written sensitively and seemed to have genuine emotions behind them. Zack and Miri are the direct creation of the sitcom idiot plot, where they're in love simply because they've known each other most of their lives. We don't get to know enough about them to want to see them get together. The outcome seems pre-packaged. Likewise, the movie never devotes enough time to the other people involved with the film project. They're just a group of oddballs brought together to say a couple one-liners and shoot a few sex scenes. The movie seems to be implying that the group have all become great friends by the end of the movie (the cast and crew pitch in to help pay off Zack and Miri's debt), but we the audience never really get to see this happen. It's all false sentimentality through and through.

Those of you hoping for some arousing pleasure out of the porn scenes will be disappointed. The promising and satirical Star Whores idea gets written out fairly quickly, and they never do get to finish the movie they were making at the coffee shop. Despite its title, Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a surprisingly bland and non-threatening string of romantic comedy cliches covered up with adult film flair. That's not to say there aren't any laughs to be had, but they are scattered. I expected more from this movie, and from Kevin Smith. After all, this is a guy who put a "Donkey Show" in his last movie, Clerks II. If you never saw that movie, or don't know what a Donkey Show is, look it up.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Haunting of Molly Hartley

Do they have a name for the sound effect used in horror movies when someone comes popping up seemingly out of nowhere? You know, those scenes where a character is slowly making his or her way through a dark area, the quiet and ominous music is whispering on the soundtrack, and then someone or something just out of focus suddenly pops up in front of them, while a noise that kind of sounds like someone dropping 20 pairs of pots and pans all at once blasts our eardrums in an attempt to make the audience jump? It must have a name, because The Haunting of Molly Hartley uses this cheap technique to ridiculous extremes.

How ridiculous? Mail being delivered through a slot door is accompanied by that jolting sound effect. An alarm clock going off also is greeted by the same jarring and blasting tone. Heck, in the first four minutes of the movie, there's no less than three of these moments in almost rapid succession. Of course, each time something jumps out at the frightened person, it turns out to be something harmless. In the opening scene, the first one turns out to be a bird, the second a girl's boyfriend, and the third the same girl's father. Why do innocent people in horror movies like to wait in the shadows, and jump out at the main character? Do they somehow know what kind of movie they're in, and think it's their duty to just jump out and scare the willies out of the person, instead of simply just walking up and saying "hi"? Imagine how tiresome that would get after a while. Not only would this obviously get tiresome to Molly, it gets extremely tiresome to anyone watching the movie. We share her pain.

But it appears poor Molly Hartley (Haley Bennett) has bigger problems. You see, a year or so ago, her mom went crazy and tried to stab her with a pair of scissors. Now mom's in an asylum, and Molly along with her father, Robert (Jake Weber), are trying to move on and start over. Molly goes to a new private school, where almost everyone seems to know a lot about her past, and mainly treat her as an outcast. Not that everyone's against her. There's a cute guy named Joseph (Chace Crawford from TV's Gossip Girl) who's always hitting on her (when he's not jumping out at her from the shadows of the school library and saying "boo" to her, of course), there's a "bad girl" type (Shannon Marie Woodward) who basically dishes out sarcasm as if it were going out of style, and there's a Christian extremist girl (Shanna Collins) who usually seems nice enough, but also seems a bit too involved with her religious beliefs and forcing them onto her friends. Speaking of religion, whenever someone mentions God or the Bible, Molly gets a nosebleed and starts having panic attacks. She also hears ghostly whispers wherever she goes, and sometimes has nightmarish hallucinations of her psycho mother coming to kill her. Her doctor thinks these are caused by a benign brain tumor he's discovered within her, but judging by the title of the movie, we know Molly should get a second opinion.

We learn about Molly's past through flashbacks, and the pieces start to fall into place. We know whatever's going on has something to do with her upcoming 18th birthday, because the characters keep on mentioning she's going to turn 18 soon, and the film's opening sequence depicts a completely different girl about to turn 18 being killed by her father before "they" can get to her. We get somewhat of an idea of what's going on and why Molly is hearing voices and seemingly is starting to develop super strength (as evidenced when she beats up a mean girl at a party), but the movie never quite develops its own idea. It instead focuses mainly on issues you usually find on prime time teen soap operas, like popularity and love triangles. Yes, that's right, the main character may or may not have ties to Satan himself, and the movie seems more interested in whether or not Molly will go on a date with the cute guy who likes her. Does that sound wrong to you? The movie never really builds any genuine suspense or scares from its premise, and seems content to just throw countless false alarms and loud noises on the soundtrack. And when something actually does happen (someone dies in Molly's own house), the movie doesn't even try to explain what her father did with the body when company comes to visit that same day.

The Haunting of Molly Hartley has all the earmarks and production values of a straight to DVD movie, or something you might come across on late night cable, then change the channel after watching only five minutes. What it's doing on the big screen, I have no idea. It seems far too timid to be a horror movie, almost as if it's afraid it might wind up scaring itself. Although I wasn't enjoying the movie while I was watching it, I at least was able to say that it was coherent for most of its running time. Then the ending came, and while I won't spoil it, I will say it felt like I was missing something. Like a couple scenes that should have been there were cut out for some reason. I've seen lots of bad endings that have left me out of the theater angry, but this one left me angry and blank. I was at a loss as to what had just happened, how it had happened, and why it was so abrupt. I think I have a pretty good idea what happened, but the way the ending has been edited, it leaves it completely open for interpretation. This can be a good thing. In this case, it's not. We walk out feeling ripped off.

The performances at least get the job done, but there's absolutely nothing special about them. In fact, there's absolutely nothing special at all about Molly Hartley. I don't expect every movie to be a groundbreaking experience, but when I get the sense that there's absolutely no effort put into what I'm watching, I grow restless. That's how I felt watching this. It's like eating generic food. You know, the kind of food that you can feel filling you up, but you're not exactly enjoying it in any way? This is cinematic generic food for your eyes and your brain.

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