Reel Opinions


Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Ant Bully

With a title like The Ant Bully, I had the sneaking suspicion that the filmmakers were trying to make me hate the movie before I even saw it. Hoping to be proven wrong, I purchased my ticket, picked up my usual drink at the concession stand, and sat down in a practically vacant theater that was filled by only two other small families. (Not a good sign for an animated "blockbuster" the studio has been hyping for almost a year with an obnoxious teaser trailer.) The lights dimmed, the film began, and sadly, my hatred grew far greater than just the title alone as it went along. With a concept that cries out for imagination, but offers very little to none, the only question parents should ask themselves in debating whether to take their kids to The Ant Bully is why bother when the vastly superior Monster House is probably playing in the same building?

Young Lucas Nickle (voice by Zach Tyler Eisen) is a boy picked on by bullies, and embarrassed by his overly doting parents who treat him like a baby. Since he has no one to vent his frustrations on, Lucas decides to take out his anger on an ant hill in his front yard, drowning them with a hose. The ant colony decides they've had enough punishment from "Lucas the Destroyer", so they decide to send their wizard Zoc (Nicholas Cage) to the boy's house to shrink him with a magic potion he created. Lucas is kidnapped and taken to the ant's world, where he's placed on trial before the wise Ant Queen (Meryl Streep). Instead of the expected punishment of death, the benevolent Queen decides that Lucas must learn to become one of them and see the world through their eyes if he ever wants to be returned to normal. With the help of a kindly ant named Hova (Julia Roberts) and her friends, Lucas will learn the value of working as a team. And with a slimy exterminator (Paul Giamatti) due to arrive any day, Lucas will have to learn his lessons quickly, and gain the trust of the insects so that they can fight back together.

Despite a workable premise and some decent imagination, it seems that writer-director John A. Davis (Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius) used up all his energy in rounding up an A-list cast, and then pretty much stopped there. The Ant Bully starts out promisingly enough, especially in the design of the ants' world. Instead of having them merely be wise cracking insects, the opening moments hint at an almost fantasy world with wizards, ancient legends passed down over the centuries, magic, and prophecies. I liked this unique angle, and I also liked how a lot of the ants have almost this tribal-like paint displayed on their bodies. Unfortunately, after some tantalizing glimpses at this somewhat original angle, the movie all but drops it, and favors on focusing entirely on Lucas and his comic relief ant friends getting into one misadventure after another. We learn very little about the world of the ants, or of their ways. How did they master magic? How did their society come to be? What is the meaning of their tribal-like markings? The movie shows us these fascinating ideas, then decides to forget all about them, opting instead to "entertain" us with a series of scenes that almost seem to be lifted directly from 1989's Honey I Shrunk the Kids, as Lucas tries to deal with the world in his new smaller size.

More so than the lack of a strongly developed world, it is the characters and the third rate dialogue that ultimately sink The Ant Bully. The screenplay refuses to flesh out a single character, opting instead to either make them unfunny comic relief, or characters that just pop in and out when the screenplay sees fit. This kind of defeats the entire purpose of rounding up such an impressive cast. Why bother hiring Meryl Streep and Paul Giamatti if you're not even going to use them? Streep's Ant Queen is a pathetic cameo, with less than two minutes worth of dialogue in her entire role, and Giamatti as the evil exterminator gets maybe ten lines. (And I think that's being generous.) Of the big names in the cast, only Nicholas Cage and Julia Roberts get any sizeable role, and they are mostly forgettable, especially thanks to Cage's uninspired line readings. Making matters even worse are the number of uninspired and underdeveloped comic relief characters who are not only unfunny, but also annoying. Bruce Campbell and Regina King play a pair of ants who team up with Lucas during his adventure, but they serve little purpose to the story itself, other than to argue with each other. And legendary comic actress, Lily Tomlin, is sorely underused as the film's sole semi-amusing character - Lucas' grandmother who is paranoid about aliens, and uses her insane theories to explain her grandson's sudden disappearance.

With so little going for The Ant Bully, you have to look at the positives, even if they are outshined by the negatives. Aside from the world of the ants themselves, I generally liked the look of the film. It's not the best looking animated film to hit the screens this year, but it's got some interesting scenes, such as when Lucas takes his ant friends on a guided tour of his house by floating around on flower petals in the wind. Most of the film, however, is lacking excitement and meaning. Aside from the highly anticlimactic and disappointing battle between the ants and the evil exterminator, there is very little sense of danger or excitement in the story. There are some evil wasps who pop up in one scene, but they too are forgotten about as soon as they fly away, only to turn up again as allies so that they too can do battle with the villain. Instead of creating excitement, exploring the world of the ants, or creating memorable characters, the screenplay is content to waste scene after scene having the ants preaching to Lucas about teamwork and how he should respect others, even those smaller than him. The movie applies its moral with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and it eventually starts to become overbearing.


Without a single shred of inspiration or humor, The Ant Bully takes what could have been a cute movie for families, and turns it into something that is bound to be a chore for all but the youngest of children to sit through. How such an uninspired and sub par project attracted such strong talent (including Tom Hanks as head producer of the film) will forever be a mystery to me. It offers absolutely nothing in terms of entertainment value, and does not offer anything that other animated films haven't already done and done better. If it were not for the even more underwhelming Hoodwinked, this would definitely take the title of the worst animated feature of 2006 so far. The makers of The Ant Bully should thank their lucky stars that a decent look and some intriguing ideas help lift their effort to just slightly above worthless.

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John Tucker Must Die

Don't let the very misleading title fool you. John Tucker Must Die is a harmless, mostly inoffensive piece of teenage fluff that I'm sure its target audience will love. As for me, I found to be mostly unmemorable, but at least watchable. Director Betty Thomas (Private Parts, 1998's Doctor Dolittle) has created a perfectly standard teen comedy that does little to annoy, and even less to inspire. The film is watchable and has some good performances, but with such a strong and attention-grabbing title, everyone involved should have put forth a little extra effort to make John Tucker live up to its name.

Shy high school student Kate (Brittany Snow) is new to town, and while working at her restaurant job waiting tables, witnesses first hand that the most popular guy in school, John Tucker (Jesse Metcalf from TV's Desperate Housewives), is dating three girls at the same time. These girls include head cheerleader Heather (recording artist Ashanti), animal rights activist Beth (Sophia Bush), and technical savvy Carrie (Arielle Kebbel). All three think that John only has eyes for them, and when Kate tells them otherwise, the girls team up to plot and bring down John's high status. When some elaborate humiliation schemes don't seem to work, the girls fall back on a plan to make Kate appear to be the popular new cheerleader in school, which will instantly draw John's attention. The plan is for Kate to ultimately break his heart, so that he will understand how his former girlfriends feel. But when John Tucker starts to show genuine feelings for Kate and reveal a softer side that no one knew he had, Kate starts to have second thoughts about the deception, and begins to question the kind of person she is becoming.

With a light and breezy tone that should go over easy with just about any audience member, John Tucker Must Die is a mildly amusing picture set in that oh so popular alternate world that the movies love to show us. It's a world where every high school student looks like a 25-year-old supermodel or pop star, the "ugly" girl isn't that ugly to start with, and no one has an ounce of body fat, except for the prerequisite fat guy. (In this case, John Tucker's best friend.) Despite the hard to swallow fantasy of the film's settings, the screenplay by Jeff Lowell does manage to bring out some mild laughs out of the increasingly elaborate efforts of the girls to humiliate their male enemy. Sure, some of their attempts are a bit out there (Would any movie theater really run an ad set up by the girls that announces to the entire audience that John Tucker has herpes during the pre-show advertising reel?), but most of them are still clever and fun. The film also has a good heart at its core, especially the scenes concerning Kate and her young mother (played by comic actress Jenny McCarthy in a rare straight role), who has had her share of bad relationships in the past. The scenes between the two are generally played honestly, and deal with the fact that Kate feels she's never had a stable family life, since her mother has dated so many men one after another. It's nothing deep or involving, but it delivers some good performances from both of the actresses, and gives the film a sense of truth amongst the silliness of the main plot.

Where the film starts to lose its footing is that it does very little to make us care about the characters outside of Kate. The three girls who initiate the plan and drag her into it are all but interchangeable, and don't go much deeper than their stereotyped personalities. If more effort was made to humanize these girls that John Tucker has used and thrown away, we could have been more sympathetic to the girls' plight. Instead, they exist solely to set up some comedic set pieces to humiliate John, and "coach" Kate in the ways of being popular like them. We also get to see very little of the characters' lives outside of the school, and outside of their plotting sessions. While I hardly expect realism when watching a Hollywood teen comedy, these people seem to do nothing but hang out in the halls and play basketball all day, with the occasional chem lab now and then. It also would have been nice if the movie offered a more level-headed point of view of the situation, outside of the scorned women. The movie hints at this with the introduction of Tucker's more mellow and less popular brother (Penn Badgley), but he seems to disappear for most of the film, popping up only to dispense some warnings to Kate about the troubles her deceptive actions toward his brother will bring. With some more honest characters, this movie could have maybe risen above the usual standards of the genre. As it is, the film will merely have to settle for being slightly above average.

Thankfully, John Tucker Must Die is assisted by a generally strong cast led by the talented young Brittany Snow. A relative newcomer to feature films, Snow has real screen presence, a likeable personality, and is beautiful without being overly attractive or made up like some other young actresses. As long as she can find some better work, and avoids some of the pitfalls that have plagued her peers, I expect good things from her, and look forward to seeing her grow as an actress. Equally strong is Jesse Metcalf as the title character himself. He is able to lay on the smarmy charm that every ladies man holds, but is also able to make us believe that he is generally interested in Kate as their relationship grows and his softer side begins to show. As the three women who were once part of John's life, Ashanti, Sophia Bush and Arielle Kebbel are good enough in their respective roles, even if the characters themselves are not as well developed as they should be. The real surprise in the cast, however, comes from Jenny McCarthy. I have never been a fan of McCarthy even back on her MTV days back in the 90s, but she is surprisingly likeable in her role, and shows she can actually act when called for. The only hurdle you have to get over is to accept the fact that the 33-year-old McCarthy is the mother of the 20-year-old Snow. It may not be entirely believable, but at least the two women have good chemistry together.


While John Tucker may not exactly bring anything new to audiences, what it does offer it does well enough to make me not regret having to watch it. It's certainly better than the last high school comedy we got, the uninspired gender-switching comedy, She's the Man. You just get the sense that the movie could have been so much more while watching it. It's competently made, there are some all around good performances, and there are even a couple scenes where I found myself laughing. All it needed was a little something more to push it to a higher level. I may have not been entirely impressed, but I'm sure the young girl audience the film strives for will find much to like. If you are of this age group and gender, consider this review a recommendation. Everyone else can probably find something better to do with their time.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Miami Vice

With so many feature film adaptations of TV shows playing up the camp factor, or being straight up parodies of the original program, it's actually kind of a nice change of pace that Miami Vice plays itself completely serious. That being said, the movie plays itself a bit too seriously for its own good. Acclaimed filmmaker Michael Mann (who was involved with the original TV series back in the 80s) has crafted a gritty and visually interesting crime drama with a hollow center that features absolutely nothing for the audience to grab onto. The characters are underwritten personalities who seem more concerned about just standing around looking tough, and the plot is a jumbled mess, giving us very little reason to care or try to follow it. I can see what Mann was trying to do - Create his true updated vision for Vice now that he doesn't have to play by the rules of the network censors. But, in his mad rush to create a great looking film, he forgot to bring a great script to go along with it.

Tough-talking cop duo Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are given their most recent assignment early in the film. It involves them having to go undercover as transporters and infiltrate a drug running operation, trying to sniff out an intelligence leak. The two get in easy enough, but they find their troubles are just beginning when they quickly find themselves in over their heads. Crockett becomes attracted to the lovely money launderer, Isabella (Gong Li from Memoirs of a Geisha) during his time undercover, and is in danger of threatening the entire operation, since Isabella is currently involved with the head of the cartel (Luis Tosar). The two friends must do their best to keep up appearances until the time is right. However, when Tubbs' private life gets involved, the mission becomes even more personal than before.

Watching Miami Vice is a lot like walking into a two-part episode, and having missed the entire first part. The movie jumps immediately into the action as soon as the studio logo fades (not even bothering with opening titles), and assumes that we are up to speed on the world of Crockett and Tubbs. Since I was seven or eight years old during the time of its popularity, and I have had little desire to catch up on reruns, I felt a bit lost at first. Mann's storytelling moves at a brisk pace, lingering only long enough for us to get a sense for the location, and to see how beautifully he can film it. The movie jumps around, sometimes scenes seemingly coming from nowhere with little lead in. (One minute, our heroes are being grilled about their mission, the next, Tubbs is in a shower making love with his lady friend.) Characters pop up with little or no introduction or lead in. I don't know if these characters were developed or featured on the show or not, but I have a feeling that Mann made this movie for a specific audience, and I unfortunately was not part of the crowd.

When the plot finally kicks in, the pace starts to slow down a little. This is both good and bad. It is good, because it gives us enough chance to get to know the characters. The bad side is that the movie doesn't seem interested in letting us get to know them, and just skims the surface. The relationship between Crockett and Isabella seems to come almost out of the blue. They exchange a few words, and then suddenly, they speeding off to Cuba for drinks and sex. Granted, I can certainly see the physical attraction that Crockett sees in her, but their love seems to almost exist because Mann wanted this to be a hard R, and needed to throw in some nude scenes of the two actors. When they return from their little sex vacation, the character of Isabella seems to almost be forgotten. She pops up from time to time, but she spends such little time with Crockett the rest of the movie, we almost wonder what the point was. Even the professional relationship between Crockett and Tubbs seems oddly unconvincing, because they hardly say two words to each other every time Farrell and Foxx are in the same scene together. They mainly spend all of their scenes talking to someone else as they stand next to each other, and when they are alone, they seem like they wish they were with someone else. A little bit of bonding of any sort between the two would have helped strengthen their partnership and friendship with each other, and would have made them more personable to us.

It's really too bad that the script and the characters are so shallow, because Miami Vice really does look like a million. Taking a cue from his last film, Collateral, Mann shoots the film in a gritty and sometimes sort of grainy style that perfectly fits the mood of the story. The movie uses its exotic locations well, and even the local settings are beautiful. An opening scene set in a Miami night club is awash with color, blazing lights, exotic dancers, and a strong visual sense to tie all the madness together without making the scene confusing or overwhelming. The action sequences (what few there are) are also appropriately exciting and fast paced, with some well done and realistic gunplay that never becomes overly showy or stylized. The violence is strong, but also handled tastefully so that it never comes across as being exploitive. The one and only aspect to the film's look that I can object to is that Mann seems to like to set his nighttime scenes with flashes of lightning in the background for dramatic effect. I don't know if this was intentional, or if most of the night shoots just had the luck of being shot during an approaching storm. It was kind of cool the first time I saw it, but by the time the fourth nighttime scene was accompanied by occasional flashing lightning for dramatic effect, it kind of started to reach the point of self parody.

The casting is an all around mixed bag. While most of the actors are fine, they just never get to breathe life into their thin characters. As mentioned before, Farrell and Fox seem to have little chemistry together, mainly because they don't get to interact with each other all that much. On their own, both men are fine, but none have any particular scene where they get to shine. Chinese actress Gong Li as Isabella is beautiful as always in her biggest English-speaking role yet, but she still has a ways to go, as it can sometimes be hard to understand her dialogue. The rest of the cast is mainly forgettable. The villains are all cliched drug runner types that seem to have walked in from a Scarface audition, and the people who work alongside Farrell and Fox on the side of the law I recall very little about.


Miami Vice is the perfect definition of style over substance. Okay, the TV show probably followed the same formula, but still, Mann had a big opportunity to dig deep into the characters and reinvent them, and he all but squanders the opportunity with this immediately forgettable and overly stylized crime drama. Maybe the film's faults stem from the fact that someone so close to the original show was in charge. He probably knows more about the characters and their world than even the fans do, and he forgot to truly open up that world to the audience. While not a terrible movie, Miami Vice is an extremely disappointing one that is just not very fun to watch.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

With so many recent comic book movies trying to examine the private lives of superheroes, I guess it was only a matter of time before a movie like My Super Ex-Girlfriend came along. This goofy mixture of Fatal Attraction and Superman is light, breezy entertainment thanks to an often witty script by Don Payne (TV's The Simpsons) that skewers both superhero and romantic comedy cliches. If the movie doesn't always work as well as it should, it's certainly not due to the efforts of director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Twins) or the game cast he's put together. It's not great by any stretch of the imagination, but it can be fun if you're in the right frame of mind.

Common everyman Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson) has no idea what he's getting into when he introduces himself to the seemingly meek art gallery worker Jenny Johnson (Uma Thurman) on the subway one morning. How could he possibly know that mousy Jenny is actually G-Girl, super powered protector of New York City who possesses superhuman strength and the power of flight since being exposed to a meteor that hit the ground one night when she was a teenager? The relationship begins casually at first, but as time goes on, Jenny becomes smitten with Matt's kindness. After all, she deals with saving the world every day and punching out bad guys. That could take its toll on anyone. Matt becomes Jenny's anchor to the normal life she's always dreamed of. So, can you blame her if she goes a little crazy when Matt decides he wants to start seeing other people?

It turns out dating a superheroine isn't quite what Matt expected, as Jenny becomes extremely possessive and controlling around him, since she's so afraid of losing him. When Matt breaks up with her, and starts eyeing his recently single co-worker Hannah (Anna Faris) that he's always had an attraction to, Jenny decides she's not going to play nice anymore, and uses her super powers to make Matt's life a living hell. As Matt watches his world fall apart due to Jenny's interference, he is forced to turn to G-Girl's arch nemesis and former best friend back in high school, Professor Bedlam (Eddie Izzard), a mad scientist who has discovered a Krytponite-like substance that could drain Jenny of her powers, turning her back into a normal woman, thus allowing Matt to go on with his life.

With an interesting premise and a sarcastic sense of humor, My Super Ex-Girlfriend is an often very funny adult sex comedy set in the world of comic books. It expertly parodies the conventions of the genre, and brings to light many questions that comic book fans have often asked. Anyone who has ever wanted to know what it would be like if Superman and Lois Lane ever made love will know when they see the bedroom scene between Matt and Jenny that winds up destroying the entire bed due to Jenny's superhuman strength. The movie throws in some standards of the romantic comedy genres as well. This is probably the first romantic comedy I can remember that had a date interrupted due to the fact that the girl had to race off and redirect a stray missile that was headed for New York. The movie has a lot of fun going head first into its own goofy premise, and doesn't once even try to take itself seriously, which is certainly a plus.

Where the movie slips a little bit is in its mid-section which turns into an over the top and mean-spirited revenge fantasy. Jenny/G-Girl pretty much pulls out all the stops to take vengeance on Matt after he breaks up with her. Everything from launching his car into outer space, to swiping a shark and throwing it right through his bedroom window when he's sharing a romantic moment with his new girlfriend Hannah. The movie stays afloat, thanks mostly to the wonderful comedic performance by Uma Thurman, but it still manages to lose its way a little. The relationship between Matt and Hannah is obviously nowhere near as interesting as the one between Jenny and him during the first half of the film, and it deals too much with Matt's problems on the job, including his very strict boss (Wanda Sykes in a wasted glorified cameo). Things don't start to pick up again until the Professor Bedlam character enters the proceedings, and once again, the cleverness of the script shines through. I like it how they made Bedlam a much deeper and more personable villain than initially made out to be, especially when the truth behind his past between Jenny and him is revealed.

Even when the movie does stray from time to time, the mostly strong cast is there to pick up the slack. Uma Thurman is hilarious as the highly stressed and downright paranoid Jenny/G-Girl who has saved one person too many, and now pretty much saves the world out of necessity instead of actually wanting to do so. She brings the right amount of sexy superheroine cool to her G-Girl persona, and is slightly unhinged without going too over the top as Jenny. As crazy as the character can get, we never hate her, and a lot of that I think has to do with Thurman's performance. Luke Wilson is given the rather thankless job of being the straight man of the pair, and while he does his job well enough, he's just not really given much to do. Same goes for his sex-obsessed best friend (played by Rainn Wilson) who really serves no purpose in the movie itself. Aside from Thurman, the two main stand outs are Anna Faris, who gets to show a sweeter and more sensitive side than she does in the Scary Movie films that she's known for, and Eddie Izzard as Bedlam. Izzard has fairly limited screen time, but he manages to make the most out of every scene he's in.


The end result may be uneven, but My Super Ex-Girlfriend works just enough for me to say I enjoyed it. I probably would have liked it even more if the script went through a couple more drafts, and tightened the long middle section where the film sags a little. Still, it never offends, it's got more than a couple laugh out loud moments, and its got a kind of dark and twisted sense of humor that grew on me after a while. I don't think it will stand a chance in the crowded summer market, but it at least deserves to find an audience at home, which I'm sure it will. My Super Ex-Girlfriend may not live up to its full potential, but at least it doesn't completely squander it.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Clerks II

When we are growing up, our parents tell us that we can be anything we want to be as long as we put our minds to it, and that everything is within our reach. We believe this initially, but for some, the world is harsher than they are prepared for. Those who grow up dreaming of being firemen or astronauts are sad to discover that the reality is something much more mundane or ordinary. We sell ourselves short, we become used to the normalcy of our lives, and before we even know it, we've forgotten about pursuing our dreams and are content just to live life. The characters of Clerks II, the sequel to the 1994 indie film hit, are people who are more than used to the mundane. They may have once been told they had potential, but they have chosen to ignore it most of their lives. Director Kevin Smith has brought us a raunchy comedy with a bittersweet center about what happens when you realize life is passing you by.

Ten years have passed since the original film, and lifelong friends Dante Hicks (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) are in the same place in life they were when they were angry early 20-somethings working at a local convenience store. They're now angry early 30-somethings, and fate has forced them to leave their jobs after the store burns down. Having been working at a local fast food restaurant called Mooby's the past year, Dante thinks he's finally found his one way ticket out of his mundane New Jersey life. He's engaged to be married to a beautiful, yet controlling, young woman named Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach), and today is his last day on the job before he moves with her to Florida to start a new life. However, there are some hesitations. During the past year, he's struck up a close relationship with the restaurant's beautiful young manager, Becky (Rosario Dawson), that has grown so close that he's starting to wonder if Emma is truly the right girl for him. While Randal is content to argue with co-workers and customers over the merits of film trilogies, Dante knows there must be more to life, and finds himself at a crossroads between two women who can promise him very different things out of life.

The original Clerks launched Kevin Smith to fame because of its smart and frank dialogue about working at a convenience store, comic books, and Star Wars - three things that Smith was more than familiar with in real life. It was one of those right films at the right time moments, as it tapped into a generation that had been deemed as being "slackers", and spoke directly to them. Clerks II speaks directly to that same audience, only 10-years later. Specifically, the ones who have not advanced far past where they were at the time the original came out. While I initially questioned the necessity for a sequel to Clerks walking into the movie, it soon becomes apparent what Smith is trying to do. In a way, this is his most heartfelt and message-driven film yet. This time, he is speaking to the members of his fanbase who may still be confused about their lives, or who may have become slaves to normalcy. It is never sappy or preachy, the dialogue speaks directly from the mouth of someone who has been there, or had the same concerns or fears as his characters. As Dante examines his life and the events that led him up to this point throughout the film, we can identify with his personal fears and insecurities. I feel that Kevin Smith has made full use out of this sequel, using it to advance his characters, rather than just giving us another rehash.

Of course, the message is only a small part of the film. Most of it is devoted to Smith's typical foul-mouthed sex-driven geek culture humor, and fans should not be disappointed. The scene where Randel argues with one of his co-workers and a customer over which was the better trilogy, Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, is one of the funnier dialogue exchanges I've heard in a movie this year. And, as always, fan favorite characters Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) are there to offer their bizarre commentary on the events happening around them, without actually participating in anything. The movie's humor is crude and comes dangerously close to crossing the line (a scene late in the film concerning a very graphic sex act with a donkey makes you wonder how much had to be cut to avoid an NC-17 rating), but also knows how to hold itself back so it never becomes too much to watch. While most of the humor is of the juvenile variety, there are some scenes where Smith actually goes for a slightly gentler source of getting laughs. The key stand out is a musical/dance number set to a classic Jackson 5 song that may come out of left field, but I must admit, it's charming and very funny.

Where Clerks II falters is that it takes a while for the movie to find its footing. The first half is wildly uneven and not as funny as the later half. This is mainly because it takes a while for Smith's screenplay to find some coherency. The first half comes across more as a loosely connected series of raunchy skits and gross out gags. It's not until the movie starts focusing a bit more on its characters that the humor starts to have more weight, because there is more connection between the movie and audience. This is a movie that I started out being not very interested in, but my interest grew as it went along when I realized this wasn't just a sell out sequel to make more money. Even when the film is not in its best form, it's still watchable thanks to a great cast. Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson fit immediately back into their roles, and they certainly have a good Odd Couple relationship and play off of each other well. But, the real stand out is newcomer to the series, Rosario Dawson, who is smart, sexy and very sweet as boss Becky. Smith has written the character as a realistic woman, and Dawson's honest performance only makes it even better.


While Clerks II may not be perfect, it is a lot better than I thought it would be, and actually has something very intelligent to say once you look past the crudeness of the humor. For his first attempt at a sequel, Kevin Smith obviously understands that you need to move your characters forward, while not taking them away from what made them likeable to audiences the first time around. Is the sequel better than the first? Not really. Clerks was kind of one of those once in a lifetime movies. No filmmaker ever has another one of those, and although Smith tries, he never quite captures the same essence. But, he does send us out of the theater with a lot of thoughts in our head about the film we just saw, and that's a lot more than I expected when I was walking into the cinema.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

Monster House

One of my earliest movie memories stems from the day when my two older brothers took me to see the original Gremlins back in the summer of 1984. My mom dropped us off at the theater, thinking we were set to see a movie about cute furry little creatures. She was wrong. The film that I saw that day ended up terrifying, yet fascinating me, at the same time. I may have had nightmares for the next couple nights of little green monsters attacking me in my sleep, but it was worth it, as it introduced me to the wonderful emotions and effect that films can have on me. What is the point of this obscure nostalgic rant, you may ask? I have a feeling that a lot of the children in my screening of Monster House this afternoon were having the same experience I had 22 years ago.

In a year crammed full of carbon copy or just uninspired animated films, Monster House shines like a beacon of creative energy and wild imagination. Here is a family film that remembers something that so many other movies for children tend to forget - kids love to be scared. The movie is scary, but not so scary that kids should stay away, and it never forgets to have a sense of fun about itself. First-time filmmaker Gil Kenan has created a memorable film that I think will become required viewing at many children's Halloween parties for years to come. With its heavy Halloween theme, the most obvious question is what in the name of the Great Pumpkin is this movie doing being released in July? Only the obviously clueless heads at Columbia Pictures know the answer to that. All I know is hopefully the fact that this movie is being released during the wrong month will not keep families away.

The film's plot has much to do with the fact that in just about every neighborhood, there's one spooky old house that the kids speak of only in whispers, and silently dare each other to muster the courage just to ring the doorbell. In the neighborhood of preteen D.J. (Mitchel Musso), that house just happens to be right across the street from him, and it belongs to a crotchety old man named Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) who chases away anyone who dares set foot on his front lawn. The action picks up when old Nebbercracker suffers a heart attack, and is rushed off to the hospital. Almost instantly, D.J. begins to notice strange things happening across the street. The spooky old abandoned house suddenly takes on a life of its own, snatching and pulling in anyone and everything that happens to draw near, seemingly devouring them whole. Knowing that Halloween is only one day away, D.J. must find some way to destroy this possessed house before any unsuspecting Trick-or-Treaters meet an untimely end. With his parents gone for the weekend, and his unsympathetic babysitter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) too interested in her new boyfriend to pay him much mind, D.J. must convince his cowardly best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) and local girl Jenny (Spencer Locke) that the house is truly alive, and that they are the only ones who can stop it.

What sets Monster House so far apart from the multiple other animated films to hit theaters this year is its premise and tone. While there are plenty of jokes and pratfalls to keep youngsters entertained (though fortunately, the film keeps the toilet humor to a minimum, and no fart jokes can be found), the film takes its own bizarre and spooky premise with a certain amount of seriousness. There is a certain Tim Burton or Joe Dante (Gremlins, The 'Burbs) vibe to the house itself, and also to its bizarre background story when we eventually learn how this living house came to be. The movie knows how to expertly balance the laughs with the scares, and knows not to go too far with its own weirdness so that we are never brought out of the film's spell. Of course, due to the fact that this is a cartoon, the animators are able to go full force into making this possessed house into a living, breathing villain that is to be feared. The way they give this inanimate object its own character and a life of its own is almost worthy of applause. It's something that other animated films that tried to give personality to non-living objects should take into consideration. (I'm looking at you, Cars!) There are a number of thrilling scenes, such as when the children are trapped within the living house, and the grand climax which I dare not reveal. The movie is fast-paced, but never chaotic and annoying, and the screenplay by Pamela Pettler, Dan Harmon, and Rob Schrab know how to keep the laughs flying just as fast as the thrills.

But, more so than the strangeness of the plot itself, what ultimately won me over is how real and human the characters seem. This is a movie that remembers that brief awkward period of pre-adolescence. You're too old to Trick-or-Treat, but too young to fully understand girls. You feel like you're an adult, but everyone still treats you as a kid. The movie is honest in its dialogue and its depiction of this confusing and troubling time in everone's life, and it really offers a nice anchor of reality to the absurdness of the film's main plot. The three kids who drive the plot are all likeable and well developed. Although best friend Chowder may come across as odious comic relief at first, he never becomes annoying, and the writers remember to give him dialogue that a kid would actually say, so he doesn't sound like a stand up comic trapped in a small body. The supporting characters are not as well developed, and seem to come and go as the screenplay sees fit, but I actually did not mind. The kids and the accompanying voice performances are strong enough to carry the film. Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, and Spencer Locke are not only able to create likeable and believable characters, but the bond they form together during the film seems natural. Here is one summer blockbuster that knows how to mix incredible action and effects with characters we can care about. The fact that it's also only about 95 minutes long in a season full of 2 and a half hour+ blockbusters is the icing on the cake.

If there is anything I must object within Monster House, it is certain aspects of the look of the film. While the backgrounds are beautifully detailed, and the animation and movements of the characters are fluid (it uses the same technology created for 2004's Polar Express movie), some of the character designs looked a bit off to me. There seems to be nothing wrong at first glance, but the more I looked at them, it seemed like some of the character had an almost plastic look to them. Their hair looks like it's been painted on top of their heads, almost like a Ken doll. Plus, their skin sometimes has this weird unearthly shine. It wasn't bad enough so that I was taken out of the movie, but I did notice it from time to time, and it did annoy me during those times. Everything else about this movie is so top shelf, I wonder why the characters came out looking so unnatural?


Regardless, if that was the worst thing I had to say about every movie, I would be a much happier filmgoer. Maybe it was the fact that I saw the labored and boring Lady in the Water right before it, but Monster House put me in a better mood than just about any other movie I can think of this year. The kids in my audience seemed to be in agreement, and none of them sounded like they were in for a night of bad dreams, so I'm sure just about anyone can appreciate it. If your kids (or you) still hold a soft place in their hearts for old fashioned Halloween ghost stories, they definitely will. I don't say this very often, but I think Monster House could be a holiday classic in the making. Let's hope the studio's narrow-minded decision to release it in the summer doesn't bungle things.

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Lady in the Water

Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, Lady in the Water, is being marketed as a bedtime story. There's probably a very good reason why not many other movies do the same. Bedtime stories tend to lull people to sleep. Okay, that may be a bit harsh, but that still doesn't excuse what a wordy, drawn-out, and downright dull fantasy he has crafted. Here is a movie full of many ideas, but no idea what to do with them. We've got mythical creatures, dangerous wolves, killer monkey monsters, prophecies, and a young writer who is destined to save and shape the very world with his words. (The fact that said writer is played by Mr. Shyamalan himself turns the movie into one big ego trip.) Any filmmaker could take any one of those ideas, and have made a compelling film out them. Shyamalan, however, turns toward the convoluted in his storytelling so that we don't believe anything that's being projected onto the screen. If The Village made audiences hate the twists that Shyamalan put at the end of his movies, than Lady in the Water just may make people hate Shyamalan period.

Set at a Philadelphia apartment complex, the film centers on Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti), a mild mannered and shy superintendent who speaks with a slight stutter, and prefers to keep to himself without getting truly close to anyone. Late one night, while investigating some strange splashes that he hears in the complex's outdoor pool area, he encounters a mysterious woman who calls herself Story (Bryce Dallas Howard). Story claims to be from a place called the Blue World, and is seeking a messenger whose words will change the world. The few details that Story is able to tell Cleveland of her world seem to match that of an Asian fairy tale that one of the complex's residents knows. It is a story of Narfs (sea nymphs) who once co-existed in our world along with humans, until people moved away from the knowledge and guidance of the Narfs.

It does indeed seem that Story is on some sort of mission that could very well shape the world. Unfortunately, there are those who wish to prevent her from completing it. There is a dangerous wolf-like grass demon lurking on the outskirts of the building called a Scrunt that will kill her if she ever steps outside of the relative safety of the apartment building. Cleveland must decipher the riddles of the fairy tale in order to help Story accomplish her goals and return to her world safely. He, and the other residents of the complex, will all play a large part in not only helping Story, but in also possibly shaping the future of our world.

With an intriguing premise and the right amount of mystery during the film's first half hour or so, Lady in the Water is initially able to bring us under its spell and make us think that something wondrous is about to happen. The film keeps on hinting that it's all going to pay off, yet it never does. The film seems to constantly be trying to build up tension, with the glowing red eyes of the wolf demon watching the unsuspecting apartment residents from the shadows, but it never actually amounts to much of anything, and when it finally does, it arrives in an abrupt and anticlimactic ending that seems to be over in a matter of seconds. If The Village pulled the rug out from under viewers, then Lady in the Water simply teases them, not even bothering to pull the rug. It just taunts us with tantalizing ideas and imagery, and then walks away without even giving us the tiniest morsel of intrigue or interest. Besides Cleveland and Story, the rest of the cast exist for two reasons - exposition and then to mainly stand in the background and look concerned at Story. The movie tries to fool us into thinking they're playing an actual role in the story, but they are so underdeveloped and played in such broad ethnic stereotypes that we find it impossible to care about them, even when their true purpose in the story is revealed.

It certainly doesn't help matters that for a part of the movie, the film stops being a fantasy story, and turns into an egotistical vanity project for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. He's had a habit of casting himself in fairly minor roles in his past films. This time, he gives himself a pretty decently sized one, and one that completely takes us out of the story, and brings forth unintentional laughter. Shyamalan plays a struggling writer who has been working on a book for years, but has given up on it. Later, Story tells him that she can see his future, and that his book is going to do great things. It is going to inspire a young boy who will become a great leader of the world. This leader will then base his teachings and his leadership of the world based on the writer's book. Okay, I find it hard to picture Mr. Shyamalan keeping a straight face while writing this, let alone deciding to cast himself as this person. What's worse, he writes the character as an almost tragic Christ-like figure who will be sacrificed, but his words will go on to inspire people and nations the world over long after his death. This is just plain egotism in its purest and rawest form. Shyamalan even decides to take some pot shots at his critics by making the one and only unlikeable person in the movie a film critic who is so grumpy and gruff, and is so set in his ideals and cynicism that he refuses to believe in things like true love or magic. Film critics are gonna have a hard time taking Shyamalan's future movies seriously after this one.

When the movie isn't boring us with its overly wordy screenplay, its bafflingly simplified conclusion, or its underdeveloped characters, it at least has a couple of good performances on display. Paul Giamatti is as good as ever as Cleveland, and is able to bring some much needed humanity to a character would have seemed less interesting in the wrong hands. Despite the flaws of how the character is written (the bonds between him and the tenants of the complex never seem quite as strong as the story wants us to believe they are), he is able to make us sympathize with the character. Bryce Dallas Howard, who was one of the few things that worked in The Village, gives an appropriately strange and almost alien performance as the mysterious Story. The movie intentionally keeps us at a distance from her and her world, so we know very little about her character. Howard meets this challenge head on, and makes the character believable and likeable without making her too personable. The rest of the cast tend to all be a blur, as they are just interchangeable ethnic stereotype cliches. The only characters who stand out are the previously mentioned gruff film critic, and a free-spirited Asian college student who mainly acts to explain the film's backstory in almost every scene she's in.


Lady in the Water has Shyamalan's typical strong visual sense, a lovely accompanying music score by James Newton Howard, and an intriguing fantasy premise that is a nice change of pace from the filmmaker's usual horror slant. Yet, none of these elements can help lift the film above its magnitude of problems that sink it like a brick. It never grabs our attention, it never does enough with its own material, and its content to just not dig deep enough into its own characters or story. I'm sure Shyamalan's defenders will be in full force, just as his critics will be in full force bashing the film. Quite frankly, I think this film is a failed experiment. I like what Shyamalan was trying to do, but he just didn't see it through to the end. It's a shame. There's a good movie lurking around in the bad one it turned out to be.

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

You, Me and Dupree

Being released exactly one year from the weekend that Owen Wilson's surprise hit, Wedding Crashers, came to the big screen last summer, Universal's ad campaign for his latest comedy would lead you to believe that it is a lighthearted and raunchy comedy in the same mold. However, much like other deceptive ad campaigns of this summer (The Break Up and Click), this is not the case. You, Me and Dupree follows expectations for the first 45-minutes or so, then takes an extreme turn for the rest of its running time, asking us to support and sympathize with a character it tried so hard to pass off as an obnoxious comic character. The movie is watchable, thanks to some strong performances and a couple good laughs here and there. But filmmaker siblings Anthony and Joe Russo (TV's Arrested Development) never quite find a consistent tone, leaving the viewer with mixed feelings walking out of Dupree.

Happy newlywed couple Carl (Matt Dillon) and Molly (Kate Hudson) Peterson are getting ready to enjoy their new lives together. The happiness is thrown out of order when Carl's best friend, Randy Dupree (Owen Wilson), moves into their house after he loses his job and his home. Dupree is a nice guy and always has good intentions, but he's also a slacker, and has a tendency to float from job to job, making permanent employment difficult. What's supposed to be a week-long living arrangement until Dupree can get back on his feet turns into something much longer, and Carl and Molly quickly find their patience being tested by this houseguest who refuses to leave. As the months pass by, Dupree and Molly start to bond when Carl becomes wrapped up in his job and the mounting pressures of his boss (Michael Douglas), who just happens to be Molly's father, and likes to keep a particularly close eye on his son-in-law. With his wife seemingly smitten by the charming slacker Dupree, Carl begins to question his relationship with both his best friend and his spouse.

You, Me and Dupree is a movie that works in bits and pieces, surrounded by long stretches where not much of interest happens. The first half of the movie is the part used in the film's ad campaign, and also just happens to be the weakest. Dupree comes across as an oafish, almost childlike man who is completely inconsiderate of others, such as when he changes the couple's answering machine message without telling them, orders pay channels like HBO on their TV, and sets fire to their house when trying to entertain a girl with candlelight love making. The movie goes to such extremes to make us hate the man that it comes as somewhat of an awkward surprise when Dupree realizes the error of his ways about halfway through, and sets about righting his wrongs. The movie seems to switch gears here, turning Dupree into a likeable goofball, and turning the previously reasonable and mild-mannered Carl into a selfish and violent jerk who yells at people for no reason, and is taken by fits of rage where his father-in-law must bash him on the head with a candlestick in order to protect himself. This uneven tone is what ultimately prevents the film from working. There's just not enough reason for either of the two characters to make such drastic change in character. Yeah, Carl's under a lot of pressure with his job and his father-in-law/boss hating him, but he still seems to take it to extremes sometimes. And even though Dupree becomes a much more likeable character during the second half, his miraculous transformation is given very little explanation. By the time the movie reaches the point where Dupree is going all out to save the fading love between Carl and Molly, we begin to wonder if these are the same people we saw at the beginning of the story.

While the shift in tone may be awkward, I must admit the film becomes better because of it. The crude and unfunny sex and bathroom humor of the first half quickly wore out its welcome with me, and had me prematurely labeling the film as a total failure. But when the movie tries to make Dupree come across as more of a human instead of a cartoon imitation of a 30-year-old man who hasn't matured since high school, it actually started to work a little. A lot of this has to do with the lead performance of Owen Wilson, who is quite charming and likeable during this half of the film. Yes, he's pretty much playing the same goofy guy next door type that he's played in numerous other comedies, but I must admit, he does it well. A scene where he goes to an elementary school on Career Day, and talks to the kids about how some people never find their path in life is actually quite honest, and may even hit close to home with some people. This half of the story also held the biggest laughs for me, whereas the first half held virtually none. It almost makes you wish that first-time screenwriter, Mike LeSieur, had kept this same focus throughout the entire script. He's obviously skilled at mixing comedy and drama without one overpowering the other, and without falling into the trap of sappy sentiment. You get the sense that the screenplay probably needed another rewrite or two before going in front of the cameras. Either that, or Mr. LeSieur needed to decide on what kind of movie he was trying to make.

Aside from Owen Wilson, the rest of the main cast are generally strong all around. Kate Hudson is pretty and likeable, and gets to have some good scenes with both of her male co-stars. I just wish her relationship with Michael Douglas' character was strengthened, so it would make more sense why she would defend him when he was obviously upsetting her husband so. Matt Dillon is fine, but seems to be at the mercy of the uneven screenplay, his character switching from understanding and sensitive nice guy to ranting psychopath, depending on whatever mood he's supposed to be in at the given scene. As for Michael Douglas, you get the sense there was a big missed opportunity here to send up his usual corporate slimeball image that he's played in so many films. He gets a couple laughs here and there, but they still could have done much more with his character.


All and all, You, Me and Dupree is a largely hit and miss affair that just doesn't hit as often as it should. It's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but in order to achieve the widespread audience appeal that it obviously seeks, it just doesn't try hard enough. The film's two halves also don't flow together as well as they should, though its certainly not as hard to swallow as the shift in tone in last month's Click. Careening wildly from juvenile toilet humor to scenes of honesty and sincerity, the movie never quite finds solid ground. As it is, Dupree can only coast so long on the likeable performance of Wilson before the whole thing stars to crumble apart, thanks to the shaky screenplay it was built on.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Little Man

It doesn't take a lot to be seen as a hero in someone else's eyes. For example, if anyone attending a showing of Little Man were to walk out of the theater before it was over, he or she would automatically become my personal hero. Unfortunately, there were no such acts of heroism at my showing. And since it was my duty to review it, I had to sit through every last minute. Director Keenan Ivory Wayans (White Chicks, Scary Movie 1 and 2) has crafted a film so misguided and just plain odd, I almost wonder if this wasn't some sort of experiment that the filmmakers were trying to perform in order to see how the audience would react. More frightening and disturbing than any horror film to hit the big screen this year so far, Little Man almost makes me nostalgic for Martin Short's infamous "grown man posing as a little kid" comedy, Clifford.

Mere moments after being released from prison, pint-sized con artist Calvin (Marlon Wayans) is already on his next job. With the help of his slow-witted partner in crime, Percy (Tracy Morgan), Calvin steals a valuable diamond right out of a jewelry store without anyone noticing at first. The cops are eventually able to catch on, and during a hot pursuit, Calvin is forced to dispose of the diamond in the purse of local woman Vanessa (Kerry Washington), and her devoted husband Darryl (Shawn Wayans). Calvin and Percy follow the couple to their home, and overhear that the pair wish for a baby, but because of Vanessa's recent promotion and busy work schedule, they don't have the time. Percy hatches a bizarre scheme where the vertically challenged Calvin will pose as an abandoned toddler, so he can gain entrance into the house, and steal the diamond.

What starts as a simple in and out job quickly turns more complicated when Calvin finds the young couple actually falling for him, and welcoming him into their lives. He even finds himself slowly getting used to the loving family life that he never had. However, danger is lurking nearby, as Calvin's crime boss (Chazz Palminteri), who instructed him to get the diamond in the first place, is starting to grow impatient. If Calvin doesn't retrieve the diamond soon without blowing his disguise, the family may be in bigger danger when his boss' thugs start following them.

A blatant rip off of a classic Bugs Bunny short with a similar premise, in which the toon rabbit adopted a notorious thief posing as a baby (so blatant the movie even literally plagiarizes entire scenes from the cartoon, right down to the dialogue and gags), Little Man is an uncomfortable mix of the usual Wayans-style raunch humor, Home Alone slapstick, and heart-tugging sentiment. It is a 98 minute long cinematic black hole in which all ideas, humor, and creativity that might have gone into the making of this movie are sucked into a deep swirling vortex. We watch scene after scene struggle for laughs up there on the screen, but we don't, because we wonder why we're supposed to find this funny in the first place. There is nothing funny about Little Man. Its main joke is that comic actor Marlon Wayans is doing a terrible imitation of a toddler, and for some reason, absolutely everybody except for one character falls for it the moment they lay eyes on him. Never mind the fact that Marlon Wayans as a toddler makes Martin Lawrence in Big Momma's House look down right convincing, or the fact that the questionable special effects often make it look like they crudely pasted Marlon Wayans' face over the head of a midget actor. The whole idea itself is just creepy, and seeing Marlon Wayans posing as a 2-year-old comes across more as frightening than funny. (Especially when he makes leering faces at women, or mugs at the camera with this hideous smile that he keeps on repeating.)

When the movie's not asking us to laugh at the frightening image of the Calvin character, it tries to make us laugh at over the top gross out humor that has no place being in a PG-13 movie. While Calvin is lying in the baby basket, waiting for the couple to answer the door, a dog walks up to him and we get a graphic close up of Calvin having urine sprayed over his face and in his mouth. No reason for this gag, the Wayans just had to throw a bathroom joke in there. Later scenes include a shockingly appalling scene where a woman tries to breast-feed Calvin, and let's not forget the moment where little Calvin adds some extra "flavor" to a man's cookie by rubbing it all over his private areas. Besides that, the movie's humor is juvenile at best, where people are hit in the crotch repeatedly by just about every projectile object imaginable, or hit in the head in lame slapstick sequences that almost play like a bad In Living Color parody of Home Alone. The movie has no coherency or plot structure. It's simply a series of tired gags strung together loosely to make a movie.

Because the movie is too busy concentrating on unfunny sight gags, the characters and the actors themselves are pretty much given absolutely nothing to do. But then, if everyone in this movie is dumb enough to believe Calvin is an actual toddler, maybe we're better off not knowing much about them, as I imagine they probably need directions to get dressed in the morning. Marlon Wayans simply makes funny faces for the duration of his screen time, none of which are remotely amusing. Shawn Wayans and Kerry Washington are restricted to bland straight man roles, the movie denying them even the slightest attempt at doing something funny with their characters. The cast also includes some cameos by other comedians such as Rob Schneider and Molly Shannon, who are both immediately forgettable in their respective roles as a Barney the Dinosaur-like character and a deranged soccer mom.


Little Man is one of those movies that looks bad from the trailers, and manages to somehow exceed your worst nightmares. It is an ugly, stupid farce that also finds time to be racist in the form of a pair of white cops who like to beat up on random black people. It seems that Keenan Ivory, Marlon, and Shawn Wayans (who also wrote the screenplay) ran out of inspiration before they even typed a single letter into the script. (Then again, when your inspiration is "let's steal the plot of an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, and add toilet humor to it", there's not much to work with.) Idiotic and downright terrifying in its ineptness, this is a movie that should have never gone before the camera, let alone been greenlighted in the first place. Little Man fails in just about every conceivable way.

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01/01/2017 - 02/01/2017
02/01/2017 - 03/01/2017
03/01/2017 - 04/01/2017

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