Reel Opinions


Friday, March 30, 2007

Meet the Robinsons

What we have here is a movie with too many ideas, but nowhere near enough time to fit them all in. With Meet the Robinsons, you get the sense that filmmaker Stephen J. Anderson and his crew had a lot of inventive and funny ideas, and tried their best to squeeze them all in. The end result is a frustrating movie that seems constantly on the verge of clicking, but the tone is too scattered and chaotic for it to do so. When your movie has singing frogs, evil hats bent on world domination and an alien octopus-like creature, and these are minor cameo characters that the film barely touches on, you know your movie is a little too full in the ideas department.

12-year-old child genius Lewis (voice by Daniel Hansen) has been living at the local orphanage ever since his mom dropped him on the doorstep of the building when he was a baby. Wanting to know who his real mother was, Lewis decides to invent a device that can scan a person's brain for forgotten memories and display them on a monitor for the school's Science Fair. At the Fair, Lewis finds himself followed by a strange kid named Wilbur Robinson (Wesley Singerman), who claims to be from the future, and is tracking a mysterious villain that has traveled back in time and is after Lewis and his invention. The villain in question is an odd fellow who goes by the name of "Bowler Hat Guy" (director Stephen J. Anderson), and wants to steal Lewis' brain scanning invention and claim it as his own for reasons unknown initially. Using Wilbur's time machine, Lewis gets to visit the World of Tomorrow, and meets Wilbur's large and eccentric family. The Robinson family may be bizarre, but they genuinely come to love Lewis, and are the closest thing to a family he's ever known. But with the Bowler Hat Guy in constant pursuit and Wilbur's time machine damaged during the trip to the future, it will take everything young Lewis has to make it back to his own time.

Meet the Robinsons has a lot of ideas that would work independently and on their own, but combined together, just don't add up to a whole lot. The film is frequently disjointed and often seems confused. There are a lot of characters and thoughts that seem intriguing, but the movie does nothing with them, so they come across as being mere oddities instead of fleshed out characters we can care about. The bizarre Robinson family include a mother who has taught frogs how to sing and perform Big Band-style music, a man who lets a crude puppet do most of the talking for him, and a guy who dresses like a superhero but has a job delivering pizzas. Because these characters are used mainly for throwaway sight gags or are restricted to stand in the background in every scene, they seem to be weird just for the sake of being weird. One of the messages the film seems to want to impart to children is to be proud of who you are, no matter how others may see you. This message is mainly lost in the chaos that is this movie, because we never get to truly meet the Robinsons, despite the title. They're props and easy visual gags, and not much else. We've got all these bizarre characters who probably all could have an entire movie built solely around each individual one. Instead, they're forced to compete with time travel and world domination plots. Everything is competing for screen time, and we wind up feeling exhausted instead of entertained by the time it's all over. The filmmakers seem to try to throw everything but the kitchen sink up there on the screen, when I think a "less is more" approach would have suited the material best.

That's not to say the film doesn't work, because there are a lot of times when it does. The whole time travel aspect of the story leads to some genuinely touching moments. Yes, the outcome and revelations are very predictable, but they are also effective. I also liked the look of the film quite a lot. The depiction of the future in this movie is bright and colorful, and seems to be ripped right out of the pages of a 1940s sci-fi magazine. It's a shame we get to see so little of the world, outside of the Robinsons' massive house. We get some tantalizing shots of the society as Lewis and Wilbur fly overhead in the time machine, but then we never see any of these things again. Still, there is some stunning animation on display, and some very strong character designs. A key standout is the Bowler Hat Guy, who is a charmingly retro villain. Dressed all in black and with a curly handlebar mustache, he is a big, gaudy villain who seems to have stepped right out of an 1890s melodrama. The Bowler Hat Guy is fascinating in his design. With his long, spider-like hands and legs, and his bizarre movement patterns (he almost seems to zip from one part of the room to another at times), he is a testament to the sort of freedom that animation can provide. There's no way a character such as him could have been created in live action; His movements and mannerisms are simply too bizarre, but a joy to watch. The film's secondary villain is his trademark bowler hat, which is robotic and has a mind of its own, as well as the ability to move about at will either by flying or by sprouting metallic spider-like legs. The animators also do a great job bringing life to an inanimate object here (especially since the thing "talks" in a series of R2-D2 style beeps and clicks), but its big moment near the end seems anticlimactic. It seems as if most of the hat's material that the film's been leading up to was left behind in the editing room. I was left feeling like there should have been more.

I had that feeling a lot while watching Meet the Robinsons. I wanted more on the Robinsons themselves. I wanted more of these grand ideas that the movie kept on hinting at, but never acting upon. Most of all, I wanted the movie to slow down. The film is rapid-fire in its storytelling and even more so in the telling of its jokes. There are scenes where everyone talks so fast, it sounds like the actors were being rushed through their lines in the recording studio. This gives the film an unnecessarily chaotic tone. Things calm down quite a bit during the last 15 minutes or so, as this is the supposed to be the poignant "message" part of the film. Unfortunately, by then, it is too little too late. The film had already failed to captivate me the way I thought it wanted to. It also doesn't earn its own poignancy, because it doesn't care about its characters enough. When Lewis has a chance to actually find out about his past, the scene does not stick with us, simply because we know so little about Lewis himself other than he's an orphan and likes to invent things. Everyone in this movie fails to impress in the slightest, except for the Bowler Hat Guy, and that's only because of his interesting character design. The way I see it, just because a movie was animated with computers does not mean the film itself has to be as cold and emotionless as the machines that made it. Someone should have passed that note along to the Disney Studio before this film went into production.
Will kids like this movie? Hard to say. This is one of those movies where I kept on trying to like it. I was practically forcing myself to fall for its offbeat charm and characters, but the movie's many flaws kept on holding me back. It's not a terrible movie, and it's certainly a big step up from Disney's last in-house computer animated film, Chicken Little. Meet the Robinsons is just too interested on being weird and quirky simply because it feels like it should be in order to stand out. If there was a method to the madness, I would have embraced this film with open arms. As it stands, the movie comes across as a bunch of half-baked ideas running around on the screen looking for a story worthy enough to contain them. The story within Meet the Robinsons is not the one.

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Blades of Glory

There are a couple of inspired comedic moments throughout Blades of Glory, and all of them are found in the scenes when the two lead characters (played by Will Ferrell and Jon Heder) are on the ice. This being a comedy about championship ice figure skating, I suppose this is a good thing. Too bad Blades of Glory spends so much time away from the skating rink, and decides to focus instead on a convoluted and idiotic plot that we can't care too much about. Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck seem to treat most of the film as mindless filler, and it suffers because of it. Whenever the characters and the script itself are off the ice, the laughs stop and the tired and creaky storytelling takes over.

Rival figure skaters Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) and Jimmy MacElroy (Heder) are both at the top of their games in the mens' single skating competition. Jimmy was adopted as a young boy by a billionaire who trained him to be the perfect athlete. Chazz is the sex-addicted "bad boy" of the sport who skates to 80s rock anthems, and prefers to break the rules. When they both wind up tying for the Gold Medal at a competition, a fight breaks out between the two during the award ceremony that results in both of them getting banned from the sport. Three and a half years later, both men are mere shells of their former glory, until an obsessed fan of Jimmy's who has been stalking him for years clues him in on a loophole - They were both banned from single men's figure skating, but that doesn't mean they couldn't compete together as a couples team. With Jimmy's old coach (Craig T. Nelson) training them, the two men must put aside their past rivalry and become the first male couples figure skating team in the history of the sport. Thrown into the plot are the scheming current champions of the couples figure skating world (Will Arnett and Amy Poehler) who are plotting to sabotage the competition's chances of winning, and a love interest for Jimmy in the form of the younger sister of the evil figure skating pair (Jenna Fischer) who is being manipulated by her siblings.

When Blades of Glory is focusing solely on its overly-worn and tired plot, the film lumbers along, checking off the expected plot points on its invisible check list of cliches. Only when the movie switches to the ice competition scenes does the movie gain the sense of lunacy that a movie like this needs. The characters of Chazz and Jimmy are great comedic ideas, but they simply don't work off the ice. Whenever they're not wearing skates, they simply go through the motions. Ferrell gives the same egotistical and vain idiot ladies' man performance he's given in his past comedies like Anchorman or Talladega Nights, while Heder once again gives us another variation on his Napoleon Dynamite character. (I almost have an image in my head of Heder standing in front of a mirror whenever he gets a new role, doing his Napoleon Dynamite voice, then altering it ever so slightly so it appears new.) On the ice, when the two are forced to perform together in ways and positions that find them both closer to each other's crotches than they probably would ever want to be, the movie finds the right tone. The tone of the comedy is not homophobic, rather it is one of awkwardness. The very look on the faces of Ferrell and Heder as they try not to look at each other's privates as they lift each other up over their heads had me laughing. Their grimaces and shifting eyes tell the whole story. They're both in a position they never thought they would find themselves in, and are not sure how to react at what they are seeing. There are some other good laughs, such as when the evil figure skating couple do their act based on the relationship between JFK and Marilyn Monroe. We, unfortunately, only see highlight glimpses of this act. I would have loved to have seen it in its entirety.

These moments made me laugh, as they are filled with a kinetic and delightfully off the wall energy. That's why it's such a shame that the film keeps on going back to that darn plot. Maybe this movie would have worked better as a "mockumentary" on figure skating. The film certainly has enough cameos from the figure skating world to qualify, including Nancy Kerrigan, Brian Boitano and Sasha Cohen. Unfortunately, it can't think of an original thing to do with these cameos, just like it can't think of anything original to do with its story. I'm sure that plot was the last thing on the minds of the four screenwriters credited to the script, but they often seem to have forgotten that they were supposed to be writing a comedy. The jokes fall flat, and it keeps on focusing too much on its own cliches. The dialogue and the humor does not fly fast or hit hard enough. Farrell gets a couple mild chuckles here and there, but they sound like lines he improvised right there on the set, so I don't know if should credit the script or not. All I know is that the movie that surrounds the figure skating sequences lack spark. The actors seem to realize it too, as the performances are equally leaden for most of the film. We get a love relationship between Heder and Fischer's character that could have been left on the cutting room floor for all the attention the film gives it, were it not for the fact this relationship was required in order to break up the relationship between Ferrell and Heder briefly. Craig T. Nelson as the coach is completely wasted in a thankless role that delivers no laughs and doesn't let him get in on the fun. He simply stands in the background and barks orders, while Ferrell and Heder do the funny stuff. As the lead villains, Will Arnett and Amy Poehler (who are married in real life) are completely one-dimensional and fail to deliver anything resembling a chuckle.
This is the kind of movie where you can see that the filmmakers were onto something, but didn't go all the way with it. I laughed quite a bit at Blades of Glory, but found myself bored much more frequently. The movie should have been sharper, smarter and more satirical instead of focusing on moldy love triangles and jealous stuck up villains. We've seen all of that before, and don't need to see it again. Especially not when there's some great material lying underneath. When you come right down to it, Blades of Glory is just lukewarm leftovers that have been thrown together with very little care.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

The Last Mimzy

There was a time when family entertainment was about more than CG animation, fart jokes, pop culture humor and a pop song soundtrack. The Last Mimzy remembers that time. Anyone who grew up on family films that were truly about discovery and adventure are sure to appreciate this film. The fact that this is an intelligent deep film that involves such topics as Tibetan mysticism, advanced cultures and time travel might make this a hard sell for children. The movie takes its time in unraveling its premise, and for the first hour or so, the audience is left kind of in the dark as to what to expect. But, that also is what gives the movie its sense of wonder. For very patient children (and adults) who are looking for something different, The Last Mimzy is sure to fill the minds of its audience with more captivating ideas than any other family film in recent memory.

When 10-year-old Noah (Chris O'Neil) and his younger sister Emma (Rhiannon Leigh Wynn) discover a mysterious box on the beach during Spring Break, how could they realize what was in store for them? The box contains some shining rock-like objects that seem to hold mysterious powers and a seemingly-ordinary stuffed rabbit named Mimzy that somehow can communicate with young Emma in a language that only the girl can hear and understand. Unsure of just what they've found, the two children vow to keep their discovery a secret from their parents. As the kids spend more time around the objects, they find that their intelligence increases substantially, and they eventually begin to even develop telepathic powers. When Noah starts drawing bizarre patterns in class, his Science teacher Larry White (Rainn Wilson) and his fiance (Kathryn Hahn) recognize them as ancient symbols from lost cultures long ago. As everyone involved tries to uncover the mystery behind these items, the children eventually learn of an advanced race far into the future that is on the brink of destruction. How this box of objects and the children are tied into all of this, I will leave for the viewer to discover on their own.

For a family film, The Last Mimzy is certainly a large gamble for any major studio. The film contains no easy laughs or jokes, taking itself almost completely seriously from beginning to end. The movie constantly has a tone of mystery to it, and takes it's sweet time in letting the answers be revealed. The fact that the founder and CEO of New Line Cinema, Robert Shaye, not only found it appropriate to green light a film like this, but to also direct it himself is quite also remarkable. I can only hope that audiences are willing to give this film as much of a chance. The screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin (Jacob's Ladder, Ghost) and Toby Emmerich (Frequency) is a throw back to such films as E.T. and Explorers. It is a movie about two very real and likeable children who are thrust into something they don't understand. The movie never once talks down to it's audience, or tries to simplify things. For most of the film's running time, we find ourselves just as lost as the characters are as to what everything means. But, we are also intrigued. The film constantly tantalizes and intrigues us in just about every scene, so that we want to go along for the ride and discover what's going to happen next. The movie knows how to keep us in the dark without confusing us so we don't lose interest. We never become frustrated, and we're certainly not bored. And when the answers do start coming, it was certainly nice for a change of pace to see a movie live up to the wonder it initially promised. With so many films having great set ups and disappointing pay offs, this was welcome.

The movie is fortunately also able to understand that without identifiable and human characters, the audience is going to not be able to feel any sense of attachment. The premise may be whimsical and out there, but the characters are wonderfully down to earth. Noah and Emma behave like real children, not the smart-mouth sitcom kids we see so often. Despite all the craziness going on around them, they remain real throughout, and are written as such. The adult characters that surround them are fortunately written with just as much care. Their parents are not the types that are disbelieving of the things going on around them to the point of idiocy. The teachers who get wrapped up in the mystery are also written in a realistic fashion, and are highly intelligent instead of buffoons. The only adult character that comes across as underwritten is a Homeland Security officer (played by Michael Clarke Duncan) who gets involved after one of the mysterious objects causes a state-wide black out with its powers. The movie treats its premise with the same amount of respect as its characters. Though certainly far-fetched, the story never gets so ridiculous that we find we can't believe in it anymore. This is important, considering we are watching a movie that is driven by a stuffed bunny rabbit that is actually alive and may slowly be dying the longer it stays in our time. To say that this a movie that is not easy to explain is an understatement. But when and if you see it, you will understand.

In the roles of its young heroes, relative newcomers Chris O'Neil and Rhiannon Leigh Wynn are real finds. This is O'Neil's first acting job ever, and young Miss Wynn's only other major film appearance was a brief role in 2003's Hulk movie. They bring a definite sibling quality to their performance and in their chemistry with one another. Wynn gets most of the best and difficult scenes in the film, and she is quite impressive, considering she was only 6 when she made this movie. In the key adult roles, Joely Richardson and Timothy Hutton are likeable but ultimately unmemorable as the parents of the children. They don't play a huge role in the story, but they are believable whenever they are on screen. Rainn Wilson from My Super Ex-Girlfriend holds the best adult performance as Noah's Science teacher who is haunted by mysterious dreams that may be connected to the childrens' mission. He gets some cute moments with Kathryn Hahn as his fiance. I especially liked the way she kept on hoping his mysterious and seemingly psychic visions could reveal some winning Lotto numbers.
The Last Mimzy is a very strange movie that could have been disastrous if even the slightest thing went wrong. Fortunately, everyone involved cared about the project enough to make it work. And, so it does. How it will play with audiences, I am not so certain. This movie may be too laid back and dialogue-heavy for children weaned on some of Disney and Dreamworks recent animated features. This is the kind of movie that rewards you the more time you spend with it. It doesn't seem like much at first until you discover there's a lot more than there at first appears beneath the surface. This movie made me believe that a seemingly-normal stuffed rabbit toy could not only share a secret language with its owner, but could also hold vast technological secrets within that could be the key to saving other societies. That's no small feat, let me tell you.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

T.M.N.T.

When comic book creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird created the Ninja Turtles back in 1984, they couldn't have had any idea of just what kind of a mass-merchandising juggernaut they were creating. What started as a black and white independent comic grew into something much bigger and completely out of their hands once the cartoon series grabbed the attention of young boys the nation over. I should know, I was right in the thick of the Turtles mania just like every other 11-year-old boy back then. T.M.N.T. is an attempt to bring the Turtles back to glory after two disappointing movie sequels in the early 90s to play on the nostalgia of the old fans and, of course, create new ones. Writer-director Kevin Munroe obviously has a lot of respect for the franchise, but he still has quite a ways to go when it comes to storytelling and humor.

A dramatic opening narration provided by Laurence Fishburne clues us in as to what the Turtles have been up to since last we saw them. With the defeat of their long-time arch nemesis The Shredder, the four shelled brothers have gone their separate ways. Team leader Leonardo (voice by James Arnold Taylor) is in Central America trying to strengthen his leadership skills, and has been acting as a mythical defender protecting the poor village people from those who wrong them. Fun-loving Michelangelo (Mikey Kelley) has been reduced to doing children's birthday parties in a costume. Brainy Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) does telephone tech support for computers and gets yelled at by irate customers all day. And loose cannon Raphael (Nolan North) has not been able to let go of his passion for fighting crime, and patrols the streets of New York as a masked vigilante called the Nightwatcher. The Turtles' human friend, April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) runs into Leonardo when she is sent to Central America to search for some artifacts, and convinces him to come home. April has been working for a powerful millionaire named Max Winters (Patrick Stewart) who has grand plans for the statues April has uncovered, as they may hold the key to unlocking the secret behind a great power thousands of years old. When demonic monsters and the Turtles' old ninja enemies, the Foot Clan, start popping up around New York City, the four brothers will have to learn to work together as a team once again if they want to succeed in their latest battle.

T.M.N.T. brings the franchise into the present with state of the art computer animation rather than the animatronic costumes that were used for the Turtles in the original films. This turns out to be a mixed blessing all around. It does certainly give the mutant teens a much greater freedom of movement when they are fighting, leading to some very impressive battle sequences - The main highlight being a rooftop battle between Leonardo and Raphael in the middle of a rain storm. But, despite the splendid movement of the animation, something always seemed a little bit off about the character designs. The human characters are oddly formed, with many of the female characters (especially April) looking like they are losing a long battle with anorexia. Also odd is how uninhabited New York City seems to be. I understand it can be hard to individually animate people moving about in the background, but when we see countless scenes where the streets of New York seem to be completely devoid of any form of life, you can't help but find it a little bit odd. There is a sequence late in the film where the heroes team up to battle a massive swarm of Foot Clan ninja, but this sequence lasts only a minute and a half (if even that), and seems to end even before it has a chance to begin so we don't even get to enjoy it. For the most part, the movie's look does the job well enough. The Turtles themselves have a certain cartoonish quality to them, but don't come across as looking goofy. They have expressful eyes and faces that allow the CG models to display a wide array of emotions throughout the film.

For all of its technical wizardry, T.M.N.T. falls short in the one area where all animated films should shine - the writing and storytelling. Given the amount of time it usually takes to do an animated film, I expect a little something more. The plot concerning immortals, demonic monsters, ancient prophecies and magic does certainly sound like something you'd find in a comic book, but it's not developed nowhere near enough to make us care. There are some obvious clumsy signs in Munroe's screenplay, such as the way he opens the film with a lengthy narration talking about an immortal king from 3000 years ago, and then later on in the film, he has the character of April tell the exact same story to the Turtles, so we get to hear it twice. The film is also a bit heavy-handed in its moral about family and brotherhood. A much more subtle approach would have been appreciated by me at least. Last but not least, there is the film's sense of humor. Given the fact that most of the movie takes itself a bit more seriously than a Ninja Turtle movie probably should, the comic relief moments not only seem out of place but completely forced. There is a lengthy slapstick fight between Raphael and a little monster that goes on too long and doesn't really lead anywhere. Equally uninspired are the film's numerous groan-inducing one-liners that are constantly spewed out from the characters. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't exactly expecting award-winning stuff walking into this movie. I just think they should have focused a bit more on working out the script.

Despite a couple well-known stars in the voice cast, very few of them seem to have brought their talents along with them. The four lead actors cast as the Turtles do their jobs well enough, and manage to capture the right voice and tone to their characters, but everyone else sounds off. Both Sarah Michelle Gellar and Patrick Stewart phone in their individual performances, since their underwritten roles give them very little to do. As the Turtles' wise old rat sensei Splinter, the late Japanese actor Mako in his final role doesn't sound right at all for some reason. He lacks compassion and character in his voice, and almost sounds like he's reading his lines off of cue cards. The script seems to be in a rush to race though its convoluted "save the world" plot, so the film never really slows down and lets us get to know the characters. There is a brief moment where a subplot is hinted at between April and her boyfriend Casey Jones (Chris Evans from Fantastic Four) are facing commitment issues, but this is dropped almost as soon as it's introduced. Once again, I was not expecting anything deep walking into this movie, but even the original 1990 Ninja Turtles movie gave us some character moments. This movie resembles a video game run amok at times.
As someone who used to be a fan of the Turtles, I wanted to like this movie more than I did. I still hold respect for the original comic book series that started it all, and whenever I come across one of the old arcade games based on the cartoon series, I have to drop in a quarter. T.M.N.T. is loaded with potential, but seems to be in too much of a rush to truly use it. It's far from terrible, and it's sure to entertain young kids. I just can't help but feel that more time should have been spent on it. I give Kevin Munroe and his team credit for their effort. They obviously have the talent, now all they need is the script. The film's ending strongly hints at sequels to come. I can only hope that the shelled four will be in better fighting shape should there be a next time.

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Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Hills Have Eyes II

, When the remake of The Hills Have Eyes came out exactly one year ago, I was not one of its supporters. However, a strange feeling overcame me while I was watching The Hills Have Eyes II...I started to feel nostalgic for the earlier film. The previous film wasn't anything great. Heck, it wasn't even a good movie. But, at least it attempted to tell something that resembled a story. The sequel looks like some special effects make up artists were bored, so they grabbed some young actors, stuck them in the middle of the desert in military uniforms, and then proceeded to splatter them with fake blood and gore for the rest of the time. Completely lacking the bare necessities that even the slightest of horror films must have, The Hills Have Eyes II is a film experience so banal I would have preferred to stare at a blank screen for 90 minutes.

There's not much plot to be found here, not that it really matters anyway. A group of young, fresh-faced army recruits find themselves trapped in the desert community inhabited by those mutant cannibals who like to pick off anyone unfortunate enough to wander into their territory. The movie doesn't bother establishing characters. The soldiers have names, but pretty much they are identified simply by their skin and hair color. Other than that, they all talk, behave, and generally think exactly the same except for a few minor personality quirks. The mutants aren't much better. They lurk about in dark caves, popping out and grabbing people when they can, and then they disappear. There is one mutant late in the film who seems different from the others, and actually tries to help the soldiers. Who he is and why he helps them, the movie keeps to itself. Not that we're supposed to care, mind you. This movie exists simply so that the special effects artists can add another movie title to their resumes. Fake blood is splattered on the young cast at every opportunity, the actors forced to play the cannibals are covered head to foot in creature make up and dried mud, and none of it matters.

None of it matters because The Hills Have Eyes II is about absolutely nothing. It doesn't frighten and it does not excite in even the slightest. All it does is establish a sense of wonder, but for all the wrong reasons. I wondered how the filmmakers could have this much contempt for their audience. Here is a movie that accomplishes not one thing, and expects us to be entertained by it. The actors in this movie don't even look like they were having a good time making it. They look hot, miserable, and depressed. And that's long before they start getting killed off by the mutants. They're just standing out there in the desert, throwing obscenities and military dialogue cliches at each other, waiting for their death scene so they can cash their paycheck and leave. The entire movie almost comes across as a cruel prank that's being played on the cast. They eventually leave the desert, and get to spend the entire second half of the movie in a series of caves. The movie then becomes a rip off of the British horror film, The Descent. Problem is, it doesn't rip off that movie very well. It was then that I found myself nostalgic not only for the previous Hills movie, but also for The Descent as well. All this movie accomplishes is making us wish we were watching something else.

What perhaps stuns me the most is that this film was co-written by Wes Craven, who wrote the original 1977 movie that inspired the remake. Amusingly enough, he wrote and directed a sequel to the original movie back in 1985. That film is not looked on too fondly by genre fans. This sequel is not a remake of his earlier one, although they both share the same title. So, in other words, Wes Craven has had two chances to do a Part 2, and has failed both times. This proves that either Mr. Craven is terribly unlucky, or he really doesn't have a clue. Given the fact that Craven was involved with last year's terrible remake of the Japanese horror film, Pulse, I'm leaning more toward the second option. Of course, he doesn't deserve all the blame this time around. His son, Jonathan Craven, co-wrote the screenplay alongside him. Nice to know he's passing on his proud legacy. In the director's seat, we have music video and commercial director Martin Weisz making his theatrical film debut. If this movie proves anything, he's got a long way to go. Many of the scenes in the desert have no inspiration or uniqueness to them. He's just filming people standing around in a wasteland. When the action switches to the caves, he often forgets that audiences like to be able to see what's going on, and stages his sequences so dark that many of the scenes come across as being almost indescribable.
There's really not much that needs to be said about The Hills Have Eyes II, other than it cheats us out of seeing a potentially very cool death. At one point, the soldiers come across a mutilated body. They notice that there's something stuck right in the poor victim's head, and when they pull it out, it is revealed to be a leather wallet. The fact that this man was killed by having a wallet slammed into his head with such extreme force that it literally cracked into his skull would certainly be something I would have liked to have seen. I kept on trying to picture the man's final moments in my head, and I just couldn't do it. Leave it to this movie to deprive us of the one thing that could have been remotely interesting.

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Shooter

I've seen many movies just like Shooter, and many of them have been made a lot better. There's absolutely no reason why this movie needed to be made, and director Antoine Fuque (Tears of the Sun) keeps on reminding us of this as each scene falls flat right before our eyes. Completely lacking emotion or anything remotely memorable, the movie simply unfolds before our eyes without making the slightest impression. You've heard of an Event Movie? Well, what we have here is an Uneventful Movie.

Bob Lee Swagger (Mark Wahlberg) is a former Marine sniper who left the Corps after a botched mission overseas led to the death of his fellow soldier and best friend. Now living in isolation in Wyoming, he is eventually tracked down by Colonel Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover) who wants Bob's help in trying to thwart an assassination sniper attempt on the life of the President that's supposedly coming up in a few weeks. Bob is lured back into duty with Isaac's patriotic words, but discovers all too late that the entire thing is a set up intended to eliminate the Ethiopian Archbishop who is also speaking at the President's event. Bob is blamed for the murder, just as Isaac and the other corrupt officials involved, and now finds himself on the run. His only allies in attempting to uncover the truth is a rookie FBI agent named Nick (Michael Pena), who thinks Bob is innocent because the official story on the news doesn't match the evidence at the supposed scene of the assassination, and the girlfriend of Bob's fallen Marine friend, Sarah (Kate Mara). With a corrupt politician (Ned Beatty) and the entire police force after him, Bob decides that if he wants to stay alive and clear his name, he'll have to use his military skills in order to extract revenge.

Shooter is based on a novel called "Point of Impact", which was written by Stephen Hunter, who just happens to be the film critic for Washington Post. If Mr. Hunter were to review the film based on his book, he'd probably be able to point out the numerous ways in which this film goes wrong. What starts as a possibly intriguing political thriller quickly degenerates into a dragged out chase that goes on for way too long, and then further dumbs itself down into an overly violent and completely implausible revenge fantasy where one man takes out entire government forces pursuing him, and does so with very little damage or consequences to himself. This is a dumb, gaudy action spectacle at heart, but it doesn't have the sense to have any fun with its own premise. There is no thrill to the action sequences, they are as standard and as pedestrian as any action sequence that's ever been projected on a big screen. We see Bob dodging bullets, speeding through busy streets, causing large explosions in our wake, but none of these images resonate with us. That's because the movie doesn't care. It's just pyrotechnics for the sake of a story that the movie can't be bothered to develop, and characters the screenplay isn't the least bit interested in.

Missed opportunities rear their ugly head multiple times throughout Shooter's overly long two hour running time. We know that Bob distrusts the government, but aside from the incident we see at the beginning concerning his fallen comrade, his feelings are not developed much further than that. The fact that he was left behind in a dangerous situation is supposedly all the movie feels we need to successfully fuel the character's one-man war against the U.S. government. The rest of the cast are equally sketchy in their motivations. FBI agent Nick who eventually joins Bob's war is not developed in the slightest other than his obsession with proving that the government is lying to the public and that Bob is innocent. The villains are evil simply because they are corrupt government officials. We're just supposed to boo and hiss them on sheer principle. The plot itself is almost comically hollow, and exists simply to string a series of uninspired action sequences where explosions and bloody head shots are repeated to the point that we feel like we're watching the same sequences over and over. The movie doesn't even bother to clue us in on as to why Bob was chosen to take the fall for the assassination attempt. By the time it's all over, the audience is left asking too many questions, the most obvious one being why are we supposed to care in the first place? The movie gives us no reason to, so we're forced to just go along with it and are helpless to make any real sense of it all.

To help further distance us from the characters, the film has rounded up some performances that at best can be described as unmemorable, and at worst as being phoned in. Mark Wahlberg has done some terriffc work the past couple years, but this is not one of his finer moments. He is stone faced, unemotional and unsympathetic, almost as if he is unable to show even the slightest bit of emotion. He keeps the same expression on his face, no matter what he happens to be doing, and speaks with an almost droning tone of voice that sometimes barely registers above a mutter. He's got the appropriate build and steel-eyed gaze for the character, but there seems to be nothing going on in his actual performance. As the supporting heroes, Michael Pena and Kate Mara are equally uninspired, as they seem to barely be trying as well. Pena spends a couple scenes with his head down looking at his feet, almost as if he's embarrassed to even be seen in the movie. Mara barely gets a chance to stand out with her underwritten role who seems to exist simply to act as a damsel in distress once the screenplay requires it. As the lead villains, veteran actors Danny Glover and Ned Beatty are given very little to do but look at everyone coldly and laugh about how no one can touch them, because they're the government, and the public will always believe their lies. They deserved better, and so do we.
I have no doubt that the material within Shooter could have made for an engaging action film. But screenwriter Jonathan Lemkin seems to have followed the rules a bit too closely, and given us a highly generic and vastly underwritten film that never should have gone before the cameras in the first place. This is strictly paint-by-numbers filmmaking where characters are motivated simply because they fall under the "good" or "evil" category. No other explanation or character traits are given. They are what they are because we expect it. I wanted more. I wanted to be thrilled and entertained. Shooter cannot provide this, and falls short in just about every way imaginable.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Reign Over Me

The events of September 11th, 2001 claimed not just the lives of those who were on the planes and within the World Trade Center, it also claimed the souls of those who lost loved ones on that day. Reign Over Me is a movie about one such man. His name is Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler), and up until almost six years ago, Charlie was a loving husband and family man practicing dentistry. His wife and daughters were on one of the flights that would become a part of world history that day. Although Charlie still exists amongst normal people, he has been living in a world of his own ever since that day. He has completely isolated himself both externally and emotionally. He is constantly disheveled in appearance, as if he doesn't even care anymore how the world sees him. He has wiped all pain, and just about every other emotion, from his consciousness and lives an existence built around isolation, classic rock, movies and video games. Reign Over Me is not so much about the most tragic day in US history, but more about what can happen when emotional agony causes what makes us human to completely collapse.

Charlie still has a few shreds of humanity left. He plays drums in a rock band some nights, and rides about New York City on his motorized scooter. Mostly, he stays holed up in his apartment, constantly remodeling the kitchen in different styles, since it was the last thing he talked about with his wife before she died. It's gotten to the point where Charlie has forced himself to forget everything that happened in the past, and now simply remodels out of force of habit. Maybe he doesn't even know why he's doing it anymore. He's distanced himself from the past so much, he doesn't even recognize his old college roommate at Dental College at first. The former roommate is Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), and he instantly recognizes Charlie when they meet on the street. He had heard about what happened to Charlie, but has not seen him in years. Alan is not sure what to make of the man his old friend has become, but we can tell that he is intrigued. Charlie seems to live in a world of his own. It is a world that frustrates and frightens Alan, but we can also sense a strange sort of envy as well. Alan's wife, Janeane (Jada Pinkett-Smith) eventually senses it too. Even though Alan has what many would consider the American Dream (beautiful home, good family, strong job, etc.), he also wonders what has become of himself lately. He no longer goes out and has fun like he used to. He's forced to work for people who he's obviously smarter than, but who constantly look down upon him. Alan finds himself drawn to Charlie's personal world, as there seems to be very little responsibility and no one he has to answer to. Both men are seeking something different in their lives, although they will not outright admit it.

Mike Binder's Reign Over Me is a film about a lot of things, but most of all, it is about the relationship that these two men form after years of being apart from one another, and who are both leading very different lives from when they last saw each other. Their friendship can best be described as dysfunctional. Alan is constantly on edge about setting Charlie off by saying the wrong thing, or asking about his past. Charlie, on the other hand, has not dealt with very many people since the day he decided to shut himself off emotionally, and so this friendship seems foreign and alien to him. He's forgotten how to act around others, so he often talks too loud, changes the subject at random, and doesn't know how to react to Alan's feelings. It is also a film about emotional healing, and it is a wise decision on the part of the film that it treats the healing process in a realistic light. There is no bow to tie up everything at the end. The last time we see Charlie, we feel like this is not the end for him, but just another small step in a very long road to becoming the man he once was. Binder (who also wrote the screenplay and co-stars in the film as another old friend of Charlie's) focuses all of his attention on making these two characters as fascinating as they deserve to be. Their relationship is unsteady at first, and then realistically builds in a way that does not seem forced or rushed. When they are sitting side by side at the end of the movie, we understand why they are still together because we have been there every step of the way and we can feel the bond that they share.

With such a strong emphasis on character and relationships, the film would have been sunk with the wrong actors in the lead roles. For it's sake, both Cheadle and Sandler deliver some strong performances and a genuine, if not odd, chemistry together. He's sympathetic and caring, but he also gets to display a strong sense of humor at times, which helps the movie from becoming too heavy or depressing. Cheadle has built an impressive career these past couple years, and continues to impress with a very honest and truthful performance. We can sense both his love and frustration for both of his relationships in his life - Not just the one he shares with Charlie, but also with his wife, whom he feels he has grown into a relationship of routine with. In a way, Cheadle's character is not too far removed from Chris Rock's in last week's I Think I Love My Wife, though fortunately Cheadle's final scene with his wife is played straight, and not as a cheesy out of the blue musical number like in the previous film. In the tricky and crucial role of Charlie, Adam Sandler is handed his toughest attempt at a dramatic role yet, and he mostly comes across successfully. Sandler plays a couple of his scenes a bit over the top, but when he is good, he is truly phenomenal. During the key scene where Charlie finally talks to Alan about the day everything changed for him, we see Sandler literally become the character. His performance is haunting during this one sequence, and it almost made me want to forgive him for making Eight Crazy Nights and The Longest Yard. (Almost...) I think Sandler is right for the role of Charlie, as he has a lot of great moments. There are just a couple moments where subtlety flies out the window, and his performance almost becomes a cartoon parody of what it's supposed to be.

Reign Over Me is a very good movie that is not without its flaws that hold it back from being the great one it could have been. As I mentioned, the film does have many scattered lightly comic sequences that help keep things from becoming too heavy-handed or depressing. While I certainly appreciated it, the humor is largely hit or miss. They never become bothersome or seem out of place, but some moments seemed to be trying too hard to lighten the mood. Outside of the central relationship between Charlie and Alan, many of the outside relationships are hardly touched upon. Characters such as Alan's wife and family and a pretty young therapist who Charlie eventually starts seeing (played by Liv Tyler) seem to almost be bystanders throughout the film. They pop up only when necessary, and are not really developed outside of the bare essentials. What is most troubling, and the one thing that took me out of the film more than anything else, is the film's blatant use of product placement. Charlie's favorite video game is an actual game called Shadow of the Colossus. There are numerous scenes where Charlie not only plays the game itself, but the movie cuts away from the actors and shows actual footage of the game itself for an extended amount of time. The movie even finds ways to work the game into the dialogue, especially once Alan becomes hooked as well, and they start discussing actual strategies for the game. I don't know if this was in Binder's original script, but I have my suspicions, especially since Shadow of the Colossus is a game published by Sony's game division, and the movie is released by Columbia Pictures which is owned by (you guessed it) Sony. I really think this was the wrong movie for Sony to advertise their Playstation titles in. It takes us out of the movie, and it really seems like a cheap and desperate ploy.
Looking past the small annoyances and the product placement, Reign Over Me is a very interesting and highly successful drama that achieves what it sets out to do. It's easy to relate to, it hardly ever strikes a false note, and manages to move and touch its audience without falling back on cheap manipulation or overblown theatrics. This movie is filled with people who seem real and genuine, and manages to stay true to its convictions not to cheapen or betray its characters. Charlie and Alan are complex characters, and this is a movie that is worthy enough to hold them. Everyone should be able to see at least a little bit of themselves in the two lead characters. I'm thankful that Mike Binder respects our intelligence enough to let the characters and our realizations grow, instead of forcing the realizations upon us.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Dead Silence

Looking back on Dead Silence, I find it appropriate that the movie opens with the old black and white Universal Studio logo from the 1930s. This film is a throwback to when horror films were much more subtle and used silence and shadow to generate their scares. As a filmgoer who has long grown tired of horror films that rely almost solely on numerous "jump scares" where loud noises crash on the soundtrack for cheap frights, I appreciated that this film played fair and generally had a couple good creepy ideas. No one will ever mistake Dead Silence for art, the story can sometimes be very silly, and the twist that comes during the very final minute of the film doesn't hold up very well to logic. But, I also can't deny that the film is better than a lot of the stuff that's been passing for horror these days.

The film's backstory tells of a famous ventriloquist named Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts), who was supposedly responsible for the disappearance of a young local boy who heckled her during one of her performances. An angry mob seized the woman and, in an idea that I can't imagine must have ever sounded good even at the time they were doing it, tortured her by cutting out her tongue then murdered her. The story of Mary Shaw has apparently become a famous ghost story in the small town of Ravens Fair, where the dark deeds happened long ago and where the supposedly vengeful spirit of the woman haunts. Former town resident, Jamie Ashen (Ryan Kwanten), comes home one night to discover his wife Lisa (Laura Regan) dead in their apartment with her tongue torn out of her mouth. Moments before he left his wife alone, a mysterious package containing a ventriloquist dummy was dropped off by an unknown person. Jamie remembers the scary old nursery rhyme that the children in his town used to sing about Mary Shaw, but grizzled detective Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg) thinks Jamie is using an old ghost story to cover up his own murderous acts. Returning to his hometown of Ravens Fair, which is now virtually deserted for reasons unexplained other than the filmmakers thought a ghost town would be a scarier setting for the story, Jamie hopes to learn the truth behind the old story.

It is unfortunate that Dead Silence is being advertised as being "From the creators of Saw". While it is true that the films share the same director (James Wan) and screenwriter (Leigh Whannell), the two movies are as different as night and day. Gorehounds expecting a torture-filled bloodbath like the horror trilogy that made the filmmakers famous will be disappointed. Aside from a couple gruesome shots of corpses with their tongues removed, there is very little blood or violence to be found. This is an old fashioned-style supernatural thriller that relies almost entirely on atmosphere, mood and genuine suspense. The movie sets up some good scares by living up to the title. Instead of assaulting our ears with loud sound effects designed to make us jump in our seats or cranking up the ominous music on the soundtrack, the movie uses total silence to signal the coming of the vengeful spirit that is going on a murderous rampage. All sound around the potential victim (Thunder and lightning from outside, the ticking of a nearby clock) strangely goes completely quiet, and we can only hear the rapid breathing of the person. It's an effective tool to generate suspense, and the movie uses it well. It also knows how to not overuse this tactic so that it does not wear out its welcome with the audience. The movie also creates a suitably ominous feel with many of its locations around Ravens Fair. From dusty old performance hall theaters that hold secrets of the past to cemeteries that apparently come equipped with their own fog and smoke machines, it may all be cliched but it's all used very well in the context of the film itself.

Like a lot of movies of its type, Dead Silence loses most of its charm once the answers start coming and the mysteries start to get unraveled. There is some effectively creepy moments during the extended flashback sequence that tells the story of Mary Shaw, and it hints at some potentially interesting developments, but these are not really touched upon in a satisfying manner. Likewise, the twist that pops up literally during the last minute will certainly leave some viewers feeling either confused or just plain angry. While it's certainly unexpected, it seems forced, almost as if the filmmakers didn't want their movie to end on a high note, so they intentionally threw this last minute revelation in so that they could end the story on a more "ominous" note. Any way you slice it, it just doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Up until that point, Dead Silence is a mostly successful and entertaining little ghostly yarn that does what it's supposed to. It unnerves us and holds our attention just enough to make us want to see the thing to the end, no matter how silly it may sometimes seem. As is to be expected, the cast generally fill the roles well enough, but don't really leave any impression. The characters exist solely to drive the plot, or explain it. The only stand out is Donnie Wahlberg, who continues to shed his former New Kids on the Block image as the smart-mouthed detective convinced that Jamie murdered his wife. He brings a certain sort of sarcastic comic relief that seems appropriate and never forced. It's almost a shame that the movie almost entirely follows the much more bland and ordinary Jamie, since Wahlberg's character is obviously the more interesting of the two.
Dead Silence is not an entirely successful venture, but it does do a lot of things right, and it at least proves that the minds behind the Saw franchise are willing to try something different and explore other forms of horror. You go to a movie like this to be entertained and creeped out, and it delivers just enough for the film to work. How you view this movie will most likely depend on the kind of horror you enjoy. I have a feeling that adults looking for a subtle and creepy tale will be more entertained than teens looking for a scream-fest to take their girlfriends to. There's certainly nothing wrong with that, though I sincerely hope the studio doesn't try to franchise the hell out of the picture like the Saw films. This works well enough as a stand-alone film, and should remain as such.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Premonition

Perhaps it is fitting that I happened to see Premonition the same day I saw I Think I Love My Wife. Just like the Chris Rock comedy, this film suffers from an identity crisis. The difference here is that Premonition's problems go a lot deeper than just not being sure what kind of a movie it wants to be. This is a lethargic, dull, and dim-witted film that doesn't know if it wants to be a sentimental tearjerker or some kind of bizarre supernatural time paradox movie. It tries to be both, and fails on both counts. The movie tries to keep our interest with some intriguing ideas and questions, but by the time they're revealed, we've already been bored to tears by the film's meandering screenplay that never truly winds up going anywhere.

Linda Hanson (Sandra Bullock) is a perfectly happy housewife who seems to have an idyllic marriage with her husband Jim (Julian McMahon) and young daughters (Shyann McClure and Courtney Taylor Burness). While Jim is away on a business trip, Linda receives the news from a grim-faced officer that her husband was killed recently in a car accident on the highway. Linda falls into a state of depression while her world falls apart around her, but when she awakens the next day, her husband is alive and in bed with her, as if nothing has happened. This continues as the days go on, as each time Linda falls asleep, she seems to find herself in a completely different day and time. Sometimes Jim is alive and everything is fine, and sometimes Jim is dead, and her family is trying to heavily medicate her in order to help her with her depression. Linda begins to feel that she is somehow being warned of things to come in the future, and more ominous signs start to appear, such as when terrible scars appear on her daughter's face for reasons unknown. She doesn't understand why or how these horrible premonitions of things to come are happening to her, but she knows she must use them to her advantage in order to prevent the horrific fate that's supposedly in store for both her and her family.

It is most likely for the best that Premonition doesn't even try to explain this impossible phenomenon as Linda finds herself suddenly jumping back and forth through the past and the future, as it would only further muddle the story, and the plot is already mucked up enough as it is. Besides things seemingly happening for no reason, the movie is content to constantly jerk it's audience around. The movie forces us to pay attention in every scene, dropping little clues and hints that seemingly will be important later, but none of them wind up amounting to much. Amongst them are a dead bird in the backyard, a woman at work whom Linda's husband may or may not be cheating with, and a doctor who prescribes some pills for Linda to seemingly help with her anxiety, but exists solely to make us question if Linda is going crazy or not. All of these elements of the plot are introduced, and then dropped, only to be brought up again, and be dropped again. Either that, or their ultimate role in the overall story winds up being a whole lot of nothing. The movie constantly infuriates us as it toys with us, promising us that our hard work in trying to figure it all out won't be in vain, only to laugh in our faces when the underwhelming answers are finally revealed. Most of the scenes play out like something out of a bad soap opera, and we eventually find ourselves just not caring and waiting for the answers come instead of trying to figure out what's going on.

The problem with the screenplay is that it seems to exist simply to throw as many plot twists and surprises as possible, and nothing else. It doesn't care about the characters, their relationships, or anything that happens to them. The characters are simply there to move the plot along, and jerk us around so many times that we feel whiplashed by the time it's all over. Linda is not so much a character, as she is a plot device. She barely has time to grieve for her husband before she's suddenly hurtling back and forth through time for reasons unexplained. We don't feel any personal connection to her or to her plight to find out the truth. She's simply making a mad dash from one end of the plot to the other, and we're just along for the ride. This is a fatal flaw for a film such as this, for in order for a story like this to work, we have to feel and identify with the heroine. The movie never gives us the chance to experience this basic and necessary luxury. It's just too wrapped up in being clever and throwing us off guard every chance it gets. It seems like screenwriter Bill Kelly built his entire script around his idea, and then forgot about everything else. I kept on looking for something, anything, I could find in the characters that would allow me to feel a personal connection with the characters. Aside from a few fleeting moments between Linda and Jim, I found none.

Because of this, the cast suffers terribly. Sandra Bullock is usually a very bright presence in just about every film she's appeared in, but here, she's burdened with an underdeveloped character who just runs through the story like a lab rat in a maze. She does what is expected, and she is obviously trying, but she can't breathe the tiniest bit of life out of her character. I can't imagine what she could have seen in the character, or how such a vastly underwritten role could have appealed to her. The rest of the cast are merely window dressing, and exist simply to be called upon when needed. Only Julian McMahon as Jim creates any kind of real emotion, and those scenes don't come along until much later in the film. Up until those moments, he's just as bland as everyone else. As the film whips its way through its convoluted story, the characters flash by, barely registering in our minds. We remember them by their faces, but don't know anything about them. They're just there to fill in some extra space in the background when there needs to be a crowd of people, or to give Linda someone to talk to.
Long before Premonition was over, I started to feel cheated and angry. When it was finally over, I felt even more so. The film seems to make up its own rules as it goes along, and even worse, barely stops to tell us what those rules are in the first place. It's a movie where things happen just for the sake of having something happen. Perhaps the ideas sounded intriguing on paper, which is what led to it attracting some strong talent. Too bad they didn't hire some talented script doctor to do a rewrite. I believe a good movie can be made out of just about any material. Premonition severely tested that theory.

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