Reel Opinions


Friday, August 31, 2007

Halloween

There are a lot of people who believe that critics have a natural bias against slasher films, and horror films in general. This, of course, is absolutely not true. We can admire any type of film when it is done well. John Carpenter's Halloween was definitely done very well, and still stands up as a genre classic to this day. It knew exactly how to play with its audience, without ever resorting to cheap thrills. It earned its thrills, and it made us actually care about the characters that were being stalked by the seemingly-unstoppable Michael Myers (who back then, was just referred to as "The Shape"). It would usher in a string of generic imitations that studios trotted out in unbelievable numbers throughout the 80s. And yet, no matter how often someone tried to make lightning strike twice, no one, not even Carpenter himself, was able to recapture just what made Halloween so memorable.

Now, musician turned filmmaker, Rob Zombie (House of 1,000 Corpses, The Devil's Rejects) has brought us an expanded update of Halloween. Having seen his version, I have to wonder if he knew he was supposed to be doing a remake of the original movie. This version has none of the tension, suspense or fear that the original generated seemingly so effortlessly. Instead, we're left with a sloppy and chaotic body count movie that resembles more the countless imitations and inferior sequels than the movie it's supposed to be emulating. Not only is it almost completely devoid of thrills, but the once-memorable characters have been reduced to mere shells of their former selves. It's strange that the director claims to be a huge fan of the original, and when the remake was announced, boasted that he was going to make Michael Myers scary again. All his movie does is show complete contempt for everything that made the original what it was.

Part of what made the original so effective is that we knew so little about the villain. That flies out the window right away, as the remake gives us a good 45 minutes or so describing Myers' past. As a 10-year-old kid (Daeg Faerch), Michael lived with his trailer trash family, was verbally abused by his alcoholic father, ignored by his older sister, and picked on by bullies at school. Michael's mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) does what she can to help her awkward boy feel comfortable in a world that doesn't seem to understand him, but even she seems to be at a loss of what to do with him when the school principal reveals her son's hidden passion for mutilating animals. Michael decided to move up in the world from animals to people by first torturing his bully in the woods nearby the school, then going home that night and murdering his father, sister, and her boyfriend seemingly out of anger and also out of spite because his sister wouldn't take him trick or treating on Halloween. Yes, that's right, Michael Myers may be a cold-blooded psychopath, but deep inside he's just a lonely little boy who just wanted his Halloween candy. I can't wait for the Nightmare on Elm Street remake where we discover that Freddy Krueger turned psycho because his mom didn't let him stay up past his bedtime.

After the murders, Michael is shipped off to a local asylum where he is placed under the care of Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell). Loomis tries to reach through to the boy and discover why he committed the murders, but young Michael clams up after months of exhaustive therapy. He hides his face behind crude hand-made Halloween masks for seemingly no reason, and refuses to speak to anyone. Flash forward 15-years later, and the now-adult Michael (Tyler Mane) decides to escape from the mental hospital around the anniversary of the murders. Michael Myers, who spent the past 50 minutes or so as an angry, abused boy, has somehow grown into Michael Myers, unstoppable human tank who bursts through walls like the frickin' Kool-Aid Man (Every time he came charging through a wall, I kept on waiting for him to scream "Oh yeah", while holding a pitcher of the sweetened drink.), rips open doors as if they were made of cardboard, and goes on a neighborhood killing spree, murdering horny teenagers as he tries to find his long lost baby sister who was given up for adoption after Michael's mom killed herself during the aftermath of his first rampage. His sister has grown up to be Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), who is an unassuming teenage girl who is planning to spend Halloween night babysitting, unaware of the man from her forgotten past watching her in the shadows.

Right off the bat, Rob Zombie's Halloween goes off the rails in trying to portray the young Michael Myers as a scared and misunderstood boy who went off the deep end, and then just somehow grew up to be a silent killer for reasons the movie keeps to itself. At times, the movie seems to be trying to paint the young Michael in a sympathetic light. Then, he starts cursing up a storm (Zombie's screenplay seems to be in love with a wide variety of four-letter words, and uses them as if they were going out of style), and killing people. One thing that prevents us from truly getting behind the character in the first place is that the movie never really gives us a close look at what makes Myers tick, like it wants to. He has a family of creeps that look and act like cartoon caricatures of scuzzy rednecks. It doesn't dig deep enough for us to care, and it's too silly and broadly overacted to take seriously. There's a hideous music montage where the movie keeps on showing little Michael sitting on a street corner looking sad, because all the kids are trick or treating, and he's not. For no reason whatsoever, the scene keeps on cutting to his mom at work as she dances at the strip club. I have no idea what Zombie was getting at with this sequence, and it's probably best that it remains that way. Once the kid's in the asylum, the movie speeds right along to when he's an adult and its time for him to kill a bunch of people during his escape. We never get a true sense of his sessions with Dr. Loomis, as we only get to see brief glimpses, then he goes off and supposedly writes a book about the kid and giving lectures about his time with Michael.

Almost as soon as Michael's out on the streets, the movie stops trying to tell anything resembling a story, and turns into a series of random gore scenes combined with a CliffsNotes version of the original film. The movie speeds right through the plot, doing recreations of key scenes from the original film, but giving us absolutely no reason whatsoever to care. The lead heroine, Laurie, is about as underwritten as any lead character has ever been, the most we ever learn about her being that she doesn't have a boyfriend. The thing that set the original film apart from its many imitators is that it took its time to get us to know the lead characters, and get us attached to them. There was always a sense of menace, due to the fact we could see the shadowy figure of Michael watching them in the background at times, which was very subtle and effective. Here, all subtlety has been thrown out the window for a nonstop barrage of over the top death scenes that aren't even that interesting or well-staged in the first place. There's plenty of blood, but there's no originality. We're just watching him bashing heads and throwing people around like the Incredible Hulk over and over again. Michael's victims seldom if ever get any chance to be developed or even show a shred of humanity before they wind up face to face with the masked killer. Speaking of which, for a large guy, Michael Myers sure does get around a lot. He seems to be able to teleport about the neighborhood at will, and pop up suddenly in places where he should have been plainly visible to the future victim. I know, this is a common trait in slasher movie villains, but it still gets me every time it happens.
Watching Halloween, you can see potential in just about every scene. The movie has a decent cast, including a few genre veterans such as the previously mentioned Malcolm McDowell and Brad Dourif (best known as the voice of the Chucky doll) as the town Sheriff. There are even a few good actors who are able to rise above the screenplay and give a good performance, such as Sheri Moon Zombie, who gives the role of Michael's mother the right amount of warmth, fear, and sadness that the character needs. Unfortunately, even the best performances can't shine through enough to make this junk work. This movie is a flat-out mess from beginning to end. You know the movie is in trouble when it utilizes the classic theme music that John Carpenter himself composed for the original film, but it doesn't even manage to raise the slightest amount of tension. Anyone who has heard it knows that it's one of the more tense orchestral themes composed for a film, ranking right up there with John Williams' Jaws theme, in my opinion. And yet here, it seems muted and unmemorable. This is a cheap and misguided movie that's likely to be forgotten long before the real holiday arrives. Sometimes, you just have to look at the positives, and the fact that the original will remain a classic while this will likely be forgotten, much like the ill-fated remake of Psycho back in 1998, is a thought sure to bring a smile to any fan's face.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Balls of Fury

I laughed quite a bit at Balls of Fury. In fact, I sometimes found myself laughing twice at the same joke. The first time, I would laugh at how stupid and/or absurd the joke was. And then, I would find myself laughing at myself for laughing at it. There is a certain innocence to this movie that so many recent parodies have lacked. Unlike films like Epic Movie, that simply rehash storylines of popular films and try to fit as many fart jokes and movie references into 90 minutes as they can, Balls of Fury takes its sweet time and tells a likeably loopy story that probably won't stick with you long after you've walked out of the theater, but you'll remember having a good time while watching it.

Former ping pong child prodigy, Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) has fallen on hard times ever since he choked during a competition in the 88 Summer Olympics Table Tennis event. This once-promising star of the sport is now a fat, out of shape has-been doing ping pong stunt shows in Reno to a mostly uninterested audience. After one of his performances, an FBI agent named Ernie Rodriguez (George Lopez) approaches him with a dangerous mission. The government wants Randy to go undercover and infiltrate an illegal underground life and death ping pong tournament that's held every year by the mysterious and seldom-seen super villain, Master Feng (Christopher Walken). In order to get his skills back up to speed so that he stands a chance in the tournament, Randy is placed under the watchful eye (so to speak) of the blind ping pong wizard, Master Wong (James Hong) and his beautiful niece, Maggie (Maggie Q). When Randy arrives at the island where the tournament is held, he finds that there's much more going on than a high stakes game of table tennis, as he uncovers the evil Feng's secret weapon lab and much more.

What struck me the most about Balls of Fury is how fun and simple it is. Rather than target a specific movie, the film goes after certain genres (namely sports underdog films and martial arts movies, with a touch of James Bond as well), and mixes them together in such a way so that the movie never feels like its biting off more than it can chew. It manages to stay focused on the cliches of each of its targets, and usually is able to deliver at least one laugh consistently. Not all of the jokes are successful, and the movie does start to lose some steam during the third act, but the film never failed to at least keep me entertained. Like the best of parodies, this is a movie that plays it completely straight. The actors pretend like they don't know the material is completely ridiculous, and that's part of the fun. No one is allowed to mug for the camera or play up the fact that this is udder nonsense. None of the performances quite match the expert deadpan comic timing of Leslie Nielsen in classics such as Airplane or The Naked Gun, but everyone has at least studied the right material and knows what they are doing.

There is one aspect in this film that is brilliant both in its performance and in its casting, and that is Christopher Walken in the role of the lead villain. This is Walken's best comedic performance in quite a while, and he seems to be having a ball. Part of what makes him so hilarious is how intentionally miscast he is. His character is supposed to be your cliched martial arts Asian villain who could have been the best student of the wise old master, but greed overcame him, and he walked away and turned to evil before he could finish his training. (Of course, this time, it's ping pong instead of kung fu.) His face has never been seen, but the FBI has a composite sketch that makes him look like Mr. Sulu from Star Trek. When the evil Master Feng is finally seen for the first time, the characters are surprised to see not what they expect. We the audience, unfortunately, are not since the commercials have featured Walken prominently in them. I almost wish the ad campaign had not given away this gag, and that he had gone uncredited, as I think the joke would have worked much better. Still, none the less, it works. Walken does not play the character as an Asian stereotype, which is a wise decision, especially after seeing Rob Schneider's embarrassing performance as a gay Japanese man in this summer's I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. He plays it as if he's wandered in from a different movie, and that's what makes the performance so funny. It's tough to explain, but he manages to make even little incidental bits of dialogue, such as directing someone to the bathroom, and get a laugh.

The rest of the cast don't quite rise to Walken's level, but everyone still does their best, and walk away with at least one memorable moment. In his first big screen lead role, comic and stage actor Dan Fogler is good, and manages to get a couple laughs throughout the film. It was nice to see an overweight lead actor who did not rely on his weight for his humor. There are no pot shots made at him, nor is there any scene where he sits on a piece of furniture and breaks it. (And trust me, I was waiting for it to happen.) He's able to make a comic character without any obvious or easy jokes. In the key supporting roles, George Lopez makes for a likable sidekick, even if the character is a bit underwritten and is forced to stand in the background for most of the film. When the movie allows him to step forward, he gets off more than a couple good lines. Another actor who doesn't get enough screen time is the lovely Maggie Q, who impressed me earlier this summer as one of the main villains in Live Free or Die Hard, and comes across as a lovely yet strong presence here. She proves that she's more than capable at getting laughs, as well as handling some real fight scenes. She has a good screen presence too, it's a shame she disappears for a good part of the film. I hope I can soon see her in a role that truly exploits her talents.
When I go to see a comedy, I try to judge it on how often I laughed. I laughed enough at Balls of Fury to say that it definitely qualifies as a guilty pleasure. I walked in not expecting much, but walked out with a silly grin on my face. As mentioned before, the movie doesn't always work. There are some dead spots, especially during the later half, and some of the gags either don't work or could have been so much more. (The running gag concerning the villain's gay male sex slaves seem like a wasted opportunity that could not be fully exploited unless the filmmakers bumped the movie up to an R-rating.) Still, I was entertained enough to say that this movie took me by surprise. If you're in the right mood, Balls of Fury should not disappoint.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Mr. Bean's Holiday

I cannot exactly claim to be an expert on the Mr. Bean character. The number of episodes that I've seen of his TV show can be counted on one hand, and I have only vague memories of the last attempt to bring him to the big screen (1997's Bean), the strongest memory being that I wasn't very fond of it. So, I walked into Mr. Bean's Holiday with a clean slate of expectations and was ready to be amused. Maybe a clean slate wasn't the best condition to watch this movie. In order to get the fullest out of this movie, you have to be a die-hard fan of the character. And by die-hard, I mean be willing to tolerate the character's backwards English gibberish talk for a full 90 minutes. I was able to tolerate it some of the time, but long before Mr. Bean had reached his final destination of his trip, I had taken more of my fill of the man and his antics.

The plot is simple enough, as is to be expected. The accident-prone Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson) has won a dream vacation to France and the beaches of Cannes in a church raffle. Almost immediately, Bean finds a way to turn what should be a luxury vacation into a nightmare. He loses just about everything he brings with him, except for a camcorder, gets separated from his train, and has to make most of the journey on foot or by any means of transportation he can find. Along the way, he befriends a boy (Max Baldry) who is trying to get to Cannes as well to reunite with the father he got separated from. He also hooks up with a lovely young actress (Emma de Caunes) who is on her way to the Cannes Film Festival, where she is featured in the latest art house film/vanity project by pretentious American filmmaker, Carson Clay (Willem Dafoe) that's set to debut at the Festival. By the time Mr. Bean has reached the beaches of Cannes, he has acted as an extra in a World War II movie, chased down a runaway chicken, and is mistaken for a kidnapper and a fugitive.

The idea behind the character of Mr. Bean appeals to me, because it reminds me of many of the great silent film comics of yesteryear. Rowan Atkinson is a skilled physical and visual comic, and playing Bean allows him to exploit this talent, as the character mostly speaks through pantomime, or through grunts and whistles that sometimes resemble English, and sometimes sounds like its own made up language. A majority of the film is made up of a series of loosely connected skits that are strung together, where Mr. Bean finds himself in over his head, or in a situation where he doesn't understand what's going on. Some of these moments are very funny, such as a sequence early in the film where Bean finds himself having to stomach an unappetizing seafood platter at a fancy restaurant. This scene not only showcases Atkinson's comic timing, but also his gift for physical comedy. A majority of the sequences don't work quite as well, unfortunately, and Mr. Bean's Holiday quickly becomes repetitive because of it. We know each time a new scene starts up that Bean is going to start some form of trouble, and we begin to wait for it to happen. I can see this kind of comedy working in a half hour television format, but when stretched to feature length, it becomes tedious. It doesn't help that many of the physical jokes either don't work, or are dragged out to the point that some scenes become endurance tests to watch.

What really struck me odd about Mr. Bean's Holiday is that there is a curious mean streak that runs throughout the film. The movie has been rated G, but some of the humor is too dark for the family audience that it wants to attract. There is a scene where Mr. Bean accidentally leads a man to commit suicide that left me scratching my head at how the MPAA thought this joke was appropriate for a G-rated film. Other scenes that don't belong in a family film include Bean dressing up like a German military soldier and doing a goose step march, while giving the Nazi salute. I bet parents are going to have a grand time explaining that one. It's hard to consider Bean as a hero, because he frequently comes across as a self-absorbed twit who drags innocent bystanders into situations where they are severely injured or sometimes killed, and he does not even seem to care or notice. It's one thing when his own cluelessness leads to accidental antics to himself, but when he starts injuring people for no reason, it's hard to laugh.
Mr. Bean's Holiday is not without scattered moments of amusement, but the entire thing is just too dragged out to work. I found myself in a very strange position while watching the film. I liked the idea behind the character of Mr. Bean, but I did not like Mr. Bean himself. I think the movie needed a softer approach, so that his antics did not come across as being cruel. I understand that the character has a loyal fanbase, and they are certain to enjoy this movie. I enjoyed it myself from time to time, but most of the time, I found myself noticing that 90 minutes spent with this guy was more than any viewer should have to endure. I guess like a lot of things, Mr. Bean is an acquired taste.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Nanny Diaries

Watching The Nanny Diaries, I couldn't help but think the movie should come with a little label that reads "Sanitized for your protection". This is a movie that constantly flirts with being biting, sarcastic, and intelligent. And yet, it can't help but throw in some moments of misunderstanding for no reason at all other than the script requires the characters to misunderstand each other. Despite its constant flirtings with the Idiot Plot, The Nanny Diaries is not a terrible waste of time. The end result is just something far less than what it should have been.

Recent college graduate, Annie Braddock (Scarlet Johansson), is at a crossroads in her life. She's trying to pursue the career she's told herself she's always wanted, only to discover at a job interview that she can't even answer a simple question of who she is. While walking through Central Park, pondering herself and her future, she has a run-in encounter with an Upper East Side New York mother, and her precocious young son. The mother (Laura Linney), whose name is never identified and is simply referred to as Mrs. X in Annie's narration, has just had her son's previous nanny leave her. When Annie introduces herself, Mrs. X mishears her name as "nanny", and almost hires her right there on the spot in a moment of complete implausibility that I don't think anyone in the audience will be able to buy. Regardless, Annie figures that a job as a nanny would pay well until she figures out what to do with her life. She takes the job, and discovers that looking after the young child named Grayer (Nicholas Art) is a much harder job than she could have ever imagined. It doesn't help matters that Mrs. X is a woman who seems to care more about holding benefits and shopping than she does for her own child, and the seldom-seen husband, Mr. X (Paul Giamatti) is an unfaithful and charmless lout who's always being called away to Chicago on "business trips". Annie quickly discovers that the lives of the New York upper class are not as picture perfect as it would seem, and were it not for the eventual bond she builds with young Grayer and the cute guy who lives in the same apartment building, whom Annie dubs "Harvard Hottie" (Chris Evans), Annie would probably not even survive this strange new world she finds herself trapped in.

The Nanny Diaries is based on a book unread by me that supposedly told many shocking true stories and encounters that the authors experienced while working as nannies for different upper class families. The book won a lot of praise for its honest and unflinching look at its subject. Something tells me the movie won't win quite the same amount of praise. While I wouldn't exactly pass it off as being a failure, the movie is often too tame and sometimes even resembles a TV sitcom rather than an eye-opening expose on the world of the upper class. It never digs its own claws deep enough into the characters, and instead gives us the same aloof, stuck up cliches that we have seen too many times. That's not to say that the movie does not have its moments of honesty. Despite being marketed as a fairly lighthearted and breezy comedy, there are many moments where the actors take the material seriously, and start to resemble real people instead of sitcom caricatures. These moments are when the film is at its best. I also liked the film's clever use of narration. In the opening moments, we see Annie making her way through the Museum of Natural History. As she starts describing the different kind of people one can find in New York in her narration, she passes by museum-like exhibits of the people she's talking about, complete with lifelike wax figures. The first 10 minutes or so have a fun and almost whimsical tone, without being cheesy, that immediately grabs your attention. It's a shame that the film has to completely abandon this approach and never come back to it, except for a brief reference from time to time.

The writer-director team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (2003's wonderful indie film, American Splendor) show so much promise and creativity during the opening moments, that you have to wonder why they would just drop it and focus on a formulaic comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family? Was it studio pressure? Did they just not have enough faith in the material? I started out loving this movie, but my heart gradually sunk as it went along when I realized this movie had nothing else new to show or tell me. I never grew disinterested, but I just couldn't stop thinking about the movie it could have been had The Nanny Diaries not lost its nerve to be original. After the promising beginning, the movie falls into standard dilemmas where the parents are constantly fighting and ignoring the effect it has on those around them, the shy young woman can't admit her feelings to the cute guy whose obviously attracted to her, and the kid who acts like a monster, but he's not that bad really, he's just acting out because his parents pretend he doesn't exist. We also get some moments where the movie gets dangerously close to dipping into Idiot Plot territory. A key moment concerns Annie not wanting her mom to know she's taken a nanny job, since her mom thinks she went to New York in order to pursue a business career. So, when mom comes to visit, Annie most convince her best friend to let her borrow her apartment, and create an illusion life to convince her mom of her lie. The scene sounds like something out of a bad sitcom, and it plays like one, too. It's artificial, it's completely ridiculous, and no one in their right mind would think of something like this, nor would anyone agree to help out with it if someone actually did have the idea.

There's a fine cast assembled here, and they're able to make the thing mostly work, even when things dip into the realm of the ludicrous. Scarlet Johansson continues to prove that she's one of the best young adult actresses working today, making Annie out to be an instantly likeable and mostly intelligent (except when the script forces her to act incredibly stupid) woman. Her key acting moment comes late in the film, when she leaves an alcohol-fueled video message for her employer. Some actresses could have easily gone over the top or played the anger and emotion too broad, but Johansson nails it, and it's one of the best scenes in the film. Although Johansson is required to pretty much carry the entire film, she has a strong supporting cast who do not go completely to waste. As her employers, both Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti bring the right tone to their respective roles. Linney's character is a woman who is so detached from reality, she feels she has to fake a pregnancy in order to get attention from her husband. She is someone who pretends to have it all, but really has nothing, and it clearly shows in the sadness in her face in many of her scenes. The movie often skims the surface of this potentially complex and interesting character, but Linney's performance at least gives the character the attention that the screenplay neglected. Giamatti has a more difficult role, since he's supposed to be hateful, cold and distant. The love that he shows for his family is an act, and his child is too young to recognize that there is nothing there. He wisely does not humanize his role, or try to make us understand him. He lives in a world outside of his family, and Giamatti brings a great cold atmosphere to his performance. Even young Nicholas Art comes across as a natural child talent, and gets to share a couple great scenes with Johansson, whom he spends much of his screen time with. He already has a good screen presence, and knows how to come across as a natural kid instead of an "actor" kid.
While watching The Nanny Diaries, I started to wonder if there was another version of this movie lying somewhere on the floor of the studio editing room. I imagine it to be a smarter, thoughtful, and more real telling of the story. We can see glimpses of this movie from time to time, which brings our hopes up. And although it doesn't hold these hopes up for very long, it never becomes unwatchable and it never goes so wrong that I gave up on it. I really wish this movie had carried through with the promise the first half shows. This could have been something great. As it is, The Nanny Diaries will just have to settle for being heavily flawed, yet passable.

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Resurrecting the Champ

Samuel L. Jackson has always been an actor who could completely disappear into the role he was playing to the point that you are forgetting you're watching a performance. In Resurrecting the Champ, he not only makes you forget, he makes you remember just what a true talent he really is. Jackson plays a street person who says that he is Bob Satterfield, a once-rising prize fighter who could have been the best, but a string of bad luck brought him to where he is now. Jackson does not play Satterfield as a crazy drunk, or as an overly mystical philosopher like some other actors would. There is an intelligence to his performance that makes it a wonder to watch, and receives my vote for one of the best performances of the year.

The movie that surrounds Jackson's performance is pretty good, too. It opens with those infamous words "inspired by a true story", and then goes on to give a "screen story" credit, which means that something similar to what we're about to see happened in real life, but the writers mainly chose to make everything up. It may not be based entirely on fact, but it's still a good story. A struggling sportswriter named Erik (Josh Hartnett) is tired of having his articles reduced to blurbs in the back of the paper. His boss (Alan Alda) tells him that his stories lack inspiration. Erik wants to move up in the world of sports journalism, but he feels he'll never get the chance as long as he's forced to cover local boxing fights. While walking away from the arena one night, he happens to notice some hooligans beating up an old street person, who turns out to be the Samuel L. Jackson character. Bob Satterfield is an open and talkative man, and is all too happy to share his story with Erik, which begins an unusual friendship between the two men. Obviously, Erik also considers this the discovery of his lifetime, and realizes that an article about Bob could shoot him to the top of the field. He doesn't know much about Satterfield, but Bob is all too happy to fill in the details.

That's as far as I will go, fear of revealing anymore. Resurrecting the Champ starts out as being a heart lifting story about two men from very different walks of life being brought together. There's a lot more to it than that, though. The main theme that keeps on popping up throughout the film is that of the relationship between fathers and sons. Erik has a 6-year-old boy named Teddy (Dakota Goyo) from a failed previous marriage, and the kid worships his dad, as most boys that age do. Bob has a son too, though they have not spoken to each other in years. Even Erik's father, who died recently of lung cancer, is a continuous presence in the story since his father used to be a famous sports journalist and radio announcer, and Erik is constantly living in his shadow. All of these themes come together in the end to make this much more than the inspirational sports story that we expect when we're walking in. It's still inspirational, but it's about so much more and so many different things. This is the kind of movie that makes you think you've figured it out, but then switches gears in a good way about halfway through. I was surprised by the development that pops up, and was even more surprised that the movie managed to handle this change in a mature way so that it did not seem awkward or far fetched.

That's what really impressed me about this film. The movie knows how to walk a fine line, and never becomes overly sentimental or sappy, although the desire to do so must have been enormous for the filmmakers. Director Rod Lurie (2000's political thriller The Contender) and screenwriters Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett tackle the story in such a way so that the emotional feelings that the film brings forth are earned, instead of forced or overly manipulated. The characters and their situations grow on us because the movie gives us time to get to know them. Bob Satterfield captures our attention from the moment he walks onto the screen, and he only becomes more interesting as the movie goes on. He is a proud, but very flawed, man who seems real, not just because of Jackson's performance, but because of the way his character is written. He does not seek pity from others because of his situation, nor does he not spread wisdom and offer advice to anyone who talks to him. He is a man living in the past, and who simply wants to share his story so that he won't be forgotten. The way Jackson plays him is fascinating, because there is an edge to him. He's seen a lot in his life, and has lived through a lot more, which is clear to see on his face and in the way he talks. In the other lead role, Josh Hartnett is passable, but pails in comparison to the performance right next to him in a lot of scenes. His Erik never quite captures our attention the way that Samuel L. Jackson does. He's good at least, and that's what counts.
I had never heard of Bob Satterfield before walking into this movie. It made me interested enough to look up some information on line about the real person, even though I do not follow the sport of boxing. That, I believe, is one of the true merits of a film such as this. If you can get your audience to look more into the real story when they get home after seeing your movie, you've done your job. Resurrecting the Champ does its job and does it very well. This is a surprising and heartfelt film that deserves to be seen, at least for Jackson's performance, which I hope will be remembered come Oscar time. This is a movie that takes what we would expect and then expands upon it into something even better.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

War

When will Hollywood directors learn how to use the Asian action stars they've been handed with? Just weeks ago, I watched Rush Hour 3, which featured a tired and uninterested Jackie Chan who seemed to only be there because there was a nice paycheck waiting at the end of the shoot. Now here comes War, which features the extremely talented Jet Li, yet for most of its running time does not even bother to exploit him or his talents. Now, War is not a bad movie at all, and is easily a superior film to Rush Hour 3. I just can't get over the fact that they hired Jet Li, and then told him to stand around for almost the entire time. When the movie finally delivers the goods, it's a lot of fun in a brainless sort of way, but there's a lot of dead weight to sort through first.

Ever since hard-edged FBI agent, Jack Crawford (Jason Statham), witnessed his agent partner and his partner's family get murdered by a mysterious assassin who goes by the name of Rogue (Jet Li), he's been obsessed with tracking the man down, so much so that it has all but ruined his personal life outside of work. It's been three years since that tragic day, and after a lengthy period of going underground, Rogue has returned out in the open, and he seems to be planning something. He has betrayed the Japanese Yakuza crime family that he's served for years, and switched sides over to a rival Asian gang that is vying for control of the streets. Jack is not sure what his enemy is planning, but violence between the two crime syndicates seems to be on the rise, and a war seems to be almost inevitable. As Jack digs deeper into the mystery, it seems almost as if Rogue is playing both sides, fanning the flames for his own personal gain.

I will not go any further with the plot, in order to prevent any spoilers. That being said, War has a pretty winding and sometimes convoluted plot for what is mainly a piece of "check your brain at the door" entertainment. There are enough double crosses, double agents, double identities, and double meanings to fill two movies. While the film's main twist that comes at the end does come as a surprise, the movie does seem to enjoy toying with us a bit more than it probably should. The film's ad campaign promises that we are to see Jason Statham and Jet Li, two of the biggest action movie badasses working today, going at war with each other. And yet, oddly enough, the number of scenes the two lead characters share together could be counted on one hand, and the number of fights they share together could be represented with just a single finger. To say this is disappointing would be an understatement. Here is a movie that gives us a variety of elaborate action scenes, many of which are shot well, yet very few of them actually concern the men we've come to see fight each other. Of the two leads, Jason Statham gets the most screen time and attention. There are some weak attempts at making Jack out to be a real character (he became distanced from his wife and child when he became obsessed with hunting down Rogue), but most of the time, he snarls as only Statham can and practices police brutality on just about everyone who looks at him cross eyed. Jet Li's Rogue is mainly left as an enigma, says very little, and does even less for most of the film. It may seem annoying, but when you see where the movie leads to, it at least makes sense at the end. And when the film finally lets Li do his thing, it is a thing of beauty.

The rest of the cast exists mainly as target practice for both of the main characters to pick off until it's time for them to finally go against each other. We're introduced to the head members of the two warring Asian crime families, but they are developed to the absolute minimum. On the side of the Yakuza, we have the daughter of the head of the criminal gang (played by Devon Aoki from D.O.A.: Dead or Alive) giving most of the orders in her father's place. She's supposed to be a femme fatale, but she actually comes across as being pretty boring since she never gets to kill anyone, nor does she get in any fights. This is further complicated with the fact that Aoki refuses to show any facial expression other than a somewhat blank, vacant stare that never seems to say anything. She has done this with every performance I've seen her in, which makes me wonder if she might be one of those body snatchers I saw in last week's The Invasion, which would explain her inability to show any emotion whatsoever. The head of the rival crime gang fears for the safety of his wife and daughter as the flames of war begin to grow, but not enough is done with this idea, nor are these characters developed in any way.

Now, I don't want to stress only the negatives, as War really is not that bad of a movie. The film's opening action sequence suffers a bit from the infamous "shaky cam" syndrome, which kind of made me worried about what I was in for. Fortunately, the cameraman seems to get a better hold of the action from that point on, and the upcoming action sequences are much easier to follow. Some highlights include a battle between the two warring crime gangs in a Japanese restaurant, an intense motorcycle chase and battle, and the entire last half of the film when the filmmakers finally take the invisible weights off of Jet Li that have been holding him down for the entire movie, and let him finally do his stuff. The battle between Li and Statham that the movie has been building up to could have been longer and more dramatic, but it's still entertaining, and that's what counts. The film's fight choreography is by Corey Yuen, who has a long history of staging stunts and fights in both Hollywood and Asia. This isn't his best work, but at least it looks like he made an effort to make the action sequences as brutal as possible.
War delivers plenty in the big, dumb action that we're looking for. It just doesn't deliver when it comes to the two men we want to see get involved in them. Jason Statham gets plenty of opportunities, but I kept on waiting for them to truly use Jet Li. The movie disappoints in some ways, but it's not a complete failure, and certainly not one that the studio should have been afraid to release without screening for critics. There's been much worse films that have gotten screenings, many of them from the same studio. As the title would suggest, War is a noisy and violent spectacle that's not afraid to show the hero torture a dying villain by pressing his finger deep into an open wound, hitting bone. You should probably be able to tell if this movie is for you just by reading that last sentence.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Invasion

When food is reheated over and over again, it tends to dry out and lose its flavor. In a way, this would also describe The Invasion. As the fourth cinematic adaptation of the classic sci-fi horror story, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which was previously filmed in 1956, 1978, and 1994), The Invasion has its share of effective moments, but they don't seem quite as fresh as they once were due to the fact the story has been told so many times. It tries to modernize the story and tie it into some recent events such as the war in Iraq, but it doesn't go far enough with its own premise, and often comes across as warmed over cinematic left overs that has long lost the flavor and originality it once had.

Single mom and therapist, Carol Bennell (Nicole Kidman), isn't sure what to think when a female patient walks into her office early in the film, and tells Carol that her husband is not her husband. The patient had been going through some troubles with her husband in the past, but now he is eerily calm and doesn't even seem to be the same person he once was. Slowly but surely, strange yet similar reports start happening all around Carol. People begin changing, losing their personality, and becoming hollow shells of the person they once were. The change seems to be caused by an alien virus that arrived on Earth when a shuttle crashed just days ago, and is now slowly infecting all the people of the world. With the help of her close friend, Ben (Daniel Craig), Carol is able to realize what is going on and also discovers that some are immune to this bizarre virus, including her young son Oliver (Jackson Bond). Oliver is currently being held captive by Carol's ex-husband, Tucker (Jeremy Northam), who has fallen victim to the alien disease and is under its control. With the virus attempting to take control of all the world's population, those who are immune will be exterminated. Carol must make her way through a world where no one can be trusted in order to track down her son before it's too late. Most importantly, Carol must stay awake, as she has been infected herself and if she falls asleep, she will become one of them.

The events that unfolded during The Invasion's trip to the big screen are almost as dramatic as anything that happens in the movie itself. The film was originally set to be released in the summer of 2006 under the helm of German director, Oliver Hirschbiegel. When his version scored poorly with test audiences and was deemed too slow, the studio ordered massive reshoots. Because Hirschbiegel was no longer available, the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix Trilogy, V For Vendetta) were brought on to direct the new segments, even though they are not listed in the credits. It's painfully obvious watching the film when you're watching the material that was added on, as the film turns from a somewhat intriguing sci-fi paranoia thriller to an action thriller filled with lengthy car chases, shootouts, huge explosions, and a tacked on happy ending that seems like it was attached at the last minute and hastily thrown together. Before the sudden shift in tone during the third act, the movie at least manages to hold our interest, even if we have seen it all before too many times before. There are a number of effective scenes tied into the story's central theme of not knowing who to trust. As Carol makes her way through a city that is slowly falling apart, she is forced to show no emotion so that she can pass herself off as one of the infected. This leads to some powerful and painful moments, such as a scene where she is forced to watch two uninfected people leap to their deaths from a roof and try her hardest not to react, since she is surrounded by the infected and does not want to give herself away.

One odd thing that the movie does with his narrative is that he shoots the story somewhat out of sequence. The film opens with Carol frantically looting a pharmacy/grocery store, hoping to find any pills or caffeinated beverages that can help keep her awake. We can also hear someone pounding on a nearby locked door nearby. It then heads to the very beginning of the story, before the virus arrived on Earth. This is somewhat understandable, and a good way to get the audience's attention right off the bat. But then, at numerous other times throughout the story, he uses this technique again, and it's not as successful. At various times, he uses this "flash-forward" technique to explain how she escapes from other chases and situations, which obviously kills the tension more than just a little. A much more straight forward approach, where the fear and the paranoia would slowly build would have been a lot more successful and, most of all, appropriate for this kind of story. The film is also annoyingly simplistic at times, repeating its message over and over as if it thinks the audience somehow does not understand. Early in the film, during a dinner party, a man tells Carol that if there was no wars or poverty, we would not be human at all. Sure enough, when the alien virus starts infecting people and changing them into emotionless shells that barely resemble people, we keep on seeing news reports on the TV about the US suddenly pulling out of Iraq, the crime rate falls, and North Korea stops its nuclear program. It's an intriguing idea for sure, and it's an interesting criticism on human nature itself. But at the same time, it keeps this notion in the background the entire time, using only news reports to touch upon it. It keeps on repeating this idea, but never goes anywhere with it, which makes me wonder if there was more to this in a previous version of the film.

Despite its many problems, this is not an unwatchable film. The Invasion is handsomely filmed, using its Washington DC setting to its advantage, and carries a strong cast of talent that help keep things believable no matter how out there the story gets at times. Nicole Kidman handles her role of Carol with the utmost seriousness, and makes us sympathize with her completely as she goes on a mad dash through a world gone insane to find her son. Even though this isn't usually the kind of material she's drawn to, she doesn't act like the material is beneath her, and creates a realistic heroine that we can relate to. As the male lead, Daniel Craig does the most of what he can with his underdeveloped character, and at least shows that he has good chemistry with Kidman during their scenes together early on in the film. It's a shame that his character is eventually dropped and almost forgotten about roughly half-way through, only to just suddenly show up again. The early half of the film concentrating on his relationship with Carol shows a lot of promise.
I have a feeling that the original version of The Invasion that the studio received still had its share of problems, but I'm willing to bet that it did not cop out so completely during the all-important final moments. Perhaps a longer running time (the film is just over 90 minutes long) would have helped the movie flesh out some of its own intriguing ideas. It's obvious that everyone's heart was in the right place, but the movie never comes together due to the fact that the version being released in theaters is the result of massive tinkering and trying to guess what the audience wants out of the film. They should have let the film speak for itself instead of trying to second guess the people watching it.

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The Last Legion

Compared to grandiose digital epics like 300, The Last Legion seems downright small and quaint. There's nothing wrong with that in theory, and in a way, its simplicity is somewhat charming. All the same, I had a hard time getting enthralled with the story it tried to tell. A lot of this most likely has to do with the past works of director Doug Lefler, who has worked mainly with television. A story like this needs to be big and grand, but Lefler still seems to be shooting for the small screen. While not unwatchable, The Last Legion nonetheless disappoints.

The latest descendant of the Caesar bloodline, a young boy by the name of Romulus (Thomas Sangster from Nanny McPhee), has just taken the throne as Rome's Emperor. Not long after he accepts the title, Rome is attacked and overthrown by an army of invading forces. After watching his parents slain in battle, Romulus is captured along with his personal teacher Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley), and sent to an island prison. It doesn't take long for the Captain of the Roman Guard, Aurelius (Colin Firth), and his few surviving soldiers from the initial raid to rescue the two with the help of a female warrior named Mira (Aishwarya Rai). Now in the possession of a powerful sword that belonged to one of his ancestors discovered deep underneath the prison, the young Emperor Romulus and his protectors must make a perilous journey to Britain, where the last remaining soldiers who still support Rome are located. However, not only do his former captors follow him, but the brave band discover that the entire land is under the rule of a tyrannical man who is seeking both the legendary sword and Ambrosinus.

Based loosely on the novel by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, The Last Legion tries to tie the legend of King Arthur with Roman history in detailing how the famed sword Excalibur was forged, and found its way into the hands of the future King. The movie is pretty loose with its historical accuracy, and the decision to cast all the Roman characters with British actors is a bit odd to say the least, but I can live with all that if the movie is entertaining. While not a complete success, the movie does have a certain sense of innocence to it. The filmmakers were trying to create an old fashioned adventure yarn in the tradition of the great 50s and 60s B-movie epics that used to be shown on weekend afternoons when I was growing up. You constantly see potential all around. There's a great cast who may not be giving their best performance of their careers, but at least are making an effort and don't seem to be sleepwalking through their roles. The story has some interesting ideas, as well, particularly during the last moments of the film when they tie everything into the Arthur legend. For all of the effort and the feelings of nostalgia this film brought forth, the one thing it could not truly do is make me care about the characters or what was going on up on the screen. This is where The Last Legion begins to falter despite its very good intentions.

There are some battle sequences and vast landscape shots that are supposed to invoke feelings in the audience of past adventure epics such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And yet, the movie keeps on contradicting itself with its overall small and minor tone that it keeps throughout. The battles are instantly forgettable, and though competently filmed, seem to be over in a blink of an eye. The attack and conquering of Rome that happens about 20 minutes into the movie seems to be over in all of five minutes, if even that. We see a lot of swords clanging and bodies falling, but the movie treats it almost as if it doesn't matter. It just wants to move right along, and get to the next scene. This is just the wrong way to do it. If you're going to do a scene detailing the fall of one of the great Empires of its time, you don't just gloss right over it and skip to the aftermath. Not only does this rob us of the spectacle we came to see, but it also cheapens the rest of the film, since the heroes are supposed to be traveling and fighting to protect the young Emperor who saw his parents killed in battle. All of the film's major action sequences seem to suffer the same problem, and don't last long enough to make much of an impression. The only action sequence that the movie does seem to take some decent amount of time depicting (the escape from the island prison) is made somewhat laughable due to the incredible ease with which the heroes discover this fabled legendary sword that has been lost for years, yet the heroes stumble upon in about three minutes, and find the sword lying out in the open.

Unlike most recent historical adventure epics, The Last Legion is fairly short and keeps things well under two hours. This is both a blessing and a curse, as this means the film never drags for too long, but at the same time we also don't get to know the characters as well as we should. The movie moves along with the pace of an action video game, zipping from one battle and major sequence to the next, seldom giving us time for the characters to slow down. The young Emperor Romulus barely has time to mourn over the death of his parents, nor does he seem that troubled by it in the first place, before he is whisked away on an adventure where his situation is seldom ever mentioned again, nor is he ever given more than one line of dialogue at a time. This child is supposed to be the element drives the story, but he often comes across as a prop that the adult actors are dragging along with them, since he never plays much of a role in the story itself other than a walking plot device. The adult lead characters, played by Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley, are equally underdeveloped. Firth plays Aurelius as being somewhat bland and emotionless, which is a shame, since he's supposed to be the romantic lead in this movie as he develops a relationship with the female warrior Mira. (Their relationship seems to come out of nowhere, and is severely underdeveloped.) Ben Kingsley seems to be channeling both Obi-Wan and Gandalf in his performance as the wise old personal teacher of Romulus who has hidden magical abilities. Compared to some of his other recent performances in films like Bloodrayne and Thunderbirds, this is an improvement, but it is still nowhere near the level of what he is capable of.
The best word that I can think of to describe The Last Legion is mediocre. This is a mediocre film through and through, never quite being good while never quite sinking to the depths to be awful. Children in the early double digits might find some enjoyment in this movie, but anyone older has seen it all before and has seen it done much better. Still, in the end, this is not as bad of a movie as one would expect given the fact that the film has been sitting on the studio's shelf for over a year. According to the film's press notes, the filmmakers spent six years working on this script. You'd think with all that effort, we'd have something that's a little bit better than just being average.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Superbad

Hype can be a dangerous thing, especially for a comedy. Months before its release, Superbad was already being hailed by many as one of the great comedies of the year. Of course, these same kind of words were spoken of before Knocked Up was released in June, which was made by and features many of the same people as this film. I was not a fan of Knocked Up, as I thought it was nothing more than a generic sitcom-quality romantic comedy plot with four letter words and pop culture references, combined with thinly developed and unlikeable characters who I just didn't care about. The fact that Superbad was met with much of the same amount of hype, and had already spawned its own catch phrase and T-shirts before most people had even seen it worried me greatly. Would I be setting myself up for another disappointment?

Much to my relief, Superbad really is a truly funny movie, and a much better film all around in my opinion than Knocked Up. Where the previous film unsuccessfully stuck stoner and geek cliches into a moldy plot where they didn't even belong in the first place, Superbad focuses solely on the characters and lets them be themselves. The movie is crude and sometimes quite tasteless, but it is never disgusting, and we never stop wanting to see the characters succeed, even in their most perverse of goals. For all of its laughs, this is a very human story about friendship and growing up at its core. It's mind may sometimes be in the gutter, but its heart is always in the right place. Superbad may not be one of the great comedies of 2007, or even one of the great films, but it is a highly entertaining one, which is what counts more than all the hype and T-shirt sales in the world.

Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are life-long best friends who have never been popular in school, so they have always relied on each other. With high school graduation just weeks away, combined with the fact that they will be separated after the summer due to the fact they are off to different colleges, the two are determined to close their time together with a bang. The best way to do this, they figure, is to finally lose their virginity during a graduation party. And the best way to do this, they realize, is to score some alcohol for a party, which will presumably automatically give them a chance with the women they have individually longed for through most of school (Emma Stone and Martha MacIsaac). They rely on someone even less popular than them, a nerdy outcast named Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), to score the booze after Fogell obtains a fake ID with the assumed name of "McLovin". The simple act of buying alcohol with a fake ID becomes complicated to the extreme when the store is held up during the act of purchasing the booze, and Fogell ends up in the company of two crooked cops (Seth Rogen and Bill Hader) who take him on a wild night on the town. As for Seth and Evan, they will be forced to take many detours as they try to find an alternative way of getting a hold of some alcohol and try to make it to the party on time.

The fact that the two lead characters share the same first names as the two credited writers, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, is no coincidence. The two supposedly grew up as friends, and wrote the screenplay back when they were 14-years-old, loosely basing the film on their own experiences and views on adolescence. The script's obviously been touched up quite a bit over the years, but it's clear that this is one of the key reasons why Superbad works. There is a certain honesty to the film that captures perfectly what it is like to be an awkward teen who never fits into any sort of social group or cannot be narrowed into a clique. The movie is quite often hilarious in its depiction of the various misadventures of the three leads that they are forced to overcome. While the movie is a bit overlong, and sometimes shifts focus too frequently away from Seth and Evan, it never truly drags and manages to keep a consistent comic momentum running throughout. And yet, that's not what impressed me the most about Superbad. What impressed me is how much the movie truly cares about all of its characters. It's not just Seth and Evan, but everyone for the most part is written as an honest depiction instead of a caricature. The teenage characters are written in a very real way so that they come across as people you may have known yourself in high school, instead of the standard cliche types we've come to expect. The movie does lose its way a little bit in the two cop characters whom Fogell spends most of the night with. While everyone else has a somewhat realistic tone to them, these guys seem to have wandered in from another movie. It never becomes a huge problem, but they did stick out just enough for me to notice. They also seem to take over most of the middle section of the movie, taking attention away from the central characters.

When the movie is on track (which is most of the time), it really is a very enjoyable film. The fact that this may be Seth and Evan's last big adventure with each other is constantly in the back of the movie's mind. For all of its talk of booze and sex, this really is a movie about these two life-long friends being forced to grow apart from each other. This is brought home in the film's quiet and subtle final scene at a mall, which not only ends the film on a perfect note, but ends it in a very realistic way that is somewhat open ended instead of neatly tied up. A lot of what makes the characters work are the performances of Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, who actually have a certain chemistry together that make you believe they have been friends all their lives, despite their differences. Jonah Hill has acted in a couple teen comedies the past two years or so, but this is the first time he's truly had to carry one, and he does a great job at it. He gets some of the film's biggest laughs (such as when he imagines different methods and outcomes of trying to steal some liquor from a store), and is able to handle the large range of scenes and emotions that the character goes through quite well. He can be giving a foul-mouthed rant one minute, and can be sweet and compassionate the next. Michael Cera is a bit more subdued in his performance, but is nonetheless equally effective as the much more down-to-earth Evan. The supporting cast is equally talented, with newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse being a stand out as the nerdy Fogell. He's able to avoid most of the "nerd" cliches that we expect when we first see his character, and create a somewhat honest, but nonetheless hilarious, portrayal.
There's so many things that Superbad does right that when it does slip a little from time to time (mainly the material concerning the two cops), you notice it, but don't really mind since the movie always manages to get back on its feet. The movie manages to pull off a tricky balancing act between raunchy humor, honesty, and heart. I was thinking about a lot of things walking out of the movie. I wasn't just thinking about my favorite jokes, but also some personal memories of myself that the movie had brought up. I wouldn't be surprised if some other people have the same experience. This is a nostalgic and heart-felt film that has a lot of laughs, but most of all, the courage to bring it all together and not cop out.

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