Reel Opinions


Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Game Plan

Taking a hard-boiled action movie star out of his element has long been a favorite premise of Hollywood. This is usually accomplished by taking said star (Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, take your pick) and then teaming them up with either a cute child or animal. The Game Plan has learned its lessons well, as it teams up its star, wrestler turned actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, with both a cute child and an animal. What the movie has not learned is how to present any ideas or anything new to go with it. This isn't just by the book filmmaking, this is a Frankenstein's Monster built of the cliches handed down over the years. It holds not a single original thought in its empty head, and expects us to be satisfied with the same old song and dance.

As is usually the case in these kind of films, the lead character begins the film as a self-obsessed material neat freak. The Rock's character, Joe "The King" Kingman lives up to our expectations. He's the star quarterback on a fictional football team called the Boston Rebels. Because the filmmakers could not get the cooperation of the NFL, the dialogue has to constantly sidestep copywrite issues, and have the characters refer to the Super Bowl as "the championship game". A later scene has the telecasters standing directly in front of what is obviously supposed to be a Super Bowl sign, hoping we won't notice. Joe's world of fast living and material possessions is turned upside down with the arrival of an overly precocious 8-year-old girl named Peyton (Madison Pettis). She looks like the child acting agency just dropped her off at his doorstep, as her line delivery and manner of speaking are just too cute and scripted, but she claims to be Joe's daughter from a previous brief relationship with a woman almost 10 years ago. An illegitimate daughter is never a good thing for a celebrity, especially since his hard-nosed agent (Kyra Sedgwick) is trying to get him endorsement deals to help boost his career. With Peyton's mom away in Africa, Joe has to learn how to be a father for the first time in his life. She messes up his apartment, changes his television's internal computer so that it plays Disney Channel instead of the big basketball game, and puts sparkle and glitter over everything in the house. Naturally, he eventually grows to love her despite this, and learns that there's more to life than just himself.

The Game Plan is as calculated, manipulative, and sappy as any other movie I've seen this year. This is total filmmaking by numbers, where director Andy Fickman (She's the Man) and first-time screenwriters Nichole Millard and Kathryn Price obviously felt they should play completely by expectations, and not even attempt to try anything new. The movie plays by expectations, all right, but that's all it does. There's no build up or pay off, it just keeps on doing what it knows it's supposed to. We know that eventually little Peyton is going to make a mess in the bathtub when she tries to make a bubble bath, and puts too much of the liquid in. We get the required shot of Joe jumping into the overflowing bubble bath, and having him come out covered with the soapy substance head-to-foot, but it doesn't go anywhere. It expects us to laugh at the familiar and the contrived. This is a movie that knows the music but not the lyrics. Another example - Peyton is a ballerina, and starts to attend a local school. The class is taught by a lovely young woman named Monique (Roselyn Sanchez), whom Joe is instantly smitten with. He starts hanging around the class to be close to her, and sooner or later, he's being talked into dancing with the rest of the girls. This leads to the inevitable sequence where we will see him dressed in tights, and performing in front of an audience. And yet, we do not laugh, because the movie does not do anything beyond that simple idea. It's not enough to have The Rock dressed in tights and doing ballet. At least have him dance badly or something! The fact that his relationship with Monique is barely touched upon is another example. They simply get together because the movie knows they're supposed to.

For most of its overlong nearly two hour running time, the film plays up the broad, goofy humor that we expect. But then, it tries to take a switch for mawkish sentimentality in its final half hour. This leads to one of the most curious scenes in the movie. While Joe, Peyton, and Monique are eating at a restaurant, Peyton suddenly grows ill. She has a food allergy to nuts, and Joe must rush to the hospital, where we get the expected sequence of him sitting forlornly in a hospital waiting room, waiting for any news. What's odd about this moment is that it treats her allergy with the utmost seriousness. And yet, earlier in the film, it plays up Joe's food allergy to cinnamon for laughs. (He eats a cinnamon cookie that Peyton has made for him before he has to shoot a commercial, and is forced to do the commercial talking with a lisp.) What are we to make of this? Some food allergies are a crisis, while others are hilarious? This movie doesn't understand allergies, just like it doesn't understand a lot of things. Something tells me football players in their off time don't have squirt gun fights, and are probably not quite so willing to be seen playing dolls with little girls. I could be wrong, as I've never been in a professional football team's locker room. But, I think it's pretty safe to stick to my hunch. This team doesn't even seem to have a coach for most of the film, until he suddenly appears on the sidelines during the Super Bowl scene...Oops, sorry. I meant "the championship game".

There have been a lot of professional wrestlers trying their hand at movies these days, John Cena and Steve Austin being two recent examples. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is so far the only one who actually seems to be attempting a real acting career, instead of playing it safe. I've always found him to be surprisingly charismatic as an actor, and he's no different here. He's just trapped in an unworthy character and screenplay. He goes through the usual character arc of selfish millionaire to caring dad, but the movie gives him no motivation to do so. He does what is expected of him, and passes the test, but not much more. Young Madison Pettis makes her big screen debut after a couple years acting on various children's programs, and she doesn't quite seem ready for the big time yet. She's too calculating and perfect in her performance, almost like she's trying too hard. I'm not writing her off, as she at least shows some signs she knows what she's doing. I just think she needs to not come across so artificial in her performance. In the throwaway role of Joe's agent, talented actress Kyra Sedgwick is wasted with a one-note character who seems to exist only to lead up to a fart joke during the film's final moments. Not only can we see it coming almost an hour before it happens, but she deserves better than the payoff this movie gives her.
The Game Plan is what I like to call "a vanilla movie". It doesn't offend, but it's so plain and ordinary that you have to wonder why anyone bothered in the first place. The movie is so afraid to step out of the line of expectations, almost as if it thinks our heads will explode if it goes the slightest bit off course, or gives us something to care or (Heaven forbid) think about. How predictable is this movie? When the final scene faded out, I stayed in my seat, because I just had a feeling there was going to be a sequence with the characters singing along to the closing music during the end credits. Sure enough, as soon as the credits started to roll, there was The Rock (and eventually the entire cast and even the crew) singing along to an Elvis song.

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Kingdom

With a storyline ripped straight from today's headlines and a pair of sensational and brutal action sequences bookending the film, The Kingdom should by all accounts be a winner. And for part of the film, it is. Director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) deals with the touchy issue of US and Saudi relations in a manner that manages to avoid manipulation for the most part (except for some cloying dialogue and one or two sequences that ring false). It's kind of strange to think of a movie dealing with such issues as a popcorn movie, but that's really what it is at the end. There's nothing exactly wrong with The Kingdom in theory, it's only when it forces us to sit through its lengthy and dry middle section where not much happens, and the underdeveloped characters refuse to grab our attention, that the movie loses some of its previous luster.

FBI Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) wants permission to fly to Saudi Arabia and perform his own investigation when some terrorists bomb an American compound during the middle of a softball game. The fact that two fellow Agents were killed in the blast make it all the more personal. His request is initially rejected, but Ronald knows who to talk to, and he eventually is given permission for a five day secret mission that will be closely scrutinized every step of the way. His team on the investigation includes Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), and Adam Leavitt (comic actor Jason Bateman in a rare dramatic role). When they arrive, they find that their progress is hindered almost every step of the way by Saudi authorities. Their only ally is a military Colonel named Al-Ghazi (Ashraf Barhous), whom Ronald bonds with during his time overseas. When the team is finally allowed to do some real investigating work, they quickly uncover the clues that could lead them right to the terrorist group before the group's next attack can become a reality.

Despite being nearly two hours in length, The Kingdom races full speed ahead with its story, seldom stopping for character development or concentrating on the situation at hand. This is both its best and worst feature. On one hand, the movie does keep a good pace for part of its running time. The movie opens quite literally with a bang as the initial attack on the American residential compound is brutal and shocking, not shying away from images of children being fired upon. Even the opening credits, which chronicles and displays a timeline of American and Saudi relations, is compelling and immediately grabs our attention. Those expecting a thoughtful and thorough look at international relations are likely to be disappointed, however. The movie sidesteps its own tough questions, and resorts either to the American investigation team being frustrated over the lack of cooperation they are receiving, or to brutal and bloody gunfights that are shot and edited with the speed and accuracy of an action film. This is a movie where the heroes can stumble upon the right clues that lead them to the right answers within a day or two, and those answers lead them right to the enemy. The last half hour of the film is an extended action sequence as Fleury and his team find themselves trying to rescue an ally, and blowing away anything that gets in their sights. The movie's final scene tries to make up for this with a sequence that is supposed to be chilling and make us wonder if the "heroes" are any different from the "villains", but it comes across as being heavy handed and somewhat forced.

To be honest, I actually found myself not minding the action-heavy last half. It's actually a welcome relief after the lengthy mid section where not much of interest happens. The Americans find themselves stopped at just about every turn whenever they try to investigate or even question anyone. What this amounts to is a lot of time where the characters are faced with roadblocks, and forced to go back to their bunker in frustration. This part of the film drags even more when you consider that we learn very little if anything about these characters. Aside from the fact that Ronald Fleury has a son back home, we don't really learn much about the man. Janet, Grant, and Adam are given even less to do, and simply seem to be killing time until their individual big scenes. A closer look into these characters could have made this part of the film more tolerable to sit through. The movie at least looks good throughout, and was obviously made with great care. The sun-baked cinematography gives the film a blistering look that puts us in the action with the cast. And the music score by composer Danny Elfman is surprisingly subtle at times, and does not play up the melodrama or hit us over the head with emotion.
The Kingdom is a strange film indeed. It seems to want to be an important movie that has something to say, but at its heart, it's a revenge movie where guns never run out of ammo, and the heroes can fly in and save the day in a short amount of time. I admired the film in parts for what it was. The violence is brutal without being glorified, and the movie at least never talks down to us, probably because it doesn't have time to. This is not a bad movie, just not quite the movie I was hoping for considering the theme of the film and the cast involved. The Kingdom is a mostly safe, sanitized package designed to appeal to the Hollywood crowd.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Feast of Love

For a movie with the word "feast" in the title, Feast of Love is a strangely undernourished and unsatisfying movie. This is a movie about a group of people whose lives revolve around a coffee shop, finding love, and talking to a wise old man who has nothing but time to talk about love, life, and relationships. Love is found and lost, but the movie keeps on forgetting to show what happens in between. This is the kind of movie where couples can have bitter break ups, but be friends again a couple scenes later, simply because the narrator tells us they're friends again. I found myself increasingly frustrated as the story went on. Here is a movie with a great look and a wonderful cast, but it has nothing to show for it.

The coffee shop where everyone in this movie gathers is run by a man named Bradley (Greg Kinnear). Bradley is unlucky in love. About 15 minutes after the opening credits have rolled, his first wife (Selma Blair) leaves him after she finds herself attracted to a woman she met during a softball game. Barely before he's found time to look for a new place to live, another woman walks into his life - this time a real estate agent named Diana (Radha Mitchell from Silent Hill). They marry, but once again, she's hiding a secret from him in that she's also involved with another man named David (Billy Burke), who doesn't feel that Diana loves Bradley and that she's making a mistake. She eventually agrees with David, and walks out on Bradley also. The film also follows one of Bradley's employees at the shop, a young man named Oscar (Toby Hemingway). He falls head over heals in love with Chloe (Alexa Davalos) the second she walks in the shop, and so does she with him. Unfortunately, they're both poor, and Oscar is stuck with a verbally and physically abusive drunken father (Fred Ward) who likes to hide in the bushes and threaten people with his knife. All of these people have one thing in common. They all share their problems with Harry Stevenson (Morgan Freeman), an old man who is a regular at the coffee shop, and gives free love advice and talks philosophic about life at a moment's notice. He never seems to be there to buy anything, he just sits at a table and helps people out with their problems all day, then goes home to his wife and talks about the things he talked about with other people. When he's not doing that, he's narrating the movie and talks philosophic about love and life to us the audience.

Feast of Love is a simple minded movie dealing with complex issues. This is a movie where the wise old man with pain in his past (Harry's adult son died of a drug overdose the previous year) holds all the answers, and delivers those answers with such an omnipresent tone of voice, you'd think Morgan Freeman was repeating his performance as God from Bruce Almighty. The main characters take his advice, and are always better off for it. But, they have to make a lot of mistakes first. The film is set during an 18 month period according to the subtitles at the bottom of the screen that keep track of the passage of time, and during that time, Bradley goes through three different marriages, gets divorced twice, and falls in love two times with a total stranger who seemingly agrees to marry him after knowing him for about a month by my estimate. This is a movie that obviously wants to take a long, hard look at relationships, but it strangely doesn't seem to even want to talk about relationships. For Bradley, we keep on seeing only the beginning and the end of the relationship. When he marries his second wife Diana, they're getting separated about five scenes later after a disastrous dinner party where her secret is revealed. Don't cry for the guy, though, because he finds love again about 10 minutes later, who agrees to get together with him supposedly because they both share the same opinion on what love is. After this initial meeting, the film flashes forward 6 months later, and they're living happily together, though we never actually get to see why Bradley is finally happy with this girl. All the hell this movie puts the poor guy through, and it can't even afford to give him anything but an assumed happy ending.

What's most strange about this movie is that it seems to want to completely skim over the hardships and problems that come with love. It's not just Bradley who gets involved in an almost comically underwritten relationship. The storyline that focuses on the other main couple, young Oscar and Chloe, is equally underdeveloped. They meet when she comes into the coffee shop, looking for a job. He gives her an interview, then the next time we see them, they're in bed having sex together. We're introduced to Oscar's evil drunken father, whose character doesn't really amount to much. He says a few threats, pulls his knife out a couple times, then he gets punched in the face by another character and is never seen again. The movie hints that the young couple are also facing money problems. So desperate are they for money that they agree to shoot a porno video for some easy cash. Once again, not much is made of this crisis, as all of their problems are solved by talking to the Morgan Freeman character. Things seem to work out pretty well for the two, until a situation that was predicted by an eerily accurate fortune teller that Chloe visits about halfway through the movie occurs. This is a movie that continuously hits on the major scenes, but it gives us none of the minor moments that are supposed to endear us to the characters. One event after another keeps on happening to these people, and we don't care, because the movie refuses to let us get close to them. It's also kind of hard to worry how these characters will get out of their current situation, when the all-knowing old man is always at arm's length.

Because the movie refuses to slow down and give us something to care about, the characters suffer and so do the performances. This is tragic, because you can tell that everyone involved is making an effort. If the movie itself stinks, it's certain not due to a lack of effort. Greg Kinnear and Morgan Freeman are wonderful actors, but neither is given anything to attach their performance on. Kinnear is forced to just blindly go through a series of bad relationships before he arrives at his happy ending. Freeman is as warm and as wonderful as he ever has been. No one could sell the role of a wise old man who hangs out at either a coffee shop or a park bench all day better than he can. The problem is, that's all there is to his character. His relationship with his wife (Jane Alexander) and their grieving over their dead son is curiously only mentioned whenever it's convenient for the movie. He never comes across as an actual character in the story, he just always seems to conveniently be there for the main characters whenever they need him. As the young couple in love, Toby Hemingway and Alexa Davalos are warm in their respective roles as Oscar and Chloe, but never get to build a relationship any deeper than just physical attraction. The movie keeps on insisting that they are deeply in love with each other, but we never get a true sense of it.
Before I close this review, I want to mention one other odd thing about Feast of Love. As I mentioned earlier, about halfway through the movie, Chloe goes to see a psychic who gives her a prediction so accurate, we know how the movie's going to end at about the one hour mark. Not only does she predict what will happen to the couple, she's even able to foresee what Oscar will be hungry for when Chloe returns home. Both of her predictions come true, but strangely, Chloe treats this with casual indifference. She doesn't even go back to the fortune teller after the predictions come true, and ask the woman what her winning Lotto numbers are. Forget focusing on these couples in love, I want a movie on this fortune teller and how she was able to so accurately predict everything that would happen. My guess is she cheated and read the script in advance.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg, a filmmaker best known for his bizarre and sometimes downright graphic sci-fi and horror films, seems to be mellowing out with age. But just because he's been favoring more traditional stories doesn't mean that he's lost his touch as a director. Eastern Promises, much like his earlier effort, 2005's A History of Violence, is a crime story that is told not through shoot outs and chases, but with richly developed characters. Violence was one of that year's best films, and while Eastern Promises is very good in its own right, it doesn't stand out quite as much. This is partially intentional, because this is a much more laid back film than his last effort. That being said, this is still obviously a great film on its own.

Set in London just before Christmas, a midwife named Anna (Naomi Watts) is dealt with the task of looking after a newborn baby after the infant's 14-year-old mother, who arrived at the hospital bloodied and bruised, dies while giving childbirth. She discovers a diary that was in the mother's possession, but the writing is in Russian and she can't make it out. Hoping that the diary could lead to some information on who the girl's family was so that they can look after the baby, she discovers a business card within the book that leads her to a Russian restaurant which is run by an old man named Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Anna hopes that he can help her translate the contents of the diary, but little does she suspect, this seemingly innocent old man has ties to the Russian Mafia and is connected to the fate of the baby's dead mother. Semyon does not want the contents of the diary to be known to an outsider, and Anna unknowingly becomes wrapped up in the criminal underworld, where her only chance for survival may lie in the hands of a driver who works for Semyon named Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen).

Those expecting a fast-paced crime thriller will likely be bored with the leisurely path that Eastern Promises takes in telling its story. Aside from a spectacular fight scene that occurs in a public bathhouse late in the film, there are no action sequences. This is a quiet character study about loyalty, betrayal, and a woman who finds herself in over her head when she starts asking questions about this mystery woman who died in her hospital. There is a certain simplicity to the film, as the movie is more concerned with the people and their relationships, rather than their criminal acts. The screenplay by Steven Knight does not complicate itself, and stays focused on the characters. This is both the film's best and worst aspect. One of the film's strengths is the depiction of the conflicted Nikolai, as he finds his loyalties torn between different people within the crime family, and even some personal confliction as well. Likewise, Anna is a fascinating character in her own right, as she is determined to do what is right and refuses to become intimidated by these underworld types, even when she finds out the truth about them. She is strong and determined to not only find out the identity of her patient, but also in the family, so that the baby can be given to its rightful family. Everyone is fully fleshed out. This is not a black and white character study of the Mob. We eventually find ourselves feeling for the mobsters almost as much as Anna.

Indeed, Nikolai may be one of the more interesting antiheroes to hit the screen in quite a long time. He is ruthless and cunning in his own ways, but he has a deeply layered personality that shows through in a lot of the film's best scenes. Most of this is tied into his scenes not only with Anna, but also with his best friend within the crime family and Semyon's adult son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). He may appear to be cool and cold on the surface, but there are also hints that he has some genuine humanity within him, such as the way when he warns Anna not to get involved with business that does not concern her, it seems to be more out of concern for her rather than a threat. He sometimes even seems to be helping her, perhaps for reasons even he doesn't understand. It is not just the character that impresses, but also Mortensen's performance. Half of his dialogue is in Russian, but he is able to say plenty just with his body and his eyes. It's one of the great performances of the year, and he's in good company here. Naomi Watts also impresses, as she is able to create a sympathetic yet very strong presence as Anna. The two actors are evenly matched in each of their scenes together, and watching them work together is wonderful to see.

As good as those performances are, the one that stood out the most for me is Armin Mueller-Stahl as the head of the crime family. He has to play somewhat of a duel personality role, as he must be both warm and inviting, while also menacing and calculating in other scenes. He tackles the complex character with a sort of ease that comes across as being natural. His ability to switch between warm and deadly personalities is almost frightening, and it's probably one of his best performances in years. Everyone in the cast is more than up to the challenge that the screenplay gives them, and that is what makes Eastern Promises worth watching. The story may be somewhat conventional, but the acting and the characters brings everything up to a higher level. The film is also beautifully shot, and uses its dark London backdrops to the fullest. I would have liked to have seen the movie put its Christmas imagery to better use, which could have created some memorable sequences, but this is only a small complaint.
If I am only the slightest bit disappointed in Eastern Promises, it's only that I was a huge fan of A History of Violence, and this movie just didn't grab me in quite the same way. It's a personal bias, and I'm not going to hold it against this movie. David Cronenberg may not be making the same kind of films he used to, but he still remains a genuine talent as both a filmmaker and a storyteller. This is a fascinating film to watch, and even more interesting one to think back on when it is over.

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Sydney White

In updating the story of Snow White to the present day on a college campus, Sydney White is a bizarre combination of wonderful imagination and wit, and dry conventional plotting. The movie is at its best when its relying on the charm and humor of its lead star, Amanda Bynes, who is a very bright young adult actress who I can't wait to see grow into more adult roles. (I can imagine her being successful in a smart adult romantic comedy in a few years.) It also has a surprising amount of intelligent humor and sly writing in its screenplay. It's only when director Joe Nussbaum (Sleepover) and writer Chad Creasey (TV's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) rely too heavily on moldy teen movie cliches that the movie falters, held up only by its winning and talented cast.

Ever since her mother died when she was young, tomboyish Sydney White (Amanda Bynes) has been raised by men her entire life. Her loving father (John Schneider) is a plumber who works for a construction company, so most of her companions have been construction men. The time has come for Sydney to leave for college, and she's anxious to join the same Sorority that her mother was a part of, hoping she can build some lasting female relationships. Unfortunately, when she arrives, she finds that the Sorority House is ruled by a blonde tyrant named Rachel Witchburn (Sara Paxton from Aquamarine), who not only runs the House with an iron fist, but also most of the campus. Rachel takes pride in being the "fairest girl on campus", as evidenced by a website where the students choose the hottest girls in college. When Sydney's name appears and starts climbing the chart, threatening Rachel's long-standing #1 position, she casts her out of the House. With nowhere else to go, Sydney is forced to take refuge in The Vortex, a run down house inhabited by a group of outcasts who are commonly referred to as "the Seven Dorks". Her love and knowledge of comic books makes Sydney fit right in with them, and she becomes determined to teach them how to stand up for themselves, and maybe even overthrow Rachel's rule over the campus. At the same time, Sydney must try to win the heart of the handsome Tyler Prince (Matt Long), who used to date Rachel back in middle school, and still seems to be trying to cut ties off with her, even though they broke up years ago.

I must admit, I did not exactly have high hopes walking into Sydney White, and I don't blame you for not having any after reading that synopsis. The movie is certainly filled with the usual teen movie cliche traps, such as romantic misunderstandings, popularity battles, and wild parties. And yet, there is a certain unconventional aspect that sneaks in every now and then that makes this movie a lot better than it normally would be. Some of the ways the film accomplishes this is in updating the story of Snow White with many clever references. A "poison apple" in this case refers to the evil Rachel enlisting the help of a campus hacker to infect Sydney's Apple notebook with a virus. More than that, the movie has a very sweet charm and innocence, plus a surprisingly smart sense of humor. A lot of this has to do with lead star Bynes, who seems to be improvising a lot of her lines, many of which made me smile. Her side comments to her ditzy new roommate when she first arrives at the Sorority House, and sometimes just her face reaction to what's going on proves that she definitely is skilled. She's a likable actress, has a great screen presence, and I'd love to see her in more challenging roles.

The movie continued to win me over a little bit further with the introduction of the "Seven Dorks", who initially come across as your cliched extreme nerd types, but have a lot more warmth and heart to them than I expected. There are some oddballs in the group, such as a guy who is so shy he only talks to others through a hand puppet that he constantly caries with him (I liked the way the puppet reacts for him, and drops its jaw at plot developments, while his face remains unemotional.), but they are not so extreme that they don't come across as being human. They're likable misfits, and get their own share of laughs throughout the film. Another character who impressed me is Sydney's Sorority roommate, Dinky (Crystal Hunt). She initially comes across as an obnoxiously perky stereotype, but both the screenplay and the performance by Hunt eventually builds her into a more likable character. You can tell that the screenplay cares about these characters a little bit more than the norm, because of the way it slips in some genuine feeling and lines that actually made me laugh. This ultimately is what leads me to my biggest frustration about the film. The movie cares, but doesn't care enough to go all the way.

I almost wanted to recommend Sydney White, but had to hold myself back when the intelligence and the clever writing takes a back seat to overly conventional plot developments. The movie almost seems to short change itself during the second half. These characters who were so likeably off beat in the opening hour or so become trapped in a moldy storyline of campus rivalries, jealousy, romantic misunderstandings, school elections, and a climax that almost seems to be ripped right out of the original Revenge of the Nerds movie. I had to wonder if this was the result of studio tampering, as the movie takes such an unnatural turn during its second half. The movie manages to stay afloat, thanks mostly to the performances, but the laughs and the smart ideas become fewer and further apart. I liked the movie better when it was letting Sydney and the inhabitants of The Vortex just be themselves, rather than throwing them into a plot where she has to win the guy, and they have to stand up for themselves. We've seen this so many times before, and the movie does absolutely nothing different. What starts as a fresh and quirky look at the college comedy turns into a strictly by the numbers venture.
Although I can't fully get behind Sydney White, I do admire the film greatly for what it does right. This is a much better film than it probably has a right to be, and is sure to keep adults accompanying their kids at least interested enough to keep them from looking at their watches. I only wish the movie had the courage to keep its initial tone all the way through the film, then we would have had something. At the very least, it does show off the comedic talents of Amanda Bynes, and strengthens my belief that she will be on her way to greater things if she can just find the right project.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Good Luck Chuck

I would say that Good Luck Chuck is a movie that has its mind in the gutter, but that would require the movie to have a mind, which it does not. It also doesn't have any laughs. What it does have is a lot of actors forced to recite uncomfortable and juvenile dialogue that I would not wish upon any actor, a woman with three breasts, characters who get off on watching sexual acts performed on stuffed animals, and a morbidly obese woman whose entire body is filled with pus-filled pimples. It boggles my mind that screenwriter Josh Stolberg can put all of this into a screenplay, yet couldn't think of a single amusing thing to go with them. Maybe it's because these kind of ideas aren't funny to begin with. This is the kind of movie you try your hardest to forget after you've seen it.

When Charlie "Chuck" Logan (Dane Cook) was 10-years-old, he was at a birthday party playing Spin the Bottle. When it was his turn to spin, it pointed at the freaky goth girl who he didn't want anything to do with. To punish him for resisting her advances, the girl placed a curse on Charlie that day that he will never find true love, and that each girl he falls in love with will only find true love with the next man they date after him. In the present day, Charlie is a dentist, even though we only see him doing dental work once in the entire movie. The rest of the time, he's hanging out with his perverted best friend Stu (Dan Fogler from Balls of Fury), who works as a plastic surgeon that specializes in breast enhancements. Somehow, the word of Charlie's curse has spread onto the Internet, and now women are flooding his dental practice and banging down his door for him to have sex with them, so that they can find true love with the next man they meet. Stu thinks Charlie's got it made, since he has a free ticket to endless non-committal sex with any woman he chooses. Charlie, on the other hand, is not so sure it's a blessing, especially when he meets the very cute and highly accident prone woman who works at the penguin habitat in the zoo nearby. Her name is Cam (Jessica Alba), and she's not sure she should fall for Charlie, since she thinks the whole curse story is a hoax to get free sex from women. She eventually does warm up to him, and now Charlie is desperate to find a way to break the curse so that he can spend the rest of his life with her.

Good Luck Chuck wants to be an adult sex comedy, but it is too juvenile and moronic to appeal to anyone with the IQ of an adult. That right there is the problem. Who is this movie intended for? My guess is that it's for people who are about as smart as the characters in this movie. Unfortunately, these are some of the dumbest people to ever walk into a romantic comedy. Charlie and Cam are stupid for even wanting to be together in the first place. I said earlier that Cam is highly accident prone. The movie pushes this statement to the limit by having Cam accidentally burn Charlie with hot liquid during their first encounter, then go on to send multiple sharp objects flying into his back and later electrocute him during their second meeting. This would send most men running for the hills, even if the woman did have the body of Jessica Alba. And yet, Charlie becomes completely infatuated with her. So infatuated does Charlie become that he literally starts stalking her. Here is where the movie goes so off course it's not even on the same page with any sane viewer. During the entire middle section of the movie, Charlie goes from being a fairly reasonable guy, to a guy who follows Cam around obsessively, beats up anyone who tries to talk to her, and develops a disturbing laugh that sounds like he just escaped from a mental hospital. The movie seems to completely forget that these are the people we're supposed to want to see get together at the end. All I wanted to see was Charlie placed behind bars, and Cam be put in isolation so that she would no longer be a hazzard to herself and others.

There is no logic behind anything that happens in this movie. There is no reason for Charlie and Cam to be in love with each other, just like there's no reason for Cam to forgive Charlie for turning into a literal raving psychopath around her. But, she does anyway. The movie would probably like us to believe that she is forgiving and Charlie has learned his lesson about giving her space. I'm not buying it, though. These characters don't deserve to be happy. Then again, neither does anyone else who surrounds them. Charlie's best friend, Stu, is a guy who likes to save the substance that female celebrities have removed from their breasts during breast reduction surgery. After seeing how this guy pleasures himself to various kinds of fruits and produce, I am grateful the filmmakers forgot to show what he does with the stuff he holds onto. There is also a sequence where Charlie forces himself to have sex with an obnoxious, grossly obese woman in order to test his curse theory. Not only do we get to see them making love, but the camera fixates on the woman's backside which is covered with bloody zits, scabs, and other abnormalities. Why would anyone want to make a movie like this? This is a movie that hates men, women, sex, and love. It exists only to disgust, and doesn't want to do anything but. Crude humor can work, but there has to be a build up. This is the kind of movie where people wallow around in filth for no reason, and expects us to be amused by it.

The saddest thing about Good Luck Chuck is that there is some talent on display when you start to strip away the layers of junk. Jessica Alba does have a very sweet and winning personality when the movie isn't forcing her to act like a reject from a Three Stooges short. She's actually the closest thing this movie has to a decent person, which further enhances my theory that she would be better off without Charlie. She's a frustrating character ultimately, because just when we're starting to like her, the movie forces her to do something completely stupid and out of character. The same could be said for Charlie as well. During the first half of the film, Dane Cook is surprisingly subdued and almost charming. But then the middle section comes, and Cook suddenly starts hamming the role up to the point that he doesn't even resemble the same person anymore. The fact that Charlie comes across as a sane individual for the first 45 minutes or so makes it all the more hard to swallow that he would possibly think turning psychotic and frightening Cam would be a good way to hold onto her. These characters are at the mercy of a screenplay that keeps on turning to stupidity and ugliness for laughs. Equally disappointing is Dan Fogler, who managed to win me over in Balls of Fury, but here is stuck with such a shallow and disgusting character that he couldn't generate even a smile from me.
There's not one single second of Good Luck Chuck that I believed. Not one single instant that seemed remotely plausible. Sometimes I can live with that, but this movie just makes one too many wrong turns for me to suspend disbelief. The film is being advertised as a date comedy, but only very deranged individuals will find anything within its running time romantic. This is the kind of movie where you wince when it comes to a happy ending, because it hasn't earned it. But then, this movie's idea of a happy ending is having two people's tongues get frozen together while kissing. Normally, I would be surprised. With Good Luck Chuck, I wasn't.

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Resident Evil: Extinction

When it comes to movie monsters, zombies never really appealed to me. They seem to exist more as moving targets in a shooting gallery than actual villains. And let's face it, just about everything you can do in a zombie movie has already been done. Resident Evil: Extinction seems to realize this, and so it doesn't really concentrate on them very much. They're always there, but they don't seem to have much to do with the movie itself. Rather than horror, the film's main source of inspiration seems to be the Road Warrior films, with everyone driving around in souped up vehicles in the desert. There's a reason for this, as a short narration early on tells us that the Earth itself is slowly dying and decaying, so much of the world is now a desert wasteland. What the movie fails to explain is why we're supposed to care about these people driving around and battling zombies.

Those who have not seen the original Resident Evil or its sequel, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, will likely be lost, as the film jumps right into its story and doesn't look back. Series heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) is still on the run from the evil scientists of the Umbrella Corporation, who experimented on her and turned her into some kind of super powered fighting machine. While wandering the deserts, searching for other survivors, she happens to find a battered old journal that talks about how there's an area in Alaska that is unaffected by the deadly T-Virus that has wiped out half the human race, and turned the other half into flesh-eating zombies. She joins up with a band of survivors, which include a couple people who accompanied her on her last adventure, and some newcomers such as a teenage girl named K-Mart (Spencer Locke from Monster House), who was given the name because the people she travels with found her outside of a K-Mart store. When I heard this, I couldn't help but think the poor girl is lucky she wasn't found outside of a Hooters restaurant. As Alice and her friends search for enough fuel and supplies for the long journey to Alaska, an evil scientist at Umbrella named Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen) is secretly tracking Alice, because he believes she has something in her blood that can stop the effects of the virus, and wants to use her for his own evil ends.

Now that the film franchise (which itself is based on a video game franchise) is on its third installment, I think it's pretty safe to say you already know where you stand on Resident Evil: Extinction. Those who liked the last two are certain to find something to like here. Those on the fence won't be pushed in either direction. The Resident Evil films have always differed from the games that inspired them, in that they are much more action-heavy in tone than genuine horror. The zombies themselves are not really the villains, it is the human scientists of the Umbrella Corporation. The head of Umbrella is a guy named Albert Wesker (Jason O'Mara), who even though he sits in a dark underground room behind a desk all day, he constantly wears sunglasses. I assume he wears them just to show how evil he is. This is the kind of movie where we know everything about the person just by looking at them. If they are beautiful, rugged, or with a perfectly toned body, they're the good guys. If they're dressed in lab coats or wear black, they're evil. And if they're dirty and unshaven, they're an extra and most likely expendable during one of the film's many action sequences. Same goes for the people with the rotting flesh. The movie is in far too much of a rush to get to where it's going. It gives us just enough exposition and plot to get the story out of the way, then dives head first into a series of action sequences that seem to come one after another.

To its credit, some of the sequences are handled quite well, and with a surprising amount of expertise. A lengthy sequence where the human survivors are attacked by hundreds of zombie crows is the closest the movie ever comes to generating suspense. But far too often, Extinction is a laundry list of missed opportunities. There is a scene where the heroes are forced to drive through the ruins of Las Vegas, which is now submerged under sand, with only the top half of the famous Vegas landmarks sticking out to remind people of what the city once was. The initial glimpse of the submerged city is intriguing, and made me excited about what the filmmakers could be planning with such a unique setting. Unfortunately, all they do is give us more gun battles, more zombies and Umbrella soldiers getting blown away, and pretty much more of everything we've already seen. I hate it when a movie teases me with a fascinating image, then does absolutely nothing with it. Aside from a character climbing up a replica of the Eiffel Tower from the remains of the Paris-themed hotel/casino, the movie does not use any of its unique setting to its advantage. The battle may as well have taken place in a factory or a parking garage for all this movie cares. The human characters are treated with the same level of indifference. No one gets to say any dialogue that doesn't advance the plot in some way, and relationships between them are hinted at but never really built on. Heck, anytime someone does try to get close to someone, the zombies show up and kill them. Those zombies, I tell you. They always spoil the moment.
At its best, Resident Evil: Extinction is total in one ear and out the other entertainment. It has a couple action scenes that I sort of admired, but nothing really stood out about it. It doesn't offer any thoughts, it doesn't offend, it's just there. People who go to the movies just to get out of the house are sure to have their needs fulfilled. It manages to kill an hour and a half, and that's about it. Anyone looking for something more should probably look elsewhere. Now that I think about it, people looking for something more probably don't go to movies based on video games in the first place.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Mr. Woodcock

If there is anything worse than an unfunny comedy, it's an unfunny comedy that leaves you feeling uncomfortable at the same time. Mr. Woodcock is such a gross miscalculation, I often found myself wondering what the filmmakers were thinking at the time. This is an uninspired, mean-spirited film that makes us cringe when it arrives at its happy ending, because the movie and the characters that inhabit it don't deserve it. How bad is Mr. Woodcock? I watched this movie immediately after seeing Dragon Wars, and found myself thinking back on the earlier film in a slightly positive light. At least that movie was an interesting train wreck to watch.

Author and self-help guru, John Farley (Seann William Scott), has spent the past few years putting aside his traumatic childhood when he was an overweight kid in a small town being physically and verbally abused by his sadistic gym class teacher, Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton). His new book on letting go of the past has become a national best seller, and because of this, he's been invited to return to his hometown to accept an honorary award for making a difference in the world. John returns home, despite the objections of his high strung alcoholic book tour manager (Amy Poehler), and when he is reunited with his mother (Susan Sarandon), she has a surprise for him. She's dating a new guy, and that guy turns out to be Mr. Woodcock. Mom insists that he's a sweet guy at heart, but John is not fooled, and knows that the guy is still making life miserable for children. Things get even worse when Woodcock proposes marriage, so John becomes determined to reveal the guy's true evil nature, and teams up with a fellow former student (Ethan Suplee) who also has a grudge against Woodcock to uncover whatever dirty secrets they can find.

I have often stated that any movie idea can work with the right approach, and Mr. Woodcock is no exception. There is a glimmer of opportunity in the film's premise. After all, who hasn't had a gym teacher (or any teacher, for that matter) who seemed to be out to get them? If you can honestly say you never had one, you're probably looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, or got hit in the head by one too many dodgeballs in class. The movie wastes every opportunity the premise gives it by playing the situations up so broadly and making the characters act so bizarre, they seem like they're from Planet X. John's mother comes across as completely insensitive, as she does not even once bring up her son's painful past with her future husband. You'd think she would remember the teacher that caused her son so much emotional trauma, he devoted his adult life to getting over it. But, she often acts completely clueless, and doesn't even seem to notice John's discomfort around him. She's not the only one, as everyone in town seems to be completely oblivious to the man's cruelty, and are even honoring him as "Educator of the Year", which is a lapse of logic that the film never overcomes. Then again, John never says anything either. This is an Idiot Plot movie where all the problems of the main character could be solved if he just said a couple words. Of course, the movie would be over a lot quicker this way, so John is forced to act like a complete moron as he races around town, trying to find dirty laundry on his mother's future husband, and getting into bizarre situations such as when he finds himself hiding under the very bed that Woodcock is using to have sex.

The central problem with the film is the fact that it is all concept and no execution. Watching the film, I got the sense that when this movie was pitched to the studio, they immediately thought of Billy Bob Thornton playing a sadistic gym teacher, and then pretty much stopped right there. It expects us to be amused with the very basics. Thornton does make a great, imposing bully, but the movie forgets to give him anything funny to do. Watching him verbally abuse people and physically abuse children is not amusing. It's not just Thornton's character either. There are many moments where the movie seems to be setting up a gag, but then does nothing with it. In one scene, John dips Woodcock's gym class whistle in a urine-soaked toilet. A couple minutes later, Woodcock uses the whistle, but nothing happens. There's no reaction from John, and there's absolutely nothing from Woodcock himself. The writers couldn't even be bothered to give us a payoff of any kind. I'm probably better off not seeing the payoff to that particular gag, but it at least would have been something. This happens a lot in this movie, unfortunately. We constantly see potential, but all we get is the set up. It gets even worse when the film's tone turns somewhat dramatic during its final moments, and asks us to genuinely care about these people. If Mr. Woodcock proves anything, it proves that it's impossible to care about characters who come across as oblivious, mean-spirited oddballs for 90% of the running time.

It's amazing that such a shallow, forgettable film has rounded up some genuine talent in its cast. What's even more amazing is that they actually seem to be trying, which means they somehow believed in this material. During the few scenes that they are required to act like human beings, Seann William Scott and Susan Sarandon have an almost sweet mother-son relationship. It's too bad that she's forced to act like an insensitive moron most of the time, and he's forced to act like a buffoon. Billy Bob Thornton has played this kind of gruff character in many other comedies, and could probably do this role in his sleep. While he never gets to break out and do anything memorable, I have to admit, he's believable as a menacing gym teacher from Hell. The only problem is he's not believable as a likable guy underneath his rough exterior, and when the movie tries to convince us of this, it falls completely on its face. The supporting cast come and go as the movie sees fit, and often seem to have no place in the story itself. There's a subplot concerning John possibly hooking up with a girl from school that he's always had a crush on, and is now working as a teacher. This is never resolved, and the movie seems to simply forget she was even there in the first place.
Mr. Woodcock is a movie that never goes far enough. It's not satirical enough, it's not smart enough, and it doesn't even seem to be confident enough to be funny. It just kind of sits there and dies right up there on the screen, as if it just doesn't care. The film has gone through numerous reshoots in the past two years, and has been moved around to different release dates in a futile attempt to save a doomed project. If the version I saw is the one the studio was happiest with, then I'd hate to see what this movie was originally like. Watching Mr. Woodcock, you get the sense that everyone involved put a lot of energy into a project that didn't deserve it in the first place.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Dragon Wars

In all my years of going to the movies, I have never seen anything quite like Dragon Wars. That's not a complement, by the way. This movie manages to combine uneven CG effects, acting so wooden I wanted to check if the performers even had a pulse, and a story so incoherent and rushed I have my suspicions that even the actors didn't know what they were talking about when they were reciting the lines. And yet, this movie held me under a spell of perverse fascination. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, and I also couldn't look away. Like only the best of train wreck movies, you have to watch Dragon Wars just to see how it's going to screw up next. It never lets you down in that department, at least.

The plot kicks off with a scale-shaped object being discovered under the ruins of a destroyed building. A reporter on the scene named Ethan (Jason Behr from Skinwalkers) recognizes the design of the object, and flashes back to when he was a little boy visiting an antique shop with his dad. The owner of the shop was a loopy old man (Robert Forster) that told Ethan that he was the reincarnation of a great warrior from 500 years ago, who fell in love with a girl who was tired to a great dragon because of a birthmark on her shoulder. The story concerns ancient prophecies, evil demon warriors, giant monsters, martial arts, and just about every fantasy film cliche you can think of, but doesn't make much sense. Throw in the fact that we're watching a flashback while the old man is talking while we're already in the middle of Ethan's flashback, and it gets even more comical. Back in the present, Ethan believes this object has something to do with the prophecy from long ago, and he has to find the reincarnated form of the woman he fought to protect centuries ago. That woman is Sarah (Amanda Brooks), and she has no idea of her destiny until giant dragon monsters start chasing her on the street in broad daylight, and an evil robed man starts pursuing her. If Sarah is not able to perform her pre-destined duty, the evil army of darkness and its dragons will take over the city of Los Angeles, and eventually the world.

At least, that's my best guess as to what Dragon Wars is supposed to be about. The truth of the matter is, this movie speeds through its plot with the ferocity of a runaway train. Unfortunately, it tells its story with all the grace and confidence of an elephant on roller skates. Half the time, I didn't know what was going on or why I was supposed to care, and quite frankly, I don't think writer-director Hyung-rae Shim knew either. He eventually stops even trying to tell a story, and just gives us one special effects set piece after another, where the dragons and/or an army of armored soldiers who seemingly appear out of nowhere lay waste to the city. So many plots are introduced, and then thrown to the way side, I started to wonder if it was being made up on the set as the filmmakers went along. That would certainly explain some of my many questions about this movie. Questions like, where the hell were the characters supposed to be in the climax? It looked like Mount Doom from the Lord of the Rings trilogy crossed with the Temple of Doom, but no explanation is given as to what it's supposed to be, or how the characters got there in the first place. And how does a massive dragon creature tear through a suburban neighborhood after our heroes, destroying houses, but not one single person seems to notice it? How does a 19-year-old girl buy a drink at a bar without any problem, unless their name is Lindsay Lohan? How does this same girl go from a police station, to her bedroom, to a hospital in less than ten minutes? I could probably fill up this entire review asking questions about this movie's plot, so I'll quit while I'm ahead.

Beyond the story, which gives new meaning to the phrase "Idiot Plot", there's even more to consider. I've seen some of these actors in other films, so why does everyone involved perform like they've never acted in their entire lives? Everyone is so deadpan and emotionless, it's like watching a movie performed entirely by a cast of Pod People. Of course, it would probably help if somebody was able to play someone resembling a character. Everybody's too busy racing around, avoiding the special effects monsters, they never get a chance to slow down and say more than two words. The special effects themselves are another matter entirely. Since the film devotes 80% of its time to the dragons attacking people and the city, you'd think they would have the common decency to make the creatures not look like video game characters that have been clumsily added into the live action footage. To be fair, there are some effect shots that look passable, but for the most part, the visuals are not worth the trouble it takes to watch this movie from beginning to end. The only way this movie could be entertaining is with witty friends, a lot of alcoholic beverages, and the opportunity to just rip on it the whole way through. Actually, the movie does a pretty good job on its own of ridiculing itself, so maybe that wouldn't even work.
I think it's quite fair to say we'll never see a movie like Dragon Wars hitting the big screen again. There are bad movies, and then there are movies so bad that they kind of reach an entirely different level. It's the kind of movie you'll share with friends, but not for the kind of reasons you usually talk about movies with your friends. You'll laugh as you think back on it, you'll shake your head, and then you'll probably never think about it again. At the very least, this film should give great hope to young filmmakers the world over. If Dragon Wars can wind up with a full-scale theatrical run, there's hope for you yet.

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