Reel Opinions


Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Number 23

What were they thinking? That's the question I kept on asking myself while watching The Number 23. What was star Jim Carrey thinking when he thought he could carry a psychological thriller? What was first-time screenwriter Fernley Phillips thinking when he wrote this? Did no one involved with this project stop director Joel Schumacher (The Phantom of the Opera) and tell him the script didn't make a lick of sense? Apparently not, because The Number 23 is now playing at a theater near you. This sorry excuse for a thriller (which, truth be told, isn't very thrilling to start with) is an exercise in concept over execution and style over substance. We have some good ideas and some good images thanks to cinematographer Matthew Libatique (The Fountain), but nothing on the script or storytelling level to back them up. All this movie gives us is a horribly miscast Jim Carrey trying way too hard to convince us his character is nuts, and not much else.

When animal control officer Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) is given a ratty old self-published book called "The Number 23" by his wife (Virginia Madsen, in her second bland supportive wife role in one weekend) for his birthday, how could he possibly realize the effect it would have on him? The book itself is a murder story about a detective named Fingerling who slowly is driven to madness by the number 23, and how it can be related to different historic and tragic dates as well as other aspects in everyday life. As he reads, Walter finds the character of Fingerling shares a vast number of similarities to his own life, and before too long, truth begins to mimic fiction as Walter becomes obsessed with finding the number 23 in just about everything. He begins to have terrifying nightmares and visions of murder, just like the character in the book. As his grip on reality and sanity weakens, Walter's only choice is to try to find out the real identity behind the author's pen name (The book is credited to someone named "Topsy Kretts", and if you don't get the joke, try saying the name slowly.) and find out just how the book's writer knows so much about him and how he can stop the tragic events in the story from happening to him in real life.

I realize I've just made the movie sound a lot simpler than it really is. That's because there's really not a whole lot for us to grasp while watching The Number 23. Director Joel Schumacher tries to trick us into thinking the movie has substance with a clever "movie within a movie" format. Whenever the character of Walter reads the book, the film switches to a noir crime drama with Carrey playing the role of the tortured detective, and Madsen playing his doomed lover. This is supposed to help strengthen the whole "reality mirroring fiction" theme, but really, it never actually goes anywhere. Aside from how beautifully shot some of the sequences are, the scenes related to the book itself don't really add up to much, and seem to exist simply to distract us from the fact that there's not much going on in the film's actual storyline. Most of the central story centers on the character of Walter reading, being haunted by a mysterious dog who keeps on popping up in strange places and leading him to a cemetery and a certain grave for reasons we don't find out until late in the film, and slowly going crazy as he becomes obsessed with the number 23, and how it relates to different dates and even people's names. Most of Walter's scenes boil down to him running around, his eyes bugged out, as he scribbles different equations and formulas on the walls and even his arms, all equaling 23. Then his teenage son gets in on the act, and the two start trying to dig for the truth. Most of these scenes don't make a lot of sense, and simply leave us feeling frustrated as we wait for the answers to be revealed. And when the answers finally are shown to us, we have to sit through almost a half hour of explanation, as if the movie has decided it's toyed with us long enough, now it's going to over-explain every little detail.

The movie is rich in atmosphere, but honestly can't think of a single thing to do with them. Murder stories mimicking real life, abandoned insane asylums that hold secrets of the past (located in conveniently located files for the characters to stumble on with little difficulty), digging up hidden graves hoping to find clues...This is all worn material to be sure, but it could still work with the right approach. The screenplay is such a jumbled mess that it can't even generate the slightest bit of tension, let alone think of a reason for us to care. The characters are so poorly developed that we find ourselves wondering what they see in each other. Why does Walter's wife seem so calm and understanding around him when he starts going crazy? Why does the old man they corner in the shipping office kill himself with a knife when they confront him with the book? Why is Walter's son so willing and eager to go along with his dad's madness and agree to go along for the ride, not seeming to care that pop is acting a little too obsessed? All good questions, none of them answered to any degree of satisfaction in the film's half-baked screenplay. The movie just keeps on chugging away, pretending that its interesting and mind-bending, while we're left wondering just who the filmmakers thought they were fooling when they made this. The film's many red herrings and twists have no effect on us, because there's nothing for us to care about in the first place.

I have often admired Jim Carrey's dramatic efforts in films like The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In The Number 23, he almost seems to be lost and a bit confused. When his character (or characters) start to dip into madness, he can't help mugging for the camera a little, bringing forth some unintentional laughs from the audience. He's not exactly bad otherwise, but he never truly convinces or gets to create a memorable character. Both his Walter and his Fingerling characters are just hollow shells that could have been filled by any actor. Carrey brings nothing to either role that any other semi-talented actor could bring. Virginia Madsen is rather nondescript as his wife, as is Logan Lerman as his teenaged son. The script simply casts them adrift in a pair of thankless roles that they cannot breathe any life into. That seems to be a common problem for every character who enters the film. It's as if when Phillips was writing the script, he wrote down the most basic aspects then stopped there. Maybe he thought the cleverness of the story would pull him through. Too bad the plot and the storytelling isn't quite as smart as he thinks it is.
The Number 23 is a dumb and annoying psychological thriller that manages to be neither psychological or thrilling. It simply wastes our time, and when it's over, we feel a little angrier and a little more depressed because of it. It's strange that the character of Walter spends most of the film adding everything up, when nothing in the movie itself manages to add up to much of anything. We're not excited, we're not engaged, and we're left to simply wait for the answers to come so we can go home and put the movie behind us. The movie doesn't seem to want to do anything but waste a perfectly good premise. If that was the intention all along, then I congratulate the filmmakers. Call me old fashioned for wanting something more.

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The Astronaut Farmer

Don't tell me the plot is utter nonsense. Don't tell me the movie itself is completely ludicrous and stretches all realms of believability to the breaking point. That would ruin the spell that The Astronaut Farmer puts its audience under. The movie is utterly ridiculous, and yet it works, because the actors up there on the screen make us believe. That's a hard thing to accomplish, especially with your usually jaded audience. This is one of those movies where you start rolling your eyes, but sooner or later, you actually find yourself wrapped up in the story. The thought that the whole thing is nonsense never leaves your mind, but you just don't care anymore.

Hard working ranch owner Charlie Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) has had more than his share of setbacks in his life, but has never lost sight of his dream to go into outer space. He got close to his dream once back when he was in the military, but he was discharged and never got to go. Charlie eventually decided that if the government wasn't going to send him into space, he'd just have to send himself. For the past couple years, he has been building an actual working rocket in the barn. You would think that building a space shuttle would most certainly cause a rift in Charlie's family life, but his loving wife Audrey (Virginia Madsen) supports him every step of the way, as do his three sweet children (Max Thieriot, Jasper Polish and Logan Polish). Naturally, most of the town thinks the guy's nuts, and when Charlie's story becomes national news, the world stars to add their own two cents. With the rocket set to launch any day, more setbacks pop up in the form of government officials who start trying to bully Charlie into aborting the launch, and the local bank that is threatening to foreclose on their house because of the massive amount of debt that he has built in pursuing his dream.

Obviously, one needs to keep an open mind while watching The Astronaut Farmer. You have to be willing to believe that not only would a man attempt something like this, but he could apparently do it in a very short time. (At one point of the film, Charlie and his family seem to build an actual working space shuttle in just a couple weeks.) Director Michael Polish, who co-wrote the film with his twin brother, Mark Polish, were obviously inspired by the simpler films and stories of yesterday where all a man needed was a dream and people who supported that dream in order to succeed. The movie has an almost Frank Capra tone, and it's present almost from the very beginning. The story looks to be set in the real world, but in a kinder, gentler version of it where everyone seems a heck of a lot happier. Even the government agents (the closest thing this movie has to an antagonist) are not really all that bad when you get right down to it, and actually seem to be quite impressed with Farmer's efforts behind his back. The movie has such a sweet and innocent look on things that you're almost glad that the film is lost in its own fantasy, as the slightest bit of reality would send everything crashing and burning. The Astronaut Farmer is total escapism in every sense of the word. At first, I found it's endlessly optimistic look at things cheesy and hopelessly outdated. Then I slowly started to realize that the optimism was the whole point. That a movie as innocent as this can get made by a major studio is quite an achievement. That it can also work is another achievement all together.

A big part of what makes it work is that for all of its loopy plotting and white-washed view of the world, the movie never fails to let us relate on a basic level with the characters. Who hasn't had a dream that seemed crazy? Who hasn't thought about actually doing it, not caring what the naysayers tell you? My guess is that when you are faced with one of these situations, you take the advice of the naysayers and don't go after it. I know I have many of times. This is a movie about dreamers, and the way it talks about dreams is honest and truthful. When the character of Charlie Farmer stands before the stern and grumpy government officials, and pleads his case to continue with his dream, it is a wonderful moment because the character is not just talking about his dream but everyone's. He talks about how when we are children, we are told we can be whatever we want to be. When we get older, we're told to lower our standards and accept reality. There's an old saying about how if everyone followed their dreams they had as children, there would be a whole lot more firemen, doctors, and astronauts in the world. This is a movie that takes that idea and literally runs with it. The movie is also wise to sometimes show that the pursuit of a dream can lead to problems. Even though Charlie's wife stands behind him, she finds herself questioning if her husband is destroying everything they have for the sake of single-minded goal when she learns that the bank is threatening to foreclose. The characters have their moments of weakness, but they never truly sway from their goal. This is a movie that shows not only how to rise above those problems, but to make yourself believe that you can.

Having recently been typecast as antiheros in films such as School For Scoundrels, The Ice Harvest and Bad Santa, it's almost refreshing to see Billy Bob Thornton playing such a likeable character this time around. That's not to say he doesn't get to show a little bit of a bad side, as he does throw a brick through the window of the bank when he receives their threatening letter. But, he's got this charm that he displays throughout the film that it's easy to see why the entire town seems to like him even if some of them think he's more than a little crazy. He plays the role of Charlie Farmer mainly straight, which helps us believe that the guy is serious in his dream and his goals. As his loving wife, Virginia Madsen is good, even if she could probably play this kind of role in her sleep as it doesn't really give her anything to do but stick up for her husband and look at him with love. There are a couple fun supporting performances, such as Bruce Dern as Madsen's father, Tim Blake Nelson as Charlie's friend and lawyer, and J.K. Simmons (best known for playing Peter Parker's cigar-chomping boss in the Spider-Man films) as the head of the naysayers trying to sway Charlie from his dream of launching. The entire cast is able to keep up with the tone of never ending good cheer that the movie itself releases in each scene, so they never seem out of place.
The Astronaut Farmer is a movie that fought an uphill battle with me the entire time I was watching it. I started out scoffing at it and it's hopelessly cheerful tone, but then I started to lower my guard and get wrapped up in the silliness of it all. There's a method to the madness here. The filmmakers know that this is not a movie you're supposed to take seriously. You're just supposed to surrender to the silliness and let the movie take you where it takes you. That's something a lot of movies ask me to do, and something that few are able to accomplish. By the time Charlie was actually blasting off into orbit, I found myself smiling. And by the time I was heading home, I was thinking back on all the things I used to dream about when I was younger. The movie had done it's job, so I'm giving it a recommendation. It may not work for everyone, since you definitely have to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy it. All I know is when it was over, the movie had won the battle and I had surrendered to it.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Reno 911: Miami

It's easy to tell that Reno 911: Miami is based on a TV series just by watching it. How can you tell? There's maybe 25 minutes or so of solid material, and an additional 60 worth of filler. In bringing the Comedy Central half hour "reality" cop show to the big screen, you get the sense that actors and screenwriters Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (Night at the Museum, Let's Go to Prison) along with fellow co-star and writer Kerri Kenney, had a hard time trying to stretch the thing out. The show itself is often quite funny, and the movie works when it's remaining close in spirit to the TV series. But then they have to go and throw in a silly plot and a series of celebrity cameos that take us out of the movie. I laughed a number of times at Reno 911, but those laughs are surrounded by spaces of dead weight that go on too long.

The TV series that inspired the film follows a group of incompetent cops as a camera trails behind them, documentary-style, during their various misadventures throughout Reno, Nevada. The film takes them out of Nevada and into Florida, where they have been invited to attend a police convention in Miami. (They only got invited because every police force got in.) They arrive for some fun in the sun, only to discover a bioterrorist act unfolding at the convention center itself, which has trapped every single police officer inside. Since the cops of Reno are the only available officers not inside the building when the situation kicks in, these eight dim-witted enforcers of the law must literally become the entire Miami Police Force, keeping peace in the city while trying to find out who is behind the chemical attack at the convention center. Other subplots include the Reno officers trying to deal with an evil Scarface-like drug lord (Paul Rudd) who keeps on threatening them, and discovering the truth behind a mysterious tattoo of a man's face that has appeared on the breast of one of the female officers after a night of sex and binge drinking.

When Reno 911: Miami is following the Cops-style reality show format, the movie can be a lot of good fun. The opening scenes where the eight individual officers are introduced, and the scenes where we get to see them on the job and dealing with situations such as a chicken that got loose made me smile and laugh quite a bit. The actors are at ease during these moments, and they're obviously having a lot of fun. Then the whole plot has to kick in, and the movie just doesn't seem as much fun as it did before. Reno 911 has never exactly been about plot, it's always been a series of mostly improvised skits skewering reality cop shows. While the movie does try to hold onto this format, giving us some various misadventures around Florida that have nothing to do with the biochemical plot, they don't seem as fresh or as funny as the Reno scenes early on. A lot of this has to do with the fact that a lot of the gags are either anti-climactic or have no real pay off. A scene halfway through where two of the Reno cops visit a rapper's mansion to act on a noise complaint they have received, and try to break up a wild party seems like a lot of wasted opportunity. The set up for the joke of these two guys being out of their league is established, but the pay off is disappointing. This happens a lot in this film. We see the set up, but the reward we get is less than we expect. That's not to say that there are not some gags that work. A scene where the cops have to remove a beached whale from a topless beach had me laughing quite a bit, and the pay off involving an explosive device is one of the few that actually lives up to its set up and earns its laugh. More often than not, though, we either find ourselves smiling politely at the effort the actors are making, or simply staring at the screen with casual indifference to what we are seeing.

The movie seems to suffer from an identity crisis, as it doesn't know if it wants to be a series of skits and gross out gags, or if it wants to attempt to try to tell an actual story and parody action movies. It never finds a central tone or target for satire, and seems to change its mind every five minutes. This gives the film an annoyingly disjointed tone from which it never recovers. The celebrity cameos sprinkled throughout also don't work the way that they should, as they take us out of the movie. We're no longer watching a comic "mockumentary" making fun of cop shows, but we're watching a highly paid actor taking a cut on his paycheck for the sake of getting a quick laugh from the audience. To be fair, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's cameo as a hard-nosed supercop is pretty funny, but others, including Danny DeVito (who also is one of the producers of the film), are more distracting than amusing. I liked the scenes where the Reno cops took center stage, and were being their usual incompetent selves the best. It's fun watching these improvisational comics (many of whom have worked together for years on other TV shows) play off of each other and just be goofy. But Reno 911 wants to keep on reminding us that we're watching a movie, and the good stuff keeps on getting drowned out by uninspired gags or unnecessary plot. I know it is usually the custom that when a TV show is brought to the big screen, you have to do everything bigger and grander. This time, I think less would have been more.
I certainly don't regret seeing Reno 911, and I think fans of the show probably won't either. However, the inconsistent tone and the uneven ratio of hit and miss gags don't leave a positive impression overall. At the very least, the movie is smart enough not to wear out its welcome. It literally flies by at a very breezy 85 minutes that only seemed to last barely an hour. You watch the movie, you laugh a little, you smile a lot, and then it's over and you move on with your life, not really thinking much of what you've just seen. Maybe this would have worked better as a regular half hour episode with all the filler, celebrity cameos and silly plot removed. The cast certainly seems more comfortable with a shorter amount of time to work in. That way, they don't have to compete with a bunch of stuff that shouldn't even be there in the first place.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Breach

Well here we are, only in February, and we've already got our first strong candidate as one of the great films of 2007. Great movies can sometimes come early in the year (My pick for best film of last year, United 93, came out in April.), but seldom if ever do they hit during the dreary days of February. That's what makes Breach so special. This is such a tight and suspenseful spy drama that it almost seems to be too good for this time of the year. The performances are certainly too good, and that's a real shame, as they most likely will not be recognized at the 2008 Oscars because this movie came out so early. I don't know what Universal is thinking, other than they wanted to relase the movie on the anniverary of the actual event, but I'm glad they're releasing a strong alternative to the junk that usually fills theater screens this time of year.

On Sunday, February 18th, 2001 (exactly six years to this weekend), veteran government agent Robert Hanssen was arrested for selling US secrets to foreign enemies. On the surface, Hanssen was an intelligent and pious man. He was deeply rooted in his religious beliefs, loved his family, and although he was outspoken about what he thought was wrong with the Bureau, he was seen by his fellow agents as a man of great intellect. There was another side to Hanssen, however. The side that willingly sold government secrets, cost the lives of many, and jeopardized his nation for his own financial gain. The film covers the final few months in Hanssen's career. In the film, he is portrayed by Chris Cooper in an Oscar-worthy performance. He has recently been reassigned to a new department, and has been given a young FBI upstart named Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe) to work under him. What Hanssen does not know is that Eric has been assigned to monitor him, as the agency has reason to believe that Robert is the mole that has been leaking US Intelligence secrets out. The head of the internal investigation, Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), does not tell this to Eric at first. Eric initially thinks that he is monitoring Hanssen because he is believed to be a sexual deviant. The two men slowly build a bond, and the more Eric learns about Robert, the harder it is to believe that such a loving family man could be a deviant. When he eventually learns the truth behind the investigation, the situation turns even more difficult for young Eric, as he must not only lie to the man he has come to respect in order to throw suspicion off that he knows the truth of his misdeeds, but he must also lie to his live-in girlfriend back at home (Caroline Dhavernas) in order to protect her.

At its very core, Breach is a simple story elegantly told. This is not a mystery or a who done it, as we already know that Hanssen is the villain from the opening scene. We also know what will happen to him from the beginning, as the film opens with a short archival news footage concerning the official announcement of Hanssen's arrest. It is not the destination that is the focus of Breach, but rather, it is the journey itself. This is a story about two men, and the power struggle that they secretly hold while trying to maintain the image of a working and eventual personal relationship. Robert Hanssen is a man who likes to preach, talk about what's wrong with the Bureau and the world itself, and basically views religion as the most important aspect in a man's life. He enjoys testing people to see if they meet his moral standards, and always seems to be keeping a watchful eye over everyone he comes in contact with. Of course, by the time the film begins, he's been selling secrets for years, and probably has come to learn that it's best not to really trust anyone in his line of work. Eric is a much more fresh-faced and naive young man. He's good at what he does, but he also makes mistakes, or doubts himself. He is stuck in a situation where he is forced to lie to both the man he works for and the woman he loves in order to keep his true mission a secret. This obviously takes a great toll on O'Neill, and we can see it begin to wear on him during the course of the film. It certainly doesn't help that he is working for a man who is considered one of the smartest men in the agency, and is famous for sniffing out people who don't tell the truth. Both men specialize in lying in their jobs, but one of them has been doing it longer than the other, and knows how to draw the truth out of others while hiding his own personal truth from those around him. Eric must find various ways to lead Robert on that he knows nothing about what he's doing in private, and this is what creates the suspense in the film. Even though we know what the outcome will be, the movie is great at establishing tension as Eric must think and talk fast to get out of situations or risk having his cover blown.

It is perhaps no surprise that the film's director and co-writer is Billy Ray, who previously directed the criminally under seen Shattered Glass. That was another film that dealt with hidden truths, people who specialized in deception to cover that truth, and how those lies can slowly destroy a person. Both films center around people who are forced to lie on their job, and how they deal with it. Eric, the main character in Breach, is a much more sympathetic figure than Stephen Glass (the central figure in Ray's previous directorial effort), but they are not that different at the core. They both go to great lengths in order to keep the truth hidden from the people they are working for, and they are both slowly consumed by the lies that they tell. The difference here is that Eric is lying to protect his country, where as Stephen Glass lied for his own personal fame and glory. The lies that Eric O'Neill tells Hanssen are a necessary evil, but the effect on him is the same as it would be for anyone forced to live a lie both on and off the job. His girlfriend feels as if his job is consuming his life, and Hanssen's icy and sometimes disbelieving stares seem to cut right through him. This creates a strange relationship between the two men where they constantly seem to be struggling for control. They are both struggling not to let their personal secrets be discovered, and they are also both struggling for respect from one another. Eric wants Robert to trust him, while Robert wants Eric to respect him as a senior. The tension between the two builds until it finally explodes in a memorable confrontation late one night in a city park. As the two men yell at each other about trust, we can see in their eyes that they are both hiding the truth from one another. Maybe they both see it as well, but are afraid to admit it.

If Breach is a film about the journey rather than the destination, than it is the performances that make it a journey worth taking. Chris Cooper has been a long-time favorite of mine, and quite frankly, he's never been as good as he has been here. He finds the right amount of sympathy and cool menace in his portrayal of Robert Hanssen that manages to draw us in. It is a fascinating and complex character, with an equally fascinating and complex performance to go along with it. We can see why Eric would initially doubt that Robert is guilty of any wrong doing, but at the same time, there is a certain something about him that does not seem right, something dangerous yet subtle. I have a strong hunch that this will be one of the great performances of the year, and I can only hope that the narrow minded Oscar voters (who usually can only think as far back as November of the previous year) will give this portrayal the honor that it deserves. Ryan Phillippe does not exactly grab our attention like Cooper does, but he is no less excellent in his own way. He is able to keep up with his co-star's performance every step of the way, and believably portrays a man caught in a situation where he must do wrong in order to do the right thing. Also memorable is Laura Linney as the head of the investigation into Hanssen's actions. Her performance brings an aura of instant authority, and her dry and sarcastic wit makes for some much needed comic relief to help ease the tension of the film itself every once in a while. These are three terrific performances, and they help make Breach an extremely enjoyable experience to watch.
When Robert Hanssen was finally caught on that Sunday six years ago, he had become the most infamous mole and traitor in US history. Breach is a fascinating and riveting look into the final days of the man's career. It wisely does not try to explain his actions, or try to make us understand why Hanssen did what he did. It is simply a fascinating look at the man, and the relationship he held with the young Eric O'Neill. This is very tight and suspenseful filmmaking, something you usually don't get to experience around this time of the year. From the performances, to the strong cinematography by Tak Fujimoto, all the way to the subtle yet effective music score by Mychael Danna, the film rarely takes a wrong step and earns your attention almost right from the beginning. What a fascinating and unexpected gem this movie turned out to be.

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Ghost Rider

Here is one of the silliest and goofiest movies to come along in many a moon. Ghost Rider is a movie that looks like the sketchbook drawings of a high school boy's artbook combined with an explosion at the special effects factory. Grotesque ghouls, flaming skeleton people, demons, souped up motorcycles that leave a trail of fire in their path, and the Devil are just some of the images the movie throws at its audience, not really slowing down to explain just what the heck it is that we're looking at. To it's credit, the movie doesn't even try to take itself seriously, and writer-director Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil) does try to give the film a light and slightly humorous feel to go along with the silliness of the plot itself. Unfortunately, the humor on display isn't very funny, and we find ourselves rolling our eyes more than laughing, and laughing when we're not supposed to be. Ghost Rider is a movie that seems to be going out of its way to be a lot of silly fun, but a key ingredient is missing, and that is a little bit of coherency to go along with the silliness.

Based on a Marvel Comics character from the early 70s, Ghost Rider tells the story of a motorcycle stuntman named Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage). And no, that's not a stage name, that's the guy's real name. With a name like Johnny Blaze, of course he's going to be a stuntman. Either that, or a porn star. Years ago, Johnny made a deal with the Devil, who turns out to be Peter Fonda. (I knew it all along!) The deal that was made was that Johnny would give the Devil his soul in order to save his father's life, who was dying of Cancer at the time. The deal was made, but what Johnny didn't know was that after his dad's Cancer was cured, the Devil would cause dear old dad to die in a stunt accident. The Devil promised he'd come back one day to collect on Johnny's half of the bargain. When the story finally kicks off, that day is today. Johnny finds out he's a mere pawn in the Devil's grand plan, and that he's now forced to work for him as some kind of Satanic bounty hunter called the Ghost Rider. Every night, Johnny now turns into a demonic biker with a flaming skull for a head, who literally looks like he walked off of some 1980s heavy metal record cover, and rides around on a super powered demonic motorcycle. The Devil charges Ghost Rider with the task to track down his demonic son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley, who is a long way from American Beauty here). It seems Blackheart has buddied up with a small group of slacker demons, and they're looking for some kind of scroll that holds so many evil souls that whoever possesses it could rule the world. With the Devil literally breathing down his neck to get the job done, Johnny has to find a way to live with his curse, and still try to lead a normal life during the day, especially since an old flame named Roxanne (Eva Mendes) is back in town.

At least that's the best I can gather as to what the plot was supposed to be. The point is, Ghost Rider is not a very story-driven movie. It is instead driven by special effects where CG demons and monsters lurk around every frame. The movie is so fast paced, and so content to throw as many special effects shots and motorcycle stunts as it can in its nearly two hour time frame that the audience is kind of left wondering what we're supposed to be looking at. As soon as Johnny Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider, the movie goes full tilt, not even bothering to explain his powers or what he's supposed to be. Johnny turns into the Rider, and then immediately races off to battle demons and street thugs. We get scenes where the Ghost Rider rides his bike up the side of skyscrapers, lassos helicopters with his magical chain-like weapon, speeds down streets on his bike, leaving a trail of fire behind him, and forces bad guys to look into his eyes so that they can see all of their past misdeeds. That last part particularly confused me. Ghost Rider seems to have the ability to peer deep into the souls of evil doers, and make them feel the pain of their past victims. The effect is pulled off by having the screen fill with CG fire, while a bunch of incoherent images and screaming flashes before our eyes. The movie then shows the villain having his eyes turn into a charred black substance, then the Ghost Rider drops them to the ground and walks away. Is the bad guy dead? What exactly just happened? What's with the eyeball thing? The movie never really explains. The fact that it doesn't make a lot of sense is curious, because the movie comes equipped with its own Narrator, a character who exists solely to explain the film's backstory and the history of Ghost Rider to Johnny and to the audience. The Narrator comes in the form of an old cemetery caretaker played by Sam Elliott. He has no real character, he simply exists to clue us in as to what all of this means in every scene he's in. He doesn't do a very good job, as I still felt sort of lost.

A superhero movie is only as good as its villain, and in this department, Ghost Rider comes up very short. The film's main villain, Blackheart, is largely uninteresting, and seems to only possess the ability to kill people by having their skin turn a sickly blueish-gray color, then fall over dead just by touching them. Did he steal their soul? Did he just give them a rare deadly skin disease? Once again, the movie never explains. It's disappointing that this seems to be his only power, since you'd think the son of the Devil would be a lot more powerful than that. If I was the son of Satan, and that was my only power, I'd be crying foul. He hangs out with a small group of demons who are equally disappointing, as they seem to be dispatched by the Ghost Rider in about a minute or less. If you're going to surround yourself with lackeys, surround yourself with ones that can at least last a minute in a fight when your dad sends a burning skull demon on a motorcycle after you. We never get to really know much about Blackheart's plan to begin with, other than the standard "I want to rule the world" excuse. The movie hints that there's some sort of father-son rivalry going on, but this is never really touched upon in any detail. With so many demons battling each other, there's bound to be some cool action sequences, right? If only wishing made it so. What we get are some highly anticlimactic sequences where Ghost Rider dispatches the bad guys without even breaking a sweat. The movie can't be forced to raise the tiniest bit of tension for its hero. The film sets up a number of action sequences that look like they could lead to something exciting, only to give us absolutely nothing. A scene where Johnny Blaze is thrown into prison and escapes as the Ghost Rider is strangely lacking in anything resembling excitement. He simply walks out of the prison with little to no opposition whatsoever, and doesn't even come across a police officer until he's already outside of the building. Not even the car chase scenes where the police try to chase down Ghost Rider with their cars can drum up much adrenalin. If you have a movie where your star is a demon with a flaming skull for a head, and you can't think of anything exciting to happen to him, your script has problems.

The scenes dealing with Johnny Blaze unfortunately do not hold up much better, since we never really learn much about the guy. He likes jellybeans, he's held a long-time flame for the girlfriend he was forced to walk away from after making the deal with the Devil, and that's about it. Nicholas Cage's performance doesn't really help attach us emotionally to the character, as his portrayal seems to be strangely subdued and indifferent, as if he doesn't care much about what's going on around him. I would say that he probably knew he was stuck with a bad script, but according to some reports, he actually worked as an uncredited ghost writer (no pun intended) on the script itself! Cage is apparently a big fan of the comic character, but none of this love shows through in his performance or in any of the scenes and dialogue he supposedly helped with. His character's relationship with Roxanne is equally uninspired. Eva Mendes is beautiful, but is stuck with a very shallow character who doesn't really play a large role in the story, other than to be kidnapped by Blackheart near the end. The screenplay obviously wants to try to portray Roxanne as an independent and smart woman, but it doesn't work, because we never learn anything about her other than that she's a reporter for a local news team. We never get a sense of the real relationship between the two, because they spend almost every scene together arguing or teasing each other, except for the climax where they battle the forces of darkness together. Ah, love. The only performance in the film that comes close to actually trying is Sam Elliott, and that's only because he's got a certain cool charm that he brings to his character. Pity that he only exists to tell us the story. If the character had been developed more, he could have been interesting.
Ghost Rider tries so hard to be cool. In fact, it tries too hard. You get the sense that Mark Steven Johnson was giggling uncontrollably as he wrote a lot of this stuff into the script, and probably had grand visions of this being one badass movie. Apparently, the studio had similar aspirations, as this was originally intended to be a big summer movie last year. Then it got pushed back to February of this year, which is never a good sign for a special effects movie. The studio claimed it got pushed back because the effects needed more work, and they wanted to add more of them. If this is so, then why does the Ghost Rider himself look about as convincing as a video game character? We never believe that he's a character, since he looks like a CG cartoon mixing with human actors. Ghost Rider could have been a lot of fun, but in the end, it just doesn't come together. We walk out unimpressed, wondering a whole bunch of questions, and thinking to ourselves that we just saw a whole lot of spirit and energy put into a whole lot of nothing.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia

In bringing the beloved children's novel, Bridge to Terabithia, to the big screen, director Gabor Csupo (best known for his work on TV cartoons like Rugrats and The Simpsons, making his live action feature film debut here) has made a controversial decision that has divided many fans of the book. He has given us a visual representation of the magical land of Terabithia, a world that exists only in the minds of its young heroes in the novel. Of course, it's not his fault that the Walt Disney Studios has decided to focus their entire marketing on this one aspect of the film. This sequence, which takes up maybe 10 minutes of the film's entire running time, has become the entire emphasis of the film's ad campaign in an attempt to lure in kids who want to see another Chronicles of Narnia, where kids discover a magical land and go on fantastic adventures. The film itself is actually a coming of age story, and one that deserves to sit side-by-side with other classics such as Stand By Me and Man in the Moon. This is a miraculous little film that will not be forgotten anytime soon by anyone who watches it, young and old alike. It is unflinchingly honest about childhood fears, and above all else, it is highly entertaining.

The film is set in a small farm community where our preteen hero, Jesse "Jess" Aarons (Josh Hutcherson from R.V. and Zathura) is stuck in a rather mundane childhood where no one seems to understand him. His parents (Robert Patrick and Katrina Cerio) are facing financial problems, and can't even afford to give Jesse new running sneakers, so they have to give him one of his sisters' old hand me down shoes. (He colors the pink shoes black with a marker in a futile attempt to avoid embarrassment from the school bullies.) Speaking of sisters, he's got four of them to compete with for attention from his parents. School isn't much better with strict teachers and numerous bullies targeting him. On the first day of the new school year, Jesse meets the new kid who has recently moved into the house near his family home, the tomboyish and imaginative Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The two have a rather shaky first meeting, where Jesse is faced with the ultimate humiliation of being beaten by a girl when Leslie outruns him during a foot race the boys hold during recess. He is eventually able to put aside his embarrassment, and see Leslie as a friend as the days go by. The two begin to frequent an area of the woods near Jesse's home, where they combine their imaginations to create a mystical kingdom called Terabithia - A place where they are in control, and the worries and problems of school and the real world cannot reach them. As their fantasy grows, Jesse finds himself becoming stronger in the real world, using the lessons he's learned from Leslie and their kingdom to confront his real problems.

To reveal anymore of Bridge to Terabithia's premise would be a crime, so I shall stop there for those who have not read the original story by Katherine Paterson. Those of you who have will be relieved to know that this is a very accurate and faithful retelling of the story that not only follows the novel's story arc, but also understands the heart behind the story that has made it so memorable. Much like last December's Charlotte's Web film, the film is able to capture the essence of the story without being so slavishly faithful that it feels like they copied every last word into the screenplay. A lot of this most likely has to do with the fact that one of the film's two writers is David Paterson, who is not only the son of the original author, but was also the inspiration for the story itself after he went through an incident when he was very young. The screenplay is quiet and laid back, but it is also truthful and honest. The film is set in that very special time with children when a boy and a girl can be friends without any other thoughts coming between them. Sticks of Juicy Fruit gum can be used as a peace offering. And having Twinkies in your lunch are not only a valuable treasure, but a treasure that must be protected from others who want it for themselves. I smiled a lot while watching this movie, mainly out of familiarity. If you had any sort of a real childhood where a battered old treehouse could be a magical fortress, you will most likely smile a lot as well. But, this movie has much more than nostalgia working in its favor. This is a beautiful story of friendship, and the way it is told is equally beautiful. The way that the film mixes both the joys and sorrows of childhood in a realistic yet sensitive way, so as not to confuse or frighten younger viewers, is masterful. The bullies are menacing, and not comical dunces, just like in real life. Living in a house with multiple siblings is often a trial as you compete for attention, and for your own privacy. Most importantly, the film's third act, which covers a great change in Jesse's life, is handled with true poignancy instead of forced melodrama, which truly allows you to feel for the character.

Whenever you put kids at the center of your movie, especially one that deals with some difficult themes, the casting has to be spot on. Fortunately, this is the case for Bridge to Terabithia. Josh Hutcherson has already proven himself as being one of the brighter child actors working today in films like Little Manhattan, and as Jesse Aarons, he has found his best role yet. It is a difficult role for a child, where he is forced to run through a large variety of emotions throughout the film. He handles them all effortlessly, and not once does he come across as if he is "acting" or artificial. He earns his emotions, and this is integral to his final few scenes. AnnaSophia Robb has an even more difficult role, as Leslie is supposed to be somewhat of a free spirit and an independent thinker which makes her stand out, and an outcast with the popular kids. With the wrong child in the role, the character could easily be annoying or stand out for all the wrong reasons. This is not the case here, as Robb not only creates an easy and likeable chemistry with Hutcherson (they are best friends in real life, according to her IMDB profile), but makes her character stand out in such a way so that she still seems to be on the same level as everyone else. It doesn't seem like she wandered in from another movie or another planet. The adult roles are also expertly filled, with Robert Patrick being a stand out as Jesse's tough, yet caring, father. Also worthy of noting is Zooey Deschanel as the school music teacher, and one of the few adults that Jesse is comfortable around. There is a scene late in the film where the two explore an art museum together where the two are able a memorable scene together, talking about their favorite pieces of art, which is not only genuine, but beautiful.

The one aspect of the film that needs to be discussed, however, is one that plays a very minor role in the film itself, and that is the movie's depiction of Terabithia itself. Terabithia is a world of the imagination of its two young protagonists, and is brought to life in this film by CG. The original novel did not go into very much detail about the inhabitants of this made up world, but this movie brings to life an army of monsters, bee soldiers, giant trolls, and other such flights of fantasy. The effects artists are mostly able to bring the creatures to life, and combine it with the live action footage so that it does not look cheesy or like a video game. Many fans of the novel cried foul, myself included, when the effects-heavy trailer hit the screens late last year. Fortunately, the effects never once drown out the heart or the essence of the story being told. This is not a spectacle movie, rather, the effects are used to enhance the imaginary world that the children create, and allow us to see what they are pretending to see. It certainly was kind of a refreshing change of pace to see effects used simply to represent imagination, rather than taking over the plot or pushing aside the human actors. For all of the technical wizardry the imagination sequences hold, the movie never loses sight of what it is. That's a rare thing in this day and age where kids seem to not be interested in a movie unless it features some sort of CG animal or creature as its star. I certainly understand the approach, but seriously, did Disney have to make the effects the sole focus of the ad campaign? The story speaks for itself, and many children are familiar with it. (At least, I hope they still are. Judging by the elementary school classroom group that attended my screening, they are.) Disney should not feel the need to hide the fact that they have made this wonderful and heartfelt family film. It kind of says something when the studio seems to be afraid to admit that they have made an honest and truthful coming of age story like this, but seem to have no problem whatsoever when it comes to advertising and hyping up junk like The Santa Clause 3.
If there's any fault to be found in Bridge to Terabithia, it is with one crucial scene. It's hard to avoid slipping into spoiler territory here, but I shall do my best. It concerns the last shot of Leslie in the film. It is in slow motion, and kind of tries to play up the drama a bit too much. It is the one false and heavy-handed moment in a movie that is constantly finding the truth in its situations. The rest of the film is just about spot on, so this tiny bit of ugliness can be forgiven. That being said, this is a very important movie for children, and probably for most adults too. I can only hope audiences are able to look past the deceiving advertisements, and see this movie for what it really is. Much like the book that inspired it, Bridge to Terabithia stays with you long after it is over, and is worthy of experiencing more than once.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls

When I watch a Tyler Perry film, I get the sense that Mr. Perry and subtlety are not close friends. Heck, I don't think they even make eye contact. Perry has made a mint these past couple years with a series of films that are supposed to be uplifting and rekindle our love in the human spirit, but wind up only making us question just what Perry is thinking, and who exactly told him he knew how to write a screenplay, let alone direct. His movies are so ham-fisted and over the top in their melodrama that they start to resemble bizarre comic masterpieces, but for reasons that the filmmaker never intends. Daddy's Little Girls is no different. It is a dumb, labored live action cartoon disguised as an adult drama. In the world of Tyler Perry, bargain basement-level sitcom comedy writing collides head-on with unspeakably awful melodrama. Urban slang like "oh snap" acts as dramatic dialogue. And contradictions of morals, especially toward violence, runs rampant. The only reason Daddy's Little Girls is a step up from the man's previous work is that it does not feature Mr. Perry himself dressed in drag as a loud, abusive 80-year old-woman in the lead role. Oh snap, indeed.

The story centers on a hard-working down on his luck guy named Monty (Idris Elba). He's working two jobs as a mechanic and as a chauffeur so that he can support his three young daughters that he has from a past marriage with an unfaithful spouse (Tasha Smith) who dumped him for the neighborhood drug dealer. One day, while Monty is on the job, an accident occurs at home while his daughters are left by themselves. The evil ex-wife uses this as an excuse to try to portray Monty as a bad father, and that she should have total custody of the children, even though she obviously doesn't care about them. Desperate to have his children back, Monty turns to a high powered and successful lawyer named Julia (Gabrielle Union) whom he once worked for as her chauffeur. Julia is loud, obnoxious, and spoiled, but that's only because she can't find a decent black guy, and her two best friends keep on hooking her up with bad blind dates. Naturally, as the two work together to plan out a case for Monty's defense, they start to fall for each other. However, there's a secret in Monty's past that may not only threaten his case, but also his blooming relationship with Julia.

Taking a crack at an original screenplay (original meaning not based on one of Mr. Perry's plays) for the first time, Perry still falls back on all the same tricks that have made his past two films surprise successes. He paints his characters in such extreme blacks and whites that you find yourself laughing when the movie is trying to be serious. The heroic characters are so good that you can practically see the halos shining over their heads. The evil characters are bad in such a cartoonishly over the top manner that you keep on waiting for them to tie someone to the train tracks, cackling as they do so. The subtlety is further bludgeoned by the awful music score that hits you over the head with feeling, as if the audience somehow can't figure out what they're supposed to be feeling as they're watching the scene. Like Perry's previous films, the characters constantly and endlessly preach and shout about the importance of family, God, and love. The movie also looks down upon violence, yet seems to find it a suitable solution at the same time. Throughout the movie, we get to witness the evil ex-wife and her cruel drug dealer boyfriend savagely abuse and beat Monty's little girls, while dark "ominous" music blasts on the soundtrack. And yet, at the end of the film when Monty decides to take the law into his own hands, become a vigilante and beat the life out of the villains, the movie asks us to cheer. I say violence is violence. You can't make an anti-violence movie, only to climax with a scene where the hero intentionally rams his car into the villain's, then drags him out of the vehicle and beats him savagely, the local neighborhood cheering him on until the police arrive. The fact that this is a film of contradicting morals is only the start of its many problems.

For most of the movie, the plight of Monty trying to get his girls back is completely forgotten about. Most of the film's running time is actually devoted to him hitting on Julia. They spend maybe three minutes working on their defense, and even less time in an actual courtroom. Instead, they get drunk, contemplate sleeping together, go to aquariums, and try to deal with the fact that they are falling in love even though she's a successful "corporate woman", and he's a "thug" from the hood. In fact, for most of the movie, Monty doesn't even seem to care that his children are in the care of an abusive drug addict, as he only seems to be interested in getting in the sack with his lawyer. A more appropriate title for this movie would have been "Tyler Perry's How a Brother From the Hood Can Score With a Successful Black Woman". My guess is that he thought the title was too long, and wouldn't fit on most theater display signs, so he changed it. The little girls of the title are simply used as a plot device, and as a tool to show just how evil Monty's ex-wife is. (Not only does she abuse them, but she also tries to force the eldest daughter to sell drugs at school.) This is such an incredibly idiotic movie, it can't even come up with a decent excuse for it's characters to break off their relationship halfway through, so Perry is instead forced to give us one of the dumbest and plot-hole ridden excuses I've ever seen. What I'm about to write could technically be labeled a spoiler, so please, skip the next paragraph if you really are planning to see Daddy's Little Girls. You have been warned...

As I mentioned before, Monty has a past. He had sex with a white girl when he was on the high school football team. Things ended badly after their brief make out session, and then the girl's parents walked in. Because the girl was angry about what happened between them, she accused Monty of raping her, and he was sent to prison. When Julia finds out about this in the courtroom, she gets mad at Monty, because she claims he told her he didn't have a criminal record. The thing here is we never get to see this scene. At one point, Julia does ask if Monty has anything in his past that the other side could use against him in the trial, but he never gets to respond to her. Yet, here, Julia says that Monty told her no, even though he never technically said anything. Their break up is therefore based on a response that never even happened. Wait, it gets even better! Julia finally comes running back to Monty and stands up for him in the courtroom after she sees a report about him on the news, where the anchorwoman states that Monty was wrongfully accused of rape. Okay, so obviously it is a well-known fact that he was eventually found innocent, and that the girl he had sex with eventually admitted the truth. So, why is this so damning if everyone knows it was a consensual sexual act? And even more, why didn't Monty say anything about this when Julia confronts him about it outside the courthouse, and breaks off their relationship? When Julia asks if Monty raped the girl, he says "yes". So, what, the woman reporting the morning news knows that Monty did not actually rape her, but somehow Monty didn't get that memo? This isn't just incompetent storytelling, this is brain dead storytelling.
Tyler Perry has gathered a loyal cult following over the years, because he uses positive black characters and a message of hope and love in his films and plays that click with his audience. That's all well and good, but the man plainly and clearly has no place behind the camera or at a word processor. Daddy's Little Girls is such an astonishingly stupid movie that all the preachings of peace and love can't save it. Tyler Perry is a complete hack, and is fleecing his fanbase with moronic morality tales filled with contradicting morals. As long as the people keep on slurping it up and begging for more, he'll be glad to oblige by filling movie screens with his complete lack of talent. Daddy's Little Girls is just as big of a fraud as the man's past work.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Music and Lyrics

In the opening scene of Music and Lyrics, we witness a fictional music video from 1984. This was the year that the film's male lead, Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) was riding high as one of the lead singers of the British super group, Pop. As I was watching the video, I slowly began to realize just how accurate it was to the era it was trying to represent. Anyone who grew up in the 80s watching MTV is sure to smile, not just at the video itself, but at the song "Pop Goes My Heart", which is catchy in that special way that only 80s music can provide, and actually sounds like it could have been a hit song from that time. The movie does not exaggerate or parody just how goofy the 80s pop music scene was. It understands it, and it understands just what made that kind of music so special. The movie itself is pretty special in its own way too. After sitting through some disastrous romantic comedy duds like Because I Said So and Norbit (I almost hesitate to label Norbit a romantic comedy, but I do think Eddie Murphy was trying for that angle for most of the film.), Music and Lyrics is charming, breezy, likeable, and most importantly, funny.

When the story itself kicks off, we find Alex is far from his glory days of the 80s and mainly makes his money living off his past, performing at high school reunions and amusement parks. Early in the film, his long-time manager (Brad Garrett) has managed to get him a potential job with female pop star icon Cora Corman (Haley Bennett). She wants him to write a new song for her, and has given him the seemingly-impossible deadline of having the song finished in just a few days. With a televised celebrity boxing match called "Battle of the 80s Has-Beens" being Alex's only other job offer at the moment, he accepts the assignment, even though he hasn't written a song in over 10 years. Enter the sweet and quirky Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), the woman whose job is to water Alex's plants in his apartment. Alex happens to notice that Sophie has an incredible way with words when she starts making up some lyrics to herself while working as she listens to the music he's playing. Impressed, Alex tries to coax Sophie into collaborating with him on the song, even though she is not confident in her own abilities. As the two slowly form a working relationship, they find themselves drawn to each other in a completely different way outside of work.

While I'm sure no one will be surprised by many of the plot developments or the outcome of Music and Lyrics, the movie is smarter and funnier than most like-minded films. That's because writer-director Marc Lawrence (Two Weeks Notice) lets the humor come out of the dialogue, instead of tired slapstick or contrived Idiot Plot situations. There is a warmth and likeability in this movie that is present from the opening scene, and it carries throughout. It's not just because of the likeable and funny characters, but it's also because the movie seems to be set in a place resembling the real world, instead of the fantasy world most romantic comedies are set in where relationships are forced and come out of nowhere. The relationship between Alex and Sophie is gradual, and we can see how the connection builds in each scene. Part of this is due to the instant chemistry of Grant and Barrymore, and another part is due to the screenplay by Lawrence that allows us to get to know and like each character before they fall in love. What also helps make the movie seem a bit more plausible is that a lot of the film's original music is actually good - A big plus in a movie set around music. When we finally hear the song that Alex and Sophie have written, it actually sounds like a song that could be a hit, and is tuneful and enjoyable. We can share in the characters' enthusiasm for the song, and we can understand why others would be drawn to it.

There are some other ways that the film manages to stay a step above the norm for the genre. The pre-required best friend and outside characters are likeably goofy, but in a realistic way, and not over the top and annoying. And, just like most romantic comedies, there is a problem that threatens to split the couple apart halfway through. But, this time, the problem doesn't seem contrived, and the characters are not required to act like idiots and misunderstand each other just for the fact that the plot requires there to be a problem to set up the third act of the story. The problem the characters face here is a little bit more realistic than what we usually get. There is no surprise person from the past who comes back into their lives and threatens to break them up. There is no forced misunderstanding where one of the characters winds up looking bad in the eyes of the other. The means of the break up is a little bit more understandable and realistic. It's quite obvious that Marc Lawrence has studied the genre well, but it's also obvious that he understands it a little bit better than some others. We never become annoyed or frustrated with the characters. While the movie will not exactly set the world on fire, the little things it does right at least gives me hope that someone at least knows how to pay respect to the genre, and also respect the intelligence of their audience at the same time.

It also certainly helps that Music and Lyrics has managed to score an incredibly likeable pairing for its two lead stars. Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore bring both of their individual talents to their respective roles, and are able to play off of each other in a way that we can see the connection between the characters and the actors themselves. This allows us to want to see them get together and care about them. Grant's dry, sarcastic wit and Barrymore's sweetly undeniable charm merge together to create an instantly noticeable chemistry that only builds as the film goes on. They are supported by a winning supporting cast, including Kristen Johnston who is hilariously memorable as Sophie's "Pop"-obsessed older sister. Another stand out is newcomer Haley Bennett as pop princess Cora Corman. While her character at first seems to be a somewhat ditzy caricature, she is eventually able to give both her performance and her character a bit more of a sympathetic and likeable nature than we would at first expect. Even Brad Garrett from TV's Everybody Loves Raymond gets to try something different from the usual slow-witted characters he's stuck with, and gives a genuinely likeable performance as Alex's faithful manager. The movie treats them as real people, not as cliches, and we wind up liking them just as much as the lead roles.
Music and Lyrics is a highly entertaining comedy that may not break the rules or expectations, but is a little bit smarter in the way that it plays by those rules. I've always said that a formula movie can still work as long as the talent involved cares about the story being told and the characters who inhabit it. You can tell that everyone involved with this film cared a little bit more. This is a joyful and spirited movie that left me in a very good mood by the time it was over. It's fitting that this movie is being released on Valentine's Day, as I think this is a date movie that can truly be enjoyed by both people on that date. Music and Lyrics doesn't want to change the way you think about romantic comedies, it just wants to entertain. And at that, it is a rousing and complete success.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Best Films of 2006

Okay, I know this is late in coming. After all, we're two months into 2007. So, why am I waiting till now to post my picks for the best films of 2006? Quite simply, I am an average paying movie goer like all of you, and I can only review the movies that come to my area or near my area. I wanted to wait and hold off on this list until I saw some of the "Award Movies" that were stuck in limited release until just recently. Unfortunately, that plan of mine backfired, as some of them didn't even show up in my area. Regardless, I have seen most of the major releases of 2006, and I feel this is a complete enough list to warrant posting.

You may recall when I posted my "worst films" list back in December, I listed the top 5 films in descending order. For the best movies, I'm going to do something different, as I will not be numbering them. The reason is simple - I love movies the same way some people love their own family members. I find it unfair to rank them, as it would be like ranking your children. I only rank one movie as being the very best film of the year. Then, I list the great films of the year in no particular order. Finally, I list the "Honorable Mentions", the films that were not quite good enough to be great but still enjoyable. After I'm done with that, I will list some of my favorite performances of the year, once again in no particular order.

Enough of my rambling. Let's concentrate on what we're all here for - the movies.



THE BEST FILM OF 2006

UNITED 93 - When I saw this movie back in April, I thought to myself that it would be next to impossible for any movie to top it in my eyes. I was right. Writer-director Paul Greengrass did so much more than make a mere docu-drama about the events of the ill-fated flight on September 11th, 2001. He recreates history the way he thinks things happened, allowing us the audience to be "flies on the wall" witnessing the events of the tragedy. There are no heroes or villains, and there are no central characters that the screenplay focuses on more than others. This gives the film a hauntingly real tone, and makes us feel like we are actually there. This is hands down the most emotional experience I've had at the movies this year, and the fact that the film was ignored for Best Picture at the Oscars is almost a crime. If you haven't seen this movie, you owe it to yourself to.


THE GREAT FILMS OF 2006 (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING - One of my favorite comedies of the year was this wicked and satirical look at the tobacco industry, and at society in general. Aaron Eckhart gets his best role in years as Nick Naylor, a tobacco industry spin doctor who is trying to balance his job, being under fire from people who vilify him because of the company he represents, and trying to be a good role model for his young son. The movie works on many levels, because the screenplay by writer-director Jason Reitman (son of filmmaker Ivan Reitman of Ghostbusters fame) handles its topic in an even-handed tone, letting the satire and issues hit on all sides of the arguments it deals with. It's also tremendously funny and very sly with its pointed jabs not just at the tobacco industry, but its opposition, elected officials, and even Hollywood.

HARD CANDY - In my opinion, the most disturbing and terrifying dramatic thriller of 2006. The film deals with a 30-year-old photographer (Patrick Wilson) who meets with a 14-year-old girl (Ellen Page) in an on line chatroom. After talking on line for a while, they meet at a local diner, and then the man takes the girl back to his house for the afternoon. Where the story goes from there, I will not reveal, but let's just say it's more twisted and disturbing than anything you could find on Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" series. Essentially a two-person movie, the film keeps the tension and the drama at a constant pace thanks to the intense performances by Wilson and Page. This is an edge of your seat movie where you can't wait to see what's going to happen next. This movie received a very limited release in theaters (most likely due to its subject matter), but it's out now on DVD, and should not be missed.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE - Do I think the Oscar voters went a little crazy over this movie? Yes I do. But that does not hide the fact that this is a wonderful, heartfelt, and moving picture. This film takes a simple premise of a dysfunctional family driving cross country to a Junior Beauty Pageant, and turns it into a memorable dramatic-comedy filled with wonderful performances. Steve Carell, in particular, delivers his best performance so far as the suicidal Uncle in a portrayal that is subdued and touching. The film finds a good balance between the comedy and the drama so that the tone never seems unbalanced. Consistently funny and touching, this movie rightfully went on to become a word of mouth hit, and will most likely be a favorite of many for many years to come.

MONSTER HOUSE - Out of the many (and I do mean many) animated films that were released in 2006, Monster House stands out in my mind as the best of the bunch. This Steven Spielberg/Robert Zemeckis production is an imaginative story of three children doing battle with a house across the street that is apparently alive, and is devouring anyone who dares to set foot near it. The movie delivers plenty of laughs, but there is also a lot of excitement and even some genuine suspense to be had. This movie remembers that kids like to be scared and excited, and this movie balances the fun and the scares well enough that just about anyone can enjoy it. In a year full of derivative animated films and talking animals, this movie stood out as something truly different and wonderful.

STRANGER THAN FICTION - This was one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the year. An original and completely entertaining comedy-drama about a common everyman (Will Ferrell) who discovers that he is nothing more than a character in a book being written by a reclusive author (Emma Thompson). When he discovers that she is planning to kill him at the end of her story, he must go on a desperate search to track her down and try to change her ending. The wonderful performances by Ferrell, Thompson, Dustin Hoffman and Maggie Gyllenhaal help endear the characters to us. The screenplay is also tightly written, inventive, and grabs our attention early on and doesn't let go until the final scene. This is a wonderful movie that didn't get much of a chance at the box office, despite the big name stars, so I can only hope it finds an audience on DVD. I personally am looking forward to adding this film to my collection so I can watch it again.

THE QUEEN - Yes, Helen Mirren's performance as Queen Elizabeth is great. So is the movie itself. The movie portrays a chaotic week in the life of the British Royal Family as they try to sort out their feelings over the death of Princess Diana as her funeral draws closer, and the cries of the common people who want a public funeral for the "People's Princess". The movie not only serves as a time capsule that accurately portrays the feelings and emotions of the country and the world during the sudden passing of Diana 10 years ago, but also an intimate look inside the Family that surrounded her and knew her the best. It perfectly captures the chaos that was going on after her death, and Elizabeth's struggle to answer the demands of the public while at the same time maintaining the long-held traditions of the Royals. Not only is this a wonderful drama, but it is an intimate look at a closed off world that few get to ever see.

THE FOUNTAIN - Perhaps the most polarizing film of last year. The Fountain is not exactly an easy movie to follow. Despite it's large budget and big name star above the title, this is really an art house film disguised as mass market sci-fi entertainment. This complex film follows three separate storylines that all deal with man's long-held desire to cheat death or slow down the aging process. The storylines are connected by the film's two main stars, Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz (who play leads in all three storylines), and also by the overall theme. They eventually connect on a much deeper level as well. This is a beautiful, almost poetic, film that is like a quiet meditation on some very tough themes. The movie may leave you perplexed at the end, but those who are willing to dig deep within the film will be rewarded with an unforgettable film experience. This movie's not for everyone, but it was for me.


THE DEPARTED - If this is finally Martin Scorsese's year to win an Oscar, at least he's going to win one for a great little film. I didn't think it was his best film in years as many proclaimed, but I still thought the movie stood out enough to earn a spot to be honored. The story about a cop going undercover to bust a crime organization is memorable for many reasons, including three very strong lead performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson. The story takes a little while to get going, but once it does, it grabs you in a way that few crime dramas do. It's gripping, it's powerful, and it contains a wonderful mood-setting soundtrack that contains a collection of songs that help enhance each scene. Very little else needs to be said except that this film contains some of the best collection of performances in any movie this year.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

Something New, Nanny McPhee, Eight Below, 16 Blocks, The Libertine, V For Vendetta, Inside Man, Akeelah and the Bee, Silent Hill, Over the Hedge, The Illusionist, The Break-Up, Nacho Libre, Superman Returns, Clerks II, My Super Ex-Girlfriend, The Night Listener, The Descent, Snakes on a Plane, An Inconvenient Truth, Crank, Hollywoodland, The Last Kiss, Gridiron Gang, Jet Li's Fearless, Idlewild, The Prestige, Flags of Our Fathers, Saw III, Catch a Fire, Flushed Away, Casino Royale, Happy Feet, Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny, Bobby, The Holiday, Charlotte's Web, The Pursuit of Happyness, Children of Men


THE STAND-OUT PERFORMANCES OF 2006

Before I list the winners, I'd like to make it clear that this category goes to all of the performances in the year that I thought were great, helped lift the material up, or simply made the movie. After all, where would Snakes on a Plane be without Samuel L. Jackson's cool portrayal? Not all of these performances are Oscar-worthy, but I enjoyed them, or they made the movie for me, so I'm putting them here in alphabetical order. And the winners are...

Ben Affleck (Hollywoodland), Casey Affleck (The Last Kiss), Jack Black (The Holiday), Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine), Michael Caine (Children of Men), Nick Cannon (Bobby), Steve Carell (Little Miss Sunshine), Daniel Craig (Casino Royale), Matt Damon (The Departed), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed), Aaron Eckhart (Thank You For Smoking), Will Ferrell (Stranger Than Fiction), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Stranger Than Fiction), Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), Hugh Jackman (The Fountain), Samuel L. Jackson (Snakes on a Plane), Jet Li (Fearless), Derek Luke (Catch a Fire), Helen Mirren (The Queen), Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls), Jack Nicholson (The Departed), Ellen Page (Hard Candy), Keke Palmer (Akeelah and the Bee), Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness), Sharon Stone (Bobby), Hugo Weaving (V For Vendetta), Rachel Weisz (The Fountain), Robin Williams (The Night Listener)


As I look back on 2006, I realize it was a pretty decent year. There were quite a few memorable films, and a lot of stand-out performances. 2007 is off to a pretty rocky start so far, but I'm sure it will pick up in the months to come. I'm interested in hearing the thoughts of my readers, not just of their thoughts of my choices, but of their choices. I apologize if your favorite movie isn't on the list. Either we didn't see eye-to-eye, or I didn't get a chance to see it yet.

Here's to hoping that 2007 will be a memorable year for movies before it's done.

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