Reel Opinions


Monday, May 28, 2007

Hot Fuzz

Before I begin this review, I would like to state a very simple truth. Anyone who has ever done a parody movie, or is even thinking of doing a parody movie someday in the future, needs to see Hot Fuzz. After a long string of failures that include the Scary Movies, Date Movie, and Epic Movie, here is one that finally gets it right. It understands that it's not funny just to reference hundreds of popular movies in your film, while throwing in the occasional fart joke here and there. Hot Fuzz is generally funny, consistently entertaining, and is the best example of the genre since the glory days of the Zucker Brothers (Airplane, The Naked Gun). Director and co-writer Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) has proven beyond all reasonable doubt that he is the new master of the genre.

Expertly skewering every overblown violent cop movie made in the last 20 years or so, Hot Fuzz follows cocky young police Sergeant Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg), who is undoubtedly the best in the business. His track record of arrests, public service, and helping his fellow man so outshadows the rest of the entire London Police force that he's made every other officer look bad in comparison. That's why Nicholas finds himself transferred to the sleepy little English village of Sandford, a town that prides itself on being one of the best places to live, and where the biggest event of the day is that a local swan has escaped from its holding pen and is running loose on the streets. Nicholas is partnered with a jovial and not very bright officer named Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), and tries to prepare himself for a life far from the action he's used to back in London. However, shortly after his arrival, a series of bizarre murders performed by a mysterious assailant dressed in a black cloak and hood start popping up all over the town. Nicholas is shocked to learn that the police are content to simply brush these murders off as "accidents", as there hasn't been a murder in Sandford for years. (Oddly enough, while Sandford has the lowest murder rate, it has the highest accident rate.) Nicholas' search for the truth will lead him to discover a dark truth that everyone in town seem all too willing to ignore.

In spoofing the action film genre, Hot Fuzz takes aim at such "classics" as Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys II, Mission Impossible II, and Point Break. Fortunately, screenwriters Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg know that doing a parody film is more than just referencing as many movies as possible. They build an actual story and characters that we can care about and like around the lampooning of big budget fare. Nicholas Angel and his partner on the force, Danny Butterman, have an immediately likeable Odd Couple-style relationship that is naturally appealing. It's true that the actors portraying the characters, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, worked together before in Shaun of the Dead, but their relationship here still manages to be fresh. This is not a retread of their previous performance, and they are able to create completely different characters and an entirely new relationship for them to play off of each other. They create a genuine partnership that we can attach ourselves to, and so we are willing to follow them, no matter how ludicrous the story may get. The town of Sandford is made up of some likeably goofy characters as well, such as the overly friendly head police Inspector at the station (Jim Broadbent), and the somewhat suspicious owner of a local supermarket (Timothy Dalton) who always seems to conveniently show up at the scene of the murder, sometimes listening to a song on his car stereo tied into the killing.

More than the characters, the movie itself is just hilarious. There are a number of comic moments that had me laughing like few recent films can. The sequence where Nicholas must question a resident who speaks with such a thick accent that he can't even be understood, so the man must be translated by another officer who speaks with a slightly less thicker, but still indecipherable, accent, who must in turn by translated by Nicholas' partner Danny so that Nicholas can even understand what everyone is saying is a prime example of the comedic timing present in the film. Other moments of inspired lunacy include a production of Romeo and Juliet that seems a bit too inspired by the modern day update film released in the mid 90s that starred Leonardo DiCaprio, and the brilliant opening sequence that skewers the rapid-fire editing and cliches of most modern day cop films. However, nothing will prepare you for the film's final half hour. I will not reveal anything, but I will say that the film pulls out all the stops here, and officially becomes one of the most over the top hilarious movies I can ever recall in recent memory. The climax is certainly violent, but is done with such a wink and a goofy grin that we never become offended, and the movie receives the reaction of uproarious laughter that it's aiming for.
There's really no question that Hot Fuzz is the funniest comedy to be released so far this year. I've been hearing a lot of heavy pre-release hype for next weekend's release of Knocked Up. I won't find out until then how well that hype holds up, but for now, Hot Fuzz definitely takes the crown. This is one of those movies where you find yourself laughing all the way through, even at the little things. And while not all of the gags work, there's always another one less than a minute away that does. If every comedy had the brains, skill, and expertise that Hot Fuzz posessess, I'd be a much happier filmgoer.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bug

As I was sitting in my seat, watching the ending credits for Bug, one of the theater workers cleaning up the theater asked me what I thought of the movie. I had to give him an honest opinion, and the only thing that came to mind was "I don't know". By all accounts, Bug is a fascinating glimpse at two people's descent into madness. And yet, at the same time, the movie never truly connects the way I think it should. The film is based on a stage play, and I can see the idea working there. In the intimacy of the theater, we feel a personal connection with the actors performing right in front of us. But on the big screen, the story it tries to tell doesn't come to life the way it keeps on promising too. When it was over, the main thing I found myself concerned about was not the characters themselves, but wondering where the heck they got so much tinfoil as to cover every square inch and nearly every piece of furniture.

Ashley Judd plays Agnes White, a down on her luck waitress at a redneck bar who has been living in a seedy motel the past couple months. When she starts receiving many mysterious phone calls where the person on the other line never says anything, she's almost certain that it's her ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr), who recently got out of prison, harassing her. Agnes is a lonely and broken down woman, so it's no big surprise that she invites Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) to spend the night with her after the two hit it off. Peter is a highly paranoid man who believes that he has carnivorous insects inside him feeding off his blood. It's supposedly some sort of military conspiracy, according to him. As the two spend more time together, Agnes is drawn into Peter's deranged fantasies. Before too long, they've covered the entire room with tinfoil in order to "block the signal" the bugs are supposedly transmitting, and are cutting themselves up as they hunt for imaginary egg sacks underneath their skin.

In adapting his own play for the screen, writer Tracy Letts stays mainly faithful to the material's original roots. The film does not venture outside of the motel room very often, except for a couple of establishing shots. Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) uses his claustrophobic environment to his advantage to give us a conspiracy thriller that seems to constantly be on the verge of hitting the target, but never quite does. That's because the movie is bombastic and overwrought when it should be subtle and eerie. Ashley and Peter's descent into madness should be slow and calculating, but Ashley seems far too willing and eager to go right into the madness with Peter. We know that she's a lonely and battered woman, and that she's desperate for companionship, but I think this movie is pushing it by not having her question him or what she's getting into enough. When the two are shown in their full stages of madness, Judd and Shannon play their performances at full pitch, as if they are yelling their lines to the audience members up in the cheap seats of the balcony. Needless to say, magnified by a movie theater's sound system, their shrieking lines quickly grow tiresome.

For a movie that wants to get under our skin, Bug never quite digs deep enough. We know that Peter is crazy and that Ashley is slowly being brainwashed and following right along with him, but we never get the deep personal connection between the two in order for us to believe all of it. They just come across as two people that we care very little about. This is fatal for the kind of story this film wants to tell. We're supposed to feel the connection between them, and be terrified by the road their relationship brings them down. We never know enough about them in order to be truly terrified. We're not watching the characters going crazy, we're watching two actors in a motel room acting like they're going crazy. By the time they've covered their surroundings with what looks like thousands of dollars worth of tinfoil, the movie had lost me. I wanted it to have captured my interest and taken me on a journey along with these two possibly intriguing characters, but it's content to simply skim the surface. The conclusion that the film leads to is relentlessly dark, but it doesn't have the effect I think it was supposed to, because we don't feel for the characters. With more developed characters, the ending could have been a knock out.
There's nothing wrong with Bug that a more detailed look into the characters could have fixed. I wanted to see more of what brought Ashley and Peter together, not just loneliness or needing someone. That's not enough to convince me that these people are so willing to hop aboard the "crazy train" and start carving themselves up, looking for insects. The movie gives us plenty of psychological horror, but the personalities that are supposed to drive that horror are missing. By the time it was done, I was intrigued by a lot of what I had seen, but ultimately felt unfulfilled. There's a great movie here, all it needs is a screenplay that cares about the characters.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Before writing this review, I decided to look back at my review of last year's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. I did not give it a favorable review, and stated that "the movie starts out as harmless summer fun, but quickly gets bogged down in endless action scenes and human characters that seem about as personality filled as the animatronics at the actual Disneyland attraction". I suppose many will say the same about the third and (supposedly) final entry in the series, At World's End. However, I personally liked this film more. The action is better, the humor is funnier, and the whole thing doesn't seem quite as tedious as it did the last time around. Yes, the plot is convoluted to the extreme, and doesn't make much sense when you come right down to it. But, I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say this movie left a goofy grin on my face.

Those who skipped over the last film will quickly find themselves in over their heads, as this movie picks up where Dead Man's Chest left off, and doesn't even bother to look back. With Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) now wandering the land of the dead after being eaten by a Kraken, it's up to his crew to find a way to bring him back. They include young lovers Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Kiera Knightley), voodoo priestess Tia (Naomie Harris), and Jack's former nemesis Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who just happens to be back from the dead himself. The reason behind their mission is urgent, as the treacherous Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) has begun exterminating any and all pirates without prejudice. He's even enlisted the aid of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) and his ship of lost souls in his quest, as Beckett holds Jones' heart in his possession, and thus has control over him. The only way the pirates can hope to save their way of life is to have all the pirate factions from every corner of the world join together to fight as one. The heroes must travel literally to the end of the world in order to find Jack, return him to the land of the living, and enlist his aid in the battle to come.

For a summer blockbuster, At World's End is pretty complex in its plotting. So much so that the above synopsis is really only the tip of the iceberg. There are so many plot and character revelations, double crosses, betrayals, and unions that you would be forgiven for feeling more than a little bit overwhelmed by the proceedings. Returning screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio do their best to keep everything in order, but they can't help but seem more than a bit overwhelmed by the plot they have come up with. They seem to be so overwhelmed that most of the dialogue that come out of the mouths of the characters exists to explain just what the heck is supposed to going on. What we do get is a lot of talk about pirate lords, ancient codes, sea goddesses in mortal form, "singing" coins, and debts setting back hundreds of years that have yet to be repaid. I don't think a single character in this movie utters a line that isn't tied into the plot in some way, unless they are tossing off a sarcastic one-liner. Some of the new additions to the plot do fly in the face of the earlier films as well, creating more logic and plot holes than should probably be necessary. With its trite one-note characters and somewhat sloppy storytelling, At World's End initially seems like it should be a hopeless case.

But here's the thing - This movie still winds up being fun regardless. A lot of this has to do with the many elaborate action and special effects sequences featured throughout, which in my opinion, are the best in the series. One of my complaints of Dead Man's Chest is that I found the action sequences muddled and poorly edited, and they came too close to one another. Here, not only are they spaced further apart from each other so that they stand out more, but series director Gore Verbinski seems to be more in control of the camera this time around. The action sequences are more elaborate, easier to follow, and quite frankly just hold a lot more excitement. They are grander in scale and in scope, but never seem overblown to the point of futility. It's not just the action sequences that have gotten an overhaul, but many of the more subtle moments are photographed quite beautifully as well. There is a sequence as the heroes sail to the end of the world at night where it is shot to look like they are sailing on a sea of stars, with the actual star-filled sky above them. It's a short and subtle moment, but quite powerful in its beauty. Most importantly of all, At World's End just seems much more livelier. I smiled a lot more, and I definitely laughed a lot more. I got caught up in the excitement of the action scenes, and just found that I was enjoying myself despite its many narrative faults. I initially dreaded the fact that the film runs nearly three hours in length, but I seriously did not mind it quite as much as I thought it would. Do I still think a nearly three hour movie based on a theme park attraction is just something that shouldn't be? Absolutely. It just was a lot more tolerable than I could have ever expected.

And yet, something tells me this movie wouldn't be half as much fun were it not for Johnny Depp, who returns to form here after turning in a disappointing performance the last time around. He's funnier this time around, a lot more likeable, and he once again has Geoffrey Rush to play off of, which I sorely missed the last time. Depp and Rush have some great scenes together as they bicker over who gets control of the ship, and have their little private competitions. They are the liveliest characters and performances in the entire film, so it's a good thing that the movie is smart enough to give them so much screentime throughout. That's not to say there's anything really wrong with the other performances, they just don't match the heights of those two. Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley are serviceable romantic leads, but not much more than that, as they both seem to be a bit lacking in the personality department. Most of the other pirate characters are restricted to visual gags and one-liners, many of which are actually funny at least. I still was disappointed with the way Davy Jones was handled. His story doesn't seem to be wrapped up in a successful way, and Bill Nighy still seems to be lost under the pounds of make up and animatronic tentacles that make up his face, and never gets to create a real character or villain. He's just a very impressive walking special effects demo and not much more.
The Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise has been very hit or miss with me, but at least At World's End leaves things off on a mostly positive note. It suffers from the same flaws of the last two films, but I just didn't mind as much this time around. That being said, I do hope the Disney studio is smart enough to know when to quit. The story has been told, and I'd like to leave the further adventures of Jack Sparrow up to my own imagination. Should the all mighty dollar take over better judgement (as it has been known to do) and the story continues, I can only hope they can come up with a plot that lives up to the imagination of the effects artists and the talent of Depp.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Shrek the Third

If I could sum up Shrek the Third simply, it would be pleasant yet predictable. If you have seen the previous films, you pretty much know what to expect here, and your reaction is not going to change much. As for me, I've always been rather indifferent to the series. The films were okay to watch once, but not much more than that. Shrek the Third is more of the same, and quite frankly, the formula's starting to feel a bit stale. Maybe it's because the film seems afraid to truly break out and try something new. We don't really get to see anything new about Shrek's world, and the new characters introduced in this entry are pretty forgettable. Still, the old characters carry on their charm from before, and fans are sure to get what they came for.

As the frog King of Far Far Away (John Cleese) lies on his deathbed after a long bout with an illness, ogre couple Shrek (Mike Myers) and Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) are forced to stand in as the kingdom's rulers. Shrek is less than pleased with being a King, as he just wants to return to his beloved swamp home. When he learns that there is another living heir to the throne in another part of the world, he sets off on a journey with his animal sidekicks Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss 'n Boots (Antonio Banderas) to track down a young boy named Arthur (Justin Timberlake), and convince him to take the throne. As Shrek searches for a replacement king, the egotistical Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) is back at home, plotting revenge for the humiliation the ogre caused him in the last film. He gathers up all the local fairy tale villains, and organizes them to stage a hostile takeover of Far Far Away, with him as the ruler. With Shrek away, it's up to Fiona, her Queen mother (Julie Andrews) and fellow Princesses Snow White (Amy Poehler), Cinderella (Amy Sedaris) and Sleeping Beauty (Cheri Oteri) to fend off the invading forces.

The Shrek films have become famous (or infamous, depends on who you talk to) for its rapid-fire jokes, visual gags, and pop culture references. It may surprise some that Shrek the Third takes an almost leisurely approach compared to the others. The jokes don't fly quite as fast, and the music montages and pop culture humor are nowhere near as frequent. The film is heaviest with the reference humor during the sequence that Shrek and his traveling companions visit a medieval high school where Arthur is a student. The visual gags parodying high school comedies and teen cliches fly fast and furious here, with a couple clever gags scattered here and there. (I liked the anti-drug banner in the gymnasium that read "Just Say Nay".) The rest of the film is much more laid back, with characters facing their own personal problems, such as Shrek dealing with his feelings about parenthood (Fiona wants to have a baby), and Arthur trying to believe in himself enough to be King of Far Far Away after being treated as a loser all his life by his peers at school. Even motor-mouthed sidekick Donkey doesn't seem quite as lively as in previous installments, and is mainly content to stay in the background for many scenes. How audiences used to the fast-paced jokes of Shrek 1 and 2 will react to this, I'm not sure, but the audience I was in attendance with seemed to be enjoying it enough. That's because the movie gives them just enough of what they want so that those used to the old style can be happy, and those who found the previous fast-paced style too overwhelming can enjoy the story a little bit more.

Where Shrek the Third falls short is that aside from a slightly eased back tone, the movie is completely afraid to take chances. As I mentioned before, aside from Arthur's high school and a far off land where loopy wizard Merlin (Eric Idle) resides, we don't get to see anything new in Shrek's world that we haven't seen in the past two films. It would seem that director Chris Miller and the four or so writers credited to the screenplay were afraid to branch off too much, and stuck a little too heavily with tradition. The characters haven't changed that much, and while I'm sure fans will appreciate it, I'd like just a little bit more development to the characters, as they haven't seem to have changed that much since the ending of the first movie. And quite frankly, the new characters introduced in this installment just don't come across as being anything special. Arthur mainly exists as a plot device and a vehicle to deliver the film's preachy message about believing in yourself during the climax, so we never get too attached to him. Merlin shows promise when he's first introduced, but his role is mainly limited to being the cause of a joke where Donkey and Puss 'n Boots switch bodies. Finally, the fairy tale Princesses who battle alongside Fiona and her mother are seriously lacking in personality and memorable moments. The film seems to want to stick solely with the characters we've seen before, so the new characters are mainly given the short end of the stick.

That's not to say the film is not without its charms. It may mostly be the same old-same old, but the vocal performances by returning stars Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, and Antonio Banderas are just as likeable as they've ever been. And even if the new characters are not exactly memorable, they are expertly performed as well. Justin Timberlake continues to prove he has an actual shot with a real acting career in his performance as Arthur, as he is able to breathe life and sympathy into a mostly underwritten role. And former Monty Python members, John Cleese and Eric Idle, deliver some of the film's biggest laughs in their limited roles. Cleese's deathbed scene is an inspired little bit of lunacy, and I enjoyed the chorus at the funeral sequence. The film is also quite literally a wonder to look at. The attention to the settings and the characters is quite remarkable, with some wonderful small details in the characters' faces during close up shots. That's mainly why I was let down by the fact that this movie mainly sticks to places we've already seen. I want to see the artists get to design some new and fantastic places, as they obviously have the talent.
Shrek the Third is completely passable in just about every way, but not much more than that. This is a film franchise in desperate need of a shot of energy and inspiration. The novelty of seeing the Disney approach to fairy tales getting satirically skewered is growing thin, and the filmmakers have to learn to realize that. There are plenty of chances in the future to do just that, as not only is there a fourth film being planned, but a TV Christmas special appropriately titled Shrek the Halls is set to air at the end of the year. The Shrek films have always walked a fine line with me. I've wanted to love them, and often thought they held good ideas, but always came up short somehow. Shrek the Third continues that line, as I smiled a lot, but never enjoyed myself quite as much as I thought I should. One of these days, these guys are going to give the ogre the movie he deserves.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Georgia Rule

When you think of dramas that deal with topics such as child molestation, alcoholism and underage sex, filmmaker Garry Marshall is probably not the first name that pops in your head. This is a guy who has made a career off of making sweet, cloying films. I mean, the guy did a movie about a prostitute, and turned it into adorable romantic fluff back when he did Pretty Woman. Georgia Rule is the case of the wrong director put with the wrong material. His goofy blend of sweetness and good-hearted fun clashes with the dark and dramatic story elements at the core of the film, giving it an overall schizophrenic feel. Not sure if it wants to be a light-hearted romp or a serious look at a very dysfunctional family, Georgia Rule never quite clicks because of its own uncertainness.

Troubled recent high school graduate Rachel (Lindsay Lohan) seems to be out of control. She drinks too much, parties too much, and when she crashes her car, her alcoholic mother Lilly (Felicity Huffman) has reached the end of her rope. She banishes Rachel to a small dusty town in Idaho that seems to have stepped right out of a 1950s sitcom. It's here that Rachel's grandmother, Georgia (Jane Fonda) lives. Georgia is a very strict yet kind woman who runs a very tight ship in her house and hates it when people take the Lord's name in vain, though she's not afraid to drop the "F-Bomb" herself when she's upset. Lilly obviously hopes that Georgia can straighten her daughter out, although we can plainly see that Lilly herself could use some help as well. Despite not being happy about being uprooted from everything and everyone she knows, Rachel tries to make the best out of her situation and befriends a tortured widowed veterinarian named Simon (Dermot Mulroney), and decides to teach the friendly teenage virgin, Harlan (Garrett Hedlund), all about sex. Tensions begin to mount between the three generations in Rachel's family when Rachel happens to mention that her stepfather Arnold (Cary Elwes) used to sexually molest her when she was 12. Old wounds are opened between the three women as they are forced to face their dark pasts that they would rather soon forget. Rachel's character and claim are brought into question when Arnold shows up in town to discredit her story, claiming that she is just looking for attention.

The ad campaign for Georgia Rule would like you to believe that this is a sweet and fun romp perfect for Mother's Day about three generations of women coming together to bond. There's very little bonding in the film itself, as most of the women spend their time angry with each other or so drunk that they can barely stand up straight. Screenwriter Mark Andrus (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) seems to be trying to make a hard-hitting and realistic look at some very tough issues. But, for some reason, he keeps on betraying his own vision by throwing in goofy comedy. The film keeps on veering and switching in tone in almost every scene. We get some goofy comedy from the friendly down-home local folks in the small town, we get some raunch comedy as Rachel tries to teach her friend Harlan about sex and blow jobs, we get a lot of sentimental drama as Georgia and Lilly face their own past demons, and we get a mystery story that runs throughout that questions whether or not Rachel's claim about her stepfather is true or not. Maybe a skilled director could have successfully balanced this tricky material, but Garry Marshall is just the wrong guy to do it. Given the guy's past work, it's no surprise that the film is most at ease when it's being light and silly. When the story starts treading into darker territory, the movie explodes with over acting and ham-fisted dialogue and revelations that would be right at home in a made for TV movie on the Lifetime channel.

The uncertainness of the film itself seems to carry over into the screenplay, as it often seems to be not sure how we're supposed to react to these people. Lilly's alcoholism is sometimes passed off as comedic, and sometimes as tragic. It doesn't even seem to know whether we should trust Rachel's story or not. The movie confirms it, denies it, confirms it again, denies it again, and so on. It keeps on trying to make us guess and then pulling the rug out from under us that the whole thing starts to come across as being convoluted. The movie is at its best when the relationships are simple and genuine, instead of driven by melodrama or silliness. The relationship between Rachel and Simon the veterinarian is sweet and true, with the two forming an uneasy bond with each other both at work (Rachel takes a job as his receptionist) and in their personal lives. Even her relationship with the local boy Harlan has its moments, but it's brought down by a stupid goofy subplot where some local girls decide to spy on them and follow them around. The movie never quite gives the characters the chance to bond as closely as they should, which brings the film down. The relationship between Georgia and Rachel is not developed as strongly as it probably should be, since Georgia spends most of her scenes with Rachel's mother Lilly. We can see a lot of potential, but it's never acted upon.

Most of this potential comes from the performers who fill the roles. Lindsey Lohan may not have the best public image, but there's no denying that she is a very strong actress. This movie received some unwanted publicity during its filming last summer, when the movie's producer sent out an open letter accusing Lohan of not showing up to work on time and delaying the production of the movie itself with her erratic behavior. The performance that she delivers as Rachel, however, proves that she definitely knows what she's doing when she does show up in front of the camera. She's believable in the role, and comes across as being sympathetic in a very natural way. Jane Fonda is good as well as the stern grandmother figure of the story. She wisely does not play the character as a know-it-all, as she has as many problems as the rest of the girls in the family, and she doesn't spend the entire film preaching or imparting wisdom to others. Of the three female leads, Felicity Huffman comes across as somewhat of the weak link in the chain. She's very good for most of her performance, but she can't help but go a little bit over the top during her scenes when she's supposed to be drunk. A little bit of reigning in could have easily fixed that problem. The most noteworthy performance in the film, however, belongs to Dermot Mulroney. He's quiet and likeable as Simon, and knows how to handle his character's grieving in a realistic and subtle way. There's no big "break down" moment for him, and he always keeps his performance in check so that it never steps into melodrama.
While the performances and some of the characters are sound, Georgia Rule never quite comes across as strongly as it should. It's uncertain when it should be confident. I'm not sure if this is the fault of the screenplay itself, or if it is because Garry Marshall sometimes tries to slip some of his trademark sweet and goofy charm into a story that doesn't really need it. There are moments when you can see the movie it is trying to be, but then it goes off track. Georgia Rule is not a terrible movie by any means. It's simply one suffering from an identity crisis.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Ex

One of the main problems of The Ex could have been solved by simply casting a different actor in the lead role. While I have admired Zach Braff in past roles, he seems wrong as the flustered and constantly humiliated hero of the story. The film needs someone with more experience in broad humiliation-type humor like Ben Stiller. Even with a different star, that still wouldn't fix the numerous other problems present in the film. The movie is shot in a highly amateurish style that brings to mind a sitcom rather than a full-length feature film. And while there are a couple of passing moments of amusement, The Ex really just does not add up to a whole lot.

Having just lost his job, Tom Reilly (Zach Braff) is now faced with a difficult situation, as his loving wife Sofia (Amanda Peet) has just given birth to their first son and quit her job in order to be a full-time mom. Desperate for work that can support a family, Tom is forced to take a job at an ad company run by Sofia's new age-obsessed father (Charles Grodin, in his first film performance in 13 years). At the new job, Tom is placed under the guidance of an employee by the name of Chip Sanders (Jason Bateman). Chip is paralyzed from the waist down, but that apparently didn't stop him from having sex with Sofia back when they were in high school. It seems that Chip still holds strong feelings for Sofia, and is willing to do just about anything to destroy Tom's life and his reputation at the job. Chip tries everything from sabotaging one of Tom's ad campaign ideas to humiliating him in public. A bitter war ensues, with Tom desperate to expose Chip as the evil and scheming mastermind he truly is.

Not a lot makes sense in The Ex, least of which being the title. The film was originally set for a January release under the name "Fast Track", and was changed to its current title for reasons unknown. It's strange, since I'm assuming that the ex in particular refers to Chip. The problem is, the movie makes it clear that Chip and Sofia never really dated, it was simply a one night thing. Toss in the fact that despite Chip's desire for Sofia, she never once seems truly interested in going back to him, and the title makes even less sense. Regardless, a January release probably would be more appropriate for a film such as this. While never quite painful or unwatchable, the movie just seems highly mediocre. It obviously wants to be a politically incorrect comedy that frequently takes shots at the physically handicapped, new age business practices and experimental marriage therapists, but it lacks the satirical edge that such material needs. The entire film plays out like a watered down Farrelly Brothers comedy. The Ex obviously wants to have a comedic mean streak, but it's afraid to go all the way and always seems to be holding itself back. A potentially hilarious moment involves Tom under the impression that Chip is not paralyzed, and tries to force him to walk. A better comedy could have thought of a number of hilarious things to do with this idea, but in this movie all we get is a pratfall as Chip goes tumbling down the stairs. More often than not, the movie goes for the most predictable gag, rather than holding out for more.

To make matters more uninspired, the direction by Jesse Peretz is often flat and lacking. He seems to simply point the camera at the actors, moving the camera as little as possible. This too adds to the overall small screen feel of the film, as the action is frequently stagnant, with characters standing around and talking and doing little else. The editing is odd as well, with many scenes starting and stopping with no lead-in or warning. This disjointed method prevents the scenes from flowing naturally into each other. The movie is constantly starting and stopping, with numerous characters and sub plots introduced, but never really developed to any sort of degree. I once again find myself comparing this film to a TV sitcom, as the characters often seem to walk in and out of this movie at random like so many wacky next door neighbors. The fact that many of these supporting characters are played by gifted comic actors like Amy Poehler (Blades of Glory) and Paul Rudd (The 40-Year Old Virgin) makes it all the more disappointing. Even Mia Farrow is reduced to a mere cameo as Sofia's mother. The fact that her performance barely registers as a walk-on leads me to believe that most of her scenes were cut from the final film, as I don't think she would willingly take a role where she does nothing but stand in the background.

Then again, not even the lead roles seem to be that memorable in The Ex. As I mentioned, I have enjoyed many of Zach Braff's past film performances, but here, he seems to not be very interested with the material he's been given. I can understand wanting to do something a little bit sillier after the slightly more serious The Last Kiss, but he should have held out for something better. Amanda Peet is likeable as Tom's wife and she has good chemistry with Braff during their scenes together, but her role seems very limited. She's never given anything particularly funny to do, and there's a lot of wasted comedic potential during the scenes where she's dragged into a bizarre new mother support group. As the evil and smarmy Chip Sanders, Jason Bateman certainly seems to be relishing his role, and is appropriately slimy and hateful. The problem once again is that he is seldom given anything funny to do. He's good at being a jerk, but seems to be at a loss as to why we're supposed to be laughing at him being a jerk. As for Charles Grodin, while it is nice to see him on the big screen again, I wish it could have been in a better movie.
When you get right down to it, there's certainly nothing wrong with The Ex that another couple drafts or a fresher look at the subject matter couldn't have fixed. The movie is filled with workable ideas, but seldom if ever goes after them. I kept on sitting there, waiting for the screenplay to bear its satirical teeth and dig into its own material. I did laugh a couple times during the film, but it was more a polite laugh. My only guess for why this movie is being released with the summer movie season underway is that the studio hopes no one will notice it, and it can quietly slip off to DVD where it belongs. Given the mediocrity of the entire endeavor, I think it's safe to assume that's almost a sure thing.

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Delta Farce

Some movies are simply below criticism. I could accuse Delta Farce of being stupid, but that's the point, right? I guess I should judge it by how often I laughed. Not very often, I'm afraid. This is a movie so witless and hollow, it barely passes for humor. The few jokes that are scattered about, writers Bear Aderhold and Tom Sullivan repeat numerous times. The latest star vehicle for Larry the Cable Guy is a small step up from his previous film, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, but that's kind of like saying getting your hand cut off is a step off from having your head cut off.

Larry (Larry the Cable Guy), Bill (Bill Engvall) and Everett (D.J. Qualls) are three dim-witted best friends who act as "weekend warriors" in the military when they're not holding down jobs at cheesy restaurants or sitting outside their trailer park homes drinking beer. It seems the war in Iraq has been stretched thin in terms of soldiers, so the three guys are immediately placed under the command of the screaming Sgt. Kilgore (Keith David) for a weekend of training before they're sent off to war. During the flight, there is a mishap, and the soldiers find themselves dropped off in Mexico instead. Thinking they're in Fallujah, the supposedly mentally challenged trio go off and liberate a nearby town from a group of bandits that have been terrorizing it, led by the unfortunately named Carlos Santana (Danny Trejo). It's unfortunate for the villain because everyone keeps on mistaking him for the famous musician, and it's unfortunate for us because we have to hear the same joke repeated six or seven times in the film. The boys unknowingly become the heroes of the poor villagers, and it takes them a lot longer than it should to figure out they're not where they're supposed to be. I know, that's the point of the joke, but this movie stretches it literally to the breaking point.

I suppose Delta Farce could best be described as a military spin on the 1986 comedy, The Three Amigos. There are even a couple scenes that almost seem to be lifted directly from that film. But even an appearance from the Singing Bush couldn't save this movie. When making this movie, director C.B. Harding seems to have forgotten that it's not good enough just to have your main characters be stupid, they have to be likeable too. Larry, Bill and Everett are so dumb that it's impossible for us to get behind them as characters. Thinking they're in Iraq, they refer to the locals as "shit-ites and turds". When one of the characters comes across a canteen filled with urine, he douses himself over the head with it, before he takes a long satisfying chug. These aspects, plus the fact that they don't realize they're not in Iraq until almost the hour mark of the movie makes rooting for these guys about as easy as rooting for a crippling disease to take over your body. To add even more, the film's three stars have absolutely zero chemistry or screen presence. Larry the Cable Guy mugs for the camera and says his signature "Git R done" catchphrase, but his comedic performance is completely shallow and he often seems lost. The fact that he tries to pass himself off as a romantic lead with one of the young village women is probably the funniest thing he does in the film. Bill Engvall is barely even there, and mainly stands in the background, which is a shame since his introduction scene actually made me smile a little. The worst offender is D.J. Qualls, who not only gives an annoying performance in this film as the dumbest of the three, but seems to be trying his hardest to make his character as unlikeable as possible. Mission accomplished.

The closest thing that comes across as a highlight is Danny Trejo's performance as the head of the bandits. He gets the film's best lines, and actually seems to have a sense of comedic timing, which the three main stars lack. He never quite gets to strike gold with his performance, due to the material he's been given, but he's energetic and made me smile on more than one occasion. Everyone else seems to have wandered in front of the camera by accident, and almost seem to have a deer trapped in the headlights look. Even the film's set of bloopers and outtakes played during the end credits seem sad, with the actors barely able to muster out a chuckle over their own mistakes. There is one part of the ending credits that made me laugh, though. Early on, a message appears that this film is dedicated to the men and women fighting overseas. A noble dedication perhaps, but I don't exactly know if this is the right movie to attach such a heartfelt message to at the end.
I highly doubt I'll remember Delta Farce by the end of the summer. The film is just too empty in terms of comedy that you almost have to wonder why everyone involved even bothered to show up. I know that Larry the Cable Guy has an audience with his stand up routine, but maybe it's time he put his dreams of movie stardom on hold, and concentrate on what he does best. I don't think his fans are looking to see him as a romantic lead who decides to stay behind in Mexico so he can marry the young woman and open a restaurant. They're looking for laughs, and Delta Farce provides too few for anyone to care.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

28 Weeks Later

Watching 28 Weeks Later, I felt like I had just paid to have someone shake me uncontrollably and scream in my ear for 100 minutes. I felt physically drained by the time it was over, and not in a good way. This film, a sequel to the 2002 horror film 28 Days Later, is a total assault on the senses. It bombards you with images edited so rapidly they often become an incomprehensible blur, and the soundtrack has been jacked up to almost deafening levels for a constant attack on your ears. You can see a lot of promise up there on the screen, and there are some decent performances as well. But they are fighting a losing battle against director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's decision to often make the movie as annoying as it possibly can be.

Just as the title suggests, the film is set a few months after the events of the original film, where a mysterious Rage virus turned people into soulless carnivorous zombies. England is now deserted, and the zombies have been starved off. The US military moves in to quarantine the area, and slowly begins to repopulate the area. A young boy named Andy (Mackintosh Muggleton) and teenage sister Tammy (Imogen Poots) return home after they were forced to flee the country, and are now ready to start new lives with their father (Robert Carlyle), who has managed to survive the zombie invasion. The kids obviously want to know what happened to their mother, and dad doesn't know how to tell them how he abandoned her when they were attacked, as we witness in the film's opening scene. While Andy and Tammy are exploring some of the "forbidden" areas of England that have not yet been completely quarantined, they discover that their mother (Catherine McCormick) is still alive. She somehow is immune to the Rage virus, so she does not show signs of infection, even though she carries the virus within her ever since she was attacked. The father, unfortunately, is not quite so immune, and as soon as he comes in physical contact with her, the virus is spread and a whole new group of zombies are immediately born. Andy and Tammy must team up with a small band of survivors and US soldiers to try to escape this new threat with their lives.

In concept, 28 Weeks Later sounds like a pretty smart follow up to the original film. I liked the idea of a society struggling to rebuild itself after a grand catastrophe, and wish that the movie would have gone deeper into this rebuilt world the few survivors find themselves in when they return home to England. Do they feel happy? Do they feel like it's just not the same anymore? Is it hard to come home after such a tragic occurrence? The premise brings forth some intriguing questions, many of which go unanswered. Instead, the movie seems to be trying to make a not-too subtle political statement about the US military. Most of the soldiers are portrayed as boorish, foul-mouthed louts who act as voyeurs and spy on people through the scopes of their rifles. They also make numerous decisions that lead to mass destruction or unintended chaos. These decisions are explained to us, but they more often seemed to exist to set up some pretty impressive set pieces, such as when most of the city is firebombed after the virus break out in the new society. The film is full of moments that look great, but hold very little emotional hold on us, because the movie charges full speed ahead in its plot, little caring about the people inhabiting it. When the children find out that their mother is alive, their confrontation with their father seems cut short and less dramatic than it should be. The one sequence that truly works the way the filmmakers intend is a creepy scene where the heroes must make their way through a dark underground subway tunnel, and most of the sequence is shot through the green scope of a character's gun. Unfortunately, this sequence comes late in the film, and by then, it's a little too late.

As technically well done as most of the film is, 28 Weeks Later seems to lose all control whenever the mood of the film turns the least bit chaotic or intense. The attack scenes are often a confusing and flat-out obnoxious mess of images, high-pitched screams, and rapid-fire cuts that make following the action all but impossible. There were moments when I thought a person was being killed, only for it to turn out a completely different person had been killed, and the one who I thought was dead was standing nearby, perfectly fine. The soundtrack is cranked up to almost thunderous levels during these moments, making them just as hard on the ears as they are on the eyes. The attack sequences use some other pointless tricks, such as briefly filming scenes with a red tint for reasons unknown. When the camera stops shaking around and slows down long enough to let us actually glimpse what is happening, there is some disturbing images that are sure to drive gorehounds wild. But, I often felt like I was only getting half the image. I could probably live with this if the film was less driven by action. After a fairy character-heavy middle portion, the film switches over to action, and never looks back. Characters who once seemed potentially interesting are now reduced to running through one well-done but ultimately mindless action sequence after another, and forced to say lines like "It's only a flesh wound". (If you can hear a British actor say that line, and not think of Monty Python, you're a stronger man than I.)

Even when the film's narrative falls apart due to some obnoxious editing techniques, the film is still technically sound all the way through. The abandoned London setting is appropriately creepy, but not used to its fullest other than the sequence where Andy and Tammy explore the forbidden area of London. I suppose it could be argued this idea was explored more in the original film, but they still could have used more of it. The performances all around are generally sound, though there is no one aspect that stands out above the rest. Robert Carlyle as the father of the two young leads comes off the best, as he is faced with a difficult situation in the film's opening scene that haunts him for the rest of the film. Too bad this angle is dropped halfway through when he becomes the carrier of the new Rage outbreak. I guess that could sum up my reaction to this film overall. There are a lot of great ideas and images up there on the screen that either are underdeveloped, or fail to live up to their potential. Characters are never developed past a certain major goal, and many seem to act simply because there wouldn't be a movie if they didn't carry out the action. After last week's Spider-Man 3 and now this, I'd really like to see an action-based film where characters' actions are not based around simply playing by the rules of the plot.
I remember the original 28 Days Later getting a lot of praise, but I wasn't a huge fan. The sequel has done very little to change my mind. 28 Weeks Later seems like they took a workable idea, and then didn't bother to do much with it. It's not a terrible film by any means, but it never quite builds to what it should be. When it was over, I felt exhausted, but not really entertained. The film's ending seems to set up an inevitable sequel. While I don't exactly welcome the idea with open arms, I do see how this premise can be fixed if the editing allowed us to actually see what was happening more often and if the characters were more memorable. Until someone gets it right, all I see is a lot of talent put to a lot of wasted potential and half-baked ideas.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Lucky You

No movie in recent memory has sent me more mixed pre-release signals than Lucky You. The film is directed and co-written by Curtis Hanson, who has made many films I've admired in the past including 8 Mile and L.A. Confidential. The screenplay was also co-written by Eric Roth, the screenwriter of The Insider and Munich. And it features three very likeable actors in lead roles, specifically Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore, and Robert Duvall. These signs should have filled me with confidence, but there was also the knowledge nagging at me that the film had been sitting on the studio's shelf for almost two years, and had been shuffled through numerous release dates. Now that I've seen the film, I can say that the film is certainly not all bad, but is nowhere near what it should be given the talent both on and behind the camera.

The film is set in the high stakes world of professional gambling in Las Vegas. We follow a man named Huck Cheever (Eric Bana), who could be one of the best players in the game, but he is compulsive and often loses as much as he wins. His estranged father L.C. (Robert Duvall) is also a professional player on the circuit, and it doesn't make things any easier for Huck. While trying to gather the money needed to participate in the World Series Poker Championship, he happens to meet a sweet young newcomer to Vegas named Billie Offer (Drew Barrymore). Billie's a singer at a local bar and knows nothing about gambling, but when she starts to get attached to Huck, she can see the compulsiveness that he cannot. This begins a rocky on-again off-again relationship between the two where Huck will have to determine what is truly important in his life. He will also have to confront his father many times, both on and off the Poker table, and face the pain of his family past.

Most of the time while I was watching Lucky You, I felt like I was watching an advertisement for the Las Vegas tourism board, or perhaps one of those professional Poker games you sometimes see on TV. That's because the film's narrative is hardly there at all, and a vast majority of the film is devoted to the game itself. The rules are explained early on when Billie sits down with Huck to watch him play in one scene, and then the movie takes off with one game sequence after another. I'm sure there's an audience out there who finds this thrilling, but I personally never got into Poker games, and found my interest somewhat waning as the film went on. To be fair, the film's climactic game at the Championship can be pretty tense at times, but the numerous smaller games that take up the film's two hour plus running time just never build to much. Because the movie is so heavily concentrated on gaming, the story and the characters never come across as interesting as they should be. Huck and Billie never get developed beyond their most basic traits, and never even come across as a couple we can get behind. Huck's seeming inability to listen or reason made me wonder what Billie was thinking each time she hooked back up with him. I suppose this is supposed to be about a love story about two people who never learn. I can certainly see a good movie being made off of that story, but this movie never lets us get close to them, so we don't feel anything whether they are together or apart.

That's not to say the movie is all bad. Lucky You is handsomely shot, and the cinematography by Peter Deming really captures the excitement and thrill of Vegas quite well. And even if the Poker game sequences get somewhat tedious, they are filmed well and manage to keep things moving. There are also some good performances on display. The three main leads are all strong, particularly Eric Bana and Robert Duvall during their scenes together. The father-son relationship they share often felt more genuine than the romance Bana shares with Barrymore. There are also a number of enjoyable supporting roles featuring many of Huck's friends, who are equally compulsive with their gambling. One memorable cameo features Robert Downey Jr as a man who runs multiple 1-900 number services at the same time, as he switches back and forth between a self-run depression helpline and a relationship counseling line. The only problem is that all of these positives are being employed by an emotionally hollow screenplay. The narrative is shaky at best, and we never get to know these characters as much as we feel we should. There is enough drama and ideas here for a compelling romantic comedy-drama, but the film never takes charge. It's too interested in its setting, and not enough in the people who inhabit that setting.
Lucky You is not quite the disaster that should have had its release delayed for so long, but at the same time, I can understand why the studio was somewhat nervous about it. Despite the big names and the romance angle, this movie is really all about professional gambling, and it speaks to a very limited audience. I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did. With a screenplay that focused more on Huck and Billie, this maybe could have been an interesting story about two people who fall in love, despite the fact they're probably bad for each other. As it is, I often found myself trying to guess which hotel or casino they shot the scene I was watching in, and was thinking back on my own visit to Vegas a couple years ago. The movie brought back some fun memories, but not much else.

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