Reel Opinions


Friday, November 30, 2007

Awake

A lot of thrillers these days build themselves around the premise of the lead character being tortured with incredible pain, but no means to escape. Awake stands out amongst the lot in two major ways. The first is that it is somewhat more plausible and realistic than the others, in that the victim here is a patient putting his life in the hands of some shady doctors during a surgical procedure, and that there are no masked villains with multi-million dollar torture palaces under their home. The second is that it is actually character-driven, and not entirely about torture. First time writer-director Joby Harold shows a gift for effective premises and creating a tense psychological atmosphere. Where he needs improvement is in simplifying his plot, and in casting his lead characters.

The film centers on a young millionaire named Clay Beresford (Hayden Christensen). Clay is one of the most financially successful businessmen in New York, but he is constantly living under the shadow of the father who he inherited the business from, and whom he barely remembers, since he died at Christmas when Clay was very young. His overly protective and somewhat domineering mother (Lena Olin) has kept Clay on a short chain most of his life. She genuinely cares for him, but is afraid to let him go, since her son was born with a weak heart and he requires a very risky heart transplant operation. A donor has been found, and Clay wants to go against his mother's wishes, and have the operation performed by a doctor friend named Jack Harper (Terrence Howard). Jack does have a history of malpractice suits, but Clay trusts Jack, because they are friends, and he did save Clay's life once when he had heart complications the year before. This is not the only way Clay is deceiving his mother. He's been involved in a secret relationship with his mother's personal secretary, Sam Lockwood (Jessica Alba), and has already proposed to her. He's been forced to keep the relationship secret, and Sam is quickly growing frustrated. Clay wants to be his own man, no longer living in the shadow of his family name, and has decided to make his own decisions by marrying Sam in a last minute ceremony and letting Jack perform the heart transplant.

Anyone who has seen the ad campaign for this film already knows that Clay will grow to regret one of these decisions. The anesthetic is applied as it should be before the operation begins, and although Clay is put into a sleep-like state, he is still conscious of his surroundings. He can hear everything the doctors are saying, and he can feel the pain as they begin to cut him open, but he cannot move, speak, or do anything to alert those around him that he is aware of what's going on. The movie is clever in how it depicts the character in this state. We get an internal monologue as Clay lies on the operating table, wondering why he can still hear the doctors talking, and wondering if he's supposed to be feeling this incredible pain as they start to make their incisions. He tries to distract himself with memories of Sam, but other thoughts start to creep in there as well, things he doesn't want to think about. I'll have to be careful here not to go into spoiler territory, but I will say that Clay begins to hear the doctors, including his trusted friend Jack, talking about things that no one wants to hear their doctor talking about while performing surgery. A lot of things are not what they seem, and the movie turns into somewhat of a mystery as the clues pile up, and Clay races through his thoughts and memories trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The subplots pile up, more and more twists are thrown at us, and although the movie remains enjoyable, I started to feel a bit let down that writer-director Harold didn't have enough faith in his initial terrifying and much more simpler premise.

Awake is a movie that works thanks to its initial premise, and some creative ways that it gets around some obvious roadblocks. After all, it wouldn't be very interesting if we were just watching a man on an operating table for the hour or so that the movie covers the process (the movie itself is roughly an hour and a half long). We follow Clay in his mind, where he is free to roam around, and revisit past memories and jumps from one moment to the next, piecing together the information from what he hears the doctors saying about how he wound up in his current mess. The movie is at its most effective when it is dealing with the basic primal fear its simple premise provides. The movie informs us in subtitles right at the beginning that a small percentage of people remain in a conscious state during surgery, and that they remember everything that happened during the procedure. Anyone who has ever had surgery can imagine how terrifying this could be, and the movie does a great job in tapping into that fear with the monologue aspect, and taking us inside the mind of the character. The movie also does a great job unsettling us just by showing us the procedure itself. Anyone squeamish about blood or viewing operating procedures would be wise to pick a different viewing choice, as the movie does go into some detail in the heart transplant process. That being said, I do have to question the fact that so few doctors and nurses would be assigned to someone like Clay. Considering that this guy is a powerful and young tycoon, you'd think the hospital would be surrounding this guy with the best available, instead of three individuals with a history of malpractice. You'd also think the media would be breaking down the door for information.

Its only when the movie starts overstuffing itself with plot that things falter just a little. We've got shady characters, double crosses, more plot revelations to throw us off track than a movie of this type would ever need, forgotten pasts, shady dealings, and a dead guy in a Santa Claus outfit all coming into play. The only thing that keeps the film running is that it constantly knows how to hold our attention, and it keeps on managing to go back to the stuff that works. The scenes in the operating room and inside Clay's head are done so well, I started to wonder why we needed all that other stuff. I think Awake would have been better served as a short film, where it could concentrate on its single strongest suit, and cut out all the mystery filler. Even so, some recasting would need to be done. Although neither of the lead actors are necessarily bad, both Hayden Christensen and Jessica Alba are not as convincing as they should be. Christensen is somewhat dry and wooden in his early scenes, and although he does eventually do a good job of bringing across his panic and pain (the man sure can scream), his more quiet and emotional scenes with either Sam or his mother are lacking something. Alba has always been known more for her looks than her acting ability, and she definitely seems to at least be trying here. She's still hard to buy, especially when some later plot twists put her character into a completely different light that Alba does not seem comfortable with. She's good early on, but she seems to be stretching it during her later scenes. The main stand out is Lena Olin, who does a good job with her tricky character, who must be controlling and unflinching, but also sympathetic so that we can believe in the choices she makes late in the film.
I'm recommending Awake, based mainly on the genuine tension it manages to create during most of its running time. It held my interest, even when the movie started overstuffing itself, and it's well made enough for me to say I enjoyed it. The movie was not screened for critics, but it is nowhere near the turkey that would usually imply. Maybe the studio didn't have enough faith in the project, which is too bad, as the movie is nowhere near being so flawed that it deserves to be buried and forgotten. I do feel I should once again stress that you should avoid this movie if you are either turned off by watching surgery, or if you are about to go into surgery yourself. Something tells me this will not be a favorite amongst anyone in the medical profession.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Mist

When you think about it, it's surprising that it's taken so long for writer-director Frank Darabont to get around to adapting one of Stephen King's horror stories. After all, the guy shot to fame with his 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption, and found more success in 1999 with The Green Mile. Having proven his skill bringing King's dramas to the big screen, he is now faced with bringing one of the author's more famous horror stories. The Mist has been a long time in coming, having languished in development hell for nearly a decade. Now that it's here, I have to say that most audiences should find it worth the wait. This is a satisfyingly suspenseful film that is only held back by its somewhat limited budget, and an ending that is sure to bring more discussion with people walking out of the film than just about any other this year. Aside from some slight annoyances, The Mist continues the trend of successful King adaptations after this summer's 1408.

After a small town is hit by a damaging freak storm, local man David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) head to the local grocery store for some goods and supplies until the power can be restored. While inside the store, a mysterious mist that comes from the nearby mountains sweeps over the town, and seemingly brings an unseen presence with it. Anyone who dares to venture into the mist is never heard from again, or seemingly ripped apart by a monstrous creature lurking somewhere within it. David and the other locals trapped within the confines of the store start seeing terrifying shapes emerging from the mist outside in the form of giant insects and strange tentacled creatures. As paranoia and fear begins to set in with the people trapped inside, they start to form different groups of beliefs and how to survive this seemingly impossible situation. Some do not believe there is anything in the mist, some wish to venture outside and look for any kind of help, and a growing group led by a religious zealot named Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) believe that this is the result of God's wrath and that the end of the world is at hand. David, and a small group of followers, are only interested in tracking down their loved ones, and finding a way to safety.

Though mainly being billed as a special effects monster movie, The Mist is much more about the evil within people than the creatures lurking about outside. As the people trapped within the store form different alliances, they slowly start to turn against each other and try to recruit others to their way of thinking. One of the key things that I admired about Darabont's film is that he mostly casts unknown actors as the characters, with Thomas Jane and Marcia Gay Harden probably being the most recognizable names in the bunch. It gives the film a much needed sense of realism that helps with the illusion that we are watching small town people fighting for survival, rather than an all star celebrity cast hiding out in a grocery store, which would have really hurt the drama of the whole situation. The movie does a great job of building the suspense and paranoia of the situation. During the early moments, we see some fleeting glimpses of the creatures lurking outside. Maybe some wandering tentacles, a shadowy silhouette or two. Just enough to get us enticed. Darabont knows that the real terror lurks within the store, with the human cast. As they divide amongst themselves, and eventually even start plotting against each other in a vain attempt to prove superiority, we start to realize that the story is just as much a psychological study of its characters as it is a monster movie. The characters are not exactly deep, but they are developed just enough for us to care about them, and what should happen to them.

Setting a thriller within a confined space can be a risky venture, especially for a movie that runs just over two hours. Fortunately, the action never really lags. The Mist does a good job at keeping us guessing, wondering just what the characters are going to try next, and who is going to turn against whom. The escalating hopelessness of the situation really gives the movie a sense of genuine dread that few other horror films achieve. In fact, it's when The Mist does play by conventional horror rules that the movie falls short. The film's limited budget really shows whenever we get a good look at the creatures lurking outside. While not exactly bad in design, they are not nearly as terrifying as they should be, and sometimes look blatantly like CG special effects that have been sloppily pasted into the live action film. It does take us out of the action for a little bit, but the movie always manages to go back to what makes it successful. That success lies mainly with the characters, who are brought to life by a spirited bunch of character actors. Everyone's in the right mind set here, and even the more well known actors such as Marcia Gay Harden don't overplay their parts to the point of ridiculousness. The movie keeps a sure footing throughout, and only when the characters intentionally act stupid does the movie lose its spell over us. (Ask yourself this: If you were just attacked by a tentacled monster, and you had chopped off one of the tentacles, and it was lying on the floor with plenty of blood everywhere, would you be worried about there not being enough evidence to prove to everyone else that there was a tentacled monster outside?)

What most people are sure to remember the most about The Mist is the ending, which has been changed from King's story. I am trying desperately to tiptoe around spoiler territory here, but it has to be said. This is one of the most polarizing endings I have seen all year. The combination of rapid discussion amongst some and angry mutterings amongst others in the audience at my screening when it was over all but proves this fact. How you view it depends on your personal preference and taste. I, for one, admire Darabont's desire to end his story the way that he did. It may not be the way we want the story to end, but it is certainly amazing that he was able to get away with what he did in a commercial horror film being released over a holiday weekend. It does not feel manipulative or desperate, and perhaps the feelings that it brings forth to its audience are what makes most people so uncomfortable with it. This time, I think the more comfortable and conventional choice would have cheapened it. It may not be the same ending as the original story, but it is effective in its own way.
I am recommending The Mist, but I do not recommend it for people looking for a good time. This is not escapist horror, or the kind of horror film that you laugh about with your friends when it is over. This is a very serious-minded film that has a lot to say, and a conclusion that is sure to invoke controversy. I found it effective for the most part, and I believe it accomplished what it set out to do. It unnerves us, it makes us uncomfortable, and it leaves us feeling more than a little shaken when it is all over. If you don't want to feel that way, don't go see The Mist.

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Hitman

It would seem that video game movies are starting to become a sort of event for fans only. Last year's Silent Hill movie was criticized for being hard to follow unless you had actually played the games. Now we have Hitman, which is so incoherent in its narrative, I don't even know if playing the game would have helped me understand what was going on. The movie is kind of like The Bourne Identity, only with a much less likable lead character and a story we can't care much about. The movie throws presidential assassinations, conspiracies, women in peril, and a bald guy with a bar code tattooed on the back of his head, but can't think of a way to throw these things together into a story that holds our interest. Maybe the film's writer, Skip Woods (Swordfish), had his mind on other things when throwing together the screenplay.

The precious little amount of background info we receive is that there is some secret organization called The Agency that takes unwanted children, trains them to be soulless killers, then shaves them bald and brands them with a tattoo of a bar code on the back of their head. You'd think that alone would make these people easy to spot, let alone identify, but the movie keeps on insisting that these trained killers are like ghosts and have never been caught. The Agency apparently has ties to the church, but the movie keeps this to itself, and no mention of religion is ever brought up in the film other than using "Ave Maria" during the opening credits, and someone stumbling upon a small cross with writing upon it at one point. The film follows the exploits of an assassin who goes by the name of Agent 47 (Timothy Olyphant). With his shaved head, distinctive tattoo, and blazing red tie that he usually always wears, he certainly seems to stand out in a crowd, and makes me wonder why no one has caught him yet. Yet, he's being pursued by Interpol Agent Mike Whittier (Dougray Scott), who has devoted his life to catching the guy.

Early on in the film, Agent 47 is charged with the task to kill Russia's new President, Mikhail Belicoff (Ulrich Thomsen). He blows the guy's brains out in the middle of a public media event, only to later be watching TV, and discover the Russian President being alive and well. (And yet, the reporters do not even question how the President could still be alive, not even the reporters who were shown getting sprayed with the President's bloody chunks during the earlier assassination attempt.) 47 knows he's been set up by his own organization but, for reasons he decides to keep to himself, he decides to take another job from them, this time being assigned to kill Belicoff's abused mistress and prostitute, Nika (Olga Kurylenko). 47 does not kill her, realizing she may be able to help him find out who set him up within his organization. Once again, how or why is a mystery, but he shoves her in his car trunk anyway. Despite the fact that the guy is frequently verbally and physically abusive to her, Nika finds herself falling for 47. Our hero, meanwhile, kills a lot of people and doesn't really say a whole heck of a lot. Then again, neither does anybody else, who seem just as lost as the audience in trying to figure out what's going on. When they do say something, it is usually something trite and meaningless, such as how Nika suddenly tells 47 out of the blue, "When I was a child, my father used to raise grapes", the comment not really going anywhere after that. Yeah, thanks for that.

Hitman is a movie that tries so desperately hard to be cool, but the strange thing is, it doesn't even seem to know how to be. Not even the film's numerous "stylish" gun battles are all that stylish or interesting to watch in the first place. The only action sequence in the movie that even comes close to being a highlight is when Agent 47 must battle three other fellow Agents, but even this isn't nearly as exciting as it should be. The movie drowns itself in plot, throws multiple twists and double crosses our way, and piles on the characters to the point that we need a chart to keep them all straight and what role in the story they play. The problem is, the movie is so consumed with moving ahead that it forgets to give us any reason to care. The characters are completely shallow and non-existent to the point that they almost are comical. Agent 47 is such a lifeless and dull lead, it's impossible to want us to see him succeed in his mission (whatever it may be). I know the guy is supposed to be a soulless killer, but does that mean he has to have no personality whatsoever? Nothing that comes out his mouth sounds cool or interesting, and he's mainly required to just give a blank stare to everything that happens around him. I guess this is supposed to make him come across as a badass, but it unintentionally made him come across like there was nothing going on upstairs. French director Xavier Gens seems only concerned with keeping the action moving, little realizing that the action has to be interesting in the first place.

Since everyone is forced to play emotionless robots, the entire cast comes up short. In the lead role, Timothy Olyphant lacks any ounce of character or even personality. This is most likely intentional, but the way Olyphant underplays everything, it just comes across as one of the big "nothing" performances of the year. This is the second big disappointment from Olyphant this year, as I was also not a fan of his handling as the lead villain in last summer's Live Free or Die Hard. I'm hoping someone can finally find a role that suits him. As love interest Nika, Olga Kurylenko is nice to look at, but not much more than that. She at least brings some amount of sympathy to her character, but she's forced to act like such an idiot for most of the film it's hard to root for her. Tell me girls, would you fall for a guy who stuffed you in a trunk most of the time and drugged you when you tried to have sex with them? I'm sort of glad the movie didn't go further with their relationship, as I'd hate to see what their first date would include. Dougray Scott is equally bland, as his single-minded character is given nothing to do but chase around the world after Agent 47, seldom stopping to give us a reason to be attached to him.
Like most failed video game adaptations, Hitman is a jumbled mess of stylish cool and pleasing the hardcore fanbase. Based on some comments I've read from fans of the video games on various message boards, the movie even failed to fulfill that. Why the Fox Studio decided this could be a big holiday weekend release baffles me. There is nothing here that is done particularly well, nor is there anything especially interesting or special about it. I won't go so far as to say the movie is worthless, as there are a couple scenes that look good and have been shot well. What little bit of style the movie does have does not make up for the complete lack of interesting substance found within Hitman.

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Friday, November 23, 2007

This Christmas

Given the surprising (some, including myself, would say mystifying) success of filmmaker Tyler Perry, it comes as little shock that other studios would try their hand at his formula. What is shocking about This Christmas is that it is much more watchable than anything Perry has put out so far. The key to the film's almost-success is that it has a lot of heart, and doesn't bang home the melodrama to the point that we start laughing at the movie unintentionally. The only thing holding the film back is that it's a bit too bland and safe for its own good.

As the holidays approach, the extended Whitfield family are returning home for Christmas with plenty of emotional baggage in tow. Head of the clan, Ma'Dere (Loretta Devine) is still emotionally hurt over her husband walking out on her to pursue a career in music years ago. This not only makes it hard to truly open herself to the new man in her life, Joe (Delroy Lindo), but it also forces certain members of the family to keep secrets from her, especially youngest son "Baby" (Chris Brown), who aspires to be a singer, but knows his mother would never approve of his choice. Oldest son Quentin (Idris Elba) owes some money to some lowlifes, and is trying his best to lay low. Daughters Lisa (Regina King) and Kelli (Sharon Leal) are both having man trouble. Kelli can't seem to find the right guy, and Lisa won't admit to the fact that her husband, Malcolm (Laz Alonso) is cheating on her. Finally, Claude (Columbus Short) is a Marine officer with a couple secrets, the most pressing being that he recently married a lovely young white woman named Sandi (Jessica Stroup) without anyone knowing. Looks like Sandi will fit right in with this family, as she has a secret as well in that she is pregnant.

Writer-director Preston A. Whitmore II (Crossover) certainly shows his skill in juggling multiple plots and characters with This Christmas. Though constantly on the brink of being overstuffed, he juggles the film with almost pinpoint precision, giving each plot just enough time to resonate with the viewer. We never feel lost or overwhelmed, and the stories do eventually overlap with one another so that they become a complete whole. The movie makes a lot of smart choices, the most notable being that it seems to exist in a world that resembles our own. That right there gives Mr. Whitmore's screenplay a leg up on Tyler Perry, whose films seem to exist in another dimension of cross dressers and contradicting morals. Though often cliched and pat, the movie has a lot of charm and energy, thanks mainly to the energetic cast, who all know how to sell the emotions of their characters without going over the top. This is safe, non-offensive holiday viewing that delivers plenty of the good cheer that the film wants to create, and has been made with some degree of care. The movie is shot well, the soundtrack filled with some catchy renditions of holiday favorites is lively, and the movie never gets bogged down in taking itself too seriously or going so broadly that we lose interest.

If anything, the only fault that can be found with This Christmas is that it plays it a little too close to the book. There is some intelligence in the script, as evidenced by how expertly it balances its numerous plots. It's a shame that Whitmore didn't try to cut loose a little bit. We pretty much know everything that's going to happen long before the characters do. The movie is at its best when its focusing on the characters and quiet moments with each other. It avoids sappy manipulation, and the characters come across as being honest and genuine, both in how they are written and the performances. These characters deserve to be in a story that is much less derivative of past dysfunctional family gathering films. That's not to say there are no moments worth remembering. "Baby's" rendition of "Try a Little Tenderness" at a club is a crowd pleaser, and the film's final sequence that has the entire cast dancing and giving personal holiday messages is a fun and interesting way to close the film. The rest of film is depressingly "by the book", and mainly coasts by on the charm of the cast, and the better than expected quality of the dialogue.
This Christmas is not a total success, and probably doesn't need to be seen on the big screen. But I do have to admit, it's made with more skill than I expected, and managed to win me over from time to time. If anything, it makes Tyler Perry's over the top live-action cartoon style all the more stale. This is not a great movie, but it has a good heart, some charm, and a lot of spirit. I don't know if I'll remember the Whitfield family Christmas by the time December 25th rolls around, but at least I'm not left with any regrets from watching it.

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August Rush

Sometimes a movie just tries too hard. August Rush tries so hard to be sweet, likable, and uplifting that I almost hated having a sour reaction to the film. The only thing that held me back from not giving into its forced charms? This isn't a very good movie. This is the kind of movie that is so manipulative and overly calculated in its good feelings that I almost felt insulted watching it. I'm sure August Rush will have its fans, but they will most likely be the kind of people who either don't like things like conflict in their stories, or they don't care what they watch, just as long as it has a happy ending.

The hero of our story is a boy named Evan Taylor (Freddie Highmore), a doe-eyed innocent who thinks of nothing but music and tracking down the parents who gave birth to him a little over 10 years ago, but supposedly gave him up to the shelter for boys that he currently lives in. He believes with all his heart that him being here is not the result of his parents not wanting him, and if only he could find a way to contact them, they would come for him and they could be a family again. We learn in flashbacks what happened. A pampered young classical musician from a well-to-do family named Lyla Novacek (Kerri Russel) had a one night stand with a rising rock singer from a poor neighborhood named Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). The two never saw each other again, due to the fact that Lyla's stern father (William Sadler) didn't want his daughter to have anything to do with someone like Louis. Lyla became pregnant with Evan after her night with Louis, but was hit by a car late in her pregnancy, which forced the doctors to remove the child from her body prematurely. The father used this as an opportunity to give the baby up for adoption, then tell Lyla that it was dead when she eventually came to in the hospital.

Evan is determined to track down his parents, so he runs away from the shelter, and finds himself in New York City, where he quickly discovers that he is a musical prodigy who can learn to play just about any instrument in mere seconds. The first to discover this is a street musician named "The Wizard" (Robin Williams), who has a group of homeless children that play music for cash on the street. The Wizard is the man who gives Evan the stage name of August Rush, and tries to launch the kid's career. When that sours, Evan is discovered by a local minister who is so impressed with the kid's ability to compose symphonies in a matter of minutes that he sends the kid straight to the most prestigious music school in New York. The kid becomes a celebrity there, and his symphony is chosen to be played at the next concert in Central Park. As for his parents, Louis (who is now a businessman in San Francisco) has never forgotten Lyla, and is desperately trying to track her down. And Lyla finds out about her child after her father tells her the truth on his deathbed, so she teams up with a New York social worker (Terrence Howard) to track down her son.

August Rush is being billed by its makers as a modern day fairy tale, but this movie stretches the realms of believability even by those standards. This is a story made entirely out of contrived coincidences and pat circumstances. The movie moves at a brisk pace, but perhaps it's a bit too brisk. The story seems rushed and unsatisfying, due to the fact that it simply moves from one major event to the next, like it's in a hurry to get done. Despite this, the movie still manages to run for almost two hours. This rushed tone gives the movie an unintentionally comical effect. I love the way that Lyla seemingly leaves her father on his deathbed, without even waiting for him to pass away, to go look for her son. The father is never mentioned again, and it looked like she didn't even go to his funeral. Young Evan's journey to child prodigy genius is equally breezed over, as he apparently learns to compose symphonies in the course of one afternoon, and is accepted to Julliard music school seemingly by the next day. There is no sense of time passing in this movie, with everything seemingly happening instantaneously. Not only does this make the film hard to believe, but it also prevents us from getting truly close to the characters. It's rushed and episodic nature allows characters to just pop in and out of the story as the film pleases, and we never find ourselves getting closer to anyone.

The movie is also completely lacking in conflict or suspense. Even when Evan is on the street, he never seems to be in any danger, because he immediately meets a friendly group of street kids who take him under their wing. The Robin Williams character is the closest thing this movie has to a villain, as he tries to exploit Evan's musical talents for his own gain, and is very possessive of him, not letting him look for his parents. But even he doesn't come across as being so bad most of the time. The screenplay by Nick Castle (The Boy Who Could Fly) and James V. Hart (Sahara) only wants to tell an uplifting story, and has sanded off any rough edges it might have had. But, even uplifting stories need some form of crisis or moments when hope seems lost. It makes us want to see the hero pull through. We never get that in August Rush. Evan's journey from boy in a homeless shelter to conducting his first symphony in Central Park goes mainly without incident. The same goes for his parents' individual journeys, who both seem to fall upon the right clues so that they can coincidently be in the right place at the right time. We never feel like the characters earn their success, more so it just falls in their lap. When the expected happy ending arrives, it is just as forced and coincidental as everything else in the movie, leaving me not with warm feelings, but left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

The cast that has been assembled is certainly not without talent, but they are at the mercy of a screenplay that doesn't care about their characters. Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) once again finds himself playing a "golden boy" type. He's been good in past films, but here, he mainly just stares at everything in doe-eyed wonder and smiles that shy little innocent grin of his. He never comes across as an interesting character, due to the fact he is never developed as anything but a total innocent. As his parents, Kerri Russel and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are both passable, but once again, are never developed beyond their individual single-minded goals. The one actor who comes across the best is Robin Williams, who at least gets to show different shades to his character. His character is a seemingly kind person with a dark undercurrent. The fact that he is the only person in this movie with anything resembling darkness within them makes him stand out. Terrence Howard is wasted in a throwaway role as a social worker who is trying to track Evan down. He pops up from time to time, but none of his scenes allow him to truly grab our attention.
August Rush is a movie that is brought down by its own good intentions. It's so forced and mechanical in its good feelings that we find ourselves at a distance from the characters and everything that is up there on the screen. I quickly found myself not caring about the movie, and it never really tried to recapture my interest. The movie just rushes right through its story, never really stopping to wonder why we're supposed to care about these people. At the end of the movie, a young boy gets a chance to share his gift with the world, loved ones are reunited, and the end credits rolled. That last part filled me with more joy than anything that had happened in the movie itself.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Enchanted

There are a lot of family films that are charming, and some that are smart. Enchanted is that rare film that manages to be both. A big part of the reason the film works so well is its lead actress Amy Adams, a woman who has been appearing in films for almost 10 years, but has never quite got the attention she deserves. I have a feeling that will change when audiences get a glimpse of her here. She's so charming, funny, beautiful, and smart here that her performance and her character are almost impossible to resist. It's a good thing the movie that surrounds this performance is pretty clever and often very funny itself. This is the sort of holiday blockbuster where the care that went into the making of the film is right on display on the screen.

The story begins in the far-off animated fairy tale world of Andalasia, where the lovely Giselle (Amy Adams) sings and dances with the local forest creatures while she waits for her Prince to come. He arrives in the form of the gallant Prince Edward (James Marsden), who immediately falls for the maiden after rescuing her from a troll. Unfortunately, the Prince comes with a wicked stepmother attached - A spiteful woman named Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) who does not want her stepson to marry, since that would mean she would have to step down from her throne. On Giselle and Edward's wedding day, the Queen disguises herself as an old hag and leads Giselle to a "wishing well", which is actually a portal to another world. The world that she finds herself in is our own, specifically right in the middle of Times Square in New York City. The film switches from animation to live action at this point, as Giselle finds herself completely out of her element. Eventually Edward and Narissa will cross over to our world as well, looking for her for different reasons, and become flesh and blood as well.

As Giselle tries to make her way through this strange land she finds herself in, she has the fortune to encounter a single father named Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey), and his six-year-old daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey). Morgan is young enough to recognize that Giselle is a Princess like the ones in her storybooks immediately, but Robert initially thinks she's just a crazy woman who has lost her way. This notion becomes harder to believe when he witnesses Giselle's ability to call upon the local animals to tidy up his apartment. (Of course, Giselle is surprised to discover that instead of the cute forest animals she was expecting to heed her musical call, she receives some of New York's regular residents - namely pigeons, rats, flies, and roaches.) The more time he spends with Giselle, he begins to fall for her, which is a problem, since he is already planning to propose to his current girlfriend, Nancy (Idina Menzel from Rent). It also doesn't help that he happens to be a divorce lawyer who doesn't believe in "happily ever after". As the world of Andalasia begins to collide with our world, the stakes will grow higher, and Giselle will have to learn sometimes a woman has to take a stand for herself instead of waiting for her Prince to rescue her.

As directed by Kevin Lima (Disney's animated Tarzan) and written by Bill Kelly (Premonition), Enchanted is not just a loving tribute to the past animated fairy tales of the Disney Studio, but it's also a wonderful, fun, and inventive film all on its own. Thee premise opens itself to a lot of imagination, and for once, the movie actually takes advantage of that fact. Though sometimes predictable, the movie has a constant charm and intelligence to it. This is not a movie that has been severely dumbed down for the sake of children. Yes, there is plenty of slapstick gags and cute CG animal effects to make them laugh, but there is a surprising amount of wit and laughs in the dialogue. It's a nice change of pace compared to recent family films like Bee Movie and Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, which were pleasant and watchable, but didn't really offer any big laughs. The movie's fish out of water element, with the overly kind and whimsical Giselle encountering some of New York's less savory individuals, is often quite clever. Giselle never once comes across as an idiot, she is simply someone completely out of her element, and is struggling to adapt. She does eventually learn her way around our world, and this fact makes her all the more endearing to us. She has a brain, she has a heart, and we want to see her succeed.

What impressed me the most about the film is the way it pokes fun at fairy tale conventions. The filmmakers do not go for the "hip" and "cool" approach, like the highly overrated Shrek series, the crummy Hoodwinked, and the awful Happily N'Ever After followed. This is a movie that knows the cliches and conventions, and has fun with them, rather than ridiculing them. The opening 15 minutes of the film, set in the animated world of Andalasia, look like they could have come right out of one of the Disney classics. Even the film's musical numbers, written by Broadway veterans Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz (who both have written songs for past Disney films like Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, respectively), are catchy and clever in their melody and lyrics. It understands what made these films endear for so long, and doesn't feel the need to mock them. Once again, the movie finds clever ways to mock its source material. In the animated world, Giselle has a talking chipmunk friend named Pip, who crosses over to our world with Prince Edward to look for her. When Pip enters New York, he discovers he can no longer talk, as he finds himself limited to squeaks and chirps like a chipmunk in our world. His attempts to make the other characters understand what he is trying to say bring some of the biggest laughs in the film.

There is also a surprising amount of heart and charm in Enchanted as well. The shy love that slowly builds between Robert and Giselle is sweet and winning, with a touching bit of sadness as well, since they know in their hearts they can never truly be together in their current state. As stated before, Amy Adams pretty much makes Enchanted. Her performance starts out almost as a self-parody of the Disney Princess archetype. Her gentle, almost naive, grace perfectly fits the character. She becomes even better when her character starts to become more "human" in nature, and figures out for herself how to survive. This is a tricky performance, as she must be a living cartoon character and a sympathetic and strong woman at the same time. Adams pulls this off flawlessly, giving what I consider to be one of the stand out performances of the year. As Robert, Patrick Dempsey is mainly stuck with the straight man role, but he nonetheless never comes across as being dull or under developed. He genuinely cares for Giselle the more time they spend together, so he never comes across as the bland love interest who falls in love with the lead character because the script requires them to. They get to share some nice moments together, the highlight being a dance that they share, which is just as romantic as any moment in an adult-targeted love story.

In the area of supporting performances, James Marsden plays his Prince Edward very broadly, but it is appropriate in his case. What impressed me is that the screenplay does not make his character into a total buffoon or vainly egotistical, like Princes are usually depicted in recent fairy tale comedies. Like Giselle, he is out of his element, and just has a harder time adapting than she does. Susan Sarandon seems to be having the time of her life chewing up the scenery as the evil Queen, and delivers all of her scenes with the right amount of gusto without going over the top. Credit also has to be given to Idina Menzel, who plays Robert's current girlfriend, and finds herself in a difficult position as she slowly realizes that his attention is not with her. The way the movie handles her character and story arc is heartfelt and genuine. She's not a bad person, and she does love Robert. It's a tricky situation, but the screenplay handles it well, and at least manages to give her a happy ending of her own.
So many films have great ideas, but fail to exploit them to the fullest. The makers of Enchanted seem to have realized they found gold with their idea, and made the most of it. Almost nothing has been overlooked here. I say almost, because I would have liked a little bit more of Giselle and the other characters from the animated world discovering New York. These scenes are mostly reserved for the early moments before the plot on our world kicks in. The movie does miss a few possibilities for satire here and there, but makes up for it with a lot of other bright ideas that I didn't see coming. There is enough charm, laughs, and invention on display here to leave just about any viewer satisfied. With so few family films truly offering something for everyone, Enchanted stands out because it actually does.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Into the Wild

Face it, we all have dreamed at least once of casting off the shackles of our everyday lives, and running off into wherever the road would take us. It's hard not to fantasize about such things as we are confined to our mundane jobs. Very few people ever act upon this dream, but in 1990, a college graduate named Christopher McCandless decided to do just that when he realized he had reached his fill of modern society. He donated all the money he had, burned his Social Security Card, and ran away from the family that he felt had oppressed him for so long. His journey lasted two years, and that journey is now the basis for the remarkable new film, Into the Wild. Writer-director Sean Penn (2001's The Pledge) has created an unforgettable movie that joins the ranks of the growing number of great films being released at the end of the year.

The story is told out of sequence, and begins near the end of the journey when Christopher (portrayed in the film by Emile Hirsch) is taking shelter in an abandoned bus in the middle of a snowy wilderness. Flashbacks provide the answers that fill us in on the story thus far. As he graduates from college, he is not looking forward to the commercial and material-driven society he is expected to succeed in. His emotionally distant and always fighting parents, Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) are further proof to convince him to leave the human race behind, and return back to nature. We follow his journeys and the various people that he encounters along the way, including a pair of aging hippies (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener), a grain harvester (Vince Vaughn) who hires and befriends Christopher for a short time, an aspiring teenage singer (Kristin Stewart) who experiences her first love with Christopher, and an old widower (Hal Holbrook) who not only welcomes the young man as a friend, but even offers to adopt him.

Into the Wild is constantly walking a tricky and very thin line, particularly with the character of Christopher himself. He is a very self-centered young man who cuts off all ties from his family and friends, and sets off on his own. Throughout the film, we get a narration from his sister (Jena Malone) back home, who wonders not only where her brother has gone, but also what could have become of him, as he told no one of his plans. We see the pain and grief that the family goes through, and if done the wrong way, this could have easily made Christopher completely unlikable as a lead. While it's true that he did not grow up in the best of families, as evidenced in flashbacks to the childhoods of him and his sister, his decision to just cut all ties does seem rather harsh. Christopher is depicted as a dreamer, and perhaps a foolish one at that. Although he feels he is well prepared to face any danger or obstacle on his journey, he eventually soon finds himself in over his head, and even longing somewhat for the people he left behind. The last words that we see him write about his experiences near the end of the film tie into the ultimate message of the film - all the experiences in the world mean nothing if you have no one to share them with.

The film effectively combines two different genres, that of the road trip picture and that of the survivalist movie with man pitted against nature. The road trip part of the film reminded me of David Lynch's criminally underseen 1999 film, The Straight Story. It shares the same laid-back tone that captures the beauty and feeling of seeing the country on your own, as well as the same episodic story structure with the different experiences and people that he meets along the way. The survivalist half of the story reminded me of the recent documentary, Grizzly Man, which was also a film about a man who gave up just about everything he had to fulfill his passion about bears and to live in the wilderness. Both halves are equally compelling for different reasons. The different encounters that Christopher has along the way bring about some of the film's most memorable moments, the ones concerning the teenage singer and the old widower being the main stand outs. The second half of the film gives the film a somewhat darker and more desperate tone, as Christopher realizes that he will have to survive, hunt, and find various ways to keep his sanity as the loneliness and isolation closes in on him. The more laid back "travel" segments and the much more intense "survival" sequences form a completely satisfying film that manages to end on a very poignant note, bringing its ultimate message across in an effective and natural way.

Despite a running time of two and a half hours, the film never once lags, or loses our interest. There's very little to complain about here, and that especially goes for the cast. Although relatively new to leading roles, Emile Hirsch (Alpha Dog, Lords of Dogtown) completely nails the very complex character of Christopher McCandless. He does have a cocky and arrogant side to him, but he is not brash, stupid, or unlikeable. He comes across as a young man excited at the opportunities that lie before him, and as someone who feels he can overcome anything. Hirsch is forced to literally carry the entire movie almost by himself, and he does so with relative ease by making his character into a very realistic and sympathetic one, despite his sometimes single-minded nature. The rest of the cast don't get nearly as much screen time, but they are all effective nonetheless. The main stand outs include William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, who are both very effective as his parents whose anger over his disappearance quickly turns to remorse. Vince Vaughn gets a chance to finally break free of the comical slob he's been stuck as for his past couple films, and deliver a fine performance. But the real performance to watch for is Hal Holbrook, who enters late in the film, and almost steals the movie away from Hirsch. His performance is worthy of a nomination for Supporting Actor come Award time, and his character is bound to stick with just about any viewer.
It's nice to see 2007 ending on a very high note so far, after so much mediocrity leading up to now. Into the Wild is easily one of the great films of the year, and if it didn't have so much competition, may have shot right to the top. This is a wonderful movie all around that does what all films based on a true story should do - It made me want to know more about the actual person and the story that inspired the film. Walking into the film, I expected at least some beautiful scenery. I certainly got that, thanks to the beautifully shot nature photography from Eric Gautier. But I also got a wonderful story that took me through a broad range of emotions. The movie even ends on a perfect note, creating a completely satisfying experience from beginning to end. That in itself is a rarity.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

There's nothing wrong with Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium that a little bit of plot, or Heaven's sake, some character-driven tension couldn't fix. This is a series of ideas (some good, some needing more fleshing out) in search of a movie to hold them in. Writer-director Zach Helm (Stranger Than Fiction) has not only set his movie in a toy store, he often seems like a child lost in one. His screenplay is overflowing with ideas and potential, and he keeps on showing them to us, but he can't think of a way to bring them together into a narrative. This saddens me, because there are a lot of touching and whimsical moments that hint at a much better movie than the one he's given us. When your movie contains an out of the blue cameo by Kermit the Frog, and you can't give the poor guy anything to do, you're definitely not working hard enough.

The title refers to a magical toy store set in the middle of New York City that is run by the eccentric genius, Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), a 243-year-old man who has literally seen it all. (Among his many achievements, he gave Thomas Edison the idea for the light bulb, and played hopscotch with a young Abe Lincoln.) His store is like no other, as it is alive, as are all the toys within it. His two best friends are a woman named Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), a former piano prodigy who works at the store, and a lonely little boy named Eric (Zach Mills), who doesn't have any friends and narrates the story. Edward's time on this world is running short. He knows this because once when he was young, he bought enough shoes to last his entire life, and he is on his last pair and they're almost worn out. In preparation of leaving this world, he has hired a straight-laced accountant named Henry (Jason Bateman) to balance his books and receipts, something he hasn't done in the hundreds of years he's run the store, and has also decided to leave the store in the care of Molly, who has no idea how she's supposed to keep the magic of the store running. She's been trying to write a piano concerto for years, but has run into a mental block, and no longer believes in herself or her ability. The store itself is equally unhappy with the news that Edward is dying, and begins to act out in its own way, first by having the toys run amok throughout the store, and then simply by just losing all its color and becoming lifeless. Molly must find a way to recapture the feeling of confidence and magic that she once held within her in order to make the store great once again.

Watching Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium was a strange experience, as I would be sitting there, not really caring much about the film, but then a particularly well done scene would come along that would cause my interest to spike up. This is a movie that teases you into thinking that it's finally starting to go somewhere, only to go right back to where it was before. The screenplay sets up numerous plots, but aside from the plot concerning Molly trying to regain the magic of the store, none of them are resolved. When the movie comes to literally an abrupt end (meaning it felt like the final scene wasn't even finished yet when it faded to black), I wondered if perhaps there was more that was left on the cutting room floor. The big problem is that the movie seems far too concerned about the special effects and the magical toy store, and not enough about the people within it. I have read in interviews that when Zach Helm made this film, he was made to add more effects shots by the studio. That right there, I think, is where the movie goes wrong. There is a heart in this script, and the characters are likable. They're just left constantly fighting for our attention amongst the chaos of the magical toy store. And yet, I'm in an odd position here, because I liked the store also. It's a triumph of set design, and a lot of thought obviously went into it. I just think it gets too much of the attention, and should have let the characters take center stage more often.

When the movie does turn away from the store and onto the characters, this is usually when it grabbed my attention. It's the subtle moments that made me want to like this movie more than I did, and also hinted at what it could have been. I liked the children's storybook-style approach to the film, with the story being divided into "chapters". I liked the sweet mentor/student relationship between Edward and Molly. I liked the friendship that eventually built between shy little Eric and Henry the accountant. These are great characters, they just need a movie that's more interested in them. The performances, none the less, are at the top of their game. I was very worried when I initially heard Dustin Hoffman speaking with a comical lisp, fearful that the movie was taking the wrong approach almost right from the get go. Surprisingly, as the movie goes on, Hoffman manages to make Edward into a very human and heartfelt character, instead of the goofy eccentric that he initially comes across as. There is a soul to the character, and by the end, he has endeared himself to us. Natalie Portman is equally strong as the young woman who has worked with Mr. Magorium for years, and is now at a crossroads in her life as to wether she should stay where she is, or if she should look for the strength she has long lost to follow her dreams. Aside from a moment where she is forced to laugh at something, where her laugh sounds far too forced and unnatural, she gives a very realistic performance, and is a nice contrast to all the chaos around her. Jason Bateman tops off a very busy year (the guy's literally popped up in something every two months seemingly) with yet another performance that I admired. And child actor Zach Mills makes Eric into a very natural and believable kid, instead of the cloying and scripted kid I initially expected.


The moments of the film that impressed me the most, however, come with the handling of the inevitable death of the title character. The movie does not treat it in a heavy way, or in a way that would scare young children. In fact, it's beautiful in a way, and makes me wonder all the more what this script used to be before the studio told the filmmakers to add more special effects and zaniness. The screenplay and Hoffman's performance deals with the topic with appropriate grace and pathos. These moments are the ones that get the biggest reaction from the audience, because the movie finally steps away from the contrived and mechanical plotting and effects, and actually speaks to the audience. I have to say, the tenderness of these moments caught me off guard. Hoffman's final scene with Portman, and his exit from the movie itself is much more magical than the toy store could ever hope to be, and almost made me wish those scenes and the dialogue were surrounded by a different movie. The movie is wise to make these moments not depressing or heavy handed. It is simple, sweet, and beautiful. That the movie loses its way once again almost as soon as these moments are over not only frustrated me, but made me want to somehow rewind the film and watch those scenes over again.
Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is not quite as magical as the title would imply, but at the same time, it's not as torturous and obnoxious for adults as the film's ad campaign would want to lead you to believe. This is a movie that has obviously been tinkered with, and not in a beneficial way. It's a movie where the heart and the characters are fighting a constant battle for attention with the thin storytelling and the special effects, and the lesser elements keep on hogging the spotlight. I can only hope that the next time Zach Helm steps behind the camera, he has the strength to stick closer to his original vision, or that the studio has more faith in a film that is intelligent and wise, and doesn't feel the need to constantly distract us from what was working so well in the first place.

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