Reel Opinions


Sunday, March 30, 2008

21

Despite being "inspired by a true story", and based on the novel by Ben Mezrich, 21 is an obviously highly fictionalized account of a group of MIT college students who broke the bank in Vegas with a card counting system. Much has been changed, and usually not for the better. Though far from a terrible movie, the screenplay by Peter Steinfeld (Be Cool, Analyze That) and Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire) is far too padded and drawn out. It gets to the point where we don't know if we're watching a movie based on a true story, or a two hour advertisement created by the Las Vegas tourism committee.

At the center of the story is Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess from Across the Universe and The Other Boleyn Girl), a gifted young man with dreams of going to Harvard Medical School. He has the recommendations, the grade point average, and the skills to be accepted. What he doesn't have is the $300,000 fee required to go there. There is a scholarship that could get him a free ride into the school, but his chances there are looking faint. With student loans apparently not existing in whatever world this movie takes place in, Ben is getting desperate, and the $8 an hour he makes as assistant manager at a men's clothing store isn't cutting it. That's when one of his Professors at MIT, Micky Rosa (Kevin Spacey), happens to notice Ben's talent for logical thinking under pressure and skill with mathematics. He introduces Ben to a secret group he's organizing after hours on campus where some of Ben's fellow students and him take trips to Vegas every weekend, and make out like bandits using a complex system of secret code words, counting cards, and fake identities so that they don't get caught. Ben is hesitant at first, but his desire for money, and even stronger desire for one of the women in Professor Rosa's Vegas group named Jill Taylor (Kate Bosworth) draws him in. Ben's initial plan is to raise the money he needs for Harvard, then get out. But the party lifestyle of Vegas and the allure of money draws him in to the point that he forgets about everything. This not only costs him his friends back home at college, whom he starts to ignore, but he also starts to arouse suspicion with the head of security at one of the casinos Ben's group frequents - an old fashioned Vegas "thug" named Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne).

Just looking over that synopsis almost fools me into thinking that 21 is a much more interesting movie than it actually is. There's certainly nothing wrong with the premise, it's the execution that makes everything come up short. This movie gives a muddied and blurred look not only into the lives of these people, but also the system they used to pull this scam off. The movie uses a lot of camera tricks and music video-style editing to depict their training, so we never get a real sense of just what the plan is, and how they put it together. The movie doesn't even seem that interested in the students themselves, as aside from Ben, we learn absolutely nothing about them. Are they in this group for the same reason as him, or is it just simple greed for them? They're a sketchy group at best, with only one of the students besides Ben having a character trait. The fact that this trait is that this other student is a klepto and likes to steal from his hotel rooms doesn't really help draw us in. Not even the relationship that slowly grows between Ben and Jill is very effective, because they have not been written as interesting people. They don't get many quiet moments together, and the one time they actually make love, the camera is more fixated on the Vegas backdrop outside the window behind them than on the two people we're supposed to be concentrating on. Part of this is because the movie is rated PG-13, so obviously we're not going to see much. And part of it is because director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law) seems more interested in the story's setting than the story itself.

After a lengthy introduction sequence informing us of Ben and his money problems that drags on far too long, the movie finally hits Vegas, and I expected things to start picking up. Strangely enough, the movie seems to become even more distracted. We get a lot of music video-style montages of Ben and his friends winning big, a lot of shots of the Vegas strip, and a lot of fancy product placements when they start spending their winnings. But, the story itself kind of spins its wheels and never really goes anywhere. Despite its best efforts, the movie is never really creates any tension. We know that Ben is being watched by Cole Williams, and we see fairly early on what he does to people he catches cheating, but the character of Cole is mainly used as a device rather than a character who creates genuine tension. Fishburne is a very powerful actor, and is more than capable of creating a sense of menace. If you need proof, just see his performance as Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It. He's not menacing or very interesting here. He just stands in the shadows for most of his screen time, narrowing his eyes. The movie also tries to create tension with a subplot about one of Ben's fellow students in on the scam (Jacob Pitts) growing jealous of him when Ben becomes the head player in the group. The two characters never have a confrontation that we would expect, and the character is completely dropped by the halfway point, never to be seen or heard from again. It's almost as if rather than doing an adaptation of this amazing true story, the filmmakers used this as an excuse for an extended Vegas vacation, and decided to just film the actors jetting around the strip while they were there.

When it comes to the performances, only Jim Sturgess and Kevin Spacey stand out, as they're the only ones who get something that resembles character development. The story arc for Ben of going from a quiet and meek "brain", to a reckless high roller in Vegas who almost loses everything is very predictable, but Sturgess is able to give his performance enough humanity that he's interesting to watch, and has a screen presence that can carry the film. This is good, since he's literally in every scene of the film. As for Spacey, he brings the usual intensity that he always brings to his roles. He seems to be having fun, and it's a shame that the movie forces him to stay off camera for such a long period of time, so the movie can focus on his students goofing around in Vegas. As the main love interest of the story, Kate Bosworth is disappointingly dry and never generates any real screen presence, not even when she's sharing a scene alone with Sturgess. This not only makes their relationship hard to get behind, but it also makes her character come across as a dullard, slowing down the pace of the film whenever she's on screen. The remainder of the cast is frivolous, and hardly worth mentioning.

It seems that a lot of movies set in Vegas these days lose their focus on the story, and expect us to be entertained by the setting. I am reminded of last year's Lucky You, a mediocre romantic comedy-drama that also was set around professional gambling. 21 makes a lot of the same mistakes that movie did. It completely forgets to develop the characters at the heart of the story, and seems to only be speaking to those in the audience who are in the same mind set as the characters up on the screen. Movies are supposed to invite us into the world the characters inhabit. All this movie makes us want to do is go straight to the Travel Agent, and catch the first flight to Vegas. 21 works as an advertisement for a vacation destination, but is not so successful as a gripping drama.

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Run, Fatboy, Run

Anyone who walks into Run, Fatboy, Run, and expects another Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz because of the presence of its lead star, Simon Pegg, is going to be greatly disappointed. This is kinder, gentler, and undoubtably a bit more contrived material than we're used to seeing Pegg in. And yet, the film managed to work with me. I laughed quite a bit during the first half of the film, and when the laughs started to dry up during the second half, I was won over by the overall charm of the characters and the film itself. Even though I think referring to the film's star as a "fatboy" is pushing it quite severely, the movie's heart constantly seems to be in the right place.

Pegg plays Dennis, a 30-something loser who hasn't made much of his life, and works as a security guard at a womens' undergarments store. He lives alone in a shabby apartment, and spends most of his personal time arguing with his landlord (Harish Patel). We learn early on that things weren't always like this. Five years ago, Dennis was engaged to be married to the lovely Libby (Thandie Newton), who was pregnant with their child at the time. But, right before the ceremony, Dennis got scared and ran away. The wedding was called off, but he still keeps contact with Libby, and tries to spend as much time as he can with their young son, Jake (Matthew Fenton). Dennis has grown to realize the mistake he made that day, and has been trying to patch things up with his ex-fiance. Libby, on the other hand, is quite content to move on, and thinks she's found the right man with Whit (Hank Azaria), a successful businessman and athlete. Dennis is immediately threatened by this seemingly-perfect man who has walked into Libby's life, and when he finds out that Whit is planning to participate in an upcoming marathon run, Dennis becomes strongly determined to get in shape and run as well.

As the film's opening scene at the wedding informs us, Dennis is a man who has always run away from his responsibilities, and never finished what he started. The question the movie asks its audience is whether or not he can motivate himself to finish such a monumental task as running a marathon. It's a simple question, and Run, Fatboy, Run takes an appropriately light and breezy approach to it. Making his feature-length directorial debut, actor David Schwimmer finds the right tone here. There's a certain sweetness and innocence to the entire film that grew on me, even when Dennis is portrayed as far from a perfect man or father. He is lazy, irresponsible, and doesn't always make the best judgements. And yet, there was something about Pegg's performance that made me think that there is good in him, and he is fighting an internal battle between the person he is and the person he wants to be. He comes across as flawed, not terrible, so when he starts trying to better himself, I could get behind him. Disappointingly, most of the scenes of him bettering himself are reserved for music montages, but the movie does hit upon the right note during some of the later scenes when Dennis is talking with Jake, and realizes the mistakes he's made in his life up to this point.

According to behind the scenes reports, the movie was originally written by stand up comic and actor, Michael Ian Black, to be set in New York. When the script fell into Simon Pegg's hand, he retooled it, and changed the setting to London. The different writing styles of Black and Pegg do sometimes show in the film, such as when the movie dives into some inappropriately crude humor. A scene involving a giant blister on Dennis' foot after one of his runs would be more suited for an American Pie movie, rather than the sweet-natured romantic comedy this movie wants to be. Fortunately, this kind of thing doesn't happen very often, and the movie is able to mostly find a steady tone that works. There are even some quietly inventive moments, such as when Dennis hits "a wall" during his marathon run near the end, and doesn't know if he can continue. It's a simple moment, but I found it strangely inspiring. On the whole, the screenplay is pretty conventional, and I highly doubt that there's a moment the audience will not be able to see coming before the characters do. Fortunately, the cast is spirited and charming enough to carry the material throughout.

Even if this is a different kind of role for Pegg than most American audiences are used to seeing him in, he still comes across as being likable. The quiet moments that he shares both with his character's ex-fiance and son are honest and sweet, and made me think he'd be pretty good in somewhat of a more straight role than he's used to. As the main people in his life, Thandie Newton and Matthew Fenton don't have a lot to do, but they still manage to make the most of their light material every time they're on screen. The two actors who came across strongest to me, however, are Harish Patel (as the previously mentioned landlord) and Dylan Moran (who previously co-starred with Pegg in Shaun of the Dead) as Dennis' gambling-obsessed best friend. They get some of the bigger laughs in the film, and when they get behind Dennis and train him for the marathon, they create a good chemistry with each other. The closest thing to a weak link would probably be Hank Azaria, who never truly comes across as a villain except when the screenplay requires him to. He doesn't get enough screen time for us to truly hate him, and Azaria's performance is a bit too low key to get the right audience reaction the filmmakers want.

When I think back on it, Run, Fatboy, Run is a lot like the character of Dennis itself. It's flawed and doesn't always seem to do the right thing, but its likable enough that I can support it. The movie carries a tone that goes down easy, and seems to understand that it's just a simple romantic comedy that only wants to make us laugh and feel good for the 100 minutes it lasts. It succeeds thanks to its cast and for a couple of strong one-liners found throughout. If anything, this movie proves that a film doesn't need to be entirely original or groundbreaking to work. All it needs is the right amount of energy and charm, and this film has both to spare.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Superhero Movie

Seeing David Zucker's name listed as one of the producers of Superhero Movie is kind of like seeing a father standing back and watching while someone beats on his own son. Zucker should be credited as one of the fathers of the modern spoof movie, having had his hand in such classics as Airplane, The Naked Gun, and Top Secret. Giving his approval to this film basically means he no longer cares about his own genre, and is willing to let anyone do anything to it as long as he gets paid. The end result of both the movie and the act of abuse are equally hard to watch.

The abuser in this case is writer and director, Craig Mazin. He takes the familiar and unfortunate approach of taking a popular movie, doing an almost scene-for-scene remake of it, and then adds jokes around bodily fluids to the scenes, hoping we will laugh. We do not, but that doesn't stop Mazin from trying the same thing in every scene, and getting the same failed result. The popular movie being parodied this time around is 2002's Spider-Man. There are also some fleeting nods to other franchises such as X-Men, Fantastic Four, and 1989's Batman, but they're not worth mentioning. Very little in this movie is. The hero of the origin film, Peter Parker, has been replaced with Rick Riker (Drake Bell), a nerdy high school student who has his life turned around when he goes on a school trip to a local science lab, and is bitten by a genetically engineered dragonfly. Before that, though, he gets raped by every animal in the lab for the sole purpose that the movie needs a scene to stretch the boundaries of its PG-13 rating. The bite from said insect gives him super powers, and before long, he's fighting crime as the costumed avenger, Dragonfly.

Rick/Dragonfly's arch nemesis is a mad scientist named Lou Landers (Christopher McDonald), who is dying of a terminal disease, and can only be kept alive by a superpower he develops in a lab accident that enables him to drain the life out of people. With his new powers, he dons an armored suit and calls himself Hourglass. I was greatly disappointed with the approach the movie takes here. With how over the top most villains in comic book movies are (Anyone remember William Dafoe in the original Spider-Man?), you'd think they'd be ripe for satire. The movie wastes every scene it gives its villain, and supplies him with absolutely nothing funny to do. In fact, McDonald seems to be playing the character straight at times, like he thinks he's in a real comic book movie. I understand that parody works best if the actors pretend that the material is not absurd, but there's absolutely no humor in his delivery. What's even sadder is that Leslie Nielsen, an actor who is an expert in the art of treating the absurd as if it were straight drama, also can't do anything with the material he's been given. He shows up as Rick's Uncle Albert, but the movie seems to think his presence is all it needs. We smile when he first appears, because we remember his classic comedy roles. That smile quickly fades when we realize that the movie plans to waste him in a nothing role, and what's worse, is perfectly fine with it.

What always strikes me as odd is that whenever a comedy directly spoofs a popular movie, they often wind up feeling longer than the film that inspired it. Superhero Movie is only 85 minutes long, but feels a lot longer due to the total dead-on-arrival vibe it carries. Spider-Man, on the other hand, ran for two hours, but had liveliness and energy to it that kept things moving. It doesn't help matters that much like this year's other spoof film, Meet the Spartans, the filmmakers here feel the need to drag the ending credits to ridiculous lengths by completely stopping them every once in a while with a good five minutes or so worth of deleted scenes and alternate takes on existing scenes. I sat through the entire end credits, hoping I'd discover some lost piece of treasure that wound up on the cutting room floor, but alas, the stuff they took out is just as bad as they stuff they left in. I don't know why they do this anyway. Do they somehow feel that stretching the film's length to over 90 minutes will miraculously make it a better film? I know if I was involved with this project, I wouldn't appreciate having to sit through an endless string of rejected material before my name came on the screen. Actually, if I was involved with this project, I'd be having a good long talk with my agent.

Like a lot of recent films of its type, Superhero Movie is a botched opportunity, and will only appeal to young children or the easily amused. I once again find myself asking what David Zucker was thinking when he agreed to put his name on this project. Did he really think this laugh-free screenplay lived up to the kind of stuff he used to do? Did he just see it as a throwaway project that he could make money off of? I'm hoping something good will come of this. Maybe he'll see the final product, realize the error of his ways, and knock out a bang-up comedy that revives my faith in the spoof genre. The unfortunate thing is, not only do I find this scenario doubtful, but I also fear that the final product is the movie he agreed to make from the beginning.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Stop-Loss

There is a curious distance between the movie co-writer-director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) seems to think she's making, and the movie that Stop-Loss actually is. She seems to want her movie to be a hard-hitting and emotional look at the mind set of American soldiers fighting over in Iraq, and what happens when they can't seem to escape from the service they volunteered for. There are definitely moments of truth in this movie, and you can see what she was aiming for. But the movie is too one-sided, too meandering, and not emotional enough to achieve the effect she seems to be working toward.

Stop-Loss is a movie that focuses on a lot of things, but doesn't focus enough on any of the issues it looks at. It's a movie about the war, it's a movie about soldiers coming home, it's a road trip movie, it's about failed relationships, it's about how hard it can be for a soldier to return to civilian life after spending so much time on the battlefield, it's about whether it's right or not if a soldier should go AWOL...I can picture a lot of these issues making a compelling movie, but the screenplay by Peirce and Mark Richard treat them as if they're pit stops on a highway. It's content to give us the bare essentials, then move on. The title stems from a military term that means a soldier is forced back into duty even though his or her time is up. That's what happens when Texas native, Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), returns home. He's looking forward to getting back to a normal life now that his tour of duty is over, but he gets a nasty surprise when he finds out he's been stop-lost and will be heading back to Iraq at the end of the month. In a scene of great implausibility, he marches right over to his lieutenant colonel, and tells him to "f--- the President" when he finds out there's no way out of this forced return to duty. Brandon is then escorted out of the office by a pair of fellow soldiers, but he's just so angry, he punches them out, steals a jeep, and drives right off the base with no problem whatsoever.

Despite these brief flights of absurd fantasy, Stop-Loss takes itself pretty seriously. The rest of the film deals with Brandon on the run with a friend named Michelle (Abbie Cornish), who is engaged to another soldier named Steve (Channing Tatum from Step Up and She's the Man). Steve is still loyal to the military, and wonders what Brandon is doing deserting his duty. Most of all, he wonders why his fiance is helping him. I was wondering too. The movie notes in its dialogue that Michelle and Brandon have long been friends, but the movie doesn't really go much deeper into their relationship than that. First, Brandon and Michelle plan to drive to Washington D.C., and seek the help of a Senator who told Brandon he'd help him out if he ever needed it during his return ceremony. When that falls through, it looks like Brandon may have to cross the border. This lengthy mid-section with the two on the run is when the movie starts spinning its wheels. Not much happens while they're on the road, and some of their experiences, such as when Brandon has a violent run-in with some petty street crooks, seem somewhat forced and contrived. Worst of all, we never feel a real connection with any of the characters. Brandon seems less a real person, and rather a tool of the screenplay to represent its message. We learn little about him, so there's never as strong of a relationship between the audience and the character as there should be.

The movie routinely interrupts Brandon's story with the story of Steve and another soldier named Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) back in Texas. These characters are supposed to represent the ones who can't quite stop being soldiers, even when they're civilians. Steve can't see himself as being anything but a soldier, and seems to see Brandon going AWOL as a personal insult. Tommy, on the other hand, can't seem to handle life outside the military. Almost as soon as he's home, his relationship with the girl he was to marry falls apart, he turns to the bottle, and he spends his days shooting what were supposed to be wedding gifts, and breaking windows in drunken rages. The character of Tommy follows a predictable path that we can see coming from early on. Anyone paying attention should be able to figure out where his character will be when the end credits roll. The movie hits upon some interesting ideas for both of these subplots, but they're never developed as anything more than ideas. It doesn't dig deep enough to make them into real people, and their stories almost seem to be breezed over. (Steve's fiance leaving him seems to happen in less than five hours after him coming home from the war, with no real explanation given.)

What's frustrating is that there was obviously a lot of effort put into the film. The performances by all the leads are strong, and are only brought down by the fact that their characters aren't as fleshed out as they should be. The movie also hits upon some truthful moments in its dialogue. Apparently, director Peirce spent a lot of time researching and interviewing different military people about their war experiences, and it comes through in the raw and sometimes honest dialogue. The movie also has some individual scenes that work, such as when Brandon visits the family of a fallen friend while he is on the run, and another scene where he visits a wounded ally at a hospital. If the movie as a whole was more sure footed and had more of a center focus, they could have been even more effective. As it is, they come across as highlights in a movie that seems to meander along, hitting upon a good scene now and then. I wanted this movie to captivate and thrill me, but it just never seemed to get off the ground.

I have no doubt that Stop-Loss was made with the best of intentions in mind. I can see this material working, but it would take a screenplay that was willing to go beyond the surface of the people that inhabit it. Its view of these people, and what's going on in their minds, is far too limited. I wanted to embrace these characters, but the film constantly seems to be keeping us at a distance. For a movie that's supposed to be about a character who risks it all to challenge the system, this movie doesn't seem to want to take a lot of risks.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Drillbit Taylor

This is the second weekend in a row where I've seen a movie that climaxed with rich suburban kids having underground fights with each other. Either I'm completely out of the loop with kids these days, or Hollywood is trying to speak to some kind of unspoken youth demographic that gravitates to beating the crap out of each other. The difference between the two films is that last weekend's Never Back Down was goofy enough to work as unintentional comedy. Drillbit Taylor, an intentional comedy, tries to go for humor and winds up with fewer laughs. You figure it out.

A funny thing happened as I was doing some on line research on this film. One of the people credited for the story is an "Edmond Dantes", which is actually a pen name for filmmaker John Hughes. Anyone who grew up in the 80s remembers John Hughes, and his teen focused comedies such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science. Apparently, this is a project that's been lying around the studio since Hughes' height of success about 20 years ago. It was handed off to successful comedy filmmaker, Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), to produce, who in turn turned to screenwriters Seth Rogen (Superbad) and Kristofor Brown (TV's Beavis and Butthead) to punch up the material. If only Rogen and Brown had followed Hughes' style of semi-realistic teenagers with dialogue that was genuinely funny and clever. This movie doesn't know how teenagers act, and treats every adult character as if they had the I.Q.s of rocks.

The plot is a simple one that focuses on two lifelong best friends who make a lot of mistakes on their first day of high school. Scrawny Wade (Nate Hartley) and overweight Ryan (Troy Gentile from Nacho Libre) show up to school wearing the same shirts, and then they make the unwise decision to stand up for the school's main geek, Emmitt (David Dorfman, best known for playing Naomi Watts' son in The Ring films). This immediately puts them on the hit list of the two most sadistic bullies in school, Filkins (Alex Frost) and Ronnie (Josh Peck). Fearing for their lives, and getting no sympathy or support from any adult authority figure, the three kids place an on line ad for a personal bodyguard willing to work for under $100. The only one willing to accept their offer is a guy who goes by the name of Drillbit Taylor (Owen Wilson), a homeless beach bum who claims to have military training, and will teach the kids how to stand up against their tormentors. Of course, he has intentions of his own, as he plans to rob the kids blind behind their backs and use their money so he can go to Canada and start a new life. But, the more time he spends with them, he begins to like and respect them. Before anyone knows it, he's passing himself off as a substitute teacher so he can keep a constant watch over them. And in the world of this movie, passing yourself off as a teacher is as easy as walking through the front door with a suit and tie, and hanging out in the teacher's lounge.

Drillbit Taylor is a movie that doesn't just stretch the boundaries of believability. It mangles it, chops it into pieces, buries it in the ground, and then spits on its grave. The movie seems to know that a lot of its ideas are far-fetched, so it's forced to make most of the characters incredibly stupid in order for it to work. Take the whole substitute teacher thing I just mentioned. We never buy this subplot for a second, because we're supposed to believe that the Principal of the school and the entire staff will simply let anyone walk in off the street and start teaching, no questions asked. I know it's a comedy, and I'm not supposed to be questioning it, but with school security being what it is today, the movie is asking too much for its audience to buy such a lapse in logic. Further signs of idiocy on the part of the adult cast: No one believes the three kids when they try to tell them about the bullies, not even when the kids are chased down the street by the head bully's car, smashing mailboxes and running over people's lawns as he goes. The adults go on blissfully unaware, thinking that their tormentor is a Golden Boy for no reason. They have no reason to think the way they do, other than the movie would be over in about 10 minutes if anyone had half a brain. I started to feel sorry for the kids, not because of their bully problem, but because there was not a single semi-intelligent adult around them.

The kids themselves are not really written as geeks or nerds to begin with. They're written as broad characters and cliches, but not as individual characters. There's one kid that's too skinny and wears glasses, there's one kid who's fat, and then there's another kid who apparently is heavy into musical theater, as evidenced by the T-shirts he wears. We're supposed to fill in the blanks from there, since they spend most of their time arguing with each other and getting beat up, rather than getting memorable dialogue or creating characters. The movie never seems to fall upon a genuine reason for us to care about them. There is an attempt to humanize one of the main characters, concerning a subplot where young Wade tries to slowly get the attention of a girl at school (Valerie Tian from Juno), but their relationship never really goes anywhere, nor does the plot itself with the way the movie drops and picks it up at random. Not even the relationship that's supposed to build between Drillbit and the boys generates much emotion. A lot of this has to do with the fact that Owen Wilson's heart doesn't even seem to be in the material in the first place. Wilson's comic act is usually pretty quiet and laid back, but here, he seems so distanced from the material that he's practically not there. He is supposed to be a redemptive character who has a change of heart thanks to these kids putting their trust in him, and the relationship he starts with a teacher at school (Leslie Mann). The thing is, he still seemed like the same guy to me when the end credits rolled. I had to wonder what he had truly learned, other than how to scam an entire school into thinking he's a teacher.

It's been a few hours since my screening got out, and I'm still trying to figure out just who the movie was supposed to be focused on. Despite the title, a good part of the movie forces the kids to act on their own without Drillbit's aid. And when Drillbit takes center stage, his scenes seem to focus more on his personal relationship than with his time with the kids. This is a muddled and uncertain movie, and you have to wonder if the screenwriters were fighting a losing battle here. This is a movie that did not have a lot of heart or thought put into it. There's just an overall assembly line feel to this movie. The direction by Steven Brill (Without a Paddle, Little Nicky) is dull and pedestrian, and the jokes often wind up falling flat. All this, and I haven't even mentioned the film's severe and numerous switches in tone. The movie can go from a goofy farce, to a sentimental teen movie, to a ridiculously violent fight movie that glorifies violence in the span of five minutes. To say that the film is a total mess would be an understatement.

Drillbit Taylor is a movie that was made by very funny people, who will certainly be funny again. There's a lot of talent on display here, but if no one's heart is in it, there's no reason for the audience to care. If anything, I think this movie signals that Apatow and company have been to the "freaks and geeks" well one too many times, and the strain is starting to show. They need some fresh material, and a fresh start. Drillbit Taylor plays like lukewarm leftovers of last summer's far superior Superbad.

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Shutter

In the opening moments of Shutter, we see a young newlywed couple at their wedding. Ben (Joshua Jackson) and Jane Shaw (Rachael Taylor) are both young, happy, and seem to have their lives stretching out before them. Of course, we the audience know something they don't. They're in a horror movie, and so therefore, things are about to go south for the happy couple in a hurry. They have no time for a honeymoon, as they have to fly off for Tokyo so that Ben can start his new job as a model photographer for a magazine. They arrive in Tokyo, and before they even get a chance to turn on the TV and experience their first Japanese game show, that's when the trouble starts.

Jane and Ben are driving down one of those dark and eerie roads you only see in horror movies, when they suddenly hit the figure of a young woman that comes darting out into the middle of the street. The ensuing accident sends their car spiraling off the road, and the young couple are unconscious for the rest of the night. When they come to, there is no sign of the girl they hit, and despite Ben's insistence that it was probably just an animal or something, Jane is still troubled by the experience. They still try to go about their new lives together, and while Ben begins his magazine job, Jane starts wandering the streets of Tokyo, taking pictures. That's when she notices something strange. When her pictures come back, there's something strange about them. Sometimes, there's a white streak-like apparition that should not be there. Or sometimes, there's a ghostly image of a woman who also shouldn't be there, and bears a striking resemblance to the one they hit that night. A friend of Jane's named Seiko (Maya Hazen) happens to know someone who works at a ghost-themed magazine, and introduces her to the concept of spirit photography. Jane starts trying to gather clues of just who this mystery woman who keeps on appearing in her pictures could be, and what she wants with her. Ben tries his best to brush these fears off, but the fact that he keeps on seeing this menacing ghost woman everywhere makes it hard. Meanwhile, we the audience are left wondering how many more times we'll have to see this kind of movie.

Shutter is the third remake of an Asian horror film (the original hails from Thailand) in as many months, and it's really starting to wear me down. There are so many times we can see young Hollywood actors being menaced by gray-skinned Japanese ghosts before it loses the scare effect that the filmmakers intend. To be fair, this is probably one of the better Asian horror remakes that I've seen. Director Masayuki Ochiai (a Japanese filmmaker making his English language debut) does have a good sense of atmosphere, and is able to deliver an effective jolt or two. The movie is definitely better than January's One Missed Call, and more effective than February's The Eye. But the fact remains, we've seen it all before, and the movie does very little to set itself apart from the numerous imitators. The moments that are effective in delivering some genuine frights are unfortunately few and far between. The most effective moment is when Ben is alone in a set where a model photo shoot just took place, when the lights suddenly go out, and all the cameras around him start flashing randomly, giving us brief fleeting glimpses of the ghost woman approaching Ben with each flash of light. The film's climactic moments also has a few good shots, as well. However, most of the scares employed by the film are of the cheap variety, where innocent people like to suddenly jump into the frame rapidly while a loud noise bangs on the soundtrack. You'd think Ben would know that if his wife is so scared about this ghost woman terrorizing them, it wouldn't be a wise idea to just suddenly pop up behind her without warning.

Setting aside the cheap jolts and scares of the film, the movie really is about the young couple at the center of the film, and how they find their relationship tested by the events around them. Rachael Taylor makes for a surprisingly strong and sympathetic heroine, something I wasn't expecting walking in. More than being a shrieky victim, she decides to take matters into her own hands, and shows a surprising amount of conviction as she slowly starts to piece the story of this ghost woman together. Her realization of how this woman is connected to them beyond that night on the road places her in a tough situation where she must not only question everything she knows, but also her husband. As Ben, Joshua Jackson doesn't get as much to do, but it's not entirely his fault. The movie paints him as a distant and often angry man. The movie should have done a better job of making him a more three dimensional character, which would have made the film's final moments and revelations much more effective. The only other performer in the film who could be noted as a stand out is Megumi Okina as the ghost stalking the couple. While she's not particularly scary as a ghost, she does have a few effective heartbreaking moments during the flashback scenes that tell her story.

I think I'd probably like Shutter more if I wasn't so burned out on Asian horror. The movie is competently made, makes good use of its exotic Japanese setting, and even has a couple effective scares to its credit. But, just as the young couple at the center of the movie is haunted by a specter from the past, so to is this movie haunted by the specters of several others just like it. There's just not much new to see here, and it should only be seeked out by those who are still scared by these kind of movies. I suspect the number of those people are dwindling with each one that's released. Maybe Hollywood should stop plundering from Asia's film library, and start coming up with their own ideas.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns

Tyler Perry's films usually revolve around the themes of family, religion, and being thankful for what you have. If there's one thing that Mr. Perry should be thankful for it's that he had the sense to cast Angela Bassett in the lead role of his latest film, Meet the Browns. She gives a heartfelt and nuanced performance as Brenda, a single mother struggling to raise three kids in the Chicago Projects. Whenever the film is focused on her performance, you can almost hear the material ready to click. Too bad Perry's bad habit of overly broad characters and stereotypes have to keep on rearing their ugly heads whenever the supporting cast are on screen, intent on distracting us from the stuff that works. The end mixed result is a movie that seems to say that the filmmaker is starting to learn from some past mistakes, but still wants to hold onto his past tricks.

Bassett's Brenda is hit with a string of bad news almost as soon as the opening credits finish. She loses her job when the company she works for closes down suddenly, she can't afford to keep her youngest daughter in day care, and the city has cut off the power to her apartment. Her oldest son, Michael (Lance Gross), has a possible chance at a college basketball scholarship, but he might be lured into the temptations of drug dealing before he even gets a chance. Worst still, her deadbeat ex-husband won't help her. It's about this time that a letter arrives for Brenda that invites her to Georgia to attend the funeral of her father, whom she never actually knew. She reluctant to go, even if the bus tickets to Georgia are free, but her obnoxious Latino-stereotype best friend (Sofia Vergara) convinces her to go. Up to this point, I was finding the movie mostly tolerable, if not predictable. Aside from the best friend character, who almost comes across as a parody of a Latino woman, Perry had been showing a surprising amount of subtlety with the character of Brenda. Any thoughts that Perry might be showing growth as a filmmaker are dashed when Brenda and her family arrive in Georgia, and we finally meet the Browns.

The Brown family are an eccentric bunch. So eccentric, they find the need to scream most of their dialogue. Brenda doesn't seem quite sure what to make of them, and neither did I. Unlike the character, however, I had a much harder time being won over by their quirkiness. The first member of the family we meet is Leroy (David Mann), and he is not a sign of good things to come. He dresses like he buys his clothes from the circus, and he constantly makes "cute" mistakes when he talks, such as when he tells Brenda the family is going to gather to listen to her father's "last will and testicles". The rest of the family are a preachy, gossipy bunch who welcome Brenda into their home, and give her strength to keep on trying, no matter how bad things may seem. Despite the Brown family getting their name in the title, this movie isn't even really about them. The movie seems far more interested in the budding relationship Brenda has with a man named Harry (Rich Fox), who initially shows great interest in advancing son Michael's basketball career, but soon takes an even greater interest in her. In fact, I started to wonder why we even needed the Browns at all, since they seem to exist simply for broad comic relief that isn't funny in the first place.

Meet the Browns is an overstuffed movie that could have and should have made more room for the stuff that works. The relationship between Brenda and Harry may not exactly be deep, but there is a certain chemistry between the two actors that I found enjoyable. The movie affords the characters a couple of quiet moments to get closer, but they are few and fleeting. Instead, writer-director Perry keeps on trying to draw our attention with pointless melodrama. The whole subplot concerning Michael possibly giving up his basketball career to sell dope on the street with his friends is a cry of desperation just to add some heavy-handed drama to the proceedings. Equally unnecessary is the scene where Brenda's ex-husband shows up suddenly, offering to give her money, but only if she lets him have his way with her sexually. The movie works best as a simple drama of a woman who stays strong in the face of mounting problems and pressures, and how she keeps her faith in herself despite it all. Why does it need the drug dealers and the obnoxiously broad comic relief characters? It's almost as if Perry is wrestling with his own screenplay. He wants to tell an honest and uplifting story, but he also wants to give the fans of his past films what they're expecting. That's why we get a brief and pointless cameo of his Madea character, who pops up long enough to get arrested by the police after being stuck in an O.J. Simpson-style slow speed chase, then is never heard from again. Madea is yet another element that does not belong in this film.

Perry doesn't even seem to have faith in his own simple story of the two lead characters falling in love with each other. He just has to throw in a contrived plot twist out of the blue where Brenda just happens to hear one of the Brown family members talking about Harry, and how he has had debt problems in the past due to his previously unmentioned gambling habit. This bit of information is blatantly unnecessary, and exists only so that there can be tension in the relationship, and they can break up briefly. The fact that this revelation comes during the last 20 minutes of the movie only seems to drag things out instead of actually contribute to the story. Brenda and Harry are likable people, and don't deserve to be puppets, forced to dance for the amusement of an undercooked and overloaded plot. When Brenda later finds out the truth, we have to ask ourselves why Harry didn't just say it when she initially confronted him about his gambling. It would have saved them both a lot of trouble, and they could have been happier a lot sooner.

Though there are too many problems on display for me to recommend Meet the Browns, I do have to say that this is probably the best Tyler Perry movie yet, meaning it's the first of his movies I've seen that won't wind up on my Worst of the Year list. There are scenes in this film that do show he is growing as a filmmaker. All he has to do is learn to let go of what has made his past films so annoying and unwatchable. If he's smart, he'll use Angela Bassett again, and put her in a screenplay that works with her performance, instead of constantly trying to divert attention away from it.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Horton Hears a Who

Anyone can tell you that the key advantage to working in animation is that you are only limited by your own imagination. There's a freedom that live action simply cannot achieve. That's most likely the simplest reason that the previous big budget live action attempts at adapting Dr. Seuss (2000's mediocre The Grinch, and 2003's obnoxious Cat in the Hat) fell so short. There's just no way that the limits of live action could match the imagination of the beloved writer. Horton Hears a Who is animated, and the difference to the past attempts is like night and day. This is a lively, joyous, and frequently hilarious film that not only easily ranks as the best feature length attempt to bring the world of Seuss to the screen, but it's also probably the most enjoyable computer animated film to hit screens since Ratatouille.

The folks at Blue Sky animation (the Ice Age films and Robots), along with first-time directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, make a lot of right moves, almost right off the bat. The film's look is slick and modern, which allows for some beautifully animated sequences and an overall lush and vibrant tone that brings the story's colorful locales to life. Fortunately, the look is not so modern as to drown out the appeal of the characters. The character designs are mostly faithful to the original drawings to the storybook, and there are even a couple hand-drawn sequences thrown in that look like the illustrations from the book come to life. This is the first time watching a movie based on one of Seuss' stories that I actually felt like I was watching a proper recreation of the worlds he used to create. From the bizarre animals that inhabit Horton's jungle home (some that resemble actual animals, and many that seem to come strictly from the imagination), to the almost surrealistic design of the world of the Whos, that at times seems to be heavily inspired by the paintings of M.C. Escher, this is a wonderful film to look at. Fortunately for the audience, it's a wonderful film to listen to as well, as it manages to perfectly capture the warm-hearted spirit of the original story.

For the few of you who don't know, the story centers on a care-free elephant named Horton (voice by Jim Carrey), who makes his home in the jungle of Nool, and seems content to pass his days frolicking in the local water hole and imparting wisdom to his little animal friends. Horton's world is turned upside down when a tiny speck happens to float by, and he hears a tiny voice from within calling for help. His large ears enable Horton to hear the voice, as none of the other animals can hear it, and he eventually learns that on this seemingly-insignificant speck is an entire race of microscopic creatures called Whos that have built an entire society upon it. The Whos have absolutely no idea that there is another world beyond their own, nor do they realize the danger their society is in now that the speck that carries their world has been knocked out of place. The absent-minded Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell) is the first to discover Horton's existence, and realize the situation at hand. With the world of the Whos hanging in the balance, Horton must find a safe place to place the flower that the speck now sits upon, and convince the other animals of the jungle that there is life within the tiny speck. The narrow-minded and orderly Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) who rules over the animals, however, refuses to believe Horton's claims of there being other microscopic worlds, and will go to any means to destroy the "worthless" speck.

Horton Hears a Who is that rare family film that works on different levels for adults and children. Children will love the bright and vibrant animation, cute characters, and charming story with a good message that can be useful for both kids and adults. The movie is sweet and likable without being sappy, or trying hard to bring emotion. It is a simple tale that does not drown itself in needless subplots, like some past attempts to bring Seuss to the screen did, nor does it concern itself with being "hip" and "cool" for today's crowds. Yes, there are a couple pop culture references that have snuck in (there's a nod to Apocalypse Now, and a gag built around Myspace), but for the most part, the screenplay by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul (who surprisingly contributed to the screenplay to last week's awful College Road Trip) keeps its heart in the right place, and the sense of humor sweet and not overbearing. The jokes don't fly fast and furious in this movie, but when they do, they often hit hard. There are some genuine laughs throughout, and although the story may seem somewhat padded to fill feature length, it never bothered me. The movie focuses on the charm of the characters to carry the movie, and it's more than enough to carry the light material.

A lot of this charm comes from the strong voice cast, which has gathered some of the strongest comedic talents working today. Aside from the previously mentioned Carrey, Carell, and Burnett, the film's cast also sports Seth Rogen (Superbad) as a little mouse that acts as Horton's closest friend, Saturday Night Live's Amy Poehler, who plays the wife of the Mayor of Whoville, who is desperately trying to understand her husband's talk of giant elephants and other worlds, and Will Arnett (Semi-Pro) who gets a lot of laughs as a vulture that the Kangaroo hires to destroy the speck. Everyone brings the right amount of energy to their performances, and creates the right mood. I was especially happy to see that Jim Carrey is able to reign in his trademark manic humor and mugging in his portrayal of Horton, and basically give us a likable everyman (every-elephant?) that we can root for. Steve Carell is also a stand out as the Mayor of the Whos that, despite his position of power, doesn't get a lot of respect from the ruling council, and mainly is just trying his best to do what is right for his people and for his large family that includes 96 daughters and one son.

Horton Hears a Who is one of the few films that I think can be labeled as delightful. It's breezy, it's very funny, and its genuinely heartfelt without having to try too hard. I can only hope that families are smart enough to ignore the stupid and crass College Road Trip, and know that this is the one to see. This movie marks a big step up for Blue Sky Studios, which has often been a distant third behind giants like Pixar and Dreamworks. While I have found much to like about their past offerings, something always seemed to be missing. Horton is their best effort yet, and a good sign of things to come.

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Never Back Down

Movies like Never Back Down make me glad I don't give star ratings in my reviews, because honestly, I don't know how the heck I'd score it. This is definitely a bad movie in a lot of ways. It's derivative, it's hard to get excited about anything going on up there on the screen, and it has a fast-paced music video editing style that seems catered to hyper active teens. And yet, I cannot deny that a lot of parts of this movie left me with a big, goofy grin on my face. The screenplay by Chris Hauty (whose single other screenplay credit is for 1996's Homeward Bound sequel) holds so many unintentional laughs in its dialogue and how seriously it takes everything, I imagine the filmmakers have a lot of outtakes of the actors just bursting into fits of laughter. If Hauty had just let loose a little bit more, he'd be delving into the realm of parody, and I'd probably be giving his movie a much more favorable review.

The plot is old hat, as is to be expected. Jake Tyler (Sean Faris) is an angry teen with a past, since he was in the same car accident when his father was killed. His long-suffering mom (Leslie Hope) has decided the family needs a new start and moves them all to Orlando, because Jake's younger brother (Wyatt Smith) is a budding tennis prodigy and has a chance for a scholarship. Jake's new high school is one of those high schools where everyone's 25-years-old, and have the kind of bodies you only see in weight training equipment commercials. Everyone at school is also apparently into underground mixed martial arts fights, as they hold lavish parties in their mansions built around kicking the crap out of each other. Jake is lured into such a party by a pretty young girl named Baja (Amber Heard), who just happens to be dating the school bully and all-around fight champion, Ryan McCarthy (Cam Gigandet). Ryan coaxes Jake into a fight by bringing up Jake's dead father (boy, word travels fast in Orlando), and thoroughly kicks his ass in front of all of Jake's new friends. It's then that Jake's nerdy new best friend, Max (Evan Peters) introduces him to a local gym that specializes in martial arts run by a wise old coach and instructor named Jean Roqua (Djimon Hounsou), who will take Jake under his wing and teach him not to fight out of anger, but out of passion and spirit. Of course, this still won't stop Jake from beating the life out of anyone who challenges him during the course of the film.

Much like this weekend's other release, Doomsday, Never Back Down takes a whole bunch of popular films, sticks them in a blender, and then creates some kind of mutated love-child out of the various ingredients. The setting and world the teens live in seems to be lifted directly from TV's The O.C. The underground martial arts tournaments that the kids frequently participate in are from Fight Club. And the plot itself is basically a retread of 1984's The Karate Kid. There's not a single moment in the movie we can't predict, because we've seen it all before. I don't think I've delving into spoiler territory when I say that Jake loses the fight the first time he goes up against Ryan. After all, the movie is only 20 minutes old or so when this happens. I also don't think it will be a shock to anyone that the film's climax will be built around Jake and Ryan having a rematch at the ultimate underground mixed martial arts championship, The Beatdown. I won't say who wins, but you probably have a good idea who stands as the victor when the end credits come. The total derivative nature of the plot, and the movie's insistence on completely playing by expectations makes it hard to get excited about anything that happens. It's like a song you used to like, but have heard way too many times before. All the right notes are there, but they just don't register anymore. The wooden performances on display certainly don't help matters. As a hero, young Sean Faris has a likable screen presence, but there's nothing behind his performance here. He seems to know he's stuck in a cliche instead of a real character, and is just going through the motions. Amber Heard as the female lead and Cam Gigandet as the villain don't hold up much better. Only Djimon Hounsou (a two time Academy Award nominee) seems to bring any real passion to his role as the coach.

There are but two saving graces that prevent Never Back Down from being a complete waste of time. The first is that the fight scenes are surprisingly well done and pretty brutal for a PG-13 rated movie. I wouldn't go so far as to say they're realistic, but they are well shot and edited in such a way that we can get a clear view of the action. The other saving grace is the total flat-out ridiculous nature of the movie itself. It's not really the fact that these spoiled wealthy kids hold regular martial arts tournaments in their backyards without their parents knowing, though it must be hard wiping away all that blood before the parents get home. Actually, now that I think about it, aside from Jake and one scene where we meet Ryan's father, these kids don't seem to have parents. Then again, these "kids" all look like they're old enough to legally drink alcohol. I also loved the movie's mentality. The rivalry between Jake and Ryan is never really developed, so it has to keep on coming up with contrived situations for them to fight. They only share I think a total of three scenes together, and for a good part of the film, Ryan leaves Jake alone. So, in order to lead to the final standoff, the screenplay has Ryan beat up Jake's friend, Max, for no particular reason. That way, Jake can say he has to fight Ryan so that he doesn't have to ever again. I also love it how they have a throwaway scene that reveals that Ryan's father is a total jerk, seemingly explaining why the character is the way he is. It'd probably have more emotional impact if the actor playing the father didn't ham it up so much. The movie is full of unintentionally hilarious moments that hold a perverse form of entertainment in how seriously the actors take the material, while the audience is fighting back their laughter.

I did not like Never Back Down, but I'd be lying if I didn't say the movie is enjoyable in a strange way for all the wrong reasons. I was somewhat grateful for the film's ridiculous nature, as it takes what should have been a derivative and boring teen drama, and turns it into an unintentional laugh riot. I'm sure that director Jeff Wadlow did not aim for this reaction, but this is what he has given us. This is an over the top, boneheaded teen soap opera that takes itself way too seriously, and strangely ends up being a little bit better off because of it.

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