Reel Opinions


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Wanted

At the beginning of Wanted, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy from Atonement), is a meek office cubical drone who seems to have come accustomed to being walked on. His boss thinks he's pathetic, his girlfriend doesn't respect him, and is even having a very open affair with his best friend at work. Wesley's dad walked out on his family when he was a baby, so he has no idea that his father was actually an assassin for a top secret thousand-year-old agency known as The Fraternity, or that his father was recently killed in a shootout by a rogue member named Cross (Thomas Kretschmann). Now that Cross is apparently gunning for Wesley, our hero finds himself forcefully pulled into the secret underground world his father once inhabited. He meets a mysterious woman and fellow Fraternity agent named Fox (Angelina Jolie), who saves his life and introduces him to the rest of the team. They are led by the wise and sagely Sloan (played by the ever wise and sagely Morgan Freeman), and offer Wesley the choice of either learning their ways and turning his life around so that he can avenge his father's death, or remain an office drone and continue living a life out of his control.

This is the set up for a fairly routine action film that answers the question nobody asked - What would happen if the guys from Office Space somehow found themselves in The Matrix? Wanted is a movie that seems to be made by, for, and about 13-year-old boys. It is a mindless video game of a movie that throws a lot of cool action and impressive special effects up on the screen, but can't seem to think of anything else to do. So, it keeps on repeating the same tricks over and over. One skill that everyone within The Fraternity must hold is how to "curve a bullet". These are assassins so skilled, they can actually somehow control the path of the bullet after it's been fired, so that it can curve around any obstacle and hit the desired target. It's a cool effect the first time we see it, but when we see it the fifth or sixth time, it starts to lose its novelty. We get so many slo-mo shots of bullets whizzing around people's heads and objects, and even more slowed down shots of bullets smashing against each other in mid-air that by the end of the movie, I was kind of tired of seeing it. That's not to say the movie is not impressive on a technical level, because it certainly is. It just repeats the same images over and over.

Maybe that's because there's very little underneath the surface. Though based on a comic book by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, Wanted is extremely shallow and doesn't even seem to care about its characters. Wesley himself is more a composite of office drone cliches than a genuine fleshed out character. We've seen his type so many times before in other movies, it's hard to get behind him. When the movie finally allows him to get revenge on his tormentors, it is supposed to be a moment of freedom and liberation, but the movie never gives us enough of a reason to care about the guy, so it doesn't have quite the desired effect. I also had a hard time believing his amazing transformation from human doormat to a guy who can survive just about anything, since a majority of his training is handled in montages, and we never get a true sense of his progress. His fellow assassins at The Fraternity remain mysteries to us, as we learn next to nothing about them. This is obviously intentional on the part of the screenplay, but still, who wouldn't want to learn more about the guy Wesley works with who turns rats into walking bombs? As the female lead, Jolie pretty much gets ample opportunity to shoot at stuff with the aid of computer effects, and show off her body. She has little dialogue, and apparently this was a conscious decision on Jolie's part, as she thought it would make her character more mysterious. Unfortunately, we don't spend enough time with her character for her to even be considered mysterious.

For a majority of its running time, the movie tries to hold our interest with tired corporate satire that isn't as fresh or funny as it seems to think it is, and a lot of overblown action sequences that force us to ask how the computer animators pulled it off, instead of concentrating on the stunt work or physical action. Wanted would be a pretty forgettable experience were it not for a plot revelation late in the film. This was the first thing in the movie to actually grab my attention, and it's too bad the movie waits so long to pull it out, since much more could have been done with it. Since this happens with only about 20 minutes or so left in the film, it's pretty much an excuse to speed right ahead to the climactic shoot out. Wesley barely has time to even react to what he learns, and considering it's a pretty major development in his character, the fact that he goes right back to killing people as soon as he finds out about it makes him all the more shallow. When I said this movie has a 13-year-old boy mentality, I meant it. It's only interested in showing us stuff that's "cool", and cares little about anything or anyone else. This is one of those movies were I found myself asking why Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov didn't just go all the way with his live action video game approach, and add a score counter in the top corner of the screen?

Wanted obviously wants to be a big, dumb, violent piece of summer escapism, but there's absolutely nothing here to get excited about, and certainly nothing that we haven't seen before. It's not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, and has obviously been made with a great amount of care. I just found it hard to care about anything that was going on up on the screen. You see the movie, it fades from your mind almost the second you set foot outside of the theater, and you go on with your life. That's just the kind of film this is.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

WALL-E

Disney and Pixar's WALL-E is a film that is simultaneously artful and daring, yet conventional at the same time. It is a simple story told mostly through the eyes of robots. They can talk a little, but most of their communication is done through whistles and electronic gurgles. It was a bold move on the part of director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) to build his entire movie on characters who don't even really talk. And fortunately, the filmmakers did not see it fit to add an off camera Narrator to fill us in. We learn of the situation at hand by observing, and this alone makes the film an enthralling experience. This is easily Pixar's most ambitious film yet, and if it falls short of its goals during a heavy-handed second half, the charm of the characters holds our interest.

The story opens on a ravaged Earth in the far-off future. We learn through discarded video recordings that 700 years ago, the planet became so polluted as to be inhabitable for humanity. Humans have gone off into space, and have left behind little robots known as WALL-Es ("Waste Allocation Load Litter Earth class") to compact the garbage left behind and make the world liveable once more. We see one little WALL-E going about his work. Judging by the discarded remains of his fellow bots, it seems that he is the last of his kind left functioning. We can tell from the moment that we meet him that he seems to possess a soul of some sort. He is naturally curious about much of the trash he collects, and saves most of it for a personal collection he keeps in his bunker. His most prized possession is an old tape of the movie musical, Hello Dolly, which he watches and studies every night with great interest. The moment of the film he watches continuously contains a scene where a man and a woman hold hands in a park. He obviously longs for companionship. With his fellow workers long-dormant, and his only friend being a cockroach he discovered amongst the trash, the little WALL-E obviously longs for more than the desolate and solitary life he has been accustomed to.

So what is he to think when a ship unexpectedly descends upon Earth one day, and deposits an EVE ("Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator") robot to search for signs of new plant life growing on the planet? The WALL-E is fascinated by its graceful flying movements, yet intimidated by the high tech weaponry the EVE possesses. (The EVE seems to be very jumpy, considering it draws its powerful blaster on just about anything that moves.) Eventually, WALL-E is able to work up the courage to introduce himself, and their strange courtship begins. Like WALL-E, EVE seems to contain a soul of some sort, and she is equally fascinated by the things he has collected over time when he brings her to his home. Their budding relationship is brought to an abrupt end when the EVE discovers a sample of plant life growing amongst the ruins of Earth, and must immediately return to the ship that brought her here. Wanting to follow her, the WALL-E clings onto the outside of her ship, and follows his companion beyond the stars.

All of this happens during the first 40 minutes or so of the film, and the only genuine dialogue we've heard is from old clips of Hello Dolly, and some discarded video messages from the President (a live action Fred Willard) who explains what has happened to the Earth. It may be a gamble convincing kids to sit still through characters who don't even really speak, but it's a gamble I'm glad the filmmakers at Pixar took. WALL-E and EVE do speak to one another at times, their voices provided by Ben Burtt and Elisa Knight respectively. But really, it's up to the animators to tell their story through their eyes and motions. The first half set on Earth is truly unlike any other animated film. We're introduced to the lead character, doing the job he's been left behind for on Earth, and our heart immediately goes out for him. He looks kind of like a cross between E.T. and the robot from the Short Circuit films, and his boxy appearance makes him look downright awkward for the task of restoring the Earth. At the same time, it's these features that immediately make us reach out for him. His curiosity, his willingness to learn, and the obvious vulnerability he holds due to the fact that he seems to hold a sort of soul. Whether he was programmed with this curiosity and need for companionship, or if it was something he developed over time is left up to us to decide. The fact that EVE seems to possess many of the same qualities made me wonder.

It takes a certain kind of trust with your audience to pull something like this off. You have to trust in their intelligence and their willingness to follow two characters who are not even human to begin with, and speak mainly in chips and whistles. We go along with it, though, because the movie is so captivating in the world it creates, and because of the characters themselves. It's when WALL-E and EVE leave Earth behind that the solid foundation and trust that the film has built up until now starts to falter. We're introduced to the humans who have left Earth so long ago. They have been living in a space colony, waiting for a sign that they can return home. The thing is, they have become so content with life that they are now pretty much obsolete. The humans are morbidly obese, rely on machines to do everything, controlled by consumerism and shallow corporations, and have basically become completely incapable of doing anything by themselves, even standing up. To say that this is heavy handed is an understatement. The film's artful and subtle atmosphere flies completely out the window at this point, and basically starts ramming its message into our heads with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. The plot of the second half of the film revolves around the Captain of the space colony (voice by Jeff Garlin) slowly learning about what life was like on Earth before humans became completely dependent on machines, and trying to overthrow the ship's central computer (which bears a striking physical resemblance to HAL, the evil computer from 2001), who does not want things to change.

I was enjoying WALL-E as an artful and simple love story, but when it tries to become a message movie, things turn a lot more chaotic and sloppy. We get a lot of chase scenes as WALL-E and EVE must fend off battle robots, and race around the space station, trying to deliver the plant life safely to the Captain. That's not to say the movie completely loses its way. There is an absolutely beautiful scene where the two robots share a zero gravity dance with one another outside of the ship that took me back to the feelings the film had previously brought forth. And yet, the confused nature of the film during the second half started to irritate me just a little. WALL-E seems to want to have it both ways. It wants to be thoughtful and intelligent, but it also wants to be overbearing and ridiculous. Was there a behind the scenes struggle as to what kind of audience the story should aim for? Its combination of high brow and low brow certainly seems to suggest that. While the movie constantly engaged me, I felt a little bit more engaged when the movie wasn't trying to make its point so forcefully. This is a movie on the cusp of greatness. All it needed was a more level notion of just where it was going.

I would describe WALL-E as good, but not exactly great work. It certainly pushes the envelope in a lot of ways, and comes up short in others. As a Pixar film, it's certainly worlds above the flat-out dull Cars, as well as the mediocre A Bug's Life and Monsters Inc. But it can't quite reach the heights achieved by the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, or Ratatouille. This film seems to have been viewed as an experiment by those who worked on it, and it at least manages to stay afloat. I guess given the brilliance of the first half, I was expecting a little bit more from the second.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Love Guru

Mike Myers can't seem to get enough of himself in The Love Guru. He's constantly giggling at his own jokes, and mugging for the camera as if he thinks his latest comedy creation is the funniest thing he's invented. I had a very different reaction, and had a hard time even cracking a smile at his portrayal of the Guru Pitka, a man who was born in America, and traveled to India to study under the cross-eyed Guru Tugginmypudah (Ben Kingsley), who taught his students lessons by having them hit each other with urine-soaked mops. Pitka devotes his life and his teachings to helping other people out with their relationship troubles, and with the help of his agent, Dick Pants (John Oliver from The Daily Show), he hopes his words of wisdom will become so popular, he'll wind up on Oprah.

This is information we learn early on in the film (after Pitka serenades us with a Bollywood-style musical number of Dolly Parton's Nine to Five during the opening credits), and I pretty much knew right there that The Love Guru was going to be a very long 90 minutes. Not only does the movie break the cardinal rule that funny names are seldom funny and become even less funny each time you hear them, but it also makes a grave miscalculation with its lead character. Guru Pitka is not funny or likable. It's simply Myers talking in a funny accent, and coming up with as many alternate ways for saying "penis" as he can without losing the film's PG-13 rating. Pitka is not even a real character. Myers plays him more as an experiment, as if he's still testing the character out, and we the audience are the guinea pigs being subjected to the experiment. It's been widely reported that the reason why Myers hasn't done a live action film in five years (his last actual on screen appearance was in 2003's Cat in the Hat) is because he's been fine tuning his Guru Pitka at various comedy clubs until he felt he was ready. He was not ready, and he probably should have spent another five years if the end result is any indication.

Pitka is approached by Jane Bullard (Jessica Alba), the owner of the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team. Her star player, Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco), hasn't been performing up to the best of his abilities ever since his wife, Prudence (Meagan Good), left him for the goalie on the rival team - a French player named Jacques "Le Coq" Grande (Justin Timberlake, embarrassing himself here) who is known for his oversized "manhood" as much as he's known for his talent in the game. The character exists simply so that Myers and co-screenwriter Graham Gordy can have the characters say cock a lot more than humanly necessary. The Maple Leafs have a chance at winning the Stanley Cup, but not if Darren doesn't have his head in the game. The team's pint-sized coach (Verne Troyer, who played Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films) doubts that Pitka can turn the situation around, but the Guru is determined to help. He'll do this by finding a way to distract Darren from his problems (By forcing him to watch two elephants having sex, thereby taking his mind off of his problems with his wife. You figure it out.), and help him confront his over-bearing mother (Telma Hopkins), who has long cast a shadow over the star player.

The Love Guru is not a comedy, it is a cry of desperation on behalf of Myers and everyone involved. Comedy is funniest when it seems to come naturally out of the material, but everything seems so forced and strained here. It's almost like if they can't think of something funny to do, they'll throw in elephants humping each other, or light a midget on fire. And if that doesn't work, they'll throw in another couple references to male genitalia (verbal or visual, take your pick). If there's a bigger cry of comic desperation than limp innuendo humor, then it has to be out of the blue musical numbers that are not funny in themselves, the movie just expects us to laugh at the fact that the characters are suddenly singing for no reason. This movie has three or four such instances. You know, I think I'm going to have to take that last statement back. There's an even more desperate form of comedy, and that would have to be building an entire scene around the fact that Guru Pitka has a different kind of food stuck in his beard each time we see him, building up to a sight gag where his entire beard is cotton candy. This movie has so many scenes of just plain wrong-headed desperation, you'd almost think it was intentional.

While Myers cackles and mugs his face with glee, pretending that he's having a great time, the rest of the cast kind of look like they wish they were somewhere else. Jessica Alba looks uncomfortable, and her scenes where she's supposed to be warming up to Pitka look more like she's hanging out with him out of pity more than anything else. It's not unusual in a comedy to have the supporting players stand in the background so the star can do his thing, but the cast here seem just as confused as I was as to what we were supposed to be watching Myers doing. The only actor who seems to be trying to do something with his role is TV comic, Stephen Colbert, who pops up as a sports announcer who always says the wrong thing at the wrong time. He does what he can with his one-joke character, but the joke isn't very funny to start with, so Colbert is pretty much left with nothing for his effort.

There is not a single laugh or moment of inspiration in The Love Guru. It's just a sad, depressing slog through material that's not funny to start with, taken by actors who seem to know it's not funny. It's bad enough when a comedy can't generate any laughs, but it gets even worse when you start feeling sorry for everyone up on the screen. You want to ask them and their agents what they were thinking when they signed up. You want to remind Myers of just how funny he can be, and why this material and character don't suit him. But most of all, you want to be able to somehow turn back time to before you gave the ticket counter your money, walk back out the door, and figure out another way to spend 90 minutes.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Get Smart

As I was watching Get Smart, I came to the delighted realization that the filmmakers weren't trying to do a spy spoof here, but rather a fitting tribute to spy movies with a lot of comedy thrown in. This is the right approach, as the now-tired Austin Powers franchise has pretty much run the spy spoof idea into the ground. Director Peter Segal (a veteran of many past Adam Sandler comedies) tries and succeeds at doing something rare. Get Smart is silly enough to work as a comedy, but at the same time, contains some truly impressive action sequences that would be right at home in just about any summer blockbuster that had a slightly more serious mind.

I cannot claim to be an expert on the original 1960s TV series created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, but I do have enough knowledge to know that this is a fitting and loving tribute that won't insult fans of the show, or alienate newcomers with countless in-jokes. The fact that Brooks and Henry are credited as consultants on the film probably helped in getting the right feel down, but it goes a lot deeper than that. The casting of Steve Carell as the well-meaning and often bungling secret agent, Maxwell Smart, was a great decision. Carell is able to capture the spirit of the performance of late actor, Don Adams, while not trying to ape Adams' distinctive voice and mannerisms. He fits comfortably into the role, and does not make Smart into an incompetent goof. He plays the part as a man with some obvious intelligence, but things don't often go the way he intends. He believes in what he does, however, and that belief usually gets him through, even if he slips up. It's a very likable comic performance, and Carell even gives the character a lot more personality than I expected walking into the film.

As is expected, the plot is mainly something to hang a lot of situations for Smart to be in over his head. He starts off as an analyst for CONTROL, a top secret government spy organization devoted to thwarting the terrorist designs of the evil organization KAOS. Smart dreams of being a field agent, and has even taken the test eight separate times, only to be turned down each time by the Chief (Alan Arkin), who thinks Smart belongs as an analyst. When KAOS launches a surprise attack on CONTROL headquarters, killing most of the field agents, the Chief has no choice but to promote Smart, and send him off on the latest mission. He is teamed up with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) to travel to Russia and uncover a secret weapons factory where the evil organization is developing nuclear weapons to target America. With the aid of Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson) back at the base, Smart and Agent 99 will attempt to stop head KAOS agent, Sigfried (Terrence Stamp), from carrying out his master plan of destruction.

Despite a nearly two hour running time, Get Smart is breezy, frequently very funny, and never once slows down enough to become dull. This is one of those movies where you can tell that the cast is having a great time, and that joy carries through on the screen. The movie is a comedy, but the action scenes and stunt work on display are truly first rate. What's perhaps most impressive is that the movie finds a perfect way to blend the silliness and the spectacle, so that the two halves never seem out of place. Even when Smart and Agent 99 are diving out of planes, being dragged down train tracks, and fending off KAOS goons, we still feel like we're watching the same people who were slamming into the side of a building in a botched escape attempt just moments ago. The entire cast play the comedy as if they are smart people who can't believe what they've just done, or what is happening to them. This does create a somewhat more relatable approach than if everyone was a total screw up. This is a comedy that laughs with the characters, not at them. There's a scene where Maxwell and Agent 99 have to crash a lavish party being thrown by a suspected enemy agent, and Smart winds up dancing with an obese woman. A lesser movie would have mocked the woman, but here, the movie finds humor in the situation in other ways. The fact that the woman winds up with the final laugh, and that it's not at her expense, was very welcome.

Aside from the very strong lead from Carell, Anne Hathaway brings a certain sexy yet vulnerable charm to her role. She's a good match for him as a co-star, and they create a good "buddy" chemistry as the film goes on. They're slightly less successful when they're asked to bring romantic chemistry into the relationship, but it's not really their fault. Besides, the film's ending seems to hint at a franchise, so I'm sure there's time for it to build. Former pro-wrestler Dwayne Johnson drops his "the Rock" title for the first time, meaning he's finally serious about moving beyond his past and becoming a real actor. He manages to get some laughs here, and even has some charisma, leading me to believe he could be the rare wrestler to move onto an actual career in films. There are even some fun cameos, including James Caan as the President of the United States, and Bill Murray turns up as a fellow field agent who has the unfortunate task of having to pose as a tree while undercover. There are some more to look for, some for fans of the original show and some for fans of Saturday Night Live, but I'll leave those for you to discover yourself.

Get Smart is probably one of the stronger TV-to-film adaptations to come along in a while. It's not Earth-stopping entertainment, and it never pretends to be. It's merely a light and simple summer comedy that's a great way to kill an afternoon. We need those during the summer as much as we need the big blockbusters, so it's fortunate that this is a very good one. And despite the film's PG-13 rating, I can't imagine any parent being offended by letting their kid watch it. Get Smart is harmless and entertaining, and sometimes, that's all a movie needs to be.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Happening

Some movies are born bad while others, like The Happening, have awfulness thrust upon them. The premise is workable, and some good actors have been assembled, but good Lord, what has writer-director M. Night Shyamalan done here? Is this the same guy so many prematurely dubbed "the next Spielberg" when his 1999 film, The Sixth Sense, became the talk of the town and inspired an overused catch phrase? I refuse to believe that this is the movie Shyamalan wanted to make, but all signs point to that it is. Was he happy with the stilted and wooden dialogue, the complete lack of characterization, and the surprising lack of genuine suspense? The cast frequently look like deers caught in headlights, and I couldn't decide if it was intentional and they were reacting to the things happening to their characters, or if they realized what they had been stuck with.

The film opens in New York's Central Park. A strong breeze blows over the park, and suddenly everyone starts acting disoriented moments before they kill themselves. This bizarre incident spreads throughout the city, and before long construction workers are leaping to their deaths off of the structures they're working on, and traffic cops are drawing their guns on themselves. This should be an attention grabbing opening, but something is off here. Maybe it's the fact that this sequence has been so highly publicized in the film's ad campaign (so much so that Fox is pretty much selling this film solely on the fact that this is the filmmaker's first R-rated film.), but it just didn't elicit any thrills for me. Some members of the audience were even laughing during a scene where multiple people play a game of "pass the gun", where a line up of people shoot themselves one-by-one. This is an early sign that there is something off about The Happening, and it only grows from there. The storytelling is empty, the performances are unconvincing, the screenplay reads like an early draft, and there's just nothing to grab our attention. Things don't improve much when we meet our hero, a Philadelphia high school science teacher named Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), who gathers his wife (Zooey Deschanel) and the daughter of a friend (Ashlyn Sanchez), and tries to find a safe place when he hears about the situation in New York. When the incidents start to spread and the world starts to shut down, Elliot and a small team of survivors try to make sense of what's going on. The problem is, we just don't care.

Not that Shyamalan gives us much to care about here. He seems to be on total auto-pilot mode, and there's nothing that stands out. It all starts with the fact that Elliot and his wife, Alma, are not written as very interesting people, nor have they been given much personality. There's a hint that Alma has been having somewhat of an affair with another man behind Elliot's back, but absolutely nothing is done with this knowledge. It doesn't add any real tension, the characters hardly talk about it once the information is revealed, and it seems to have been thrown in the script, only to be forgotten about. None of the colorful and bizarre characters they meet along the way are given much to do, either. There's a military soldier who ran away after his base became infected, there's a wacko who seems obsessed with plants and hot dogs, and there's a psychotic old lady (an over the top Betty Buckley) who offers Elliot shelter for a short while, before she becomes paranoid and starts screaming about him plotting to kill her for no reason. Nothing is done with any of these characters, and the movie wouldn't be any better or worse off without them. They just exist to run away from whatever is killing people for a little while, and then get killed themselves in a cheesy and over the top fashion.

So, just what is causing all this to happen? I will not reveal it here, but Shyamalan does let us know early on that it's something being carried on the breeze. Therefore, we get a lot of "ominous" shots of trees and grass swaying in the breeze, alerting us that something bad is supposed to go on. As I'm sure you can guess, it doesn't work quite the way the film intends. There's so many shots of grass swaying in the breeze that it starts to border on self parody. It also brings about one of the film's most unintentionally hilarious moments where Elliot and his group are somehow able to outrun the wind. They're standing there in a field, and suddenly that oh-so ominous breeze starts to come toward them, unsettling the previously still grass. The wind slowly starts to approach them, and they run, staying ahead of the breeze for a short while. Ask yourself, how fast would these people have to be running in order to outrun the wind? Even for a short while, they would have to be really hoofing it to keep ahead. If the movie was successful at creating some genuine suspense, I still would have laughed, but at least could have looked past it. I couldn't ignore it here, because by that point, I was desperate for anything to grab my attention.

The fact that Shyamalan has made a disappointing film doesn't really surprise me anymore, given some of his current work. But still, even his past misfires contained one good performance to carry me through. (Bryce Dallas Howard in The Village, Paul Giamatti in Lady in the Water) No such luck this time. Though the cast assembled is impressive, they seem to have left their talent behind in their respective trailers. Mark Wahlberg keeps the same "deer in the headlights" look on his face, no matter what may be happening to him at the present time. I don't think anyone could have pulled off the scene where he gives a monologue to a rubber potted plant (and no, I'm not kidding), but this is a definite low point in what has long been a noteworthy career. Co-stars Zooey Deschanel and John Leguizamo (as Wahlberg's best friend) are both completely lost and given nothing to do. It's not just the fact that their roles have been grossly underwritten, it's also that everyone comes off so unnaturally. They either recite their lines as if they're performing amateur night, or they overact to ridiculous levels. (As is the case with Betty Buckley's out of the blue third act appearance.)

It's hard to pinpoint just how The Happening goes wrong, because it goes wrong in so many ways. I'd say that maybe Shyamalan's heart wasn't in it this time, but truth be told, I'm beginning to have a hard time convincing myself that he even believes in his own work anymore. This is a definite low point in a rapidly fading career, and the fact that he's finally planning to move beyond thrillers is welcome news indeed. His next project, is rumored to at least allow him to branch out beyond thrillers and try something different. Wether it will be a successful gamble is a whole other story.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

When you think about it, The Incredible Hulk is probably the riskiest movie Marvel Comic's film division has made yet. It's not just the fact that 2003's effort to bring the big green guy to life was met with severely divided reaction from fans, critics and audiences. It's also the fact that Marvel's Iron Man is not even two months old, and is still fresh in people's minds. Walking into the theater, I was somewhat fearful that they might be in danger of over saturating the market with their characters, and people might stay away. I sure hope they don't, because The Incredible Hulk is pretty much everything most fans wanted the first time around. This "reinvention" of the struggling franchise is a glorious and immensely enjoyable piece of popcorn entertainment.

Given the highly publicized behind the scenes turmoil between star and uncredited co-writer, Edward Norton, and the studio for final direction of the film, I have to say, I'm extremely happy with what has shown up as the final product. Director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter films) and screenwriter Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand) have given us a film that manages to keep the action moving at a quick pace, while at the same time allowing us to care about lead hero, Bruce Banner (Norton), and his quest to become completely human again, and control the seemingly-uncontrollable destructive power that lies within him ever since he was exposed to Gamma radiation in an experiment gone wrong. Rather than re-explain the origins of the Hulk, the movie instead jumps right in, and shows us Bruce living in exile in Brazil. As he attempts to find a cure with the aid of an on line scientist friend (Tim Blake Nelson), Bruce is constantly on the run from General Ross (William Hurt), who is attempting to capture him and study his abilities, so that he can use the knowledge for an unstoppable weapon.

After his latest successful attempt at eluding the military, Bruce is forced to return to the U.S. with the hope that he can find the cure he needs. He is reunited with his former love, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), who still holds feelings for him, and is willing to aid him in his search, even if it means defying her father, the General. As the two attempt to stay ahead of their pursuers, a new threat emerges in the form of a soldier by the name of Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). After his first encounter with Bruce's Hulk form and seeing the power it holds, he volunteers for a risky experiment that will give him similar inhuman strength so that the military can be on an equal level with their prey. As the experiments continue, his form also begins to change into a giant monstrosity appropriately dubbed Abomination. With Blonsky rapidly losing control of his own sanity due to the power, it may be up to Bruce to call upon his own powers to save himself and everyone else around him.

The Incredible Hulk is certainly nothing complex, but it has been executed with a great amount of skill. Much like Iron Man, this is a film that both fans and those who are not quite familiar can enjoy on different levels. The fans will revel in some clever references, such as some brief flashes of newspaper clippings during the opening credit sequence, and how the movie throws in a quick nod early on to late actor Bill Bixby, who played Banner in the old TV series. Those who are not up on their Hulk history but find themselves in the audience will likely enjoy the film's quick pace and memorable action sequences. The film's early moments depicting Bruce on the run from the military do seem almost like a throwback to the Jason Bourne films, but once the Hulk itself steps in, the action sequences take on a life of their own. Though the CG used to bring the Hulk (and later Abomination) to life sometimes look like a glorified video game, the movement and fluidity cannot be beat. The Hulk no longer does great flying Crouching Tiger-like leaps like he did in the original film. He's somewhat more grounded, but still awesome nonetheless. The more lifelike movement most likely has to do with the fact that a lot of the scenes with the creatures were motion captured by Norton and Roth. The film's main centerpiece confrontation between the two monsters on the streets of New York is tightly edited and, unlike the climactic battle in last year's Transformers, lives up to the wait the movie puts us through. Filmmaker Michael Bay should take notes. This is how you do a monster battle right.

Even though there is a greater emphasis on action and special effects this time around, that doesn't mean that the characters completely suffer. Norton makes for a sympathetic tortured hero, and even gets to have a little fun in the process, such as when he gets to mangle the famous "Don't make me angry..." line in a different language. He makes a good everyman caught in an extraordinary situation he doesn't quite understand, and is trying hard to control. If the rest of the cast don't quite stand out as much, it's only because the screenplay doesn't give them as much to do. Liv Tyler is passable as Betty Ross, but not much more than that. She doesn't get to spend enough meaningful moments with Bruce in order for their relationship to truly hit home with us. William Hurt is cold and uptight, which is how the performance is supposed to be, but still a little too one-note. A bit more humanity would have gone a long way in making him stand out more. As the lead villain, Tim Roth doesn't have a lot to do, but he at least gives the character is all. Surprisingly, the one performance that stands out the most is the highly publicized appearance by Robert Downey Jr, reprising his role of Tony Stark from Iron Man. The cameo is 20 second long tops, but even this brief snippet is enough to remind you why he worked so well in that film.

Given the reaction and backlash to the previous film, I suppose the obvious question would be how will this take on the character go over? Quite well, I think. This is a much more livelier and action-oriented take on the Hulk. Though I admired the original film , I admit even I was somewhat let down by the dialogue-heavy dark opera it was, instead of the roller coaster movie I expected it to be. Supporters of Ang Lee's 2003 effort are already voicing their objections to this "reinvention", but I ask why can't someone enjoy both films on a different level? The two films are as different as night and day, but they worked on the same basic way for me. I found myself drawn into Banner and his story both times. The original was a bit more thoughtful and intelligent, but this one's a lot more fun. And when it comes to a summer blockbuster, I'll definitely take fun. The thrills are there, the effects are mostly there, and the pace never once seems to let up. Anyone looking for more would probably be wise to watch the first movie, or walk into a theater showing a different movie.

With Iron Man and now The Incredible Hulk, it would seem that Marvel becoming their own independent film studio was one of the smartest choices they ever made. They're free to make the kind of movies they want to make, and it seems that they definitely know what people want. It should be interesting to see what D.C. has in store when The Dark Knight hits screens next month. Until then, I applaud Marvel's efforts for making comic book movies something to look forward to again. It's surprising to me that just one year ago, I was mourning the death of the Spider-Man franchise with the dreary Spider-Man 3. In a short amount of time, Marvel has turned me from a mourner into a true believer.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

You Don't Mess With the Zohan

Adam Sandler has been taking himself too seriously these days, even in his comedies. When his 2006 hit, Click, took a sudden and unexpected turn toward depression, life lessons, and melodrama in its last half hour, I almost started to miss the guy from Happy Gilmore who got in fights with Bob Barker. You Don't Mess With the Zohan is a loopy, if not uneven, comedy that seems lifted directly from his days on Saturday Night Live. The fact that Sandler wrote the film himself, along with former SNL writer, Robert Smigel, and superstar comedy filmmaker and producer, Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), lets you know that he is trying to regain some of the fanbase he may have lost over the years. While not entirely successful, and attached with an overly bloated two hour running time, Zohan is the most fun I've had watching a Sandler comedy in a while.

His title character is an Israeli counter-terrorist officer who is just as skilled with the ladies as he is at catching criminals and terrorists. Considering that this is a guy who can make superhuman leaps alongside buildings, catch bullets up his nose, and dismantle guns with his bare hands (then turning them into balloon animal shapes for the kids watching nearby), that's saying something. Zohan, however, is tired of his current life. Keeping the peace is great and all, but when he's alone, he clutches a late 1980s hair styling book close to his chest, and dreams of being a stylist in America. When he is sent on a mission to re-capture his arch nemesis, a terrorist who goes by the name of The Phantom (John Turturro, appropriately hamming it up and having the time of his life), Zohan sees an opportunity to fake his own death and start a brand new life. He smuggles himself on board a plane bound for New York by hiding in a dog carrier, and assumes a new identity named after the two dogs he was traveling with. Under the name "Scrappy Coco", Zohan is determined to make a name for himself.

Obviously, life in the US is hard for a Middle Eastern foreigner, and he can't seem to find work unless he wants to sell generic overpriced electronics or drive a cab. Eventually, he is able to find a hair salon willing to take a chance on him, run by a beautiful and down on her luck woman named Dalia (Emmanuelle Chrique from TV's Entourage). He starts out as a lowly hair sweeper, but he soon gets a chance to prove both his skills as a stylist and as a pleasurer of women. His process of cutting hair is like a cross between intercourse and Barber College. When his work with the hair is finished, he takes his customers into the back room for wild sex that shakes the very foundation of the salon itself. Word spreads, women start lining up outside the door, and Zohan is soon in danger of having his past catching up with him when a cab driver from his home country (Rob Schneider) recognizes him, and informs The Phantom of where his former enemy is residing. The Phantom, having opened up a chain of fast food restaurants overseas, drops everything to head for America for the final confrontation.

There's also a romantic subplot that develops between Zohan and Dalia, as well as another subplot about a greedy land developer tycoon (Michael Buffer) who is trying to spark riots in the ethnic neighborhoods, so he can tear everything down and build a mall. None of this matters, obviously. You Don't Mess With the Zohan is really just a chance for Sandler to cut loose with a character in a way that he hasn't been able to in quite a while, have a lot of fun with some of his former friends from his Saturday Night Live days, and throw a bunch of goofy jokes up on the screen, hoping that they will stick. The movie seems willing to do just about anything for a laugh, and although the humor isn't always politically correct (lots of jokes about Middle Easterners being obsessed with hummus to the point that they brush their teeth with it), I admired that the writers actually tried. A lot of the jokes fall flat, but there are some genuine laughs throughout, and I found myself smiling a lot more than I probably should have. When The Phantom prepares for his final battle with Zohan, we get a warped Rocky-style training montage where he cracks a couple of eggs into a glass, some baby chicks drop into the glass, and then he swallows the chicks whole. I admit it, I laughed. Later in that same sequence, The Phantom is punching various slabs of meat on hooks for his training, only to find a live cow hanging upside down on one of the hooks, and he punches that as well. If you don't laugh at the sight of a man punching a cow hanging upside down from the ceiling, you've lost your sense of the absurd.

Sandler earns some laughs of his own as well, and makes Zohan into a likable comic creation. In a role that could have easily been broadly overplayed or annoying, he turns the character into a charming innocent who just happens to have the agility of Spider-Man, and the sleuthing and sexual abilities of five James Bonds. His superhuman acts of heroism and pleasing women are wisely never explained. We're just expected to go with it, and we do, because Sandler plays Zohan as a regular guy. His abilities are second nature to him, so he does not see it as showing off. It's a fun character, and he's obviously having a lot of fun playing him. That being said, the character isn't quite good enough to carry a movie as long as this. This really does feel like an over extended idea from his sketch comedy days, and the goofy charms of Zohan and the movie itself can only take it so far. The themes of racial bonding, racial discrimination, and ordinary people coming together are not quite as heavy-handed as in some of Sandler's recent message comedies, but they still seem out of place in a movie where early on, Sandler drops a piranha down his pants and lets it attack his crotch without any display of pain just to show how strong he is. I also think it should be a written law that a movie that is not even remotely interested in its own plot should not stretch longer than 90 minutes (and even that is pushing it). The film's two hour running time stretches the movie to ridiculous lengths that it cannot reach.

Sometimes a movie like You Don't Mess With the Zohan just catches me in the right mood. Last time I found myself laughing more than I probably should have was last year's Balls of Fury. I admitted that Balls worked in a guilty pleasure sort of way and, despite this film's obvious flaws, so does Zohan to an extent. The energy level dips from time to time, but there's always something waiting that will pick up the pace. It's not a great movie, and I may hate myself in the morning for saying I liked it, but I don't care. The movie left me with a goofy grin on my face, and for a comedy as intentionally dumb as this, that's rare.

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Kung Fu Panda


With Kung Fu Panda, we get a memorable new animated hero, and an equally memorable voice performance from Jack Black. Black's character is Po, an overweight and kind-hearted panda who, with his almost child-like innocence and bright spirit, allows him to immediately be embraced by the audience almost from the instant we lay eyes on the big guy. The character is given even more heart by Black's energetic and sweet-natured portrayal, in what is probably one of most memorable roles since 2003's School of Rock. So, why didn't the rest of the film engage me in quite the same way the lead character did? It felt as if the filmmakers spent all their energy and talent behind Po, and then considered everyone and everything else in the movie as an afterthought. Despite some strong animation and an overall pleasant look, I got the sense that Po would have been better suited in a different movie.

The movie is set in an alternate ancient China inhabited entirely by animals. Po starts the movie as a trainee for a local noodle shop vendor, but as the title suggests, there are bigger things in store for the guy. Po idolizes a team of martial arts warriors who protect his village, known as the Furious Five. The warriors are guided by their master, Shifu (voice by Dustin Hoffman), and include Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Mantis (Seth Rogen). Early on, Shifu's wise old turtle master, Oogway (Randall Duk Kim), has a vision that the village's sworn enemy and Shifu's former student, the snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane), will escape from prison and return to seek revenge on his former master. The time has come for one of the Furious Five to earn the ultimate title that all martial arts students strive for - the Dragon Warrior, as only the one with the title will hold the power to defeat Tai Lung. Through a series of events too complicated to summarize, Po ends up crashing the tournament that will decide the Dragon Warrior, and is picked by Oogway as the "chosen one". Shifu, and each of his students, are doubtful of the elder's choice, as Po holds no real knowledge of the martial arts, and is often clumsy enough to be considered a walking disaster area. With Tai Lung quickly approaching, they will have to put their trust in Po, and hope he can learn their ways.

There are some scattered moments of wit found throughout Kung Fu Panda. I liked the fact that Po's father, who is constantly pressuring him to follow in his footsteps in the noodle business, is a goose, but no one, not even Po himself, questions how this is possible. I laughed at the introduction sequence, which cleverly parodies the long-winded narrations that sometimes set up martial arts movies. ("Legend tells of a legendary warrior whose life was legend".) And of course, like most of the animated films that have come out of Dreamworks, the movie looks like a million. The animal characters have been rendered right down to the tiniest bit of fur it seems, and the entire movie is vibrant and colorful. There are even some impressive action sequences, the highlight being a battle on a rope bridge that occurs late in the film. It's obvious that a lot of money was sunk into the look of the film, and if equal care had been put in the script, we'd have something here. The screenplay by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (both veterans of the TV cartoon King of the Hill) is overly predictable, and never quite as funny as it should be. The gags (most of them involving Po falling down, or eating) are lightweight, and never seem to build to anything. Perhaps the worst offense of the film is that, outside of Po, there's absolutely nothing and no one to care about here.

That's because the supporting characters are treated more as bystanders, instead of participants in a story. The Furious Five are built up to be as great warriors, and the one scene where we actually do get to see them fight, it is indeed impressive. The rest of the time, however, they mainly stand in the background and roll their eyes whenever Po falls down. There seems to be some hint of a subplot where the lead warrior, Tigress, is upset that wise old Oogway picked Po over her to be the Dragon Warrior. However, this never goes anywhere, nor is it truly resolved in any reasonable manner. Kung Fu Panda is yet another case of an animated film that casts some famous names, just so they can put a few more recognizable faces in the credits and publicity shots. Why cast talented people like Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, Seth Rogen, and Jackie Chan if you're not going to give them anything to do? The villain of the film is also a disappointment, as the movie sees him more as a plot device, rather than an actual threat to Po. Aside from a brief flashback explaining his past with master Shifu, we don't learn anything about him, so we can't get involved in the threat the character is supposed to place on everyone.

The one aspect the movie does spend time on, and what seems to be the central relationship in the film, is the bond that slowly builds between Shifu and Po, as the master develops an unorthodox method of teaching his student. There are some sweet and cute moments here, but nothing we haven't seen before, and it all basically boils down to that favorite lesson of just about every CG cartoon - believe in yourself, and you can do anything. Dustin Hoffman is fine as the character of Shifu, but doesn't really bring anything to the role. The character could have been played by anyone, and we'd have the same result. With Jack Black and his character being the sole stand out in the film, I started to focus my attention almost entirely on him. Though I never truly laughed at anything he said or his antics, the energy that Black brings to the role is unmistakable, and made me smile many times. As strong of a character as Po is, he's just not strong enough to carry an entire movie by himself, especially not this one. His energy almost seems to be there to distract us from the fact that there is nothing going on around him.
Kung Fu Panda is mercifully free of pop culture references, which is a blessing, but even that does not excuse how dull and uninspired almost everything here is. Jack Black could only do so much before I started to lose my interest. It's almost certain that kids will love this movie, and parents can be assured that there is no crude or offensive humor here to worry about. Beyond that, there's very little to recommend. This is a surprisingly toothless venture that never quite goes far enough with its own premise.

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