Reel Opinions


Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The 3rd Annual Reel Stinkers Awards

It's time to draw the curtain on 2008. As I reflect back on the year concerning movies, I think I will always remember it as being one of the best years for summer movie viewing in recent memory. There was quite a bit of good stuff outside the summer as well. Naturally, there was more than enough bad films that tried to steal money from the innocent movie-going public. That's where this comes in. The time has come to take one last shot at the worst films of 2008, before I try my best to forget most of them ever existed. You'll find a wide variety of them here - Over hyped potential blockbusters that didn't work out, misguided dramas, bad comedies, and some films so terrible I couldn't wait for them to end. So, let's take one last look back at the Reel Stinkers of 2008, laugh, and hope the people involved with them get a chance to make a good movie in 2009.


THE WORST FILMS OF 2008

5. THE HAPPENING - The latest "vision" from previously respected filmmaker, M. Night Shyamalan, was heavily hyped by the studio as THE thriller that everyone had to rush out and see. Unfortunately, many could smell the stench coming a mile away. The fact that the ad campaign was mainly built around the fact that the movie was the director's first R-rated film kind of tipped a lot of people off. If your ad campaign can't think of anything to say about a movie other than its rating, you're in trouble before the disappointing box office figures start rolling in. The movie itself is a ludicrous ecological thriller where plants declare war against humanity by forcing people to kill themselves with a deadly toxin released into the air. Mark Wahlberg leads an embarrassed cast, and gives one of the worst performances of the year. Then again, no one could do the scene where Wahlberg delivers an impassioned speech to a houseplant, asking it to spare them (only to discover it's a rubber plant), and keep their dignity in-tact.


4. SEVEN POUNDS - This is a rare late-year addition to the list. The Number 4 spot was previously inhabited by a different movie, but the more I thought about this misguided "feel good" drama about suicide, it earned a special place amongst the stinkers of 2008. The usually charismatic and likable Will Smith is thrown into a mopey role where he plays a man with a secret. A secret so big, the movie tries its hardest to throw us off and keep us in suspense by showing scenes out of sequence, throwing in random flashbacks, and dialogue that is intentionally vague. Of course, anyone half-awake watching the movie can figure it out before the big reveal. Ah, but the movie has another trick up its sleeve - It's also mind-numbingly boring and long, so it's hard to stay awake! This is an endless and depressing slog through a thin story, with characters who don't really matter to us. I didn't care about Smith's character, his secret, or the people he was trying to help. I just wanted it to end long before it did.


3. 10,000 B.C. - The first big spectacle film of 2008 was also the worst. A movie so thin and underdeveloped, it virtually has almost no plot at all, and is made up entirely out of footage of people walking or filler material. The movie is set in the days of early man, and if this film's history is right, early man comprised of a lot of tribes made up of people with bodies like supermodels who had no personality whatsoever. One of those tribes goes to rescue some of their own who are kidnapped when invaders from another land attack their village. They walk, and walk, and walk, and...Well, you get the idea. The movie throws a CG saber tooth tiger in as well to fool us into thinking something's going to happen, but it turns out to be millions in special effects budget used on a creature who literally does nothing and brings nothing to the story itself. It's just there. Audiences laughed this movie right off the screen, and rightfully so. It's a movie that looks like it cost millions to make, combined with a script that reads like it came from the Dollar Store.


2. COLLEGE - Many people don't know this, but I have a personal rating system where I judge films on a 1-4 rating. I don't use it in my reviews, however. In 2008, only two films scored a "0" on my personal rating system. College is one of them. In this dreadful teen sex comedy, three high school seniors visit a college for the weekend, hoping to find some girls and rowdy drunken fun. What they find instead is an obnoxious Fraternity House where the members enjoy torturing, physically, and mentally abusing people. So, we get to see the three guys get embarrassed in such delightful "comic" ways, such as having to drink beer out of a guy's hairy ass crack. That's literally the set up and the pay off right there. The movie contains not a single ounce of originality (the movie seems to desperately want to be Superbad), humor, or thought. It's a joyless comedy built around cruelty, gross-out gags, and Verne Troyer, whose career should have ended when the Austin Powers films did. As for the other film to receive a 0 on my scale...


1. WITLESS PROTECTION - I have seen every Larry the Cable Guy film. It's something I'm not proud of, and something I'll probably have to discuss with a therapist in the future. While his past films weren't exactly good, they were never bad enough to break the Top 5. That's probably why Witless Protection caught me so completely off guard. I was expecting a dopey redneck comedy, and instead got the worst kind of comedy imaginable. The movie is not only stupid as one would expect, it is also racist, vulgar, holds some of the worst performances to disgrace any movie in 2008 (poor Pete Stormare and Joe Montegna), and is just plain virtually unwatchable. It's never a good sign when you start to check your watch about 5 minutes into the movie. Witless Protection was so amateurish and incompetently made, I actually had to check when I got home to see if the director had done any other work before it. Surprisingly, he had. An absolute misfire in a way few bad films achieve, and a rightful title holder for the worst movie of 2008.


Well, we've cracked the Top 5, but there's a lot more where that came from. Here's the rest of the stinkers from the past year who weren't quite terrible enough to earn the top spot, but they certainly gave it their all...



DISHONORABLE MENTIONS:

One Missed Call, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Vegitales Movie, 27 Dresses, Untraceable, Meet the Spartans, Over Her Dead Body, Strange Wilderness, Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, Step Up 2 the Streets, Penelope, College Road Trip, Doomsday, Drillbit Taylor, Superhero Movie, The Ruins, Nim's Island, Prom Night, 88 Minutes, Made of Honor, What Happens in Vegas, The Love Guru, Meet Dave, Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Mirrors, Babylon A.D., Disaster Movie, Bottle Shock, Righteous Kill, The Family That Preys, My Best Friend's Girl, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Eagle Eye, Blindness, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, An American Carol, Max Payne, Fireproof, Saw V, The Haunting of Molly Hartley, Twilight, Transporter 3, Punisher: War Zone, Delgo, The Spirit


THE INDIVIDUAL REEL STINKER AWARDS:

WORST SEQUEL:
Punisher: War Zone

MOST UNNECESSARY SEQUEL:
Saw V

WORST PERFORMANCE BY A GOOD ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Tie between Mark Wahlberg in The Happening and Al Pacino in 88 Minutes

WORST PERFORMANCE BY A BAD ACTOR/ACTRESS:
Donny Osmond in College Road Trip

WORST ANIMATED FILM:
Delgo

WORST POTENTIAL FRANCHISE:
Twilight

WORST REMAKE:
Prom Night

WORST IDEA FOR A MOVIE THAT NEVER COULD HAVE WORKED:
Tie between The Love Guru and An American Carol

REPEAT OFFENDERS (THE ACTORS WHO APPEARED IN THE MOST STINKERS IN ONE YEAR):
Al Pacino in 88 Minutes and Righteous Kill
Martin Lawrence in Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins and College Road Trip
Mark Wahlberg in The Happening and Max Payne

WORST ON-SCREEN TEAMING:
Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz in What Happens in Vegas

WORST "COMEBACK":
Mike Myers in The Love Guru

MOVIE BLOCKBUSTER THAT DIDN'T DESERVE TO BE:
Twilight

Well, there you have it. It's time for me to kick these movies to the curb, forget they ever existed, and hope they don't spawn any imitators. Despite my grumblings here, 2008 wasn't all bad for movies. My "Best of..." list is coming eventually once I see some of the films that are currently stuck in limited release. Until then, I wish all of you a happy 2009. Happy viewing to one and all.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Valkyrie

I prefer to watch movies alone at the theater, as I tend to find I can think about what I'm watching better when I'm by myself rather with friends. With Valkyrie, I decided to go with a group of friends who were mainly World War II buffs. They walked out of the movie, and seemed pretty satisfied about the movie's historical accuracy. In fact, the only gripe I heard was that they thought the actor who played Hitler (David Bamber) could have done a better job. As for myself, I walked out with a few more reservations.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, let me first say that Valkyrie is a very well made film. It's technically well done, the performances are generally very good, and director Bryan Singer (Superman Returns) keeps things moving at a brisk pace as it recaps the last assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler's life within his own army. That right there should kind of tell you one of my main reservations. I think it's safe to assume that I'm not exactly spoiling anything by telling you that the attempt is not successful. The movie tries to draw suspense out of having the characters wondering if Hitler is dead or not, while we the audience can only sit back and wait for the inevitable. Another sticking point is that the performances, while good, are somewhat distracting. And no, believe it or not, I'm not talking about the fact that Tom Cruise has been cast as a German colonel. Hollywood has had a strange obsession with casting British actors as Nazis, and while sometimes it works (Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List), here it kept on taking me out of the movie. I'm sorry, but when I see an actor dressed in a Nazi uniform, I don't want to say to myself, "Hey, that's the guy from The Full Monty".

Valkyrie is narrowly focused, and not really interested in the historical people who inhabit the story. About the only thing we learn is that there were a lot of people within Hitler's Reich who had grown to question what he was doing, and what was to become of Germany under his rule. The person at the center of the story is Claus von Staufenberg (Tom Cruise). He had already started to question Hitler's authority before he was severely wounded in an air strike attack. When he returns home, he teams up with Major General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) to join a resistance against Hitler. The plan that they and fellow conspirators dub Operation Valkyrie involves a new government that would take control after Hitler's passing, and secretly make peace with the Allied forces. Anyone who managed to stay awake in History Class will know well in advance that this plan is not going to work out as planned. What little suspense the film does manage to drum up is wether Claus' family will be able to survive once the assassination attempt goes wrong. And even this plot point is largely ignored, and pretty much resolved with a single throw away sentence during an epilogue at the very end of the film.

When James Cameron made Titanic 11 years ago, there's a very good reason why he didn't make his movie entirely about a ship hitting an iceberg. Valkyrie expects us to be entertained with its conspiracy plot, but I found it hard to get excited about anything. Part of this was because I knew what to expect, and part of it was due to the screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander. They seem so enamored by history and the setting that they completely forgot to give their characters personality or even lives outside of the situation at hand. We know that Claus' decision to participate in the Operation has to do with the safety of his family at home, but since we seldom get to see his family, it kind of turns into a plot gimmick instead of an actual motivation. The movie is built on a flimsy foundation of facts and statistics, but very little drama to drive the characters home.

As I said, the movie looks good and is well made. While Tom Cruise is a bit distracting at first, making no effort to hide his American accent, I got over it quick enough. Besides, there's very little for him to ruin, since the most distinguishing thing about Claus in this movie is his eye patch he's forced to wear after suffering injuries early on. The supporting cast is made up of very fine actors including Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Billy Nighy, Eddie Izzard, and Terrance Stamp. Unfortunately, they're mainly required to sit around and discuss the plot and statistics with grave seriousness. Their presence brings a lot of automatic prestige to the picture, but they seldom get to lift it up by showing their usual charisma. Because many of their characters are so underwritten, they often come across as historical caricatures instead of historical figures.

Valkyrie the movie kind of ends up resembling the actual military Operation it's named after. It's full of good intentions, but it just kind of falls apart in the end. The elements are here for great drama, and I really wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did. I'm sure I'll be hearing from my accompanying friends when they read this review. They may protest, but I'm sticking to my guns. Everyone who was involved in the making of this movie had the talent to make a much better film than this.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bedtime Stories

This holiday weekend, two heavily hyped family films are duking it out for the dollars of kids and parents. As I stated in my earlier review of Marley & Me, that film is sure to be the favorite of the two with accompanying adults. However, I think when it comes to the kids, they'll like Bedtime Stories more. The movie speaks their language and holds an imaginative premise that's sure to grab their attention. I know if I were 10 years old and had seen both movies, I would have liked Marley for the funny dog, but probably would have preferred the Adam Sandler comedy and found it more fun.

Make no mistake, this is an Adam Sandler comedy. Despite the PG-rating and the fact that it's being released by the Disney studio, the movie has everything we've come to expect in a Sandler film. He once again plays a likable screw up, there's a cameo from Rob Schneider at one point, and there are also a surprising amount of respectable actors you wouldn't expect to see co-starring in one of his movies. The actors this time around include Jonathan Pryce, who plays Sandler's father in the early scenes, but doesn't have a very large role. Much larger roles are given to Richard Griffiths (as the germophobic boss whom Sandler's character works for), and Guy Pearce as the smarmy villain who exists simply to be humiliated. Eight years ago, Guy Pearce was starring in movies like Memento. Now he's playing the foil to Adam Sandler. If he's not having a long talk with his agent about where his career is headed, he should.

But hey, at least Sandler is managing to dip his toe into family comedy without betraying his roots. If only the same could be said of Eddie Murphy. Here, he plays Skeeter Bronson, a guy who works as the handyman at a luxury hotel his father once owned, and doesn't seem to be going anywhere in life. His only hope is that the current owner of the hotel is planning to open a new one, and may give him a chance to run it if Skeeter can impress him at a presentation coming up. Meanwhile, Skeeter's sister (Courteney Cox) has been laid off, and has to go to a job interview out of state. Skeeter is given the task to look after her kids each night. The kids are young Patrick (Jonathan Morgan Heit) and Bobbi (Laura Ann Kesling). They take a liking to Skeeter and especially to the elaborate bedtime stories he tells, which are loosely based on his personal experiences, only they are set in medieval times, the old west, ancient Rome, and outer space. To Skeeter's surprise, he finds his real life begins to mirror the stories that he tells the kids. He initially uses this to his own advantage in getting ahead in life, but when he discovers the kids' school is in danger of being torn down, he realizes he has to do what's right.

There's also a romantic triangle subplot here, involving Skeeter trying to choose between his boss' spoiled daughter (Teresa Palmer) or his sister's sweet and responsible best friend, Jill (Keri Russell). No prizes for guessing which one he picks at the end. Bedtime Stories is safe and completely harmless entertainment, and in a way, that's its biggest problem. Director Adam Shankman (2007's Hairspray), along with screenwriters Matt Lopez and Tim Herlihy, never let the imagination truly take off. There are some moments of spectacle, and the special effects used to bring the stories to life as Skeeter is telling them are impressive, but spectacle and imagination are two completely different things. If you're going to go through the trouble of giving us a horse that's as red as an apple, have it do something special. Don't just make it a horse that just happens to be red. I'm sure any kid watching this movie could come up with more imaginative ideas for stories than the kids in this movie do.

And yet, in all honesty, the movie charmed me in a lot of ways. Sandler may be relying on the same likable goofball routine he's been doing for over 10 years, but it's effective here. The kids are cute, the romantic subplot is underdeveloped but has its moments, and there are a couple moments I found myself laughing. Most of these laughs come from British comic, Russell Brand, who plays Skeeter's best friend at work. While it could be argued that Brand was put to much better use earlier this year in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he's still fun to watch here. Some of the visual gags are cute (I liked the roaming band of angry midgets), but the film's most repeated sight gag didn't work on me. That gag is Bugsy, a guinea pig that belongs to the kids that has large, computer enhanced eyes that makes it look kind of sad in a pathetic way. Still, the kids at my screening laughed every time the movie cut to a reaction shot from him, and he does supply the film with its required fart humor.

Bedtime Stories is pretty much for the kids, and while I didn't mind it, I'll probably find myself renting Marley & Me on DVD before I ever watch this one again. Take that as you will. The movie is harmless, doesn't offend, and should fit the bill to give families something to watch over Christmas Vacation. I have a feeling that's all they were looking for here. If a sequel should ever come, I'll hope for more imagination, more wonder, and less Bugsy.

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The Spirit

I cannot in any good consciousness recommend The Spirit. Common sense prevents me. However, in all fairness, I will say this - The Spirit is the most entertainingly awful movie I've seen in a long time. It's certainly never dull, as we try to figure out just what writer-director Frank Miller (Sin City) is going to throw up on the screen next. The movie is an uncomfortable blend of CG technology (Only the actors and some props are real. The sets and everything else was digitally added later on), B-movie detective film noir, soft-core eroticism, and campy humor that would be right at home in the old Batman TV show with Adam West. In case you're wondering, these elements do not go well together.

Who is The Spirit? I'm still trying to figure that out myself. We know that he's a cop who died in the line of duty, and somehow has come back to life as a nearly immortal crime fighter. He doesn't know how exactly, but he does eventually find out in a scene that involves Samuel L. Jackson dressed in a Nazi outfit and melting a cat so that only a puddle and a pair of cartoon eyeballs remain when he is finished with the feline. The Spirit is played by Gabriel Macht, and he dresses like the Lone Ranger with a black leather fetish. He stalks the streets, searching out evil-doers. Many of those evil-doers come from his arch nemesis, a crime lord who calls himself The Octopus. That's Jackson's character. He has an army of cloned goons who are not very bright, and act like the kind of comic relief we used to see in TV cartoons like the Super Friends. The plot involves The Octopus seeking some kind of fabled blood of ancient gods that could make him immortal. He's already pretty much immortal, just like The Spirit himself, but he wants to be completely immortal. Did he come back from the dead too? The details are a bit murky, but I say yes.

The Spirit is an odd character. He likes to deliver long monologues and provide his own narration when no one around is listening to him. Sometimes there's an alley cat who he talks to, as if the cat could somehow understand him. When he's not talking to himself, there's plenty of women for him to seduce and be seduced by. There's a girl from his past named Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), who has returned to the city under mysterious circumstances. In one of the film's few character-building moments, we see a flashback when The Spirit and Sand Saref were friends as teens. She walked away when her father died, and now she's back in town, searching for the same ancient blood The Octopus is. Sand Saref is not a very interesting character, but I will give her this - You've gotta be pretty confident in yourself to deliver dramatic dialogue while taking a Xerox copy picture of your own butt. Other women who fade in and out of the film's muddled plot include Spirit's somewhat girlfriend, Ellen Dolan (Sarah Paulson) and The Octopus' main henchman, Silken Floss (Scarlet Johannson), who despite her great name doesn't get to do a whole lot.

I stopped trying to make sense of the movie about 20 minutes in. I don't think it took that long for Miller and his crew. The Spirit holds so much half-baked dialogue and wooden performances that it had to be some kind of inside joke on the set. It frequently switches tones, sometimes acting deadly serious, and sometimes being so wacky that The Spirit breaks the fourth wall, and starts delivering one liners directly to the audience like in an old Looney Tunes short. The only people in my audience who seemed to be enjoying the movie were those who were laughing at it (at it, not with it, mind you). A couple behind me walked out about the point Jackson's character showed up in Nazi garb to torture the Spirit, and never returned. That means they missed the scene where the Octopus explains how he got his name (he has eight of everything), but stuck around long enough to see the scene where the Spirit has to drop his pants in front of a crowd of onlookers and use his belt to swing across a building. This is the kind of movie actors fire their agents over.

In case you didn't know, Frank Miller is mainly known for his work in the comics field. So, it's only natural that the movie has a very comic book look to it. The Spirit's trademark red tie glows like neon against his black silhouette, the city he inhabits is a dark and cartoonish imitation of film noir, and the actors (especially Samuel L. Jackson) overact as if they wish the entire movie itself was animated. At least then they wouldn't have to show their faces. I guess there is something to be admired about the technical wizardry on display, but it's hard to pay attention to it when the awfulness of the dialogue and the plotting keeps on distracting you. How can we ignore it when lines like, "This is big - Octopus big!" are delivered with such breathless enthusiasm? Another distraction is the music score by the usually reliable David Newman, who here seems to have taken Danny Elfman's score to 1989's Batman, and robbed it of all personality.

There may come a time when The Spirit is viewed as some sort of bizarre, midnight cult classic. I can picture people getting together to verbally poke fun at the film, or maybe create a drinking game around it. (Take a shot every time The Spirit starts into one of his long-winded monologues. You'll be drunk by the 15 minute mark.) But there will never be a time that this is viewed as anything more than a curiosity or a cinematic train wreck. In a year that's given us comic book movies like Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Hellboy II, and The Incredible Hulk, did it really have to end this way?

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Marley & Me

I walked into Marley & Me expecting a movie about a cute little dog who makes a lot of trouble for his family. While I certainly got that, I also got something else - A very mature, honest, and adult drama about creating a family. Of course, I was expecting this as well, as I had read the acclaimed autobiographical novel by John Grogan that the film is based on. (Having read the book, I had some Kleenex at hand, knowing how it ended.) The studio's ad campaign is selling this movie as a "fun for the whole family" holiday event, and while kids are certain to enjoy the antics of Marley the dog, I have a feeling that accompanying adults will walk away from this movie with a lot more than kids will.

The movie faithfully follows the original story, and successfully manages to cover 13 years or so in the life of Grogan into a film that runs just a little over two hours. John is portrayed in the film by Owen Wilson, giving one of his better and more nuanced performances of late. When we first meet him, he's still in the honeymoon phase with his new wife, Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston). The two have a lot of hopes for the future (both in terms of career and their life together), and even have a list made up of everything they want to accomplish in their lives. They move to South Florida, they both get jobs working for different newspapers, and they want to start a family. John figures the best way to start a family is to get a dog, and surprises his wife for her birthday by taking her out to a local breeder to pick a yellow lab puppy. The dog they choose is cheaper than the rest of the litter, and they think nothing of it until it's too late. Little Marley (as John names him) is a home wrecker with a bottomless pit for a stomach, the ability to break through screen doors in a single bound, and put terror into the hearts of dog trainers and dog sitters everywhere.

The Grogans hold onto the little destructive yellow ball of fur because beneath his bad boy exterior, they know he has a heart of gold and supports them in their weaker moments, such as during their initial failed attempt to have children. A family soon comes for John and Jennifer (two boys and a girl), and this is when I started to be reminded of why I enjoyed the original novel so much. Marley & Me is not just a "funny dog" story, it is mainly a story about maturity, the trials of a relationship, and the joys and sorrows of family. Life obviously does not work out the way the couple planned early on. John's boss at the paper (Alan Arkin, in a wonderfully dry comic role) gives him the job of being a columnist instead of being a real reporter. Though he finds success with his column, John quietly grows envious of his co-workers covering real stories, such as his best friend Sebastian (Eric Dane), who does freelance and eventually full-time work for the New York Times. As for Jennifer, she quits her job to be a full-time mother, and goes through the phases of stress and depression as she feels overwhelmed. The struggles and doubts of the Grogans makes up as much of the story as Marley's antics.

That's because the screenplay by Scott Frank (The Interpreter, Minority Report) and Don Roos (Single White Female) manages to avoid the manipulative and cute approach, and gives the movie an adult and honest perspective. Marley plays a big part in the story, and in his own way helps John face the responsibility of being a real adult and a parent, but the movie remembers that it's not all about him. Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) successfully juggles the multiple themes and storylines, not letting one overpower the other. He also allows Marley to act like a real dog. I was grateful that there were no "cute" reaction shots, or attempts to make him seem like he knows more about what's going on than he does. He's just a wild, but loyal and friendly dog. I also appreciated the film's low key humor that comes out of real situations. Anyone who has owned a dog or had kids are sure to nod their heads many times throughout the movie. It constantly finds the right tone, even the later "tear-jerker" moments that come near the end, which I was thankful to find earns its tears truthfully instead of through heavy-handed manipulation.

Despite best being known for their comedic work, both Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston deliver some very strong dramatic work here. Wilson, in particular, is wonderful as a man who feels like he's constantly faced with things blocking his path the life he thinks he truly wants. His acceptance and realization about his life comes naturally, and mainly through his expressions and performance, instead of long-winded dialogue. As for Aniston, she's an actress who has never completely stood out for me in most of her past films, but she grabbed my attention here with her honest and heartfelt portrayal. She's very believable in how she tries to be supportive, while at the same time wanting more, just like her husband. Both do a wonderful job of portraying the couple at different stages in their lives and relationship. As for Marley, we buy into the illusion that we've been watching the same dog the entire time (he was actually portrayed by 22 different dogs in different stages of his life), and we come to love him for his faults just as the Grogans do.

Marley & Me is being advertised as fun for the whole family escapist holiday entertainment, but I think those expecting that will be surprised by just how much this movie holds. It's an intelligent and heartfelt look at family life, what it means, and what it can do if you're not ready for it. Not a single moment rings false, not even the moments when the movie plays up the dog for laughs. This is the rare film that can appeal to just about anyone, and is the very definition of a crowd pleaser.

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Doubt

As the opening credits for Doubt came to an end, I grew worried. I saw that the film's writer and director, John Patrick Shanley (best known for writing the screenplay to Moonstruck) was also the original writer of the play it was based on. Usually when the creative team behind a stage play tries to adapt their own work, something is lost in the transition from stage to screen. Either the film comes across as a straight adaptation, like we're watching a filmed version of the play, or the energies that grabbed audiences on the stage isn't there in the film. Somehow, Doubt avoids all those trappings, and is just as forceful and powerful as a movie as it was as a play.

In bringing his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play to the screen, Shanley has not only held onto its undeniable energy and quietly engrossing storytelling, but has assembled the finest cast I could think of to tell the story. Meryl Streep is Sister Aloysius Beauvier, an old-fashioned battle ax of a nun who serves as the Principal of The Saint Nichols Church School, and always manages to place fear in the hearts of her students and even some of her staff. She is determined, and set in her ways. When someone suggests they use "Frosty the Snowman" for an upcoming Christmas concert the students are giving, she is against it, thinking the song promotes Satanism with its talk of magical hats bringing snowmen to life. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Father Brendan Flynn, a priest who represents a new more open-minded look at religion, and is quickly gaining popularity with both the staff and the students. There is obvious tension between the two, and both are set in their ways. Caught in the middle is Sister James (Amy Adams), an idealistic and optimistic new teacher at the school who sets the main conflict into motion when one of her students, Donald Muller (Joseph Foster II), is called to see the Father, and returns to class deeply troubled and with the smell of alcohol on his breath.

The answer is not so simple, as the title suggests. Father Flynn has an answer for every question that Aloysius has when she learns of the encounter from Sister James. He even has an answer for the alcohol. There was, in fact, much to doubt in 1964, which is when the story is set. The assassination of President Kennedy was still fresh in the world's mind, and young Donald is the school's first black student, as integration took its first steps. This alone throws Aloysius' accusations of Father Flynn into a harsh light. Could it be that she is merely using this as an excuse to get rid of a man she has publically been at odds with? After all, there is no real evidence that any wrongs took place. The battle lines between the two are drawn, as Aloysius will not back down in her belief that Flynn is guilty and hiding something. Sister James is forced to pick sides, and in a way, she represents us the audience. Just like her, we are not given all the details, only bits of pieces of what we see and hear that throw both sides of the argument. Just like her character, we are forced to pick sides, and no easy or even straight-forward answers are given. We ourselves are thrown into doubt as the story unfolds.

Since Doubt is mainly set in and around the school itself, it is up to the performances and the characters to grab our attention. The moment each of the main cast sets foot on the screen, we can scarcely take our eyes off of them. Putting two of the biggest acting talents, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the same movie can only raise our expectations, and they are fortunately able to meet our demanding hopes. Streep completely disappears into the role of the steely and determined Sister Aloysius, being forceful and narrow-minded, but still human. Her character is not two dimensional, as her final scene shows. We get the sense that she's held onto her beliefs because they are all she has left. Whenever doubt settles in, she battles it with determination, wether she is right in her thinking or not. As her rival, Hoffman is charismatic and sympathetic, but able to cast just enough shadow upon his character to make us question him. He finds the right balance of light and shadow in his character, and never lets one aspect overpower the other.

The supporting roles may not get as much screen time, but they are no less memorable. Amy Adams delivers yet another strong performance as the torn Sister James, who finds her thoughts swaying between faithfulness to her fellow Sister, to the Father, and to problems at home. As mentioned earlier, her character is the most accessible, as we share many of the same feelings as her during the course of the story. Adams is able to bring enough warmth and uncertainty to her role to make her easy for us to relate to. Special mention must also be given to Viola Davis, who plays the mother of the young boy at the center of the drama. She only has one extended scene with Streep in the entire film, but it is one of the most powerful moments in the film, and in recent memory. She is wrenching and absorbing in the limited time she is on camera, and a supporting Oscar nomination would most certainly be welcome.

The beauty of Doubt is that it leaves us to make up our minds as to the truth. Yes, a conclusion is reached, but we and the characters are still left in the dark as to what truly happened that day. What makes the material so powerful is not just the hot-button subject matter, but that the characters are written as real and honest people. They don't have all the answers, and neither do we. When it's over, we feel like we've been through the same feelings and emotions as the characters themselves. Doubt is high-level drama, and is one of the best films of the year.

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

If you ever need any proof of the theory that a great movie is never long enough, and a bad one is never short enough, consider this - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button runs for almost three hours, but seems much shorter while you're watching it. Now take the recent Australia, which runs about the same amount of time, but seemed to last for 10 hours. I've sat through 90 minute films that felt longer than the entirety of Benjamin Button.

The experience of watching this film is something I always go for the movies for, but seldom get. It's the experience of knowing you're watching something great. Sometimes it sneaks up on you about the halfway point, and sometimes you can tell pretty early on. This movie lets us know pretty early on where it's headed, and doesn't ever veer off course or take a wrong step. In telling its story, it takes its time but doesn't waste a second or scene. If you've seen the ad campaign, you know the basic premise. The title character is a man who was born under mysterious circumstances. As a baby, he has all the physical characteristics of an elderly man with one foot in the grave. (Cataracts, lack of hearing, crippling arthritis) His mother dies giving birth to him, and his father Thomas Button (Jason Flemying) is so terrified at the sight of his bizarre newborn son that he flees with the baby right there, briefly considers drowning him, but instead leaves him on the step of an old person's home. It's there that Benjamin will grow up under the watchful eye of one of the workers at the home, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Benjamin will eventually get to meet his father again, but initially won't know it.

The story of Benjamin's life is meandering, and I mean that in the best way possible. Much like life itself, it is a series of experiences and small personal journeys that make up the entirety. He is born at the end of World War I, and we follow his life as the decades roll by. Under mysterious circumstances wisely unexplained by the film, he is forced to live life in reverse, at least physically. When he is a child, he appears to be a crippled old man, though shorter than most. As everyone surely knows by now, Benjamin is played by Brad Pitt, and it is a credit to the filmmakers that we never once tell ourselves we're watching Pitt under a lot of make up. The special effects used to age and even shrink him are subtle, never once drawing attention to themselves, which is probably a technical marvel in itself. It takes the movie about two hours until he becomes completely recognizable as the big screen idol we know, but we don't grow impatient. Because he is forced to age backwards, he can never truly have a real life, but he tries. He works on a boat for a few years, he serves his country when World War II comes around, and he also attempts to win the heart of a woman named Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who enters and leaves his life at various points in the story.

If that description made the movie sound similar to 1994's Forrest Gump, it's probably not a surprise that they share the same screenwriter, Eric Roth. Both films are about outcasts who experience and participate in history in different ways. Benjamin's tale is much quieter and a bit darker, though. It's also more elegantly told. The idea of Benjamin aging physically backwards may sound like a gimmick, but the movie never treats it as such. We believe in what we're seeing, and we also believe in the relationship between Benjamin and Daisy. We first meet Daisy as an elderly woman on her deathbed as her adult daughter (Julia Ormond) watches over her. Benjamin's tale is told through his diary that her daughter reads. The story is just as much about Daisy as it is about him. They first meet when she is about 13, and Benjamin is forced to admit to her he's not as old as he looks. Over the years, they grow apart, but never forget each other. She goes on to become a professional dancer, until an accident cuts her career short. (This is another common theme in the film - Chaos, and how a single second can change the outcome of an event.) It will take decades before they are brought together, and try their best to have a real relationship despite the fact they are aging in opposite ways. It's to the credit of the movie that their realization of the truth is not treated with melodrama, but with subtlety and honesty.

Subtle is the right word for the movie in general. Director David Fincher (Zodiac, Fight Club) finds the right relaxed tone, and never tries to drum up our emotions. Even when Benjamin is at war, it is a fairly low key affair, with only one battle sequence which is beautiful in its own way, instead of being a spectacle. Despite the film's quiet nature, he certainly brings the film a lot of visual flair. This is one of the most beautiful looking movies I've ever seen, with an attention to detail we seldom see. The set design and special effects work with each other for once, and create a visual experience that absorbs its audience into its setting. I liked the way that flashbacks were told in different film styles. The story that the elderly Daisy tells her daughter which opens the film is told in washed out colors with lines and scratches added to make it look like a worn out film. And Benjamin has frequent encounters with an old man who claims to have been hit by lightning seven different times, each time depicted like an old silent movie. His style helps the film, and adds to the somewhat fairy tale-style telling of the story. However, he mainly stays grounded in reality, and never tries to distract us.

To further draw us into the story, the performances are memorable, even some of the smaller roles. Tilda Swinton (as a British woman whom Benjamin has a brief affair with), Jarred Harris (as the captain of the boat Benjamin works on), Jason Flemying as his father, and Taraji P. Henson as the woman who looks after him may have small roles in the context of the story itself, but leave unmistakable marks with their limited time. Julia Ormond also brings a lot of emotion to her role set in the present day. In the two central roles, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett have wonderful chemistry together and successfully bring their characters to life, but there is a small problem with Pitt's performance. It doesn't occur until late in the film, so it takes us a while to notice, but he plays the physically younger Benjamin not as an old man trapped in a young man's body, but rather ordinary. He seems to lose some nuance as his performance goes on. It is a small gripe, and one that was not big enough to break the spell of the movie over me.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has been appropriately named, because it is a curious movie in its own way. The movie never seems to be going anywhere or in any hurry to get to where it is going, but we do not grow frustrated. We are enraptured, and when the movie ends, it stays with us. This is the kind of movie you take home with you after seeing it, think it over, talk about with others, and examine it in your head for days to come. And yet, while you're watching it, it's simple enough for anyone to understand and never overly challenging. Early in this review, I talked about how some great movies sneak up on you, and how some seem great early on. This is a movie that seemed great to me from early on, but still managed to sneak up on me in other ways as I thought back on it.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux

It's been almost a full day since I saw The Tale of Despereaux, and I still find myself of two seperate minds regarding the film. On one hand, the movie has a handsome old-world fairy tale look to it that I quite admired. Its hero is also quite charming. Despereaux is a mouse who is very small (yes, even by mouse standards) but has ears so large that even Dumbo would comment on them. I also admired the fact that the movie brushes aside recent tradition of fast-paced CG cartoons, and takes its time telling a sweet and simple fable. And yet, at the same time, I don't know how this movie will play with kids. Despite its G-rating, the movie is pretty somber, doesn't have a lot of laughs (this is intentional, for once), and actually holds a fairly complicated plot for a children's movie. There's also some stuff I still don't understand, like the magical man made out of vegetables who pops up now and then. I'm still trying to figure that one out.

Some of my confusion probably has to do with the fact that I have not read Kate DiCamillo's acclaimed children's novel that the film is based on. The story is set in the kingdom of Dor, where everyone used to be happy, and soup was so celebrated that it had its own holiday. One year on that holiday, the kingdom's finest chef presented his latest soup creation to the king and queen, only to have a rat (who was only trying to smell the creation) fall into the soup. The queen was so startled by the rat that she died of a heart attack. Due to his grief, the king banished soup and had all rats and mice forced underground. Since that day, Dor has fallen into sadness. The skies are constantly gray, but it never rains so nothing can grow. The villagers have fallen into depression, the king does nothing but long for his dead wife, and his daughter Princess Pea ( voiced by Emma Watson, from the Harry Potter franchise) sits in her room looking out the window, wishing things could be like they were before.

An unlikely hero comes in the form of little Despereaux (Matthew Broderick), who lives beneath the kingdom in "Mouseworld". Despereaux is different from all the other mice, because he is brave, does not scurry, and is not afraid of the things mice are supposed to be afraid of. While exploring the castle up above, he comes across a book that tells stories of brave knights and fair princesses. He decides he wants to be like the heroes of the story, and when he hears the real Princess Pea's story of sadness, he decides he will become her "gentleman" and help her restore happiness to the kingdom. When his fellow mice learn that he has been going above and talking with humans, he is banished and sent to "Ratworld", which exists even further down below the land of the mice. Despereaux finds the rats to be scheming and greedy creatures, except for one - the same rat who accidentally caused the death of the queen, and is truly sorry for his actions (Dustin Hoffman). The mouse and rat decide they will work together to fix their relations with the humans above. As for the Princess, she has her own problems in the form of Migerry Sow (Tracy Ullman), a servant girl who dreams of being royalty herself, and will go to any means to achieve her goal, even if it means working with the scheming rats.

I liked the leisurely way that directors Sam Fell (Flushed Away) and Rob Stevenhagen, along with the screenplay by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), set up the story and introduce us to the world it's set in. The title hero does not appear until a good 20 minutes into the movie, but I did not feel impatient and was enjoying the art style and look of the film. The movie is animated in CG, but its use of warm colors give it a sort of old fashioned look to it. The movie charmed me even more when Despereaux was introduced, and we got to see the world of the mice. The scenes featuring the school for mice (where kids learn to be afraid) were cute, and the design of the underground world was so imaginative, I wish I could have seen more of it. Despereaux is also an immediately likable little hero, with his large ears and even larger heart and soul. Broderick's spirited voice performance only adds to the character's charm. What impressed me the most were the complex relationships the characters hold. The synopsis above did not mention certain twists of the plot that surprised me in a movie that supposedly caters mainly to children.

Besides the actors listed above, the film's voice cast also includes Frank Langella, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Christopher Lloyd, Stanley Tucci, Robbie Coltrane, and Signourney Weaver, who narrates the tale like a mother telling a bedtime story. (Which is appropriate here.) This is one of the few times when an animated film's all-star cast does not act as a hindrance, as many are not instantly recognizable. Therefore, we're not playing a game of "guess the voice", we're concentrating on the story at hand. Many of the actors disappear into their roles, and while some voices are instantly recognizable (like Broderick and Hoffman), I truly did not know who played many of the characters until the end credits informed me. In a way, this helps with the illusion of making the animated characters seem more real. It's something I wish other animated films (especially those out of Dreamworks) would apply more often.

And yet, the entire time I was admiring the film, a nagging question was in the back of my mind - Will children like it? While the movie is never inappropriate, it does contain some dark imagery. The rats lounge on human skulls and decaying corpses, and are so vicious that when they get a hold of Princess Pea, they tie her down and plot to eat her alive. The entire movie also has a surprisingly somber and very serious tone to it. While some of the characters look cute, they deal with issues such as death, depression, and isolation. All this, and the film's leisurely pace may turn some kids (and maybe some adults, expecting a fast-paced laugh-a-minute comedy) off. Some character motivations also seem kind of sketchy. Dustin Hoffman's rat character has such rapid changes of heart during the course of the story, it's somewhat comical. Still, I have to remember the filmmakers were working with a roughly 90 minute running time, whereas the author of the original story had hundreds of pages.

The Tale of Despereaux should please most parents and patient children, and is definitely a tremendous step up from last weekend's junky Delgo. You get the sense that the filmmakers were not trying to make a big Pixar spectacle, or a fun-filled Dreamworks movie. They were just trying to tell a charming and old fashioned fable about loyalty, friendship, and other values. Judging by this scale, they have succeeded. Just like its hero, this is a small movie with a very big heart, and a surprising amount of intelligence to back it up.

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Seven Pounds

The opening moments of Seven Pounds make a great effort to throw us off. Scenes are played out of sequence, there are flashbacks, flash-forwards, and it would probably flash sideways if it could. All of this is to hide the motivation of Ben Thomas (Will Smith), a man who is calling to report his own suicide right before he plans to kill himself the first time we see him. In the next scene, we're in a completely different time and place, and Ben is chewing out a blind customer service agent over the phone. We know this blind man will play some part in the plot later on, because he's played by a recognizable actor, in this case Woody Harrelson. We also see Ben sharing a beach house with a beautiful woman, and some brief glimpses of a terrible accident.

What does it all mean? To get those answers, we unfortunately have to sit through a very long and dull story where the pieces slowly fall into place. When they do, we realize the reason the story is told out of sequence is not for any artistic reason, but rather we'd walk out the door and demand our money back within the first 20 minutes if we knew what was going on too soon. Seven Pounds is a dreary and manipulative melodrama that keeps on pounding away at our emotions, but never gets the response it desires. This is not a confident movie. A confident one would have let the drama build from the characters. This movie frequently hits us over the head, while the music swells on the soundtrack. We eventually learn that Ben is a man who seeks out people in tough personal or financial situations, and tries to help them. Amongst those he wishes to help is Harrelson's character (and yes, we do find out why Ben acted the way he did over the phone), and a woman (Elpidia Carrillo) with two children involved in an abusive relationship, but too afraid to leave her boyfriend.

Ben works for the I.R.S., and uses the information on his clients to find people worthy of his help. The person whom the movie focuses the most on is a pretty young woman named Emily (Rosario Dawson). She's suffers from congenital heart failure, and needs a donor or else she will die. Ben enters her life, and the two strike up a friendship and a potential romance. Of course, Ben has sadness in his life, also. The movie is vague, showing brief glimpses of flashbacks, or him having conversations with people who know his past where the dialogue is intentionally written in a way to give as little info as possible. We have to wait for the final moments to learn the truth behind Ben Thomas, but honestly, I had a pretty good idea early on. We're supposed to be intrigued and asking a lot of questions. Why did Ben give his lovely beach house away and move into a roadside motel? Why is he so reluctant to accept Emily's affections? Why does he keep a live jellyfish in a water tank? All of these elements play into the plot, but the movie's glacial pace all but guarantees we won't care by the time they're finally revealed.

Seven Pounds is shameless in the way it desperately pushes all our emotional buttons. It got to the point where I wanted to start pushing back. A big reason why the movie misfires is that for all his Good Samaritan work, Ben Thomas is not that likable of a character. Will Smith gives the guy as much of his natural charm and screen presence as he can, but Ben is written as a mainly mopey individual. Rosario Dawson as Emily comes across much stronger, because there's a lot more life to her character, even though she knows it could end at any time with her situation. The movie wants us to get drawn in as the two are drawn together the more time they spend with each other, but I kept on thinking to myself that Emily could do better. Ben's attitude drags down the entire movie, making this a very dark and moody "feel good" movie. The only source of humor in the film is a dog Emily has, and a snide worker at the motel Ben is staying at. When Ben tells the worker he's planning to die, the man says Ben should pay him in advance for his room. Ho, ho.

The movie is directed by Gabriele Muccino, who previously worked with Smith on The Pursuit of Happyness. They worked well together on that film, but here, they are saddled by a manipulative screenplay by Grant Nieporte. For all of its trickery and attempts to keep us in the dark about Ben and what he's trying to do, the script is simple minded as it relentlessly tries to wring emotions from its audience. I never once teared up while watching it, because I could tell the film was trying too hard. I don't respond well to movies that seem to be screaming, "Isn't this terrible? Isn't this awful? Don't you feel sorry for these people?" with every frame. Tragedy should come from subtle beginnings, and grow. This movie is relentlessly downbeat, overwrought, and often ridiculous. The fact that I just didn't care that much about the characters to begin with certainly didn't help.

As the final scenes played out, I heard a couple audience members sniffling, but I just wanted it to end. Seven Pounds is endless, and the last moments seem particularly dragged out. The fact that the movie ends on a sunny day with an elementary school choir singing a happy song did not lift my spirits after everything else it had put me through. Speaking of that choir, I wonder who thought it was a good idea to have those kids singing a song that mentions a "one night stand" in one of its lyrics?

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