Reel Opinions


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Meet the Spartans

When you think about it, calling Meet the Spartans a full length feature is funnier than any of the jokes that appear in the film itself. The movie itself runs just barely over an hour. To make up for this fact, filmmakers Jason Friedberg and Adam Seltzer stretch out the closing credits to ridiculous lengths. The credits routinely stop, so the movie can cut away to a good 10 or 15 minutes worth of deleted scenes or alternate takes on scenes from the film. This way, the movie can be credited as running for 85 minutes or so, instead of the 70 minutes it actually runs. Don't get me wrong, I definitely didn't want to see more of this movie. It's just as the credits kept on going and routinely stopping, Meet the Spartans started to resemble an obnoxious houseguest who just didn't know how to take a hint and leave you alone.

The stuff that comes before the ending credits can be pretty obnoxious, too. Meet the Spartans is intended to be a direct parody of last year's 300, and was most likely rushed into production the moment the opening weekend numbers for that movie came in. It shows in just about every aspect. The dubbing of the film's dialogue is occasionally off, the sets are cheap, and the screenplay was probably hammered out in an afternoon after a marathon session of television watching by the duo of Friedberg and Seltzer. For those of you who don't know, they're the guys who brought us Date Movie and Epic Movie. They like to do parodies of popular genres like romantic comedies or blockbusters, but always end up missing the point in the end. I naturally assumed that by narrowing their focus to just one movie instead of a genre, they might have an easier time hitting their target. If this movie proves anything, they couldn't hit a target if it was an inch away from them. It doesn't help that 300 has already been parodied to death on the Internet, comics, and the like. Meet the Spartans may resemble an obnoxious houseguest, but the guys behind the movie resemble a pathetic stand up comic telling year-old jokes to an audience who just couldn't care less.

The movie is more or less a run-through of 300's plot, only with amateurish humor and TV pop culture references thrown in. Leonidas (British TV actor Sean Maguire) must lead his army of Spartan warriors against the invading Persian army, led by the overweight Xerxes (Ken Davitian from Borat). Leonidas wants 300 soldiers, but his Captain (Kevin Sorbo) can only round up 13. They try their luck anyway, and ultimately battle their way to glory, while at the same time being completely oblivious to their blatant homosexuality. (They hold hands and skip off to battle while singing "I Will Survive".) Back at home, Leonidas' wife, Queen Margo (Carmen Electra) must prevent the appropriately named Traitoro (Diedrich Bader) from convincing the Spartans left behind into giving in and surrendering to the Persians. Along the way, for no good reason, we are bombarded with a variety of pop culture references that include movies (Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Transformers, Happy Feet, Ghost Rider), television shows (Ugly Betty, Deal or No Deal, American Idol, The Apprentice), and celebrities (Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Ellen DeGeneres, Dane Cook, and Tom Cruise).

You know, I really want to be lazy and just re-write one of my reviews from one of their past films, only switching the words around in order to fit this one. After all, Meet the Spartans suffers from the exact same problems as Date Movie and Epic Movie. But, I take too much pride in my work to do that. Instead, I will devote the remainder of this review to some observations.

Observation 1 - If you're going to fill your movie with look-alikes of TV and movie celebrities, try to find people who actually look like the person they're supposed to be. When the three American Idol judges pop up to give their thoughts on Leonidas and his army, two of them don't look a thing like the people they're representing. Were they working with such a low budget they couldn't even hire decent look-alikes? Many of the celebrity impersonators play multiple roles throughout the film, and it's largely a mixed bag, which gives the movie an overall vibe that the filmmakers truly don't give a damn, as long as they can sucker some money out of bored teenagers.

Observation 2 - I want to perform an experiment with you. Try to think of the last funny joke you heard. Maybe it still made you laugh, but most likely, you didn't laugh as hard as the first time around. Now, I want you to keep on repeating that joke to yourself until you're just not laughing anymore. How many times did it take? What's the point of this experiment? I want to give you the feeling of watching Meet the Spartans, which routinely repeats the same gag a good 5 or 6 times during the course of the film, as if the movie thinks we didn't get it the first time around. By doing this experiment, you save yourself the price of a theater ticket and a good 70 minutes or so of your time, and still get the same experience as if you were sitting in a theater watching this movie.

Observation 3 - This movie creates a new low in product placement. Disguise your product placement as a parody of an actual commercial for the product! Of course, by parody, I mean recreate the commercial word for word, only having the actors holding up said product. (Budweiser beer, Krispy Kreme donuts, Dentyne Ice gum, Gatorade, take your pick.) That way, you can disguise it as humor, and the corporate sponsors still get their products mentioned in your film. I shudder to think of the imitators this method will inspire.

Observation 4 - It's not enough to reference every movie and TV show under the sun. You have to pretend your audience have been living in caves the past year, and awkwardly mention what it is you're supposed to be referencing in your dialogue. If a character makes a reference to the TV show Heroes, make sure you tell them it's supposed to be from that show in your next line of dialogue. If you're spoofing American Idol, make there's a giant sign with the show's logo nearby for the two people in the audience who have never heard of the show. Whenever a celebrity impersonator show up, make sure the first thing out of their mouths is saying who they're supposed to be. Remember, we are not sophisticated enough for the biting humor of Friedberg and Seltzer. They must hold our hands throughout, in case we are floored by their acute observations on pop culture.

Do I really need to say anymore? If you're still considering seeing this movie after reading this, you have my blessings and my condolences. I can only hope someday you will find something better to do with your time, but until then, enjoy Meet the Spartans.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Untraceable

Did anyone involved with Untraceable stop and think just what kind of a movie they were making? I would assume not, because it's playing at a theater near you. Here is a movie that wants to make a statement about how voyeuristic our society has become. With the Internet, web videos, live feeds, and TV programs built around shocking video, you really have to stop and think when the line is going to be drawn. Untraceable asks that question, but doesn't provide an answer. It shakes its finger at us, while at the same time forcing us to be entertained by the very thing its speaking out against. Don't let the slick production values and the talented Diane Lane's name above the title fool you. This is mindless torture horror along the likes of Captivity, only dressed up as an adult thriller.

The hero of the story is Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane), a woman who works for the FBI Cyber Crime Unit. With her partner, Griffin Dowd (Colin Hanks), she scours the Internet for hackers and identity theft criminals, bringing them to justice. A website called "killwithme.com" is brought to her attention early on, and even with the crimes she witnesses everyday, she is still shocked by what she sees. Someone is hosting live murders on the site, where people can log on and watch someone be slowly tortured and murdered through live streaming video. The more people that log on to watch, the faster the victim is killed. The site's first victim is a small kitten, but as word of mouth grows, the killer's methods become more elaborate and the victims become random people plucked off the street. Jennifer is placed at the head of the investigation to find out who is behind the killings, and is partnered up with a Police Detective named Eric Box (Billy Burke). It eventually becomes clear that the killer knows about Jennifer's involvement when streaming video of the outside of her house pops up on the site. With the lives of her young daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine) and mother (Mary Beth Hurt) on the line, the mission to track down the killer becomes personal for Jennifer.

Untraceable has an atmospheric look provided by cinematographer Anastas N. Michos (Perfect Stranger), and director Gregory Hoblit (Fracture) has gathered some good performances, and knows how to keep the action moving at least. The level of care that's been put to making this winds up being one of the most disturbing things about Untraceable. Why was so much effort put into such an undeserving project? This is a movie built entirely around forcing its audience to watch people and small animals tortured in inhumane ways. The screenplay credited to Robert Fyvolent, Mark R. Brinker, and Allison Burnett makes no attempt to hide this fact. It hits the same notes over and over again for the entire 100 minutes or so the film runs. The killer kidnaps someone, Jennifer and the officers gather around in horror as they watch the victim get tortured, the person dies, they investigate, the killer kidnaps someone else...The formula goes on almost uninterrupted. The movie doesn't even give us a mystery to solve, as the identity of the killer is revealed to us by the half hour mark. Actually, we get a brief glimpse of the murderer in a mirror in the film's opening scene as he sets up the kitten's death trap, but the camera doesn't linger on it for very long. So, we're forced to just sit there and watch people get their flesh melted off by acid, or get dangled over spinning blades, while the heroes run around gathering evidence on the person who we already know is the killer. There are no surprises, no revelations, and nothing for us to figure out on our own. The movie is just one gruesome execution after another with little bits of plot information thrown in-between.

The killer in the story is also one of those magical teleporting killers who can always be exactly where he needs to be, know exactly what he needs to know, and show up hidden in the back seats of the cars at just the right moment, even though it should be physically impossible for him to be in such places. I also found myself asking how he can set up so many elaborate murders in his basement in such a short amount of time. Surely building a tank that slowly fills with acid would take some amount of time to throw together, especially with it being tied to the hit counter on his website. This is not a movie that's interested in looking into the mind of its murderer. It just uses him as a prop to stage some grisly torture scenes for our "amusement". The lead character doesn't hold up much better, as the only thing we learn about Jennifer is that she's a widow, and that her husband was on the force when he was alive as well. That's because the movie isn't interested in anyone who enters the movie, nor is it interested in giving them anything interested to do or say. It just wants to shamelessly rip off Silence of the Lambs, and just about every other psycho killer movie in existence, and rub our faces in exploitive, grisly images.

Who is this movie intended for? Budding serial killers themselves, perhaps, who I'm sure will get some wild new ideas by watching this. Untraceable literally has no entertainment value, not even in a shock sense. In order for us to be shocked, there has to be something for us to attach ourselves to. The movie doesn't want to be smart, it doesn't want to thrill us, and it most certainly does not want us to leave the theater with any sort of thought other than the world is a nasty and cruel place. It doesn't offer any sort of message, it just wants to kick us in the dirt for almost two hours, then leave us walking out of it feeling bitter, angry, and exploited. It doesn't even have the brains to be scary. What an ugly, awful, stupid movie this is.

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How She Move

With all the teen urban dance dramas hitting theaters these past couple years, you'd think eventually filmmakers would get it right. If How She Move didn't exactly win me over, it did at least give me a glint of hope that there is something to the genre. The movie's closest comparison is Stomp the Yard, a movie that came out around this time last year, and didn't exactly win me over with its cliched plot and characters. How She Move is just as cliched, but it has a lot more energy in its performances and especially in its dance sequences. While I wasn't entirely engrossed in the film's story, I did find my feet moving a little to the expertly choreographed and staged music sequences.

A lot of this energy is supplied by Rutina Wesley, a dancer who makes her acting debut here. She plays Raya, a teenage girl who grew up in a ghetto, but made strives to better herself and has been studying at a private school these past couple years. Her beloved older sister, unfortunately, wasn't so lucky to escape the influence of the streets and has recently died of a drug overdose. Raya's parents can no longer afford to send her to the private school, so she has to return to her old neighborhood with the hopes that she can escape the streets again by applying for a med school scholarship. Before she left her old neighborhood, Raya and her sister used to do a lot of step dancing. When she hears that a competition is coming up with a big cash prize, she knows she can use that money to help pay for her college dreams. Unfortunately, not all of her former friends are happy to see her, including a rival step dancer named Michelle (Tre Armstrong), who still holds a grudge against Raya for leaving them all behind the first time. Raya eventually teams up with a group of dancers led by a fellow student at school named Bishop (Dwain Murphy), and begins training for the upcoming competition. But with her sister's death hanging heavy over everyone at home, and loyalties in the step dancing group being questioned, it will not be an easy journey for her.

The screenplay by Annmarie Morais does not do anything to break any new ground, and plays it completely safe. The characters look, talk, and act the exact same way as they do in other films similar to it. Morais also throws a lot of unnecessary confusion by having her lead character switch loyalties numerous times throughout the movie. After she has a fall out with Bishop, she teams up with another leading dance group led by Garvey (Cle Bennett), who also happens to be a local drug dealer. I don't think it's any surprise to reveal that Raya eventually finds out that Garvey has ties to her sister's death, so she switches back once again to Bishop's side. The relationship between Raya and former friend Michelle also seems rather strained. Some scenes they loathe each other, some scenes they seem to be breaking the ice. It all depends on what the current scene needs. Their relationship doesn't seem developed, rather it seems manipulated by the screenplay itself. The only thing that held my attention during the story moments are the better than average performances. There are some talented young performers displayed in this movie, and I hope they get chances to move on to better things. They bring energy to their roles that never quite made me forget I had seen it all before, but at least didn't make me mind sitting through it again.

It's not exactly the drama that grabs our attention in How She Move in the first place. It's the dancing and musical sequences, which are lively, fun to watch, and really show off the talent and skill of the cast. All of the dancing is unique and it always seems fresh, so we don't feel like we're watching the same moves over and over again. These sequences are obviously where director Ian Iqbal Rashid put all of his attention, and it pays off with energy and style to spare. This is one of the rare times I felt like cheering right along side the audience members on the screen watching the dance routines, as there's some impressive stuff on display. The choreography is credited to Hi-Hat, who only has a small handful of films to his credit including Bring it On and Stick It. She's also credited as the choreographer of the upcoming Step Up 2 the Streets, so it will be interesting to see if that movie holds the same amount of energy when it is released next month. Hopefully it utilizes her talents as much as this film does.

I'd like to make a plea before closing this review. Just once I'd like to see one of these urban dance movies that did not revolve around the exact same plot of escaping from the ghetto, or people from different walks of life falling in love. Surely there must be another story that can accompany this energetic form of dance. How She Move does not get a recommendation from me, but I still found myself liking it a little bit more than expected. I just wish it had a title that didn't make me cringe every time I typed it while writing this review. Is it so hard to add an "s" at the end?

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Rambo

Even though the movie came out in 1993, I finally understand just what a dead-on parody Hot Shots: Part Deux was of the 80s/early 90s action formula. One scene in particular from that movie came to my mind while watching Sylvester Stallone's Rambo. It was a scene where Charlie Sheen's character was blowing away countless bad guys in over the top, gratuitously violent fashion. As the killing continued, a score counter appeared at the bottom of the screen, keeping track of the bodies falling. As the numbers climbed, we were informed just how violent the scene had become via subtitles. ("Bloodier than Robocop. Bloodier than Total Recall...") This movie has an action sequence that is eerily similar to it near the end, with Stallone wiping out thousands of extras for about 10 minutes non-stop. The only difference is Stallone isn't playing it for laughs. The thing is, if it included that body count indicator at the bottom of the screen, it'd be just as ridiculous as the scene from the parody.

Rambo is obviously Stallone's attempt to revive his other most iconic character, after successfully reviving Rocky Balboa back in 2006 to surprisingly warm reviews and strong box office. Much like Balboa, this movie will most likely play big to the fans who have stuck with the character over the years. I have to give the man credit where it is due. The guy knows how to speak to his fanbase, give them what they want, and obviously cares about these characters who cemented his career. I also have to give him credit for being in amazing physical shape when you consider he's 61-years-old. That being said, there is very little here to entertain unless you have been following the character, or still hold a fondness for cheesy 80s action films. There were moments in Rambo that made me smile and admire the film, but before it got to that point, I had to sit through a lot of meandering build up of the paper-thin plot. There's just too long of a wait before Stallone and the movie start to give us what we want.

It's been 20 years since John Rambo's last adventure, and as the film opens, we find he's taken up residence in Thailand working somewhat as a man for hire, mainly specializing in transporting people up and down the river on his boat for a price. A group of Christian aid workers approach him, wishing to use his boat to take them to war-torn Burma. Rambo flat out denies them initially, saying the area is too dangerous, but apparently he just can't say no to a pretty face. The sole woman in the group, Sarah (Julie Benz from TV's Dexter) eventually convinces him to take the job. John Rambo does his job, dropping them off at the border, and a few days later, he is approached with the news that the entire Christian aid group was captured when violent terrorists invaded the village they were visiting. Although he has been trying to avoid war, Rambo knows that it is forever a part of him, and joins up with a band of mercenaries who are sent into Burmese territory to rescue Sarah and the others who were captured.

Stallone co-wrote and directed this film, and as soon as the studio logos fade, he makes his intentions known. We see some archival news clips of the war terrors in Burma, followed by a staged sequence where a group of poor villagers are forced to partake in a deadly game of chance. He seems to be trying to take a stand against the violent atrocities, by showing them to us first hand and in graphic detail. That's all well and good, but we know that this is Rambo, and we're not exactly here to be educated on world events. The first time Stallone stepped on the screen as Rambo, I smiled. He still had that same glare, the same imposing stature, the same sense of sheer power. It doesn't matter if the actor playing him is pushing 60, John Rambo himself is timeless, and Stallone proves that fact almost immediately. I settled in my seat, and started to wait for the fun to begin. If only I knew how long I would have to wait. For his most recent outing, Stallone has the character spending too much time staring at people people he doesn't like and walking through jungles, than doing what he's supposed to be doing - Being the granddaddy of all badasses. Oh, we get to see some fleeting moments of it, like when he takes out a small band of pirates who threaten the Christian aid workers while he's taking them to Burma. But, the action is over so quickly and edited so rapidly, it almost comes across as a blink and you'll miss it moment. The true carnage does not really begin until the last half hour or so. The rest of the time is devoted to the bad guys torturing the aid workers, raping women, and killing children. I don't want to see that, I want to see Rambo in his glory! Why does the movie take so long?

If the movie kills too much time before giving us what we want, is it worth the wait? Well, gorehounds will certainly be appeased. Rambo once again makes us question where an R-rating ends and NC-17 begins with graphic depictions of decapitations, rape, murder, vivisections, and just about any form of violence with a gun or blunt object you can think of. The climactic violent showdown made me think two things. The first was I'm glad this movie wasn't filmed in 3D, given the amount of times we see exploding blood and limbs flying toward the camera. The second was that they gave the title There Will Be Blood to the wrong movie. Of course, the movie has long since contradicted itself by this point. The movie starts out by using its violence to shock and disgust, and by the end, we're supposed to be cheering, because it's Rambo doing the violence, not the bad guys. Makes you wonder why the movie tried to make any sort of a statement to begin with if it's just going to shoot itself in the foot. Why can't we just have a fun, dumb movie? The screenplay gives us plenty of dumb, but is light on the fun. I wasn't exactly expecting deep characterizations walking into this movie, but these people went below even my expectations. The people Rambo is trying to rescue are laughably thin, and barely have any dialogue to start with. As much as Stallone seems to be trying to make us care about the situation in Burma, it's hard when he keeps on focusing on his character walking through a jungle with some mercenaries, instead of his intended topic. We see the atrocities, but don't see anything behind them.

I think in the end, Stallone's intentions were confused. He obviously wanted to send a big love letter to his long-time fans, but at the same time, he wanted to try to do a sort of message movie. The two styles do not mix, and Rambo ends up being a lesser movie because of it. There's really nothing to get excited about here, unless you really have been one of the people waiting 20 years for a sequel. If you have been, just the sight of seeing the character on the big screen again is probably worth the ticket price. Anyone else can and should find something better to do with their time. Rambo may be timeless, but the movie that shares his name most likely will not be.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

27 Dresses

If there's one movie trend I wish I would just go away, it's the "gotcha" moment! It's a moment usually employed by comedies, where the movie tries to fool you into thinking the characters are talking about one thing, but then it turns out to be something completely different. I guess we're expected to smack our foreheads in surprise, and shake our heads over how clever the film is. Of course this never happens, because the audience is usually smarter than the movie itself, so why is it trying to fool us in the first place? 27 Dresses opens with such a "gotcha" moment. We see the lead star, Katherine Heigl, being fitted for a wedding dress. I guess we're supposed to think that this is her wedding she's getting ready for, but wouldn't you know it, she gets a phone call and...wait for it...It's from the bride! Heigl is just trying on the dress for her! And I wind up looking at the screen in dumb disbelief, wondering who the movie thinks its fooling.

Of course, the audience is too smart to fall for such a switcheroo, because we know what the movie is about. We've seen the ad campaign, and we've seen the actors go on talk shows during the week leading up to the release, talking about the story. Why do the filmmakers go through such pains to try to fool us when we already know she's not the intended bride in the first place? For those of you not in the know, Katherine Heigl plays Jane, a woman who has been a bridesmaid 27 times, and has a dress to represent each one stuffed in her closet. Her closet is so stuffed with bridesmaid gowns that it doesn't even close all the way anymore. Why does she do this? Because she's a generic romantic comedy lead who thinks only about weddings, clips out articles about weddings, and pretty much doesn't seem to have a life outside of planning every single detail of everyone else's wedding, and her job. She doesn't do anything at her job except pine for her boss, George (Edward Burns, who after One Missed Call and now this is not having a very good month). Naturally, George doesn't even notice her affections, and she's too shy to speak up. Things get even worse when Jane's sexy and slightly ditzy sister Tess (Malin Akerman) comes to visit, and George immediately falls for her. Whoa! Another "gotcha" moment we can't see coming only if we lack the mental ability to get dressed by ourselves in the morning!

Tess and George only hit it off, because Tess lies to make herself look better to the guy. (She tells him she's a vegetarian, loves animals, and enjoys the outdoors, when she hates all those things.) George is too much of a dimwit to realize this, and proposes marriage about a week after knowing her, by my estimate. Now poor Jane has to prepare everything for her sister's wedding to the guy she's always wanted. Of course she doesn't say anything, not even that Tess is lying to George, because if she said that the movie would be over a lot sooner, we'd all be much happier, and could go on with our lives. But wait, there's another "gotcha" moment waiting in the wings to spring itself on us. You see, there's this obnoxious jerk who keeps on popping up everywhere Jane goes named Kevin (James Marsden). He hates weddings, because he got stood up at the altar himself, and doesn't believe in true love. He says he's a writer, but there's absolutely no way he can be the guy who writes all the articles about weddings for the newspaper that Jane loves so much, and clips out every week. No, absolutely not. But wait, they start to slowly fall for each other the more time they spend together. Could it be that they are made for each other? Will the movie ever realize we're two steps ahead of it, and stop trying to surprise us with bargain basement romantic comedy cliches?

27 Dresses is a movie that's been assembled from the bits and pieces of better screenplays, hastily glued together, and then slapped up on the screen with little care. I'm not asking that every movie be a shining example of originality, but I really get annoyed when it assumes I'm a total idiot, and acts like I'm supposed to be surprised by these kind of developments. I'd be able to forgive this if there was some evidence that the filmmakers understood the material was old and worn, and tried to hold our attention with some clever dialogue. Unfortunately, there is nothing here to give the impression that anyone involved gave this project even a second thought. The direction by Anne Fletcher (Step Up) holds absolutely no originality, and the screenplay credited to Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) may have been torn directly from a "how to write a romantic comedy" textbook. The movie almost seems to know how dull and desperate it is, and makes no effort to cover it up. Even the casting seems to be inspired by past romantic comedies. Jane's best friend is played by Judy Greer, and she seems to have been made up to somewhat resemble Joan Cusack, an actress who has played more than her share of "best friend" roles in other films.

The sad thing is, I can see Katherine Heigl succeeding in this kind of material. She's attractive without being impossibly so, and has a pleasant screen presence. The movie forgets to give her a character to play here. Like everything else, her Jane is cobbled together from lead characters in other romantic comedies, and does all the things we expect her to do. Heigl tries her best, but because the movie gives her nothing to do, she just has to stand there and give a lot of energy for nothing. I was one of the few people that was not taken by her breakout movie role in last summer's Knocked Up, but I liked her performance there, and I liked her here too. Now she just needs a script and a character to match her talent. Malin Akerman as her sister seems to be channeling some of Cameron Diaz's comedic roles, but without the spark and wit they usually hold. Filling in the two male lead roles, both Edward Burns and James Marsden seem to be wondering what they're doing here. Burns, in particular, seems to be in danger of falling asleep from boredom at any moment in a couple of his scenes. Maybe he should start looking at his scripts before he signs on to do them.

27 Dresses crams everything I hate about contrived comedies into one unappealing package. It's a movie about dumb people saying things no one in their right mind would say, and doing things no one in their right mind would do. The kind of people displayed in this film could never exist, and if they did, you probably wouldn't want to know them in the first place as they'd have nothing intelligent to say. When a movie thinks its smarter than me, it usually annoys me. When a movie as dumb as this thinks its smarter than me, it infuriates me.

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Atonement

What we have here is a movie that works beautifully in moments, and sags in others. Atonement is a powerful story, there is no denying that. What it lacked is the ability to hold onto that power all the way through. The film is at its best when it is focusing mainly on one of the three central characters. That character is Briony. She is played at different ages by three different actresses - Saoirse Ronan at 13, Romola Garai at 18, and Vanessa Redgrave as an elderly woman at the end of the film. Although none of these women get top billing above the title, they are the true heart of the piece, and get the best scenes of the film. Keira Knightly and James McAvoy play the other main leads - a pair of young lovers whose lives are changed forever by the Briony character. They seem to be the focus of the film's ad campaign, and strangely enough, were the most forgettable part with me. The end result is a highly uneven film, but one still worth watching.

The story begins in the English countryside in 1935. The character of Briony is 13 at the time, and is watching a relationship developing between her sister Cecilia (Knightly) and a family servant named Robbie (McAvoy) with great interest and suspicion. Briony does not trust Robbie after she discovers an unfortunately-phrased letter that was intended for Cecilia's eyes only. Her suspicion of Robbie is furthered when she discovers her sister and him in an uncompromising sexual position that her young mind misinterprets. When another young girl staying with the family is raped, Briony makes a fateful decision that will change all of their lives forever. She claims she saw Robbie as the culprit of the act, and he is sent away. The remainder of the film is split into two separate storylines. Robbie goes off to fight in World War II after a stint in prison, and tries his best to keep contact with his beloved Cecilia through the great distance between them. As for Briony, she has come to regret her lie, and is trying desperately to atone for her mistakes that haunt her for the rest of her life.

One of the central themes behind Atonement is the power of the word, both written and spoken. When we first meet Briony, she is a budding novelist and playwright. It is her love and talent for fiction, combined with her somewhat immature mind, and her overprotective feelings of her sister that creates the lie in the first place. One thing that the screenplay by Christopher Hampton (The Quiet American) does that I admired is that during the first half of the film, we first see a sequence through the eyes of Briony, and then the movie goes back, and shows us what really happened immediately afterward. In lesser hands, this approach could be confusing and awkward, but the direction of Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) and the tight editing makes it work. Briony's story is a heartbreaking one of a young girl who does not fully understand the world around her, and perhaps doesn't even understand her own actions. As she grows older and wiser, she learns to regret her past actions, and finds forgiveness almost impossible to find. Her powerful words continue to haunt her. The movie emphasizes this by having the thundering keys of a typewriter ring out on the soundtrack in tune with the music score. This method, surprisingly, gives the film an urgent tone. The keys pound away as percussion, adding a sense of urgency to the proceedings.

The first half of the film detailing the events that led to the lie is where the film is at its most tense. The relationships created between the three characters, and how they are torn apart are powerfully portrayed in the dialogue, the almost claustrophobic atmosphere of the family home, and the events leading up to the fateful night in question are all beautifully laid out. It's only when the story switches to Robbie's point of view as a soldier fighting on the frontlines that things start to dip somewhat. While there is nothing exactly wrong with the approach, the war scenes do not really offer nothing new, and consequently did not captivate me the same way the first hour or so did. Robbie, Cecilia, and their relationship are mostly left at the side to begin with, the movie mainly focusing on Briony and her misinterpretation, so when they are forced to be torn apart, it does not hit quite as hard as it should. Their story is just as tragic as Briony's, if not even more so, but it felt lesser to me due to the fact that their story seems to get less attention. Their relationship lacks passion, and at times even seems somewhat cold. Knightly's portrayal of Cecilia, in particular, is lacking warmth, as the movie never quite develops us into a character that we can truly get behind. When we are following Robbie, I found myself admiring the skill that the sequences were made more than the character or the story itself.

It's only when the attention returns to the older Briony that the film returns to form. Now 18, she is a nurse working for the war effort, trying to get in touch with her sister, who has dropped contact with her since the incident. The screenplay and the movie itself does a great job of developing her character, and what the years have done to her. It also certainly helps that Romola Garai does indeed bear a striking resemblance to young Saoirse Ronan, who plays the character at 13 during the first half of the film. They are both wonderful performances that are strong enough not only to hold our attention, but the film itself. When the movie steps away, we miss the strong presence of the character and the performances. When it is Vanessa Redgrave's turn to step in as the character during a sequence set in the present, it is a small but wonderful scene that adds a final touch of tragedy and loss to everything. The film does eventually come together, but I got a sense that as effective and emotional as the film's final sequence is, it would be even more so if the two young lovers were as strongly developed as the Briony character. I came to realize that she is truly the heart of the entire story. While the lovers are obviously important, they are nowhere near as compelling.

I am recommending Atonement in the end, because what it does well, it does beautifully. If the movie had managed to keep this going all the way through, we'd be looking at nothing short of a masterpiece. The movie continues to play with our expectations and our interpretations right up to almost the very end, but because it leaves part of its story unfortunately underdeveloped, it never quite gains the emotions that it wants to. I definitely was affected by what I was watching, but I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps those feelings could have been even deeper if the two lovers were more tragically human instead of being tragically underwritten.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mad Money

As I was getting my things gathered to leave the theater, I overheard a woman a couple rows behind me sum up her feelings on Mad Money as "It wasn't a movie I needed to see, but I didn't mind watching it". That pretty much nails it for me too. Mad Money is a rainy day movie - a little time waster of a film that doesn't do anything special, but never offends in any way. Much of the film's appeal relies on the three lead actresses, who attack the material head on and with much more liveliness than it probably deserves. Director Callie Khouri (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) delivers plenty of good feelings and energy, but none of the tension that a caper comedy needs.

The story kicks off when pampered housewife Bridget Cardigan (Diane Keaton) is forced to take a job so that her husband, Don (Ted Danson), and her can keep their home. Don's been laid off for over a year, and a new job just doesn't seem to be in his future. Since Bridget has been out of the workforce for so long, the only job she can get is a janitorial position at a Federal building. During her training session, she discovers a room where old money is destroyed and shredded. She thinks its wrong that the government destroys so much money every day, and since no one apparently wants it, she figures why not "recycle" the money set to be destroyed? She devises a plan to secretly sneak money out of the building, but she'll need some cohorts to pull it off. After scanning her fellow employees for possible candidates, she eventually settles on straight-talking single mother Nina Brewster (Queen Latifah) and the slightly ditzy Jackie (Katie Holmes). The plan is put into action, and goes off without a hitch. But, as with any scheme, it threatens to break apart as more people become involved, and personal feelings begin to get in the way.

Mad Money wants to be a light, fluffy comic fantasy of female empowerment. In order to keep the audience on the side of these three women who are stealing from the government, the movie tries bend over backwards to make the lead characters sympathetic and likeable. The problem is, the movie doesn't quite dig deep enough. Keaton's Bridget seems spoiled and materialistic, since she's doing this simply so she can continue to enjoy her fairly lavish lifestyle. Katie Holmes' character isn't developed nearly enough, since she exists mainly to be the ditzy comic relief. She lives in a trailer park and likes to dance to music on her headphones, but that's pretty much all we learn about her. The closest the movie comes to a truly sympathetic character is in Latifah's portrayal of Nina, a lower class single mother who is trying to put her gifted children into a better school. She not only acts as the moral center for most of the film, she seems to make the most sense as well. The characters may not exactly be deep, but the three actresses have good chemistry together, and their performances are what mainly attach us to the women they're playing. The screenplay by Glenn Gers (Fracture) often opts for being cute and likeable over actually being funny, but there are a couple scattered laughs to its credit, such as when Latifah's character receives a note from her son's school about a list of weapons that are not allowed on school grounds, and she wonders out loud what weapons are allowed.

While the movie creates an overall breezy tone, what it can't create is any sort of sense that maybe, possibly things will go bad. This is surprising, since the movie actually opens late in the story, with the characters trying to destroy the money, and the Feds closing in. It then flashes back to when it all began. Despite the fact that we know where the story is headed, we never get a sense of how it got to that point. The subplot of the possibility of the scheme being uncovered is haphazardly introduced late in the film, and seems to come out of nowhere. For a majority of its running time, the girls don't even come close to getting caught, discovered, or even seem to have second thoughts. The movie makes robbing a Federal building seem to be about as effortless as your morning routine. The fact that the characters constantly stress how heavily monitored and seemingly impossible it is to rob the building makes it all the more laughable, and makes it hard to swallow that no one had come up with Keaton's plan to get the money out of the building years ago. Even when the scheme does become threatened to fall apart, the movie seems to be trying to reassure us everything will be okay constantly. The overly light and fluffy tone the film carries pretty much assures us that these girls won't be facing the most obvious and logical outcome to their crime.

Mad Money has a lot of talent behind it, more than it probably deserved. The talent isn't enough to make the film come out a winner, but it does turn it into passable entertainment if you're not interested in anything else playing and there's nothing better to do. Not exactly the most glowing of endorsements, I know, but that's just the kind of movie it is. It plays it completely safe, and at least comes across as likeable escapism. Calling it anything more than that would be giving it too much credit.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Cloverfield

One of my long-held beliefs when it comes to film is that it's impossible to care about the human characters in a monster movie. After all, the monster is the star, and is usually what we have come to see. Sure, it usually doesn't get its name above the title, but its name is usually somewhere in the title itself. Cloverfield changes the rules. The humans are the stars this time around, as the movie is seen through the eyes of a group of people caught in the middle of a monster attack. It is shot entirely through the eyes of a handheld camera, and although this obviously limits the filmmakers with what they can do, they make every moment of the film's brief and mostly tense 84 minute running time. Cloverfield goes beyond simply being a gimmick, and ends up being a film experiment that succeeds for the most part.

The creature that eventually attacks New York City remains a mystery for the entire film, which I feel is for the best. After all, the movie is told from the point of view of the victims. They don't know what it is, where it came from, or what they should do. There are no ominous signs, no warnings, and no reason for them to think that anything will be different. At the start of the film, we are watching a farewell party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David). He's taken a job where he'll be Vice President for a company in Japan. All of his friends and well-wishers are there, and we see them leaving personal farewell messages for him. The party introduces us to the characters we will be following. The man behind the camera is Hud (T.J. Miller), Rob's best friend. Other characters gathered include Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason's girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas). There's another girl named Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), whom Hud is infatuated with, and an old flame of Rob's named Beth (Odette Yustman), who stirs up some controversy when she show up at the party with a new man, even though everyone knows that Rob has strong feelings for her. The mostly festive mood is interrupted when what appears to be a massive earthquake rattles the entire city. Seconds later, fireballs are raining from the sky, skyscrapers are crumbling, and the Statue of Liberty's head has found a new home in the middle of the street outside Rob's apartment building after some unseen force tears it right off.

One of the appeals of Cloverfield's approach is that it really does put you in the middle of the action with its documentary style. We learn the facts along with the characters, and what we learn is usually very vague or government-approved speculation from the news media and military soldiers that start swarming into the city to combat the menace. It's impossible to watch some of the images and not think of September 11th, especially a scene where it shows a group of people running from a massive cloud of dust, debris, and smoke pouring down the street after a building topples to the ground. It does not dwell on real world parallels, nor does it focus on the creature. Aside from a few fleeting glances, the creature attacking the city remains mainly unseen. We do get to see the large parasitic insects that drop off the creature, and scurry about, creating chaos of their own. The fact the effects are mostly unseen is not to say the movie looks cheap, or that the special effects are questionable. Despite a fairly modest $25 million budget, the design and execution on the monsters is top class from what we get to see. There is a sense of chaos that director Matt Reeves (The Pallbearer) creates by showing us the action through the camera lens held by a man who is fearing for his life. The man, and his companions, are watching the world fall apart around them, and we're right there with them. I liked the sense that although there is a credited screenwriter (Drew Goddard), the movie has a mostly unscripted and completely improvised tone to it. The characters frequently talk at the same time, step on each other's lines, and their reactions to being thrown into such a situation seems natural. They argue and debate their courses of actions, attempt different means of escape, and slowly come to realize that maybe hope isn't coming.

It'd be easy to peg the film as a sort of Godzilla meets Blair Witch Project, but there's more to it than that. At the center of Cloverfield is a love story that drives most of the action and emotion of the story. When Rob receives a distressing voice mail message from Beth, he becomes determined to track her down before he starts looking for a way out of the city. While it may sound like a contrived way to keep the characters in the middle of the action instead of high tailing it out of Manhattan as quickly as possible (after all, we wouldn't have much of a movie if they did that), the movie takes advantage of this aspect by including a bookend sequence of the two characters in happier times before the attack, and also before their recent personal differences. It adds another layer to the story, and helps it stand out from being simply a movie with a gimmick. There is also some individual moments of surprising power, such as when Rob is forced to give his mother some news when she calls him on his cell phone. We only get to hear one side of the conversation, but the reaction on the face of actor Michael-Stahl David is all we need. That it manages to take time for such personal moments is surprising, as the movie seldom if ever seems to slow down. Once the first tremors of the monster's arrival are felt, the movie plows full speed ahead into its premise, and gives us a haunting, terrifying, and surprisingly heartfelt depiction of a small group of people just trying to survive what seems like the end of the world.

And yes, the movie is effectively creepy, mainly through its use of imagery and sound. The creature may mainly lurk just out of sight for most of the running time, but its presence is constantly felt. The images of the post-apocalyptic New York are also undeniably eerie, and manages to add to the overall emotion. A lot of what creates the illusion of reality are the performers, who are all relatively unknowns, but create real personas that we can cling to. We only learn a little about these people, but this is intentional, as it's only set during a couple hours in their lives. The film is quite frequently unflinching, putting the characters through the emotional and physical wringer in different ways. We may not know much about them, but the powerful and very human performances of the entire cast help us get involved even more with the story. What's perhaps most effective of all is how the movie constantly plays with us and the characters. There are no rules in this monster movie, and since these people are all just bystanders to something much bigger than they could ever understand, we know about as much as they do about what's going to happen to them. Despite the film's PG-13 rating, it does not shy away from carnage and horrifying imagery. Remember all those Godzilla movies that would show the creatures knocking down buildings? For once, we get to go inside and see the aftermath of one of those buildings.

Ever since the cryptic teaser trailer made its debut last summer (back when the film didn't even have a title), speculation has run rampant about Cloverfield. As the details started to emerge, I was intrigued, but thought there was no way the filmmakers could pull it off successfully. I am proud to say they have succeeded. The movie is quick, dirty fun that doesn't stick around for very long, but leaves a surprising impression. This is the rare early year release treat that is much better than it probably has any right to be. It's a grand piece of entertainment that not only pays tribute to the monster genre, but also pays respect to its audience by having more brain and heart than one would expect walking in.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie

When I'm stuck watching a movie that doesn't quite grab my attention, I find my mind tends to wander. The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: A Veggie Tales Movie sent my mind spinning with a thousand questions. It's not just the fact that the entire cast is made up entirely out of CG veggies, fruits, and even killer cheese puff snacks. It's the fact that the characters have no arms or legs, but are somehow able to pick up objects. The objects just float in front of them, making it seem as if the characters are performing some kind of bizarre form of telepathy every time they "pick up" a sword. The movie also raises a lot more questions, but I'll get to those later. For now, onto the review.

The Veggie Tales are a series of animated videos that teach Christian values to children through goofy characters, fun songs, and off the wall humor. This is not their first theatrical release, as they had an earlier one back in 2002 with Jonah. That movie went unseen by me, and will remain so. I've come to understand that the characters have earned quite a large adult fanbase over the years. Perhaps the videos are clever, but this movie certainly is not. The animation is simplistic, the jokes are uninspired, and the entire product seems like a second thought that's been rushed into theaters to squeeze more money from the fans. In an attempt to go mainstream, even the Christian value angle has been dropped in favor of an uninspired pirate adventure for kids. Speaking of the kids, they might like this. Real little kids, I suppose. Any adult in the audience, however, will probably feel the strong urge to walk off a plank before the movie hits the half hour mark.

The story opens in the 17th Century, where an evil half-veggie/half-mechanical pirate named Robert the Terrible (voice by Cam Clarke) is attempting to take over a local kingdom by overthrowing the Royal Family. He attempts to kidnap the Prince and Princess, but the resourceful young Princess Eloise (Laura Gerow) manages to elude capture. She seeks out help to rescue her brother the Prince, and relies on a metallic orb her father gave her that's designed to seek out heroes in times of great need. Flash forward to the present, and we're introduced to three waiters at a pirate-themed restaurant who all have self-esteem issues. Elliott the cucumber (Mike Nawrocki) is afraid of everything, Sedgewick the gourd (Phil Vischer) is lazy, and George the grape (once again Phil Vischer) is seen as a loser in the eyes of his two children. Never once asking why a grape is hanging out in a world made entirely of vegetables, the movie plows ahead when the three unlikely heroes discover the time-traveling orb from the past, and are sent back in time to the situation in the 17th Century. The trusting Princess mistakes them for being real heroes, and charges them with the task of saving the kingdom. The three friends will discover bravery they never knew they had as they face off against Robert the Terrible's army, giant rock monsters, and those previously mentioned killer cheese puff snacks.

The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything seems to have been designed with the most basic elements in mind. The animation barely rises above the CG kids watch every Saturday morning on television, the dialogue is immediately forgettable, and the "hip" pop culture references thrown in for adults include such things as The Days of Our Lives and The Weather Channel. The word that kept on springing up in my mind while watching this was "generic". There are some scattered musical numbers that seem to be shoehorned in, and have nothing to do with anything that's happening in the movie, including a music video during the end credits that I didn't stick around to see the end of. Maybe it's me, but I found it hard to get wrapped up in the exploits of wether a kingdom of vegetables would be saved or not. For what is supposed to be a goofy kids movie, it sure takes its plot a lot more seriously than it should. The one liners are scattered too far apart, and aren't even that funny to start with. The movie is brightly colored and all, but the much-needed energy is completely lacking.

The one thing that kept me in my seat was the countless questions about the world of the Veggie Tales that I kept on asking myself. The movie continuously showed me things that interested/bothered me greatly. For example, many times we see the vegetable characters eating. At one point, one of them is eating a hamburger. Seeing a carnivorous vegetable somewhat disturbed me for some reason. What also disturbed me were the early scenes at the pirate-themed restaurant, where it showed the patrons having what looked like a cooked potato on their plates. Do the veggies support cannibalism as well as Christianity? It made me glad the movie never shows us what goes on in the kitchen, as it probably involves a form of human sacrifice. And then, of course, there's the whole they don't have arms or legs thing. They get around by bouncing around on their bottoms (except for the villain, who moves via a robotic body), and as mentioned earlier, pick up objects through apparent mind power. And although it is never shown, they also apparently have the means to create waste, as one character complains about the need to use the bathroom. Seeing the little gourd jumping around looking for the bathroom made me wonder where it comes out from, as there appears to be no means for it to exit.
I probably shouldn't be thinking about these kind of things while watching a kids movie, but the filmmakers keep on shoving these facts in our faces throughout it. It's like the udders on the male cows in that Barnyard animated movie. You can't ignore it, no matter how hard you try. The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything is so basic and dull, I had to find someway to amuse myself, and sometimes the thoughts that enter my head aren't pretty. Shake your head if you must, but you have to admit, the idea of a vegetable eating a cooked vegetable is funny in a morbid sort of way.

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