Reel Opinions


Sunday, August 31, 2008

Hamlet 2

Just thinking back on the premise of Hamlet 2 makes me laugh. So why didn't I laugh very much while watching the movie itself? This is, I'm afraid, a case of a wonderful idea being combined with a somewhat unworthy execution. Co-writer and director Andrew Fleming (Nancy Drew) can't seem to find the right tone with his characters, or with the movie itself. It wants to be an off the wall romp, but the laughs are far too sporadic, and many of the gags fall flat. I found myself constantly switching views on the film while I was watching it. When it did hit upon a joke that worked, I found myself laughing in a way that only a great comedy can. But a majority of the time found me sitting there wondering why this movie wasn't working like it should.

The film centers on a struggling actor turned high school drama teacher named Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan), whose main credits in the acting field include a couple commercials. Dana's life seems to be going nowhere. His wife, Brie (Catherine Keeger), is losing interest in their relationship, since he can't seem to produce a baby with her. His drama class is comprised of only two over-eager Teacher's Pets and a large group of troubled youth who could care less, and his stage productions of popular Hollywood movies like Erin Brockovich have been a flop with audiences and his sole theater critic (a young boy who barely seems to be 12 who writes for the school paper). Dana learns early on that the school is planning to cut the drama class completely from their curriculum, so he decides to go out with a bang by staging his dream project - a musical sequel to Hamlet that involves the title character traveling through time with Jesus Christ to save the lives of everyone who dies at the end of the original play. The show's controversial subject matter and central theme song, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus", infuriate the local religious groups, and Dana is forced to hire a lawyer named Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) to keep the play alive after the school refuses to produce the show.

Hamlet 2 has a couple clever jokes that anyone who has ever worked in an amateur theater production will be able to pick up on. But the movie doesn't really want to be real, it wants to be a goofy satire on the industry...Or maybe it wants to make a statement on Hollywood's insistence on happy endings (the whole play is conceived because Dana hates the fact that everyone dies at the end of Hamlet)...Or maybe it wants to be about censorship...Or maybe it wants to be a parody of inspirational high school dramas about a teacher who reaches the lives of troubled students. The movie tries to take a swing at a number of subjects, but never quite hits a home run. That's because the screenplay by Pam Brady (Hot Rod, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut) and Fleming is largely unfocused and scattered. This uncertainty carries through to almost every aspect of the film, right down to the performances. It gets to the point where the actors almost seem to be inhabiting completely different movies.

A very good example is the relationship between Steve Coogan and Catherine Keeger. Maybe it's supposed to be part of the joke, but I never once bought them as being a couple, because he frequently acts as if he hails from Planet X, and she seems far too intelligent and acidic in her wit and mind to be hanging around the goofball, or even in some form of a relationship with him. Coogan is a comic actor who I have admired in a lot of other films (he made his small role in the recent Tropic Thunder very memorable), but here, he doesn't seem to know if he should play Dana as an outcast, or as an escapee from an asylum, and seems to be trying a different approach in each scene. Therefore, the character veers wildly from being likable and offbeat, to being flat-out annoying. Likewise, his students never truly get developed into any sort of characters we can care about. The characters that did work with me don't appear often enough. Amy Poehler is funny, but comes in too late as the lawyer who attempts to save the show. And Elizabeth Shue is used very well in a caricature of herself as a faded actress who got tired of Hollywood, and moved to Tucson, Arizona to be a nurse, but isn't used nearly enough.

That's not to say all of Hamlet 2 is bad, as there are definitely some very big laughs which seem to owe a debt to writer Pam Brady's South Park days. The film opens by showing some "highlights" of Dana's career of appearing in commercials, and these are pitch-perfect parodies. I also liked the fact that the film's music montage is set to the song "Maniac" from Flashdance performed by the "Tucson Gay Men Chorus" (the choir Dana hires to perform the chorus in his musical). And of course, the climax where we finally get to see the finished product produces some laughs. I just wish the film's ad campaign hadn't given so much of it away. It's also a shame that these kind of laughs don't come often enough. This is a movie that should be alive with comic energy, and it certainly is from time to time, but not enough to recommend paying full price for it. Maybe I was expecting more, given the premise of the film and the talent behind it.

Hamlet 2 was a big hit at the festival circuit earlier this year, but I think it was one of those "you had to be there" kind of moments. The movie doesn't come alive often enough. I almost wished that the writers had tried another couple drafts, as they were definitely onto a great idea here. I wanted to love this movie. Instead, I walked out thinking about how much better it could have been if things had just been handled a little bit differently.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Disaster Movie

At the beginning of Disaster Movie, our hero Will (Matt Lanter) is having a dream where he's a caveman living in 10,000 B.C. After falling face-first in mammoth dung (six seconds in the movie, and we already have our first excrement joke), he is challenged by an American Gladiator, only to have an encounter with a sabre toothed Amy Winehouse (Nicole Parker), who informs him that the world is going to end, and he must find the Crystal Skull in order to prevent disaster. Will awakens from his dream, only to find his girlfriend Amy (Vanessa Minillo) is leaving him because he refuses to commit to their relationship.

Meanwhile, it's Will's birthday, and he's having his sweet 16 party MTV style, even though he's 25 years old. All of his friends are there, including Dr. Phil, Javier Bardem from No Country For Old Men, and Jessica Simpson. Amy is there too with her new boyfriend - a Calvin Klein underwear model. Will's friends, Calvin (Gary "G Thang" Johnson), Lisa (Kim Kardashian...Yes, THAT Kim Kardashian), and pregnant sarcastic teen Juney (Crista Flanagan) try to cheer him up by staging a High School Musical. Their singing is interrupted by a sudden meteor attack. They race outside of the building to find the city in chaos, and the local superheroes (Iron Man, Hulk, Hancock, Batman, and Hellboy) are powerless, since most of them get crushed by cows being flung from a damaging Twister. Our heroes soon befriend an Enchanted Princess (Nicole Parker again), who rises up out of a manhole, and try to find a safe place to hide. Unfortunately, everywhere they go, they are confronted by someone, whether it be the Sex and the City girls, or Alvin and the Chipmunks, who have developed a taste for heavy metal and human flesh.

Will eventually remembers his dream from earlier that day, and realizes he has to find the Crystal Skull in order to stop all of this. But first, his friends and him must make their way to a magical museum of natural history where the exhibits come to life at night, and where Amy is currently hiding. They arrive at the museum, only to be confronted by a naked Beowulf and a Kung Fu Panda, and then they meet Indiana Jones, who is played by Tony Cox from Bad Santa, and...You know what, I'm not even going to go on. If you read the above synopsis and did not laugh, there's a very good reason. Disaster Movie simply checks off its references, instead of doing anything funny with them. Of course, those of you who are familiar with the work of filmmakers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer will not find this surprising. It's a formula that they've been employing with a disturbing amount of success since bursting onto the scene with 2006's Date Movie, along with their follow-ups, Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans. They shoot these movies as quickly as possible, then they dump it on a slow weekend, hoping to lure in some bored teens with the promise of fun, only to supply more boredom.

Disaster Movie is probably their chintziest production yet, since the film only started production back in May, and it's already playing in theaters. Yes, you heard me right. This movie, which is supposed to parody all of this year's summer blockbusters, was made before half of the movies referenced within it even hit theaters. Friedberg and Seltzer were somehow able to con a studio head into buying a screenplay that was written after a massive session of watching trailers for upcoming movies, then throwing references to those trailers into the script. I guess that explains why the movie is so vague with its own references, but it doesn't explain why anyone thought this movie was a good idea, or why it needed to be rushed into production. I cannot think of any movie that has stooped to this low of a level for its humor. The movie doesn't even bother to truly parody Cloverfield, which is the obvious inspiration for its main plot. Considering how ripe for parody that movie was (especially the shaky handheld camera style of that film), you'd think it'd be an easy target. But then you remember who is behind this movie, and you just go with it.

I'm starting to find the movies that Friedberg and Seltzer put out harder and harder to critique. Not because they're getting better, but because they stay the same. They make the same mistakes, they keep on missing the same point, and they keep on churning out the same stuff over and over again, this time a lot faster than normal. (Disaster Movie is their second release in 2008.) I feel like I'm repeating myself each time I review their movies. These guys obviously plan to milk this thing as long as they can. More power to them, I guess. But then, I think of all the much better screenplays that were probably passed over because of this. Or the lives that could have been saved with the money put into this project. For a movie that's supposed to make you laugh, Disaster Movie sure leaves some depressing thoughts in your head...

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College

Crude humor can often be very funny. There is nothing funny, however, about College. This is a movie that wants to be dirty, sickening, push the limits of an R-rating to the point we question where an "R" ends and "NC-17" begins, and stupid fun. It focuses so much on the first three qualities that it forgets the fourth and most important aspect. Director Deb Hagan seems more concerned with having her characters drinking booze out of a guy's ass crack (and every other part of the body you wouldn't want to drink out of) then in setting up some genuinely funny situations. Now that I think about it, the fact that this sexist and homophobic movie was directed by a woman is the funniest thing about it.

This nearly blatant Superbad rip off concerns three high school friends who are only looking for a weekend of booze, sex, and drugs when they head off for Fieldmont University. Our heroes include Kevin (former Nickelodeon star, Drake Bell), the sensitive straight-arrow who was recently dumped by his girlfriend because he's not "fun enough", overweight Carter (Andrew Caldwell), who only wants a good time, and nerdy "McLovin" wannabe Morris (Kevin Covais from American Idol). Kevin and Morris were headed to the campus for weekend visitation, and Carter decides to tag along when a friend in the school cafeteria tells them about the wild weekend he had there. They arrive at the dorm they're supposed to stay at for the weekend, but when they discover it's occupied by a porn addict with an eternal boner, they head over to a nearby fraternity instead, since Carter tells his friends that his cousin was once a legacy there. The guys of the Beta Phi fraternity house are bored, since they have no new pledges to abuse (one of their members is in a body cast after he was dropped off the balcony in a hazing ritual), so when Kevin and his friends show up, they decide to torture them for their own twisted amusement.

How misguided is the humor in College? Remember that scene I just told you about when they discover the guy living in the dorm they've been assigned to is a porn addict? He comes out the door, with something uncommonly large sticking straight out between his legs, making it look like he's hiding a sub sandwich down there. For some reason, the movie doesn't think we get the joke, so it cuts to a close up of the "bulge" in question. I guess the movie was afraid we wouldn't notice, so it helps us out. If you have to spell out your jokes, you're doing something wrong. Or how about the scene where Morris wakes up with a hangover, and discovers he's late for his meeting to apply for a scholarship? He races off to the building, not realizing that the guys of the frat house have written various obscenities on his face with a magic marker. When he arrives at the meeting, the movie can't think of anything funny to do. The college board members simply look disgusted at what is written on his face, while Morris stares blankly. I'm sure anyone reading this review could think of a better prank, as well as a funnier pay off. Or how about the cameo from pint-sized actor Verne Troyer, who portrays himself as a foul-mouthed angry drunk who apparently likes to hang out at frat parties? Having appeared in The Love Guru and now this, he now holds the honor of starring in two of the worst comedies of the summer.

The movie has a dirty mind, but that's it. It's a one trick pony shoving booze, vomit, and fecal matter in our faces for a little over 90 minutes. Actors turned screenwriters Dan Callahan and Adam Ellison pad their skeletal screenplay out with non-stop partying and gross out stunts, but never seem to reach a point. There is a romantic love interest for the guys, as well as some male bonding scenes late in the film, but they feel tacked on. It's like the movie is apologizing for everything that came before. The women who fall for the three guys (mistaking them for college freshmen, not knowing they're high school students) act either like drunken bimbos, or sensitive and smart women. It all depends on what the current scene requires. As for the performances? Drake Bell is a crashing bore in his first "adult" role, where as Andrew Caldwell as his overweight and party animal friend is strictly obnoxious. Only Kevin Covais gets to display anything resembling charm. Now all he needs is a better movie, and a role that doesn't cannibalize a character from a much better raunchy teen comedy.

College has been sitting on the shelf for a while, gone through two different distributors, and many more release dates. Now that it's out, I can safely say the wait wasn't worth it. The movie is shameless, and not in a good way. What College doesn't understand is that it's not funny when characters are intentionally offensive. They have to not be in on the joke. These are the kind of people who drink alcohol out of people's private areas because they want to, not because they're forced to, or because they find themselves in over their head. I certainly didn't need to see a movie about people like that, and I doubt there's a large audience for that kind of thing to begin with.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Babylon A.D.

Were Babylon A.D. merely just a bad sci-fi movie, I could just brush it off. But Babylon A.D. isn't just bad, it is inept. It is also sloppy, ugly to look at, poorly acted, and looks like it's been edited with a hacksaw. It's been well documented that co-writer and director Mathieu Kassovitz (Gothika) clashed with the studio over final control of the film. This movie has all the earmarks of an out of control production that's been reshot and re-edited numerous times in a vain attempt to salvage a doomed project. The most glaring evidence? It's so-called climax and conclusion that seems to have a good 15 or 20 minutes cut out, and hardly manages to make any sense to begin with.

The movie is set in a non-specified time in the future, but it doesn't really matter. It's a post-apocalyptic world where half the planet looks like a gravel pit, and the other half looks like a video game recreation of the world Ridley Scott created in Blade Runner. Problem is, the movie spends so much time in the gray, rocky and ugly side of the world. If you're going to set your movie in a future, give us something to look at, not just a ghetto with a lot of people who look like they'd give their left leg for a hot shower and a warm meal. The movie doesn't even attempt to set up how the world got this way, or who the people are who inhabit it. We're just thrown directly into the life of a gruff mercenary with the unfortunate name of Toorop (Vin Diesel). He's approached by a fellow mercenary named Gorsky (Gerard Depardieu, slumming it up in a cameo) who wants Toorop to do a job for him. The job involves going to Russia where he must transport a young girl named Aurora (Melanie Thierry) and her guardian named Sister Rebekah (Michelle Yeoh, who should have cut her losses after The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) to New York.

Why is Aurora so special that she needs a mercenary to protect her? From what I can gather from the badly butchered screenplay, she's a genetically engineered girl that a religious cult wants to use as their Messiah, so that they can become the dominant religion in the world. Her guardian, Rebekah, has always known there was something strange about the child, but doesn't know what she truly is, since she's been raising her since she was abandoned at her doorstep. At one point, she tells Toorop that Aurora was able to speak by the age of two...in twenty nine different languages (and yes, that's exactly how she says it, complete with the dramatic pause). You'd think a girl who could speak twenty nine languages by the age of two would be kind of hard to keep a secret, but somehow Rebekah has managed keep her locked away from the world. Now that Aurora is out in the open, the cult is trying to hunt her down, as well as another group which is led by a mysterious man who has a lot of robotic parts covering his body. Maybe at one point this movie made sense, but in the studio's mad desire to keep the movie around 90 minutes, the story has been slaughtered beyond almost all comprehension so that no one seems to play any major role, and the plot seems to be flying by the seat of its pants.

Watching Babylon A.D. is a lot like trying to put a puzzle together with 80% of the pieces missing. Character motives are rarely hinted at, and often not even explained at all. Why does Toorop start to warm up and become so protective of Aurora? The movie only gives us bits and pieces. What is this evil religious cult trying to track the girl down? Heck if the movie knows, or even cares. These are but vague ideas for it to throw out, fooling us into thinking it is going somewhere, only to ignore it for long periods of time, or not even bother to bring them up again. I actually forgot the cult played a part in the story, since they disappear for almost the length of the entire movie after they're introduced. This is something you don't want your villains to do in your action film. Speaking of the action, it's unfocused and edited in a spastic fashion to rival last weekend's Death Race. If you're going to cast Michelle Yeoh in your movie, let us get a good glimpse at her fighting before you cut away to your next image.

I'm willing to blame most of the movie's problems due to the fact that the studio interfered way too much. But, Kassovitz cannot escape all of the blame. He is, after all, responsible for directing these performances up on the screen. Vin Diesel talks in a constant mumble of a slurred voice, making him sound like he's recovering from a hangover rather than a trained mercenary. His sluggish movements, combined with the fact that he looks like he'd rather be anywhere but in the movie he's in, make him someone to pity, not someone we can cheer. In playing the young Aurora, Melanie Thierry's main direction seems to have been to stare off into space and look mysterious. Due to the film's fragmented and butchered tone, no one gets to stand out or even do anything worthwhile. You get the feeling that everyone would have been better off staying at home. Given the wooden performances on display, I think half the cast was thinking the same thing.

Babylon A.D. has not been screened for critics, and is being released on Labor Day weekend, a notorious weekend for stinkers. These signs should have been warning enough, but this is such a poorly constructed movie, it actually surprised me by how misguided it was. Someone must have believed in this project at one point, because it's out there. Whatever that something was, it didn't make it into the final product. I'd say maybe it got cut out during the massive editing period, but what I did see of the movie didn't want to make me see more of it. 90 minutes of this was enough.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Traitor

Don Cheadle is a quiet actor. He's the kind of actor who doesn't have to say a lot, we can see a lot of his internal conflict on his face. He's also very good at expressing emotion. This trait comes in favorably in Traitor, an uneven but ultimately satisfying story of terrorism that asks a lot of hard questions, but intentionally doesn't give a lot of easy answers, or any answers at all. With the Labor Day weekend usually treated as a dumping ground for studios, it's surprising that this thought-provoking drama showed up. Even more surprising is that it sprung from the mind of comic actor Steve Martin (who is credited with the story and as a Producer), and screenwriter turned filmmaker Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who previously wrote the disaster epic from a few years ago, The Day After Tomorrow.

Here, Cheadle plays Samir, a Muslim acting as a deep-cover agent on a mission to infiltrate and gain the trust of terrorist operatives. He must keep his identity and true purposes secret at all times, the only person being aware of his true motives being an agent and handler by the name of Carter (Jeff Daniels). Since the FBI are unaware of Samir's existence, a pair of agents named Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough) mistake him for being a threat to the nation when images of Samir begin appearing near bombing sites and in the company of wanted terrorists. Because of the nature of his mission, Samir is forced to make difficult situations every day, even ones where he must decide if innocent people live or die. He tries his best to earn the favor of the terrorist groups without having to hurt innocents, but naturally, sometimes the explosives he sets up claim lives he did not intend, despite his best efforts.

Traitor leaves us guessing where Samir's loyalties lie for quite a while. He is simply a man fighting to continue to practice his religion peacefully without having to fear being persecuted. He is a devout Muslim, and in this post-9/11 world, that leads to automatic suspicion. His aim is to shut down Muslim extremists so that he can have religious freedom again. He's seen too many people sacrificing themselves for their beliefs, and is trying to do his part. We learn why this is important to him in the film's opening scene, when we witness a flashback to Samir's childhood when he witnessed his father killed in a car bomb. He is a constantly conflicted man who is in danger of going in too deep undercover. He develops genuine friendships with some of the people that he's supposed to be stopping, and as mentioned, he has innocent blood on his hands. This leads to some obvious tension as Samir finds himself questioning not only his own motives and intentions, but also just what kind of good he is actually doing by going this deep undercover into the world of the enemy.

Writer-director Nachmanoff finds the right tone to tell his constantly twisting tale of loyalty. The movie is not exactly fast-paced and action heavy, but it is also not lethargic or drawn down by lengthy scenes of dialogue. Cheadle is able to say so much with just his face and his performance, he often doesn't have to say a word. There is an instant connection with the audience as soon as he steps into the frame of the camera. All of the performances are fine here, but this is clearly Cheadle's movie, and will have you wondering why he is not a bigger star. Despite the film's mainly quiet tone, it does a wonderful job of bringing up the suspense when it is necessary, or leaving us wondering just how Samir is going to get out of the situation that he's currently in. The screenplay does take a few wrong turns here and there (an extended sequence in a prison early on in the film kind of slows things down a little), but they are not enough to distract the audience from what works so well.

What does distract is the occasionally clunky dialogue, such as when tough-talking FBI agent Max Archer tries to muscle some information out of a suspect, and says, "Sorry, guess I left my Bill of Rights at home". Traitor also seems strangely muted, due to its PG-13 rating. This is a film obviously targeted at an adult audience, and a more appropriate rating probably would have made some of the movie's more shocking scenes hit a lot harder. The film's oddly bloodless terrorism violence kind of sticks out like a sore thumb given the central theme and conflict of the film itself. When a young terrorist is chased down and killed by his former allies because he may have jeopardized their mission by talking about it to a family relative, the fact that the outcome is kept mainly off camera really lessens the impact of what should have been a tragic and powerful scene.

Traitor is a flawed film, and sometimes a bit too fond of its own twists and winding plot for its own good. But, thanks to Cheadle's performance and a mostly effective tone that doesn't take sides and provides no real answers, it sticks in your head long after you've walked out of the theater. My only fear is that it will have a hard time finding an audience, as teens are bound to stay away, and adults might ignore it due to its release date. This is a rare late summer movie that actually has a brain in its head, and that's something that cannot be ignored.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

The House Bunny

I am of two minds of The House Bunny. On one hand, the movie seems confused about what it wants to be. The fact that the movie is about a Playboy Bunny, has its first few scenes set at the Playboy Mansion, and even features Hugh Hefner himself in a supporting role would lead you to believe that this would be a raunchy R-rated comedy for adults. But The House Bunny is PG-13, is fairly clean in its content, and seems to be targeted at young girls. Normally, this conflicting tone would be irritating, but I have to admit, I laughed a couple times throughout the film. Most of those laughs are contributed by its star, Anna Faris, a gifted comic actress who has started to grow on me. The plot is contrived and formulaic, and there's nothing new here we haven't seen before, but Faris makes the thing watchable despite its confused tone and obvious flaws.

Faris plays Shelley, one of Hefner's top Bunnies, whose entire life revolves around the Mansion. Her only desire in life is to be Miss November and a centerfold in an upcoming issue. Unfortunately, one of the other Bunnies is also gunning for the spot, and decides to employ treachery to get Shelley out of the running. She forges a letter from Hefner, telling Shelley that she's been fired and has to leave the Mansion. Now homeless, Shelley eventually finds her way to a nearby college campus, and through a series of circumstances too complex to summarize here, ends up becoming the House Mother to the Zeta sorority house. As is the case in these kind of campus comedies, the house is home to the school misfits who are ridiculed by the more prettier and popular sororities. But the head girl in the Zeta house, the brainy yet nerdy Natalie (Emma Stone, who can also be seen in this week's The Rocker), realizes that they can use Shelley's ability to attract men to help them gain popularity on the campus, and maybe even save the Zeta house from being lost due to a lack of pledges.

It's not surprising to learn that The House Bunny was written by the same screenwriters as Legally Blonde, as this film shares quite a few similarities with that film. It also borrows from just about every college comedy ever made, from cult classics like Revenge of the Nerds, all the way to last year's slight but likable Sydney White. The movie manages to remain sweet and pleasant throughout, but never really gets any genuine laughs except for whenever Anna Faris is on the screen. This seems to be intended to launch her into leading woman territory, and she certainly seems to be giving it her all as she gives her character a ditzy yet sweet personality that immediately draws the viewer to her. Some of her clueless observations throughout the film get the biggest laughs, such as when a character states "a little bird told me", and Shelley responds with, "I've gotta meet this frickin' bird!". Or when she's giving make up tips to the girls of the Zeta house, and stresses how important the eyes are, as "eyes are the nipples of the face". Her willingness to do or say just about anything for a laugh is infectious, and helps lift the movie up with a lot of energy and spirit.

If everything else matched Faris' performance, we'd really have something here. Too bad director Fred Wolf (Strange Wilderness) doesn't seem to be interested in anything or anyone but her. The girls of the Zeta house never really get a chance to shine, either as characters or as comic creations. They all have one-note personalities which are never truly explored for emotions or laughs. One of them talks in a raspy voice, one of them wears a body brace, one of them is filled with angst, and there's one that's so shy, she remains inside a closet at all times, texting the other girls when she wants to speak. When Shelley starts teaching them how to open up and be popular, we don't really get a chance to see their transformation, as most of the girls are shoved in the background for the remainder of the film. There is a subplot where Shelley helps the head Zeta girl, Natalie, admit her feelings to a cute guy on campus, but very little is done with this subplot. The other main romantic subplot in the film, involving Shelley falling for a guy named Oliver (Colin Hanks, son of Tom) also never seems as strong as it should. Hanks is given very little to do in his scenes, other than give his co-star strange looks because of her bizarre behavior and observations. The only thing that held my interest is how much he resembles his famous father.

Because of the presence of Anna Faris, I wanted to like The House Bunny a lot more than I did. The movie creates a memorable lead character, but doesn't give her a memorable movie to inhabit. I wanted a movie that held the same warped view as Shelley, and instead got a very conventional and forgettable college comedy made from the parts of those that have come before it. We've heard the film's "girl power" message about being yourself one too many times, and despite Faris' talent, it's not enough to make us forget that.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Death Race

I think we've reached a point where movies stop merely resembling video games, and pretty much have become live action non-interactive video games that we watch. Case in point - Death Race. The movie features a group of prison convicts who drive around in souped up cars that look like something out of Mad Max or...well...a video game. They're equipped with various weapons like machine guns, missiles, drills, and even napalm. But there are rules. The driver can only use his weapon if he drives over an icon that's printed on the street they're driving on. If they drive over a "sword" icon, they can use their main weapons. If they drive over a "shield" icon, they can use their rear weapon. If that description makes Death Race sound like "Mario Kart from Hell", you're not too far off.

Death Race is a very loose update/remake of the 70s cult classic, Death Race 2000. The original film's creator, B-movie master Roger Corman, is credited as one of the Executive Producers of this movie, which made me smile. However, aside from the basic idea of convicts driving cars, and a couple similar names, this film is completely different. Writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson (Alien vs. Predator) was obviously more inspired by reality TV and video games when writing his script. The movie is loud, very dumb, and can sometimes be fun in a loud and very dumb way. It isn't fun enough to recommend, though. Thanks to the film's spastic and rapid editing during much of the racing scenes, I couldn't tell who was in the lead or sometimes or had just gotten killed, until their face was displayed on a computerized ranking screen that pops up now and then to show who has died, and who is still in the race. It's almost as if the movie is helping us make some sense out of the chaos whenever it does this.

Does anyone care about the plot in a movie called Death Race? Nonetheless we get one, albeit one that's barely there. Set in the year 2012, former pro race car driver Jensen Aames (Jason Statham) has the worst day of his life when he loses his job, has the SWAT team called on him when his fellow workers and him protest their meager last paychecks before the factory he works at closes, and then comes home to see his loving wife get murdered by a guy in a ski mask, only to be framed for the crime. Six months later, he's being shipped off to a prison on Terminal Island. The prison is run by a cruel warden named Hennessy (Joan Allen, in total "Ice Bitch Queen" mode) who runs an event called Death Race. A handful of prisoners are picked by her to participate in a series of three races where the only rule is to win and stay alive. Hennessy lost her best racer during the last game, a prisoner who called himself Frankenstein and hid his identity behind a mask. Due to Frankenstein's popularity with the audience who pay to watch Death Race on line, she wants another man behind the mask, and thinks Jensen is her man. She promises his freedom if he wins, but Jensen quickly begins to suspect that she may be responsible not only for him being sent to the prison, but also for his wife's murder so that he'd go to prison in the first place. (You figure it out.) With the help of a wise old prison mechanic named Coach (Ian McShane) and his car navigator and co-pilot from the women's prison, Case (Natalie Martinez), Jensen may just survive as long as he can stay ahead of Frankenstein's old rival on the track, a homosexual murderer who calls himself Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson).

At the very least, Death Race doesn't pretend to be anything it's not. After a brief set up explaining why Jensen is in prison and the rules of the game he's forced to participate in, it's pretty much non-stop tires squealing, bullets flying, and nameless convicts getting killed in over the top R-rated fashion. It's pretty easy to figure out who's going to make it to the final round, as it only concentrates on a small handful of characters to begin with. The rest of the racers are just waiting out their time. Some of the vehicles are kind of cool looking, and come equipped with a variety of James Bond-like gadgets and hidden weapons. Too bad that constantly shaking camera prevents us from truly enjoying it. Since the races are the main draw of the film, you'd think Anderson would have been extra careful in editing them. Instead, he's changing shots and angles every split second, barely giving us a chance to see what we're looking at. The movie is constantly bombarding us with sights and sounds that I had a hard time making things out. There's a big moment during the final climactic race where I seriously had no idea what just happened until one of the characters actually spoke up and explained what we just saw. I saw an explosion and some of the convicts cheering, but until that one character opened his mouth, I was clueless.

There's a lot of opportunity for wicked satire in the movie, none of which is utilized. Anderson only seems interested in blowing stuff up real good, which is amusing for a little while, but I eventually wanted the movie to just slow down once in a while. The actors are pretty much required to look focused when they're driving, and scowl and yell when they're talking to each other. At least they cast the right guy in the lead role, as Jason Statham pretty much does nothing but scowl. Seeing him do the same in numerous other action films, I'm beginning to wonder if the guy can smile in real life without making it look like he wants to kick your ass. In the other lead roles, Natalie Martinez and Tyrese Gibson get very little opportunity to do anything with their characters, while Ian McShane looks downright bored at times. Only Joan Allen seems to be having fun with her "Devil in High Heels" role. Is she too talented to be appearing in a movie like this? Oh, absolutely. But at least she seems to be making the most out of a bad career move.

I knew what I was getting walking into Death Race, and the movie certain delivers on that. The question is, does anyone need what this movie wants to give? Maybe if the movie had more of a sense of humor about itself, or maybe a sense of satire. It would have at least given the impression that some thought went into the screenplay. As it stands, this is a dumb body count movie that tries to entertain us with non-stop violence and carnage. Maybe it's time for Paul W.S. Anderson to put down the video game controller, and realize there's so much more to filmmaking than mimicking the game you're currently playing.

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

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Friday, August 22, 2008

The Longshots

I suspect that somewhere in Hollywood, studios keep people locked away in a room, paging through hundreds of old sports magazines and newspapers, trying to find something that would make a good inspirational movie. They buy the rights to the story, then set about adding the usual ingredients - Have the star player character be an outcast, give them a coach or family figure with a past, and set the story in one of those small towns you only see in movies - The ones where everyone is involved in everybody else's business.

The Longshots has all of those things, but it also has two performances that make the movie almost worth watching. At the heart of the film is Keke Palmer, a young actress who I first noticed as the title character in 2006's Akeelah and the Bee. She was very good in that movie, and she's just as good here as Jasmine Plummer, a brainy and withdrawn 11-year-old girl who discovers a hidden talent for football the more time she spends with her Uncle Curtis (Ice Cube). Jasmine doesn't want anything to do with Curtis at first. Her mother (Tasha Smith) pays him to watch her daughter after school when she has to start working longer shifts at her job. Curtis is a washed up drunk stuck in the past, when he used to be the star player on the high school football team until an injury cut his dreams short. When he discovers his niece has a talent for the sport, he starts to straighten up and becomes determined to see her succeed at something for once by having her try out for her school's team. The plotting may be as old as the hills, but Palmer is a very natural talent. She plays Jasmine as a real girl, and never acts for the camera. Her reaction to everything seems very honest and is never forced.

I liked Ice Cube a lot also, even if he is playing the same kind of character he usually plays in movies these days. He fills both "the family figure and the coach with a past" role, since he takes over as head of the team when the coach has a mild heart attack during practice one day. He may be playing the gruff loser who secretly has a heart of cold, but he is able to give Curtis a very appealing down to Earth personality. I didn't like the character at first, as the movie has to constantly remind us he's an alcoholic by having him carrying a beer bottle in a brown paper bag at all times, even when he's inside Jasmine's school for career day. (Something tells me the teacher would make a bigger deal about that than she does in this movie.) But the movie drops the "angry drunk" angle with the character fairly soon, and starts treating him somewhat more like a real person. That's when both the character and the performance started to grow on me. The quiet and personal scenes he shares with Palmer are very sweet, and the two have good chemistry with each other. It got to the point that I found myself thinking I wouldn't mind an entire movie just about them.

Unfortunately, the movie isn't just about them. It's also about their town, and how it starts to come together once it looks like Jasmine's team might be heading for the championship. When it looks like the team won't have enough money to make it to Florida for the big game, the entire town pitches in. Even the homeless people give what little they have to help little Jasmine live her dream. Heck, the homeless people in this town even help lead the team to victory by shouting advice to the players from the sidelines. I kept on picturing the sign on display as you're driving into this town, and imagine it would read "Home of the nicest street people in the world" under the town's name. The movie asks the kind of questions we'd expect it to ask. Of course the boys on the football team are not happy about having a girl playing with them. Will they accept her? And Jasmine has a dead-beat dad who walked out on her when she was young, only to have him come back when she starts getting national media attention for her football skills. Will she welcome him back into her life? And naturally, the movie has to ask if the team will make it to the big game. The answer to the question may be obvious, but at least the outcome of the climax isn't as much.

The Longshots has certainly been made with more care than I expected walking in, but I could never get over how standard everything was except the two lead performances were. Were it not for them, this would probably be a lost cause. There is one unintentional laugh at the very end, though. After the last scene fades out, we see a picture of the real life Jasmine Plummer, with a caption underneath informing us that she was the first girl to play football in the Pop Warner football tournament. Like the movie didn't just already spend 95 minutes telling us that.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Rocker

If there was ever a movie that needed Jack Black, this is the one. The lead character in The Rocker almost seems to be written with him in mind, and I don't know, maybe it intended to be a starring vehicle for him at one time, but other projects got in the way. Whatever the reason, it's impossible not to think what kind of energy he'd bring to this film - Energy that Rainn Wilson (the actor who does headline this movie) cannot supply, despite his best efforts. At least he seems to be trying, which is more than what I can say for this overly conventional film that barely manages to hold our interest.

Wilson plays Robert "Fish" Fishman, a washed up drummer who lost his chance at stardom back in 1986 when he was the drummer for a rising heavy metal hair band named Vesuvius, only to have his bandmates ditch him right before fame came knocking for the group. His attempt to stop his former friends from running away from him brings about an inspired comic sequence, where Fish seemingly develops superhuman abilities while chasing after their fleeing van. He can run at impossible speeds like a human Terminator, and he then leaps on top of the van, and punches holes through the roof with his drum sticks, causing his bandmates to scream in terror. I laughed a lot at this sequence. I liked its goofy tone, which seemed to be parodying horror films, and it set my mind at ease early on that director Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty) would be giving the movie a likeably offbeat sense. As soon as this sequence ends, however, the movie goes on total auto pilot and never looks back.

Robert is now jobless, homeless, and holding a major grudge against his former band, which has gone on to chart-topping success. Opportunity comes knocking while Robert is living at his sister's house, trying to get his life together. His nephew, Matt (Josh Gad), is in a high school garage band called ADD, and they have recently lost their drummer right before their first gig at the school's prom. Matt asks Robert to fill in as a last resort, much to the dismay of his two fellow bandmates - lead singer and songwriter Curtis (Teddy Geiger), and cynical guitarist Amelia (Emma Stone). They eventually welcome Robert into the band, since he can get them other gigs, and they find their popularity quickly building, especially after Robert becomes an Internet sensation when a video of him drumming naked becomes a hit on Youtube. Seemingly in a matter of weeks, the band is going on tour, selling out massive concert halls, and releasing hit CDs. If this movie proves anything, all you need to break into the music business is a gig at a local bar, and less than a week later, you're on tour.

The Rocker seems to know just how derivative it is, as it races through its various pre-required stops, almost as if it was checking its cliches off one by one. Robert gets a love interest in the form of Curtis' mom (Christina Applegate), who accompanies the band on tour. Despite Applegate getting second billing in the cast, though, her character barely registers, and her plot hardly goes anywhere. There are relationships within the band itself, as young Matt has his eyes on a girl who appears at all of their concerts, and Amelia and Curtis keep on exchanging meaningful glances at each other, but can't speak their feelings. These are dealt with the same lack of interest, almost as if the screenplay is just throwing these ideas out there, but doesn't want to do anything with them. And of course, there has to be turmoil amongst the bandmates. There's a slimy manager who pops up now and then to manipulate Curtis into turning against Robert, but this brief spat is resolved about two scenes later, so we're left to wonder why the movie bothered in the first place. This film is so haphazard and lazy in its tone that even the band getting arrested and going to prison isn't a very big deal in this movie.

Instead of creating characters or situations that we can care about, we're left with a lot of music montages, which seem to make up 80% of the film's middle. I admit, a lot of the music is good, and it will probably help sell a few CDs. But, how about letting us watch the movie first before you advertise the soundtrack? But, at least the music was able to distract me a little from most of the film's humor, which seems to be under the rule that seeing Rainn Wilson getting hit in the face or the privates gets funnier each time it tries it. When he's living at his sister's house early on in the film, it seems to be designed for him to hit his head or fall backwards over something, almost as if The Three Stooges had built the house. I can just picture someone on the construction crew while the house was being built asking why they were making the ceiling and boards in the attic so low, and the head foreman saying, "Trust me, it will be funny when some guy has to live up here someday". Of course, it's not funny to us, because we can see the jokes coming as soon as he sets foot there. Even when he's not in the house, he seems to be a magnet for bees flying in his mouth, tree branches smacking his face, and TV boxes in hotel rooms striking his crotch.

Despite its message of embracing a rebellious spirit and never giving up on your dreams, The Rocker is completely substandard and instantly forgettable. This almost seems to be the kind of movie the month of August was made for. It's not exactly bad, but there's absolutely nothing that stands out about it. Now that the big summer movies have come and gone, it's time for the movies that won't be remembered a month from now. If only the movie had kept the same level of insanity of its first five minutes. Then The Rocker would be a movie worth seeing.

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