Reel Opinions


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Pandorum

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It's time to fire up the old Script-O-Matic! It's the device every Hollywood studio apparently has, where they feed a bunch of old scripts into the machine at the same time, and a new one pops out. We already had a pretty good example of this kind of movie with Fame, but now we have Pandorum, which seems to be recycled from the bits and pieces of the scripts for the Alien movies after being fed through the Script-O-Matic.

picIf there's one movie genre I'm tired of, it's sci-fi horror movies built entirely around actors lurking around in the dark corners of a spaceship, while aliens or mutants wait in the shadows to leap in front of the camera and scream real loud. This type of movie has been played out, to the point that the only thing that changes anymore are the character names and their faces. For example, instead of Ripley from Alien, we have Bower (Ben Foster), who is forcefully awoken from hypersleep, and finds himself on an abandoned and seemingly deserted spaceship without a sign of life anywhere. He's soon joined by Lieutenant Peyton (Dennis Quaid), who awakens shortly afterward. Both men have been in hypersleep so long, they've lost most of their memories, even what their mission was supposed to be. As Bower beings to explore the bowels of the ship for an energy source to restore power, he soon finds dead bodies of fellow crew members, and ravenous mutants who kind of look like deformed albinos with fangs.

picWhile there is some subtle creepiness during the early scenes, with the two men trying to find their way around and trying to remember what happened, Pandorum quickly turns into yet another "Boo Movie". Things jump out and say "boo", the characters run, have a small dialogue scene or two to move the bare bones plot along, and then get attacked by the lurking mutants once again. There are a few other survivors on the ship, who don't get any real personalities or even a genuine explanation as to how they've survived so long with the creatures. Bower is joined up with Nadia (Antje Traue) and Manh (Cung Le), who both seem very adept at fighting the creatures in hand-to-hand combat. (In one of the film's goofier moments, Manh is facing down one of the monsters, and the creature tosses him one of its weapons, just so they can have a martial arts battle with each other.) As the plot slowly unravels, so does the movie itself. With each revelation, I found myself less interested in what was happening.

picAnd yet, the later moments hold the most visually interesting moments of the movie. Up until then, director Christian Alvart has focused on dark hallways, murky lighting, and actors who look like they're in desperate need of a shave and a shower. I understand the film's setting is on an abandoned spaceship, but there could have been some interesting touches here and there. The film's closing moments bring about some plot revelations, which I will not reveal, that bring us some interesting images. Too bad the movie's pretty much over as this starts to happen. This is a movie that thinks we'd prefer to watch shaky-cam footage of creatures waving their arms in front of the camera, then gives us something visually interesting in the last two minutes or so. The design of the creatures and the ship itself wasn't enough to hold my attention through the whole movie. Add to this that very little happens in the actual screenplay, and you have a very dull movie.
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Pandorum left me feeling empty. Walking out the doors of the cinema, I knew I had just watched something, but didn't feel like anything had stuck with me. Considering what theaters are charging today, there's no excuse for a movie like that. Movies should make us feel at least something, or give us something to think about. All Pandorum does is make us think of things we should have done with the time we spent watching it.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Fame

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It's obvious that a lot of energy went into the making of Fame. The young cast is energetic, and can dance and sing quite well. Sure, a lot of their musical numbers would be more at home in an episode of American Idol, than a prestigious school for the Performing Arts, but you can tell their hearts are really into it. Did I believe some of them were actually high school students, who are supposed to be about 14 or 15 when the movie opens? Not for a minute, as some of them look well into their 20s. But I believed they had talent.

picWe meet them as hopeful youngsters who are trying to get into one of the best Performing Arts schools in New York. They all have big dreams, big fears, and parents who probably expect too much from them. As the opening scene cycled through the various auditions of the young future starlets, I began to notice that there were an awful lot of characters - More than any one movie would ever need. I began to worry that this was a warning I was in for a very overstuffed movie. I was right to worry. There are a lot of characters at the center of Fame, and not enough time to cover them all. Some get more attention than others, while a few pop up now and then, just to remind us they're in the movie, too. The characters that the movie does focus its attention on, unfortunately, are either not that interesting, or come across as walking cliches, so that we can predict their entire story arc before they even start Freshman year at the school.

picTell me if this cast of characters and their individual storylines doesn't sound like every backstage drama ever made. We start with shy Denise (Naturi Naughton), a girl who has practiced all her life to be a classical pianist, and is very good at what she does. But, wouldn't you know it, she has a secret desire to sing hip-hop, and her stuffy, up-tight parents just don't understand. That's why she has to hook up with two other students (Collins Pennie and Paul Iacono), who are producing an album that's caught the attention of a local record producer. Do you think her story is going to climax with her giving a rousing performance with her parents in the audience, who will disapprove at first, but eventually realise that hey, their daughter has talent outside of the piano, and will allow her to follow her dreams? I'm sure the answer will come as a complete surprise to anyone who has never watched a movie before.

picAh, but that's just one of the original and awe-inspiring plots the movie has to offer. Other stories include Jenny (Kay Penabaker), an actress who is sheltered and guarded, but begins to open up when she starts to romance fellow actor Marco (Asher Brook). Her relationship and career are put to the test when a slimy young actor (Tony Longo) offers her a role on his show, if she will have sex with him. There's a dancer named Kevin (Paul McGill), who is talented, but not quite talented enough, and has to come to grips with reality that he'll never be the professional dancer he dreams of being. And poor Joy (Anna Maria Perez da Tagle) is an actress who has to choose work over school, when she gets a job working on Sesame Street, and it begins affecting her grades at school to the point that she may flunk out. We've seen variations on all of these characters and plotlines in countless other films, and it gets to the point that Fame almost seems to be trotting these cliches before us like prize horses. It's just showing that it can use these moldy old plot elements, but doesn't want to do anything interesting with them.

picThat's because screenwriter Allison Burnett (Untraceable) doesn't give us enough to care about with these characters. Not only are the problems they deal with generic, but so are the characters themselves. They're talented kids, but that's it. They're not allowed to have personalities or lives outside of the school. What little we do see of their home lives seems to be built around parents who exist simply to disagree with the kids, or put them down. (One of the parents actually asks their son, "Who told you you were so special?") This is a strange school these kids are enrolled in. They're seldom in class, the teachers only pop up now and then to give them a little inspiration or tough love when needed, and most of the time they're free to roam the halls and stage elaborate impromptu musical numbers that are often well put together, but have little purpose of being in the current scene. The movie is rated PG, so the whole thing feels sanitized for the "tween" audience it's aiming for. Not only is it sanitized, but the whole thing's on autopilot. We know exactly what role a character is going to play in the story almost the second they walk on the screen.

picSo, what does work here? Aside from the obviously talented young cast, I also liked the few scenes where the teachers actually got screen time. Kelsey Grammar, Charles S. Dutton, Bebe Neuwirth, and Debbie Allen (from the original 1980 Fame movie and TV series) play members of the staff, and they bring a certain quiet dignity to their scenes. Too bad they're mainly treated as a cameo. (Grammar has been reduced to almost a walk-on, which leads me to believe most of his scenes were cut.) The movie's also slick and stylized, which sometimes works against it. This is a movie that should show the gritty realism these kids go through in order to experience their dreams of being on the stage or screen. Instead, most of the performance scenes have been shot like a music video. This actually prevents us from seeing the progress the kids make over the four years the movie covers. We never get a true sense of growth or accomplishment.
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I'm certain Fame will have its fans, but anyone who is really trying to become part of the entertainment world will probably see this for the shallow and hollow piece of fluff it really is. It's brightly colored and energetic, but there's just no realism or heart for us to grab onto. The movie ends with the class graduating, and I really had a hard time picturing any of them going on to great things. As talented as they seemed to be, it never feels like they learned anything during their four years of school. I could relate, though. During the time I spent with the characters, I didn't learn anything about them either.

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Surrogates

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This is not a great movie, but Surrogates kind of grew on me as it went on. Its premise is a little loopy, but not so much so that we can't buy it. It's set in an alternate future, where humans spend all days in their homes hooked up to a machine, where they control a human-like cyborg known as a Surrogate. Through them, people can live the lives they want to lead without any consequences whatsoever, or without fear of illness or injury.

picIt's a little far-fetched, but intriguing. It also kind of reminded me of Gamer, that mindless action movie that came and left theaters over the Labor Day weekend. That was the movie about people who could live out their lives through video game characters and other people under their control. This is a much better take on the idea. Bruce Willis stars here as an FBI Agent named Greer. Like everyone else in this movie, he has a Surrogate that he uses on the job. Willis plays the Surrogate as well, and it's a little creepy how they made Willis as the robot version of himself look 20 years younger. Greer is partnered with another Surrogate named Peters (Radha Mitchell), and early on, they're both called in to investigate a murder that led to the death of both a robotic Surrogate and its user. Normally, when a Surrogate "dies", the connection with the human is terminated, and the human just has to go out and get another one. But someone somewhere has developed a weapon that can kill a Surrogate, and kill whoever's mind is hooked up to it at the same time.

picThe murder victim is the son of famed scientist, Dr. Canter (James Cromwell), who initially designed the Surrogates for use of the disabled and paralyzed. Eventually, he lost control of his own invention, was kicked out of the company he helped build from the ground up, and now Surrogates are used by everybody in everyday life. He doesn't know who would want to murder his son, but then starts to think maybe the killer mistook his son for him, since at the time of the murder, the son was using one of Canter's Surrogate personalities for a night on the town. Greer and Peters begin to gather information, and all signs seem to point to a hostile group of "anti-robot" humans, who are led by a street preacher who calls himself The Prophet (Ving Rhames). Naturally, it's not that simple. I'll leave it up to you to discover the rest, but the story moves at a very brisk pace, and never gets bogged down.

picWith a running time just under 90 minutes, Surrogates seems to fly by, which is a bit of a let down. There are some interesting ideas that I wish the film had explored deeper. About halfway through the film, Greer's Surrogate is dismantled, so he has to step into the outside world himself for the first time in order to continue the investigation. There's a great scene when he steps outside his apartment for the first time in who knows how long, and he's just overwhelmed by the sights and sounds around him. He looks at the people on the street in paranoia and fear, since he doesn't really know who anyone is, since everyone is a robotic representation. They could be anyone, and he doesn't know who to trust. There's also a kind of touching subplot concerning his wife, who is hooked up to her Surrogate at all times - He hasn't seen his real wife in years, and it's starting to bother him. Like I said, the whole concept is pretty far-fetched, but the screenplay by Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato (Terminator Salvation) gives the material just enough human emotion that we can at least sympathize.

picThe filmmakers seemed to care about giving us an interesting world here. There are different models of Surrogates - The cheaper and more basic models are pretty low rent, and then there are the more expensive ones that are hard to discern from actual humans. I would have liked to have seen more of it, since director Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) has a strong visual style, and knows how to shoot an impressive action sequence. I got the feeling that there was a lot left on the cutting room floor. We learn just enough about the characters to get by, but not much more than that. We also learn some elements of the plot (such as the military's involvement) that don't seem as fleshed out as they should be. Something tells me a director's cut would solve some of the nagging questions I had when the end credits came.
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Regardless, Surrogates is a fun little movie. It's well made, and has some interesting ideas, while not exactly breaking any new ground for the genre. September is usually a time of the year when the studios either release the stinkers, or the movies they couldn't place in either the big summer or winter months. The latter is the perfect way to describe this film. It won't have the box office impact of heavy hitters like District 9, but it held my interest.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Informant!

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With The Informant! (and yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title), filmmaker Steven Soderbergh seems to be trying to channel the spirit or at least mimic the offbeat comic style of the Coen Brothers. His take on the true story of a whistle blower who brought down a major food corporation involved in a price fixing scheme, without telling the Feds about his own embezzling and dirty dealings up front, is breezy and sometimes charmingly off the wall. Not exactly the tone you'd expect from such a story. It's this unexpected take on the story that grabs our attention most of the time, rather than the story itself.

picSoderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) admit up front that they're going to be playing loose with the facts, with an opening disclaimer that pretty much states that many of the facts have been dramatized or changed. (The disclaimer ends with a defiant "So there!") If the exclamation mark in the title didn't set you off, this is not a subtle movie. It's broad and breezy, and sometimes resembles kind of a live action cartoon set in a world of corporate morons. Even the music seems charmed by its own whimsy, with its retro light-hearted 70s style that sounds like something out of a cheesy sitcom. The film's star, Matt Damon, even looks a little like a cartoon character himself with his nerdy hair and mustache, and puffed up face. He's a Vice President at Archer Midland Daniels (ADM) named Mark Whitacre , who gets fed up with the price fixing and illegal activities his company frequently participates in. He turns informant for the F.B.I., and starts kind of getting caught up in the spy business, secretly recording and video taping meetings, and getting his fellow employees to name names and information. He gets so wrapped up, he even starts referring to himself as 0014. ("Because I'm twice as smart as 007"!)

picSo far, so good. But it gets a lot more complicated. The agents that Mark is getting the information for (portrayed here by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) learn too late that he hasn't been telling them the truth from the very beginning. It seems there's some details Mark left out, details that include him stealing money from the company and forging papers. The FBI is left with egg on their face, and even though Mark can't seem to get his facts right, he refuses to see the fact that he's done anything wrong. After all, he brought down a lot of corrupt individuals within his company. He did the right thing, didn't he? His wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), stands by his side, both in private and in front of the media, which starts camping outside his front door when word of his informant activities and secret crimes gets out. To say that Mark is an optimist would be an understatement. Not only does he see himself as doing nothing wrong, but he also thinks he'll be able to take control of the company because of his actions. Since the story was big news when it happened, it's not a spoiler to reveal that Mark did end up going to prison for his own crimes, and even got a longer sentence than those he helped the Feds capture.

picA little bit of self-whimsy goes a long way, and in The Informant!, it goes so far as to render some potentially interesting elements of the story completely mute. We never fully get to see how all of this affects his wife. We see her support him, but we never truly learn if she does it out of loyalty to him, or if she really and truly believes that he has done nothing wrong. Is she just as self-delusional as Mark comes across? The fluffy and light hearted tone works well when Mark is working as a bungling informant, never exactly sure of what he is doing, but somehow always getting exactly the kind of incriminating evidence he needs, but whenever the story turns to the personal side of the story, the tone works against it. Damon's performance is fine throughout, but it remains a caricature from beginning to end. We never truly get inside his head, although the movie does provide us with many personal monologues telling us what Mark is thinking about.

picThis is an odd movie that works sometimes because of its bizarre tone, and sometimes not. My reaction seemed to switch back and forth from going along with the approach, and sometimes being annoyed by it. So, I guess this should be read as a somewhat positive, but mainly middle of the road review. I do kind of wish the movie was a little bit more savage with its satire. At this point of the economic crisis, the movie could have taken some big swipes at corporate crooks and big business, but everything is mainly handled with kid gloves here. The main intention does not seem to be to truly explain what happened, but to ridicule Whitacre. He comes off as a narrow-minded, self-congratulating buffoon, while everyone else at the ADM office involved in the scandal are basically ignored. Instead, we get some bizarre cameos including Patton Oswalt, the Smothers Brothers, and cartoon voice acting legend, Frank Welker, in a rare live action appearance as Mark's father. Don't get me wrong, it's fun, but I would have liked more meat to the story and less quirky cameos.
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Yesterday, I described Jennifer's Body as an experiment that didn't work out as well as it should have. The Informant! is a better movie, but could probably be summed up the same way. You can tell that everyone involved was having fun making this movie, but maybe they should have just spent a little more time going deeper. This is a film that is sometimes enjoyable, but always flawed. Sure is an odd little movie, though.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jennifer's Body

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Megan Fox does not make a very convincing demonic Hell spawn. Maybe that's an odd way to open a review, but it's the first thing that springs to my mind when I think back on why Jennifer's Body doesn't completely work. It's impossible to be terrified of her, because she doesn't exactly have an aura of menace or fear. No matter how much fake blood is splattered around her mouth, or how often she spews out black bile, I was not afraid.

picTo be fair, the movie is not really supposed to be taken entirely seriously. Yes, it has thriller elements, but I get the sense that we're supposed to be laughing through most of this. It works a little bit better as a dark comedy, but not enough for me to recommend. The film is the much-hyped second project of Diablo Cody, the writer who launched to fame two years ago with her Oscar-winning script to Juno. That film was a strong showcase for her style of humor and pop culture-referencing writing style, but here, it seems off. It sounds forced when characters are having a conversation about a person's death, and someone blurts out "Oh my God, just move on.org". It's like she's trying too hard to replicate her past success. I liked the idea behind the film. The movie sort of wants to be a supernatural spin on Mean Girls, or maybe the late 80s cult classic, Heathers. But the execution by Cody and director Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux) misses the mark more than it hits.

picAt the beginning, we're introduced to two life-long best friends, Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) and Needy Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried from Mama Mia). They grew up together in the small town of Devil's Kettle, and now in high school, they're still together, despite the different paths life has led them. Jennifer is the popular cheerleader - hit on by every boy in school. She understands the power she holds, and uses it over everyone, including Needy, who is quiet and meek, and generally does whatever Jennifer asks without question. Needy has a nice boyfriend named Chip (Johnny Simmons), but she clearly belongs mainly to Jennifer. They have the kind of friendship where if they go out together, Needy is not allowed to wear something better than Jennifer is. The movie also hints at feelings possibly deeper than friendship between the two girls, but doesn't quite go far enough with it, other than a scene in Needy's bedroom late in the film that is supposed to be shocking, but given the context of the scene itself, is just awkward and unnecessary.

picThe two girls hit a local bar early on, because Jennifer wants to hear a rising indie band named Low Shoulder that's performing there. The lead singer of the band (Adam Brody) takes an interest in Jennifer - an interest so strong that not even the fact the bar burns down due to an electrical malfunction during their song can break it. The fire claims almost everyone in the bar, except for Jennifer, Needy, and the band. The singer does not seem that disturbed by the events of the evening, and instead invites Jennifer to come with the band in their van. Needy protests, but Jennifer goes along. The next time Needy sees her friend, she's covered in blood, letting out demonic shrieks, and spewing black ooze. And the next time after that, Jennifer seems perfectly fine, as if nothing had happened the night before. It's right about this time also that a mysterious series of cannibalistic murders start hitting the quiet town, the victims being various young men from the high school.

picI won't go into too much detail, but you already know from the commercials that Jennifer has somehow become possessed by a demonic monster, and needs to feed upon human flesh in order to stay strong and youthful. Needy puts two and two together, and realizing she's the only one who can stop her, visits the occult section of the school library to find more information. ("We have an occult section?", Chip asks her.) I liked the angle of Needy having to rely on herself for the first time. She had always been a wallflower, and using Jennifer as her strength. She finds herself alone when Chip doesn't believe her, and she doesn't know who to turn to. If the movie had played upon this dilemma more, it might have resonated, but the screenplay is too interested in cheap thrills that do not thrill, and laughs that miss more than hit. The tone constantly seems off. It's never scary, and it's never quite as clever as it seems to think it is. I smiled at a couple of the lines, but the movie never got the big laughs it was obviously aiming for.

picJennifer's Body is also supposed to obviously be a real role for Megan Fox to prove she can do more than be eye candy for Michael Bay. I guess she's okay for the most part, but like I said at the very beginning, she's not scary or threatening, and that sort of sinks her performance. It doesn't help that she spends a lot of her scenes with Seyfried, who is much better here. She makes Needy into a more three dimensional heroine than we usually get in the horror genre. There are a couple interesting supporting characters that I wish the movie would have spent more time with. These include Kyle Gallner (The Haunting in Connecticut) as a surprisingly sweet-natured and sympathetic Goth teen at the school, and J.K. Simmons giving another offbeat, but criminally underused, performance as a teacher with a hook for a hand. Simmons has spent a good part of 2009 appearing in small roles where he barely registers. He's much too interesting of a character actor to be treated this way, and I hope he can get his hands on another stand-out role soon.
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My mixed feelings for this movie carried all the way to the end. The wraparound opening and ending sequence seemed unnecessary, but the additional scene that plays over the first half of the ending credits brought things to a satisfying conclusion. Jennifer's Body is like an experiment that just didn't work out the way it was planned. You wish Cody would have allowed herself another rewrite or two. Whether it was at the conceptual, screenplay, or filmmaking level, something held this movie back.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

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I guess this movie wasn't for me. That's not to say Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a bad movie. It's imaginative, it's bright and colorful, and it has a wonderful voice cast. The movie just never really clicked with me. I remembered watching Ponyo last weekend, and how the characters felt honest to the point that I could relate to some of them. I never got that feeling watching this.

picI think the main thing that turned me off is that this is essentially a one-joke movie, and that joke is falling food. The story centers on an eccentric and kind-hearted young scientist named Flint Lockwood (voice by Bill Hader), who decides to build a machine that can turn water into food. The device is launched into the sky, and starts turning the water vapor in the air into junk food that it sends raining down on the people below. The movie changes the food that falls (pizzas, pancakes, spaghetti, ice cream), but the gag is essentially the same - Food falls from the sky, and people run away. It's kind of funny and whimsical the first couple times it happens, but it starts to wear out its welcome as the movie goes on. Eventually, the machine goes out of control, and starts dropping massive pieces of food. So, the gag's essentially the same, only now the food is bigger. In this case, bigger is most certainly not better.

picThe movie obviously means well, just like its lead character, Flint. He invented the machine in order to stop a food crisis that had hit his small town. It used to be a salmon fishing village, and when business dries up (people outside the village stop buying salmons because they're gross), everyone in town is forced to eat nothing but salmon, since they can't sell it anymore. Flint really just wants to be loved by the local people, especially by his dad (James Caan), who has always been emotionally distant. When the machine initially makes Flint a celebrity, he starts to let it go to his head, since he unwisely listens to the town's crooked Mayor (Bruce Campbell). There are a lot of bizarre side characters, chief amongst them is Sam Sparks (Anna Farris), a meteorologist who is sent to cover the story of the "food storm" Flint creates, and eventually develops feelings for him as they work together to stop the device. Other characters include an over-zealous cop (Mr. T), a guy who used to be a baby model mascot, and still wears a diaper in order to hold onto his past glory (Andy Samberg) and a monkey named Steve, who is Flint's best friend, and talks with the aid of a device that "speaks" what the monkey is thinking (Neil Patrick Harris).

picI liked a lot of the characters, especially Sam Sparks, who stands out thanks to Farris' spirited voice acting. But the movie never wants to slow down and let us enjoy them. It plows full-speed-ahead to a chaotic climax where the food machine goes out of control, and begins to threaten the entire world. We get a lot of disaster movie parodies thrown at us one after another, we get a lot of gags of different types of food falling on people, and then we get more food falling on people. The writers try to shake things up by actually giving some of the food a personality. The movie throws pizza slices that act like fighter jets, and fried chicken that has somehow developed an appetite for people. It started to get to be too much, especially since the last 40 minutes or so of the movie are devoted entirely to attacking food. In a way, I can understand. The film's designed to be seen in 3D, and is obviously a demo to show off what the studio can do. It never feels like anything more than a gimmick, though.

picSo, what are we left with? Not much, unless you're in the 10 and under crowd. There were some aspects of the film I thought were clever. I liked the fact that Flint's hi-tech lab was actually his childhood treehouse, which he somehow converted into something out of a James Bond film. The relationship that Flint builds with Sam and with his father also have some moments of truth to them. Still, I wasn't that involved. I was distracted by the somewhat bland character designs, and the sometimes juvenile humor. (If there's a monkey in the movie, you just know he's going to start throwing his own feces at one point.) The one sequence in the film that truly seems magical is a sequence where Flint and Sam frolic inside a giant Jell-o mold. It's a cute little scene, but just like everything else that works here, it doesn't last long enough.
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I'm sure Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs will be a big hit with kids. The family film well is looking pretty dry until Where the Wild Things Are hits next month. I wanted to like this movie more than I did. The characters are there, and the heart shows up in certain scenes, but it's all overpowered by repetitive scenes that repeat the same idea. When it was all over, I felt exhausted, and maybe a little hungry. But not delighted.

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Love Happens

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Love does indeed happen in Love Happens, but it happens to two people we can't care much about. It's not that they're bad people. They're pleasant enough, and they're played by two very likable actors - Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston. The problem is that there's not a whole lot to these people. The chemistry that's supposed to show up between them is also strangely absent. The movie itself is kind of like the characters - Pleasant and inoffensive, but there's just not a lot to it.

picWe're introduced to Eckhart's character first. He's Burke Ryan, a self-help guru who helps people get over the death of loved ones. He's written a best-selling book, and goes coast-to-coast doing seminars where he preaches his words of wisdom. The irony is he doesn't believe his own words. He suffered a loss himself when his wife died in a car accident three years ago, and can't get over his own grief. The people at his seminars who hang on his very word treat him like a celebrity, but there are some, like his father-in-law (Martin Sheen), who see him as a hypocrite. Enter Aniston's character, Eloise. She's a florist who does the flower arrangements at the hotel where he's currently hosting a seminar for a few days. They meet when they literally bump into each other in the hall. He tries to strike up a conversation, but she pretends she's deaf, because she just broke up with a boyfriend and doesn't want anything to do with men. It's the first of many artificial sitcom-like situations the screenplay throws into what was supposed to be a story about getting over loss and emotional healing.

picBurke eventually convinces Eloise to go out to dinner with him. Before long, they're hanging out together, and visiting trendy night spots. Things get serious after that. They go to a rock concert together, he visits her mother (Frances Conroy), and she helps him break into his father-in-law's house so he can steal a pet bird that used to belong to his wife, so he can set it free. (It's a long story.) All this happens, but we never feel a real connection between them. I get that this is supposed to be a very guarded relationship. Everywhere Burke goes, he has flashbacks of his dead wife. But the screenplay by director Brandon Camp and co-writer Mike Thompson (Dragonfly) never goes deep enough into the characters, their problems, or even what draws them to each other. Both writers have a lot of experience writing for television, and it shows. The drama is neat, tidy, non-threatening, and sanitized. The comic moments also have a sitcom-like quality, with the characters intentionally putting themselves in awkward situations (you can almost hear the laugh track), or provided by the two comic relief characters (Dan Fogler as Burke's agent, and Judy Greer as Eloise's best friend and co-worker).

picIt's these contrived, safe decisions that holds Love Happens back from the movie it obviously wants to be. It's afraid to truly confront the issue of loss and recovery, and gives us simple answers. There's a recurring character who keeps on showing up at Burke's seminars named Walter (John Caroll Lynch). He used to be a successful contractor, but then his son died in an accident on a job site, and now he feels like he has nothing left. He even gave up on being a contractor. Burke tries to reach him, but Walter keeps on resisting. That's when he gets the brilliant idea to take Walter on a field trip to a Home Depot. Through this trip, Walter seemingly has a life-changing experience. He can hold onto a hammer again without thinking of his son's death. He tells Burke that he's going to be okay, and that's all we get. So, instead of actual closure to the character, we get a music montage as Walter picks out tools, and a plug for the Home Depot. If only all emotional problems could be solved with the aid of corporate product placements.

picBut, back to Burke and Eloise. We never get to see any sparks, nor do we get a scene where we really feel the characters are connecting. It's strange, because we know that Eckhart and Aniston are very charismatic actors, or at least they have been in the past. There's none of the sharp comic glee that Eckhart usually brings to his roles. As for Aniston, there's something a little muted about her performance here, almost as if her heart wasn't completely into it. We still wind up liking the characters, due to the actors playing them. We just don't like them as much as we want to. At least everyone seems to be trying. You have to give credit for Martin Sheen. It couldn't have been easy to walk onto the set the day of his big scene, which is not only horribly contrived (he walks in just as Burke is giving an impassioned apology to his audience, and he winds up walking on stage to also apologize to and hug his son-in-law), but also includes one of the worst cliches - the slow, building clap, where one audience member starts clapping, and then he is joined by one or two more people, and soon the entire room is in thunderous applause.
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I didn't really hate watching Love Happens. It's too bland and safe to build any real feelings of hatred. I just had this constant nagging feeling that I was watching something contrived, when it should have been heartfelt and honest. It constantly felt like the movie was afraid to be what it truly wanted to be. So, while it's not really a terrible movie, it sure is a wimpy one.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ponyo

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Unless you frequent the world of Japanese animation, the name Hayao Miyazaki probably is not very familiar to you. In his native country, however, he is regarded as a master filmmaker, with each of his recent movies breaking box office records. Watch a Miyazaki film, and it's all too easy to understand the appeal. His films are always completely hand-drawn with hardly a trace of CG, and are awash in color, detail, and life. His stories also always have universal appeal. They are simple enough for children to understand, but emotional and engaging enough for adults.

picHis latest film, Ponyo, is no exception. This is a wondrous fairy tale that is charming, imaginative, funny, and heartfelt. Like all of Miyazaki's recent movies, it was a massive hit in Japan, and has now been brought to America by the Disney studios. This is not the kind of hatchet job that most anime get when they are dubbed into English. Disney has spared no expense for the English version, hiring John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars) and Melissa Mathison (E.T.) to faithfully adapt Miyazaki's original screenplay. They have also hired a top-flight cast of voice talent including Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Betty White, Cloris Leachman, and Lily Tomlin. I usually view anime dubs with the same level of disgust I view intestinal parasites, but here, they've done a fine job finding actors whose voices not only fit their roles, but don't draw attention to themselves. (Aside from Neeson's unmistakable voice, you're never reminded of who is playing whom.) More than this, this is a fantastic movie for both young and old to experience.

picThe film opens with a beautiful and mostly dialogue-free underwater sequence, where the aquatic wizard Fujimoto (voice by Liam Neeson) keeps a careful eye over the seas, and makes sure everything is in balance. He generally despises humans, due to the way they pollute and mistreat the ocean, and expects all of the fish under his command to follow his example and never venture up to land. There's one little fish who lets her curiosity about the world above get the better of her. She floats up to the surface with the aid of a jellyfish, and is discovered by a five-year-old boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas, younger brother of the Jonas Brothers music group). Sosuke frees the little fish from a jar that she had gotten stuck in during her journey to the surface, and the two manage to strike a friendship before Fujimoto comes up on land to take the little fish back where she belongs. The fish, however, just won't stay put. She has magical powers, just like her mother the sea goddess (Cate Blanchett), and these powers allow her to take the form of a human so that she can return to the surface and be with Sosuke again.

picAs a human, she can now speak (her voice is provided by Noah Cyrus, younger sister of Miley), and goes by the name of Ponyo (the name Sosuke gave her when he rescued her as a fish). She happily reunites with her new human friend and his mother (Tina Fey), who are worried that the seas seem unusually violent. Sosuke's father (Matt Damon) is the captain of a ship at sea, and they fear he may be in danger. We soon learn that Ponyo's actions to live on land have caused an imbalance in nature, which is causing the sea to grow into a powerful flood that threatens the entire town. Ponyo uses her magic to turn Sosuke's toy boat into a giant one that they can use to navigate the waters of the flooded town to search for his father, as well as his mother, when she goes off to check on the elderly ladies (Betty White, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin) that she cares for at the Senior Center where she works.

picThe story told in Ponyo is a simple one of discovery, friendship, and the relationship between man and nature. It doesn't get bogged down in a message, or overly complicates itself. It is charmingly disarming. We are immediately drawn to the characters. The opening sequence, where Ponyo sneaks away from her father to go to the surface world, is one of the most endearing introductions to a main character I've seen in an animated film in a while. It's impossible not to fall in love with the chubby little fish with the human-like face. She draws laughter just from some of her facial expressions, and the way her body twists and distorts fluidly as she swims to the world above. It reminded me of the wonder of traditional hand-drawn animation. As impressive and precise as CG can be, it sometimes lacks the warmth and artistic exaggeration of cell drawings. Look at the way little Ponyo's body stretches and bends as she struggles to fight a strong water current, or when she becomes trapped inside the jar. For someone who holds a strong respect for animation, it's wonderful to watch, and I can only hope Disney's upcoming The Princess and the Frog is good enough and successful enough to begin a resurgence in traditional animation.

picEven if that movie isn't enough, this one features more than enough evidence as to why the art form needs to carry on. There is a spellbinding sequence where Ponyo (in her human form) literally rides a tsunami wave by running on the backs of giant fishes leaping out of the water. Also impressive are the scenes late in the film, where Sosuke and Ponyo ride the boat through the flooded streets of the town, and we can see fish swimming underneath them across the submerged streets and cities. The visuals alone would almost be worth recommending the film, but Ponyo also has a lot more warmth and heart to its characters than most films targeted at young kids. We worry about little Sosuke when he fears his parents may be lost in the flood, and delight in Ponyo's personal discoveries, especially her love for ham. In a charming change of pace, there are no real antagonists to the story. Even the wizard Fujimoto, who comes across as being very harsh early on, is just trying to protect the balance of the world when he forbids Ponyo from going to the surface. This is a movie that remembers the innocence and wonder of childhood, and doesn't feel the need to fill it with CG aliens or man-eating booger monsters, as seen in Aliens in the Attic and Shorts.
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Ponyo has received a larger release than most anime films get for a theatrical run over here, but it's still mostly playing in limited areas. This doesn't make sense to me, as the film holds huge appeal for just about anyone who watches it. Miyazaki is a masterful storyteller, and the people responsible for the English version have carried on his tradition. You can tell that this was a labor of love for everyone involved. When I look back on the summer of 2009, I'll do my best to forget the giant robots and mutant superheroes as soon as possible. But I'll be holding onto my memories of this charming little fish and the movie she inhabits for a long time to come.

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

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