Reel Opinions


Saturday, July 31, 2010

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

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With so many movies about talking animals coming out at a faster rate (the last one, Marmaduke, was less than two months ago), I think it's safe to assume that the novelty of seeing computer rendered pets mixed with live actors has long passed. The filmmakers need to step up to Step 2, and give the animals in these movies something interesting to do. Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore is a Step 1 movie. It takes a generic James Bond plot, plops some domesticated animals into it, and expects us to be entertained. Audiences aren't so easily amused anymore.

picAt least I hope so. The film is an unnecessary and much-too-late sequel to a movie from almost 10 years ago. Fittingly, the films that the screenplay parodies (like Silence of the Lambs, Lethal Weapon, 1989's Batman, and The Terminator) are from over 20 years ago, and the jokes come across as being even more stale. For those that don't remember the 2001 Cats & Dogs movie, it introduced us to a secret war that was being held for the right of being the dominant pets amongst humans. The scheming cats were trying to enslave humanity, with the heroic dogs thwarting them. This movie finds the two species having to put their rivalry aside as they unite against a common enemy - a deranged feline terrorist named Kitty Galore (voice by Bette Midler), who aims for global domination with the aid of a spy satellite she's stolen.

picKitty is the sole bright spot in a very dumb movie. Midler seems to be enjoying every scene-chewing moment of her voice over performance, and I chuckled when her background story was revealed. To stop her, the heroic dogs in their secret underground spy base call upon their newest member - a disgraced police dog named Diggs (voice by James Marsden). He gets separated from his human owner (Chris O'Donnell) early on, which forces O'Donnell to spend the entire rest of his screen time walking around, asking random extras, "Have you seen my dog"? On the mission, Diggs is joined by a veteran dog named Butch (voice by Nick Nolte), a spy cat named Catherine (voice by Christina Applegate), and a pigeon named Seamus (voice by Katt Williams). They race around after Kitty's various henchmen, trying to uncover her plan, track her down at a carnival, and engage in a loud and pointless special effects-filled climax. Other than wasting 75 minutes or so of your life, that's all you get.

picThe Revenge of Kitty Galore is a soulless piece of junk targeted at kids, and designed to give their young minds nothing of value or substance. It doesn't want to engage them, or make them think about what they're watching. It just throws a bunch of talking animals up on the screen, voiced by actors who should have known better. Besides the ones listed above, other talents wasted by the generic screenplay include Neil Patrick Harris, Wallace Shawn, Roger Moore, Michael Clarke Duncan, Sean Hayes, and Joe Pantoliano. Surely any of these actors could have improvised better lines than the ones they've been given here. The script often sounds like a rough first draft. If you're going to fill your movie almost top to bottom with domesticated animals who can speak (O'Donnell, and a goofy circus magician played by Jack McBrayer are the only human leads), at least give them something interesting to say.

picNow's as good a time as any to mention the special effects, which are surprisingly terrible. You'd think the filmmakers would be smart enough to scrounge up a decent effects budget, seeing as the movie is built entirely around them. The dogs and cats spend most of the movie just sitting there, while sub-par computer animation moves their lips around in a loop that roughly matches the voice over track. I can't picture the effects artists looking at the end result, and being pleased. It looks chintzy up there on the big screen. We don't believe the illusion for a second, and since it's the main component of the movie, we're left wondering just who the filmmakers were trying to fool.
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The film is being sold in both 3D and 2D. If you must see this, at least seek out the 2D film, so you don't have to pay any more than you have to. In fact, a better option would be to spend your money on much better family films that are probably playing in the same building. With films like Toy Story 3, Despicable Me, and Ramona and Beezus playing, there's no excuse. Those are smart movies that adults can enjoy as well, and don't talk down to kids. In contrast, Cats and Dogs is just mindless junk.

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Dinner for Schmucks

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Even if Dinner for Schmucks is not the great comedy I was hoping for, it's still a good one. The movie puts Steve Carell (one of the brightest comic stars working today) and Paul Rudd (one of the more under appreciated comic stars) in a story that relies almost solely on their chemistry. Sometimes this is enough. But with an overstuffed running time of nearly two hours and no real plot to be found, director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents) often seems to be hoping his stars will carry the entire movie from beginning to end.

picIt's not enough, but Carell and Rudd certainly do try. And there are some big laughs in this movie, to be sure. They're just surrounded by long stretches where not much seems to be happening. I'm recommending this movie with reservations. There's a lot that works here, and a lot that doesn't. What does work is mostly credited to Carell, in a performance that seems like it was largely improvised on the spot. He's hilarious as Barry, a man who works for the IRS, but spends most of his time searching for dead mice on the street. He uses them for re-creations of famous paintings and works of arts, which he calls "mouseterpieces". Seeing the little stuffed mice set up in recreations of "The Last Supper" or "Whistler's Mother" is enough to get a laugh from the audience, but listen to the pride and intensity in which Barry talks about them. This is his life's work, and he talks about his art as if they were his children. Barry lives in his own world that is run by his own rules, and that's what makes him memorable.

picWhen I say Barry lives in his own world, I mean it. He is completely oblivious to modern society, and what other people think of him. This simultaneously makes him more than a little pitiful, but also kind of admirable. It also seemingly makes him perfect for the strange situation that a man named Tim (Rudd) finds himself in at the beginning of the film. Tim is a rising employee at a big corporation, with dreams of moving on to the next floor and a bigger office. His boss (Bruce Greenwood) thinks he has initiative, and notices it. But, apparently there's a bizarre catch to moving up in this particular company. If Tim wants the promotion, he'll have to attend a private dinner function that the higher ups at the company hold every year. At the dinner, the corporate people invite guests who are total idiots. The whole purpose of the dinner is to laugh at the dolts at their own expense, and then at the end of the night, they give out a prize for the biggest fool of the evening.

picYes, it's cruel, and initially Tim wants nothing to do with it. But when he meets up with Barry after hitting him with his car (Barry was standing in the middle of the street, "rescuing" a dead mouse), he can't help it. Barry is the perfect "idiot". He's completely oblivious, he doesn't seem to have a single clue, and he always has this vacant grin on his face. Barry is the kind of guy who just kind of stands there and grins when he doesn't understand what's going on or what's being said to him. And Barry doesn't understand a lot of things. Tim wants the promotion, and invites Barry to the dinner. Barry just wants a friend, so he invites himself into Tim's life, and spends a majority of the film destroying it. There's a lot of misunderstandings, especially concerning Tim's girlfriend, a sweet woman named Julie (Stephanie Szostak). She does not like the idea of Tim attending the dinner, and when she meets Barry and sees he's going through with it, leaves him.

picThere's a lot more misunderstandings and situations where Barry's "help" winds up slowly driving Tim crazy, but I will not reveal them. Dinner For Schmucks is supposed to be a farce, where everything builds into total chaos, culminating to the climactic dinner scene, where the "idiots" assemble. The movie achieves this feeling in a lot of its scenes, but in others, it seems less sure of itself. This is a film that veers uncomfortably from inspired lunacy, to quiet thoughtfulness. It's unsure of what it wants to be. Is it a sharp look at those who look down on others? Is it a bizarre comedy that plays by its own rules and exists in its own reality? Is it a heartfelt buddy comedy? The movie tries to be all this, and succeeds at some. The satire elements are not sharp or vicious enough. The big laughs come from Carell's bizarre character, but even he's not enough to carry the entire movie himself.

picWhat does work is the chemistry between Carell and Rudd. They supply an off beat odd couple, with Carell as the manic energy, and Rudd as the suffering straight man. Other scenes that work include a subplot concerning an S&M-obsessed woman who is stalking Tim (Lucy Punch), and the actual dinner itself. There is an inconsistency to the humor however. Scenes involving Zach Galifanakis as a co-worker of Barry's who thinks he can read minds fall flat, as does the stuff concerning Jemaine Clement as a bizarre artist. It's also inconsistent in its tone. While the early scenes depict a kind of dark, loopy comedy, it doesn't take long for the movie to develop a soft, squishy side, and go into somewhat more sentimental territory.
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So, why am I giving Dinner For Schmucks a pass? My rule of thumb in reviewing a comedy is did I laugh, and how much did I laugh? I certainly did laugh watching the film, and I think the stuff that does work works well enough for it to be labeled a moderate success. I was expecting more, but was happy enough with what I got. With a little more effort, this could have been the great comedy I've been waiting all year for.

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Friday, July 30, 2010

Charlie St. Cloud

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Based on the novel by Ben Sherwood, Charlie St. Cloud is a movie that has its heart in the right place, but has very little in terms of brains. This is a well-meaning, but mawkish tear-jerker about a young man who seemed to have it all, until the night his kid brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) was killed in a car accident. Since then, Charlie (Zac Efron) has refused to go on with his life. Instead of going on to college, he took a job as a groundskeeper at the local cemetery, where he is visited by the ghost of young Sam every day to talk and throw a baseball back and forth.

picIs Sam's ghost a figment of Charlie's mind, as a way for him to deal with his own guilt (he was at the wheel the night Sam died)? Or did his own near-death experience in that same accident somehow give Charlie a supernatural sixth sense? It's an intriguing question, and one that the movie generally ignores. That's because the film exists solely as a project for star Zac Efron to move beyond his perky image he created in the High School Musical films and last year's 17 Again. Normally, I would not see anything wrong with this, but it's quite clear that Efron is not comfortable with such somber material. His portrayal of the depressed and haunted titular character seems to revolve around staring blankly off into space. His eyes seem unfocused, which I guess is supposed to give us the impression that he is a tormented soul lost in thoughts we could never understand. Instead, it looks like he's not sure how to play a lot of the scenes he's given.

picSo, Charlie's stuck in the past, talking to his dead brother, and refusing to move on with his life. The locals in the seaside town where he lives seem to be divided on their opinion of him. A small few are sympathetic, and know that he's capable of more than he's achieved, such as the friendly paramedic who saved Charlie's life that fateful night (Ray Liota in a cameo). Most choose to view him as an oddball. And then there are those who are not sure what to think, like local girl Tess (Amanda Crew). She used to be attracted to Charlie when they went to high school together, but has drifted away from him over time. Now she's planning to leave on a sailing expedition around the world. Of course, before she leaves, she begins to strike up a friendship with Charlie, one which begins to blossom into something more. This creates a personal dilemma for Charlie. Does he let the past and his brother's ghost go, or does he move on to the future with this girl?

picAnother complication arises - Tess has a secret. To avoid spoilers, I will not reveal it here, but anyone who is half-awake while watching the movie will be able to figure it out long before Charlie does. When the big reveal comes, it feels like the movie is finally catching up with the audience. Charlie St. Cloud obviously wants to be a sweet and inoffensive romantic story, with a few supernatural elements tossed in for good measure. The best way to describe the screenplay is what would happen if author Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook) and filmmaker M Night Shyamalan teamed up to do a project together. The end result is just as uneven and schizophrenic as you might expect. The romantic scenes between Charlie and Tess are pleasant, but kind of dull, and lack energy. Meanwhile, the supernatural stuff is supposed to be full of twists that keep us guessing, but as I mentioned, will only throw off those who leave for long bathroom breaks.

picIt's not just the central romance that lack energy, but the entire movie itself. Though never boring, the film often seems glacial in its pacing. Everyone, especially Charlie, kind of sulks around like they're in slow motion. It would be pretty gloomy and depressing, if the movie wasn't trying so hard to please the teen girl crowd, with love scenes that barely push the limits of a PG-rating (despite the film being PG-13), and lead star Efron being depicted with his shirt off as much as possible, almost as if he were auditioning for the next Twilight movie. Nothing really seems to build here. Things just happen, and then Charlie reacts to them, usually by staring vacantly at whoever is talking to him. For everything the movie puts him through, it's hard to feel for Charlie, as he doesn't seem to have much of a personality to start with.
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That's the key problem in Charlie St. Cloud. I never felt for any of its characters. It's filled top to bottom with stock characters that are so lacking in traits and humanity, you don't know how you're supposed to feel about them. When the ending came, not only was I not surprised, but I just did not care.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ramona and Beezus

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The makers of last weekend's horrendous Standing Ovation should take note of this weekend's Ramona and Beezus. This is how you make a childrens' film that speaks directly to kids and "tweens", without talking down to them, and allow accompanying adults to get enjoyment out of it as well. It also shows how to make a sweet and wholesome movie, without making it sappy and stupid. This is a smart, funny, imaginative, and sweet little film that took me by surprise.

picThe trailers certainly didn't fill me with confidence. Sure, it looked harmless and inoffensive enough, but it also looked like the movie would suffer from a very forced whimsical tone. Fortunately, the film itself does not. Even though a lot of the rough edges of some of the topics it talks about (like unemployment) have been sanded off to make it not so scary for kids, there is some honesty to be found. But what impressed me the most was the imaginative and sometimes almost rebellious nature of the little title character, Ramona, herself. She's a typical 9-year-old girl with an overactive imagination, a talent for causing trouble when she does not mean to, and, I must admit, a wonderful way at looking at things. Early on, we learn that she still gets scared at night when her imagination runs away with her. But, she tells us, she doesn't mind so much, because being scared makes life more interesting. Now, that is a girl wise beyond her years. I also loved the scene where little Ramona complains that her teacher, the stern but caring Mrs. Meacham (played wonderfully by Sandra Oh), is stifling her creativity by not letting her invent words in class. I was even more delighted to find that the movie basically agrees with her, and never allows Ramona to conform to that silly rule later on.

picOf course, children everywhere (and most adults) already know these things about Ramona. They've been reading about her adventures in the books by Beverly Cleary for some 60 years now. In the film, she's played by Joey King, a girl who mostly has been working in TV and voice over work (including a memorably off the wall supporting role in 2008's Horton Hears a Who), and really displays a lot of talent in her first major film role. She's warm, curious, and wonderful. There's not a single false moment in her performance. She's not playing for the camera, like so many child actors. We're drawn to how natural she comes across. The same goes for the entire cast, really. All of the kids come across as real kids, and the adults are not portrayed as brainless dolts who act as manipulations for the plot. As sweet as the film is, there is a little bit of a dark edge that shows itself at times. Ramona's father (John Corbett) loses his job at the beginning of the film. We get some realistic depictions of what results from such a situation (her father can't find a credit card he can still use to pay a tow truck driver when the car breaks down), as well as some funny and imaginative ones, such as when Ramona overhears her parents talking about how the bank might take away their house (she imagines men from the bank coming along with a giant crane, and literally ripping the house out of the ground).

picDirector Elizabeth Allen (Aquamarine) knows when to use fantasy, when to use sentimentality, and when to use reality in her film, and that makes all the difference. It also knows how to juggle the film's various plots, without fumbling them. The key plot is the father losing his job, but there's also subplots about other members of the family, such as Ramona's older sister Beatrice (Disney Channel star Selena Gomez) having her first relationship with a local boy, Henry Huggins (Hutch Dano). Ramona and Beatrice have their own problems together, since they drive each other crazy, as sisters often do. It started when Ramona was just learning to talk, and would call her sister "Beezus" - an unfortunate nickname that has stuck over the years. There's also a sweet subplot concerning the girls' kindly Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) rekindling a relationship with an old flame from her high school days (Josh Duhamel), who has just moved in next door. All of these plots, and the emotions and sometimes ugliness that they bring, are dealt with in a mature manner. The movie even briefly touches upon loss, when Ramona's beloved cat, Picky-Picky, dies in its sleep.

picLess you think the movie is a downer or takes itself too seriously, it's not. The film has a light and airy quality to it that never seems forced or becomes overwhelming. It's a constant tightrope act, and I was waiting for the movie to fall into extreme manipulations. It never did, much to my relief. Yeah, the ending is way too tidy, and solves all the problems much too hastily, but that's not until the last three minutes or so. What's more important to note is how right this movie gets it. This is a smart movie made by smart people. It not only manages to pay respect to the source material, but also to its audience. It does this by giving us characters who don't act like they know they're in a movie for kids. They're not dumbed down, and not acting so goofy that everything goes flying out of control. They're nice people who just happen to be in a very nice and inoffensive movie.
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Most critics will note that Ramona and Beezus stands out, because it's the rare kid-centered movie that's not built around special effects or toy marketing. While I certainly agree, I think it stands out for a much more crucial reason - It's genuinely entertaining, and kind of fun. Though the film may get lost in the shuffle of the remaining blockbusters coming out this summer, I can easily see it becoming a favorite to many little girls (and maybe their parents) when it hits DVD.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Salt

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Here's a tip for enjoying Salt - Check your brain at the door, and never look back. This is a ludicrous and convoluted espionage thriller with enough double agents, political plotting, and scheming Russians plotting to bring back the Soviet Union to fill two or three spy novels. But that's not the appeal here. The appeal is the non-stop, fast-paced action. It's expertly filmed and staged, and is comprised of mostly physical stunt work, instead of CG. Good thing, too, since stunt work makes up pretty much 80% of the film.

picThe movie stars Angelina Jolie, an actress who is certainly no stranger to kicking butt on the big screen, but doesn't get to do it very often. She brings a lot of intensity here, not just when she's fighting off attackers, but also when she's diving off bridges onto the backs of passing semis, running across the back of vans, skillfully leaping down elevator shafts, climbing along narrow building ledges, and making one narrow escape after another. It's been widely reported that the role was originally written as a man, and was to be played by Tom Cruise, until he backed out to do Knight and Day. I think this worked out best for the film. Cruise would not be able to convey the mystery that Jolie brings to the role of Evelyn Salt. She is an enigma, and somewhat of an intentional blank slate. We're not supposed to be sure what to think of her, or who side she's on.

picAnd that's the whole point of the film. It pulls us in so many directions, making us wonder where it is taking us, and just who Salt is. She starts the film as a happily married woman, albeit one who works for the CIA, and who spent time in a North Korean prison, as we witness in an opening prologue. Evelyn's only thought is celebrating her anniversary with her husband that evening, until a Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) is brought into headquarters, and labels her as an undercover KGB agent to her superiors during an interview. She immediately finds herself under suspicion by Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and even her partner and best friend, Ted Winters (Liev Schreiber), who supports her at first, but soon finds he doesn't know what to think. According to Orlov, Evelyn Salt is a spy on a mission to kill the Russian President, who is in New York City to attend the funeral of the U.S. Vice President. When Salt finds that no one will listen to her, she is forced to run.

picBut why is she running? Is she truly innocent and scared, or does she have something to hide? The movie is intentionally vague, and leads us in various directions. Sure, we don't believe for a second that a major summer blockbuster will end with Angelina Jolee murdering the Russian President, and bringing world-wide chaos and war, but the movie gives us plenty of reasons to believe a variety of theories surrounding her character. If she is a heartless assassin, then why does she immediately head home after escaping from CIA headquarters to look for her husband, and rescue her pet dog (whom she hands off to a little girl who lives in the same building). If she is innocent, then why is she carrying all these high tech weapons and tools, and why does she head straight for the cathedral where the Vice President's funeral is being held? Is she trying to prove her innocence, or is it for something else? The movie is clever in the way it casts its heroine (anti-heroine?) in such a vague light that we don't know what to think of her, or even what her motives are. Sure, the answer is kind of easy to figure out by some point in the film, but it's still a fun ride.

picHowever, Salt chooses to keep its intriguing spy thriller aspects at a minimum, opting instead to be an all-out chase action picture. As soon as Salt is fingered as the deep cover agent, the movie pretty much never slows down. Normally, I would grow bored with this approach, but director Phillip Noyce knows how to keep things constantly moving, without making it seem like overkill. In fact, the plot is really just one big excuse for the characters to run across Washington D.C., to New York, and then back to Washington. And the sequences take place in everywhere from heavy traffic, to elevator shafts, to the crypts under a church, and even through top secret areas of the White House, where characters duke it out in a climactic brawl as a big clock counts down to nuclear annihilation. Yes, it's ridiculous, and the movie asks us to suspend our disbelief more times than probably necessary, but it works. There's an art to popcorn entertainment such as this, and Noyce has it down. The action is tightly edited, and as ridiculous as it gets, it never fails to impress.

picI guess you could call Salt a live action video game. The characters are thinly drawn, and many exist for the lead heroine to kick, punch, and shoot as she runs from one location to the next. But once again, I surprisingly did not mind here. The actors are better than the norm that we get in these kind of movies, and stunts and production values are better than average. That seems to make all the difference. It also helps that the action and car chase sequences are not mundane in the slightest. They're over the top, but in such a way that we actually find ourselves a little thrilled. As someone who has grown tired of movies that build themselves entirely around car chases and shoot outs, I was surprised to find myself so involved in the action. It proves my theory that even the most tired of cliches can still work when they are executed with skill.
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And this is a skillful movie for what it is. It's an action thriller through and through, with a few interesting ideas tossed in for good measure. Yeah, Salt could have been smarter. So what? That's what Inception is playing in theaters for. (And I do suggest you see that before this.) This movie serves a need, and serves it very well, I might add. If anything, this movie shows just how so many similar films went wrong, and does everything right.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Standing Ovation

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Here it is, folks. After about seven and a half months of waiting, the worst film of 2010 has arrived. Just skip this one movie, and you should be safe the rest of the year. Granted, 2010 is far from over, but it's hard to imagine anything coming close to what writer-director Stewart Raffill (1988's Mac and Me) is passing off as entertainment.

picThe concept is nothing new, but Standing Ovation is easily the most dimwitted and amateurish example of it I've seen in many a moon. Two teenage girl singing groups are competing in a music video contest for a grand prize of a million dollars and a recording contract. Naturally, there's a "mean group" and a "good group". The "mean" girls are The Wiggies, so called because their father owns a wig factory. They're rich, they're snobby, and they frequently cheat to win. The "good" girls are called The Five Ovations. We're supposed to like them, because they're plucky, poor, and have a lot of spirit. To be honest, I didn't like either one. They both sing the most generic-sounding pop music imaginable, and the videos that they enter into the competition look like the kind of home-made music videos they hand out at theme parks. There's an obnoxious little girl who calls herself Alanna Wannabe (Alanna Palombo), who's always trying to break into both of the singing groups. She's notable only for being the single most annoying child performance in a movie in a very long time.

picThe leader of the Ovations is a down on her luck girl named Brittany (Kayla Jackson). She lives with her Irish grandfather (P Brendan Mulvey) who has a gambling problem. Here we get the first of many examples of the confused morality of this movie. Gambling is frowned upon, as it has driven Brittany's family into near-bankruptcy. And yet, when the girl needs money to help her enter the competition, she has grandpa bet on a long-shot horse. (The horse wins, of course.) The Ovations enter the contest with the help of some nice boys at their middle school, and make a video, which of course is sabotaged by the evil Wiggies. They still get in, though, and get to go to the finals in New York City. Actually, we just see some stock footage of Times Square, then it cuts to the contest itself. The movie uses the exact same street footage every time the girls are supposed to be in New York.

picThere's a confusing subplot concerning a girl named Joei Batalucci (Joei DeCarlo), who becomes the manager of The Five Ovations. She's a tough-talking preteen girl who's seeking revenge on a guy who stole money from her family years ago, which led to her family going straight to the poorhouse. She thinks she's got a lead on the guy who stole the money, so she follows Brittany and her friends around, grilling local thugs and gangsters for information. She does this by threatening the various thugs with snakes, scorpions, electric eels, and other little critters that she keeps in her backpack at all times. I have no idea what such a plot is doing in a family film about a singing competition, or what it has to do with everything else in the movie. The climax sloppily ties the contest, the search for the guy who stole the money, and Brittany's long-lost father who walked out years ago together in a way that has to be seen to be believed.

picStanding Ovation is such a mess, it constantly seems to be jumping around from scene to scene, with little concern for plot structure or coherency. It's not a musical, as the girls only sing when they're on stage. And yet, there's a curious scene where the mean Wiggie girls are at a restaurant with their father, and they suddenly break into a horrible song about good manners for absolutely no reason. The performances are also terrible. There's not a single actor who can create a believable emotion, or bring a human quality to their characters. I'm not just talking about the kids, by the way. The adults are just as bad, if not worse. But of course, the adults are mainly playing stereotypes here. The kids are stuck playing bland and shrill "tween" cliches with no personality whatsoever.
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As has often been the case with some recent bad movies, Standing Ovation manages to review itself in its own dialogue better than I ever could. That would be the most repeated line that Brittany's grandpa says - "Dumb is dumb, and there ain't nothing dumber". How a movie with the budget of a made for TV film, and acting that wouldn't cut it in a community theater production, wound up on the big screen, I don't know. It holds no distinction, other than being the absolute worst movie of the year.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Inception

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I almost don't want to review Inception. It's not that I don't think it's a great movie, because it is. It's just that a review, no matter how spoiler-free it tries to come across, will undoubtedly ruin some of the pleasures of the film. And so, I'd like to make a request. Please read this review after you see the film, as I'm hoping you'll be able to walk into the film as I did - knowing very little about the actual plot details. I will do my best to be vague, but I will no doubt have to go into some detail.

picBy this point, you've either seen the movie and continued reading, or you decided not to listen to me, and are reading before you see it. Whatever the case, it should be noted that Inception is an intricate film. It is complex, it is thought-provoking, and it forces you to pay attention in almost every frame. This is not a mindless summer blockbuster. Writer-director Christopher Nolan supposedly spent years working this script out, and it shows. He has thought out every plot detail, every visual, and every character and revelation in a way that few films do. That alone is worth noting. But there is something even more noteworthy, in my opinion. Not once is the movie ever confusing. Yes, Nolan hides details from us early on, but they are revealed in good time. Anyone who is actually paying attention (and resists the urge to use the bathroom or get a refill on their soda or popcorn) will have no problem figuring out the complex tale that the movie tells. Yes, there are small details I'm still not quite clear on. These will most likely be solved by repeat viewings. On the whole, Inception is not a movie that guides you by the hand, but a wonderful puzzle to figure out.

picThe film is set in an unspecified time and place, but seems to take place in the near future. Technology has evolved to the point that people can not only enter each others dreams, but also control them, and unlock deep secrets from a person's subconscious and extract them. One person who utilizes such abilities on a regular basis is Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a "dream thief" of sorts who offers his services for hire. Early on, he's approached by a Japanese businessman named Saito (Ken Watanabe) with an interesting and possibly dangerous request - He does not want Cobb to merely extract something from someone's subconscious, but to insert an idea in someone's head that could benefit Saito's corporation. This difficult process is known as an Inception, and it's believed to be impossible. Cobb knows it can be done. He's done it once before, with tragic results. That's why he's initially not taken in by the offer, until Saito offers him something he cannot ignore.

picHe offers Cobb the opportunity to wipe his criminal record clean. It's something that has forced Cobb to be on the run for the past few years. He dreams of returning home to the U.S., and seeing his children again. He talks to them briefly on the phone, but can never tell them why he can't come home. But Saito is offering a chance at a new start, and an opportunity to see his family again. What is the crime Cobb is guilty of? The movie knows the right time to tell us, and it's not right away. Regardless, with the reward at stake, a deal is made between the two men. The target for the mission is Robert Fischer, Jr (Cillian Murphy), a young tycoon who just inherited a major corporation from his father (Pete Posthelthwaite). Cobb must enter Robert's subconscious, and perform the Inception. Along for the mission are Cobb's partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and the young "architect" named Ariadne (Ellen Page), whose job is to design the dream worlds where the work will be done. The group travels deeper and deeper into the subconscious, and what they find, I will leave you to discover.

picWatching Inception, I was reminded of the first time I saw the groundbreaking "bullet time" sequences in the original Matrix film, especially during a lengthy sequence where gravity is thrown to the wind, and the characters must both fight and go about their work as the room they're in tumbles constantly. In terms of visuals, these are easily the strongest I've seen this summer. City streets bend, twist, and even defy gravity. Stairways repeat in an endless loop. The real world and the dream world collide frequently. The structure of entire cities alter and change shape to a person's will. Not only is it all wonderful to look at, but all the special effects utilized benefit the story itself, and are not just for show. The story and characters never become lost amongst the special effects, while the effects themselves never seem like they're wasted budget.

picI also loved how Nolan was able to give us an intriguing and thought-provoking story, while also giving us plenty of action to keep us enthralled. In fact, the entire second and third act are kind of one giant chase sequence that never becomes monotonous or boring, because the movie keeps on raising the stakes and changing the game on us. It does so in a fair way. It's not the screenplay cheating us or manipulating the audience. Each new threat and revelation feels natural. There's a flow to the entire screenplay that few movies have. Amongst all the action, the movie feeds us a little bit more of the story. We learn more about Cobb and his past, and why he's been unable to return home after all these years. We learn the truth about what happened the last time he tried an Inception, and whom he performed it on. This is the rare movie that rewards the patient viewer. It does not spell everything out right away, rather it leaves tiny bits of the plot to piece together. When explanations come, they genuinely shed light. We actually find ourselves more involved.

picThat's because the characters at the core of Inception are flawed and very human. It would be easy for any filmmaker to build a movie around the wondrous visuals this movie provides, then plop some uninteresting cardboard cutouts in the middle of it all, but the people on display grab our attention. Each revelation about Cobb makes us like and sympathize with him more. When Ariadne becomes conflicted about how she feels about Cobb and the job itself, we feel it right along with her. The story isn't the only thing that's been well thought out, the characters have been too. And the cast that's been assembled is all too willing to make the characters easy for us to follow. It must be noted that a lot of the actors here (like Watanabe, Murphy, and Michael Caine in a brief cameo) have worked with Nolan before, but why ruin a good thing? He knows how to use these actors, and he knows how to get the best out of them.
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It's very rare that you see a movie quite this good during the summer months, or any month of the year, now that I think about it. Inception is not only intelligent and challenging, but it's also emotionally rewarding, thrilling, and exciting as hell. Watching it, you get the sense that Nolan is not only challenging his audience, but also himself. Here is someone fresh off the biggest film of his career (2008's The Dark Knight). He could have easily taken the money and run, or slapped together a quick follow up. Instead, he has decided to tackle a very difficult film, and pulled it off absolutely beautifully. Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker in every sense of the word.

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

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

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Anyone who has ventured into a cinema the past two months or so could tell you that things are looking pretty grim when it comes to the big budget blockbusters this summer. Iron Man 2 was okay, but ultimately very disappointing. Prince of Persia stumbled right out of the gate. More recently, The Last Airbender just flat-out sucked. So, you can understand that I did not exactly walk into The Sorcerer's Apprentice with a spring in my step. By all accounts, a potential blockbuster loosely inspired by a 10 minute cartoon from the 1940s should be a certain disaster. But, the movie's actually kind of fun.

picI should stress that it's fun in a mindless way. This isn't art, but I was eventually won over by the goofiness of the plot, and the fact that the movie has enough sense not to take itself seriously. The special effects are kind of creative, some of the one liners are funny, and there's enough space between the action so we don't feel bombarded or overwhelmed. This is competently made summer popcorn entertainment - no more, no less. The movie opens with one of those background story intro sequences that either make me wince, or smile with a big, goofy grin, depending on how it's used. This one made me smile. An overly dramatic narrator informs us that thousands of years ago, the wizard Merlin imprisoned his arch nemesis, the sorceress Morgana Le Fay (Alice Krige) and her followers in an old fashioned doll. Merlin died before he could complete the task, so one of his apprentices Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) has been traveling the world, capturing Morgana's other followers, and searching for the true heir to Merlin's title.

picI smiled even more when I heard the title that the heir to Merlin will hold. He or she will be known as "The Prime Merlinian". I love made up titles like that. Only Nicolas Cage could get away with saying that he is searching for the Prime Merlinian, and not get a bad laugh. He has this look to his face in his performance as the wizard Balthazar that gives you the impression that he is wise to the ways of the world, but the lights aren't exactly all on upstairs. The action jumps ahead to the year 2000, where a young boy named Dave (Jake Cherry) stumbles upon Balthazar while chasing a run away love note that got caught in a convenient breeze. Balthazar realizes he has finally found the heir to Merlin's power, but before he can begin training the boy, the kid accidentally breaks the doll, and releases one of Morgana's followers - the evil wizard Horvath (Alfred Molina, who brings a certain amount of playful style and menace to the role). A fight breaks out, a lot of special effects happen, and both Balthazar and Horvath are sucked into a magic vase for the next 10 years. No one believes little Dave's story about what happened, and we once again jump forward another 10 years to the present. The movie's only 15 minutes old at this point, and we've already jumped almost 2000 years.

picIn the present, the now 20-year-old Dave (Jay Baruchel) is trying to put that moment in his past behind him. He's a physics student, does a lot of underground science work, and still longs for the same girl he did back when he was 10, the lovely Becky Barnes (Teresa Palmer). It's right around this time that Balthazar and Horvath are both released from the magic vase, and pretty much pick up where they left off. Balthazar tracks down Dave once again, and begins to train him in magic, while Horvath seeks out the doll so that he can release Morgana and the rest of the villains sealed within. As a plot, it serves its purpose. It exists as a means to stage a lot of elaborate comic action sequences all over New York City, with fortunately some imaginative results. I liked it when both of the wizards bring inanimate figures of animals to life. (Balthazar flies upon a giant steel eagle that used to be a statue on top of a skyscraper, while in the climax, Horvath brings a giant brass bull to life to threaten the heroes.) The movie at least has fun with itself. It's not just a parade of special effects sequences. There's some humor, such as when a paper dragon in a Chinatown parade is turned into a real dragon, and the people who were controlling the paper dragon become stuck inside it.

picDirector John Turteltaub (who previously worked with Cage on the National Treasure films) at least knows how to make attractive cinematic junk food. The movie isn't brought down by fast editing, or effects that overpower the performances. I'm also glad he resisted the urge to add a hasty layer of 3D paint over the film. I am sad to say this may become a rarity in the coming summers. He knows what he's doing here. He gets good performances out of his cast, who constantly seem to be in on the joke, but are not obnoxiously winking at the camera. I kind of like how everyone in this movie seems to take things in stride. When Becky finds out that the guy she's dating is training to be a sorcerer, she takes it as well as can be expected, and even rushes off to help in her own way. I guess that's a good sign for the relationship should a sequel come around.
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The Sorcerer's Apprentice will definitely work for kids of a certain age. As for adults, it depends on how much you're able to throw common sense out the window, and just let the story take you in each implausible direction. I resisted for a while, but ultimately gave in to the silliness. It's the perfect kind of movie for a hot summer afternoon where you just want to sit in an air conditioned room, and not think that much. Or at all.

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

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