Reel Opinions


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules

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When Jeff Kinney's series of children's books, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, hit the big screen exactly one year ago, I was not one of the film's supporters. There were some funny moments, but I found the main character, a 12-year-old boy named Greg Heffley, an insufferable and unsympathetic brat who was self-centered and abusive to his goofy, but kind-hearted best friend, Rowley. (I remember the scene where Greg causes an accident that leads to Rowley breaking his arm, and all he can think about is himself and being popular at school, not once apologizing for the incident until almost the end of the movie.)

picRegardless, the film became a minor hit, and here we are one year later with a rushed-out cash grab sequel, Rodrick Rules. Young Greg (once again played by Zachary Gordon) is a year older, but hasn't learned much. He's still obsessed with popularity, this time by trying to date the most beautiful girl in school, Holly Hills (Peyton List). He also still enjoys humiliating Rowley (Robert Capron), forcing him to do embarrassing and painful stunts so that they can become Internet celebrities on Youtube. After two movies, I can't help but think Rowley should seek out a new best friend. So yeah, Greg's still a jerk, but at least in this movie, we kind of see where we gets it from. As the title suggests, Greg's older brother, Rodrick (Devon Bostick), takes center stage this time. He's equally self centered, caring only about himself and his garage band "Loded Diper". Outside of that, he can usually be seen extorting money from his parents, or abusing Greg, such as locking him in the basement when their parents go away for the weekend.

picMeanwhile, their mom (Rachael Harris, channeling Tina Fey) has recently started working for the local newspaper as a family advice columnist. She senses the hostility between Greg and Rodrick, and starts encouraging them to be nicer to each other, and spend more time together. Naturally, this does not work out well at first, but when Greg covers up for Rodrick and gets him out of potential trouble with a lie, the two become fast friends, and Rodrick starts passing on his "knowledge" onto his little brother, such as "always lower people's expectations, so that others won't expect much from you". (I got the sense that the filmmakers took this lesson to heart.) The plot with the two brothers bonding is supposed to be the central focus of the movie, I suppose, but the film's structure is so aimless and meandering, it's hard to be sure.

picRodrick Rules fills itself with a lot of pointless subplots and characters who are only there because they were in the last movie. All of the original cast members have returned, except for child actor Chloe Moretz (from Kick Ass), who obviously has better offers now. Very few of them should have bothered returning at all. The other kids in Greg's class (who managed to give the first film a mild offbeat charm) are pushed into the background this time around, as the plot is pretty much focused on Greg's problems at home. The movie makes a big deal about Greg and his friends entering the seventh grade early on, only to not do anything with it. There's a subplot concerning Greg's Indian friend Chirag (Karan Brar) having to deal with a cruel prank, and some gross-out humor from the class weirdo, Fregley (Grayson Russell), but none of these go anywhere memorable, nor do they build to anything worthwhile.

picI imagine the disjointed nature of the stories works better in the books, which are set up like a kid's diary, complete with stick figure cartoons. But the screenplay by returning writers Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah can't make the format work on film. The movie feels like a series of skits and unfunny black-out gags, instead of a coherent narrative. It doesn't focus on anything long enough, nor does it give anyone enough to do. We're just watching these kids do terrible things to each other, and have terrible things happen to them over and over. It gives the film an unnecessary mean streak that I found unsettling. Director David Bowers (2009's Astro Boy) also shoots the film in a very uninteresting way, almost like he's filming a sitcom for TV. The cheap look probably has a lot to do with the rushed schedule the sequel was under.
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To those of you who liked the original, take heart - Rodrick Rules is no better or worse than the one you saw last year. It's more of the same. If that's what you want, go and enjoy. I didn't much like this movie, but then, I didn't much like the last one. I just can't get over the mean streak these movies seem to have. When the inevitable third film shows up a year from now, I can only hope a little more effort is put into it.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

Sucker Punch

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Is it just me, or are the big budget spectacles coming out of Hollywood becoming dumber by the minute? Just a couple weeks ago, we had Battle: Los Angeles - A simpleminded take on the standard alien invasion plot that filled itself with a lot of noise, nonsensical dialogue, and characters who barely reached a single dimension. It was a mindless assault on the senses, but thanks to an aggressive marketing push, people ran out and saw it.

picNow we have Sucker Punch, and it too is a mindless assault on the senses, with common sense being the greatest victim. It is a simpleminded take on...Well, Hell if I know. Director and co-writer Zack Snyder (who has recently been given the helm of the next Superman movie, hopefully not on the basis of this film) fills his movie with gorgeous young actresses who are given no characters to play, then has them standing in front of a bunch of images that look like they were stolen flat-out from various comic books, video games, and Japanese anime. The movie is supposed to be about young girls finding strength within themselves by using fantasy to escape from cruel reality, but that would require a movie with an actual vision, style, sense, and purpose. This film has none. We're bombarded for almost two hours with random CG images, mediocre acting, and terrible screeching music, then stumble out of the theater dazed, confused, a little sad, and angry over what passes for entertainment these days.

picThe story kicks off with the melodramatic tale of Baby Doll (played by former child actress, Emily Browning). Her mom's recently died due to the dreaded "plot convenience disease", leaving her and her little sister in the care of their greedy stepfather, who wants to kill them, so he can collect on their inheritance. To make a long story short, little sister winds up dead, and Baby Doll is shipped away to one of those dark, gloomy insane asylum mansions you only see in comic books or film noir, after stepdad convinces the authorities that she's psychotic. This entire sequence is done without dialogue, only music, which would be effective in another film. But, because of Snyder's directing style and his choice of music, this feels like a really expensive music video. It's the first of many scenes just like it, where a classic song is covered by a modern band, often quite badly. He makes a mistake by drowning out the dialogue, forcing us to focus on the music instead. If there's any soundtrack that deserves to be in the distant background, it's this one.

picAt the asylum, Baby Doll is put under the care of Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino), who sort of talks like Frau Blucher from Young Frankenstein, and teaches the girls in her care to act out their problems and frustrations through role playing exercises and imagination. This inspires Baby Doll to dream her way out of the asylum, and into a prison of a different sort - She's now a dirty dancer/prostitute at a sleazy nightclub run by a gangster named Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac). Blue is also one of the more crooked orderlies at the asylum, so Snyder is obviously going for a kind of Wizard of Oz deal, where the characters play similar roles in the real world, and the fantasy world. For example, in the fantasy world, Baby Doll's fellow dancers are the other patients. They include sisters Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone), the brown-haired Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and the Asian girl Amber (Jamie Chung). That's really all you need to know about them, as well as all the movie tells us about them.

picSo, in fantasy, just like in real life, Baby Doll and the other girls want to escape from their prison. Fortunately, Baby just happens to be one heck of a dancer - so good she can mesmerize the staff at the shady nightclub, while the other girls try to steal the stuff they need to escape. Whenever Baby Doll starts to dance, she's whisked away to yet another fantasy world that seems like it was designed by a 13-year-old boy who's been given a blank check by a major studio to create a fantasy world. It's filled with giant samurai warriors wielding chain guns, robots, dragons, monsters, undead Nazis, giant battle mechs, World War II fighter planes, castles, futuristic utopias, and who knows what else. A movie with imagination could have thought of countless things to do with these creations, but the film we're given is bankrupt. The effects are just that - visuals. They add nothing to the experience, they're just up on the screen to look expensive. One might argue that they fill their purpose, but it's a lousy purpose.

picI was astonished by soulless nature of Sucker Punch. Here is a movie so cynical, it makes the fantastic downright feeble. Nothing carries any weight up on the screen. There's nothing to care about, nothing to think about, and certainly nothing worth remembering. The movie bombards our senses, turns up the volume, then bombards us some more. I looked at all the money being burned up on the screen, and the hours of work it must have taken to put it all together. Why couldn't they have put one character with personality into the mix? Why did Zack Snyder decide to shoot so many of his scenes in ugly browns, blacks, and pale blues? (To the movie's credit, it's not in 3D, which would have made it even murkier.) Why does the movie never once come close to telling a compelling or even a coherent narrative? Instead, it repeats a simple and monotonous formula - There's some forgettable dialogue, Baby Doll dances for somebody, we get 20 minutes worth of special effects with no purpose, repeat.

picThe cast is really made up of some attractive bodies filling the screen, interacting with the effects around them. The women vamp it up, the men camp it up, and nobody comes close to creating a genuine character. There's even one character whom the movie makes no effort to explain. That would be the Wise Man (Scott Glenn), who appears in all of Baby Doll's fantasies as a mentor and motivational speaker. He appears in different forms (usually a military general, but sometimes as a martial arts mystic), but never comes across as anything more than a gimmick. I wish I could point out one memorable character, or quote one line of dialogue that stood out. But that would require a screenplay that had more thought put behind it other than it being an expensive technical demo.
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Much like Battle: Los Angeles, Sucker Punch has been graced with an aggressive marketing push, so that every teenager will know to see it this weekend. Then it will be forgotten once the next (hopefully better) spectacle comes along. Are audiences just willing to accept anything that looks expensive? I really hope not. This is a bloated and joyless movie, and ranks as one of 2011's very worst films.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

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I knew very little about The Lincoln Lawyer walking in, which I think is the best way to enjoy this film. The movie is clever, well-acted, fast-paced, but most of all, it's the rare kind of thriller that doesn't bog itself down in dead ends and red herrings. We pretty much know who's guilty almost the second the character walks onto the screen, and so does the movie. What's smart is how the movie (based on a novel by Michael Connelly) manages to create suspense out of personal ethical dilemmas, instead of thinking up contrived ways to lead us off course.

picThe movie stars Matthew McConaughey, in what is easily his best performance in a while. Not only is this his first serious film role in a long time, it's also the first time he actually seems to be acting in a while. I hope this is a sign of good things to come. He plays Mark Haller, a hot shot lawyer who gets around town in a chauffeured Lincoln Town Car. He's a defense lawyer, and is known mainly for defending some of the least desirable members of society (motorcycle thugs, drug addicts, etc). That's why it's a little bit odd when a bondsman (John Leguizamo) approaches him with a client that's a bit more high class than he's used to. A young millionaire named Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) is being accused of assault and attempted rape of a prostitute who was working at a club he was attending. He claims he's innocent, and that she attacked him, and set up the whole attack and rape story in order to get at his fortune.

picMark seems to know that the pieces don't quite fit together, and that Louis is not telling him the whole story right off the bat. He hires his personal investigator, Frank Levin (William H. Macy, giving an enjoyably offbeat performance), to look into the matter, and that's where things get interesting. In order to avoid spoilers, I can't go much further, but I will say a lot of personal ghosts of the past come up, and Mark becomes trapped by the confidentiality clause that all lawyers must follow. That's what's interesting about The Lincoln Lawyer. So many movies (especially legal thrillers) treat lawyers almost like unfeeling observers to the events unfolding, but here, Mark goes through a battle with his own conscience as the details about his client unfolds, and he (and even we, the audience) begin to wonder if he will be able to win. The conclusion that the film reaches is a bit disappointingly pat and tidy, but the ride to get there is definitely entertaining, and creates a fair level of tension.

picI was also fascinated by how the screenplay lets us see all the different sides of Mark. When he's in the courtroom, he's a total professional, and it's kind of thrilling to see him knocking down his opponent's case one fact at a time, even though he has many strong reservations about the client he's defending. Outside, he does his best to appear professional, but he is obviously falling apart. His personal life is a bit of a shambles. He has an ex-wife (Marisa Tomei) and a young daughter, both of whom he's still friendly with, though he obviously wishes things had turned out differently in the past, and they were still a whole family. The character of the ex-wife (and the daughter) seem to have been trimmed, or perhaps they played a bigger role in the original novel. But the movie does enough with these characters to give us a personal connection with Mark outside of the courtroom, and the central mystery plot.

picThis is a well-acted movie, too. McConaughey seems to have a knack for picking lightweight roles below his ability, but here, he's able to flesh out his character into a fascinating individual. He's charming, he's funny, and he's smart. Best of all, the film allows him to use his brain to get him out of the situations he finds himself in. Sure, I enjoy action thrillers as much as the next person when they're done well (as in this weekend's other release, Limitless), but it's also nice to have a smart one once in a while, and McConaughey gets to be quite smart here. I also enjoyed Macy as the private investigator. It's a small role, but he leaves a big impression whenever he's on the screen. As for Ryan Phillippe, he's charming in a cold and distant way - perfect for the character he's playing.
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Like a lot of thrillers, The Lincoln Lawyer kind of cops out at the end, relying on contrivances and last minute revelations, but I didn't mind. The movie is brisk, entertaining, and effective, and that's really all that matters here. Like the best legal thrillers, you want to see it all the way through to the end, and even if the outcome disappoints, you're not all that upset. Like a lot of things, it's not the destination, but the journey that counts.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Paul

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If I walked away disappointed with Paul, it's not that it's a bad movie. It's pleasant and mild, and that's just the problem. This is a movie that should be wild and crazy. It never reaches the right comic energy, despite the fact that one of its stars is a CG alien with the voice and personality of Seth Rogen. Maybe that's another problem I had. I've never been a huge fan of Rogen as a comic actor, and liked him less as an alien.

picThe film stars and was written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, a previously unstoppable British comic duo who stumble greatly here, as the movie gives them little to do but mug mercilessly at the camera, and make countless tired running gags where they keep on being mistaken as a gay couple. Hence, we get scenes where they fall down on top of each other, just when someone walks in. (Ho, ho) They're Graeme and Clive, best friends and wannabe sci-fi writers who are on their dream vacation - First, they hit ComicCon in San Diego, where they hope to get the autograph of their favorite author, Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor). Next, they load up an old RV, and go on a cross-country trip across America to some of the most famous reported alien sightings, such as Area 51 and Roswell. They don't get far into their trip when they have their own personal close encounter with an alien named Paul (voice by Rogen) who is on the run from the government.

picPaul looks a lot like the little green men we've seen in countless comics, movies, and books, but he sure doesn't talk or act like one. He has an incredibly colorful vocabulary made up mostly of four-letter words, which never really comes across as being funny, but rather a desperate attempt by the filmmakers to make the film a hard-R. He can make himself invisible at will, he has the ability to heal and bring back the dead, and he's also apparently inspired alien pop culture for the past 60 years or so. This is one aspect about the character I did find funny, and wished the film played up more. We learn that Paul originally landed sometime in the 1940s, and was immediately captured by the government, who put his knowledge to use. His knowledge went on to inspire various shows and movies over the years. There's a clever scene where filmmaker Steven Spielberg (who makes a voice cameo over the phone) has a conversation with Paul, and gets inspired to make E.T. after the discussion.

picThe movie is actually one big goofy love letter to science fiction from the 70s and 80s, especially Star Wars, E.T., Close Encounters, and Aliens. This leads to some funny touches, such as when our heroes walk into a redneck bar, and a country band is playing the Cantina song from the original Star Wars film on fiddles. Alas, this also lends itself to another problem I had with the film - The movie mistakes references for actual humor. It expects us to smile and point at the screen, but it's not enough. The movie never generated enough laughs with me, not even when the movie becomes a road trip movie where Graeme and Clive try to help Paul get to his mothership, which is coming to pick him up. Along the way, they pick up a pretty young Bible-thumping fundamentalist Christian named Ruth (Kristen Wiig), whose encounter with the alien leads her to throw away her faith, and start awkwardly swearing like a sailor. She gets a couple sweet moments as she starts to develop feelings for Graeme, but her character never quite came together for me.

picBut then, very little came together for me while I was watching Paul. This is a movie that I kept on waiting to take off and become truly inspired, but it just kept on referencing other movies, and throwing its characters into a boring cross country chase I cared little about. The heroes are being chased by three "men in black" (led by Jason Bateman), who often make the Three Stooges look like members of Mensa. They, in turn, are taking orders from a higher up (Sigourney Weaver), who has little to do with anything in this movie, other than the fact she was in the Alien movies, and that's the joke. Speaking of desperate movie references, one of the characters has an odd name, just so the writers can make a joke about the movie Lorenzo's Oil. It got to the point that I wanted the movie to just stop catering to fanboys in the audience, and just give me something to care about.

picDespite a game cast, the movie just never struck me as being all that funny. There are laughs here and there, but not the big ones we expect from a Pegg and Frost comedy, especially considering their much better past work. And then there's Seth Rogen as Paul, whose casting came across as a miscalculation, or a bad case of studio interference to me. While the creature design of Paul himself is quite nice, and the CG flawlessly mixed with the live actors, Rogen's performance just struck the wrong note with me from the moment the little guy walked on the screen. Aside from the underrated Observe and Report and Funny People, I have never found him likable as a leading man, and here he's equally flat. We're supposed to fall in love with his goofy charm, just like in a lot of his performances, but nothing that came out of the CG alien's mouth was making me laugh. It led to an odd disconnect. I liked Paul the creature in his design and the use of effects, but I disliked the performance behind it.
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There are plenty of funny ideas in Paul, but they get lost in the script's annoying tendency to name drop for laughs, and the overblown special effects and action sequences. The characters are basic cardboard cutouts who exist to run around with this CG alien until the movie's over. Considering Pegg and Frost's hilarious work in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, this was a letdown. They're talented guys, and they'll no doubt make me laugh again soon enough. But they dropped the ball here.

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Limitless

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Here is a very goofy little thriller that winds up working, because it knows just how goofy it is. Limitless is full of half-baked ideas, plot holes, and missed opportunities. And yet, it's fun, fast-paced, and most importantly, doesn't allow itself to be taken seriously for a second. Director Neil Burger also has a strong visual sense, using inventive special effects to tell his story, and bring us into the main character's world. This is a fun ride, as long as you don't think too much while watching it.

picWhen we first meet the film's hero, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), he's a broken down man whose world is falling down around him. He's a writer with a book deal at a publisher, but he hasn't been able to write a single word. He lives in a dump of an apartment, and his long-time girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) has had enough. She walks out on him, leaving Eddie alone to contemplate his future. That's when he happens to have a chance encounter with an ex-brother-in-law named Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), a man who used to be a low level drug dealer, but now seems to be doing well for himself. Vernon claims he's now legit, and is helping to sell a medical drug called NZT, which is supposed to improve a person's brain functions. It's safe and FDA-approved, and sensing that Eddie needs all the help he can get, Vernon offers him a free sample. Desperate, and perhaps curious, Eddie takes the pill, and suddenly, he is able to unlock and use 100% of his brain. The words for his book that have long alluded him suddenly fly, allowing him to knock off half the novel in an afternoon. The enthusiastic response from his publisher, as well as the eye-opening effect of the drug itself, convinces Eddie that he needs more.

picEddie does come across more, and with the aid of the drug, he suddenly can become the man he's always wanted to be. He corners the stock market, becomes a millionaire, and can master languages in hours. Since this is a thriller, we know that there has to be consequences, and indeed there are. The effects on Eddie's body are quite serious when he runs out, and becomes desperate for more. Not only that, he becomes entangled in a complex web of gangsters and shady businessmen, including one of the most powerful ones in New York, Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro). There's also a Russian mobster who gets his hands on some NZT, and starts threatening Eddie for more. All of this unfolds in fairly standard action thriller fashion. There's a lot of big stunts, action set pieces, and scenes where Eddie finds himself in over his head, or staring down the barrel of a gun.

picAnd yet, Limitless works, because it knows how ludicrous it is. I liked Eddie's sarcastic narration, which sometimes almost sounds like screenwriter Leslie Dixon (2007's The Heartbreak Kid) laughing at the implausible plot. I have read some reviews that complain that the movie relies too much on action sequences for a movie that's supposed to be about a guy who gains a genius level I.Q. And yet, I think even those who do complain will have to admit that the action sequences are very well done, and a lot of fun to watch. I liked the film's fast pace, and the whole thing kind of works on a popcorn entertainment level. Thinking too deeply about the plot will drive you bonkers, so it's probably best if you just go along for the ride.

picAt least there's a talented cast that knows how to sell this material. Bradley Cooper is very charming in both stages of his character (the disheveled loser, and the suave "master of the universe" businessman). He gives Eddie a lot of appealing everyman qualities, making it easier to go along with him through the winding plot. And it's kind of nice to see Robert De Niro not slumming it for once. Sure, this isn't a great role for him, but considering a lot of the garbage he's been faced with lately, he at least gets to be taken seriously again here. The rest of the cast fill their roles well enough, but don't really stand out. It's especially frustrating how Abbie Cornish kind of comes and goes from the screenplay at will as Eddie's off-and-on again girlfriend.
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There are other problems to be found. A subplot concerning a murder in a hotel room is never really properly resolved, and a lot of the ideas the plot brings up could have been explored more. So yeah, Limitless is far from perfect. But it works enough that I'm giving it a marginal recommendation. I had fun while watching it, and got caught up in the silliness. This may not be the smartest movie out there, but at least it's smart enough to laugh at itself.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Cedar Rapids

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Not only is Cedar Rapids a very funny movie, but it's also a disarmingly sweet-natured one. A lot of this has to do with the lead performance from Ed Helms, an actor who's been working in films for a while, but got a lot of people's attention with The Hangover a couple years ago. (He was the dentist who lost one of his teeth.) Here, he proves that he's not only capable of carrying a movie on his own, but does so with plenty of laid back charm.

picHelms plays Tim Lippe, an insurance agent from the small town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin. We get the sense early on that Tim's world pretty much ends at the border of Brown Valley, and whatever small town happens to be right next to it. When asked about his dreams for the future, he replies he's thinking of putting up a greenhouse in his backyard. It's not that he's dumb, Tim just thinks small. He doesn't see himself as anything special, and has never ventured far from home. The most exciting thing going on for him is that he's currently having a sexual relationship with his old middle school teacher whom he used to have a crush on (Sigourney Weaver). He sees it as true love. After all, it's his first sexual experience. She, on the other hand, is obviously keeping her options open. Not that he notices this.

picTim's real passion is his job, however. He views being an insurance agent almost like being a superhero, helping people in their time of need. This blinds him to the truth that a lot of the people he works with are either crooks, or lead scandalous lives, such as when the leading agent in his office dies in an embarrassing accident that reveals a secret fetish he's been hiding for years. The death of the fellow agent proves to be a window of opportunity for Tim. The boss (Stephen Root) wants Tim to take the guy's place, and go to a business convention in Cedar Rapids to win a prestigious award for the company. Leaving Brown Valley is an entirely new experience for Tim, and the movie has a lot of fun with how he responds to the generic hotel his company has put him up in - "The whole place smells like chlorine, it's incredible!", he says excitedly when he sees the pool. Heck, he's even excited that the guy he's sharing a room with is a black guy. That would be Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock, Jr), who is one of the people who participates in Tim's emotional and spiritual awakening during his time in Cedar Rapids.

picSomeone else who will help Tim live life for the first time is Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a rival agent whom Tim's boss warns him about before he leaves on his trip, but Tim finds himself fascinated and lured into Dean's world of hard drinking, partying, and breaking the rules. There are also two women who enter his life - one a married insurance agent who's not against a romantic fling with Tim named Joan (Anne Heche, very good here), and the other is a young prostitute named Bree (Alia Shawkat), who hangs about outside the hotel where the convention is being held, looking for potential customers. I could picture a lesser movie playing up the oddities of all of these characters to ridiculous and obnoxious extremes, but the screenplay by Phil Johnson is smart in the way it respects these characters. These are smart people, not comic buffoons.

picCedar Rapids works as a comedy, as there are a number of laugh out loud moments throughout. But, it also caught me off guard in a way that I didn't expect - I started caring about these characters more than I thought I would when they were first introduced. While the movie doesn't really go for any deep insights, its smart dialogue and well-drawn characters help flesh them out. Tim starts the movie out as a stereotypical clueless nerd, but the movie's not mean in the way it treats him or even laughs at him in early scenes. And when he starts to stand up for himself, we like him all the more. He's not just funny, he's someone who begins to dream for himself for the first time in his life. The supporting cast all give strong efforts here, with Anne Heche standing out the most as the woman who connects with Tim during the trip. She not only gets some big laughs, but also some surprisingly sweet small moments with Helms.
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There's a lot of charm here, as well as a lot of laughs. That alone puts Cedar Rapids above just about any other live action comedy released so far this year. I could also see it being a star-making vehicle for Helms. There is so much sweetness and vulnerability in his performance that you're drawn to him. Of course, whether or not it becomes a career highlight for him relies on the studio, which is oddly hiding this crowd pleasing film in a very limited release. I have no doubt audiences would react big to this smart and sweet adult comedy. I mean, the only other comedy playing right now that's as smart is Rango, and that's being targeted at kids.

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Red Riding Hood

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Last weekend, we had Beastly, a modern day take on Beauty and the Beast. It was terrible. This weekend brings us Red Riding Hood, an update on the children's story that (despite an unspecified place and time) seems to be set in a little medieval village on the outskirts of a dark forest, but is told with very modern sensibilities to attract the Twilight crowd. It is not quite as terrible, but still struggles to reach the level of mediocrity.

picDirector Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) seems to be going for a dream-like fantasy look with the world she's created for her story. Sometimes it works, such as when we get a couple brief stunning shots of the heroine's impossibly long, red flowing cloak against the snow-white surroundings of the winter woods. Most of the time, however, the settings look all too much like a sound stage at the studio. There's a scene early in the film where two children (a little girl, and a boy) are in forest, catching a rabbit in a crude trap, then discussing the best way to kill and skin it. The entire time, I was looking at the plastic-looking grass they were standing in, and the obviously painted sky backdrop, and wondering who the filmmakers were trying to kid.

picThe film cuts to 10 years later, and that little girl has grown up to be Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), the town beauty who always wears her red cloak that her grandmother (Julie Christie) made for her. Grandma lives in a cabin in the middle of the woods that surrounds Valerie's village. Also in said forest is a murderous werewolf, who appears whenever there's a full moon. The villagers somehow have made some sort of arrangement with the beast. They offer up one of their livestock whenever there's a full moon, and the wolf leaves them alone. But recently, the wolf has started breaking the pact, and killing the locals. The most recent victim has been Valerie's sister. This trauma does not affect Valerie as much as one would think, as she's currently preoccupied with a love triangle.

picYou see, Valerie is in love with Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), a woodsman who has been her sweetheart since childhood. Her parents (Virginia Madsen and Billy Burke), however, want her to marry Henry (Max Irons), the local blacksmith, since he makes more money. The whole "village being attacked by a ravenous werewolf" thing seems to matter little to Valerie, who is torn between two hunky, but equally wooden and personality-deprived young men. Still, the plot must go on. With the wolf attacks on the rise, the local priest (Lukas Haas) sends away for a famed witch hunter and werewolf killer named Solomon (Gary Oldman). Solomon arrives with soldiers, guards, and a giant metal elephant, which he uses as a torture device later on. He also warns the villagers that the wolf most likely takes human form when there is not a full moon, so the killer could be any one of them.

picIt's at this point that Red Riding Hood turns into sort of a gothic horror murder mystery, with everyone being thrown under suspicion at one point. Though it relies a bit too heavily on red herrings, the screenplay by David Johnson (Orphan) does at least keep us guessing as to who the identity of the wolf is. This is where the movie comes closest to working, even if the payoff is disappointing. The problem with the mystery element is that the movie never manages to find the right tone of building dread. There's no sense of terror or urgency. It's not even all that scary when the wolf itself shows up to terrorize the villagers, thanks to the shoddy CG work on the creature. There are some intriguing ideas within the whole mystery, especially with how Solomon manages to turn the entire town against each other, with everyone throwing accusations upon everyone else, much like the Salem Witch Trials. These ideas, however, are never fully fleshed out, due to one element of the film that never fails to drag everything down.

picThat would be the love triangle at the middle of it all. While Seyfried brings a certain wide-eyed innocence to her role, Fernandez and Irons, as the male suitors, are completely bland and lacking in personality. Even when both of them are supposed to be under suspicion at different points, they don't manage to create any real emotions, because their performances are just plain dead in the water. Despite the romance angle being a big selling point for the studio, it actually winds up being the most forgettable part of the movie. Seyfried is at her best when she's alone. When she's supposed to act like she's attracted to these two hollow hunks, she seems just as lost and confused as I was as to what she was supposed to see in these guys.
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If you want to see a modern, sex-driven take on the classic fairy tale, I would recommend Neil Jordan's 1984 film, The Company of Wolves, over this. Red Riding Hood has a couple of intriguing elements, but it's brought down by the central love story, the mostly flat directing style of Hardwicke, and the leisurely tone of the film itself. This is a movie that takes its time getting to where it's going. Once it's there, we have to ask if the trip was really necessary.

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Mars Needs Moms

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Moms have traditionally had a tough time in Disney movies. The most famous incident naturally being Bambi's mom, but what about films like Finding Nemo or Tarzan, where the moms (and in Tarzan's case, the dad as well) didn't even live to see past the opening title credits? Now we have Mars Needs Moms, a kid's movie about tyrannical martians who kidnap a little boy's mom, and plot to drain the contents of her brain, before they kill her. Harsh.

picDespite being co-written and directed by Simon Wells (2002's The Time Machine), the film is more likely the product of producer Robert Zemeckis, who for the past seven years, has been making a series of animated films using motion capture technology to capture actor's movements, instead of having the characters be animated on a computer. He's used this technology in films like The Polar Express, Beowulf, and more recently, A Christmas Carol. Since we're actually watching a live actor's physical performance being mimicked by a CG character, it does create a very lifelike sense of movement. However, the problem that has plagued these films since 2004's Polar Express still exists - the characters look lifeless in appearance, and have a glassy-eyed, waxy-skin, mannequin-like appearance. It's hard to buy into the human emotion of the story being told when the human characters constantly look off.

picThe story itself centers on little Milo (physical performance by Seth Green, voice by child actor Seth Dusky), a young boy coping with a "harsh" mother (Joan Cusack) who forces him to take out the garbage and eat his vegetables every day. The two have a blow out when Milo tries to stay up late to watch a zombie movie, an argument ensues, and before marching off for bed, Milo tells his mom that he wishes he didn't even have a mom. Young Milo has obviously never seen Home Alone, as whenever a child says something like that in a movie, the parents are destined to disappear moments later, and wacky adventures are bound to ensue! Later that night, Milo feels bad about what he said and goes to apologize, only to find his mom in the process of being abducted by aliens.

picIt seems that the Martians are led by an old alien crone known only as The Supervisor (Mindy Sterling), who rules their society with an iron fist of female dominance. The women on her planet hand their female babies over to Nannybots to be raised until they're old enough to become militant soldiers. What happens to the men, you ask? They're dumped down into the lower junkyard area of the planet, where they basically play and party all day. You could get into a lot of thorny interpretations of this part of the plot, and what it's trying to say about gender roles, but I'm going to move on. The Martians need Milo's mom, because they want to implant her memories and strict discipline skills into the Nannybots. When they have no more use for her, they plan to kill her.

picMilo finds all of this out when he stows away on the ship headed back to Mars, and meets the only other human on the planet - a 30-something man-child named Gribble (Dan Fogler), who lost his mom the same way as Milo 25 years ago, was too late to save her, and has spent his life living in secret on Mars, playing video games and eating junk food. Milo becomes determined to save his own mom, and even gets support from one of the aliens - a Martian woman named Ki (Elizabeth Harnois) who is different from the others - She's laid back, mellow, and speaks in 60s Earth slang after discovering a 1960s sitcom about hippies on TV. This plot is supposedly borrowed from a children's book written by cartoonist Berkeley Breathed (best known for creating the comic strip, Bloom County). It's too bad the movie doesn't borrow some of Breathed's humor as well. It could have used some.

picMars Needs Moms frequently comes across as kind of dreary for a kid's movie. The Martian society, where militant females drop the males down garbage chutes, not caring if they die, and the whole plot about Milo racing against time to save his mom before she's killed hangs over the picture, creating a kind of unpleasant feeling. There are some attempts throughout the film at juvenile humor to lighten the mood, but other than a gag involving a urinating Martian baby, there were no bursts of laughter from the kids at the audience I watched it with. The real problem is that the movie just isn't all that interesting to begin with. Despite a swift 90 minute running time, the plot never seems to be in a hurry to get to where it's going, and the characters are not endearing enough for us to get behind. Throw in the waxy and unnatural look of the characters thanks to the process of the animation, and the whole experience just leaves you cold.
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It's a shame this movie has to come out exactly one week after the wonderful and witty Rango. That is a movie full of life, invention, and wonderful offbeat characters. Mars Needs Moms, on the other hand, seems kind of lukewarm and generic. Given how good most animated films have gotten, and how many there are out now these days, parents need to be smarter with their money than ever before. This movie just doesn't cut it.

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