Reel Opinions


Sunday, November 27, 2011

We Bought a Zoo

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WRITER'S NOTE: This is an advanced review from a preview screening that was held on November 26th. The movie opens in theaters on December 23rd.

Cameron Crowe's We Bought a Zoo is a harmless movie about some very nice people who, yes, end up buying a zoo when they go looking for a new place to live. Unfortunately, while the movie is harmless, it's also not very interesting. Same goes for the people. They're nice and all, but don't seem to have a lot on their minds. Even the zoo animals seem kind of bored. This certainly isn't a bad movie, just a very familiar one.

picThe film is based on the true story of Benjamin Mee (played here by Matt Damon), a single father who is coping with the recent passing of his wife, and having to raise his two children on his own. His teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford) is your typical isolated young man, who expresses himself by getting in trouble at school, and drawing graphic pictures of death in class. His younger daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), is one of those cloying little movie kids who always has something cute or clever to say on cue whenever the camera is pointed at her. He also has a supportive brother (Thomas Haden Church), who is mainly there for sarcastic comic relief. Benjamin decides the time has come for a change when Dylan is expelled from school, and he himself becomes fed up with his newspaper job, and walks off. He wants to start a new life for himself and his family.

picHe finds the perfect home somewhere in the Southern California countryside. Naturally, it's the one that the realtor seems the most nervous about, due to the fact that the house comes with its own struggling private zoo. In what has to be one of the biggest impulse buys in the history of cinema, Benjamin decides to buy the house when he sees how happy his little daughter is around the animals. I certainly hope there was more than that behind his decision to buy the property in real life. The family moves in, and they take charge of the zoo, which comes with its own staff of colorful stock characters. There's Kelly the zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson), who serves as somewhat of a love interest for Benjamin. The zoo's staff even has a teenage zookeeper (Elle Fanning) to act as a love interest for Dylan. There's an attempt at a subplot about Fanning's character trying to help Dylan come out of the emotional shell he's been in since his mother died. Too bad it never really works on an emotional level. Maybe if she had been written as an actual character, rather than someone whose main character trait is to smile a lot.

picThe rest of the staff is made up of eccentrics and oddballs that the movie can't think of anything to do with, so they're not worth mentioning. I understand what Crowe was going for here - He wanted to make a big-hearted movie about a family's emotional healing after a crisis, and how this family adventure of trying to run the zoo brought them closer together. You can literally see the screenplay co-written by Crowe trying its hardest to push our emotional buttons. You can also see him throwing just about every audience-pleasing trick in the book. A cute child, a shy teen romance, the struggle to save a sick tiger, a monkey who makes cute little reactions to what the characters say, a father trying to move on from his painful past, as well as connect with his emotionally distant son...It gets to be a bit much. I have not read the book that inspired this film, so I don't know if things actually happened this way. But, it felt awfully manipulative and contrived to me.

picI was also put off by the severe tonal shifts that go on throughout the movie. The stuff concerning Damon and his son are actually pretty good, and there are some honest moments. But then, there are a lot of moments that are so overly sentimental or broad that they seem like they belong in a different movie. Thomas Haden Church is one of my favorite actors, but his role as the dry-witted brother is out of place. He's like a character on a sitcom, his every word a sarcastic quip. Equally out of place is John Michael Higgins, who plays the film's villain, a safety inspector who wants to close down the zoo, and does his best to find problems with it. Higgins plays the part too broad. As soon as he steps out of the car with that confident and smug smirk plastered on his face, you know what role he's supposed to play. And that smirk never leaves his face. It's like he's silently telling us at all times, "Yep, I'm a jerk. How can I be so terrible to these nice people? Don't you just hate me?"
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We Bought a Zoo wants to wear its great big heart on its sleeve, and it does. But then, for some reason, it thinks we don't notice, so it keeps on hammering good, sunny feelings into each scene to the point that I started to feel assaulted by the film's manipulations. Like I said, I have not read the book that the film is based on, but I have a sneaking suspicion it's more honest and subtle than what's up on the screen. It has to be, because it's real life. This movie is an overly sunny, sitcom-level imitation of real life.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Arthur Christmas

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It's hard enough to make a Christmas movie that is heartfelt and sentimental, without being sappy, but combine that with making a family movie that works for both kids and adults, and you're looking for a small miracle. Arthur Christmas is that small miracle. A collaboration between Aardman Animation (the Wallace and Gromit films) and Sony Pictures Animation, this is a pleasant and zippy little animated film that hopefully won't be overlooked amongst the heavy family film competition this Thanksgiving.

picWe've seen lots of holiday movies built around the story of Santa Claus, and how he is able to pull off his yearly run of delivering presents all over the world in one night. But, in my opinion, Arthur Christmas does it best. We learn that Santa is not really just one man, but really a family dynasty, with the title passing down each generation. The current Santa (voice by Jim Broadbent) currently serves as kind of a figurehead representing Christmas, and all it stands for. The real work is done by his eldest son, Steve (Hugh Laurie), who with the aid of his millions of elf helpers, has made Santa's workshop and the process of dropping off gifts on Christmas Eve into something that looks like a cross between Star Trek and James Bond. The old fashioned reindeer-driven sleigh is gone, replaced by a massive airship that intentionally brings to mind memories of the Starship Enterprise. As the ship zooms about the world, it drops off the elves, who go on elaborate stealth missions, using the most advanced spy technology to drop the gifts off without being seen.

picSanta has another son named Arthur (James McAvoy) who, despite the fact that he pretty much radiates Christmas cheer from every fiber of his being (right down to the musical reindeer slippers he wears on his feet), is basically seen as the black sheep of the family. While older brother Steve gets all the glory at the North Pole, and is expected to become the next Santa after their dad retires, Arthur is pushed aside to the letter department, answering children's letters to Santa. This does allow Arthur a chance to have personal experiences and feelings for the children of the world, since he's required to read their letters and hear their deepest wishes. This probably explains why Arthur is so horrified when he discovers that a little girl's present has gone undelivered during Steve's most recent Christmas Eve run. Being a bean counter, Steve sees the undelivered gift as a simple oversight, and nothing to be concerned with. But all Arthur can think about is how disappointed the child will be.

picThe remainder of the film deals with Arthur's attempts to deliver the gift on his own before the sun rises, and it's officially Christmas Morning. He teams up with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy), the cantankerous old Santa (before Arthur's father's time) who still believes that the old fashioned reindeer-driven sleigh is the way to go over Steve's hi-tech operation, and leads Arthur to a room where the sleigh, magic flying dust, and reindeer have been locked away in secret. With the sleigh, Grandsanta, and a stowaway elf named Bryony (Ashley Jenson), who shares Arthur's views on no gift going undelivered, Arthur begins a series of misadventures to deliver the present, which include a stop in Africa, and a lot of unintended damage as they fly around the world.

picArthur Christmas is that rare animated film that prides wit and storytelling, over merchandising and celebrity names. While there are a few famous voices to be heard, they're not so distracting that we're paying attention to who's doing the voice, rather than the character up on the screen. The action is always lively (almost as soon as Arthur takes to the skies to deliver the present, the action hardly stops), there are a lot of fun individual sequences, and more than a few one liners tossed in by screenwriters Peter Baynham (who previously worked with Sacha Baron Cohen on Borat and Bruno) and director Sarah Smith that's sure to go over kids' heads, but make the parents laugh. There's nothing inappropriate to be found, despite the PG-rating, and the movie has a surprising amount of heart, which allows us to sympathize with the characters.

picWhenever a studio tries to make a Christmas-themed movie, it's often too easy to get wrapped up in sappy sentiment, or corporate greed. Fortunately, this movie avoids both traps, and manages to be a true delight. Yes, the animation's not quite up to the efforts we got last week from Happy Feet Two. But then, this is the much better scripted movie, so Arthur Christmas wins in the end. My only advice is that you seek out the 2D version over the 3D, as I did. I did not see much that would have benefited from the extra dimension, and you don't have to wear those awkward glasses while watching the film. I've been tending to avoid 3D movies, unless I hear unusually good things about the effects, so I guess you can consider this my blanket response to which version to see from now on.
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Now that I think about it, I have one more piece of advice. If you can, arrive a little late to the film. Before the movie starts, there's a three minute tie-in music video with Justin Bieber performing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town". Even by teen idol standards, Bieber's rendition is particularly bland and grating. I simply closed my eyes, and waited for the movie to start. At least it offers a chance to hit the concession stand if you haven't already.

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Muppets

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As this movie actually suggests, there is something charmingly dated about Jim Henson's Muppet characters in this day and age of CG animation and special effects. Their warm, non-cynical humor, plush felt bodies, and ping-pong ball eyes make them actually look like they've come from a different and much calmer age. The new movie, The Muppets, openly acknowledges this, and attempts to reintroduce them to adults who grew up on the show (whether during the original run, or syndicated reruns), and introduce them to a new generation of kids.

picReviving a beloved franchise is always a risky proposition, and one I would not wish upon anyone. This time, the task fell to comic actor and writer, Jason Segel, who, as anyone who has seen his film Forgetting Sarah Marshall already knows, holds the Muppet characters near and dear to his heart. Fortunately, he's much better than that. Not only does he love the characters, he understands them, the world they live in, their personalities, and their humor. He and co-writer Nicholas Stoller, along with director James Bobin, have succeeded where past films to keep the Muppet tradition alive after Henson's death failed, in that there are no attempts to modernize the characters with pop culture humor, references and music. (Unlike 1999's dreary Muppets From Space, the last film featuring the characters to hit the screen.) Much like the characters themselves, the movie is charming, old fashioned, and just plain fun.

picThe plot is the stuff of ancient Hollywood cliches that Henson and his team loved to simultaneously spoof and celebrate back in the day. Segel plays Gary, an ordinary guy who lives in Smalltown, USA, along with his sunny long-time girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams, who is just as charming here as she was in Enchanted.), and his brother and best friend, Walter (voice by Peter Linz), who just happens to be a Muppet himself. As much as little Walter loves Gary's company, it's never been easy for him being a felt person in a flesh and blood world. That's why he's always idolized the Muppet characters ever since he saw them on TV the first time, and longs to join them so that he can truly fit in somewhere. As the film opens, the three friends are headed off for a long-awaited vacation to L.A., where Walter hopes to visit the Muppet Studios and Theater, and meet his icons. When they arrive, however, they are met by grim news. The world has basically forgotten about the Muppets, the studio itself is in shambles, and a greedy oil tycoon named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is plotting to dismantle the whole place so he can drill for oil that's supposedly beneath the studio.

picDetermined to not let the Muppet name die, Gary, Walter, and Mary track down Kermit the Frog (voice by Steve Whitmire) in his secluded mansion, and tell him what's about to happen to the Muppet Studio. After some hesitation and personal reflection (in a lovely musical number that harkens back to some of the Muppets better melodies), Kermit agrees to join the trio, and they begin traveling the world to track down the other Muppets, so they can get the old group back together, and put on a show to raise money to save the Muppet studio. I liked seeing where the different characters had ended up since going their separate ways, such as Miss Piggy being a fashion magazine editor in Paris, Gonzo being a tycoon in a toilet seat business empire, and Animal being in anger management, with Jack Black as his personal counselor (just one of the film's many cameos).

picSo yes, it's the old "let's put on a show" formula that Mickey Rooney used to appear in, which is why it's fitting that the veteran actually makes a brief appearance in this movie. But really, the plot fits the Muppet characters, who have always been about charm and simplicity. Charm is one thing this movie has by the bucket-load. It's so warm, sunny, cheerful, and heartfelt, I can't imagine anyone flat-out hating it. What's amazing is how perfectly this movie understands the nature of Henson's classic humor, mixing nostalgic, old-fashioned elements with sharp satire and wit. The cast is equally sharp here, with Segel proving himself to be quite a capable song and dance man as well as a comic, Amy Adams being effortlessly charming, and Chris Cooper obviously relishing his comic villain role, and getting to do something different from the heavy dramas he's usually known for. From the lead stars to the numerous celebrities making cameos, everybody seems to be having a blast here, and it carries through out to the audience.

picI wish I could say that The Muppets was a classic along the lines of the best films featuring the characters, but there is one major problem that holds it back from greatness, and that is the fact that the movie frequently comes across as unfocussed in its plotting. Outside of the main plot of saving the theater, there are numerous subplots that compete for our attention, and make the movie feel a little too crowded. There are just too many ideas, plots, and characters to support a 100 minute long movie, so a lot of potentially interesting ideas are either underdeveloped, or not developed at all. Of the ideas that I didn't feel got developed enough, the one I'm most sad about is the plot concerning "The Moopets", a gang of edgy and dark Muppet-wannabes who want to replace the original characters, and give kids the cynical and sarcastic humor that we've come to expect from some modern day entertainment. Just the idea of an edgy and sarcastic Fozzie Bear makes me laugh. Alas, he only gets one line in the film, and the characters themselves are introduced, and then basically forgotten about.
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I didn't complain much, though. Everything else about The Muppets is so right, you don't really care when it goes wrong once in a while. I've read some reviews complaining that the movie does not come close to the original genius of Henson and his team. While this is true in some cases, I also think that the current team have their hearts in the right place, and are doing the best job possible to keep the legacy alive. This movie is all about fun, and in that regard, it's a resounding success.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Happy Feet Two

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One of the first images we see in Happy Feet Two is the sight of literally hundreds of penguins dancing and singing in perfect precision to Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation". This immediately sets us in the right mindset, and makes us remember the joy of the original film from five years ago. The same thing happens every time there's a musical sequence, all of which are exquisitely done. It's when the penguins stop singing, and the movie focuses on the plot that things drag a little. While the movie remains cute, brightly colored, and entertaining for the most part, you can't help but feel that returning director George Miller and his team of writers were at somewhat of a loss as to how to continue the story.

picWe are reunited with the tap dancing penguin, Mumble (voice by Elijah Wood), who still can't carry a tune, but has managed to start a family with his young love Gloria (recording artist Alecia "Pink" Moore, stepping in for the late Brittany Murphy from the first movie), and their young chick, Erik (Ava Acres). Much like Mumble in his younger years, it seems that little Erik is having a hard time fitting in with the other penguins. He can't dance like his dad, and his singing doesn't match that of his mom. Because of this, Erik runs away from home with two of his little friends. Not long into his journey into the arctic wild, little Erik comes across the Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria), a puffin who is passing himself off as a penguin who can fly, and is treated almost like a god because of his flight abilities by a different clan of penguins. Seeing Sven flies puts the idea into Erik's head that maybe he can fly too if he puts his mind to it.

picMumble tracks his wayward son down, and as he tries to set the boy straight during their walk home, catastrophe strikes - Global warming causes the ice shelf to shift, stranding most of Mumble's tribe in a gorge where there seems to be no escape. Gloria is down there amongst the penguins, and unless something is done, they will all starve and die. Desperate for help, Mumble will turn to anyone he can think of, including a hard-headed elephant seal, the loopy penguin guru, Lovelace (Robin Williams), and even the Mighty Sven. As for young Erik, he will have to look within himself to find his own abilities and talents that make him special, and will help save his mother, as well as the other penguins in his tribe.

picI wasn't exactly expecting complexity walking into Happy Feet Two, but even by kid's movie standards, the plot is pretty thin. It's basically comprised of Mumble and his friends standing around a giant gorge, trying to figure out how to free the other penguins that are stuck inside. The action never strays very far from the gorge, so it sometimes feels like we're watching a bunch of CG animated characters standing around, wondering what they should be doing. Fortunately, Miller and his team seem to realize this, so they do anything in their power to try to keep things interesting, including elaborate music and dance sequences, and a genuine energy that keeps things from lagging. We understand that a lot of the additional sequences (such as Mumble squaring off against an elephant seal dad) is strictly padding, but it's entertaining padding, at least.

picIn fact, one such subplot brings about the film's two most memorable characters - A pair of krill who go by the names of Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon). These underwater crustaceans are tired of being at the bottom of the aquatic food chain, and decide to try their hands at being predators, going after animals and fish five times their size. The banter between the two actors is amusing, and while their plot has nothing to do with the action itself, the bug-eyed duo deliver some of the biggest laughs in the film, so I didn't care all that much. I actually wouldn't mind seeing the characters appear in a short cartoon or something. They wind up stealing the show, and offer a light comic touch to the somewhat dark main story that concerns itself with death and uncertainty.

picSo yes, Happy Feet Two is not quite the movie the first one was, and the plot is as thin as ice that is slowly starting to thaw. But the movie is filled with various stand out moments that help make the movie worth watching at least once. Such moments include the energetic music numbers, the best being a hopeful ballad sung by Gloria called "Bridge of Light", that is not only beautifully sung, but also features a gorgeous depiction of the Northern Lights. The movie is also a marvel to look at, with a somewhat photo-realistic appearance at times. There's some beautiful motion capture here, giving the penguins precise and lifelike movements. The animation, character designs, music, and voice acting can't be faulted in any way, and are top of their class. If only the script lived up to the qualities of everything else, we'd be looking at one heck of a movie.
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As it is, I am recommending Happy Feet Two with big reservations. It's cute and all, but there is some pretty big competition coming up just around the corner in the family film market, including The Muppets, Martin Scorsese's Hugo, and The Adventures of Tintin. If those films manage to live up to expectations, I have a feeling that this movie will feel even thinner and slight than it already seems. Still, this movie is fun. Kind of unnecessary, but still fun.

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Friday, November 18, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1

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I firmly believe in walking into every movie I see with an open mind. And so, I walked into Breaking Dawn Part 1 in the highest of spirits. The weekend was just starting, it's a holiday next week, which means a short work week, and I was at the movies, one of my favorite places of all to be. I took my seat, and as the film started, I tried to hold onto that good mood, hoping it would keep me positive. I would love to give a Twilight film a good review for once. Alas, it was not to be.

picI tried, dear reader. Oh, how I tried. I tried to get involved in the love story between 18-year-old Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her vampire lover, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), as they prepared to walk down the aisle and begin their lives together. But I cannot see the appeal of such a shallow couple, and why millions of women around the world find theirs to be one of the great love stories. I most likely never will understand. But, for those of you who are the faithful of this franchise, this is the movie I assume you've been waiting for. Bella and Edward finally say "I do", they have sex for the first time (off camera, of course, as this is a PG-13 movie), and Bella becomes pregnant with a half-human/half-vampire child. This leads to one of the bloodiest childbirth scenes in cinema history, and also makes me question, why is it not okay to show people making love in a PG-13 film, but it is okay to show Bella's spine literally twist and snap in labor, with blood strewn about the bed?

picBella's best friend, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), is back as well. If you recall, he's the guy who can turn into a wolf simply by running, and tearing off his shirt. I noticed something odd, however. Whenever he's about to turn into a wolf, he rips his shirt off, yet leaves his pants on. And yet, as soon as he assumes his wolf form, the pants simply disappear. I don't recall seeing them fly off him during the transformation sequence. They're just simply not there anymore. Anyway, Jacob's role in the story is to stand around and pout over the fact that Bella has chosen to marry Edward over him. He stands outside their house a lot, looking tortured and pained. Or, at least the closest to tortured and pained that Lautner can put across in his traditionally wooden performance. He vows to protect Bella when she becomes pregnant, but doesn't end up doing a whole lot.

picThe main plot involves Jacob's wolf pack wanting to kill Bella before she can give birth to her child, while Edward and Jacob try to protect her. What this ultimately boils down to is a lot of scenes of the main heroes pacing around inside the house, wondering what to do about Bella, while the wolves pace around outside the house under the cover of trees. Breaking Dawn seems to be stuck in permanent slow motion. The wedding preparations go on forever, the wedding itself seems endless, and the honeymoon is a long, pointless collection of scenes that consist of music montages, playing a lot of chess, and Edward and Bella staring off into space. And just when the plot looks like it's picking up, the movie ends up being simply nothing but the characters standing around and talking. Nearly nothing happens during the film's two hour running time, so by the time the movie ends on a cliffhanger, I really didn't care anymore.

picThere's a lot of sulking, a lot of pouting, some cornball romantic dialogue to tie everything together, an uninspired fight scene between the vampires and the wolves that is so incompetently shot, it often looks like a tangled mess of human actors and flashes of CG fur, and then it ends. I can't think of another movie this year that's ended up being a bigger non-event. So, is it all a total waste? Not completely. There were two moments that made me smile. One was when Bella's dad (Billy Burke) gave a very funny speech during their wedding, and the other is when we see the aftermath of Edward and Bella's lovemaking, which results in the girl waking up in the middle of a bed that's been mangled and smashed by her vampire lover's strength and passion. It's one of the few moments when the characters are allowed to smile, or at least show an emotion other than blank indifference.
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As the Twilight series winds down, I realize I've come to the conclusion that the franchise was not for me from the beginning. But, why are so many enthralled with such a soulless love story? I ask, only to see that I am not missing something. After four movies (with one more to go), I find that I know about as much about these characters as I did walking into the first movie.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Immortals

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The filmmakers behind Immortals must have known that their movie wouldn't be able to stand out in any way without some impressive visuals, so they hired Tarsem Singh (The Cell) to create some lively CG images, and some impressive money shots for the ad campaign. Their plan worked, as this is a sometimes very pretty movie. It's also completely dead on the inside. And while the images stand out, they never build to anything. They're just there to wow us, and then we wait for the next one to come along.

picThe plot couldn't be simpler, and will most likely fit right in when the inevitable video game tie in comes out in a few months. Set in the time of Greek Myths, an evil king by the name of Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) wants to take vengeance on the gods above after they did not answer his prayers to save the life of his wife and children when they became ill and died. He decides to take his anger out on the world by seeking a magical bow and arrow known as the Epirus Bow, which has the power to free the Titans that are locked away deep within Mount Tartarus. Standing in Hyperion's way is Theseus (Henry Cavill), a peasant and former slave who wants revenge on the king after Hyperion's army raided his city and killed his mother. Theseus is joined in battle by an Oracle (Freida Pinto from Rise of the Planet of the Apes), who has the gift (Or is it a curse?) to see the future, and a thief (Stephen Dorff) who always fights by his side.

picAs a villain, Hyperion spends most of his time shoveling food in his mouth, when he's not torturing his own soldiers, or sticking attractive young women in a silver statue of a bull where he burns them alive. As for our hero, Theseus is of the square-jawed, bare-chested variety. He's handy with a blade, which he uses to hack Hyperion's many armored and faceless soldiers to bits. It's not surprising that he's a skilled fighter, since he's been trained since he was a child by Zeus himself, who takes the form of a kindly old man (John Hurt) when he's down on Earth amongst the mortals. (Luke Evans portrays the actual Zeus during the scenes when the gods watch the action going on down on Earth from above.) But then, does he really need training by a god when the enemy's main attack seems to be to rush blindly at Theseus, and hope for the best? The action and fight sequences are of the mindless "hack and slash" variety, and look oddly like a demo for a video game tie in. The only thing missing are the button prompts popping up, and a score counter.

picAt least Immortals looks impressive most of the time, with its vast CG produced landscapes, its vast CG generated armies, and a general sense of majesty in a lot of the shots. The director is obviously trying to create a realized fantasy world, and he succeeds, with religious shrines placed upon scenic cliffs, and sweeping shots of cities and battlefields. But I couldn't help thinking that it would be even more impressive if the characters were as fleshed out as the locations. It's hard to care when a majority of the cast exists to be carved up like meat, with cartoon CG blood flying at the camera. (Did I mention the movie's in 3D?) Watching this movie, I thought back on the fantasy stories I used to read when I was younger. They were filled with fantastic worlds too, but they had characters, and drama, and emotion. This movie gives us a realized world, with nothing to inhabit it.
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Immortals is already on its way to becoming a box office hit if the weekend totals are to be believed, so I guess their strategy worked. But still, how cynical of the filmmakers to give us such a beautiful world, and then just stop there. It's not like the Greek Myths were lacking in characters or drama that the script could draw upon. This is a movie that calls out for imagination. What we end up getting are cardboard cutouts in front of some pretty pictures.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jack and Jill

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Is it me, or are Adam Sandler movies getting stupider with each passing one? Oh sure, Sandler's sense of humor has been pretty dumb from the beginning, sometimes in an enjoyable way. But lately, his movies seem to be reaching for a lower form of humor than I even knew existed. I'm guessing it won't take long until we get a movie comprised of nothing but Sandler sitting on the toilet and belching for 90 minutes straight.

picBut, I'm here to talk about Jack and Jill, a stupefyingly dumb comedy that places Sandler in a dual role as both an uptight ad executive and family man, as well as his loud, obnoxious sister. The movie was a miscalculation from the start. Seeing Sandler dressed in drag and talking in a whiny voice probably would have been pushing it in a three minute sketch back in his Saturday Night Live days. In a 90 minute movie, the performance is excruciating. Was there no one around to stop him and tell him the performance, and the character in general, was just a bad idea? No one to say that it just wasn't funny? Seeing a movie like this makes you want to sit Sandler down, and make him watch his performances in Punch Drunk Love, Spanglish, Funny People, and Reign Over Me to remind him that he is so much better than this.

picThe plot (such as it is) concerns Jill (the sister) coming to visit her brother Jack and his family for Thanksgiving. She's only supposed to be there for a few days, but she extends her vacation time, and winds up staying almost to New Years. During that time, we get a lot of toilet humor (much more than a PG-rated comedy aimed at kids needs), a ton of product placements (How much did Dunkin' Donuts pay to get their brand worked into the plot of the movie? And would it have been better for business if they had just stayed out of the movie all together?), and a lot of celebrity cameos that include Sandler's friends, as well as some big names cashing a paycheck. The cameos in this film include David Spade (in drag, no less), Dana Carvey, Johnny Depp, Regis Philbin, John McEnroe, Shaquille O'Neal, Drew Carey, Christie Brinkley, and Bruce Jenner. Oh, and then there's Al Pacino.

picYes, I said Al Pacino. Only he's not making a cameo, he's a main supporting character. He plays a caricature of himself as a raving oddball who speaks gibberish in order to fool people he can speak other languages, and becomes inexplicably attracted to Jill when he happens to meet her at a basketball game. Jill has no interest in Pacino, but Jack's ad agency wants to hire the actor for a Dunkin' Donut campaign, so he tries to bring the two together. When Jill further resists, Jack is forced to dress up as his sister and be seduced by Pacino. But never mind. The important thing is Pacino gets the film's only laughs, because he tackles the material head-on and with full passion. He obviously knows this material is stupid, but he gives such an energetic performance, you sometimes find yourself laughing, even if what he says isn't that funny. Say what you will about his decision to appear in this movie, but he earns every cent of that paycheck when he appears in trash like this.

picOutside of Pacino's off the wall performance, I can't say I laughed very much at Jack and Jill. The movie's just not that funny. Don't tell that to the guy who was sitting two rows behind me at my screening, though. Every tired pratfall, every loud fart that blasted on the soundtrack, and every knock to the head caused him to erupt in extremely loud fits of laughter, stomping of feet, and slapping his knees. I wanted to ask him what he found so funny about the movie. Most of all, I wanted to be enjoying myself as much as he was. That's obviously the intention of the movie. It wants to make us laugh and forget our problems for 90 minutes or so. That's admirable. But it fails on both counts. My guess as to the reaction of the man sitting behind me? He's been locked away somewhere for a very long time, and has never seen a movie in his life.
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I won't go so far as to say that Jack and Jill is the worst comedy of the year, as there's much worse out there. But, it's certainly one of the most annoying. This is the kind of movie where the filmmakers started with the idea of Sandler playing brother and sister, and then stopped there, not developing the screenplay, characters, or the jokes. Considering that the initial idea wasn't that hot to start with, maybe they shouldn't have even gone as far as they did.

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Anonymous

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Disaster filmmaker Roland Emmerich takes a break from destroying the world with aliens, giant lizards, and mother nature itself, and tries to get a little more serious with Anonymous, a film that argues that William Shakespeare did not write the plays he is credited to. This is a sometimes entertaining, sometimes laggy, but genuinely well made costume drama that can be entertaining, as long as you don't try to make sense out of the numerous historical inaccuracies that can be found throughout. As a history lesson, it gets an F. As escapist entertainment, I'd give it a B-.

picThere have been many speculations and conspiracy theories that Shakespeare did not write his plays. Many names as to the true author have been kicked about over the years. The one that Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff run with is Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans). He is a man of high standing and power in the court of Queen Elizabeth, whom we see as both a young woman (Joely Richardson) and late in her life (Richardson's real life mother, Vanessa Redgrave). Edward longs to write plays and poems, but his position prevents him. He decides to strike a deal with struggling playwright, Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto), and offers him money if Jonson will publish and perform his plays under his name, instead of Edward's. Jonson balks at the idea, but not before he happens to tell about his meeting with the Earl to a young actor named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall).

picShakespeare is portrayed here largely as a lout, hungry for fame and attention, but not really holding any qualities that can earn him what he desires. He's often drunk, he's lewd, he's crass, and he does not share Jonson's qualms about putting his name on someone else's work. Edward's plays, with Shakespeare's name attached, become instant hits, stirring audiences like no one has ever seen. The drama mainly stems from Ben, and how he is forced to watch his undeserving friend suddenly become the toast of society. While he struggles to get his own plays performed, he watches Shakespeare swindle and blackmail his way into getting a theater constructed especially for his works. As for Edward, there is plenty of drama within the walls of the castle, including the lusty desires of Queen Elizabeth, and her many illegitimate children, including one with Edward.

picIs all of this ridiculous? Absolutely. The fact that Anonymous plays this material completely straight is both a strength (the actors are able to sell this material quite well, even if we know it's rubbish), and a weakness (the movie has more turgid melodrama than an afternoon soap opera). This leads to my conflicted view upon the film. On one hand, Emmerich should be commended. He's made an attractive looking film, and has filled it with a fine cast. On the other hand, you get the sense that he really does believe the story he's telling us. The movie presents itself largely as a "what if", but doesn't dig deep enough into its own theories. Its main arguments for Shakespeare being a fraud is that he was largely illiterate. This is really only addressed in one or two scenes. The rest of the time, its main argument seems to be that Shakespeare was largely an ass and a glory hound.

picAnd much like the historical drama I saw yesterday (J. Edgar), this movie likes to be loose with its timeline, jumping about to different points in time, seemingly at random. It's not quite as annoying as it was in Eastwood's movie, but there were still moments where I needed a second or two to figure out where we were supposed to be in the timeline of the story. A straight, cohesive narrative flow certainly could have only helped things. Still, faults aside, there is a lot to admire, especially the scenes focusing on the odd relationship between the Earl of Oxford, Shakespeare, and Jonson. These sequences create the most tension. The drama concerning the Queen and her subjects and family is slightly less successful, but the performances at least keep things afloat.
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I would not recommend Anonymous as a teaching tool, or as something to introduce someone to the works of Shakespeare. But, I still managed to enjoy large parts of this, despite the huge leaps of faith and logic the movie often asked of me. I will say that Emmerich has struck out of his comfort zone of dumb special effects spectacles, and has mostly stayed afloat. Well, he doesn't strike too much out of his comfort zone. He does get to blow up a theater in the film's opening scene.

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