Reel Opinions


Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ted

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The premise behind Ted kind of sounds like a Steven Spielberg movie seen through the eyes of a drunken college frat boy. As the film opens, a kindly old storybook narrator (voiced by Patrick Stewart) introduces us to John Bennett, who back in 1985, was a lonely 8-year-old boy with no friends. He was so lonely, he was even jealous of the local Jewish boy who got beat up everyday by the neighborhood bullies. At least that boy was getting attention. That Christmas, John's parents gave him a teddy bear that the boy felt an instant bond with. And that night, John made a special wish that his stuffed bear was alive, and could be his friend forever.

picSomehow, the cosmos listened, and granted John's wish. When he woke up the next morning, the stuffed bear was alive, walking around, talking, and pledging to be John's most faithful friend. When news broke of the Christmas miracle, John and Ted the bear became celebrities, complete with appearances on Johnny Carson. Alas, like a lot of flash-in-the-pan celebrities, fame was fleeting. We catch up with John some 27 years later, and find him to be a 35-year-old man-child (now played by Mark Wahlberg), who still sees his living stuffed toy, Ted (voiced by director and co-writer, Seth MacFarlane) as his best and pretty much only friend. The two spend their days getting high, making profane jokes, and watching their favorite movie, the 1980 cult classic, Flash Gordon.

picDespite the fact that John pretty much has no career goals or direction in life, he has somehow managed to grab the heart of a beautiful and serious-minded career woman named Lori (Mila Kunis), who he has been dating for four years now. Lori genuinely loves John, but wishes he would grow up a little. And, the way she sees it, the first step to do that is to get rid of Ted, who is a constant interference in their personal and sex life. Ted is eventually forced to move into his own apartment, and get a job working as a cashier at a grocery store to support himself. Meanwhile, John is trying to prove to Lori that he can be a serious boyfriend, but he finds the allure of hanging out with his long-time stuffed bear friend something he just can't ignore. As John is forced to decide which path in life to follow, we get a lot of profane jokes and references to various 80s movies, which is to be expected from the film's creator, Seth MacFarlane, best known for creating the Family Guy cartoon series.

picI suppose the main appeal behind Ted for MacFarlane's fans is seeing just how far he can push the envelope in an R-rated film, without the TV censors breathing down his neck. The answer, surprisingly, is he pushes it very little. Okay, yes, the movie stars a pot-smoking CG teddy bear who curses like a sailor, and has a thing for one night stands. But outside of that, the movie is nothing all that shocking, or anything really new to those who watch his different cartoon shows. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the screenplay (by McFarlane and two other writers) covers pretty much the same kind of material people see on his shows every week. The movie takes comic jabs at gays, Asians, Mexicans, September 11th, Adam Sandler movies, Jews, and sexual harassment at the work place. The problem is a lot of these pretty much boil down to references, or underdeveloped jokes. It's almost as if the filmmakers wrote up a list of offensive things they wanted their screenplay to touch on before they wrote it, and then just threw them in when they saw a chance, without really building to an actual joke.

picI'll give you an example of this film's often lazy writing - At one point, John and Lori are remembering the night they first met. We then get a flashback, which is a shot-for-shot remake of the Saturday Night Fever parody that was featured in the 1980 spoof, Airplane!. That's really the joke right there, we're seeing Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis reenact a scene that was originally played by Robert Hays and Julie Haggerty. Why is this funny? Why is it funny just to re-create a scene from another comedy? Why not come up with your spoof, instead of ripping off a superior one? To be fair, some of the dialogue exchanges between Wahlberg and the stuffed bear can be funny, but they're never as funny as they could be. This is a one-joke movie. And once the sight of a cursing teddy bear has worn out its welcome, Ted has little to offer.

picMacFarlane and his writers seemed to realize this, so they throw in some subplots to stretch out the running time, but ultimately prove to be pointless. There's a plot concerning Lori who is constantly being hit on by her sleazy boss at work (Joel McHale). Not only is the idea itself not funny, but the movie can't think of anything funny to do with it. They keep on going back to it, but the boss character is so unfunny and plays such a minor role, you wonder why he wasn't written out in an earlier draft of the script. Equally unnecessary is the character who serves as the film's villain - a creepy stalker (played by Giovanni Ribisi) who has been obsessed with Ted ever since he was a little boy, and wants to kidnap him. This plot and the character are also not funny in the slightest, not even when they try to throw in a Silence of the Lambs spoof. The character exists simply so the third act can have a pointless chase and action sequence that seems completely out of place with the rest of the movie.

picI was stunned by how sloppy Ted seemed at times. The screenplay and its ideas seem to have been slapped together with little care. Even the characters are not that interesting. While the effects used to bring Ted to life are quite impressive, the character is largely a bore. He's a drunken frat boy in a bear costume. I also found it hard to care about the relationship between John and Lori, as they don't really get to spend a lot of time together, nor are they written as being interesting people to begin with. And yet, the movie expects us to care about them and be involved with them, if the last 15 minutes is any indication. Yes, this raunchy comedy about a crude teddy bear suddenly develops a big, gooey heart near the end, and seems to be trying in vain to manipulate our tear ducts. Forget about wanting to have its cake, and eat it too. This movie wants to smoke a bong, and warm our hearts too.
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What we have here is a movie that is all concept, and little execution. Ted is repetitive (The first time it referenced Flash Gordon, I smiled. The fifth or sixth time, not so much.), and nowhere near as funny or as edgy as it seems to think it is. Maybe MacFarlane's humor works better in 20 minutes, interspersed with commercials. But then, I find him pretty hit or miss on TV, too. I was disappointed by this movie, but something tells me his legions of fans will not be.

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Magic Mike

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I think Channing Tatum is starting to grow on me a little. In the past, I had dismissed him as a wooden Hollywood puppet, hired strictly for his looks. But, over this past year, he has begun to impress me. First, he gave a genuinely funny performance and showed strong chemistry with his co-star, Jonah Hill, in the hilarious 21 Jump Street. And now, in Magic Mike, he not only gets to show off his physical assets (which I believe most of the women in the crowded theater I saw it in), but he also gives a genuinely likable, and at times very honest, performance.

picThe film is inspired by Tatum's own experiences as a stripper and male dancer during his pre-celebrity years, and it shows. There is a truthfulness and a certain backstage "fly on the wall" approach to the scenes set at the strip club that makes the movie look, sound, and seem authentic. However, this is not a sleazy movie, like say, Showgirls. This is a Steven Soderbergh-directed drama that combines the joys, thrills, and dangers of the night life, combined with a plot of its main character wanting more out of life, and struggling to find his way. The combination of raunchy beefcake humor, and slice of life drama is a hard balance to pull off, and while the screenplay by Reid Carolin isn't always successful or all that memorable (Boogie Nights did a better job at being a compelling drama set in a world of adult entertainment), it does provide more than enough content than the film's sexy ad campaign might lead on.

picTatum plays the titular "Magic Mike", a 30-year-old man in Tampa who works for a roofing company, and has big dreams of starting his own business making custom-made furniture. For now, however, most of his income comes from his work performing in an all-male revue. We get to witness Mike's nighttime world first-hand, as we're introduced to his boss, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), and the other men who perform alongside him. At the moment, Mike's dreams of moving on seem to be on the back burner, as he can't get the financial help that he needs to start his own business. This is just fine for Dallas, who sees Mike as his star, and wants to hold onto him as long as possible. With Dallas planning to build an even bigger club in Miami, Mike becomes torn of staying where he is, and possibly making more money, or following his own path, uncertain though it may be.

picThat's when Mike meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old dropout without much drive or dreams, and is currently crashing on the couch of his older sister, Brooke (Cody Horn). Adam meets Mike during a roofing job, and when they meet again later that night, winds up getting pulled into Mike's other life as a male stripper. Adam takes to the lifestyle quite quickly, much to Brooke's concern, so Mike takes Adam under his wing, and promises to protect him. A complex relationship builds. Mike becomes somewhat of a big brother figure to Adam, while at the same time, developing feelings for Brooke. But then, Adam is drawn into the dark side of fame when he is pulled into a drug ring, and Mike finds himself unable to protect him, which naturally puts him at odds with the woman he would like to love.

picMagic Mike takes us into the world of male strippers, but doesn't seem to have a stance on it. It depicts it largely as a place of fun and sexual fantasy. The key word being "fantasy". While we don't get to see the lives of the men on stage outside of Mike and Adam, we get the feeling that they are just regular guys who want to give the ladies who come to see them a show. I guess that's the main difference between male and female strippers. Male strippers seem to be about the sexual fantasy, whereas females are about the nudity. Outside of the male stripper angle, the movie really is just the old story about the dangers of fame, and a character who is driven to choose between the safe path in life (which he has long outgrown), or the more uncertain path that could possibly lead to a happier future. While this is nothing new, the movie does have a few nice touches, including an open-ended conclusion where things are not quite resolved, but they are satisfying nonetheless, because we can picture where the characters end up.

picNow, let's talk about Channing Tatum. It's no secret that I've found the guy quite wooden and unemotional in the past. So, to my surprise, it is Tatum's performance that initially drew me in here. While I'm sure it's due to the fact that some of the material is semi-autobiographical for him, he does get to show some genuine quiet dramatic tension. The scenes that he shares with Adam's sister, Brooke, feel warm and genuine. Mike comes across as a nice guy who gets misjudged a lot, due to his profession. As for Brooke, we can see why she eventually becomes attracted to him. Mike comes across as a smart person, who has been taking some easy money for too long, and it's starting to wear on him. Tatum does a great job of playing this side of the character, as well as the "regular" and likable side that Brooke falls for.

picIt is also to the movie's credit that director Steven Soderbergh has given the film quite a lot of energy. The choreography and dance routines are entertaining and energetic, and convey a sense of fun. The routines are sexy and naughty, but not necessarily sleazy. While I'm sure some of the routines had to be toned down a little in order to avoid a NC-17, the energy and the sexual fantasy elements still come through in the routines. I am not sure if the actors who play the other male strippers share Tatum's history in the business. If they don't, it doesn't show. They are natural on stage, and perform the complex routines that are required of them with graceful ease.
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As much as I admired Magic Mike, I did find it a little too familiar at times in its plotting. The male stripper angle may be a gimmick used to liven a somewhat overused central premise, but at least it works, and the movie finds a few other ways to make us care, with some strong characterizations. It simply can't escape the fact that the story's been told numerous times. That being said, it's seldom been told with this much energy.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Brave

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It must be hell being Pixar sometimes. Due to their largely stellar track record, audiences (and even most critics) seem to expect a new masterpiece each and every time. It's kind of like the straight-A student in school, under the watchful eye of their strict parents, They are expected to perform at the top of their level every time. But what happens when that student delivers a B-paper? It's still good, but since it's not up to the standards expected, the parents sometime overreact.

picBrave is a B-effort from the usually straight-A Pixar. That's certainly not a bad thing, unless you frequent some of the movie message boards that I have seen, where certain people seem to be acting like the movie is an abomination simply because it doesn't hold the weight of the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, or Up. Yes, Brave is not up to those classics, but it still has a lot to recommend, starting with the look of the film. The studio apparently got to use some new advanced computer animation technology with this film, and the attention to detail and fluid animation this new program allows really shows. Look beyond the animation, and you get a simple, but likable fairy tale that deals with the relationships between mothers and daughters. As long as you don't walk in expecting a life-changing experience, or a grand, sweeping animated adventure, I can't imagine anyone being too disappointed with this.

picThe story centers on Merida (voice by Kelly Macdonald), a medieval Scottish princess with flowing fire-red hair who is skilled with a bow and arrow. Her main goal in life is to ride across the Highlands on her horse, and see the world. It is a dream that her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), can certainly understand and sympathize with. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), is another matter. Elinor has been training her daughter to be a proper lady, building up to the day where she will marry a fitting suitor from one of the allied kingdoms. Naturally, her mother's plan does not mesh with Merida's dreams of freedom. Now that Merida has come of age to be wed, the Queen is becoming stricter than ever, and is almost trying to force her daughter into taking on the image of what a proper Princess and future Queen should be.

picDuring the ceremony in which Merida must pick her future husband, things do not go as planned, and mother and daughter have a particularly nasty falling out afterward. Merida rides off into the surrounding forest in tears, only to meet some mystical will-o-wisps who lead her to the cottage of a batty old witch (Julie Walters) who, not unexpectedly, has a spell that just might help her change her fate. Breaking somewhat with Disney animated tradition, the witch is not even the villain of the story. She even tries to convince Merida not to try to solve her problems with magic, but the strong-willed girl will not listen. As for the results of the spell, I will have to tiptoe here to avoid spoilers. Let's just say it has unexpected results for both Merida and Elinor, and that the two will have to put aside their differences and work together under strange circumstances in order to see the spell reversed.

picThe story in Brave is quite simple, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't take some unexpected turns here and there. Heck, the fact that the lead heroine has a loving mother and father is almost surprising in itself, as it's usually a tradition in Disney animated films for the lead character to have at least one dead or missing parent. That said, the themes at the heart of the story should be familiar to anyone who has watched an animated film. It's ultimately a story about communication, and how the daughter and mother must strengthen their bond in order to be happy as they once were. Nothing Earth-shattering, but the movie does have a lot of heart, and does a good job of developing the relationship between Merida and her parents before the magic steps in, and threatens to destroy everything. While the characters may not be as instantly memorable as in some past Pixar films, we still do find ourselves caring about them, thanks to the screenplay making them instantly likable and easy to relate to.

picI think a lot of this has to do with the fact that the screenplay focuses a lot on the love these characters have for each other. You can feel genuine warmth, not just in the mother and daughter relationship, but also in the relationship Elinor shares with her husband, King Fergus. While she may sometimes grow annoyed with his somewhat oafish behavior, you can still see the respect she has for him. I actually found this an interesting angle. I've seen a lot of animated films and TV shows where the parents are largely used as comic relief, or seen as an embarrassment by the young lead character. So, it's somewhat a nice change of pace to see this film centered on the respect, the disagreements, and ultimately the bond that this family shares. It certainly helps Brave find its heart, which is a good thing, because the plot is never quite as engaging.

picPlease don't read that as to say that the plot is bad. It moves well, and is never boring. There's just simply not much to it. Once the spell is in place, and the heroine sets about righting the wrong she accidentally put into motion, everything just kind of falls into place. She figures out the solution to the problem almost instantly, and the answers simply continue to almost fall into her lap. Given the tone of the ad campaign, I expected her to have to go on some kind of quest, but Merida's mission barely forces her to leave the castle most of the time. It's the characters, not the story, that keep us involved. Considering how high quality everything else is (the animation, the voice acting, the music, the detail in the settings), is the fact that the plot doesn't live up to it a disappointment? Of course. But not so much that it sinks the film.
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Brave is a small movie that unfortunately is being blown up and hyped to be a huge event by the Disney marketing machine. Maybe that's leading to a lot of the disappointment some people are expressing. I say, walk in with realistic expectations, don't expect anything huge, and just let the charms of the characters and the beautiful Scottish setting captivate you. Brave may not be a classic, but that doesn't mean there's not a lot to like.

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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

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Though I was never bored while watching Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I did get a little frustrated with it at a certain point. I kept on waiting for the movie to truly take off and take advantage of its idea of reinventing our 16th President as a kind of 19th Century superhero. A movie built around Honest Abe as an ax-wielding slayer of the undead has to be a lot of fun, and to a certain point, it is. But then, the film just starts spinning its wheels, not sure where to go. Sure is pretty to look at, though.

picThe first (and strongest) half of the film chronicles how Abe Lincoln learned the existence of vampires at a very young age, when he witnessed one murder his mother as a small boy. At the time, he wasn't quite sure of what the demonic killer was, as he only got a brief glimpse of it. But, it has haunted him, and as a young man in his 20s (now played by relative newcomer Benjamin Walker), he vows vengeance on her killer, Jack Barts (Marton Csokas). Abraham does track down the elusive Jack, but his quest for vengeance almost ends as soon as it begins, as Jack is obviously a vampire, and possesses inhuman strength. Fortunately, Abe's life is saved that night by the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), a hunter who has been waging war against the undead for years, and knows all the tricks of the vampire hunting trade. Abe pleads with Henry to make him his apprentice, and after a training montage, Henry sends him off to Springfield, IL to dispose of the growing vampire menace.

picIn his new surroundings, Abe studies law, kills a vampire whenever Henry sends him a letter indicating his next target, and even finds time to fall in love with lovely Mary Todd (a very likable Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He also gets into politics, and eventually becomes President, which the movie kind of glosses over. In fact, it's around this point that the narrative itself becomes somewhat muddled, and turns into a series of loosely connected scenes. When he becomes President, Lincoln tries to hang up his ax, but those pesky vampires just refuse to let go of past grudges. Not only do they align themselves with the Confederates when the Civil War breaks out (the vampires need the black slaves to feed on), but one of them even sneaks into Abe's house, and murders his young son.

picRussian director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) starts by giving this film a somewhat dark fanciful tone, which works with the revisionist history tone of the story. But then, the screenplay by Seth Grahame-Smith (who wrote the novel this film was based on, as well as last month's movie about vampires, Dark Shadows) starts to get bogged down in deadly seriousness. While the movie takes itself fairly seriously throughout (despite the title, there is no camp to be found here), it eventually reaches a point where the movie just stops being fun, and kind of turns into an overly serious slog. The plot becomes sloppy and loose, we lose interest in the characters, and eventually the visual beauty of the movie is pretty much the only thing holding our attention.

picBefore I praise the visuals too much, I feel the need to point out that I did see the movie in 2D. I have no idea how good the 3D version is, but based on what I saw up on the screen, I saw very little that would wow with an added dimension. I have a sinking feeling that this is a case of a studio acting out of greed, and adding an extra charge. Seek out the 2D if you can. That said, this movie looks great for the most part. I say "for the most part", because while the settings, set design, and CG used to create 18th Century cityscapes are well done, the CG during the fight sequences sometimes looks a little too much like a cartoon or a video game. Don't get me wrong, they're impressively staged and mounted, especially a battle concerning the vampires attacking a train. But the inconsistent CG would briefly take me out of the experience.
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For the most part, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter at least stays afloat, but it still seems like a lot of wasted potential. The movie starts out being kind of thrilling, then just sort of loses its own inspiration, and then deflates. At the very least, the movie is well made, and the performances don't disappoint. I'm not sorry I saw this. I just know it could have been so much more with another rewrite or two.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

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In Lorene Scafaria's bittersweet and charming apocalyptic love story, the title pretty much says it all. As the film opens, the Earth has only three weeks until it is struck by a massive asteroid that the media has dubbed "Matilda", which will end all life on the planet. Two very different and lonely people connect during the world's final moments, and find a strong bond with each other. It's really quite beautiful in its simplicity. But what interested me just as much is when the movie focused on how the rest of the world was handling this crisis.

picSince this is a road trip movie, our heroes are likely to encounter people from different walks of life. This is expected in the genre. The twist that this screenplay gives us is that the people they encounter are all dealing with the news of their imminent deaths in different ways. There are those who do their best to ignore the dire warnings, and lead a normal life. There's a group of businessmen who have decided to throw off their suits and work ties, and completely give in to every decadent desire they've ever had. There's a suicidal truck driver who found out he only had a few months left to live right around the time he found out about the world ending, and he refuses to wait out the clock either way. And then there is the wait staff who work at a family restaurant and bar who, alongside still serving up burger baskets and fries, have also turned the restaurant into a non-stop sex orgy.

picSeeking a Friend for the End of the World made me think of just how I, or people I know, would handle or live out their remaining moments in such a situation. It also drew me in to its central plot, concerning a lonely man named Dodge (Steve Carell), who is left to reflect on the mistakes of his life when his wife leaves him to be with another man right when the doomsday announcement is made. His chief regret is letting his high school sweetheart get away all those years ago. Just down the hall from his apartment lives a woman named Penny (Keira Knightley), who is lonely for different reasons. She misses her family back home in England, and regrets that she didn't spend enough time with them. And now that all commercial air travel has ceased due to the impending destruction of the Earth, she fears that she'll never get to see them again.

picThe two have lived down the hall from each other for years, but hardly spoken to each other. Funny how something like the apocalypse can bring two people together. They start talking, and realize that they can help each other. She has a car, and can drive him to track down his love from long ago. Likewise, he knows somebody with a private plane that could get her back home to her family. They hit the road together (along with a cute little abandoned dog whom Dodge ended up adopting), and what follows is a fairly conventional road trip and romantic comedy plot with a major difference. Yes, they meet a lot of colorful characters on their journey. And it's certainly no surprise that the two will grow closer together during their journey. We expect this. What sets this movie apart is the impending sense of doom that is forever in the back of the minds of the characters, as well as the audience.

picMaking her directorial debut, Lorene Scafaria (who previously wrote the script to the underrated Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) has given us a melancholy twist on some of Hollywood's most reliable conventions. Her screenplay hits all the notes you'd expect, but does so with a certain sadness and honesty that I, for one, did not expect. I was also surprised by the human quality of the script. This is not a movie built around coincidences or convoluted plotting. Instead, we're simply watching Dodge and Penny grow closer, as the world around them falls apart. That's a big part as to why both Carell and Knightley are so good, and have such great chemistry together. The movie gives their characters plenty of time to develop and grow.

picWhat fascinated me is how the movie does not really develop their relationship into a full-fledged romance, although we get the picture that one could easily develop if there were time. I have already spoken to one person who was disappointed by this fact. I had to remind them of the word "Friend" in the title. The movie deals with the friendship between Dodge and Penny, and how it probably could have built to something much more in a different circumstance. I guess it's kind of tragic if you think about it, but the movie wisely does not hit us over the head with this notion. This is a melancholy, but not a depressing movie. It has plenty of moments of dark satire to lighten the mood, and our heroes are really just trying to make the most out of the time they have left. It's admirable in a way. While some people choose to riot in the street or give in to sin, Dodge, Penny, and a select few others choose to make the time they have left happy, since they've been unhappy for so long.
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Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is a thought-provoking and oddly charming movie. I also have a feeling that it will stick with me for a while after seeing it. The film left me feeling kind of funny when it was over. I was a mix of emotions - happy, a little sad, but mostly I felt the joy I usually feel when I walk out of a satisfying film. That, right there, is the best recommendation that I can give.

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

That's My Boy

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As Adam Sandler gets older, he's starting to resemble the former class clown at your high school reunion. You know the guy - The one who clings desperately to the same kind of jokes he made 20 years ago in school, and still thinks they're hilarious. Maybe you found him funny back then, but seeing him now, you kind of look at him with sadness. That's the feeling I get when I see Sandler desperately trying to hold onto his college frat boy humor as he pushes 50. It's unpleasant, and so is his newest movie, That's My Boy.

picOnce again, we have Sandler playing a man-child who speaks with a goofy voice and has no idea how to act in social situations, but due to forced manipulations, we're supposed to fall in love with him because, gosh-darn-it, he really is a nice guy at heart. It's a role he has played many times, with dwindling results each time. This time, he's Donny Berger, whose life peaked back in 1984 when he was in 13-years-old, and he had a sexual affair with a seductive young teacher. The teacher in 1984 is played by Eva Amurri Martino, who is the daughter of actress Susan Sarandon. In an interesting bit of stunt casting, Sarandon appears as the teacher during the present day scenes. Because of the affair, Donny became a tabloid sensation and somewhat of a minor celebrity, even getting his own made-for-TV movie. He also got a son when the teacher became pregnant, and he was ordered by a judge to look after it, while the teacher went to prison for 30 years.

picFlash forward to the present, and we find Donny's life in shambles. His son is now grown up, and has chosen to essentially disown him. The son has even legally changed his name to Todd Peterson, which is probably a good idea, considering his birth name Donny gave him was Han Solo Berger. Todd is played by Andy Samberg, who recently left Saturday Night Live to pursue other projects. He's not off to a good start. Todd is essentially a human doormat, who is set to be engaged to the beautiful and wealthy Jamie (Leighton Meester), and is already being controlled and manipulated by both her and her family, who obviously don't think much of him. Todd, Jamie, and her family head for a beautiful summer home in Cape Cod to celebrate the upcoming wedding. Naturally, this is right around the time that Donny decides to return into his son's life.

picTurns out Donny's deep in tax debt, and will go to prison in a few days if he doesn't pay it off. He essentially crashes the wedding weekend party, and instantly wins over all of the family, while making Donny look like a schmuck. He does this by doing things like having wild drinking and sex parties, being a general loudmouth, and having sexual fantasies about Jamie's sweet old grandmother. (This being an R-rated raunchy comedy, the fantasy becomes reality before too long.) You probably expect that during the course of the movie, Donny will learn to grow up, be respectful to his son, and maybe learn a lesson or two. You forget, this is an Adam Sandler movie. Sandler's characters seldom if ever change. Everyone else adapts to him. Yes, Donny and Todd do rekindle their relationship by the end, but it's only because Todd learns to be like his dad.

picThat's My Boy runs for roughly two hours, meaning it has plenty of time to throw in just about every reference you can think of regarding male and female sexual organs, as well as a lot of pointless cameos. Rapper Vanilla Ice shows up as himself (Donny and him were friends back in the day), and proves that when it comes to acting, he should have stopped after Cool as Ice. We also have James Caan playing a priest with an Irish accent that sounds as authentic as one you'd hear in a Lucky Charms commercial. We even get multiple references to vomit, semen, and dirty sex. Note, I said references, not jokes. The is a movie that thinks it's funny simply to be shocking. That's step one. A good raunchy comedy would have thought of something funny to do with this material.
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You know, I really do like Adam Sandler, and have enjoyed some of his films. But, over the past few years, he seems to be seeking out some of the worst ideas and scripts that he can find. This can't be good for his career. His last couple films have underperformed or flat-out bombed, and I can't see this one turning the tide. Maybe it's time for Sandler to leave the high school humor behind, and grow up a little bit. It happens to the best of us.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Rock of Ages

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On the Broadway stage, Rock of Ages is an affectionate, goofy, and energetic tribute to 80s rock and hair metal. Naturally, I expected the same from the film adaptation, especially since director Adam Shankman was behind it, whose 2007 film of the Hairspray musical managed to capture the wit of the stage production. Much to my shock, this Rock of Ages is somewhat limp. It's fun every now and then, and there's a few laughs, but the movie ends up wearing out its welcome, and never takes off like it should.

picFor reasons that remain a mystery to me, the film has been completely altered almost top to bottom from the stage production. The plot has been changed and greatly watered down, certain characters have had their roles changed, some have been removed completely, new characters and plot points have been added (but don't bring anything useful), and even the song list is different, with some songs being used in a different context, and some from the original missing. And apparently someone involved with this film did not do their homework, as this homage to 80s music includes a song that came out in...gasp...1990!! What's most mysterious is that the play's original writer, Chris D'Arienzo, is credited as one of the three screenwriters. Why he wanted to completely change what worked so well is beyond me. Maybe he thought the new material was an improvement. All I know is that the number of changes is bound to disappoint fans of the original, leaving me to wonder why they were made in the first place.

picAs in the play, Rock of Ages tells the simple story of Drew (Diego Boneta) and Sherrie (Julianne Hough), two starry-eyed kids with big dreams of making it in the Hollywood rock music scene in 1987. The difference is how the story is told. In the original, characters constantly broke the fourth wall, reminding us that we weren't supposed to be taking this stuff seriously, and having fun with its own cliches. Here, the movie treats its cliched plot as if it's something we're supposed to care about. The two meet literally as Sherrie steps off the bus from her small town in Oklahoma, and Drew helps her get a job right away as a waitress at the Bourbon Room, a struggling night club run by the aging Dennis (Alec Baldwin), and his right-hand man, Lonny (Russell Brand). Both Drew and Sherrie have big dreams of singing professionally, and see the Bourbon Room as their best bet, as some great music acts were born here.

picUnfortunately, the Bourbon Room has its share of troubles. Its drowning in debt, and the city's sleazy mayor (Bryan Cranston) is using his preachy, do-gooder wife (Catherine Zeta Jones) in his re-election campaign, having her speak out against sin and corruption in the city, and using the night club as the source of it all. With attendance dwindling, and religious protestors showing up outside the door, it seems that the only hope is the promise of the arrival of Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), a loopy and drugged out Axel Rose-like rocker who is the lead singer of one of the biggest rock bands out there, Arsenal. Stacee is on the verge of a solo career (mainly because his bandmates can't stand him, or his bizarre behavior anymore), and is planning to give one last concert with his band at the Bourbon Room, which just might save the joint.

picIn terms of casting, Tom Cruise gives a comically inspired performance as the eternally out of it Stacee Jaxx. Usually seen in the company of many beautiful women and a baboon whom he refers to as "Hey Man", Cruise's performance takes the satirical route that the rest of the film should have taken. Much like his performance a few years ago in Tropic Thunder, he's playing completely against type, and is obviously having a ball. It's a great character and performance, but unfortunately, the movie doesn't use it well. Jaxx's role has been changed and somewhat reduced from the original version. So, we get a great comedic performance looking for its rightful place in the film. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand also get some good moments here, and have to be admired for their bravery, considering where the screenplay asks them to go in their relationship by the end of the film. You get the sense that these are the characters the movie should have been focusing on.

picInstead, we focus on the two bland lovers, who have lost their satirical edge from the original, and come across as being as bland as the kids from the High School Musical films here. As Drew, Diego Boneta probably tries the hardest - He's likable, and can sing well. As for Julianne Hough as Sherrie, well, she doesn't create much confidence. She's a relative newcomer (her only major work so far has been in last year's Footloose remake), so maybe she'll get better over time, but here, she sometimes seems lost on screen, and her singing voice just isn't that powerful, especially when she's around people like Mary J. Blige. It certainly doesn't help that the two lack chemistry, and their scenes together fail to get us wrapped into their conventional love story. I found myself more interested in the characters around them, and wishing the camera would move away from them, and linger on Baldwin, Cruise, or Brand more.

picI wish I could say that the musical numbers helped save the day, or at least add a spark of energy to the film, but they strangely don't. There's music from bands like Poison, Journey, Def Leopard, and Twisted Sister, and it's all sung well enough by the actors, but it just lacks that "blow the roof off" energy that you would expect in a film like this. Likewise, the choreography and the way these sequences are shot come off as flat. Maybe in this day and age of TV's Glee and singing competition shows, the novelty of old songs being covered today just doesn't stand out anymore. I was never bored, I just wasn't as impressed as I felt I should be.
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I came in wanting to love Rock of Ages, and walked out feeling somewhat deflated. The poster promises us "nothing but a good time", and at times it comes pretty close. It just gets weighed down by unnecessary elements that have been added or changed from the original, and some uninspired casting in the two leads. If the movie does prove to be a hit, however, I can only hope that the studio plays off the strengths of this film, and gives us a Spinal Tap-style "mockumentary" based around Cruise's character. Now that would be a movie worth seeing.

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