Reel Opinions

Friday, March 31, 2006

Ice Age: The Meltdown

Now here's an odd little movie. By all accounts, Ice Age: The Meltdown is a textbook example of a soulless sequel that exists only to squeeze out some more cash after the original 2002 film became a surprise hit. There's not much in terms of plot to speak of, the characters haven't changed that much from the last time, and it's really just something for parents to take their kids to on Spring Break. And yet, despite all this, the movie sometimes catches you off guard and actually works. The movie would just be meandering along, not really impressing me, and then suddenly there would be a blast of inspiration that would come out of nowhere and make me laugh. I guess the likeable characters and the group of voice talent providing their personalities helped too. What I'm about to say may not sound like the most glowing of praise, but if there has to be a cash-in sequel to Ice Age, we at least have one that manages to be watchable.

As we rejoin our three heroes from the last film, we find their world is in peril. Manny the woolly mammoth (voice by Ray Romano), Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo), and Diego the sabertooth tiger (Dennis Leary) discover early on that the ice that covers the ground is rapidly melting, and in only a few days time, their home will become flooded. The ravenous vultures circling in the sky is a sign that they do not have much time, and they must set out for higher ground if they even want a chance at survival. During the journey, as they watch the various animal herds making their way to safety, Manny begins to realize that there are no other mammoths around, and begins to wonder if he is the last of his kind. Fortunately, he comes across a sweet-natured female mammoth named Ellie (Queen Latifah) during his travels. Unfortunately, she doesn't believe she's a mammoth, as she was raised by possums, and prefers the company of her pair of fast-talking possum "brothers" - Crash and Eddie (Seann William Scott and Josh Peck). As this unusual group makes their way to safety, they will each have to conquer their individual fears if they want to avoid extinction.

When you stop and think about it, the Ice Age films are actually kind of depressing and heavy stuff for kids. Death, extinction, and the end of the world are three themes that are referenced numerous times throughout the film. Somehow, the filmmakers know how to deal with these tricky topics in a way that will not frighten children, yet at the same time does not downplay the relative seriousness of it. The sometimes juvenile and crude toilet humor is a bit more questionable (A dung beatle is seen rolling a ball of dung along, and complains "why do I have to put up with this crap"?), but it's no worse than some other PG-rated comedies aimed at kids. Where I begin to question the motives of director Carlos Saldanha (Blue Sky Studios' last film, Robots) and his staff is in the plotting. There really is no story to speak of in this sequel, other than the characters are trying to get from Point A to Point B, and have some misadventures along the way. The movie has a fragmented tone as it hops from one sequence to the next. There is also no real villain or threat to our heroes, except for a pair of carnivorous sea creatures who pop up whenever the screenplay calls for an action sequence. I guess you could argue that the Earth itself is the threat, and the impending flood that seems to have sealed all the animals' fate. But still, all great animated films need a memorable villain, and Ice Age: The Meltdown has none.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the movie's desperation to fill time with its thin plot is how it constantly stops the story completely, and fills us in on the continuing adventures of Scrat (voice by Chris Wedge), the hard-luck prehistoric squirrel who has an obsessive passion for acorns, and a knack for practically getting himself killed in the process of obtaining said passion. The filmmakers obviously know that Scrat was a huge hit in the last film, so they've decided to make his part bigger this time around. Unfortunately, they couldn't figure out how to fit him into the movie, so instead of working him into the plot, they drop everything, and cut to a two or three minute-long slapstick sequence with Scrat. Although these scenes are entertaining for the most part, they all but scream desperation. These sequences play out almost like short Chuck Jones sketches, and while there's nothing wrong with that in theory, I rolled my eyes the fifth time the movie stopped the plot to give us more Scrat antics. As funny as the character can be, he really has no place in this movie.

Having read this far, you're probably wondering how I could find enjoyment out of a movie like this. That's because for all of its mediocrities, every once in a while, the movie hits upon a clever idea that creates genuine laughter. Anyone who does not laugh at the sight of a fully grown woolly mammoth hanging by its tail upside down from a tree in a vain attempt to prove it's a possum has lost their sense of the absurd. There is also a brilliant sequence where a group of hungry vultures dream of feasting on the certainly-doomed land mammals, and break into a rendition of "Food, Glorious Food" from the musical Oliver, the lyrics completely rewritten to fit the mind set of meat scavengers. I also got quite a bit of enjoyment out of the primitive tribal sloths who mistake Sid for their "Fire God", and wish more had been done with them. Like I said, these moments just come out of left field and take you by surprise. Even when the script itself is less than engaging, adult animation fans in the audience can at least expect to be entertained by the beautiful look of the film. There are some amazingly well done sequences in the film, such as the climactic flood scene. The colors are vibrant, the characters are well animated, and the entire movie just has a very pleasant look to it.

Above all else, what keeps Ice Age: The Meltdown afloat are the performances. The returning three stars (Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, and Dennis Leary) fit right back into their roles almost instantly, and the great chemistry they have together makes a comeback. Romano is a good straight man, Leary makes a fitting sarcastic loner, and Leguizamo is surprisingly likeable in a role that could have easily become annoying as the goofy Sid. The film knows how to make the most out of the three characters and their individual struggles, and the actors know how to work well together. The new additions to the cast are a mixed bag. I wasn't too fond of Seann William Scott and teen actor Josh Peck as the possums, but Queen Latifah surprised me as Ellie. She drops her usual sassy loud mouth act that she's used in so many comedies, and actually comes across as sweet and sympathetic in a goofy way. Walking into the movie, I couldn't exactly picture her as a love interest for Ray Romano, but they have good chemistry together and it actually works. Well, at least it works in a cartoon, I don't know how well it'd play off in a live action movie...

As I mentioned when I started this review, this is an odd little movie. It's a soulless cash-in, yet I was entertained, a lot more than I probably should have been. The kids are bound to like it, and if you found enjoyment in the first movie, you'll find something to like here too. Maybe not as much as before, but you won't walk out disappointed. Ice Age: The Meltdown won't give Pixar a run for their money, but it's a heck of a lot better then the sub-par Hoodwinked. If there has to be an Ice Age 3, I wouldn't mind it as long as Blue Sky actually puts some effort into telling a story, a problem that seemed to plague their last effort, Robots. These guys obviously have the talent, they just need a good storyteller to push them up near the top of the animation industry. As it is, while you may not like it as much as your kids will, you at least won't regret having to sit through it.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Inside Man

Taking a break from his usual racially-charged dramas, famed filmmaker Spike Lee brings us Inside Man - a heist movie that seems to have a lot more on its mind, but only nicks the surface of its own material. The film never lags, is blessed with some very good performances, and is overall an enjoyable film. But the movie is too long for its own good, and also feels the need to ram home its final revelation many times during its final 20 minutes as if we didn't get it the first time. In the end, Inside Man is a fine yet heavily flawed film that is a victim of some poor storytelling techniques.

What begins as an ordinary day for New York police detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) quickly escalates when a small group of masked men led by Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) enter a local bank, guns drawn, and take everyone inside hostage. Keith and his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are sent to control the situation, and hopefully establish a line of communications with the men staging the crime. The situation becomes a massive media event, and as time wears on, Keith slowly begins to realize that he's not dealing with just another ordinary thief, and that there may be bigger aspirations behind Dalton's plans besides just money and the demands that he has made. Unknown to everyone, the owner of the bank (Christopher Plummer) has become nervous when he hears the news of the situation, as there is a certain item in his safe deposit box that could tarnish his good reputation if it were to be uncovered. He hires smooth talking power broker Madeleine White (Jodie Foster) to intervene and try to get at the box before anyone can discover it. The mounting pressure of the hostage situation and the personal agendas of everyone involved will clash during a 24-hour period.

Although the film at first seems to be your typical bank heist movie, it is slowly revealed that first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz has a much bigger agenda at hand. Without going into spoiler territory, I will say that things are not what they seem, and when Dalton's true intentions for staging the heist are revealed along with the way everything is planned out, it is quite a surprise. The film wastes no time in setting up the tone or the situation. After a brief opening monologue from Clive Owen's character, the movie thrusts us directly into the action, and never quite lets up during its entire 2-hour+ running time. It expertly blends human drama, suspense, and even some humor into its storyline without the shift in tone seeming awkward or forced. Thanks to a strong overall cast and a mostly tight script, Inside Man engages almost from the get-go. The plot is filled with twists and turns, yet never becomes confusing or needlessly complex. For most of its length, the movie rarely takes a wrong step.

But then, there are two major faults that pop up (one throughout the film, and the other near the end) that prevent me from liking it as much as I thought I should. The first is Spike Lee's odd decision to shoot the film out of sequence from time to time. The movie will suddenly cut away from the story at hand, and we'll find ourselves in an interrogation room where the various hostages from the bank are being questioned by Keith and his partner about their possible involvement in the heist. (Dalton and his crew force all the hostages to strip and dress in the same disguises they are wearing so that the police cannot tell who is who.) Not only does this take us out of the action briefly, but it also kills some of the suspense, since by watching these scenes, we kind of know who's going to be walking out of the situation okay. Some of these sudden cuts to after the situation is over seem to come right at the very middle of a scene, then the interrupted scene is continued after the interrogation sequence ends. The movie does not do this so much that it becomes a major annoyance, but I still found myself anxious to get back to the story at hand whenever it would cut away from it for another interrogation.

Its second major fault, and the one that irked me the most, is how the movie rams its own point home continuously during its final moments. After the delight of the realization of the pieces falling into place, the movie just keeps on going for almost a good 15 minutes after you think it should be over. The worst part is that it does not do anything in these final moments to tell us something that we don't already know. We've already learned everyone's role in the overall story, what was in the box, and the reason for the robbery. Yet, the movie keeps on feeling the need to remind us of all of this like it thinks we didn't hear it the first time. This was quite a surprise to me, for up till this moment, the movie treats its audience with dignity and respect, only to suddenly turn and treat us like idiots. There's just simply too much to the ending when in this case less would have been more.

Now I don't want to stress only the negatives, as Inside Man is a movie worth your time. As mentioned earlier, the entire main cast gets their own moment to stand out. Denzel Washington plays a slightly cockier and ruder hero than we're used to seeing him play, but he fits the role well, and never takes his performance so far that we wind up disliking him. Clive Owen is a perfect match for Washington with his cool, calculating, yet strangely rational turn as the head of the bank robbers. After seeing his cartoon vigilante performance in last year's Derailed, it was nice to see him back in a serious role again. Jodie Foster recovers nicely from her annoying performance in Flightplan in a role that is small, yet very important to the film. Like Washington, she too is playing a different kind of character than we're normally used to seeing her play, but she fits the role perfectly. My only gripe with the performances is that none of the hostages are able to develop any real personalities, except for a few New York stereotypes. If the movie did have to have the interrogation scenes, at least Spike Lee could have afforded us the luxury of letting us get to know them a little bit better.

Even with its faults, Inside Man is a good movie, but could have been a great one with a bit tighter editing and perhaps another rewrite of the script. It holds our attention at least until its overly simplified and overly explained conclusion that seems to barely nick the surface of the message that it is trying to make. I felt a bit cheated by the end, but I enjoyed the film enough up to that point to recommend it. Spike Lee has sometimes been criticized for hitting people over the head with his messages, but I think he took it a bit far even by his standards. Still, even at its worst, Inside Man is at least consistently interesting and entertaining. It's no Dog Day Afternoon (the classic bank hostage film with Al Pacino, which is actually mentioned in this movie's dialogue at one point), but its heart and mind are in the right place.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Stay Alive

It would appear to this reviewer that the once varied horror genre seems to now be stuck in only two categories, repeating themselves in a continuous loop. The categories I speak of are either carnage-filled bloodfests that exist only to repulse (Hostel, The Hills Have Eyes, Wolf Creek), or overly sanitized to the point of ridiculousness schlock flicks that are designed simply to steal the allowance money of 14-year-old girls looking for a chance to scream (When a Stranger Calls). Stay Alive falls under the second category and does very little to buck the recent trend. First-time director and co-writer William Brent Bell has given us a film so incoherent and tactless that it plays out like the first draft of a script being projected on the screen. The movie carelessly throws logic and plot coherency to the wind, creating an experience so baffling that people are going to be too busy figuring stuff out to be scared. (Not that there's much in this film to be afraid of in the first place.) Throw in some laughably bad dialogue and a talentless cast, and you've got the makings for one instantly forgettable time at the theater.

The plot revolves around a horror video game called "Stay Alive" that supposedly kills the person who plays it shortly after their character dies in the game. (I say supposedly because thanks to the magic of the film's PG-13 rating, we don't get to see anyone die, and the editing is so sloppy, we often can't tell what's going on anyway. You'll just have to take my word for it.) Its most recent victims include a young man (Milo Ventimiglia) and his friends who all wind up dying the same way their characters did in the game. At the funeral, our hero Hutch (Jon Foster) inherits the young man's collection of video games, as they were childhood friends in the past. One of those games, unsurprisingly, is the deadly one. Guess which one Hutch and his buddies decide to break out when they all get together for a gaming session? The small group of buddies includes obnoxious geek Swink (Frankie Muniz), love interest Abigail (Samaire Armstrong), the whiny and annoying October (Sophia Bush), her equally annoying brother Phineus (Jimmi Simpson), and Hutch's video game-obsessed boss from work (Adam Goldberg). The group is awed by the game at first, but as they slowly start ending up being murdered one after another the same way their characters are killed in the game, Hutch begins to suspect that things are not what they seem, and that there may be a connection between the death of his childhood friend and his gaming group dropping like flies.

While this concept seems simple enough on the surface, it's actually a lot more complicated than that. There's something to do with some psychotic woman who killed a bunch of children in the past, and now her spirit somehow lives on inside the video game, so she can continue her murder spree. Don't bother trying to make sense out of that. The movie doesn't bother, so why should you? We never learn where this game came from, who made it, or how it somehow contains the power to call forth murderous spirits of centuries-old psycho killers. And just how does this video game cause Hutch and his friends to start hallucinating demonic figures appearing in mirrors and other such cheap scare tactics? Those would all be questions you would expect to be answered, and the movie teases us in making us think Hutch and his friends are going to try to track down the company that makes the game, but this plot point is almost immediately abandoned, and they instead go to a haunted Plantation mansion where CGI video game monsters literally come out of the walls. The movie is a nearly interminable 85 minutes of nonstop incoherency. The characters are paper thin and idiotic, and instead of trying to actually scare you, the movie decides to annoy you by assaulting your senses.

Yes, instead of letting the fear grow from the story itself, the movie decides to cheat and throw in numerous "jump scares", even when there's no need for one. This is usually accomplished by a rapidly quick cut of a random image accompanied by a high-pitched scream, sometimes right in the very middle of a scene. The movie also employs the age-old trick of hoping to make the audience jump by magnifying every sound effect. Cell phones ring at an almost deafening volume, and even the built-in vibration feedback of a video game controller has the ability to literally echo down a hallway. I've grown increasingly tired of these kind of tricks, and the fact that 75% of the film is based around intensified noise in a futile attempt to frighten us quickly grew old with me. Don't expect any actual scares from the movie itself, however. There's no blood (other than a bizarre sequence where a computer keyboard starts oozing the stuff), and there is no actual violence depicted on screen. This film was obviously edited from an R to a PG-13 in a vain attempt to sucker in a wider audience, but it just doesn't work, because the editing is so sloppy that we often can't see what's happening. We get a couple shots of dark figures darting about in the background before the victim meets his demise, then we either see him or her scream before the camera cuts away, or the camera suddenly suffers from a seizure in order to cover up the gruesome act that we're supposed to be watching. The film's storyline is confusing enough, we don't need sloppy editing to add insult to injury. The final nail in the coffin is the ending where not only does a character seemingly return from the dead without a word of explanation, but it also contains a final scene that doesn't make a lick of sense. While it's common for most horror movies to end on a note that leaves the audience to believe it's not over yet, this film contains one of the worst endings of its kind I've seen in a long time.

With the characters so underdeveloped that the brief descriptions I gave of them in the earlier plot synopsis are actually deeper than the way they're depicted in the film itself, the performances are bound to suffer. Stay Alive does not disappoint here. The actors have nothing to work with, except that they all like to get together and play video games, so they're left floundering about on the screen before the movie has the mercy to kill most of their characters off. The prime offender is young TV star, Frankie Muniz, who gives a performance so howlingly bad that he ought to be up for one of the infamous Razzie awards come next year. The rest of the cast is completely one-note in their performances. We've got the "hero", the "good girl", the "jerk", the "tough girl with the nice personality", the "geek"...These aren't people, they're walking stereotypes with only their physical features to mainly differentiate them. (Muniz' character, for example, wears a sun visor hat backwards.) The film can't even afford us the luxury of a decent monster. The film's villain, a murderous ghoul known as "The Blood Countess", appears for such brief periods of time and does so little when she's actually on screen that she may as well not even be in the movie at all.

Is there anything I can recommend about Stay Alive? Well, the pre-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans setting was kind of unexpected, but the setting was put to much better use in last year's The Skeleton Key. And, I must admit, whoever designed the video game for this movie seemed to know a lot more about horror atmosphere than anyone involved with this movie. It's not exactly a game I would race out and buy myself, but I was impressed that it actually turned out to be semi-decent considering the quality of the film that surrounds it. Other than that, Stay Alive is a completely disposable little piece of trash. It's been a pretty tough time for horror fans. Here's to hoping next month's Silent Hill (which, despite the fact it's based on a video game, looks extremely promising) can help lift my spirits.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector

A thought occurred to me while heading home from watching Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector. How does one review a movie that forces pretty much everyone to make a preconceived notion about it? You can't really change a person's opinion on watching a Larry the Cable Guy movie. Either you enjoy his "redneck glorifying" brand of humor or you don't. So, instead of my usual critical analysis, I have made up a test which allows you to judge whether or not you are right for this movie. But before we get to that, I feel I at least owe it to the movie to recap its plot. (As if anyone walking into a movie called Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector gives a flip about the plot.)

Our title hero is a dim-witted, slack-jawed hick who makes a living out of his rather unorthodox method of inspecting restaurants for code violations. His long-suffering boss (played by Tom Wilson, best known for playing Biff in the Back to the Future trilogy) has had enough of Larry and, hoping to get him fired, partners him with a straight-laced and uptight partner (Iris Bahr, who seems to be channeling the very spirit of comic actress Janeane Garofalo in her performance). When a series of mysterious food poisonings start occurring at fine restaurants throughout the area, it's up to Larry and his new partner to solve the crime before a big cooking competition amongst all the local restaurants is to take place. The list of suspects is many and includes the town's shifty Mayor (Joe Pantoliano), and even two sisters who head one of the restaurants, and may be trying to eliminate the competition (Joanna Cassidy and Brooke Dillman).

That's pretty much the entire 90 minutes of the film right there. There is also a romantic subplot concerning a shy young woman (Megyn Price) whom Larry falls for during his investigation, but really, it's simply all an excuse for fans of Larry the Cable Guy to get together and revel in his special blend of comedy. Quite frankly, no critic can really review this movie. If they shun it for being crude, they're simply missing the point, as I'm sure that was the intention all along. And since this movie is basically one long rude joke, anything a critic complains about is basically void, since the movie knows its fans and gives them exactly what they want.

So, now the big question, is this movie for you? Well, here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to list a number of comedic highlights from this film. I want you to rate your response to these jokes on a scale of 0 to 5. (0 being lowest, and 5 being the highest.) At the end, we'll tally up your score, and see if this movie is worth your hard-earned movie dollar. Ready? Let's begin...

-One of the very first things we see in this movie (and it is a sight that is repeated often) is a lingering 10 second close up of Larry's butt crack. This is followed mere moments later by a shot of Larry urinating on himself as he takes a shower, and then using a Q-tip to clean his ear, only to put the wax-covered Q-tip back in the pile where he found it, so he can use it again for later.

-One of Larry's favorite things to do, when he's not drinking beer or annoying people with his boorish behavior, is to spend time with the mentally challenged man who lives next door to him and repeatedly hits himself in the crotch with a soccer ball.

-Larry's favorite restaurant to eat at is a local grease trap where they deep-fry everything, even the cole slaw.

-When a restaurant with a perfect record of inspections in the past is discovered to have rat droppings, Larry decides to investigate. He takes one of the rats found, and thoroughly inspects its rear area with his finger and nose. He comes to the conclusion that since the area on the rat is completely dry, the droppings have been planted by someone else, and the rat is being framed.

-The food poisoning that the mysterious villain is slipping into the restaurants causes anyone who eats the food to fart very loudly and develop explosive bowel movements in a series of scenes that seem to owe very much to that moment in Dumb and Dumber where Jim Carrey's character slipped a laxative in Jeff Daniels' drink.

-One of the celebrity judges at the food competition is Jerry Mathers, aka The Beaver from Leave it to Beaver. He doesn't do anything, nor does he have anything to do with the movie. The fact that he's Jerry Mathers and he's a judge is the joke.

-Larry's mode of transportation is the "Larrymobile", which is a beat up truck that has a glove compartment full of moon pies, and is literally filled to bursting with every junk food wrapping imaginable. When his truck is stolen and eventually impounded, the impound worker initially thinks that the truck has been totaled, due to the shabby state that it's in. Larry, however, is overjoyed at the sight of the truck, as it's exactly the way he left it and hasn't been touched at all.

-The very thought of seeing Larry the Cable Guy look at the camera, point his finger at the audience, and say his signature catch phrase "Git R done" causes you to burst into rapturous laughter and applause as if it's just been announced that everyone in the theater has won a lifetime supply of free ice cream, and has been guaranteed eternal happiness from that moment on. I'm serious, that's how the audience I saw this movie with reacted when the guy delivered his catch phrase.

Okay, that's it. Pencils down everyone. Let's see how you did.There's 8 instances from the film listed above. Rate your reaction of amusement or interest on a scale of 1-5. There's a grand total of 40 points possible. The scoring breaks down as such...

40-30 Point Range - What are you waiting for, get in line now! Have a good time.

20 Point Range - You'll probably still enjoy it, but not as much as the people in the above category.

10 Point Range - You might get a mild chuckle here and there, but you're better off waiting for the DVD, which will probably include the "enlightening" Larry the Cable Guy commentary.

Under 10 Point Range - You're too smart for this movie, and probably already know so, so if you're even considering seeing this movie, you're either a film critic like me, or a masochist.

In case you're wondering, I scored in the bottom range, which already tells you what I thought of this movie. Not that it matters. I won't change anyone's mind who already likes Larry the Cable Guy, just as how they won't change my belief that the guy makes a living on glorifying Southern stereotypes. It's pointless to criticize and analyze this movie, as you probably already know where you stand. The movie succeeds at what it wanted to be. Whether or not that's a good thing is a personal call that I leave up to you.

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

She's the Man

I look forward to seeing teen actress Amanda Bynes growing into more adult roles. She's got a likeable screen presence, she's obviously talented, and she's attractive, yet realistically so and not overly made up. The main reason I look forward to Bynes growing into more adult roles, however, is so that she will hopefully be offered some better films to go along with her obvious potential. Her current film, She's the Man, is the latest in a long line of dopey teen comedies that take "inspiration" from classic stories or plays. Such past examples include Ten Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew) and Whatever It Takes (Cyrano DeBergerac). The inspiration this time around is Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, although it could easily be argued that the film takes more inspiration from the mostly forgotten 80s teen comedy, Just One of the Guys, which shares many of the same themes. She's the Man is not exactly unwatchable, but it's just so mediocre that the whole thing seems pointless. Add this to the fact that the movie seems to be 15 minutes too long, thanks to the screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (Legally Blonde) insistence on giving their film multiple climaxes, and you've got an unmemorable movie experience that will appeal only to very undiscriminating preteen girls.

As tomboyish high school senior Viola (Amanda Bynes) prepares to enter her final year of school with dreams of winning the championship soccer trophy filling her head, she is shocked to discover that the girl's team has been cut completely from her school, and her unsympathetic boyfriend Justin (Robert Hoffman) is no help at all. With her ditzy mother (Julie Haggerty) pushing her to forget about soccer and concentrate on being a lady, Viola is getting desperate, and sees her window of opportunity when her brother Sebastian (James Kirk) sneaks off to London for two weeks to perform in a Battle of the Bands-style competition instead of attending his new private boarding school. Since no one at his school has met him, Viola puts together a plan where she will disguise herself as him, attend school in his place, and try out for the soccer team so she can beat her old school's team and prove to them that women are just as good at the sport as guys.

Of course, things quickly turn complicated. Viola develops a secret crush for her handsome roommate, Duke (Channing Tatum), but of course, she can't blow her secret before the big game. Furthermore, the most popular girl at the school, Olivia (Laura Ramsey), falls in love with Viola's "Sebastian" identity, even though Duke is secretly in love with Olivia. Not only that, Viola must deal with the real Sebastian's angry and stuck up girlfriend, Monique (Alex Breckenridge), who is constantly growing upset that "Sebastian" seems to be ignoring her all the time. Will Viola get to play in the big game and show up the boyfriend who shunned her? Will she be able to keep her identity a secret long enough? Will she ever get to express her true feelings to Duke? I'm sure the answers to these questions will be very surprising to those of you who have never watched a movie before.

Like many recent comedies that have forced its star to remain in the disguise of the opposite sex for most of its running time, She's the Man does not work at its most basic level because we never once believe the disguise, nor do we believe that anyone would be fooled by the trick unless they had the I.Q. of Jell-O Pudding. Okay, Amanda Bynes does look slightly more convincing as a guy than say Martin Lawrence trying to pass himself off as a woman in Big Momma's House 2, but the big problem here is that she looks way too young as a guy. Her "Sebastian" looks like he'd be 12 or 13-years old. Seeing "him" surrounded by a large number of actual guys makes the illusion becomes even shakier. I will give Bynes this, at least her "Sebastian" actually looks like he belongs at school. All of the other characters are played by guys in their mid and late 20s and don't even look like high school students. Our sense of disbelief is pushed even further when the real Sebastian returns home from London, and the movie expects us to believe that everyone can't tell the two apart even though they look nothing alike. This is the kind of movie that relies entirely on the stupidity of its entire cast in order for it to work, which is commonly known as the Idiot Plot. If the characters showed even the slightest bit of reason or competence, the movie would be over in less than 20 minutes.

If the movie itself is entertaining, I can usually overlook the Idiot Plot. She's the Man, however, is just not very funny. The movie keeps on throwing Viola into situations where her true identity is threatened to be revealed, and then does nothing funny with them, or sometimes chooses to do absolutely nothing at all. A good example is the sequence around the middle of the film where Viola is at a carnival, and must constantly dodge her friends as she switches back and forth between her two identities, racing around trying to be in two places at once. While potentially amusing, the film does not set up any humor in the situation, it is simply Bynes running herself exhausted and trying to dodge being discovered by her own friends and family and "Sebastian's" friends. The movie does thankfully keep a rapid pace throughout, so at least the scenes that don't work at all don't hang around for too long. That is at least until the ending, which is dragged out with so many climaxes and wrapping up so many loose ends that it's almost like we're watching the ending to 2 or 3 different movies. Couldn't they have found a way to wrap up everything in one big ending? Everything that happens in the last 15 minutes could have been resolved in about 5 or 6 minutes, making the movie mercifully shorter.

The one thing that does lift the film up from being a complete waste of time is Bynes herself, who is constantly likeable and has a great screen presence. Even though we never fully believe her illusion as passing herself off as a guy, she at least gives it her all, and never comes across as annoying like so many comic actors do when they are assuming the role of the opposite gender. She has so much energy and a natural charm to her performance that you almost wish it was being used in a better movie. The rest of the cast are passable, but since they are forced to play idiots, it's hard to get behind them as much as the lead star. The one actor who does stand out is Channing Tatum as Duke. When he's not being stupid, he's actually quite sensitive and sweet in his performance, and you can see why Viola would fall for him. Of course, he looks a bit too old to still be in high school, but hey so does everyone else in this movie except for Bynes, so at least he doesn't look too out of place.

The charm of Amanda Bynes can only last so long before you start to realize that there's really nothing else happening in this movie. She's the Man is a parade of half-baked comic ideas that are not exploited to their full potential. But then, perhaps I'm not the person who should be reviewing this movie, as I don't think it was made for me. I'm sure Bynes' younger fans will get a huge kick out of this movie. The audience I saw it with, which was made up of mostly preteen girls, certainly seemed to. It's at least mostly clean and harmless, so parents will have little to worry about letting them see the film. But really, that does not excuse just how sloppy and uninspired everything is. I highly doubt I'll remember She's the Man 6 months from now, but if I do, I'll probably remember a solid lead performance and nothing much else.

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Friday, March 17, 2006

V For Vendetta

In a day and age when we are faced with sequels to Basic Instinct and TV ads warn of an upcoming Larry the Cable Guy movie, it's movies like V For Vendetta that remind us that there are still films out there that not only entertain, but also make us think. First-time filmmaker James McTeigue has brought us a film that is a joy to watch, not only because it is visually stunning, but because it is constantly fascinating almost from the first frame of the film. While it's true that the story loses a bit of weight when you apply logic to it, that still does not hide the fact that V For Vendetta is the first must see film of 2006, and a wonderful return to form for screenwriters the Wachowski Brothers, after their mostly disappointing Matrix sequels.

The film is set in the not too distant future, where Britain is ruled under a constant state of fear and paranoia. The United States is crumbling, and Britain, under the rule of the iron-fisted Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) has increased in power, but its people are slaves to a government that basically controls all form of media and knowledge in order to keep the citizens under their rule. A masked, knife-wielding vigilante who goes only the name of V (Hugo Weaving) has started a private underground war against the oppressors. Through acts that some would consider acts of terrorism, V hopes to rally the people, and help them understand that "people should not fear their government, government should fear their people".

The story kicks off when V has a chance encounter with a woman who works for the local TV station, Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), after he saves her from some corrupt officers. Evey is immediately intrigued by the masked man, perhaps because her past involves parents who were political activists. For reasons that perhaps she herself doesn't understand at first, she finds herself fighting for his side, and is slowly drawn into his underworld of revolution and enjoying the pleasures that the government has banned, such as music and film. In a parallel storyline, a police investigator named Finch (Stephen Rea) is desperately trying to piece together the vague clues that may lead to V's identity, and the deeper he digs, the more he begins to distrust the very government that he works for.

While the film's ad campaign may lead audiences to believe that this is a special effects action film, it is really a tightly constructed statement on many of today's issues from terrorism to the use of fear to rally a nation. Although V For Vendetta does have its share of action sequences, it has a much higher purpose, and does so with great skill. It is not just a commentary or dark political satire, but also an interesting character study between two very fascinating characters, and the strange bond that grows between them. Both V and Evey have deep layers to their characters, and they only grow deeper as the story goes on. The film knows how to make every second of its 2 hour+ running time. Not one scene is wasted or seems unnecessary. Aside from the more corrupt government individuals, there are no "black and white" characters. The major cast have numerous levels to be admired, a key example is a surprisingly touching scene where V seeks vengeance on an elderly woman who wronged him in the past. Although it is an act of murder, there also seems to be a quiet understanding between him and his victim, and their final conversation before the act is done is wonderfully written and performed.

Perhaps more so than the characters, it is the realistic look and tone that carries throughout the film. Even though the setting is in the future, the look of the world is wisely not so far-fetched that we can't recognize it. It is eerily plausible for the most part, giving the story a refreshingly honest tone. The overall look is also beautiful in a dark way. Relying mostly on blacks and grays, and with most of the scenes being set at night, the movie knows how to use its color scheme without coming across as repetitive or overly bleak. There are also some spectacularly directed sequences, such as a montage which cuts back and forth between V's affect on the community, and he himself setting up an elaborate set of dominos in his underground chamber. The only sequence that rings somewhat false in the entire film is a bloody knife fight late in the story that relies a little bit too much on Matrix-style slow mo. The entire rest of the film had been doing just fine without resorting to such overused "style" tactics, and it was not needed in this scene either.

In order for a story like this to work, it needs a strong cast. After all, in the wrong hands, a man running around wearing a theatrical mask and screaming about uprisings could come across as unintentionally cheesy and laughable. Fortunately, the entire cast is up to the challenge, particularly Hugo Weaving as the masked man himself. He is masked for literally the film's entire running time, and we never get to see his face. It is a credit to his performance that he is able to bring forth great power and emotion to his performance, despite the fact that he is incapable of showing any facial expression whatsoever. He is sincere and strong almost from the moment we meet him. He knows how to play up the theatrical and bizarre nature of his character without going so over the top that he loses the humanity of V. He is sympathetic without being made out to be a complete and total innocent. V is a killer, even he admits that. Yet, like Evey, we the audience are drawn to his word, his world, and his way of thinking. I personally think it's one of the more interesting performances I've seen in a while.

The rest of the cast are equally strong, in particular Natalie Portman and John Hurt. Portman, one of the more talented young women working today, is able to take on a British accent with very few if any instances of her slipping into her natural voice. Much has been made of the fact that she had to shave her head for a good part of the film, but I think her performance rises above her physical appearance in this movie. Besides, if I do say so myself, she doesn't look too bad with a shaved head. Casting John Hurt as the tyrannical Chancellor is inspired seeing that he played the lead role in a film version of 1984 years ago, a story which tackles many of the same issues as V. His screen time is limited, and his character is one-note, but he is able to make the most of it, and still come across as a memorable villain. Stephen Rea as the investigator on V and Evey's trail is a bit underwritten as a character, but he is still able to squeeze out every last ounce of personality in his role.

Thinking back on the film, a few cracks in its mostly strong facade begin to show. It is a bit hard to believe that one man could pull off everything that V does in this film. From staging a prison interrogation for weeks on end without the "prisoner" being the wiser, to somehow mass producing and handing out what seems to be an unlimited supply of masks just like his to the people of the street, V seems to have an unlimited amount of money and time on his hands that he can pull off these elaborate acts seemingly with little time or warning. It is but a minor gripe, however, and it is a credit to the film that I did not come to think of this until after it was over and I was heading home. Also, some issues such as pedophile priests seem to be brought up then forgotten. It's like the Wachowski Brothers were trying to throw as many hot topics as they could into their screenplay. If the movie had focused itself a bit more on just a small amount of issues, it could have been even stronger than it already is.

These faults really do not take away from the fact that V For Vendetta is not only a highly enjoyable movie, but the first memorable film of the year. After 2 and a half months of mediocre dramas and increasingly terrible comedies, this movie is almost like a gift. The film wants to be a popcorn flick for people who want to put a bit more thought into their film going, and at that, it is pretty much a success all around. At the very least, V For Vendetta, strives to be remembered, and with so many forgettable films clogging the multiplexes, that is an admirable thing, and something that should be encouraged.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Failure to Launch

If Failure to Launch had been set on another planet than ours, maybe I'd be able to believe its characters and its situations. Unfortunately, the film is set right here on good old Earth, and as such, I found it hard to believe what I was seeing. Here is a romantic comedy so ineptly put together, the film couldn't have worked at any stage of development, not even in the conceptual stage. It is an annoying, overly quirky date movie that tries to combine heartfelt sentiment, wacky sub plots, and slapstick humor. The fact that it fails at everything it tries to be is no surprise when you consider that the director, Tom Dey, previously directed Showtime, one of the worst of Eddie Murphy's recent comedic misfires. From the editing to the scripting, this is total amateur night filmmaking, and how it attracted such a big name cast remains a mystery.

The male lead is Tripp (Matthew McConaughhey), a 35-year old slacker who still lives at home with his parents, and spends most of his time bumming around with his two best friends, Ace (Justin Bartha) and Demo (Bradley Cooper). Despite the fact that they all have bizarre names, the one thing they share in common is that they all still live at home, and have no plans to move on with their lives, as they're having too much fun goofing off. Tripp's parents, Sue and Al (played by Kathy Bates and Terry Bradshaw respectively) have had enough of their son mooching off of them, and see their golden opportunity when they hear of a woman who somehow has made a career out of forcing grown men to move out on their own. This woman is Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), and she does this by pretending to fall in love with the son, slowly building up their confidence to move out on their own, then dumping them once they do. How Paula came to choose pretending to date men as a life career, and how she goes about advertising her bizarre service, the movie fails to really explain. And wouldn't the "dumping" part of her plan emotionally scar the man, and perhaps send him spiraling back to the way he was before?

Regardless, the plot creeks onward. Paula is hired by Tripp's parents and, in a plot point that should be of no surprise to anyone who's ever seen a movie before, she actually starts to develop feelings for the guy the more time she spends with him. Though what a dim-witted loser like him and a manipulative and scheming woman like her could remotely see in each other, I have no idea. In order to pad out the film's paper thin storyline, we also get Paula's "wacky" best friend (Zooey Deschanel) and her on-going battle with a mockingbird that has apparently made a permanent home outside her window, and drives her crazy with its constant chirping. We also get numerous scenes of the main characters being attacked by animals, everything from dolphins to chipmunks, all in the name of slapstick that comes out of nowhere and looks like it belongs in a completely different movie. Oh, and in case there are some deranged individuals in the audience that have always hoped to see former NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw naked, we get that too.

Failure to Launch is the kind of movie that takes a bad idea, and then finds new ways to make it even worse than you imagined. Not a single second of this movie is genuine, believable, or even remotely plausible. While its true that this is supposed to be escapism entertainment, even escapism needs some sort of grounding in reality in order for us to associate with it. With the way the characters are portrayed, the dialogue is written, and the situations are executed, we may as well be looking at the first filmed document of life on Mars. The movie is constantly shifting its tone, seemingly at the drop of a hat. For example, the two main characters may be sharing a quiet moment, when suddenly they are attacked by a normally harmless animal for no reason whatsoever. The movie does try to make a half-assed attempt to explain this bizarre phenomenon, but I think the best explanation is lazy screen writing and a desperate attempt to get a laugh. The movie only gets worse from then on. By the time it reaches an uncomfortably bizarre scene that revolves around one of the main characters being tied to a chair, I had given up hope long ago. More so than the total laziness of the situations is the dialogue itself. Not only are the jokes not funny, but some don't even make any sense, such as the scene where Paula's friend wants to shoot the mockingbird, but she's told she can't, because of the book To Kill a Mockingbird. If you read that last sentence and laughed, then you're the audience Failure to Launch is looking for.

Perhaps more aggravating than the script itself is how sloppily the film has been put together. I honestly think that this is the worst edited mainstream Hollywood comedy I have seen since the Ben Stiller / Jack Black flop, Envy. Characters talk when their mouths aren't moving, a character can be far away but they sound like they're right next to the other person...Most annoying of all is how it often refuses to have more than one character in a single shot, so it's constantly cutting back and forth from person to person over and over again, which gets very irritating during longer scenes. Did director Tony Dey take a look at the finished product and think to himself that it was releasable as it was? This looks like a rough cut that accidentally got shipped off to the cinema before it was ready. The final edited product also doesn't know how to juggle the film's multiple characters or storylines in a successful way. Too much time is spent on needless fluff, while the main plotline of the growing relationship between Tripp and Paula seems to be put on the back burner far too often.

Just like a sinking ship, Failure to Launch manages to bring most of its talented cast down with it. Matthew McConaughey does his usual "aw shucks" good ol' Southern boy act that he always does, most recently last Fall's drama, Two For the Money. He seems to confuse flashing that toothy grin of his for acting most of the time. Sure, some women may swoon, but he's very superficial in his performance and just doesn't have the weight to carry this film. Sarah Jessica Parker comes off as a bit more professional in her performance, but her character is impossible to like, since Paula is more or less a prostitute who sells herself for fake love, and is even willing to go so far as to have sex with men in order to keep the deception running. Zooey Deschanel at least has some personality as the somewhat bitter and sarcastic best friend role, but even she grew tiresome after a while, as her plight to rid herself of the mockingbird menace just failed to generate any laughs. The only actor who generated any real feeling with me is Kathy Bates as Tripp's understanding mother. Then again, I've liked her in just about everything, and not even a movie this bad can kill her charms.

I walked into this movie expecting a lighthearted and frothy concoction that I could at least be amused by. What I got was a stupefyingly brainless and inept film that seems to have been edited with a chainsaw. If that was the least of its problems, Failure to Launch could have still been at least entertaining. A movie like this probably shouldn't have the word "failure" in its title, as it makes it way too easy for critics to make bad title tie-in jokes in their reviews. I have mercifully spared you of this fate. Hopefully this review will also spare you the fate of seeing this movie as well.

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The Hills Have Eyes

When did horror movies stop even trying to scare us? The Hills Have Eyes, a remake of a 1970s Wes Craven cheapie horror flick, seems to bend over backwards to splatter its main characters with dust, grime, dirt, and blood head to toe. So what, I ask? We can pretty much see the same stuff when we turn on the TV and watch Fear Factor. What The Hills Have Eyes fails to do is create any form of tension, suspense, or even remotely scare us. Co-writer and director Alexandre Aja (High Tension) knows how to set up potentially frightening scenes, but then does absolutely nothing with them. Compared to other recent horror remakes, the film is far from bad, but it only induced yawns from me instead of the intended frights and quickened heartbeat.

The film begins as many horror movies - with a bunch of people who do the wrong thing because they trust someone they obviously shouldn't have trusted in the first place. The people in question are the Carter family. There's father Bob (Ted Levine), his wife Ethel (Kathleen Quinlan), teenage children Bobby (Dan Byrd) and Brenda (Emilie de Raven), adult daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw), Lynne's husband Doug (Aaron Stanford), and Lynne and Doug's baby Catherine. They're driving cross country to California, and are currently lost in the desert after Bob insisted they take a detour and see the sights. They pull into a scuzzy, run down gas station (mistake # 1), and unwisely decide to take directions from the one guy who works there (mistake # 2). The guy looks like he hasn't bathed since the Y2K problem was discovered to be not such a big deal after all, and has never heard of dental hygiene. Regardless, they trust him, and follow his directions to a "short cut" back to civilization.

Of course, the path turns out to be anything but what they expect. Not only do they immediately come across a set trap that kills their tires, they are unknowingly being watched by hideous, cannibalistic freaks of nature that have been mutated after U.S. nuclear tests were performed in the desert decades ago, and have been attacking unsuspecting families traveling through the desert for years. When these "creatures" attack the Carters, most are raped or killed, and the few remaining survivors must band together to not only get out of the trap alive, but to also track down baby Catherine, whom the mutants have taken back to their hideout for reasons unknown.

The Hills Have Eyes is pretty standard stuff as far as horror films go, and should hold few surprises for anyone with even a passing familiarity of the genre. You can pretty much pinpoint who's going to live to see the end credits almost the second they walk onto the screen. (Except for one survivor that came as somewhat of a surprise to me.) There's certainly nothing wrong with staying true to traditions, and for a little while, the film works. It's got an appropriately gritty and sun-baked look that gives the audience a sense of sweltering heat. The opening half is also somewhat creepy in that we can hear the people watching the Carters from afar, but cannot see them. We hear their moans and groans, and are watching the Carters from their point of view. It's effective, and gets the audience excited. Sure, the first half kind of relies a little too much on cheap jump scares (people suddenly throwing themselves against the window of the car for no reason whatsoever), but for the most part, the movie does a good job at hinting that something suitably creepy is about to take place.

Then we finally get to see the family's hidden tormentors, and all that tension flies out the window when we see that they look like a cross between Sloth, the kind-hearted deformed man-child from The Goonies, and rejects from the casting call for a remake of Deliverance. They're just not very scary looking, and no matter how often they glare at the camera or clumsily paw at the female members of the Carter clan, they did not create any feelings of terror or fear. I actually couldn't stop thinking about that character from The Goonies whenever they came up on the screen, and I kept on silently laughing to myself. This is not the feeling that I think Mr. Aja was shooting for. Regardless, the mutants show up, they do some damage, then they run off. The remainder of the film deals with the survivor's fight to escape, which would be interesting if the movie could think of something interesting to happen. After the attack, the movie seems to just meander along, not really going anywhere. One of the survivors goes off with the dog to look for the missing baby, while the others literally do nothing but cry and set up traps around their vehicle in case the mutants come back. Nothing happens for so long that we quickly find ourselves losing interest. The movie does try to creep us out again when one of the survivors comes across an abandoned town that was used in the nuclear tests, but once again, the movie shoots itself in the foot because so little happens. And when something does happen, the dog is usually the one to solve the problem. It almost starts to resemble some kind of twisted episode of Lassie. ("What is it girl? Grandpa Joe is being attacked by cannibal mutants? Well, go maul 'em!")

Aside from being disappointingly dull, it's hard to root for the Carters because, like so many other horror films, the movie doesn't care about them. They spend the entire first half of the movie bickering and/or complaining, especially the character who eventually turns out to be the one we're supposed to root for at the end. The character's shift from whiner to superhuman who can still fight after getting body parts chopped off, his head bashed in repeatedly, and shot at is quite hard to swallow. Perhaps what makes it harder to accept this person as being the hero is that earlier in the film, the character steals from cars of past victims that have been dumped in the middle of the desert by the mutant clan. Okay, let me ask you something. If you came across a giant pit in the middle of the desert filled with blood-stained cars, would you start looting stuff like teddy bears and fishing poles from within them, and then take them back to your family? The film also becomes way too reliant on coincidences and impossibilities that the entire film just collapses on the already shaky foundation that it was built on.

Maybe a rewrite or two could have fixed things, because this is a well done movie in just about every other aspect. Even if the characters are a bit thin for their own good, the actors do give it their all, and are at least able to give very emotional and honest performances, perhaps more so than the material deserves. The music score is tense without being overbearing, and like I said, the film is good at setting up the horror. It's only when the horror finally reveals itself that the movie starts to lose its way and turns into a tedious and slow-paced slog. It's frustrating, because we see the movie keeps on stacking up potentially memorable moments (such as a sequence where a character finds himself locked in a giant broken down freezer filled with bloody corpses) only to do nothing with them. It also would have been nice if we find out more about the evil mutant clan. It certainly would have helped explain why one of them decides to turn against them at one point.

The Hills Have Eyes is not a terrible film, and is a much stronger effort than Aja's High Tension. (This movie thankfully leaves out the wacko twist ending that all but killed Tension.) It just could have been and should have been so much than what's up on the screen. All the right stuff is there. I don't know, maybe something got lost when the film was edited from a NC-17 to an R, and we'll have to wait for the unrated DVD to get the full film. Die-hard gore fans are sure to have fun, though, as they'll get plenty of splatter for their buck. Anyone else who wants a little bit more from their horror will just have to keep on waiting.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

The Shaggy Dog

What was everyone involved with Disney's new remake of The Shaggy Dog thinking while they made this movie? A better question to ask perhaps would be was anyone thinking at all? Here is a very creepy and just plain disturbing film being mispromoted as a family friendly comedy. This movie didn't bring forth any laughs from me, but it did bring out feelings of revulsion, general disinterest, and most of all pity for just about everyone who walked onto the screen. It would seem that 80s teen actor turned filmmaker, Brian Robbins (Good Burger, Varsity Blues), had no idea what he was doing. But hey, at least he was in good company, as I highly doubt the 5+ writers credited to the screenplay knew what to do either. The Shaggy Dog is simultaneously dull and disturbing, but most of all, it is guilty of making me hate a performance by Robert Downey Jr. - something I never thought would happen.

The story actually kicks off in Tibet where a mystical shaggy dog lives in a community of monks. But this is no ordinary dog, as he has lived for over 300 years due to a genetic mutation that lengthens his life span high above an average dog. This is the least of the dog's talents, as the first time we see him, he is literally meditating with the other monks. And later, we witness him catching some waves on a surfboard thanks to the "magic" of special effects that look about as convincing as Michael Jackson's nose. Thinking back on this movie, I think the filmmakers would have been wise to just drop the human stars completely, and concentrate on what an amazing life this dog must have had in the past 300 years. Alas, no such luck. Said mystical dog is kidnaped by some soldiers mere minutes later. The soldiers work for a mad scientist named Dr. Kozak (Robert Downey Jr.) who wants the dog to further his research into a drug that could make people live longer lives. His various research and unethical experiments on animals have raised the attention of animal rights activists, and this is where things begin.

Tim Allen plays Dave Douglas, an overworked district attorney assistant who barely has time for his family as he works his way up to becoming a true D.A. His family includes caring wife Rebecca (Kristen Davis), who is nearing the end of her rope over how Dave constantly puts his career before them; teenage daughter Carly (Zena Gray), who is one of the people protesting the practice of the mad doctor; and youngest son Josh (Spencer Breslin), who is intentionally flunking math so he can be kicked off the football team and try out for his middle school's musical production. Dave's latest trial is that he must defend Dr. Kozak's company after a rebellious animal rights activist apparently tried to set fire to the lab. Unknown to Dave, his daughter Carly breaks into Kozak's lab to try to get some proof of the doctor's experiments, and winds up helping the magical dog escape from the lab. (Though, if the dog can find inner peace and surf, surely it could escape on its own I would think.) Carly takes the dog home where it promptly bites Dave on the hand. Somehow, this causes the man to start to take on the characteristics of a dog, and eventually turn completely into one. Dave must learn how to deal with his bizarre situation, get to the bottom of the mad doctor's evil genetic mutation schemes, find some way to convince his family of his identity, and most of all, learn how to be a better father who respects his family in the process.

The Shaggy Dog falls under the category of what I like to call "mundane fantasy". These are the movies that fill themselves with the impossible, and instead decide to focus solely on the common and the everyday things. Here is a movie that is filled with mystical surfing dogs, mad scientists, dog bites that can turn people into animals, and animals that can apparently learn how to drive cars after being artificially implanted with dog genes (don't ask). And yet, the movie doesn't even bother to focus on any of this stuff. It instead focuses most of its time and attention on Tim Allen's character having to be a better father. The movie doesn't bother to explain how or why a dog has the ability to transfer mutation and transformation abilities with a single bite, or why it even decided to bite Allen's character in the first place. It simply happens, and then instead of focusing on this miraculous event, it keeps on diverting our attention with problems at home. My question is why? Why build your movie around such an impossible concept and then completely forget about it for most of your running time? Any person could probably think of a million interesting ideas to do with this premise. All this film gives us is a very unfunny voice over commentary by Allen that quickly grows tiresome.

It's perhaps not surprising that the movie is not interested in its own wonder, as nobody else in this movie even seems to notice. The people in the world of The Shaggy Dog are some of the most oblivious morons I have ever had the misfortune of witnessing in a movie. After being bitten by the magical pooch, Tim Allen starts to openly display aspects of a dog such as an elongated tongue that sometimes hangs out of his mouth, lifting his leg while he uses the toilet stall in the public men's room, and even licks his wife's face instead of kissing it. Yet, nobody seems to find this the least bit creepy, disturbing, or even interesting. Oh sure, a character might shoot Allen a curious glance, but then they go right back to whatever they're doing. Seeing Tim Allen do stuff like this is not funny, it's disturbing. I have to wonder what was going through his mind and the mind of actress Kristen Davis when they shot the scene where he must give her face a tongue bath to express his love. In the world of The Shaggy Dog, nothing phases anyone, not even the sight of a bare naked Tim Allen. (When he turns into a dog, he leaves his clothes in a pile, so naturally whenever he returns to human form, he's naked.) The film's dramatic climax where the family finally comes together is made just plain wrong due to the fact that Tim Allen is naked when it happens, and worst of all, he's in public and nobody seems to notice that there is a dog who just turned into a naked man on the steps of a courthouse surrounded by people. The only reaction we get is the sight of a woman on a cell phone in the background who makes a passing glance at the naked Allen in the background. And why does it take everyone so long to realize that Allen's character is the dog, especially since he always leaves the clothes he was wearing behind in a pile? The people in this movie are so dense, an alien mothership could land in the yard, and they wouldn't even notice.

When the movie isn't revolting us under the mistaken notion that watching a man do gross things a dog does is funny, it's making us groan with a never-ending supply of lame jokes that barely managed to bring forth even a chuckle from a theater filled with kids. The movie even has the nerve to cheapen and kill the memory of Toy Story by using Allen's catchphrase from that film in a very awkward moment. The script is filled with plot holes, lapses in logic, and a general overall feeling that everyone involved probably had other things on their mind while they were writing the dialogue. How else can you explain that characters enter and leave the story with little to no warning, and subplots are left hanging completely unresolved when the end credits start to roll? The actors who got suckered into this project all need to have very long talks with their agents, as not one single performance escapes unscathed. And yes, I am looking directly at you, Robert Downey Jr. You're a fine actor who I have long admired. What are you doing playing such an underwritten villain role that doesn't even have the balls to let you play the character memorably over the top like the best evil scientist roles? His final scene where he too begins to take on the traits of a dog simply made me cringe in embarrassment. Other talented people such as Danny Glover, Jane Curtin, Craig Kilborn, and Philip Baker Hall are criminally wasted, and reduced to roles that the movie promptly forgets about almost as soon as they're introduced. Then again, they got off lucky.

The Shaggy Dog is not just a bad comedy, it is a criminally inept one. There's not one single thing in this movie that could be considered even remotely amusing for anyone who does not have the I.Q. of a toddler. From the bargain basement special effects to the half-assed screenplay, this movie simply screams that nobody involved even cared, so neither should audiences. Of course, that won't stop kids from demanding to be taken to see it due to the massive amount of hype and advertising this film is getting on TV. Kids deserve better, and if you are a parent, you should make it your duty to steer them clear from junk like this. I would actually not be surprised if it was scientifically proven that this movie actually makes audience members dumber just watching it. May I never speak of this travesty again, at least until my "Worst Films of 2006" end of the year article.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

16 Blocks

Filmmaker Richard Donner has built quite a reputation for himself by creating some great modern day blockbuster classics which include the likes of the original Superman film, The Omen, all 4 Lethal Weapon films, and The Goonies. After a rare stumble back in 2003 with Timeline (a dreary time travel film based on a Michael Crichton novel), Donner returns to form with 16 Blocks - a genuinely entertaining odd couple action film that knows how to make the most out of its lead stars and its premise. Sure, it doesn't even come close to some of his earlier classics, but the film has a very laid back flow without ever being boring that I quite enjoyed in this day and age of frantic "throw everything but the kitchen sink up at the screen" action films. (See Running Scared and Domino. Or better yet, don't see them.) If anything, the film proves that Bruce Willis is making a much more natural progression into aging action star than Harrison Ford.

Willis is Jack Mosley, a burned-out alcoholic New York cop who seems to have had enough of his job and of life in general. He was once respected, but years of shady deals behind the scenes have made him into a hardened and miserable cynic whose withered face and constantly tired eyes seem to suggest that he's had one sleepless night too many. Shortly after the film opens, Mosley is charged with the task of transporting a convict named Eddie Bunker (rapper turned actor Mos Def) 16 blocks to the nearest courthouse so that he can testify. Eddie is a Federal Witness, and has apparently seen some dealings concerning some shady cops. His testimony could put a lot of people behind bars where they belong. Although the job seems routine, it quickly spirals into anything but, as the crooked officers involved in Eddie's testimony are set on seeing that he doesn't reach the courthouse alive. The cops are led by Jack's former partner and friend, Frank (David Morse), and for the first time in a long time, Jack will have to find it within himself to do the right thing. He will not only question his loyalties to his friends, but he will also have to find the determination and respect that he once held for himself and for his job if he wants to survive.

16 Blocks is a very simple, yet effective action thriller that never goes over the top, nor does it ever wear out its welcome. A big part of its success has to do with the screenplay by Richard Wenk. It knows how to take a seemingly everyday concept of transporting someone a short distance, and pile on the difficulties and obstacles without them ever becoming too far fetched. The film has a very realistic tone, so the action never becomes silly or hard to swallow. This is important in an intimate action film such as this which revolves around a fairly small cast of characters and a short time frame. It makes the lead characters that much more easier to relate to, and therefore more likeable. In fact, for an action movie, the script seems more interested in its characters than setting up elaborate action set pieces. The action scenes that are present are somewhat small in scale, but this is understandable, given that Willis' character is a strung out alcoholic who wouldn't exactly be jumping across rooftops or smashing vehicles into flaming buildings in the first place. Despite the film's somewhat smaller scale, it knows how to keep the tension up at least, mostly by using close or confined spaces in and around New York City such as Chinese laundries or run down apartment buildings for its more action-heavy sequences.

What really surprised me, however, was the undeniable and winning chemistry that its two stars hold. Willis is splendid as an aging, pot-bellied, bum-legged cop who has lost the ability to care about anything. His performance is honest, sometimes painful, and very realistic. He doesn't overplay the character's disabilities, making him sympathetic instead of pathetic. Compare this to Harrison Ford, who still seems to be playing the same kind of action roles he did 20 years ago. Willis knows how to play a believable action character his own age, whereas Ford seems to be playing an average guy who suddenly discovers that he's Superman when his family is put in danger. While Willis is instantly likeable, Mos Def took a bit longer to click with me. His character seems one note and downright annoying at first, especially with the somewhat whiny and mushmouthed tone of voice that he has chosen to give the character. As the film goes on, however, the character of Eddie and Mos Def's performance becomes much more interesting and real. He becomes a much more three dimensional character as we learn about his hopes and concerns, and we gradually realize that he really is a good pairing with Willis as the two characters and their performances play off well with each other. As the film's lead villain, David Morse is appropriately slimy, yet never quite goes into cartoon villain mode. He's a believable threat, and we can understand why he and Willis' character were friends at one time.

If there is any fault to be found with 16 Blocks it's that the film seems a bit stretched out at times, especially when you consider that Willis' character could simply end all this by contacting a news crew or something, and tell his side of the story. It never quite becomes forced, but you still have to think to yourself that things could have ended a lot sooner and easier with just one little action. The film also seems to play it a bit too safe at times, especially the ending, which is so neat and tidy and happy that you can almost see the bow that wraps it all together. The film is also very predictable, so much so that anyone with even a passing knowledge of the genre will know what to expect walking in. These criticisms, though major, were not enough to overcome the overall good feeling that I generally got from the film. Most of that feeling I owe to Willis and Mos Def, who I wouldn't mind seeing acting in another movie together someday. (As long as Mos Def loses the goofy mushmouth voice.)

16 Blocks doesn't really do anything that we haven't seen before, but its got a lot more heart than you might expect. It's always a nice change of pace to see an action film interested in the relationships of its lead characters, rather than overblown action sequences and special effects. For everything that it has going against it, it has at least 2 more going for it. It's a great little piece of escapism that should appeal to a wide audience. When all is said and done, I was entertained, and I think that's what Donner and his crew was going for. If you're looking for an action film that's a bit more character-driven than what you're used to, 16 Blocks is well worth your time.

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Well, another weekend, another movie being unleashed to theaters without being screened for critics. According to the website,, there's only been 2 weekends this year that did not feature at least one major release that didn't get screened for critics. This week's lucky winner is Ultraviolet - a movie that wants to be a fast-paced comic book-style thrill ride, but it simply lacks the brains, coherency, and character to pull it off. The plot is a jumbled mess that jumps around so much that I'm not entirely clear as to what it was supposed to be about. With a running time of just 85 minutes, the movie whizzes by in a blink of an eye, and pretty much leaves your mind the second you walk out the theater.

The film actually opens promisingly with a very cool opening credit sequence that displays a series of comic book covers featuring the film's heroine. The artstyle on each book changes, covering just about every popular form of comic book art (Traditional, 1960s sci-fi, Japanese manga, etc.) This at least lets the audience know what mind frame they should be in while watching this movie right off the bat. Writer-director Kurt Wimmer doesn't follow through, though. The film is set in a futuristic society not unlike the one we saw just two months ago in Aeon Flux. (Then again, judging by how that film did at the box office, you probably didn't see that world.) Regardless, even if you didn't see Aeon, this world will be nothing new to you. It's a hodgepodge of every sci-fi cliche in the book spruced up with so much CG that it resembles less a movie and more like the opening cinema sequence of a Playstation video game. After a very short opening voice over from the film's title heroine which is supposed to clue us in on the film's back story, but doesn't seem to give us enough information to go on, the movie throws us head first into the plot without looking back.

Violet (Milla Jovovich) is a member of a vampire-like class of people known as Hemophages. These people were created when some kind of government-controlled virus went out of control and infected half the world's population. Since then, the humans and the Hemophages have been locked in an endless war, each side trying to wipe the other side out, while the Hemophages are also secretly hoping for a cure that can return them to their once-human state. Violet is a highly trained killing machine who can change her hair and clothes at will, and can seemingly make weapons pop seemingly out of thin air. (How, the movie never quite explains.) As the film opens, she's been charged with the task of stealing a new weapon that the humans have created. The weapon is kept in a bizarre briefcase that looks kind of like a cross between a toilet seat and a hospital bedpan. Turns out the "weapon" is not a device at all, but rather a young clone child known only as Six (Cameron Bright from last week's Running Scared), who holds the secret to tipping the scales of the war within him.

Violet's maternal instincts kick in when she lays eyes on Six. Her Hemophage brothers want him dead, and so do the bad guys, led by the blood-thirsty Daxus (Nick Chinlund) who always wears these little silver devices up his nose for some reason. Violet and Six are on the run, the world's against them, and time may be running out for Violet to find out the true reason for Six's existence. I'm sorry if that synopsis sounds muddled, but that's all I've got. The film never quite slows down long enough to fully explain itself. One minute the kid seemingly holds the weapon to destroy all Hemphages, then it's believed he holds the cure, then it's revealed he actually holds something that can kill humans...The story twists and turns so much that your brain can get whiplash trying to sort it all out. It doesn't matter, though. Ultraviolet exists only to showcase its fight scenes, action sequences, and Jovovich's body, seeing as though she's the only person in this society who is allowed to wear semi-revealing clothes.

Not since 2004's Van Helsing have I seen a movie that jumps from one action sequence to the next with such reckless care. Actually, we get a bunch of fight scenes crammed into one, since each sequence seems to only last a minute or two. Violet is approached by some faceless henchmen dressed in outfits that look like hand-me-downs that were purchased at Darth Vader's garage sale, she kicks their asses in about 30 seconds or less, moves on a little bit, is approached by more faceless men...You get the idea. The movie plays out like a video game having Violet being confronted every 2 inches by drones, only to have her effortlessly defeat them. Where's the fun in that? There's no suspense or danger. We never feel like the heroine is in any real danger, because she can seemingly cut down just about anyone in the time it takes for you to pick up the remote and turn on the television. There are some fights that hint at being cool, but they always seem to be over before they can even begin. The film tries to create some tension by hinting that Violet's disease is slowly killing her, but she never seems to slow down except when it is convenient for the script.

Adding to the whole video game vibe of the film is how artificial and fake everything in this movie looks. Some of the action sequences are so heavy on the green screen tricks and CG that they don't even look plausible and we don't buy them for a second. Take a sequence that pops up early in the film when Violet's on a motorcycle, and is being chased down by a helicopter. As Violet flies on top of cars, runs her bike up and along the side of buildings, smashes through walls, and generally breaks every single law of gravity and physics (all without the bike suffering a single scratch, naturally), I spent more time focusing on how the scene was done than on the scene itself. That's because the effects work is so blatantly obvious, and the movie does nothing to hide it. The sequence looks like it was halfway finished, like the CG needed a few more touch ups so it didn't look so much like a video game. I do have to give it credit, however, for being the only sequence in the film that actually sticks out in my mind and for running longer than a minute. Ultraviolet's schlock value is increased even more by just how deadly serious the movie takes itself. Yes, just like Aeon Flux, the film presents us with a future society where no one shows any emotion except pissed-off rage when the title heroine is killing bad guys with martial arts, guns, swords, and whatever other kinds of weapons Violet can materialize. It's not quite as unintentionally comical as Aeon, and the movie does have a clever line or two that made me smile that at least let me know the cast knew what kind of film they were making here. But, the film still takes itself way too seriously.

Since the film is focusing so much on the action and the effects, the cast and their characters get lost in the shuffle. Jovovich is hot and knows how to kick butt, but that's really all there is to her character. We don't even really understand the extent of her relationship with her main partner, a fellow Hemophage named Garth, except that he stores her arsenal. Young actor Cameron Bright gives pretty much the same performance he gives in every single movie - silent, steely, and tortured. This kid makes Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense look like the life of the party! I really wish I could see the kid in an actual role of a child, instead of an evil clone, or a reincarnated adult. Yeah, he played a kid in Running Scared, but he didn't get a chance to act like one. The kid's obviously talented, but he's in danger of becoming a one trick pony. Maybe he should look for a role where he actually smiles once.

I would like to make it clear that Ultraviolet's not a horrible movie, just simply an underwhelming and immediately forgettable one. It's the kind of movie you remember watching, but you can't really remember anything about it except for a couple random scenes. The film's ending seems to be hinting at a franchise, but judging by the audience's reaction, I think this may be the last we see of Violet. The movie's got the right idea and the right frame of mind, it just can't do what it wants to in a memorable way. The film's short running time seems to hint that it was longer at one time. Maybe an unrated DVD can fill in some of the many gaps this film holds. (It does seem to be overly-sanitized and edited in order to achieve a "golden" PG-13 rating.) Ultraviolet probably won't have a long life at the theater, and it'll be lucky if anyone remembers it two months from now. The best I can say about this film is it could have been a lot worse.

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