Reel Opinions

Saturday, April 29, 2006


It takes a movie like R.V. to make you truly appreciate the classic films that inspired it. In this case, the originator is 1983's National Lampoon's Vacation. There have been many comedies about disastrous family vacations since then, and although R.V. is far from the bottom of the genre barrel, it's too labored and desperate to generate more than the occasional chuckle. Director Barry Sonnenfeld (the Addams Family and Men in Black films) makes all the required stops and hits all the expected notes for this kind of film, and the cast is certainly game, especially lead star Robin Williams. Problem is the screenplay by Geoff Rodkey (the recent horrid remake of The Shaggy Dog) carries an uneven tone that constantly shifts back and forth from broad slapstick and over the top characters to heartfelt sentiment. The film is never able to find a steady tone, and suffers because of it.

Overworked and stressed dad Bob Munro (Robin Williams) has been watching his family grow apart as his children start to grow up. He spends so much time at work that he hardly sees his wife Jamie (Cheryl Hines) anymore, his teenage daughter Cassie (Joanna "JoJo" Levesque) has reached that rebellious stage where nothing he says or does is right in her eyes anymore, and youngest son Carl (Josh Hutcherson) constantly shuts himself away from the family with hip hop music and street slang. Bob's been looking forward to a Hawaii vacation to reconnect with his family, but those dreams are shattered when his evil, germophobic boss Todd (Will Arnett from TV's Arrested Development) assigns him a business trip in the Colorado Rockies area. Not wanting to lose his precious vacation time, Bob rents an R.V., and takes the family on a last minute cross country adventure, not letting them know that he is secretly there on business. During the trip, the family will bond as they go up against vicious raccoons, nature's elements, and an overly friendly and outgoing R.V. family led by homespun couple Travis and Marie Jo Gornicke (Jeff Daniels and Kristin Chenoweth) who, despite their stereotyped Southern exterior, may hold more wisdom and knowledge for Bob and his family than they first let on.

Going for an episodic approach as the Munro family find themselves in one outlandish or crazy situation after another, R.V. has a fragmented and almost broken tone. It's almost like the filmmakers watched a bunch of past family vacation comedies, picked out their favorite bits, rewrote them a little, and then stitched them together in order to make the film's structure. Not only can you see some obvious nods to the previously mentioned Vacation, but also to the late 80s Dan Aykroyd and John Candy comedy The Great Outdoors. This wouldn't be so bad if the movie could bring some fresh ideas into the mix, but it's just far too content to fill the scenes with the same tired gags we've come to expect. Such desperate scenes include a sequence where Bob must do battle with a nest of raccoons that have set up residence inside the vehicle. He uses a stink bomb to drive the creatures out, but he didn't read the label on the package that states the bomb lasts for six hours. As the family sits outside of the vehicle, waiting for the bomb to run its course, it naturally starts to immediately rain. As I write this review, I try to picture screenwriter Geoff Rodkey writing the script, and if he didn't just go immediately for the obvious gag, or if he spent many tortured hours sitting in front of his computer, trying to think of a punchline that hadn't been done before. Somehow, the first scenario seems a lot more plausible to me. What's equally annoying is how the IQ of its main cast seems to rise and fall depending on whether it's convenient for the current scene. For most of the film, Bob seems like your pretty average dad, but then suddenly he'll go and do something incredibly stupid simply for the fact that the filmmakers believed that the movie needed a slapstick moment. These moments built around Robin Williams being suddenly thrown in life threatening comedic danger (hanging by the front windshield wiper of the R.V. as it barrels forward down a mountain road, flying down a cliff on a runaway bicycle, etc.) seem so sudden and so out of place that it's almost like we're not watching the same character we saw in the previous scene. And the less said about the scene where Williams finds himself covered in a geyser of human waste the better.

All the characters go through sudden and drastic changes whenever the screenplay deems it necessary. Although I admire that the movie tries to do a little bit more with the Travis and Marie Jo characters than the obnoxious hick stereotypes that they appear to be for most of the film, their sudden change from annoying comic foils to teachers of life lessons for Bob and his family seems to come out of the blue. We also never get a true sense as to why Bob's kids suddenly start looking up to him during the later half of the film. This is one of those movies where a potentially life-threatening plunge to death where they all fall down a raging water flow one after another like lemmings is enough to bring them together, and put all their differences behind them for the rest of the movie. The film often seems to be confused as to which tone it wants to take with its own material, as the later half constantly switches gears from broad over the top comedic action sequences to sappy sentimental schlock within moments. It can't find a common ground, and so it simply decides to pull us in both directions until we just get annoyed with the movie, and start counting the minutes until the end credits.

If it weren't for the mostly likeable cast, R.V. probably would have suffered even more. In his first truly comedic live action role (not counting the numerous animation roles he's taken the past couple years) since 2002's Death to Smoochy, Robin Williams may not be up to peak comic form, but that doesn't mean he doesn't give it his all. He gets a couple good lines here and there that sound like they were improved on the spot, as they are much wittier than any of the jokes featured in the actual screenplay. The actors playing the rest of the Munro clan get fewer chances to show their talent, but they are likeable nonetheless, especially the young child actors. Josh Hutcherson has experience in numerous recent films including Zathura and the rarely-seen Little Manhattan, but his talent is mostly wasted here in a throwaway role that seems to be beneath him. Still, he's able to bring out what humanity he can in the character. 15-year old singer-turned-actress Joanna "JoJo" Levesque is newer to the acting world, having made her debut earlier this year in Aquamarine. (A film unseen by me.) She does display a lot of talent, however, and I would like to see her in better material. Same goes for the rest of the mostly talented cast, who are resigned to mostly forgettable characters (like Will Arnett's boss character) or broad stereotypes (Jeff Daniels and Kristin Chenoweth).

The natural charm of the performers can only carry the movie so far before it starts to sink like the big bloated stone that it is. It also doesn't help that R.V. ends with an absolutely embarrassing music video played during the first half of the ending credits where the entire cast joins together to sing the song "Route 66" in various musical styles. (Rap, country, pop, etc.) The film never quite offends or becomes unbearable to watch, but you can't help but wonder why this movie even needed to be made. I know Robin Williams still has a good comedy left within him, preferably one that does not involve a scene with him covered in fecal matter. Is that too much to ask for?

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Friday, April 28, 2006

United 93

It's a rare kind of film that truly grabs you. Not just grabs you, but makes you completely forget you are watching a filmed re enactment. Not almost forget, completely. United 93 is the first film that had me completely lost in its illusion from the word go in a very long time. Directed in an almost documentary style by Paul Greengrass, the film makes so many right decisions it's almost scary that any director could pull it off seemingly so effortlessly. Here is a movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways. It could have played up the melodrama. It could have made the characters to be larger than life. It could have hit us over the head with symbolism and other cheap tactics. The movie avoids all of these pitfalls, and just gives us a straight up blow by blow of the tragic events of September 11th. For the nearly two hours the film runs, we are transported back in time to almost five years ago, and we are there watching history unfold once again.

The largest and perhaps smartest decision Greengrass made is in the casting. You won't find a single recognizable face on the doomed flight. Well, okay, I spotted one, but that's only because I'm a total film geek. His decision to fill his movie entirely with mainly unknown actors adds to the realism. This is not a disaster movie where an all-star cast struggle to survive through amazing odds. If the passengers on the plane had been played by a large group of famous faces, the film would have fallen flat on its face, I think. We wouldn't be watching the passengers of United 93, we'd be watching a Hollywood retelling of the story. Greengrass fills his movie with average everyday people who look like they walked in off the street, but fortunately, have the acting talent to convince us that they are who they're pretending to be. Their emotions are completely real, and there is never a single false, condescending, or manipulative moment. This in itself is a minor miracle, and it carries all the way through it.

But perhaps the best thing that United 93 pulls off is the sheer randomness and insanity that must have happened on that day. Switching back and forth between the flight, and those on the ground trying to track all the various planes suddenly going off course and dropping contact, the film wisely does not attempt to explain what's going on. Of course, it doesn't need to, but I admired that the movie so perfectly and accurately captures the chaos. No mention of terrorists is made on the ground. They don't know what caused the planes to crash into the World Trade Center, and wouldn't know for some time until after this movie ends. The movie so perfectly manages to capture the emotion, feelings, and fear of those few hours when America fell into almost complete and incomprehensible anarchy that it's almost eerie. Those moments felt almost like a dream. It couldn't be happening, how could it be? The film goes from a state of serene every day to all out panic so effortlessly and so discreetly, and I've never seen it handled in a better or more realistic way.

So, now come the two difficult questions - How are those responsible for the attacks portrayed in this film, and should you see it? Let me tackle the first one by saying that the terrorists who hold the plane hostage during the later half of the film are kept at an appropriate distance. We don't know anything about their lives before this day, and the movie does not try to humanize or demonize them. The movie is focused only on the scant few hours that this event took place. All we get to see is how they acted during those hours before the plane hit the ground. It's not just the terrorists, but everyone is kept at a distance. We don't get to know the background stories of the passengers, the terrorists, or the flight crew, only what we hear in their conversations with each other or over the phone. This is not a dramatization of the day, it is a window into the past. There are no doomed lovers, there are no people who strike up a friendship while waiting for the plane to board and we follow them as they watch the events unfold, there are no heroes, there are no villains. The movie doesn't try to humanize those responsible for the event by giving us an inside look in their personal lives. The closest thing we get is the head of the operation saying "I love you" in his native language into a cell phone before he boards the plane. To whom he is saying this, we never find out, because the point of the film is not to let us know what was going through the minds of those responsible.

This brings us to the most important question of all - should you see it? This is something that has been hotly debated, and will probably continue to be while its playing in theaters and even when it comes out on DVD. Some believe it's too soon, some think it's making money off a national tragedy, and some think it's just in plain bad taste. This is a tricky question to answer. I personally viewed it as an incredible piece of filmmaking, and quite possibly the most real and unflinchingly honest recreation of an actual event that I can think of. Quite frankly, I think this movie belongs in a time capsule, and should be remembered and watched for many years to come. I can understand why some may think that it is too soon, or why they would not want to watch it for personal reasons, but I really do hope people do watch it. It's not just an important movie, I think it is cinematic art. It leaves you enraptured, and full of so many emotions by the time that it's over that you may not know what to think or feel. You may even feel physically exhausted. If anything, United 93 is a pure testament to the power that filmmaking can have over a viewer.

If there is any fault I can find with this film, it's a very minor one. I would have preferred that there was no film score during the movie. Yes, Greengrass knows when to use music and when not to. And the scenes that do feature a background music score is subtle and tasteful. But still, does a story like this really need a score to heighten the mood or emotion of a scene? After all, that's what film scores are for, and a story like this does not need any help. Aside from this very tiny complaint, I can truly think of no other way this movie goes wrong in its depiction. I don't think I need to say that United 93 is the best film of the year so far by a long shot. All I need to say is that I hope you give this film the chance it deserves.

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Monday, April 24, 2006

The Sentinel

If The Sentinel was a made for TV movie nestled safely in the line up of the USA or TBS network, it'd probably be right at home. Unfortunately for director Clark Johnson (2003's S.W.A.T. remake), it's on the big screen and somehow has round up a big name cast, including Michael Douglas in his first leading role in three years. Based on the novel by Gerald Petievich, The Sentinel just does not pack enough thrills to completely hold our interest or make us ignore the various lapses of logic and unexplained plot developments that keep on popping up. The fact that Johnson's direction is flat and uninspired only rams the point home that this story belongs on the small screen. Though far from terrible, the film just doesn't have what it takes to live up to the talent of its own stars.

Secret Service Agent Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas) is currently employed by the current President of the United States (David Rasche) while secretly having an affair with the First Lady, Sarah Ballentine (Kim Basinger). Pete learns some troubling news when one of his informants tips him off that there is a Mole within the Secret Service who is plotting to assassinate the President, and a friend of his on the force has already wound up dead for supposedly knowing too much. He spearheads the investigation into his own Agency which leads to each Secret Service officer being forced to take a polygraph test. Because of his desire to keep his affair with the First Lady secret, Pete ends up failing the test, and makes him a prime suspect. Two Agents are placed into the investigation - veteran David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland) and his rookie partner Jill Marin (Eva Longoria from TV's Desperate Housewives). Pete and David already have a rough background with each other, so the fact that Pete is now the head suspect makes David relentless to prove his personal rival is the guilty party. Knowing that he is actually innocent, Pete is forced to turn against the Agency and go on the run, hoping to learn the truth behind the Mole's identity before he is caught.

Any ambitions The Sentinel may have had about being a fast-paced and tense political thriller are all but shot down when you realize just how leisurely paced the film is. It takes a good half hour or so of set up before the plot to assassinate the President is revealed, and about another half hour after that before Pete becomes the main suspect. Most of the film's first half seems to deal with the forbidden relationship between Pete and the First Lady, which loses just about any amount of heat or tension it could have brought to the film due to the fact that this subplot seems heavily edited in order to ensure a PG-13 rating. The fact that this plot development is almost all but dropped in the second half of the film makes it all the more pointless. The affair is simply there so Pete can fail the polygraph test, and become a suspect. It's a plot device and nothing more. When the film tries to become an action-heavy chase picture as Pete fights to stay ahead of his pursuers so he can learn the truth, it once again falls on its face, because we learn so little about the actual plot. We have no idea who the villains really are, or why the Secret Service Agent who actually is the Mole is working for them. Sure, we find out why he's forced to carry out the plan (the villains threaten his family), but we have no idea why he's with them in the first place.

That really is the central problem of The Sentinel. The film is surprisingly shallow and lacking in any sort of personality. The characters seem to fade in and out of existence, only popping up when the screenplay deems it appropriate. Not one single character is developed outside of their job in the Secret Service. Therefore, when the identity of the Mole is finally revealed, we meet it with general disinterest because he's someone whom we barely have gotten to know. Not only are the motives for his actions a mystery, but so is the man himself. Character relationships are kept to a bare minimum, or don't seem to exist at all. It's frustrating because in a thriller such as this, there needs to be chemistry and characters we can identify with or at least understand. The Sentinel keeps us at such a curious distance from its cast that they almost don't seem like people at all. Other problems with this film include editing, which seems to jump about from one plot point to another. As soon as Pete goes on the run, he seems to develop the unique ability to teleport anywhere he wants to within a moment's notice. One minute he's in Washington D.C., and a quick scene change later, he's in Canada to try to uncover the villains' plot. The movie jumps around from one area to the next like this that it starts to get annoying, almost as annoying as the uninspired direction of Clark Johnson, who seems content to simply film the actors just standing there talking, not trying anything interesting with his shots.

Of the cast, only Michael Douglas manages to create anything resembling an interesting character, and that's only because the movie follows his every move. He's believable, and for a man of his age, he's still able to hold up pretty well in these kind of action roles, even more so than Harrison Ford. The rest of the cast largely does not impress because they are given so little to do. Kim Basinger as the First Lady seems to be building up to something, only to have the movie almost completely forget about her during its second half, only popping up when convenient. Kiefer Sutherland seems to be playing a less-energized version of his Jack Bauer performance on TV's 24. His reasons for not getting along with Douglas' character seem forced, and the ultimate outcome of their relationship seems to come without warning and seemingly out of the blue. And poor Eva Longoria is given absolutely nothing to do but look attractive, and stand in the background for most of her scenes. I wish I could say something about the actors who play the villains masterminding the plot, but they're so underdeveloped that I don't think we even learn their names, save for two.

While its premise which sort of resembles a political-themed take on The Fugitive may not be entirely original, it could have worked if the filmmakers had cared more about it. The Sentinel is a movie that does not take full advantage of everything it's been given, both the big screen treatment and its strong cast. With an overall lazy production design and an underdeveloped script, the film seems to more resemble a failed two hour pilot for a TV series. All it has going for it is its big name cast, and since it all but squanders their talents except for Douglas, there's just no reason for this movie to even be on the screen. Perhaps The Sentinel will play better on DVD, since it seems to belong on the small screen in the first place. All I know is that there's a lot of wasted potential on display here.

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

American Dreamz

Since bursting onto the scene in 1999 with the original American Pie, writer-director Paul Weitz has proved that his main expertise is in developing flawed yet likeable characters that audiences could relate to in some way. Since then, he's dropped the teen raunch of his breakout film, and has brought us some sweet-natured winners such as About a Boy and In Good Company. With his latest film, American Dreamz, Weitz takes a complete turn around into dark comedic satire, and completely tosses everything that made his past films work to the wayside. Instead of being smart and wicked, he decides to play his humor broadly so that his characters resemble either walking stereotypes or overblown cartoon characters. While I do admire the film's gutsiness in a way, American Dreamz is an obnoxious and labored political farce.

With his music talent search TV show "American Dreamz" climbing the network ratings, the show's very Simon Cowell-inspired host, Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) has grown tired of the usual wannabe superstars that flock to his show, and wants to look for some fresh and interesting talent. (Or "freaks" as he calls them.) He finds them in a seemingly-perky young woman with a cutthroat desire to win named Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a funky Hasidic (Adam Busch), and an Iraq immigrant named Omer who is living with U.S. relatives and has a passion for Broadway showtunes (Sam Golzari). Behind their squeaky-clean wannabe singing sensation exteriors, these contestants all have dark secrets of some kind. Sally plans to use her dim-witted Iraq war veteran boyfriend (Chris Klein) in order to boost her popularity with audiences, and as we learn in an earlier scene, Omer the Iraq immigrant is actually a member of a Terrorist Cell who has been sent to America to await orders from his superiors back home.

In a subplot, we find that the nation's lame-duck President, Joseph Staton (Dennis Quaid), is having a hard time keeping his popularity up with the people since being elected for a second term. He's recently just started reading what the newspapers are saying about him, and has since locked himself away in his room, not wanting to face the public. His Chief of Staff (William Dafoe made up to look like Dick Cheney) puts the President on an aggressive publicity campaign in order to boost his approval ratings, culminating in a spot as a guest judge on the season finale of the American Dreamz TV show. With the President in arm's reach, Omer's superiors plot to strap a bomb to the wannabe singer set to go off when Staton is close to him. Omer must now make a choice whether he wants to carry out the plan, or fulfill his true passion of being a star on the Great White Way.

What can you say about a movie where the most likeable and sympathetic character is a terrorist being forced to blow himself up in order to kill the President on live TV? The film's humor certainly aims for some very large targets, but perhaps Paul Weitz was setting his sights too high this time around. The movie plays everything so broad and so over the top that it stops resembling satire and begins to feel more like we are watching some kind of live action cartoon. This hurts the film, because in order for satire to work, there needs to be at least some sort of anchor in reality. We need to be able to identify with the humor and the situations. The situations may be familiar, but the screenplay is filled with so many blithering idiots and stereotypical gays and dumb blondes that we may as well be watching aliens attempting to portray us. The humor just isn't as sharp as it should be. It plays it too safe and often much too predictable. Instead of aiming for sharp laughs or wit, the movie asks us to laugh at the ignorance of most of its cast of characters. It's almost as if Weitz did not feel comfortable with his own material, and kept on holding himself back from truly trying to offend - a big mistake when writing political-themed satire.

More than that, the film is just not very funny, aside from a few sporadic laughs here and there. American Dreamz has a confused tone that constantly switches back and forth from broad stupid comedy aimed at teens to weak political humor aimed at adults. It doesn't know which audience to go for, and ends up failing on both levels. It doesn't even know how to successfully mock the actual American Idol show that inspired it. Whenever the movie shows us the "Dreamz" program, we sit and wonder how such a show could be popular. The singers portrayed are not in the least bit talented, and sadly, I don't think it was intentional sometimes. Even Mandy Moore, a professional singer turned actress, gives a boring performance whenever she's on stage. I know this is supposed to be a comedy and all, but I just find it hard to believe that this show and these contestants could be even remotely popular with anyone. Even when the contestants are supposed to be intentionally bad, we don't laugh, because the humor seems so forced and desperate. Instead of making such broad fools out of these people, having them be so blatantly and obviously bad, they should have had the contestants trying to be good but failing miserably. The jokes are not subtle in the least, and are so shockingly obvious that we are more embarrassed than amused.

The one and only saving grace is a generally game cast, most of whom have starred in Weitz's past films. Even though Dennis Quaid's President is supposed to be a Bush parody, he wisely does not play him as an imitation of the real thing. There's a certain sweetness behind his dim-bulb exterior that it's too bad the movie doesn't use him enough, opting instead to focus on the more unlikeable characters such as Moore's seemingly-sweet yet conniving Sally Kendoo. The other likeable performance comes from Sam Golzari as the half-hearted terrorist with dreams of stardom. He's probably the most fleshed out and honest character for most of the movie that it's a shame the movie decides to make him into a self-mockery during the later half of the movie when he's forced to perform some overly ridiculous routines on the TV show. The rest of the cast do what they can with their roles, but they are either so underwritten that they don't even seem to exist (Marcia Gay Harden as the First Lady), or they are so broad and intentionally stupid that we wonder why anyone would want to make a movie about them in the first place (Chris Klein's hapless performance as a war vet too stupid to realize his girlfriend is just using him to gain popularity is more depressing than funny.) And despite getting top billing, Hugh Grant gets surprisingly little screen time as the show's mean spirited and sarcastic host, and doesn't really get a chance to leave an impression. Yes, it's nice to see Grant in a different kind of role from what he usually plays, but writer-director Weitz already did that much better a couple years ago with About a Boy.

There's very little to get excited about while watching American Dreamz, despite the potential it holds if the script had been smarter and sharper. The movie seems like a big load of wasted potential that just sits there on the screen and idly wastes its time until the end credits start to roll. That's not to say there are some laughs to be had, but most of the big ones come near the end, which is far too late to salvage or make up for everything that came before it. I give Weitz and his crew credit for trying, but I can't muster up much more enthusiasm than that. If you're hungry for satire, I highly advise you seek out the much smarter Thank You For Smoking. Compared to that movie, American Dreamz just doesn't cut it.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Silent Hill

The line of video games being adapted into movies is not a proud one, and one that most Hollywood executives would probably like to forget. Yet, they keep on trying to make them, even though they often have very little to do with the games except for a couple references for the fans (1993's Super Mario Bros.) or they just shouldn't have been put to film in the first place (Anything that includes a credit that reads "Directed by Uwe Boll".) With Silent Hill, we not only have the first movie based on a video game that's worth caring about, but we also have the first horror film released this year that actually made me tense while I was watching it. I found myself sucked into this nightmarish world that director Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf) has lovingly crafted, and for the two hours or so that the film runs, you are under its spell. The film is far from perfect, thanks to some underdeveloped plotting and some dodgy acting here and there. And some diehard fans will probably moan and groan over some major changes Gans and company have made to the game's storyline. Let the fanboys have their fit, I say. Silent Hill is not a perfect adaptation, but it's a heck of a lot better than any movie based on a video game has a right to be.

When concerned parents, Rose (Radha Mitchell) and Christopher (Sean Bean) Da Silva, start discovering that their adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) is acting strangely, they are not sure what to do. Their young daughter is prone to walking out of the house in the middle of the night in a sleepwalking state, and when they finally catch up with her, she is rolling on the ground seemingly in agony and screaming incoherently about a place called Silent Hill. Not wanting to see her child like this, Rose goes against her husband's wishes, and drives Sharon to the seemingly-deserted town that no one in the surrounding area seems to want to talk about after a great tragedy concerning a fire occurred 30 years ago. Shortly after breaking through the weak barriers that block the main entrance into town, Rose speeds her car through the winding mountain road to her destination, only to be met by a mysterious dark figure crossing the street directly in the path of the car. Swerving to avoid the figure, Rose ends up driving the car off the road, and is unconscious for the rest of the night.

When she finally comes to, she finds herself in the lifeless town of Silent Hill, but there is something immediately wrong. Not only is there no sign of Sharon, her passenger car door left hanging open mysteriously, but a heavy and almost unearthly fog blankets the entire town, and ash-like snow is falling from the sky. The deeper she goes into the town, she discovers even more horrifying sights, such as demons that shouldn't even exist in this world walking the streets, and a vast darkness that seemingly covers over the town at random accompanied by a blaring air raid-like siren as the only warning of its arrival. Rose is able to come across a couple other survivors who are also trapped in this living nightmare including a tough cop named Cybil Bennet (Laurie Holden), a strange old woman who speaks only in riddles named Dahlia (Deborah Kara Unger), and the struggling remains of a bizarre religious cult that make the town their home led by a woman named Christabella (Alice Krige). As Rose slowly unravels the mystery behind this evil town and the sudden disappearance of her daughter, she will come to learn the truth of just what exactly happened so long ago.

The main advantage that Silent Hill has as opposed to some other past failed adaptations such as Doom or Street Fighter is that there is a rich history and a deep, complex story behind the games' storyline that is ideal for movie adaption. The characters in the Silent Hill series are also sometimes surprisingly complex, much more so than the usual "shoot everything that moves" type that so often are featured in games. Screenwriter Roger Avary stumbles a bit in bringing the world to life, due to some unwise choices. The movie does seem to cover a bit too much, and doesn't do enough to explain it to people who have not played the games. Also, he has altered the storyline in some important areas. The character of Dahlia (a major player in the original game that started the franchise) has been reduced to nothing more than a background supporting player for most of the film's running time. The film seems to hold a lot of ideas, more than one movie can allow, and although it never quite brings down the film, you also see a lot of wasted potential. Characters are not as interesting as they could or should be, and the storyline is almost intentionally vague, giving us only the bare minimum that we need to understand. All in all, the script is probably the weakest aspect of Silent Hill, from the dialogue to the somewhat confused plotting that is bound to leave those unfamiliar with the games scratching their heads at some parts.

What saves Silent Hill as a whole is the entire experience of watching the film. The movie is a visionary nightmarish wonder that's bound to delight most genre fans of horror and fantasy. Director Christophe Gans has not only created an unbelievably faithful recreation of the world created in the games, but he has also made it a wondrous thing to behold. There's so much attention to detail that fans can pick up on and make them smile. (Just like in the games, all the street names in the town are named after horror and sci-fi writers.) He also knows how to stage some very nasty horror sequences that will have some squirming, but gorehounds squealing with glee. Take note of the film's R-rating this time around. With numerous sequences of people being ripped apart and graphic depictions of young children being burned alive, this one is not for the squeamish. The film does a great job of not only recreating the world of the games, but making it work in a movie format. So many films based on games seem to fall into the trap of parading monsters and characters from the original franchise so that the fans at the audience can point up at the screen in recognition. Here, the demons seem to be much better worked into the plot, so it doesn't seem so awkward. The many memorable moments contained within this film, including a climax that stands as the best revenge scene since the infamous Prom sequence in Brian De Palma's Carrie, more than make up for any shortcomings the script may suffer from.

The real question then is how will this movie play to those who have no past experience with the video games? That is a trickier question to answer. As a fan, I picked up on all the subtle references, including the music score which seems to be ripped almost completely from the games themselves. In fact, I can count only one or two instances (including a very clever use of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire") where music from the games was not used. Some may think that the decision to score a movie with video game music does not sound appealing in the least, but anyone who has heard the scores by series' composer Akira Yamaoka knows that his music is like nothing else out there. Surprisingly, the score fits the movie to the letter, and does not seem out of place in the least. However, as I mentioned, the plot is a bit too vague in some areas for its own good. I have to choose my words carefully here in order to avoid spoilers, but I thought the source of the demonic child's powers could have been much better explained to those unfamiliar with the series. I think the movie has enough visual expertise and scares to interest fans of horror, and maybe make them want to look up info on the games in order to get the full story. Or some may just be frustrated, and brand the movie a failure. I've been trying to think of how I would react without any knowledge since the movie ended. I think I would have been entertained, but a bit in the dark.

I know this doesn't exactly read like the most glowing of reviews, but really as a fan, I am mostly happy with the final results. The movie is able to perfectly capture the look, style, and essence of the franchise and offers some genuine moments of tension and suspense. Yes, there are some lapses of logic, and a couple moments where the characters seem to act a bit dumber than they really are for the sake of the plot. (If you were involved in a high speed chase on a dangerous mountain road in the middle of the night, would you be fiddling with the radio dial or just turn it off right away?) Silent Hill is a hard movie to judge. It makes enough right moves for me to get behind it, but it still could have been more. I don't know how this will play out to the common filmgoer, but I am proud to say that even with its faults, the film was able to pull me in and enthrall me like no other horror film has in quite a while.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Thank You For Smoking

There is perhaps no greater divide in our society between the smokers and the nonsmokers. Being a member of the "non" community, and having lived around smokers in my family most of my life, I have seen it first hand. Of course, you don't have to be in a situation like mine to see it. You can see it on television every day, and read about it in the news whenever a business or a local city decides to ban smoking from public areas. With how divided we have become as a nation on the subject, it is high time for a satire that digs deep into the issues, and I can't think of a better one than Thank You For Smoking. In adapting the novel by Christopher Buckley, writer-director Jason Reitman (son of famed comic director Ivan Reitman) has brought us a perfectly balanced piece of social satire that makes fun of both sides of the argument equally. It also finds time to skewer Politicians and modern day Hollywood. With lazy and uninspired comedies taking up valuable space at your local cinema every day, you need to grab the good ones while you can, and Thank You For Smoking is definitely one of the good ones.

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a man just trying to make a living. Unfortunately, his living happens to revolve around the Tobacco industry. More specifically, he's a spokesperson. It's his job to be the "face" of the industry, and defend it whenever the need arises - whether it be a talk show or speaking before grim-faced Senators. He is a self-proclaimed member of the "M.O.D. Squad" (M.O.D. meaning Merchants of Death), which also includes his two close friends - an alcohol lobbyist (Maria Bello) and a spokesman for firearms (David Koechner). Now, Nick's not a monster. He knows what his company deals in, and he knows the ultimate consequences to most of his industry's customers. He's even got a young son (Cameron Bright in his third performance in less than two months) who is all too aware of his father's business. Regardless, it is his job to spin the truth, and he's one of the best when it comes to it. He's a guy who can appear on a talk show with a sickly boy suffering from Cancer, and turn the audience to his favor.

The film follows Nick through the various trials and tribulations that come from his job. Not long after being assigned to jet off to Hollywood to talk to a hot shot producer (Rob Lowe) about making smoking cool again in the movies, then he finds himself in the crosshairs of a shifty Vermont Senator (William H. Macy) who is gunning to put a much larger warning label on cigarette packs. (Complete with a graphic skull and crossbones icon.) Aside from dealing with his son and his ex-wife, Nick must also contend with the original Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) who has recently been diagnosed with Cancer, and is rallying against the Tobacco industry, as well as a sleazy reporter (Katie Holmes) who is all but willing to sleep with her clients in order to get the story she needs. All this, and death threats from rabid anti smoking campaigns, makes up the life of a man just trying to make a decent living, even if that decent living is tied to the deaths of enough people to fill two jumbo jets each year, as Nick states in narration early in the film.

The amazing thing that Thank You For Smoking pulls off that I didn't even realize until after the movie is over is how well the story is told. Not only is the movie hysterically funny in its honest and frank look at all sides of the argument, but it is also told in such a way so that not one single moment of its 92-minute running time is wasted. There are no "filler" scenes or no moments that your interest starts to lag. The timing of the jokes and the dialogue is spot on throughout, an amazing achievement that's all the more amazing when you consider that director Jason Reitman does not have many films to his credit. He knows how to write dialogue that is smart, funny, and thought-provoking, and he knows how to edit everything together in a perfect flow. Perhaps more than this, he knows how to handle his characters. The character of Nick Naylor is probably one of the trickiest lead roles to appear in a comedy in quite some time. Nick is not a "good" man, nor is he completely wrong with what he says and does. He constantly walks the fine line between trying to be a decent man around his son when he comes to visit on weekends, and trying to talk his way out of messy situations on national television when he is faced by those who wish to vilify him simply because of what he does. Actually, his career and his life with his son is not far separated, as he is constantly trying to explain to his son what he does in a positive light. It is a credit to both the screenplay and the performance by Aaron Eckhart that the character of Nick comes across as a believable and even likeable character.

More so than the main character of Nick, is the way that even the smallest character is handled. Even characters who have one or two scenes can leave lasting impressions. A good example is Sam Elliott's portrayal of the original Marlboro Man, who has since shunned the industry he once advertised. Nick comes to his house with a suitcase full of money, hoping to keep him quiet while the Tobacco companies go before the Senate to plead their case. This obviously puts Elliott's character in a tight spot. He wants the money, but it wouldn't be ethical to take it. And if he did take it, he'd have to give it away. And he is finding it hard to convince himself he could give so much away. It is a small scene, but the dark humor of the moment and understated sadness in Elliott's performance makes the scene memorable. Equally memorable are the numerous scenes where Nick and his two friends from the alcohol and firearms divisions gather at a local restaurant to swap stories about their personal trials and hardships representing their respective firms. The rapid fire and quick-witted dialogue exchanges are memorably crafted and executed. It's smartly written comedies like this that makes me look down on movies like Scary Movie 4 even more. Instead of broad slapstick and gross out humor, this film lets the humor rise out of the characters and the situations.

That's not to say Thank You For Smoking is completely complaint free. There are some ideas brought up in the film that I thought could have been explored even more, such as the subplot about Nick being assigned to make smoking in movies acceptable in roles other than "villains and terrorists". What's there works so well that it's almost a shame that the idea is dropped almost halfway through the movie. Rob Lowe is hilarious as a hot shot producer who has to help Nick find a way to make cigarettes a strong product placement in an upcoming sci-fi film starring Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones. His one or two scenes are so strong that you almost wish they had followed through a bit more. Perhaps the film's short running time is to blame, as the film is full of so many good ideas that there's just not enough time to fully explore them all. An extra 15-minutes or even a half hour would be appreciated in this case.

However, I must admit, I really am just nitpicking here, and that's because there's not really too much to complain about. Thank You For Smoking is the first consistently funny comedy of the year. It's very rare to come across a film where just about everything clicks and falls into place, but Jason Reitman has managed just that. In my opinion, he has surpassed his father's more recent film efforts. The film is currently trapped in a fairly limited release at the moment, but I highly recommend you take the time to track it down. If there was just one more Thank You For Smoking for every Grandma's Boy or Big Momma's House 2, the movie world would be a much better place.

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Scary Movie 4

Oh, how the mighty has fallen. In 1980, director David Zucker brought us Airplane - a hilarious spoof of 70s disaster movies that helped usher in the modern parody film. Today, the man is stuck following the path of Keenan Ivory Wayans who directed the original Scary Movie back in 2000. The latest installment, Scary Movie 4, has arrived to the jubilation of just about no one. Even though I thought the last film (also under the direction of Zucker) was a step up from the first two in the horror parody franchise, that's kind of like saying getting one leg amputated is a step up from getting both. Scary Movie 4 is a step backward in just about every way. The movie is tired, beyond lame, repetitive, and even at a running time that barely passes 75 minutes, seemingly interminable. From overused physical humor to "topical" jokes that went out of style five years ago (Do people still laugh at jokes about Mike Tyson biting people's ears off?), Scary Movie 4 is a movie so pathetic I almost wanted to put it out of its misery before it hit the 15 minute mark.

Taking its main source of inspiration from The Grudge, Spielberg's War of the Worlds, The Village, and the Saw films, Scary Movie 4 finds its bubble-headed heroine Cindy Campbell (Anna Faris) taking a new job after the death of her close friend, Tom Logan (Charlie Sheen in a cameo). The job revolves around her looking after a comatose old woman (Cloris Leachman) who lives in a house cursed by the spirit of a pale-skinned Japanese boy that haunts its halls. The house also just happens to be conveniently located next door to handsome, simple-minded divorced dad Tom Ryan (Craig Bierko) who is struggling to look after his two children who obviously don't respect him in the least, and whom he barely even seems to notice. The situation turns grim when an alien invasion, signaled by giant IPods rising up out of the ground that play cheesy 80s music before sending out massive death machines, hits Earth. The ghostly boy that haunts Cindy's home drops a cryptic hint that she holds the key to not only lifting the curse that keeps his spirit behind on Earth, but also to end the alien invasion.

As Tom and his children struggle to survive the alien menace, Cindy and her best friend Brenda (Regina Hall) make their way to an old-style village in the woods where the people live in fear of monsters that roam the forest on the outskirts. They believe that the Elder of the village (Bill Pullman) is connected to the spirit of the boy back home, and may hold all the answers. Only with his help can Earth be saved, so our heroes can discover the identity behind the mysterious masked man who kidnaps people and tortures them with twisted death games for his own amusement. Throw forced and lame parodies of Brokeback Mountain and Million Dollar Baby into the plot, toilet humor that no one in their right mind would find funny, and the first (and hopefully last) full frontal nude shot of Zucker regular Leslie Nielsen, and you've got the makings for pure endurance test filmmaking.

Before I begin my critical skewering, I will give Scary Movie 4 this - Unlike the last parody movie to hit screens (Date Movie), this one at least manages to fit a working plot out of the movies it makes fun of, instead of just randomly throwing scenes from movies up at the screen. The filmmakers also did a good job in capturing the look and feel of the films being parodied, from the costumes to the way scenes are shot. In every other category, however, this is just yet another excuse to throw crude bathroom humor into scenes from other movies, and hoping people will laugh. A urine-soaked sponge bath, dark ominous clouds that resemble butts that "fart" lightning, and a blind woman mistaking a public meeting area for an outhouse are just some of the "highlights" you have to look forward to with your ticket purchase. Instead of finding anything funny to do with the overly serious horror films it tackles, the screenplay is content to simply rely on crude visual humor and predictable pratfalls. I'm serious when I say that this movie probably has the most amount of jokes built around people getting hit on the head since the days of The Three Stooges. It's not funny the first time, and it's even less funny the 50th time one of the characters gets knocked on the noggin.

The saddest thing about Scary Movie 4 is that it almost seems to know how lame it is. The actors look like deers caught in headlights as they drudge their way through scene after dreary scene. Anna Faris (who has been with the series since the beginning) gives it her all, but really, she's reduced to nothing more than getting hit in the head numerous times and other forms of forced slapstick. There are some potentially funny ideas, such as the opening scene that finds basketball player Shaq and TV personality Dr. Phil trapped in the opening from the original Saw film, but let's face it, neither of them are actors (anyone who has seen Shaq's starring roles can surely agree), and they don't know how to make the scene work. Poor James Earl Jones is wasted in a cameo that parodies Morgan Freeman's narration in War of the Worlds, which once again gives him nothing funny to do. The movie is just one long unfunny slog of wasted potential. Not even the usually reliable Leslie Nielsen can salvage any form of comedic dignity in a throwaway role that has very little to do with the story itself.

Not since Rebound (the failed family comedy with Martin Lawrence from last summer) have I literally felt sorry for the actors up there on the screen. They don't seem to be having any fun, and they seem to know they're stuck in a worthless turkey. The fact that this movie is playing on over 2,000 screens makes it all the more sad. Scary Movie 4 contains not one single moment that made me even crack a smile. This is a big surprise considering this is from the man who literally helped create the genre over 20 years ago. Maybe Zucker and his writers need to take a look back at their earlier films to remind themselves of what humor really is. Maybe it's time for them to move on. Maybe it's time Hollywood itself move on from the parody genre before it's too late to save itself. I don't hate Scary Movie 4. I pity it.

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The Wild

Okay, stop me if you've heard this plot before. A group of animals are living the good life in a New York zoo, until one of them tires of captivity, and wishes to explore the wild. Said animal manages to escape the security of his environment, and his fellow friends set out into the city to try to find him. Through a series of misadventures, the group eventually find themselves on a boat headed toward a wild and untamed wilderness island. Having lived in captivity all their life, the creatures are ill-prepared for the challenges of living on their own, and must find their basic survival skills if they want to survive. You may think that I'm describing the plot to last year's animated hit, Madagascar, but I am also describing the just-released Disney production, The Wild. This is not the first time Disney and Dreamworks have released a similar-themed movie within a span of a year, but this time, Disney shoots a little too close to comfort. While not a terrible film, The Wild is highly derivative of other animated films. Not that it will matter to kids of course, but adult animation fans may find this all too familiar.

Our group of animal friends in this story include the head lion Samson (voice by Kiefer Sutherland), his young cub Ryan (Greg Cipes), scheming squirrel Benny (James Belushi), no-nonsense giraffe Bridget (Janeane Garofalo), goofy snake Larry (Richard Kind), and quick-witted koala Nigel (Eddie Izzard). Samson is the star attraction at the zoo, and his son has longed to follow in his footsteps. But Ryan also has other dreams, namely exploring the wild that his father always talks about in stories before he came to the zoo. After an argument between the two, the cub sneaks aboard a giant crate and winds up being transported to a boat headed for an uncharted island. The other animals decide to follow him out into the terrors of New York City where vicious poodles prowl the streets and alligators lurk in the sewers. Determined to track down his son, Samson and the others hijack a small boat and sail after the vessel transporting young Ryan to the wild.

Once on the island, the friends find themselves in a world they are not prepared for. The territory is ruled by a cult-like society of wildebeests led by their crazed leader, Kazar (William Shatner). Kazar has grown tired of being at the mercy of predators, and is trying to stage an uprising amongst all of his kind so that the lions and other meat-eaters will fear them instead of hunt them. With young Ryan's life, as well as their own, in danger, Samson and the others must find a way to call upon their natural instincts that they have long forgotten during their years in captivity if they want to survive. Not only that, but Samson will also have to face a part of his past he'd like to forget.

All similarities to Madagascar aside, The Wild is a passable, yet unmemorable animated film that will likely appeal to nondiscriminating children the most. They won't care if they've seen a lot of this movie before in other films, they'll be too busy concentrating on the funny animals and the impressive animation. Director Steve "Spaz" Williams (a special effects animator making his filmmaking debut) has certainly given us a lovely film to look at. The characters are designed in a semi-realistic style with only their eyes exaggerated in order to give them more human-like emotion. Their movements are eerily lifelike, giving the characters much more life than your standard CG cartoon. At times, if it weren't for the fact that their mouths were moving, you'd almost think you were watching nature footage. As much as I admire the look of the film, I must admit it does backfire during the rare moments when the animals start to show off human-like abilities. It's kind of cool to see a cartoon lion look and act like an actual lion, but when that realistic cartoon lion starts learning how to steer a boat or gets on his hind legs and starts dancing to music, it looks very odd and unnatural. They should have decided on some kind of compromise between realism and fantasy, because when the two are combined in this film, they just don't mesh.

While the artwork is bound to at least keep adults interested, the screenplay and plotting seems to be targeted more toward the younger crowd. Nothing wrong with that in particular, but they could have gone even further in trying to make this movie more appealing. My big knock against The Wild is that the film makes the mistaken notion that people yelling at each other is funny. There are so many sequences where the characters are either screaming back and forth at each other, or screaming while running away from something that it starts to get a little annoying. The film's screenplay (credited to four different writers) seems to mistake frantic and chaotic action for laughs. The film leaps from one dangerous situation to the next with very little time for us to really stop and get to know the characters, so we never quite grow attached. Samson and Ryan spend very little time together on screen before they go their separate ways, and although a love subplot is hinted at between Benny the squirrel and Bridget the giraffe, nothing is really made of it. (Although it does leave the more dirty-minded viewer some interesting questions as to what would happen if a squirrel and a giraffe mated.) Aside from Madagascar, the film also seems to lift heavily from other animated blockbusters such as Finding Nemo and The Lion King. You almost get the sense that Steve Williams and his staff threw darts at old storyboards of other animated films, added a couple new scenes in-between, and called it a story writing session.

The Wild may not be exactly original, but it does have its charms if you look past the frantic pace. The voice cast is generally strong, including a surprisingly well performed villain role from William Shatner who gets to be threatening and goofy all at once, without going into his usual self-parody style of acting that he's known for these days. Richard Kind got on my nerves as the dim-witted snake, especially since the group already has a comic relief in James Belushi's character, so there really was no reason for him to be there other than the writers felt the movie needed a "stupid" character. And the always reliable composer, Alan Silvestri, delivers a pleasant music score to carry the action along. Most important of all perhaps is that the kids at my screening seemed to be loving it. If that's all that matters, you'll most likely be satisfied with The Wild. (At least until it comes out on DVD, and you're forced to listen to your kids watch it over and over again.)

I said it once in my review of Hoodwinked, and I'll say it again. With so many animated films coming out in 2006 (at least one literally every month), you really have to deliver something special in order to stand out. The Wild has a good look and strong production values, but there's just not really anything behind that high gloss and technology, and certainly nothing that we haven't seen before. Audiences are no longer wowed by computer imagery alone, there has to be a heart to the story as well. I find it strange that Pixar is the only studio that seems to understand this. But, as long as these films make money (and as long as they have expensive marketing campaigns targeting impressionable children, they will), the studios will keep on churning them out. The Wild is passable by all accounts, but as the market becomes more crowded, passable may not be enough in the near future.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Lucky Number Slevin

It's kind of hard to believe that Pulp Fiction came out in 1994, and despite numerous attempts to do so, no other crime movie has been able to duplicate its success. It was a lightning in a bottle kind of moment, and one that I dont think will ever be repeated. Lucky Number Slevin is the latest movie to try to cash in on the smooth gangster/witty dialogue genre, and even though it doesn't come close to Tarantino's masterpiece, it's certainly entertaining in its own right. The movie has more twists and turns than an M. Night Shyamalan film festival, and the surprise ending isn't quite as surprising as it seems to think it is, but there's a great cast that's obviously having a lot of fun, and that fun comes through in the movie itself. Lucky Number Slevin delivers a good time, but not much more than that.

Our hero, the oddly-named Slevin (Josh Hartnett), is having a really bad day. Mere moments after arriving in New York to visit a friend, he is mugged and has his nose broken. Arriving at his friend's apartment, he finds the person he's looking for missing, but instead finds a pair of mobsters who have mistaken Slevin for his friend. It seems that the friend owes a large amount of money to a crime kingpin known simply as "The Boss" (Morgan Freeman), and now the gangsters have come to collect. Of course, Slevin knows absolutely nothing about what's going on, and there's no way he can come up with the money they're looking for. The Boss decides to give Slevin a chance to pay back the friend's debt by killing the son of his most hated rival and former partner in crime - a Jewish crime boss who calls himself "The Rabbi" (Ben Kingsley). Things become even more complicated when it turns out that Slevin's friend also has unfinished business with The Rabbi as well, and in order to get his goons off his back, Slevin has to come up with a large sum of money for him also. Throw in a hard-nosed detective (Stanley Tucci) who has been following our hero's trail ever since this situation started, a mysterious and deadly hitman known as Goodkat (Bruce Willis), and the innocent woman who lives in the apartment across the hall that gets wrapped up in it all (Lucy Liu), and you've got the makings for an enjoyable, if slight, comedy crime caper.

Lucky Number Slevin is a movie that thinks it's smarter than it actually is. It wastes little if no time in setting up its basic situation, and then spends the entire rest of its running time trying to throw you off, or surprise you with little plot twists and revelations that at least make sense. (A good thing, since the entire screenplay seems to be built around leading you one way, then suddenly pulling you off in another direction.) The truth is, anyone paying attention should be able to stay a step ahead of the movie. Yeah, there were some details that were foggy to me until they were revealed, but I was still able to figure out mostly what the seemingly unrelated opening moments had to do with the movie, and what role they would play in the end. The movie seems to delight in its own cunning and craftiness, but if you've already got it figured out, at least you can be entertained by the often very funny dialogue. Sure, the screenplay is not very original at its heart. All the characters are much too clever for their own good, and seem to spew forth zingy one liners like nobody's business. But, they're at least good zingy one liners for the most part. Besides, I've come to expect characters that talk like they learned English by reading a Pop Culture Dictionary in these kind of movies, so I'm used to it. There are also some clever and funny ideas found in the script by Jason Smilovic. I liked it how the two penthouses of the two crime lord rivals, The Boss and The Rabbi, face directly across the street from each other. This way, both men can spend most of their day staring and glaring at each other from their window. (They're both afraid to set foot outside, fear of what the other would do to them if they did.) The scene where Josh Hartnett and Lucy Liu's characters compare their knowledge of James Bond trivia made me smile as well. Besides, I don't think we're ever going to see Hartnett impersonate Sean Connery in a movie ever again.

A movie such as this lives and dies by the characters that inhabit it. They must be colorful, slightly off-kilter, and likeable despite the fact that they murder people for a living. Fortunately, Slevin has a large cast of enjoyable characters, as well as some strong performances to go with them. I'm still not quite convinced that Josh Hartnett has what it takes to be a leading man, but he holds his own for the most part, and makes for a good "everyman" character wrapped up in a seemingly-impossible situation. I also liked Morgan Freeman playing against type as the violent and cruel, yet still well spoken and strangely mild-mannered at times crime boss. As his rival, Ben Kingsley has a smaller role, and doesn't get as much of a chance to make an impression. But hey, it's nice to see him appearing in a semi-decent movie again after a series of cinematic train wrecks like Thunderbirds, A Sound of Thunder, and BloodRayne. Another actor playing against type in this film is Lucy Liu, who is sweet and innocent in the role of Slevin's only friend in an increasingly dangerous situation. It's a nice change of pace from her usual tough girl persona, and I hope she gets a chance to explore some other characters again, as she provides some sweet-natured comic relief to go along with all the criminals and murders. The only lead actor who failed to make any kind of impact on me was Bruce Willis. It's not because he's bad in the role, mind you, he's actually quite good. It's just that he's played this kind of strong, silent character before, and could do it in his sleep.

The cast and the entertaining dialogue certainly make the film watchable, but it just can't hide its faults. Aside from a constantly twisting plot that is surprisingly predictable, the other main fault with the storytelling is that it takes too long to reveal what the movie is truly about. Most of the film is made up of colorful characters spouting off colorful dialogue and one-liners, and then the true plot finally kicks in around the final half hour mark. It seems like a lot of set up, and very little substance. It's very entertaining set up, I'll admit, but I just wish it got to the point a little bit quicker. Also, as interesting as the characters are, we seem to learn very little about them during the course of the film. I would have liked it if the movie had gone into more detail in the past between The Boss and The Rabbi, and the events leading up to their current war with each other. The movie gives us the details, but it doesn't seem to be enough, especially since it plays somewhat of a large role in the story. (Larger than it may seem at first.)

So, even if films like Pulp Fiction remain at the top of the smart/witty crime movie heap, Lucky Number Slevin certainly holds your interest. It's just that the movie could have been even more, especially with some of the A-list actors it was able to attract. Your reaction to this movie will mostly likely depend on your tolerance for movies that keep on throwing curves at you, and if you're not burned out on twisty caper movies like this. Those who cannot stomach strong violence should probably steer clear, as there are a number of gruesome murders one after another early on, including one that hints at a child being shot in the back of the head. The movie may not be as smart as it thinks it is, but it made me laugh, and I was entertained. Heck, that's a lot more than I can say for just about every other comedy that's been given a major release in theaters this year so far. It may not be entirely memorable, but Lucky Number Slevin has enough going for it to be worth checking out at least once.

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Take the Lead

It always surprises me when someone complains and wonders why there are so many movies about teachers or ordinary people who inspire a group of troubled and/or disinterested youth to be more than they thought they could be. Why shouldn't Hollywood make movies like this? It's pretty much a check waiting to be cashed. They almost always make money, they're easy crowd pleasers, and they can usually be summed up and pitched in a single sentence - something I'm sure goes over well with Hollywood executives who hear hundreds of pitches every day. Take the Lead does very little to break from the pack, and can best be described as "Dangerous Minds meets Shall We Dance". It's sometimes cheesy and overblown, it's about as original as putting butter on toast, and I don't think the fact that it ends at a competition is going to surprise anyone walking into the theater. Yet, I also can't deny that the dance sequences are energetic and well done, and there are some enjoyable performances on display. When it's doing what it does well, Take the Lead can be fun for the right price. (A matinee or a DVD rental, not an evening performance.)

This "inspired by a true story" tale tells of Pierre Dulaine (Antonio Banderas), a courteous and mild-mannered dance instructor who seems immediately out of his element when he walks into a troubled inner-city high school one morning. Here is a place where the students must pass through metal detectors before even entering the hall, and the teachers have all but given up hope on every single teen that walks through the doors. He, on the other hand, is dressed formally and holds the door open for others. He has come this morning to report to the school's principal (Alfre Woodard) the identity of the teen who trashed her car over the past weekend. (An act he happened to have witnessed.) However, he leaves the building with a different purpose entirely. Seeing the principal's dwindling hope in the future of her own student body, Pierre suggests that he knows of a way to teach the teens discipline and respect - ballroom dancing. He is initially laughed off, but since the school needs someone to watch over after school detention, the woman decides to humor him, and give him a chance.

What follows is your average underdog story. Pierre will slowly earn the respect and attention of his rowdy students, and teach them his philosophy on life, dancing, and achieving more than they thought possible. There's the inevitable personal drama of the teens (everything from bad home lives with uncaring parents to trouble with peer pressure from local gangs), there's the prerequisite character who does not agree with Pierre's philosophy and tries to get him fired or make him look like a fool (in this case, a teacher at the school who feels the students are doomed and Pierre is wasting his time), and most certainly there is the big dance competition where the students get their chance to shine and by the end, all the stuffy old white people who turned their noses up to them at the beginning of the film are now cheering them on. You could make a checklist of all the required plot elements that a movie like this needs to have before walking in, and by the end, probably have every item crossed off. But, what Take the Lead lacks in originality and story telling it makes up for in pure energy.

A lot this energy has to do with the dance sequences which are expertly choreographed, but not so much so that you have a hard time believing that these are the same kids we saw at the beginning of the film. They don't suddenly develop moves that only someone who has been dancing all their lives in the short time frame that the film is set in. For this, I am grateful. The dance sequences obviously got the most amount of attention, and it shows, because it is during these scenes that the movie is at its best. First-time filmmaker Liz Friedlander has past experience directing music videos, but she wisely does not rely on overly choppy editing techniques and other such tricks that so many other video directors fall into when they turn to making full-length films. She understands how to choreograph the music sequences in a realistic and exciting way. I can understand why the dance sequences got the most amount of interest, and I guess it's to be expected. But, when you look at the non-musical related scenes, it's almost like looking at two different movies.

When Pierre's students are not gliding across the dance floor, they are stuck with the same tired old inner-city cliches that we've been seeing for over 15 years now. I wouldn't mind this so much if it was done well, but the scenes are sometimes so over the top and cheesy that I was shaking my head. I kind of got a sense of where the film was going early on when one of the troubled students trashes the principal's car with a baseball bat. The action is slowed down, and we hear his cries of anger intensified and muffled so that he sounds like a cross between a caged lion and The Incredible Hulk. Likewise, a scene where the same kid finally confronts his former gang member friends, deciding he wants to go to the ballroom dancing competition instead is about as realistic as subtle and realistic as finding a two-headed bear in the woods. Mind you, I haven't even mentioned yet that his friends seem to beat the life out of him when he takes his stand, yet just a couple scenes later, he shows up at the competition and dances up a storm, the movie never explaining how he recovered from his injuries that caused him to fall into unconsciousness the last time we saw him, or how he escaped from the approaching police presence. There are many scenes where the inner-city melodrama is piled on so thick that the movie just becomes downright odd. Most odd of all is the film's final scene, which I dare not spoil the pleasure of, but I will say revolves around the entire crowd at the ballroom competition (even the judges) dancing and clapping to hip hop music after the kids take over the competition's sound system.

It is a credit to the film's cast that they are able to rise above the ham-fisted dialogue and situations they have been given by the script, and still be able to rise above them, delivering strong performances all around. Antonio Banderas is quirky, wonderful, and immediately likeable in a very interesting role that breaks out slightly from the norm in this kind of film. He's mainly helping out the kids for fun. He's not a teacher, and he doesn't have any personal connection to the school or to the students, he volunteers his services, and spends his time enticing the troubled youth into his own world. It's a nice change of pace from the character type that usually headlines this genre. All of the kids portraying the students are good actors in their own right as well as excellent dancers, and are able to take just about everything the script throws at them. They may not make you forget how cliched their material is, or make you fully believe it, but they do make the film's worse moments easier to take.

Take the Lead is the kind of movie I would probably hate if I was reading just the script alone. But thanks to a strong cast and good production values, the film is lifted up a little. Not quite enough for it to make me forget that I've seen this stuff many times before and done much better, but enough to make me walk out of such a convoluted and obviously desperate crowd-pleaser and not be angry. The film is ridiculous and has never met a cliche it didn't like, but it can also be fun when its focusing on the music instead of the storytelling. It's entertaining for the most part, inoffensive, and I'm sure it will have a long life on DVD and Cable television. That's probably all the filmmakers are looking for. Take the Lead is no Stand and Deliver, or even a School of Rock, but it knows how to give you a good time if you're in the right mind set when you watch it.

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