Reel Opinions

Saturday, September 30, 2006

School for Scoundrels

There are some actors who can brighten up even the worst movies with just their presence alone. (Billy Bob Thornton) And then there are some actors who's mere presence can just about sink a film. (Jon Heder) Put these two actors together in the lead starring roles, and you're bound to get a very strange movie. Such is the case with School for Scoundrels, a movie that tries to be too many things, and as a result, works only in bits and pieces. This is a movie that feels like its been tampered with in some way, like it has edited and re-edited time and time again in order to please a test audience that wasn't happy with an earlier cut, or perhaps a studio head who thought the movie needed more heart or likeable characters. A movie called School for Scoundrels shouldn't have heart or likeable characters. Too bad nobody bothered to inform that to director and co-writer, Todd Phillips (Old School, Starsky & Hutch).

One-note character actor, Jon Heder, plays Roger, a down on his luck loser who gets no respect on his job, where he works as a New York meter maid, or in life. He's the kind of guy whose apartment is filled with self help books, but he seems to be going nowhere fast, especially in the department of confessing his true feelings to the sweet young girl who lives in the apartment down the hall from him, Amanda (Jacinda Barrett from The Last Kiss). A friend gives Roger a mysterious phone number, and tells him only to call it, as it can change his life. The number that Roger dials connects him to a man who calls himself Dr. P (Billy Bob Thornton), who runs a rather unorthodox confidence-building course for men who want to change their lives. Dr. P's course teaches Roger and the other students to be aggressive, be confrontational, and most of all, lie in order to get what you want. Through the course, Roger finds inner strength that he never knew existed before, and he even brings up the courage to ask Amanda out for a date. But when Dr. P starts moving in on his territory and tries to woo Amanda for himself, the gloves come off, and a bitter war begins between Teacher and Student. Dr. P resorts to planting evidence to try to convince Amanda that Roger is an obsessed psycho, while Roger teams up with some of his fellow students and a former disgruntled student of Dr. P's with a score to settle (Ben Stiller) in order to bring the man down and expose him for the fraud he is.

For a movie littered with as many problems as School for Scoundrels, it's somewhat hard to pinpoint just exactly where the film and the screenplay by Todd Phillips and Scot Armstrong goes wrong. The film definitely suffers from an identity crisis, as it starts out as a raunchy male-driven comedy, turns into a sappy romantic comedy during the middle portion, switches gears to become a dark revenge comedy, and then goes right back to romantic comedy territory with one of the oldest cliches in the genre book (the hero desperately racing through the airport trying to stop his girl from going off with the wrong man). But really, I think the film's central problem is that the movie seems like it follows the inspiration of the meek Roger character, rather than the aggressive and cunning Dr. P. The movie is far too tame, and doesn't do enough with its own premise. There is a hilarious montage early in the film where Roger and his fellow students must pick a confrontation with random people on the street as part of their training to become "real men". Therefore, the guys pick fights with harmless people on the street, and bed-ridden old ladies in hospitals. The film hits the right notes during these moments, and this is the direction the film should have taken. Unfortunately, Phillips and Armstrong wimp out immediately afterward, and the movie begins a downward spiral from which it never fully recovers. After a promising opening half that is daring and somewhat dark, the film suddenly turns into a cliched romantic comedy as Roger tries to win Amanda's heart. Even when the film tries to recapture the twisted and funny tone of the first part, it fails because it simply loses its edge. Roger and Dr. P simply become involved in lame slapstick fights, and the tone turns from smart and satirical to flat-out stupid. You can almost pinpoint when the movie starts to go wrong, and that's when it stops focusing its attention on Dr. P's class, and more on Roger's personal life and his rivalry with his teacher.

With so much strong comedic talent on display, you'd think someone involved must have known that the movie was taking a wrong turn, especially when it refuses to use their comic talents for its own use, or stuffs them in small, forgettable roles that have nothing to do with the plot. A good example is Ben Stiller, who shows up late in the film as a crazed former student of Dr. P. He shared a similar rivalry with the teacher that Roger is going through, lost, and now spends his days holed up in a run down house surrounded by hundreds of cats. The character and the idea is funny, but the movie gives Stiller nothing funny to do, so you almost wonder why he even bothered to show up. Controversial comic Sarah Silverman is also wasted in a pointless role as Amanda's roommate. Seeing as though she serves no purpose to the story, other than to be yet another person to ridicule Roger throughout, we realize she's just here for the paycheck rather than actually contributing to the film. Honestly, the movie seems to forget about everyone except its three main leads as it goes on. The film ends with an extended epilogue sequence explaining what happened to the characters afterward, and since we barely know most of the characters on display, the jokes during this sequence fall completely flat. You get the sense that if Heder, Thornton, and Barrett were the only actors present in this film, and the rest of the cast was made up out of cardboard cutouts, no one would seriously notice.

At the very least, School for Scoundrels offers another successful comedic performance by Billy Bob Thornton. Yes, he's pretty much playing the same "guy you love to hate" character he's played before in past comedies like Bad Santa and The Ice Harvest, but he still finds a way to make his performance seem fresh and funny. The classroom scenes where he is coaching his students on the different aspects of being a "man" generate some of the biggest laughs in the film, so it's almost a shame when the movie decides to take him out of the school, and he starts interfering with Roger's life. The classroom is all but forgotten about from this point on, and his character just isn't as funny as he was before. Jon Heder continues to drag out the 15-minutes of fame he received for Napoleon Dynamite with yet another nearly indentical performance, although this time he does at least try to make Roger a bit more well rounded of a character. He's a bit more human than some of Heder's past "nerd" performances, but he still seems to fall back on the same old acting tricks that I have long grown tired of. Jacinda Barrett is basically forced to fill in the sweet and bland center that drives the rivalry between the male leads. I know she's capable of much more, especially after seeing The Last Kiss just weeks ago.

As I mentioned before, School for Scoundrels is definitely a strange little movie. It's light-hearted and sweet, when it should be sharp and biting. And when it tries to be sharp, the humor isn't always smart enough. After a fairly strong first half, the movie slips into cliches and half-baked ideas, almost sending the viewer into a depressed state as they watch the promise it once held slip away. Maybe the script needed another rewrite or two. Or maybe the film was tampered with too much in a failed effort to make it a crowd pleaser. All I know is that all I learned from this School is how to waste some good comic talent and some good ideas.

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Friday, September 29, 2006

Open Season

Well, here I am reviewing another computer animated film. Has it been a week already? All kidding aside, Open Season is the latest uninspired kids cartoon that's likely to be swallowed along with the dozen or so other films just like it that have come out the past few months. The film is highly derivative of more successful films before it, and holds not a single ounce of inspiration or originality in its entire 80-minute running time. Plain as vanilla, and lacking any shred of character, Open Season is doomed to show up at your local Blockbuster before too long.

Overly domesticated and pampered grizzly bear Boog (voice by Martin Lawrence) has enjoyed the good life ever since he was found as a cub by kind-hearted forest ranger, Beth (Debra Messing). The two have created a bond with each other, and Boog now lives comfortably in her garage, spending his days watching television and performing for local children. Boog's life changes when he's visiting town with his owner, and happens to free a one-antlered deer named Elliot (Ashton Kutcher) from the hood of a hunter's car. Grateful for the rescue, Elliot secretly follows Boog to his home, and entices the bear to join him in the outside world with the bait of a candy bar. This begins a wild night of a junk food binge for the two animals as they tear up a nearby store looking for treats. When Boog is caught, Beth reluctantly comes to the conclusion that she can no longer hold onto him, and must leave him behind in the woods where he naturally belongs. Boog and Elliot form an uneasy partnership as they try to find their way back to civilization, little realizing that open hunting season is set to begin any day now, and the man who had previously Elliot tied to his car, a crazed and conspiracy-minded hunter named Shaw (Gary Sinise) is looking for revenge, and an excuse to prove his theory that the animals are plotting against humans.

Somewhat of a reverse version of Dreamworks' earlier toon entry, Over the Hedge (where previously, the animals were trying to adapt to civilization, here is a domesticated wild animal trying to adapt to the outside), Open Season starts out with promise as the warm-hearted relationship between Boog and his human owner is established. The relationship between the two is sweet and compassionate, and it tricks the viewer into thinking the movie has its heart in the right place. Then the film becomes bogged down with too many wise cracking comic relief characters, starting with the very annoying Elliot, who unfortunately we're going to be seeing a lot of from that point on. The character of Elliot seems more than just a little bit inspired by the character of Donkey from the Shrek films, both in his motor-mouth comic delivery style, and his knack to suddenly start singing or humming at a moment's notice. Unfortunately, the lines he has been given by screenwriters Steve Bencich and Ron J. Friedman are not funny or clever, and we start to wish Boog had just left him tied to the hood of the hunter's car before too long. The odd couple relationship between the domesticated and pampered Boog, and the wild and crazy Elliott, is never quite developed in a successful manner. We never feel any comradeship between the two, so when their friendship starts to drive the plot later on, it seems forced and unnatural.

If Elliot had been the only uninspired comic character to show up, I'd still be able to give the film a pass. Unfortunately, it seems that Elliot isn't the only obnoxious failed comic in this neck of the woods, as the movie starts bombarding us with wise cracking animal sidekicks left and right. None of them are remotely amusing, and the movie seems to be in such a rush to introduce them that it forgets to give them anything to do. There are some angry Scottish squirrels who throw nuts at anyone who bother their trees, there are a pair of sassy skunks, and there are even some rabbits who seem to exist for the sole purpose of being physically abused by everyone else. None of these characters have the tiniest bit of personality, and were hard pressed to make the children in my audience laugh. They simply stand in the background, watching the action, waiting for their big scene at the climax when the animals take revenge on the hunters. The climax itself is hardly worth waiting for, as it seems to be over in less than two minutes, and barely has time to register in our brains before its over. The humor itself is a lame collection of toilet humor, including a shot where Elliot lets loose some droppings right there on the camera that seems like it'd be more at home in Jackass than in a children's movie, and unfunny one liners.

Unfortunately, this half-hearted approach carries throughout just about every part of the production. While the animation is generally pleasant (the highlight being a white water rapid chase scene between the animals and the crazed hunter), the overall look of the film is rather mundane and unoriginal. None of the character designs stand out as anything special, and nothing impresses. The vocal performances of Martin Lawrence and Ashton Kutcher are a mixed bag. While Lawrence is tolerable, Kutcher's performance grew on my nerves just as quickly as the character. Not only does his character seem to be a third rate Donkey from Shrek, but his performance seems to be a poor man's version of Eddie Murphy's act. Since the rest of the cast are hardly able to create characters for themselves, very few stand out. Debra Messing is appropriately soothing and likeable as Boog's human, and Gary Sinise seems to be relishing his over the top evil performance with every snarl and gnashing of teeth. Too bad they're not as memorable as they could have been had the script actually cared about making them interesting characters.

It's somewhat sad that Open Season is being released by Columbia Pictures/Sony's fairly new animation division. Their last film, Monster House, was a breath of fresh air with an original style and tone that made it stand out from all the other animated films. This film is so mundane and such a blatant rip off of past successful formulas that it's hard to believe they both came from the same studio. Underwritten, overly slight, and with hardly any plot to speak of, Open Season holds no point or reason to be there on the screen. Unless your kids haven't seen the multitude of other films just like it, there's no reason for you to be in this film's audience either.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

All the King's Men

What's worse than a mediocre movie? How about a mediocre movie that thinks it's a great one? All the King's Men has all the trappings of a great Oscar-bait movie. It's got prestige (It's based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and is itself a remake of a 1949 film that won Best Picture that year), it has an unbelievable cast filled with A-List stars that combined have won numerous accolades and awards, and writer-director Steven Zaillian is no stranger to great movies, as he wrote the screenplay to Spielberg's Schindler's List. Alas, there seemed to be trouble in paradise when this film, which was supposed to be released last fall, got pulled off the release charts and pushed back a year. Rumors spread like wildfire that despite the seemingly can't miss talent involved, the film was a clunker. While it is nowhere near the unsalvageable disaster that one would think, All the King's Men is an extremely disappointing movie. From its miscast characters, to its often muddled storytelling, the film offers hints of greatness from time to time, but they just can't overcome the mediocrity of the entire production.

All the King's Men covers the rise and fall of Willie Stark (Sean Penn), a traveling salesman turned politician who has some big ideas for change in the country back in the 1950s, and vows to help the lower class working man and woman, who have up to this point been ignored by the rich people who currently hold the power in the government. His impassioned speech making and ideas for change rally the common people behind him, and he eventually wins the title of Governor of Louisiana in a landslide victory. After earning office, the once proud and noble Willie Stark quickly turns to lying, booze, cheating, and even blackmail when a local Judge (Anthony Hopkins) joins in a movement to attempt to impeach Willie. He enlists his hired hand, a former newspaper writer named Jack Burden (Jude Law), to dig up any dirt he can on the Judge in an attempt to discredit him and his cause. Jack becomes torn between the loyalty he has for his employer, and the loyalty he holds to the Judge, since he grew up around the man as a child. And when he finds out that Willie Stark may have had a sexual fling with a childhood sweetheart that Jack has long held feelings for (Kate Winslet), he questions where his loyalties lie even more.

Just reading that synopsis above brings to mind images of an intruiging political thriller, but in this case, one would be wrong. All the King's Men is a messy and often sloppy tale that refuses to hold our interest, despite the plot dealing with issues that we know should make for powerful drama. Much like the children's nursery rhyme that inspired the film's title, where all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again, it would seem that the editor of this film was facing a similar crisis, and just couldn't put this movie together in a satisfying and coherent manner. Plot points come out of nowhere, flashbacks are clumsily sprinkled throughout and seem to start and stop without any rhyme or reason, and the characters remain emotionally distant throughout. The biggest continuity problem the movie faces is that Willie Stark's fall from promising man of change to lying, backstabbing political slime seems forced and comes without warning. No explanation is given for the man's change of character or morals. I guess we're supposed to view it as a "power corrupts" theme, and while that's all well and good, the man seems to suddenly have a change of heart the second he wins the election. A little bit of background or a closer look at the man probably would have helped explain a bit more. Was he weak? Was his wholesome and trustworthy image during the first half hour just an act? We never know, because the movie refuses to truly get to know him or his ideals.

Perhaps a lot of this has to do with the fact that Zaillian's screenplay decides to focus more on the character of Jack Burden than on Willie himself. As soon as Willie wins the election, the movie seems to move away from him, and he becomes a mere background character, popping up only to make some shady deals, leer at scantily clad women, and threaten his enemies. I have not read the book this film was based on, nor have I seen the original film, so I cannot say if this was a conscious decision on the screenplay's part, or if it just being faithful to the source material. Regardless, I cannot understand why it chooses to view everything through the eyes of an outsider. Jack's relationship with Willie does not seem particularly close, despite the fact that he works directly with him. Instead of explaining about Willie's emotional and moral downfall, the movie instead focuses on Jack's conflicted feelings, and his past relationship with his lady friend, and her brother, Adam (played by Mark Ruffalo). Unfortunately, even this subplot seems emotionally distant, as we never get a clear sense of their relationship other than some clumsily placed and edited flashbacks that revolve around the three of them sitting on the beach, or playing together as children. The flashbacks don't go deep enough into the characters to warrant the movie wasting so much of its time on it, nor do they really explain enough about them. Despite its relationship-driven story, All the King's Men is cold and distant all the way around, and the film suffers greatly because of it.

With the story being such a wash, the wonderful cast the film has gathered must be a highlight, right? If only wishing would make it so. Someone at the studio should have really questioned Zaillian's decision to cast British actors as Southerners, because the end result is listening to a lot of good actors made to recite their dialogue in forced accents the entire time. This not only hinders their acting ability, but it makes their performances sometimes unintentionally comical. Mark Ruffalo in particular is a fine young actor, but the way he slips in and out of his very bad Southern accent constantly is so embarrassing that you're almost grateful that his character has few lines. Both Jude Law and Kate Winslet try a bit harder with their accents, but they still wind up sounding forced and about as natural as Foghorn Leghorn in the old Looney Tunes shorts. Anthony Hopkins is strangely dry and lacking life in his portrayal of a Judge caught in the middle of all the treachery. And then there is Sean Penn, who overacts to levels that I didn't even know existed. The way he bellows nearly every line, and waves his arms around in the air as if he was swatting away at imaginary flies that only he can see, is sometimes laugh-inducing. I mean, okay, I can understand his method when he's supposed to be grandstanding and acting for the public during his speech scenes, but when he's having a one-on-one conversation with Jude Law's character, and is still waving his arms around like a lunatic, someone really should have told him to tone it down a little. Al Pacino in Scarface had more subtlety.

All the King's Men has a lot of intriguing ideas and a great cast to back it up. Too bad every single idea and ounce of talent that went into this project rarely if ever shows up on the screen. The film is an emotionally distant melodrama that tries to play up the action, even when nothing is actually happening. It doesn't help things that the bombastic and overpowering music score by James Horner is constantly trying to convince us that something huge is happening, even though we can plainly see not much is going on either emotionally or in terms of action. While the film is watchable, you just get the feeling that it's all a lot of style and class for no reason whatsoever. This story and this cast deserved better.

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Jet Li's Fearless

Acclaimed martial arts star, Jet Li, has stated that Fearless is to be his last film in the genre, as he believes that the plots in almost all martial arts films circle around revenge of one way or another, and they have become repetitive. His reasoning certainly can't be argued with. Just weeks ago we had The Protector, an overly violent live action cartoon of a movie where the lead character killed hundreds of thousands of people in every scene all because the bad guys had stolen his elephant and killed his father. Fearless is not only a fitting end to Li's career in martial arts films (he still plans to make other kinds of movies), but it is also one of the best entries in the genre I have seen in years. As a filmgoer who has grown tired of overblown spectacles that emphasize style over substance like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the overrated Hero, I was delighted to learn that Fearless has an actual story to tell with interesting characters that we can care about. While it serves as a fitting swan song for Jet Li's current career, it is also a great return to form for director Ronny Yu, a famed Asian filmmaker who has been reduced these past couple years to doing cheesy American slasher films like Freddy Vs. Jason and Bride of Chucky.

Jet Li plays Huo Yuanjia, a legendary real life fighter who inspired the nation of China with his exploits and his teachings. The film follows his life from a cocky young fighter who only cares about glory and fame, to a man who wishes to bring honor and dignity back to fighting and to his country when foreigners from the West start moving in and taking over his homeland. The change in Huo's life occurs after a fight with another master martial artist leads to the murder of his mother and young daughter at the hands of a follower of the man he defeated. Rather than seek revenge on the murderer, Huo decides to leave home and journey across the land, wallowing in his own depression. He winds up in a quiet, small community where the people seem laid back and calm. A kindly young blind woman in the village (played by Sun Li) teaches him how to respect others and the world around him. When Huo eventually returns home to the city he left years ago, he's a changed man, and wants to fight for national pride instead of for his own personal glory. He sets out to begin a new method of martial arts that emphasizes respect, instead of humiliation and killing, and enters a tournament pitting him against some of the best fighters from around the world to not only show his new method to the world, but to also prove the strength of the people of China.

What surprised me the most about Fearless is that this is not the overblown action spectacle that some of the advertisements would lead you to believe. This is definitely a plot-driven movie with a genuine message and a purpose. While the film may be a bit heavy handed and melodramatic in delivering this message at times, it nonetheless remains strong because the characters are easy to relate to and are likeable. Jet Li is able to play both sides of his character (the brash and arrogant young man that he is in the beginning, and the much wiser and understanding man he becomes half way through) with a sense of believability, making him a character that is easy for the audience to get behind. Li has said that he wants to do more roles that emphasize acting over his fighting skills, and this is certainly a good start, as his performance here is probably one of the best he has given in years. It certainly helps that he gets to play a character who smiles and gets to go through real emotions, instead of the more stoic and static characters he has played in films like the previously mentioned Hero. Here, he is charismatic and likeable. The rest of the cast are good as well, the stand outs including newcomer Sun Li as the pretty young woman who changes Huo's life, and Yong Dong as Huo's long-suffering, yet loyal, businessman friend who becomes one of his strongest supporters when he returns to the city he left years ago. All of the characters have much more emotion and depth than one would find in a typical martial arts film, and the movies gives them plenty of time to create genuine characters.

Li's fans should take heart, however. Despite a stronger emphasis on characterization and dialogue, Fearless still finds plenty of time to include some vivid and impressive fight scenes. The fight choreography by Yuen Wo-Ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is energetic, lively, and fun. They do not emphasize brutality, nor do they seem overly stylized. Much to my surprise, there seems to be very little to no wire work at all. No actors making impossible leaps into the air, and best of all, no special effects assistance allowing the actors to pull off overly incredible feats. These are the kind of things that can take me out of a movie, and I was relieved to see that the fighting looked genuinely real at least to me for the most part. The film's first 35 minutes or so are heavy on fight scenes, yet they never seem repetitive, nor do they seem alike in any way. Li and his opponents do something different in every battle, so they don't start to blend together. It's not just the fight scenes that look great in this movie, everything does. The sets and the scenery are often beautiful, a highlight being a short sequence where the film shows the changing of the seasons in the small village that Huo's journey leads him to. Director Ronny Yu brings a certain style and elegance to the look of the film, but he is careful not to make it look like an overly stylized and fantasy version of old China. The look of the film appears accurate, and is generally pleasing throughout.

If there is any justice in Hollywood, this film will become a word of mouth hit with American audiences. Fearless has all the fights and stunts that martial arts fans are looking for, but it also has enough substance to back it up and a real story to tell. These elements combine to create one of the most enjoyable films in the genre I have seen in a long time. If this is truly Jet Li's final martial arts epic, he can at least know that he went out on a high note. Yet, I have a feeling that if this movie hits big at the box office, he might have at least one more left in him. If it's as good as Fearless, I'm all for it.

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Saturday, September 23, 2006


Were it not for the sheer novelty of the concept (When was the last time you saw a movie set during World War I instead of the more famous second War?), Flyboys would be completely devoid of any imagination whatsoever. Underdeveloped, overblown, and lacking in even the most basic character developments, the film is a misguided flightless bird of a movie that fails to generate even the smallest of thrills. Despite a nearly two and a half hour running time, actor-turned-filmmaker Tony Bill refuses to let his audience get even remotely close to his cast or his story. In the end, Flyboys comes across as a lot of fancy special effects and lost potential.

The film centers on Blaine Rawlings (James Franco), a hot-headed and hot-tempered young country boy who joins the French-based air force as an American volunteer after his family ranch is foreclosed. With the Germans gaining the upper ground with each passing day in the first World War, it will be up to Rawlings and his fellow volunteers to combat the enemy forces by the air. The other volunteers come from all walks of life, and seem to hail from a hack writer's handbook to military personality types. There's the spoiled fat guy who comes from a wealthy family, the meek religious guy who does nothing but quote the Bible and sing "Onward Christian Soldiers" nonstop every time he's fighting the enemy, and of course, there's the black guy who gave up a rising career as a boxer in the hopes that he could do something greater with his life. During his time on the battlefield, Rawlings will romance a pretty young French woman (Jennifer Decker), shoot down a lot of planes, and not very much else, since that's all there is to this paper thin story trying to pass itself off as a war epic.

In a technical sense, Flyboys looks like a million. This was obviously a big budget production, and every dollar the project sucked up is right there on the screen. From the brilliantly realized aerial dogfight scenes, to the accurate costumes and set designs for the era, this movie is a wonder to look at. The computer animation used during the more complex battle scenes and in bringing these ancient fighting planes to life is near flawless. Walking in, I was worried that some of these sequences might come across as cheesy or fake like a video game. Fortunately, the look of the film is realistic and genuine throughout. All of the aircraft were obviously recreated with care, from the smallest planes to the massive German zeppelin that appears during a mission late in the film. This is a movie that will probably be benefit from the "Mute" option on your TV remote when it comes out on DVD, so you can concentrate on the images, and not on the cornball script that sounds like something that's been sitting on some studio's shelf for the past 40 years or so, got dusted off, and given the full big budget treatment. From the sometimes laughable dialogue ("You don't look like a prostitute..."), to the overly dramatic music cues provided by composer Trevor Rabin (As soon as it's announced someone on the team might be a German spy, the music rams the note home by playing a short, melodramatic cue on the soundtrack.), Flyboys is about as subtle as a lead pipe to the noggin when it comes to drama.

Maybe I wouldn't mind so much if the characters were worth caring about even just a little. Unfortunately, the screenplay by Phil Sears, Blake T. Evans and David S. Ward seems it could really care less about the people who populate its story. Lead character Rawlings is probably the blandest and least threatening "rebel" to ever shake things up. He tries to talk tough, but the performance by James Franco seems more like he's bored and uninterested. The other members of his team get short introduction sequences where we see them leaving for the War, and then they are pretty much ignored immediately afterward. No genuine relationships or bonds are created on or off the battlefield, which is odd, since the comradeship that these men shared seems to be the main dramatic selling point of this movie. After every battle, Rawlings goes to the local bar and mopes over the people who died. Not only do we never quite understand why he is so downhearted, since he seems to have spent all of three minutes with most of his fallen soldiers, it also allows the movie to fall into a monotonous pattern from which it never escapes. The guys fight a battle, return to base and go to the bar to mourn over the latest casualty, Rawlings goes off to have a little fling with the French women and play with the orphans that she is looking after, go back up to the air to fight again, and then the process starts all over again and repeats for the next 130 minutes. The movie tries to mix things up with a possible spy subplot, or the French woman having to go on the run because of German occupation of her home, but the movie never quite leaves the rut it makes for itself.

Because of this approach, every performance in this movie comes across as underperformed and forgettable. Yes, they're fighting a losing battle of their own against an uninspired script, but that certainly doesn't excuse some of the performances on display, especially Jean Reno as the air squad's Captain, who strangely does not bring forth even the slightest bit of authority in his presence, and seems way too forgiving and meek to be a commanding figure. In one scene, Rawlings steals a plane so that he can fly off and rescue his love from the approaching Germans. Does the Captain yell at him? Does he even scold him? Nope. He just shakes his head, and gives him a medal for breaking just about every regulation, and endangering the lives of not only himself, but many others. The rest of the cast barely registers due to the fact they don't even have any personalities outside of their introductory scenes. The performances are passable enough, I guess, but they come across as character types rather than real people. French actress Jennifer Decker makes a sweet and attractive love interest in her first US film role, but even she seems like less than she should, since her role mainly requires her to make longing eyes at Franco's character in every scene.

Flyboys is as bland and tasteless as white bread, and probably holds about as much nutritional content for your brain. The movie is stuffed with self importance, but it's all built around a shaky script that can barely hold up a movie this long. Only the visuals and the impressive dogfight sequences save this one from being sent straight to the garbage pile. You get the sense that the filmmakers discovered they could do some really impressive dogfight scenes, and then tried to make a movie around it. You can obviously see where all the attention went. When all is said and done, Flyboys is nothing more than a very long technical demo. A very impressive technical demo, mind you, but one that goes on for far too long and just doesn't have anything to say.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Jackass Number Two

I would like to offer a bit of advice to star Johnny Knoxville and the crew of Jackass Number Two, if I may. Please, quit while you're ahead. If this continues, the only way you're going to be able to top yourselves should there be a Number Three is if one of you winds up in the morgue. That being said, anyone who walks into this movie not knowing what to expect deserves whatever they get. While the premise of seeing a group of extreme stunt idiots get their dues for attempting to perform insanely dangerous stunts should be entertaining in a stupid way, Jackass Number Two unfortunately tends to emphasize the gross out skits over the extreme stunts, which makes the film as much of an endurance test for the audience as it is for anyone unfortunate enough to be up there on the screen. Let me close this opening paragraph by saying if you have ever seriously wondered why Hollywood has not done a movie where someone drinks a bottle of freshly squeezed horse semen from an aroused stallion, the movie event of your lifetime has arrived. For the rest of us, we can wait for the DVD, or leave it up to our imaginations.

For those of you who don't know, Jackass Number Two was inspired by the surprise success of 2002's Jackass: The Movie, which itself was inspired by a popular show on MTV, which itself inspired a number of lawsuits and media attention when stupid kids tried to imitate the stuff they saw on the program. It is a plotless premise built around a series of skits where comic actor Johnny Knoxville and a group of his seemingly-mentally challenged cohorts perform an endless series of dangerous extreme stunts, gross out gags, and lame character skits where someone dresses up as a deranged old person, and tries to get a reaction out of people on the streets, hidden cameras capturing the results. This time around, the guys try a variety of stunts which include being strapped to a rocket as it flies up into the air, testing their luck in a children's ball pit where vicious anaconda snakes slink about, and angering wild charging bulls. A few B-list celebrities such as shock filmmaker, John Waters, and Broken Lizard comedy group member, Jay Chandrasekhar, get in on the fun sometimes, and they even sometimes play pranks on each other, such as when some of Knoxville's guys are in a limo thinking they're on their way to a photo shoot, only to suddenly have Knoxville himself empty a bag full of angry bees into the car through the sunroof.

While some of the stuff is amusing to watch in a twisted sort of way, there's just not enough material here to fill an entire 90-minute movie. Most of the stunt gags are repetitive and built around the exact same premise (someone tries to cross a large body of water with a rocket-propelled shopping cart or roller skates, and immediately falls into the water as soon as their mode of transportation flips over), or the movie keeps on repeating the same gag over and over, such as when Knoxville tricks the guys into reading an oversized Valentine's card that a fan supposedly left outside their hotel room, only to have a spring-loaded boxing glove come flying out to their face. The concepts of the gags are often more amusing than the actual depicted outcome, since there's only so many times you can see someone fall in water or get punched in the face before it starts to lose its novelty. The "man on the street reaction" skits don't hold up much better. These mostly revolve around one of the film's producers, Spike Jonze, dressed as an old lady suffering from a wardrobe malfunction that causes "her" sagging breasts to hang out for people caught on tape to see. The reaction of the people is obvious disgust, shock, and bewilderment, and the movie fails to find anything funny to do with their reactions. They just stop and stare, and nothing else happens. Really, the only skits that registered a laugh with me concerned the mother of one of Knoxville's guys. Her reaction to her son getting a cow brand on his behind is funny, as is her reaction when she becomes a part of one of their skits when they replace her husband with a look a like actor who does some things that she probably doesn't see her husband do very often.

Since most of the stunts and prank skits fall flat, it's up to the gross out skits to get some sort of reaction from the audience. While they certainly succeed here, I often found myself questioning if we have crossed the line from pranks to flat out cruelty. Aside from the previously mentioned horse semen sequence, which I hope I never have to see again, we also get graphic depictions of one of the guys sticking a fish hook directly through the flesh of his mouth, then throwing himself into shark-infested waters, while someone else holding onto the fishing line uses him as bait to attract the swimming predators below. Another sequence has the guys going to a doctor who specializes in leech cures, and they attach a leech to a man's eyeball, forcing him to keep it open as it chomps down upon the white of his eye . Still further forms of torture include watching a man suck beer up through his butt crack, another person get a snake stuck to his penis after he disguises it as a mouse and sticks it through a hole leading into the snake's cage, and one of the guys being forced to wear a beard for a skit, not knowing that it was made out of the pubic hairs of the other cast members. These sequences are more stomach-churning than funny, and an audience that was laughing hysterically during some of the extreme stunt scenes went awkwardly silent during some of these scenes. Perhaps you truly can go too far, even with the rowdiest of audiences.

Jackass Number Two aims low, and yet finds a way to go even lower even when it has reached limits that I would not wish upon anyone. You already know whether or not if you're going to see this movie, so my words are probably meaningless. All I will say is that this movie generated very scattered laughs from me, but I did frequently feel physically ill. Anyone who thinks film critics have a cushy job will shut up pretty quick after experiencing this. At one point of the film, one of cast members makes a request to the heavens that there never be a Jackass Number 3 after going through a particularly dangerous stunt. I can only hope myself that someone was listening that day.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Gridiron Gang

While it's certainly true that originality in filmmaking is a hard thing to do, I often think it's even harder to do a formulaic film the right way. While I usually sink in my seat a little when it dawns upon me that I'm going to be able to plot out the entire course of the movie within the first 15 minutes, because I can already tell the film will have little if any to offer that I haven't seen before, sometimes a movie comes along that knows how to use its cliches to its advantage. Gridiron Gang is the latest film I can claim to hold this honor. The film is as cliched as all get out, and about as original as putting butter on bread. Yet, thanks to the fact that the film does not shy away or sanitize from its gritty subject matter (despite a PG-13 rating), and the fact that the movie actually makes us care about its characters, I was able to look past the old as the hills storytelling, and admire the film for the crowd pleaser it actually is.

What we have here is yet another inspirational "based on a true story" movie about a man trying to make a difference in the lives of troubled teens, albeit one that is done a bit better than the norm. Wrestling superstar Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson steps into the shoes of Sean Porter, a strict yet caring counselor at the notorious Camp Kilpatrick Juvenile Detention Center in L.A. Sean is beginning to worry that he's not making enough of an impression on the troubled youth and young gang members that he tries to straighten out during their short time under his supervision. As he explains in an opening narration, a vast majority of the kids who are sent there either wind up in prison a few years down the line after getting out, out wind up dead. Desperate for a way to reach out and impact the lives of the kids when they eventually get out of the Center, Sean proposes to his superiors the idea of starting a football team, hoping that will teach the troubled kids self respect, discipline, teamwork, and relying on each other despite the fact they come from "rival" gangs. It is his hope that this experience will teach the kids to rely on themselves and those around them, instead of gangs and violence.

Gridiron Gang follows a time-tested formula that features pretty much every troubled youth and sports movie cliche that you could think of. It's of no surprise to anyone, I'm sure, that the climax is set at a big game for Sean's team. However, for once, the big game is not the ultimate goal or victory. The victory is what Sean and his team have accomplished in the end. There is a touching and honest epilogue where Sean tells us in narration what happened to a lot of the kids on the team. Some of them have happy endings, some do not. Rather than ending with a football game, the movie continues and reminds us that this story is about the kids themselves, not a victory over a rival team. It is this reality that really took me by surprise and warmed me up to Gridiron Gang. Director Phil Joanou and screenwriter Jeff Maguire treat the material with a lot more respect and humanity than your typical underdog sports movie. Compare this to the other recent football movie, Invincible with Mark Wahlberg. That was a dull "inspirational" story where we learned absolutely nothing about the main character, and cared about nothing but simply parading a series of cliches and music montage sequences across the screen. Here, we actually get to know the characters, both Sean and his team, on and off the field. They may not be deep or fully three dimensional in personality, but they're a lot more interesting than the standard cookie cutter types that usually populate these stories.

A lot of the film's success has to do with the fact that this movie does not shy away from the harsh realities in the lives of these kids that surround Sean. For a PG-13 rated film, I was rather surprised by the brutality depicted during some murder sequences that happen early in the film. Unlike a movie say like Step Up, which featured a highly sanitized look at street life where almost nobody was in any danger whatsoever, this movie does not shy away from the harsher details, nor does it glorify them. These sequences are gritty and raw, and this spirit continues throughout the film. These are not black and white gang banger stereotypes, and an effort has been made to give these kids personalities. They may have done wrong, but the movie also allows us to see all sides of them, which is a big help in allowing the characters to endear themselves to the audience, so they don't come across as a mob of gang stereotypes. Sean, himself, gets a little bit of development outside of the main story, mostly surrounding his family, and the influence a verbally abusive father whom he has not spoken to in years still impacts him. While these touches may not be groundbreaking, the movie digs deeper into its own characters than I thought it would, and as a result, the movie turns out to be a pleasant surprise.

Not only does Gridiron Gang impress us with a better than expected angle on its material, it also helps us realize that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson might have a career outside of the dumb action films he's been placed in so far in his career up to now. After a slew of forgettable bombs like Doom, Walking Tall, and The Scorpion King, the guy finally gets a role where he not only has to actually act, but manages to mostly impress with his performance. It's certainly not perfect (he seems to rely on the same five facial expressions in every scene), but he does have a commanding screen presence in this movie, and his heartfelt scenes where he talks one-on-one with one of the kids comes across as genuine instead of forced. If he can just fix that stone face of his, I think he'd actually have a good shot at some serious work. Rapper turned actor Xzibit shows personality and humor as Sean's best friend and co-worker at the Center who becomes his assistant coach on the team. As for the kids themselves, while only some of them get fully developed characters, those that do all stand out as genuinely talented young actors. I hope some of them can escape being typecast as "thug" or "urban" roles, because a lot of them seem to hold promise.

Gridiron Gang will never be mistaken for an original movie, or one that will be remembered by most a year from now. But, you can tell that the people behind this movie tried a little bit harder than most would when handed this kind of material. As a result, the film works despite its reliance on cliches. If anything, it proves that as long as the movie itself is done well enough, audiences won't mind hearing the same story told again. I certainly didn't mind, and I walked into the theater worn out on underdog sports movies. While it's not enough to revitalize the genre, the film proves that perhaps there's still some life left in it as long as the filmmakers care. For once, we have a crowd pleaser that actually pleases.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Last Kiss

With only two previous movie screenplays to his credit (Million Dollar Baby and Crash), screenwriter Paul Haggis can safely be labeled as an overnight sensation, taking Hollywood by storm after years of working on TV with shows like Walker: Texas Ranger. While his last two films have been rather heavy in tone, Haggis tries to lighten up a little bit with The Last Kiss, a dramatic comedy that is not without its flaws, but still manages to win over its audience with a great cast and some airtight dialogue. Like Crash, the movie tries to cram a lot of characters and a lot of storylines in under two hours. Unlike the previous film, The Last Kiss does not fall apart because of it. It certainly helps that the movie avoids the heavy-handed melodrama and hit you over the head message of Crash. This movie probably won't lead to another Oscar for Haggis, but at the very least, it proves the guy can do a movie that exists simply to be enjoyable instead of to win awards.

The film covers a small group of friends and family who all start questioning their lives and relationships, and where they want to be as opposed to where they currently are. It's central focus is on Michael (Zach Braff), a 29-year-old architect with fears of marriage to his long-time girlfriend Jenna (Jacinda Barrett). When Jenna becomes pregnant, it obviously starts a chain of events where Michael is going to have to start seriously thinking about lifetime commitment, buying a house, and all the responsibilities that these things require. Michael is not sure if he is ready for such responsibilities, and while at a friend's wedding, he has a chance encounter with a sweet young college student named Kim (Rachel Bilson). There is an obvious connection between Michael and Kim, and even though he knows the road Kim wants him to go down can only lead to heartache and pain, Michael cannot help but have his thoughts wander to this other woman when he should be thinking about building his life with Jenna.

Other subplots covers Michael's three close friends from childhood; Izzy (Michael Weston), Chris (Casey Affleck), and Kenny (Eric Christian Olsen). They are each going through their own different kind of relationship heartbreak as well. Izzy still finds himself pining over a girl he's loved since high school who recently walked out on him, Chris is stuck with a baby and a crumbling marriage to a woman whom he feels doesn't love him anymore, and Kenny just can't seem to settle down with one woman. To further complicate matters, Jenna's mother Anna (Blythe Danner) has been having second thoughts of her own concerning her 30-year relationship to her sarcastic husband (Tom Wilkinson), and wonders if she would have been better off in life with an old flame college professor (Harold Ramis) whom she discovers is now married and has a family.

A remake of an Italian film which has gone unseen by me, The Last Kiss is a movie that juggles multiple plots and characters fairly well for the most part. Actor-turned-filmmaker Tony Goldwyn (Someone Like You) is able to keep the story running by never losing focus on his main plot, while at the same time, not forsaking the film's numerous subplots and side characters so that they don't come across as underwritten. Though the film's tone is mostly serious, there is a sharp sense of wit and humor that keeps the movie from becoming too heavy or depressing. The humor is placed throughout expertly, and never becomes a burden to the film, nor does it seem out of place. A lot of this has to do with the wonderful screenplay by Haggis, which is able to create characters whom may be flawed, but we find ourselves caring about them nonetheless. The lead character of Michael is a tricky obstacle for any writer, as he is supposed to do things that are very wrong, yet we are still supposed to like him. The film wisely does not sugar coat or try to rationalize his actions, but at the same time, it does not vilify him. He is a confused and worried man, and a man facing multiple paths that could lead him to multiple directions in life. His relationships with both Jenna and Kim are handled truthfully, and the film thankfully leaves things somewhat open ended for him at the end, instead of wrapping everything up with a happy ending like a lesser film would.

The other subplots and characters that surround Michael's moral dilemma are equally strong and, for the most part, are just as interesting as the film's central plot and characters. The main stand outs center on Michael's friend Chris, who realizes that he is only staying married to his wife for the sake of their child and that the love between them has faded, and Jenna's parents as they explore their true feelings for each other after 30 years of marriage. While they may not get as much screen time as Michael's story, they are still written with honesty, and don't play up the melodrama of the situation. The characters are likeable, despite their sometimes questionable actions, and the film is able to give each of their stories successful conclusions. It is the combined subplot of Izzy and Kenny where The Last Kiss falters just a little. While the other plots are fully developed, these two seem somewhat undernourished, which leads to them feeling a little less than necessary. We never truly get to know Izzy or Kenny as real people, and they almost seem to exist solely for comic relief. Their plots don't get as much screen time as the others, and in the end, I started to wonder if they should have been written out of the script after the first couple drafts. Maybe in a longer film (the movie is 105 minutes long), more time could have been spent developing their characters and plots, but as it is, they come across as a mere bump in the road. And although the relationship between Jenna's parents is strongly developed, I would have liked to have seen more about the past relationship between her mother, Anna, and the college professor she loved behind her husband's back. The professor only appears for one scene, and then disappears. The subplot is fine as it is, but would have been even better if the movie had developed it just a bit further.

While it's easy to nitpick about its visible faults, there's still no denying that The Last Kiss is an entertaining and enjoyable film. A lot of the credit goes to the ensemble cast that has been gathered. Despite the fact that Zach Braff gets top billing above the title, this really is a team effort, and everyone pitches in. Jacinda Barrett is good as a woman who tries to understand Michael's actions, yet can't help but feel deeply hurt by his actions. Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson are certainly veterans when it comes to acting, and bring their skill to each of their scenes together. Casey Affleck is also winning as Chris, a man who begins to question just where he wants to be in life, but also wonders if where he wants to be is for the best for his family. And in the tricky role of Kim, the woman whom may or may not drag Michael away from the life he's been building for himself, Rachel Bilson is playful and seductive in her big screen debut after years of working on TV shows like The O.C. and That 70s Show. She is able to be sweet, yet somewhat cunning, and at the same time not make her character come across as one we're supposed to hate. She's simply a little immature and a bit selfish, but her feelings for Michael come across as being genuine, so we believe why he would be torn.

The Last Kiss is an all around emotionally effective and winning comedy drama that hits the right notes and never becomes sappy or overbearing. It's only failing is that there's simply not enough time for the movie to do as much as it wants. The film is good as it is, but with a little more time, it could have been something really special. Still, what is on the screen here is worthy of praise, and everyone involved should see it as a success. Some other critics have compared this movie to the Vince Vaughn-Jennifer Aniston summer film, The Break Up, but I personally see very little resemblance. That was a movie about a relationship ending, while this movie is about the choices we make that may or may not lead to the end of a relationship, and the choices we face in just about every one. It may not be perfect, but The Last Kiss is still worthy of your hard-earned movie dollar.

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Saturday, September 16, 2006

Everyone's Hero

You almost feel like a cynic complaining about a movie like Everyone's Hero. The movie is so spirited, sweet-natured, and downright harmless that criticizing it almost feels like kicking a puppy. To make you feel worse, the movie was co-directed by the late Christopher Reeve, and features his recently deceased wife, Dana Reeve, as one of the voices. Yet, as a film critic, it is my duty to be honest, and quite frankly, I cannot recommend this movie to anyone above the single digits. Those adults who find themselves taken to this movie by their kids, fear not. The film is perfectly watchable, has a good spirit, and is probably one of the sweetest and least offensive animated films to come along in a while. In a day and age where fart jokes and crude humor are the norm, Everyone's Hero is a nice return to times when children's entertainment really was intended for children. The movie has a good heart, but its somewhat questionable storytelling and bizarre look at a very sad time in US history made me wonder just what the filmmakers were thinking sometimes.

10-year-old baseball fan, Yankee Irving (voice by Jake T. Austin), lives in a highly sanitized and strangely upbeat alternate reality version of the Great Depression. True to his name, little Yankee is a huge fan of the New York Yankees, especially the great Babe Ruth (Brian Dennehy). Yankee has dreams of playing in the Majors himself, but he's never been very good, and is starting to lose hope despite the encouragement of his supportive parents (Mandy Patinkin and Dana Reeve). His dad happens to be a janitor at Yankee Stadium, and when Babe Ruth's precious lucky bat, Darlin', is stolen, his father gets the blame, since he was on duty that night. It turns out the real culprit is a slimy player for the Chicago Cubs named Lefty (William H. Macy), who was hired to steal the bat by the equally slimy manager of the team (Robin Williams in an uncredited performance) who believes that Babe's bat is magic, and if it is gone, the Cubs have a chance to win the World Series. In order to clear his dad's name, young Yankee decides to leave home and track down the Babe's missing bat before it's time for the big game between the Yankees and the Cubs. This being a cartoon, the kid has to have some wise cracking sidekicks, and in this movie they come in the form of a pair of baseball equipment who somehow come to life only when the kid is around - a cranky and smart-mouthed baseball named Screwie (Rob Reiner), and even Babe's missing bat, Darlin', gets a voice provided by Whoopi Goldberg once Yankee tracks it down.

Okay, so making sense is not one of the strong suits of Everyone's Hero, that much is already clear. Why Babe Ruth's bat (which is inanimate for most of the movie) suddenly grows a face and can talk as soon as little Yankee gets it in his hands is something the filmmakers keep to themselves. Same goes for Screwie the baseball. The movie makes it known that the kid is the only one who can hear them talk or know they're alive, but offers no other explanation as to how or why this miracle came to be. No matter, the movie does not exactly strive for realism, despite the fact it's a historically-based cartoon. This is a cleaner, happier, and more cheerful alternate reality version of the Great Depression where cheerful street hobos can be your best friends, no one really seems to be that hard up, and the Negro Baseball League listen to modern day rap-like music on their bus radio as they head off for the big game. By the time the climax arrives, where little Yankee Irving actually gets to bat for the Yankees and earns himself a chance to possibly win the World Series for the team, I wasn't really that surprised. After all, this is a movie where a 10-year old kid can hike cross country from New York to Chicago without any trouble or danger, because every stranger he meets is just so gosh darn incredibly friendly, and warm up to him in two seconds.

To say that Everyone's Hero is about as easy to swallow as a box full of thumbtacks is an understatement. I'm sure kids in the single digits, especially those who love baseball, will get lost in the fantasy the film creates and love every minute of it. But, anyone older will probably have a hard time holding back their laughs at each increasingly ludicrous plot development. I also can't wait to see how this movie goes over in Chicago, since not only is their team portrayed as coniving schemers and cheaters who love to threaten and endanger little boys and their talking baseballs, but they are also seen as being crude, crass, and just plain evil. Robin Williams as the team's evil manager is a real winner. He's this short, fat guy who actually looks suspiciously like a shorter and more comical version of the Marvel Comics villain, The Kingpin. He hacks and coughs constantly, he threatens little children, and he likes to torture bobble head dolls of Babe Ruth that decorate his desk for target practice. (Did they even have bobble head dolls in the 1930s?) I'm actually surprised that the team let the filmmakers use their name and actual logo, considering how evil they come across, but I guess they figure any publicity is good publicity.

I know this review has a highly negative slant so far, and while the film has more than its share of problems, there is also a certain sweetness and charm that cannot be denied. It has a good message for kids about following your dreams and never giving up, there are a couple good one liners here and there (most of them provided by William H. Macy as the more comic buffoon villain), and the movie knows how to be heartfelt and sweet without being sappy or manipulative. In an industry where G-rated animated films are becoming a rarity, it's kind of nice to see a children's film that just wants to tell a story (no matter how loopy it may be) instead of peddling merchandise. The animation is mostly pleasing to the eye, and surprisingly detailed for an independently-made cartoon film. Most of all, the voice talent is top notch, and able to bring genuine warmth and emotion to the characters. Okay, Whoopie Goldberg's somewhat forced Southern accent kind of got on my nerves, but the rest of the cast genuinely please. No matter how unbelievable the movie gets, it never loses its heart, and it actually made me smile on more than one occasion.

I can only recommend Everyone's Hero to kids who won't want to think about the plot. They'll be pleased by the cute animation, the upbeat story, and the message it provides. The movie is refreshingly free of fart jokes (there's only one tiny one), and the music montage sequences are not as frequent as some other recent family films. Everyone's Hero has a lot of heart, but not a lot of sense to back it up. If you can live with that, or are just looking for something for the kids to watch, you could do a lot worse than this. I'm not giving this film a recommendation, but something tells me if I was 20 years younger, I would be.

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