Reel Opinions

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Baby Mama

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are two of the smartest and brightest women working in comedy today. So, it's writer-director Michael McCullers' own fault that he didn't let them contribute to his own screenplay. Baby Mama is light on laughs, and so conventionally plotted, it seems timid. The movie is afraid to think outside of the box, afraid to break free of its own cliches, and seems to think the audience will have a fit if anything remotely unexpected happens. Though it's worthy of a few mild chuckles here and there, this is a movie all too willing to put aside the genuine talents of its stars in favor of the mediocre.

Career-driven Kate Holbrook (Tina Fey) has been too busy climbing the corporate ladder at the organic food corporation she works for to start a family. Now that she's 37, her maternal clock is starting to go off, and she's become obsessed with having a baby. (Cue the sight gag where she walks into a business meeting, and she sees everyone as a baby.) Unfortunately, she discovers the chances of her naturally conceiving a child are slim, and the adoption approval process takes too long. She decides to try a surrogate mother program, and the woman in charge of the program (Sigourney Weaver) assures her that their clients are of the highest quality. To the surprise of no one in the audience, Kate is teamed up with a goofy white trash floozy named Angie (Amy Poehler). The original plan is that Angie will carry and give birth to Kate's baby, but when Angie has a fight with her sleazy live-in boyfriend, Carl (Dax Shepard), she ends up moving in with Kate, and their high class/low class lifestyles immediately begin to clash when they're forced to live in the same apartment.

It's an idea that has worked in countless movies and TV sitcoms, and given the talent on display, it could have worked here. But Baby Mama is as toothless as many of the infants that Kate is obsessed with during the film's early scenes. I have nothing wrong with conventional plotting or structure, but there has to be some sign that the movie knows it's playing by the book, and give us something else to enjoy. Last weekend's Forgetting Sarah Marshall was just as predictable, but easily won me over with its smart sense of humor, extremely likable characters, and a genuine sense of heart and energy. I got the sense here that writer-director McCullers (a long-time writer of Saturday Night Live, who has also contributed to the Austin Powers films) wanted to play it so safe for his first filmmaking gig that he didn't really trust his own material. He never once steps out of line, and the film suffers. We immediately know what's going to happen when Kate meets a cute single guy (Greg Kinnear) who works at the local fruit smoothee shop. We immediately know that Kate and Angie will be able to put aside their differences and eventually become friends. We know they're going to have a falling out. We know that the scuzzy Carl is going to try to bring up some painful secret that Angie doesn't want anyone to know about in order to embarrass her in front of everyone in some sort of public function. The movie foolishly acts like this is all new to us, and that we're supposed to be delighted by such developments.

Fey and Poehler are at least good sports, and give the best they can in their performances, even if they do lack the inspired comic spark of their best work. The thing is, they're too smart for this material, and are never allowed to rise above it. The time they get to spend together on screen is surprisingly muted, and aside from a cute scene where they play a karaoke video game together, they seem reigned in and one-note most of the time. Fey is forever the straight-arrow, and Poehler is always the slightly ditzy and childish one. Surprisingly, the biggest laughs belong not to them, but to the supporting cast. Sigourney Weaver gets some laughs in her introduction scene, and I especially liked her deadpan delivery as to why it costs more to give birth to a baby than it does to kill someone. Steve Martin also seems to be having a lot of fun as Fey's loopy, aging hippie boss, who is obsessed with new-age business practices. Even Romany Malco, as Fey's smart-mouthed doorman, gets a couple moments to stand out. Everyone manages to get some laughs in, but they are never big enough to make us forget that we've seen everything before, and done much better than it is here.

As a star vehicle for these two talented women, Baby Mama is not exactly a successful one. It doesn't play up their strength for intelligent comedy, and simply plops them into something that could have starred any semi-talented comic actress. If Fey wants to become a leading woman, I suggest she write her own film. Her screenplay for Mean Girls a few years ago proves that she has what it takes. I think Poehler has the talent as well. They just need to find a project that believes in them enough to let them carry the film.

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If there was ever a movie that was brought down by its title before a single frame of film unspools, it's Deception. The title alone pretty much gives most of the movie away, and the film's many not-so-subtle hints early on that things are not what they seem only make things worse. The film's original title was The List - which is obviously much more vague, and lets us walk in not knowing quite so much. I don't know why the Fox studio felt the change was necessary. As for the film itself, this is a perfectly mediocre erotic thriller that gets some milage out if its strong lead cast, and a surprisingly sleek and attractive look from first-time director Marcel Langenegger and cinematographer Dante Spinotti (X-Men: The Last Stand). This is the kind of movie that isn't really bad or terrible, though it's not exactly good either. It's just there, and then it starts to fade away from your mind almost the second the end credits pop up on the screen.

Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is a meek and withdrawn accountant working late one night, when he gets a visit from the charismatic and charming attorney, Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman). The two hit it off immediately, but Wyatt can immediately tell that Jonathan is a man who has not exactly lived life. Jonathan's life gets a lot more interesting when the two accidentally grab each other's cell phones right before Wyatt is about to set off for a business trip in London. With Wyatt's cell phone in his possession, Jonathan is almost immediately drawn into an underground and private sex club where powerful business people have anonymous sex with one another after they call you on your phone, and arrange a meeting at a fancy hotel. There are no relationships, and no one is supposed to know the other's name. But when Jonathan has a sexual encounter with a woman he's long admired on the subway, he breaks the rule of the club, and has to know who she is. The woman, known only as "S" (Michelle Williams), eventually starts feeling close to Jonathan, and before long, they're meeting each other outside of the club. Things take a turn for the worse when the two are staying at a hotel in Chinatown, and Jonathan is viciously attacked by a mysterious assailant. When he comes to, S has gone missing, and no evidence has been left behind. As Jonathan races about the city, looking for answers, he quickly begins to realize that nothing is what it seems, and he is pulled into a world of blackmail and fraud.

Deception begins as a story about a sheltered and lonely man who is given an opportunity to live by leading another man's life, via that man's cell phone. Despite some awkwardly inserted hints that clue us in on to where things are going, the screenplay by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) keeps things pretty laid back here. Maybe a bit too much so, as the movie spends too much time with Jonathan having sex with one random woman after another, making us wonder where exactly the film is going sometimes. It certainly doesn't seem to be in any rush, but when Jonathan meets the lovely and mysterious S, the movie does begin to develop a nervous, but still somewhat passionate, attraction between the two. Both of them know that what they're doing violates the key rule of the club, but they cannot deny the attraction they hold for one another. This takes us almost an hour into the film, and since we know we're watching a thriller, something has to start happening soon. I almost wish it didn't have to, because as soon as S goes missing from the hotel room, things take a turn for the convoluted and the ridiculous. While it never gets quite as laughably bad as last week's thriller, 88 Minutes, the movie definitely drops the ball when it turns into a third rate thriller filled with predictable double crosses and even more predictable, if not ludicrous, plot developments.

It's at this point that the characters inhabiting the film stop being genuine people, and start coming across as puppets being manipulated by the overstuffed screenplay that thinks it's more clever than it really is. Deception seems to delight in pulling the rug out from under us in just about every scene once the "thriller" aspect of the plot kick in, but it doesn't seem to realize that we're one step ahead of it constantly. The title, and the many hints the film drops, already have let us know that certain characters (I'm trying my best to be vague here, though it's probably a lost cause) are not to be trusted, so we're left just waiting for the movie to catch up with us, and give us what we know is coming. It also completely drops the idea of the private sex club at this point of the story, and instead turns into a story of embezzlement fraud. This is an odd choice, as I can't think of many people who would find the second idea more intriguing than the first. The movie seems to want to thrill us, but everything is so predictable and mediocre, it's hard to get excited about anything.

The main thing that holds our attention are the undeniable screen presence of the talented actors that this limp project has mysteriously attracted. Ewan McGregor is watchable in just about anything, and he's no different here. While his performance is much more reserved here than normal, that's to be expected given the character he plays. His Jonathan is supposed to grow stronger during the course of the film, and he does display much more confidence in his later scenes. Hugh Jackman (who is also credited as one of the producers) gets to show off his charms much sooner in the film, and when his character is forced to make a change, he's more than up to the challenge. Same goes for Michelle Williams, who does what she can with the somewhat limited character the film provides her with. All of them seem to be game, but they are left at the mercy of a project that doesn't deserve their talents.

Deception is a predictable and lightweight thriller that goes on a bit too long, and doesn't really seem to know how to get us completely involved. The only thing we're left to admire is the surprising amount of skill that went into making such a shallow film. Given the actors involved, we expect great things, and while the performances don't disappoint, the movie itself does. Deception is completely forgettable, starting with its title, and will probably seem more at home sitting in the bargain bin at your local Blockbuster, than on the big screen.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay

Watching Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, it's obvious that returning screenwriters and first-time directors, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholossberg, understand the rules of the movie sequel. They've upped the ante on just about everything. The satirical targets are bigger, the stakes are higher, the humor is cruder and pushes the R-rating further than the first film, and everything just feels bigger. Not always better, but certainly bigger. This is a very uneven, but mostly enjoyable, comedy that delivers some laughs, and probably would have delivered more if the film's trailers and ad campaign hadn't given away most of the bigger gags in the film. The movie aims high, and although it often misses its target, it still remains likable thanks to the two leads.

Escape from Guantanamo Bay is obviously the sequel to 2004's Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. That film bombed at the box office, but found a loyal cult following on DVD, which convinced the studio to go ahead with this continuation. John Cho and Kal Penn return as the pot-smoking title characters who, having satisfied their munchies in the last film, are now off to greater things. They board a plane to Amsterdam so that Cho's Harold can chase after the girl of his dreams from the last film, Maria (Paula Garces). During the flight, Kumar reveals that he's snuck on board a high tech bong that looks suspiciously like an explosive. The device is mistaken for a bomb, and before the duo know it, they've been shackled and placed under the paranoid and narrow-minded eye of the head of Homeland Security, Ron Fox (Rob Corddry). After a brief stint in Guantanamo Boy, the two friends escape, and find themselves on the run as they try to make it to Texas, where a former friend with political connections named Colton (Eric Winter) may be able to clear their names. The fact that the smarmy Colton is set to marry Kumar's old flame, Vanessa (Danneel Harris), makes it all the more urgent, as he still has feelings for her. As the friends try to stay ahead of the pursuing government officials, they have various misadventures with the KKK, a married hick couple who keep an inbred mutant child locked in their basement, an encounter with President Bush (James Adomian), and another bizarre run in with former child star, Neil Patrick Harris, who plays a caricature of himself as a sex-obsessed freak with a passion for prostitutes, 'shrooms, and unicorns.

Despite a more plot-heavy premise than before, the sequel keeps the tradition of the original film, in that it often comes across as a series of skits and short comic films as the two friends wander into one bizarre situation after another while trying to reach their destination. The main difference here is that the film is taking a much more pointed and satirical look at post 9/11 America. Writers and directors, Hurwitz and Scholossberg, seem to revel in the new-found opportunities the film's premise provides them, and give us some very funny looks at airport security, racial profiling, and genuine fear and mistrust amongst people of different races and cultures. Most of this is represented by the film's villain, Ron Fox, who refuses to listen to reason most of the time, or to his more level-headed partner, Dr. Beecher (Roger Bart). I liked the way the movie tries to play against the characters', and even the audience's, racial expectations. When Harold and Kumar drive into a ghetto neighborhood, and call attention to some angry looking black people brandishing crowbars and other tools, they speed away in their car, fearing for their lives, not realizing that the men were only approaching them because they wanted to help fix their vehicle, which had just hit a hydrant. I also enjoyed the scene where the Homeland Security Agents are grilling Harold and Kumar's parents for information on where their sons are, and refuse to accept the fact that the parents of Korean and Indian descent are speaking perfect English to them. The politically charged humor had a sharp edge that I enjoyed, and made the movie come across as being much smarter than your average stoner comedy.

Not quite as smart are the film's numerous gross-out gags, which are unfortunately almost as frequent as the humor that works. The film's opening scene displays in graphic detail just what a massive binge of fast food hamburgers can do to a person's bowels. There's a lot of full-frontal nudity, which makes last weekend's Forgetting Sarah Marshall seem downright tame in comparison, as well as plenty of bodily fluids, and hairy "bush" shots. Far more successful are the film's brief forays into bizarre, random humor, such as the entire time they spend with Neil Patrick Harris. It was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers to bring Harris back, as his cameo in the last film was one of the most memorable moments. It's too bad they couldn't have given him a more sizable role this time around. As I'm sure you can tell, the humor is largely hit and miss. Those that hit certainly do hit big, but there are plenty of long stretches of misses, or jokes that just don't go anywhere. The fact that the film runs for an unnecessarily long 105 minutes makes the film seem quite padded at times. With some of the long stretches of failed humor and gross out gags trimmed, this could have been a much tighter and more satisfying film.

Even when the film's energy or quality dips, the charm and the chemistry of the lead stars always holds our attention. Both John Cho and Kal Penn slip back into their characters so effortlessly, it's easy to buy the fact that this movie picks up exactly when the last one left off, even though four years have passed between the two films. The characters have a wonderful "odd couple" vibe, with Harold being the more rational of the two, and Kumar being the reckless one who uses his heart instead of his head most of the time. Cho and Penn bring out the best in the characters, and make them surprisingly well-rounded characters. They really are the heart of the franchise, as the rest of the cast are restricted to mainly being over the top oddballs. Everyone plays their part, and they know not to upstage each other, which gives the movie a feeling of controlled chaos. Even if the material is uneven, the entire cast attacks it with the same level of enthusiasm and energy. It's a nice change of pace from some other comedies I've seen this year, where the actors seem to know they're in a stinker, and act like they're filling a prison sentence rather than filming a comedy. (Over Her Dead Body immediately springs to mind.)

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay lacks the sweetness, simplicity, and freshness of White Castle, but there's still fun to be had here. Those who loved the original are certain to find more to love here, as long as they avoid watching the film's ads, which unfortunately steal some of the thunder of what's supposed to be the biggest laughs. Try to walk in seeing as little as possible if you can. That being said, this is a passable sequel to a movie that probably didn't warrant one. Harold and Kumar, as well as the bizarre satirical world they exist in, are likable. The movie, for all of its obvious flaws, mostly works because of this.

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

The very first trailer I saw for The Forbidden Kingdom emphasized that the movie was about a young, modern day teenager in love with martial arts movies who somehow gets transported back into ancient China, and gets to go on an incredible adventure with two martial arts masters, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Every trailer and advertisement I saw after that completely dropped the "young, young modern day teenager" angle, and focused solely on the sure-fire audience drawing power of Chan and Li appearing in the same movie for the first time. It was a wise decision on the part of the marketing people, and I only wish the filmmakers had followed the same logic.

Michael Angarano (from Sky High) plays the kid who the film mainly focuses on. We never learn much about his character, named Jason Tripitikas, except that he's addicted to bootleg kung fu movies, likes to shop at a rundown Chinatown store run by an elderly man named Old Hop (played by Jackie Chan, unrecognizable under layers of make up), and that he's a frequent target for violent thug bullies. Oh, and don't worry, we later learn from dialogue that he comes from a single parent home, so the movie complies with the unwritten rule of Hollywood that young protagonists must have only one parent. Jason is pressured by the bullies to help them break into Old Hop's store one night, where they proceed to shoot the kindly old man and loot the place. As the old man lays wounded, he begs Jason that he protect a mystical staff that he keeps in a back room. Jason grabs the staff, and while he's trying to escape from the bullies, he somehow finds himself transported back in time by the power of the staff, and winds up in ancient China.

Here's where the film's real plot begins, and the audience's interest starts to grow. Not long after arriving in China, Jason meets an immortal drunken master fighter named Lu Yan (Jackie Chan again), who informs him that the staff he carries once belonged to a mischievous mystical fighter called the Monkey King (Jet Li). The Monkey King was turned into stone by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), and can only be returned to normal if the staff is returned to him. Of course, the Jade Warlord immediately hears that the staff has returned, and sends his soldiers out to cover the land searching for it. Jason and Lu Yan set out to find the Monkey King, and are later joined up with a beautiful young fighter named Golden Sparrow (the lovely Yifei Liu), who has reasons of her own for fighting the Jade Warlord, and a silent and noble monk (Jet Li again) who has been on a quest for the staff for years. It seems that returning the staff to the Monkey King is the only way that Jason can return home, and in a later scene when he asks a mystical being that he just wants to go home, it takes a superhuman effort not to think of clicking your heels three times, and saying "there's no place like home".

That's because The Forbidden Kingdom really does boil down to a sort of chop-socky take on The Wizard of Oz. Replace the Witch with the Jade Warlord, and the flying monkeys with some nameless soldiers and a woman who can stretch her hair out and use it as a weapon (Li Bingbing), and you get the idea. Despite a running time that nearly hits two hours, the movie is fast paced and never really slows down long enough to take it all in. That's too bad, because there is some lovely China scenery throughout (the film is a joint effort between Hollywood and China, so they were able to shoot on location in a lot of scenes). Jason barely has time to take in the fact that he's traveled back in time before he's teaming up with Lu Yan, and escaping on horseback from the Jade Warlord's soldiers. At least the movie gives us some impressive fight sequences to enjoy, many of which are long enough for the audience to savor. Director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, the Stuart Little films) knows what we're here for, and gives us an extremely satisfying and lengthy sequence where Chan's Lu Yan does battle with Li's Silent Monk when they first meet each other. Seeing these two masters go up against each other allows us to forget about the movie's plotting problems, and just revel in true fanboy glee. It's too bad there's never quite a sequence quite as satisfying as this one afterward.

Sadly, the screenplay by John Fusco (Hidalgo) concentrates too much on the modern day Jason, and dopey dialogue that is usually delivered by actors who speak English as a second language, which makes it sound even worse. (Sample dialogue exchange: "I will kill you". "Not if I kill you first".) Despite the majority of the ad campaign concentrating solely on Jackie Chan and Jet Li, the first trailer I saw got it right. This is Michael Angarano's movie, Chan and Li are just along for the ride in minor supporting roles. The movie makes a big miscalculation by centering a vast majority of the action and the fighting around Angarano's Jason character. He's just not as much fun to watch. That's not to say that Chan and Li's characters don't get to see any action, they just never get their own fight scene devoted only to them after they first meet. Any other fight they have is interrupted by having the movie cutting away back to Jason and his fight. At least Chan and Li seem to be having fun with the film, and are full of energy in their fighting. Jet Li, in particular, seems to be having a ball during his scenes playing the Monkey King, despite how ridiculous he looks in that half man-half primate get up. Both of these men are the key to the film's limited success, as it only works whenever they are allowed to do their thing. When they're not fighting, they're usually reduced to arguing, or playing gross-out gags on each other. A scene where Jet Li's Monk gives Chan's Lu Yan a "golden shower" made me think that the monk studied under MTV's Jackass as well as the great martial arts masters.

The Forbidden Kingdom is too small in scope, and doesn't give us enough of what we want, but it's not a terrible movie. It is terribly disappointing, though. It's talented Asian cast is given little chance to shine, allowing more time for the far less interesting Michael Angarano to take over the movie. He doesn't hold our interest in quite the way his co-stars do, and the film winds up going flat because of it. If they had just focused more on the stuff that worked, or maybe cast a more charismatic young lead, this movie could have really been something. This is one time when the filmmakers should have listened to the ad department guys as to who the movie should be centered on.

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88 Minutes

You've probably heard from other critics that 88 Minutes is a bad movie. Heard all the negative buzz about how the movie has been sitting on the studio's shelf for well over a year, and has already been released in most foreign markets, often straight to DVD. I'm here to tell you that this is absolutely not true. 88 Minutes is not a bad movie, it is a spectacularly bad movie. It is a convoluted and bombastic thriller that gets under your skin, but not in a good way like a great thriller can. It is cheap and misguided, but most of all, it is an opportunity for lead star Al Pacino to cash a paycheck.

88 Minutes is a pretty simple thriller in theory, so it decides to overcomplicate manners by trying to throw us off course every chance it gets. Watching the film, I was reminded of Perfect Stranger, another recent failed thriller that tried to keep us guessing by making its three lead characters look suspicious whenever the screenplay deemed it necessary. The script for this movie credited to Gary Scott Thompson (The Fast and the Furious) goes one step beyond. It doesn't just make the main characters suspicious, it casts literally everyone who steps into the same frame as Pacino in a suspicious light at one point! Even the guy who runs the front desk at the main character's apartment building can't seem to be trusted. (Check out the shady look he gives as Pacino climbs aboard the elevator. He must know something!) Those who are well-versed in the ways of the hack mystery writer will not have a hard time stripping away the numerous characters and fingering the real culprit, however. All you have to do is look for the character who seemingly doesn't have anything to do with anything that's happened in the movie, and has disappeared for a good part of the story. The fact that this character is played by a somewhat well-known actor makes it all the more suspicious when you figure there's no other reason why he or she would take such a seemingly worthless role.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Pacino plays Jack Gramm, a criminal psychiatrist and college professor who nine years ago helped put away a serial killer named Jon Forster (Neal McDonough) after Jon supposedly broke into an apartment, and hung the two women living there upside down from the ceiling, torturing them and killing one of them. Jon was put on Death Row, but there's a lot of people who seem to think he's innocent, as Jack's testimony against Jon is believed by these people to be based on speculation and circumstantial evidence. As Jon's execution date draws near, a series of copycat crimes done in the same style of the murder nine years ago start popping up in an attempt to discredit Jack's testimony. On the same day this happens, Jack starts getting threatening calls on his cell phone by a mysterious voice that sounds kind of like the phone killer from the Scream movies if he was talking through one of those toy microphones that make your voice sound like Darth Vader when you talk into them. The voice unfortunately does not ask Jack what his favorite scary movie is. It instead tells him that he only has 88 minutes left to live.

Why 88 minutes? We eventually learn that this is tied into a painful memory in Jack's past, which we witness in vague flashbacks that feature a sunny little girl running in slow motion while she flies a kite. The sorrowful piano music that plays during these scenes pretty much tells us right off the bat that things don't turn out well for this girl, but it takes a while until we finally learn what happened to her. Despite getting the treatening call, Jack tries to lead a normal life, but that darn killer is everywhere! The killer leaves numerous messages on his phone, then starts leaving behind messages in his classroom, and even on his car when Jack discovers his vehicle has been broken into with the words "76 minutes" scratched into the body of the car. Now, let's stop and think about this for a minute. Jack learns he has 88 minutes left to live while he's walking across the campus to where his class is. He goes to his class, where the killer keeps on interrupting his lecture by calling him. After this, Jack talks to a few people, then walks down to the parking garage, only to find the message left on his car. Ask yourself here, how could the killer have predicted exactly what time Jack would be arriving at his car to know how many minutes would be remaining? Unless the killer took into consideration every possible interruption (What if he dropped something or stopped to tie his shoes?), it's virtually impossible. Of course, we're not supposed to ask that, because we're supposed to be wrapped up in the plot.

But we're not wrapped up, because 88 Minutes boils down to a wild goose chase as Jack races all over the local area trying to find out who is leaving the messages and why. And since we've figured out the identity of the guilty party long before the lead character has, the only thing keeping us in our seats is the scene where we finally get an explanation as to why this seemingly-unimportant character who has gone all-but ignored for the length of the film is doing all of this. The big reveal scene ends up being particularly amusing, as the previously sensible character suddenly goes into forced and unconvincing evil. It eventually turns into a contest between the killer and Pacino to see who can chew the most scenery. Of course, the killer is fighting a losing battle, as Pacino leaves no scene unchewed in his performance here. For a good example, just look at the scene where Jack calls in to a live show where Jon Forster is being interviewed, trying to convince the public of his innocence. Pacino bellows, roars, and hams it up as only he can. The rest of the cast are mainly required to step back and let him do his thing, except when they're supposed to look suspicious at the convenience of a screenplay that thinks it's more clever than it really is.

Famed director Alfred Hitchcock was quoted as saying that he liked to play his audience like a piano. The director of 88 Minutes is Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes), and he likes to play his audience like a piano, too. Unfortunately, he's not playing music here, he's just banging on the keys incessantly. He tries to keep the tension up with non-stop running, car chases, gunfire, explosions, and shocking murder scenes, but we're left feeling cold, because we don't feel anything. The movie never slows down long enough for us to care about anything going on up on the screen. It just keeps on running and running, but not really getting anywhere, like a hamster in a wheel. I suppose the breathless pace is supposed to put us on the edge of our seats, but because of the distance between the audience and the action up on the screen, it never achieves the emotions it wants.

88 Minutes grows increasingly silly and bombastic with each passing minute, to the point that we're left just waiting for it to end, so that we can go on with our lives. It is a simple thriller built on a shaky screenplay. And just like anything else that's built on a shaky foundation, it eventually collapses in on itself.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

I don't think there's anyone with a more diverse career than Ben Stein. Here is a man who is able to put on his resume actor, speech writer for Richard Nixon, and game show host, just to name a few. For the past few years, he's also been an activist, traveling to different Universities and speaking his mind about how he feels the theory of Intelligent Design is under attack. The new documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (which Stein also co-wrote), tries to awaken us to what Stein feels is a crisis in the field of Science. How those who even dare to mention Intelligent Design in the classroom or in an article are either fired or blacklisted in the scientific community. You can tell that Stein and the filmmakers are passionate about what they're talking about, but the movie itself seems to take a more "pity parade" emotional approach, rather than an in-depth and informative approach.

Expelled mainly goes for the Michael Moore style of filmmaking, combining sound bytes with both campy and archival film clips, dry humor, popular music tied into the current topic, and even a brief animated segment to make its point. Just like a lot of Moore's work, the film does seem very one-sided at times. The first half of the film follows Stein as he tracks down various professors, journalists, and scientists who found themselves out of work or ridiculed simply because they either questioned the theory of Darwinism, or because they dared to write an article that looked at both sides of the Darwin/Intelligent Design argument, and were run out for simply mentioning the alternative theory. "Freedom is under attack", Stein proclaims early on, and he wants to bring what he feels is a great injustice to the attention of the people. It certainly is shocking to see and hear the stories of different people who found themselves persecuted for their beliefs, and even more so with those who simply just mentioned Intelligent Design, not saying anything for or against it, and found themselves fired. Stein certainly makes a good case, but the movie makes its first big mistake by making these people come across as victims, rather than giving them a forum to talk about what they have to say.

I walked into the film with an open mind, hoping to hear both sides of the argument. What the film mainly gives us for a long time are sob stories that may get us behind these teachers, writers, and scientists who found themselves in an unfair situation, but doesn't really dig deep enough into what they personally believe. We get a couple talking head quotes about how there's a wall in the scientific community (cue archival footage of the Berlin Wall), and if you're not on the right side of the wall, you're going to be persecuted. The movie does manage to find some level-headed speakers to support Intelligent Design, but those depicted supporting Darwinism are either portrayed as small-minded and arrogant, or displayed in such brief sound bytes that we feel like we're only getting part of their opinion. The Darwinist who gets the most screen time is Richard Dawkins, best known for writing the controversial book, The God Delusion. His extreme atheist views are often put side-by-side with the more sensible people in the film speaking for Intelligent Design. It gives the film a somewhat unbalanced feel, portraying most of the people speaking for one side as bullies, and those speaking on the others as victims.

The movie eventually takes an even more heavy-handed and exploitive approach when the subject of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust is drawn in, and compared to the theory of Darwinism. This is when Expelled goes all out in the forced emotions approach, when Stein takes a personal tour of concentration camps and experimentation labs, while solemn music drones on the soundtrack and footage of Nazi war crimes are flashed on the screen. The way the material is handled is so manipulative and drags on for so long, it completely kills whatever momentum the film may have had up to that point. As mentioned earlier, the film also makes great use out of its Berlin Wall comparison, which also seems a bit contrived at times, especially near the end when the movie keeps on cutting back and forth between Ben Stein giving a lecture to some students, and Ronald Reagan giving a stirring speech about freedom before a cheering crowd. The attention is drawn to Stein, not the issue at hand, at this point. The movie keeps on trying to draw out attention with film clips and other attention grabbing methods that first-time filmmaker, Nathan Frankowski, sometimes loses the point.

I want to stress that this review does not express my personal feelings on the subject at hand. I think there is a lot of room for discussion, and this movie is bound to bring forth some interesting conversation. That being said, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed unfortunately winds up living up to the last part of the title a little bit. Instead of letting the viewers make up their own mind, it manipulates and tries to grab our attention whenever it can, and sometimes winds up drawing attention to itself rather than the issue its talking about. I was hoping for a much more open-ended and thought provoking film, and while I certainly found a film whose heart was in the right place, I was left sometimes wondering where its mind was. This is a well-made film with a lot of positive aspects, but it's not the movie on Intelligent Design vs. Darwinism that it should have been.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

I walked into Forgetting Sarah Marshall expecting some big laughs, and while the movie certainly delivers on that end, there's something far more memorable about the film. There's a certain sweetness and likeability on display throughout the movie that took me by surprise. Given that this was a Judd Apatow production, I expected a fairly raunchy love letter to geek culture combined with a conventional romantic comedy plot. It's something that I thought worked with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but not so much with last summer's Knocked Up. While Forgetting Sarah Marshall does have its rare moments of shock humor (particularly the heavily hyped full frontal nude shot displayed early on in the film), first time filmmaker Nicholas Stoller seems to be aiming more for the heart here than for the gag reflex.

The film was written by and stars a rising actor named Jason Segel who, after years of roles on television and supporting characters, gives himself his first starring vehicle. I have not really noticed him before, but I think we could be looking at a star-making turn here, just as the previously mentioned 40-Year-Old Virgin launched Steve Carell into leading man status. He plays Peter Bretter, a struggling musician who is currently writing music for a crime show (a job he hates), but dreams of bigger things - namely a rock opera musical about Dracula performed entirely by puppets. Peter's been very much in love with a rising actress named Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) the past five years. She stars on the show he writes the music for, and despite the fact that she's the one who gets all the attention and admiration from the public, Peter seems content in his current place. That's when she decides to drop a bombshell on him - She's leaving him, and he eventually learns that she's hooked up with a flamboyant British pop star named Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

The screenplay by Segel shows its intelligence early on by making both Peter and Sarah into realistic people. Peter does have some tendencies that may make him come across as an oddball, but the movie is smart not to play up these aspects, and to make him into a sympathetic character we can get behind. The movie doesn't go overboard into playing up his misery entirely for laughs. Yes, there are moments where he gets hysterical, but for the most part, we can sense genuine love loss with Peter. I was also pleased to see the way that Sarah was handled. She is not heartless or annoying, which are methods a lazy screenplay would fall back on in order to bring its audience into Peter's corner. She wants to move on, but at the same time, we sense early on that she still has feelings for him, and is not doing this just to spite him for anything he's done wrong. Sarah still loves him in a small way, she just feels they've drifted apart, which they have. If I'm making the movie sound a bit too downbeat and somber here, I apologize. There are a lot of big laughs almost right from the start, and the pace keeps up when the action switches to Hawaii.

Peter goes to Hawaii at the advice of his brother Brian (Bill Hader), since he thinks a vacation is just the thing the guy needs to take his mind off of his problems. He arrives at a fancy resort, only to learn that Sarah and her new boyfriend are vacationing there too. Peter is a wreck at first, but he quickly makes friends with a lot of the employees at the resort, especially a front desk clerk named Rachel (Mila Kunis from TV's That 70s Show and Family Guy) who sympathizes with him, as she also has an experience with a relationship that went wrong. They start out as friends, then as expected, start to become more. What we don't expect once again is the honesty with which the movie treats the characters. Rachel is an intelligent and beautiful young woman, and we can see why Peter is attracted to her, as the screenplay gives them plenty of things to talk about. This is the rare romantic comedy that has an ear for dialogue, and gives its characters genuine feeling. When Peter describes his plans for his dream Dracula musical to her, we can tell that Rachel is not sure what to think, but at the same time is fascinated by this man and his mind. It's a nice change of pace to see a relationship grow not through music montages (of which there are miraculously none, if memory serves me correctly), but through a mutual understanding between two likable people that we want to see get together.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall does follow a pretty expected and rigid plot structure. There's going to be a crisis, there's going to be some misunderstandings, and there's going to be moments where Peter will be weak. What sets the movie apart is that while the plotting may be conventional, it never stoops to the level where it is insulting to the audience's intelligence. These things happen, but they don't happen in quite the way we expect them too. Yes, Sarah does become a little bit jealous when she sees Peter hanging out with Rachel, but she does not suddenly become a villain hell-bent on breaking them up. And yes Peter does make a big mistake during his relationship with Rachel, but he doesn't try to hide it from her or make excuses. He walks right up and tells her. More than the film's big laughs, I was more impressed with how it treats the characters as sensible adults. More than the dialogue, it is the performances that endear the characters to us. I already mentioned that I can see Jason Segel having a strong leading man career with this film, and I truly hope this leads to even better things. He has a good "everyman" look, but also has undeniable screen presence that draws our attention every time he's on screen. Also impressive is Mila Kunis, who has also mainly worked in televison despite working since she was a child. She makes for a lovely leading lady, but she also has a very down to earth personality that makes her come across in this film as someone you would want to know in real life.

If I have not emphasized the jokes in this review, it's only because I don't want to give any away. While there may be some lengthy patches where the humor kind of dries up, we still find ourselves intrigued, because we like the characters. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is an adult comedy in the truest sense of the word. It's set in a world of adults, and the characters talk and act as adults would. I laughed a lot while watching the film, and smiled even more. More than that, I felt happy for the characters when the end credits came. This, I believe, is the true test of a romantic comedy. If we don't feel happy for where the characters wind up, what's the point? This is a movie that understands that crucial question.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Prom Night

WRITER'S NOTE: The following review contains spoilers. You have been warned.

I think it's safe to say that there have been very few thrillers as senseless and tactless as Prom Night. Of course, I am using the word thriller in the loosest sense of the word, as no one except the advertising people at Screen Gems and Sony Entertainment could consider anything that happens during the course of the film as thrilling. The movie certainly doesn't want to thrill, or excite, or spark the young minds that are already flocking to the movie opening weekend (my screening was nearly packed), seeking cheap scares and easy entertainment. All it wants to do is steal the money and time of the youth market, and make them depressed that they even considered going to see it in the first place.

The film was originally billed as a remake of the early 80s slasher that featured at the time reigning Scream Queen, Jamie Lee Curtis. However the only thing the 2008 Prom Night has with the original is that it's set at a high school prom, and there's a killer lurking about in the shadows. The opening credits to this movie don't even mention the original, so I think it's safe to say that the filmmakers have dropped the "remake" angle, and are just selling it on its own. It's just as well, as the fewer people associated with the movie, the better. This is the kind of film where the entire cast and crew would have been better off going under assumed names. Many of the faces are new to me, or are making their break to the big screen after working on TV shows. Maybe they'll go on to better things and laugh about this experience. More likely, once this stinker is viewed, it will probably kill more than a few budding careers, or at the very least slow them down.

The plot plays out pretty much as expected. Head heroine Donna (Brittany Snow, who was much livelier in last summer's Hairspray than she is here) saw her entire family get slaughtered in bloodless PG-13 fashion three years ago when an obsessed teacher at her school broke into her house, looking for her. Donna survived by hiding under a bed, and has since been living with her Aunt and Uncle. We see the killer (played by Johnathon Schaech) in flashbacks, and he looks less like someone who would be shaping young minds, and more like a crazed homeless person crossed with one of the Geico Cavemen. You'd just have to take one look at him to know he was hiding a knife somewhere on his body. The teacher was sent away, and Donna has been trying to go on with her life. Around the time of Donna's Senior Prom, the guy has managed to escape from prison, and is now hiding out at the same luxury hotel where the Prom is being held. Donna and her friends are completely oblivious to the fact that the hotel staff and eventually the student body are being murdered one by one by this killer who lurks in the shadows, and holds that ever popular ability that all slasher villains hold to pop up in the darndest of places, even though it should seemingly be impossible for the villain's presence to not be known. Eventually Donna's Aunt and Uncle are informed by police that the man who murdered her entire family is on the loose and possibly close by, but they choose not to bring Donna home early, because (and I quote) "they don't want to scare her".

Once the set up of Donna's past with the killer is established, Prom Night basically revolves around the same scenes over and over again. We either see the kids partying in the hotel ballroom, or we see the killer lurking in the shadows and killing a random hotel employee or one of Donna's friends who have wandered from the safety of the Prom. The murder scenes are extremely anti-climactic, and it's not just because they have been edited to hell in order to avoid an R-rating. The scenes basically exist entirely of one of Donna's friends wandering slowly around in the dark, saying someone's name over and over again. Sometimes they say a variety of names, but no matter what, it gets to the point that the audience starts shouting out names back at the screen every time someone's about to get killed. There's a "false scare", where a character will cautiously open a closet door or pull back a shower curtain, only to see no one is there. That's when the killer pops up literally out of nowhere (since he should have been in plain sight of the victim, considering where he is standing when he "surprises" them) and kills them. It's not just the fact that we can predict every single kill before the movie, it's the fact that no energy or tension is on display. Director Nelson McCormick (whose previous experience has been strictly with television) doesn't know how to stage a successful scare, and has an annoying habit of keeping the camera moving and spinning around the actors, even when there is no reason to.

The third act of the film moves the action from the Prom to Donna's house, where even though there is seemingly constant police presence right outside, the killer can still freely move about, cutting off all phone communication and breaking into the house without any of the cops and detectives noticing. It's here where the movie goes from being pathetic and uninspired to just plain unintentionally hilarious. This is a movie that expects us to believe that Donna can be attacked by the killer and screaming at the top of her lungs, yet her Aunt and Uncle are too engrossed with their conversation with the head police detective to even hear her at first. Of course, the detective does eventually figure out that the sound of Donna screaming from the next room means that she's in trouble, and that's when the movie decides to rip off the climax of the original Halloween almost frame-for-frame, with the detective in place of Dr. Loomis. Fortunately, the movie does not recreate the last shot of Halloween, which hinted that the killer was still alive and that a sequel was on the way. The only smart thing it does is wrap everything up at the end, and not leave things open for continuation.

If you feel I've spoiled the movie, consider yourself lucky. You're one less person who will have to pay to see Prom Night. Don't worry, though. The film offers very few surprises, and very few reasons for anyone to watch it. It's a moldy, dusty old slasher movie that knows it's supposed to play by the expected rules, but doesn't know how to even play the game in the first place. When my screening was done, I saw a line of teens lined up behind a rope for the next show. I could see that they were happy, excited, and ready to be scared. All I could do was think how sad it was that they wouldn't even have their most basic desires fulfilled, and would walk out 90 minutes later feeling ripped off and probably a little bit angrier.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Street Kings

There is no doubt in my mind that there are a lot of bad and crooked cops. But the cops depicted in Street Kings go beyond merely being "cooked", and fly into some sort of broad cartoon example of law enforcement gone wrong. Take the hero of the story, a grizzled and hard drinking Detective named Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves). The opening scenes depict a typical work day for the man, where he throws some mixed racial slurs at some Korean thugs, then rescues a pair of kidnapped girls, but not before he blows all the suspects away in a glorified action sequence, while still finding time to plant some evidence. And just to make him seem more unpleasant, the first thing we see him do when he gets out of bed at the very beginning is throw up in a toilet, then proceed to down mini bottles of vodka while he drives down the streets of L.A. Did I forget to mention that this guy is supposed to be the hero of the story?

Reeves plays a bad cop, but as we quickly discover, every one else on the force is even worse. They murder, they lie, they back stab and blackmail each other to no end. Tom's form of justice seems to revolve around the vigilante area, so much so that he makes Dirty Harry seem like a balanced individual. He's not afraid to torture and or kill to get what he needs out of his suspects. The only reason he's still on the force is that his superior, Captain Jack Wander (Forest Whitaker) mops up after his messes, and makes Tom come across as a hero to the media. However, not everybody's fooled. There's an internal-affairs investigator (Hugh Laurie who, despite playing a different character, seems to be giving the exact same performance he gives every week on TV's House.) who is sniffing around, and getting dangerously close to revealing Tom for the "kill first, forget about asking questions" cop that he is. It seems that one of Ludlow's former partners (Terry Crews) was going to blow the whistle on him, so Tom makes the most logical decision - Jump his former partner while he's at a convenience store and beat the crap out of him. However, some thugs burst into the store, and do the job for Tom, filling his partner with so many bullets, it's hard even for the audience to think that this was a hold up gone bad.

Captain Wander does his usual clean up job by getting rid of the security video that shows Tom cowering while his former partner is murdered. Despite having been angry at the guy, and having been in the store to break his former partner's jaw, Tom just can't quite shake the feeling that something's not right about the situation. It's right about this point that the character and the movie starts to develop a conscience, and Street Kings turns from a fairly enjoyable cop exploitation film to a convoluted mystery as Ludlow races around L.A., seeking the identities of the killers. He runs into countless dirty cops, cliched gang bangers that we've seen one too many times in other movies, and tries to find a strange kind of personal forgiveness by visiting his former partner's widow (Naomie Harris) a couple times. The movie never quite loses its kinetic energy. After all, the film's director, David Ayer, has written more of his share of cop movies in his career including the screenplays for Training Day, Dark Blue, and Harsh Times. He knows how to keep the action moving, and at least hold our interest. What he doesn't know how to do here is give us enough of a reason to care.

The movie is all trashy style and very little substance underneath. We never get a clear identity as to who Tom really is, other than he's a tough-talking cop who likes to kill his suspects in increasingly spectacular ways. A minor subplot about his wife and her death pops up every now and then to give the character a little bit of humanity, but it seems out of place. Street Kings constantly plays it so loud and broadly that these three second long quiet moments almost seem like afterthoughts added in to soften the character. How broad is this movie? Characters don't talk their dialogue when they can scream or bellow it. Blood doesn't spill when someone is shot when it can flow like a stream. There are even some moments where you can't tell if the movie is aiming for satire or what. During that opening action sequence, where Tom murders some Asian thugs, one of them is a man wearing a "Green Hornet"-like mask for no reason. I couldn't tell if it was Kill Bill-style satire or racism, and the movie doesn't slow down enough to clue us in. And when the movie tries to turn into a mystery, the revelations and "shocking" (to anyone half-asleep) plot points pile on top of each other to the point that they're more laughable than the over the top action scenes. Equally laughable is the way the screenplay allows Tom to survive by making his enemies incredibly stupid. When two villains tie him up and plan to kill him and bury him, they just stand there and keep on talking to him, giving him a chance first to free his hands, and then to plant a shovel into one of the villain's skulls. If they had just did what they were supposed to do, Tom would be out of luck, and the movie knows it.

Despite the B-level nature of the script, the talent that has been gathered is completely A-List here, which also holds our attention. Keanu Reeves, an actor who has frequently been accused of being wooden, is actually pretty good here as a conflicted and tortured cop who finds out that the dirty dealings going on at the L.A.P.D. are much worse than even he knew. He gives off a mostly quiet and distant vibe, but there always seems to be something waiting beneath the surface waiting to explode. He doesn't have quite the cool charisma of Clint Eastwood in the previously mentioned Dirty Harry films, but he gets the job done well enough. As his Captain, Forest Whitaker definitely grabs our attention. It's amazing that he can say lines like "You stared evil in the face, and won" while still retaining some if not most of his dignity. The performances are generally solid all around, and you have to wonder what this movie could have been with a more complex script. The movie is attractively shot as well, though Ayer does rely a bit on the chainsaw editing style when it's not needed. It's fine for the frantic gunfights, but during dialogue-based scenes, it gets a little silly.

Street Kings would have been more fun if it had just gone all the way with its "bad cop on the edge" premise. The movie seems to be trying to revive the feel of the badass cop hero that was so prominent in 80s action movies, but have since fallen out of favor. I'm all for it and welcome it, but when the movie tries to give the character and itself a heart, that's when things start to feel off. It doesn't know if it wants to be critical of its main character, or make him come across as tortured and misunderstood. Because Street Kings never finds a consistent view of itself, the audience is left wondering how they're supposed to feel when the end credits come.

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