Reel Opinions

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Strangers

First time writer-director, Bryan Bertino, makes his debut with The Strangers, an unpleasant movie that fortunately is not unpleasant to watch. And yes, there is a difference. An unpleasant movie gets under your skin, unnerves you, and generally makes you feel uncomfortable. For his first time out, Bertino shows a lot of skill in terms of drawing suspense out of a minimalist idea. He does not emphasize the violence, the gore, or the torture of the situation, which is what would have made it unpleasant to watch. Judging by this film, I look forward to what Bertino can do with an actual budget, and a premise that doesn't feel so old hat, or cannot be written out on a napkin.

A young couple named James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) arrive at an isolated family vacation home, where a romantic Valentine's Day weekend has been planned. Rose petals line the bed and the bathtub, champaign is on ice, and a roaring fire sets the mood in the living room fireplace. And yet, the couple is distant and sad. We learn through flashbacks that while they were attending a friend's wedding earlier that day, James proposed to her, and Kristen turned him down. As the awkward silence of what was supposed to be an unforgettable evening builds between the two, there is a loud knocking on the door. A woman (whose face is hidden by the darkness of the night) stands on their front step, asking for someone. They tell her she has the wrong house, and she leaves, only to come back later, banging more fiercely on the door. She is soon joined by two other people who hide their identities behind ghoulish and crude masks. The night wears on, and the demented games of these masked intruders grow more serious and deadly.

The Strangers is extremely conventional in its structure and plotting (if you can call it that, since the entire movie really is just the young couple trying to figure out what's going on, and what these people want with them), but it is executed with a certain style that instantly pushes it up into a higher category than some other recent thrillers. The camera work is first rate, giving us a lot of effective first person shots, and some eerily effective scenes where we can see things that the lead characters can't. It's a bit of a cheat that the film's theatrical poster gives away one of the more effective moments when this happens, but the sequence is still able to generate some real tension when it happens. It's also admirable that Bertino seems to be determined to make a genuine old fashioned suspense film here. Aside from one sequence involving a tragic mistaken identity, and a very unwise "shock scare" at the very end that closes the film on an entirely wrong note, the violence and gore is kept mainly off camera. The movie opts instead to continuously ratchet up the tension, as the home intruders watch constantly from the shadows, and sometimes from the next room, unseen. By relying on visual and sound effects, instead of gore and elaborate torture scenes, The Strangers ends up being a lot more effective than such recent films as Hostel: Part II and Captivity.

Even before the nightmare begins, there is still a sense of tension with the couple. The way they are acting is completely contradictory to the setting that surrounds them, and we become immediately drawn in, wanting to know what has happened to them. We can sense embarrassment, awkwardness, and sadness between them. They try to act warmly to each other from time to time, but they almost seem to be going through the motions when they talk. Both Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler do a great job of setting up the uncomfortable atmosphere between them, and it strangely allows us to be more sympathetic with them. Once they find themselves trapped in the house, they come across as resourceful at least. Neither one plays the victim, and the movie doesn't cheat by making them incredibly stupid, or forcing them to do things that would automatically spell their doom. And with a running time of just 85 minutes, the movie is quick and to the point, offering viewers very little time in catching their breath.

So many horror films start out psychological, only to turn into an endless chase picture, or a string of elaborate and brutal killings. The Strangers plays it safe and eerie, tapping into our inherent fear of certain dark places, or the unknown. The movie uses light and shadow to brilliant effect, such as the sequence early in the film when the mysterious woman arrives on the couple's doorstep. Her face and features are kept hidden, and although she is asking a simple question, the use of shadow makes it much more ominous. I like that Bertino never lets us see the faces of his villains, not even after they take their masks off, as the camera keeps on cutting away. We don't even know their real purpose, aside from a hint dropped by one of the three intruders late in the film. The mystery that the film develops is genuine, and makes it all the more effective.
While not a perfect film, The Strangers does do a lot of things right, and is able to create an undeniable sense of fear out of a simple premise. There has been some debate as to wether Bertino has made a remake/tribute/rip off of some other recent home invasion horror films such as Funny Games or the French film, Ils. The way I see it, his work here stands out enough to stand on its own. All he needs is a script and a premise that truly lets him run free with his imagination, as well as his natural gift for building tension. If he can combine the two, he'll knock one out of the park.


Friday, May 30, 2008

Sex and the City

I feel that I should open this review of Sex and the City with three simple facts.

Fact # 1 - Before walking into the movie, I have never once watched a single episode of the TV series, nor did I know anything about it. I knew of the show, of course, and the very basics of it, but never really made it a priority to get caught up on info about it.

Fact # 2 - This movie is strictly a fans-only affair. Whenever a character walked onto the screen, there would sometimes be excited whispers all around me, while I would sit there, dumbfounded, wondering who this person was supposed to be.

Fact # 3 - Given the above two circumstances, I probably got about as much enjoyment out of it as can be expected.

Sex and the City is not a groundbreaking movie, or even a very witty one. The number of laughs for the uninitiated, or those not familiar with the characters, can probably be counted on less than one hand. That being said, I could see a small hint of what made the show endure for the six or so seasons it ran, especially in the chemistry of the four lead actresses. They play off each other well, and seem to really enjoy playing their characters, even after all this time. I'm glad there was something I could grab onto, because unless you're a devoted fan who has been following the lives and loves of Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) from the beginning, you're going to find this to be an extremely thin and rather slight film experience. Throw in an overly bloated two and a half hour running time, and you have something that would have been a lot more enjoyable in a smaller dose. I guess that's why it worked in half hour installments for so long.

The film is basically a chance for the legions of fans to catch up on what's been going on with the characters since the show ended. Carrie is still involved with her on-again/off-again boyfriend, Mr. Big (Chris Noth), and they are slowly starting to take the next steps in their relationship. Of course, they both have conflicted emotions regarding taking those steps, and as they begin to advance further, more and more doubts begin to appear. Samantha has since moved to L.A., has been dating and getting involved with the career of a rising actor, and generally finds her life to be very unsatisfactory. If it weren't for the next door neighbor who has sex with a different woman every night (sometimes more than one), whom she frequently spies on, she would be downright bored. Miranda has been trying to run a home and a family with her husband, Steve (David Eigenberg), but the lack of intimacy in their relationship is starting to take its toll. Finally, Charlotte is living quite happily with her husband and adopted daughter, and only fears how long the good times can last.

Take those simplistic storylines, stretch them to an unbearable length of tedium, and you pretty much have the movie in a nutshell. The main problem with Sex and the City is a crucial one, and it is simply that there is no reason for it to be on the big screen. This is essentially a "reunion special" splashed onto thousands of screens, and arriving on a mountain of hype. Was there a single daytime talk or news show that wasn't devoting at least a part of their segment to this movie in the weeks leading up to its release? After being bombarded with seemingly non-stop coverage and interviews with the four lead actresses, I have to kind of ask, what was the point? What we have here is something that will only appeal to a limited audience. Writer-director Michael Patrick King saw no reason to broaden the fanbase of the characters. He simply saw it as a way to go home again, so to speak. What's perhaps most maddening (especially for fans) is that the movie doesn't really do anything to broaden or add to his characters. Many of them seem to be in the same place they were at the beginning of the movie, and except for a development with the Charlotte character, none of them really have any big changes to their lives.

I mentioned earlier that the lead actresses have good chemistry, and indeed, it's one of the few things that keep the film from sinking completely in its own excess. The chemistry is a Godsend in this case, since because the characters don't really advance or go anywhere in this movie, everyone comes across as being somewhat shallow and one-note, unless you're completely up to date on them from the show. All of the plots surrounding the four women are not exactly deep, and could have easily been covered in a single episode, since the movie devotes an obscene amount of its running time to them gathering together and talking about the same problems over and over again. The sole interesting element that the movie adds is an assistant for Carrie, played by Dreamgirls star, Jennifer Hudson. She comes across the best, because she was never on the show, and therefore she is automatically the most rounded character in the movie. It's too bad that she never winds up playing a very large role in the film, and the script seems to be in a rush to have her move on, so it can get back to the four female characters that the writer is most comfortable with. In an interview, King stated that he added the character, due to fan criticism that there wasn't a black woman on the show. Instead of merely satisfying his fans, he could have done a lot more with this very likable character who exits the film all too soon.
If there is anything memorable to say about Sex and the City, it is that it contains the first fart and poop joke that actually made me laugh in a long time. That's certainly worth something, but not worth two and a half hours. I can't bring myself to say that I didn't like this movie, as the chemistry and the fleeting bright moments made it at least watchable. That being said, I also can't say that there's any reason this needs to be on the screens, or why it needed to be made in the first place. The fans will learn nothing new about their favorite characters, and those outside of the loop will feel like they're watching a really long joke that they're not in on. Given the hype, and the fact that the TV series has often been called one of the smartest shows around during the height of its popularity, this is a disappointment.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I want to say that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull wowed me. I want to say that it left me screaming for more. The previous Jones films certainly did, so can you blame me if I was looking for a bit more of a spark, while at the same time keeping my expectations in check? Let me say something straight out first, this is most certainly not a bad movie. It's actually very enjoyable. It just seems very thin when you look back on it. For total in one ear and out the other entertainment, you probably won't find anything better this summer. But if you're looking for a summer blockbuster that stays with you, and leaves you wanting to get right back in line and see it again once it's done, you won't find it here.

The key thing when walking into Crystal Skull is to forget all pre-conceived notions and prejudices. Forget the fact that it's been 19 years since the last installment in the series. Forget the fact that Harrison Ford is well into his 60s. And most certainly forget the on line fanboys who are treating this movie as if it were the second coming. Just take it for the movie that series director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas have given us - An expertly executed and fun popcorn flick that's just a little too slight to be truly memorable. The movie is definitely a nostalgic throwback to the earlier films, with plenty of references for fans to pick up on, and it manages to capture the simple and energetic nature of the originals. When you consider that the Indiana Jones films are already a throwback to the 30s and 40s adventure serials that the creators grew up on, it's certainly not unfair to refer to this movie as a throwback to a throwback. It gives its audience everything you expect and have come to love, but not much more than that.

That's not to say everything is old hat here. The setting has been updated to 1957, and Jones' eternal rivals, the Nazis, have been replaced with the Russians. They've actually captured Jones right from the opening scene, and brought him and his partner Mac (Ray Winstone from Beowulf) to an Area 51 hangar where they want his help in tracking down a treasure they're seeking for their own purposes. Jones narrowly escapes, not quite finding out what exactly the leader of the soldiers, the cold-hearted scientist and psychic Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), was after. He gets his chance to find out soon enough when he's approached by a young motorcycle-riding greaser named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf), who wants Jones' help in tracking down his missing mother, as well as in solving an ancient riddle that is connected to a lost civilization. The mission ultimately revolves around an artifact known as the Crystal Skull, which is rumored to have originated in the mythical City of Gold. In their quest to learn more about the Skull, Jones and Mutt must constantly stay one step ahead of their Soviet pursuers, as they try to track down a former Professor friend of Jones named Oxley (John Hurt), who may know more about the Skull's origins, as well as a former flame of Jones' from the original Raiders film, the feisty Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), who is actually Mutt's missing mother.

Don't let that somewhat complex synopsis fool you, as Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is much more interested at delivering thrills and action than in explaining itself. Its plot of lost civilizations, alien artifacts left behind by advanced societies, and ancient riddles is all really just a hook to hang a series of increasingly elaborate action set pieces upon. Things get off to a rousing start with Indy's daring escape from the Area 51 hangar, and while there are moments here and there that sag, the pace of the film remains quite lively, allowing the two hours or so that the film runs to literally fly by. The main action highlight is an elaborate and lengthy chase sequence through the jungle, as Indy and his friends hop about through different vehicles (while they're in motion of course) as they try to prevent Irina from escaping with the Crystal Skull. In this day and age of rapid editing styles, it's almost refreshing that Spielberg lets us truly admire the sequence and the stunt work that went into it. I also admire the way he lets the scene build and build. Of course, a mere car chase just isn't enough for this movie. The scene also has to take itself to the treetops, where some monkeys get involved, and it also has to involve some flesh-eating ants in the process. Oh, and top it off with three raging waterfalls right in a row. Ridiculous? Undoubtedly, yes. Fun? Also, undoubtedly yes.

As mentioned earlier, it's been 19 years since the last movie, and the advancement in technology really shows. This is easily the best looking Indiana Jones adventure yet, thanks to the top drawer effects work, and the sharp cinematography by Janusz Kaminski (Munich). Everything certainly looks great, and the cast is at their best game. Though some may ridicule his decision to take up the role at his age, Harrison Ford all but proves the naysayers wrong, effortlessly slipping back into what is easily his most iconic role ever. He still has the dry wit, the pull-no-punches attitude, and the physique to pull off the demanding stunt work. Sure, there's more CG involved this time around, but he's still at the top of the game. Rising young actor, Shia LaBeouf, fits well into the franchise, and never once seems out of place as his latest sidekick. Spielberg has put a lot of faith in LaBeouf this past year, and it's easy to see why. He has a strong screen presence, and comes across as being very natural in just about every film he appears in. And then of course there is Karen Allen, who is wonderful to see again, and is just as lovely as she was in the original film back in 81. And yet, I wish the movie had done more with her. The few scenes she gets to share alone with Ford are a delight, it's a shame that the screenplay by David Koepp (Zathura, War of the Worlds) didn't do more with them.

So, even though this movie left a positive impression on me, why did I walk away wanting more? It's something I've been trying to figure out myself. It wasn't from inflated expectations, fortunately, it's just that even as a summer blockbuster, this is pretty thin stuff. This is one of those movies that you enjoy while you're watching it, but you have a hard time drumming up support when you think back on it. Crystal Skull is indeed a fun time, but those looking for something memorable may be disappointed. The earlier films were each memorable in their own way, and have rightfully been known as modern day classics. (Well, okay, maybe Temple of Doom and Last Crusade have their very vocal critics.) Here, there's a lot that impresses, but it just didn't stay with me at all. It would have been nice if the movie slowed down once in a while, and gave the supporting cast more to do. Lead villainess, Cate Blanchett, doesn't get much to do but glare menacingly and bark out orders to her men.

It should be interesting to see how the film does during the summer. It seems to be speaking to a very specific audience, and I don't know how that will translate to those who did not grow up watching the original films, or saw them in the theaters. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is passable escapism, but anyone who tries to call it more than that is fooling themselves. This is what I believe the movie was going for, and at that, it succeeds. I may have wanted more, but at least I'm happy with what I did get.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

With the Lord of the Rings trilogy long gone (though we're supposed to eventually get a Hobbit movie), and the Harry Potter franchise reaching its later chapters, it would seem that Disney's Chronicles of Narnia films are our current hope for an entertaining series of fantasy films. Potential franchises like Eragon and The Golden Compass stumbled right out of the gate, so it may be all we're getting for a while. Fortunately for audiences, the second installment of the Narnia series, Prince Caspian, is a lot of fun, even if it is a little thin on the screenplay level.

Returning director and co-writer, Andrew Adamson, seems to be going for a much bigger and grander approach with this sequel. The effects for the animals and the creatures are beautifully inserted into the live action shots, and there's also a lot of wonderfully staged battle and action sequences. With its fairly quick pace and lively tone, the movie definitely delivers as a crowd pleaser, and should prove to be a big hit with most audiences. That being said, it is this same aspect that leads to its most obvious flaw. The characters and the story often find themselves taking a backseat to the spectacle. The story is centered around a royal family struggle, where the noble Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes from Stardust) finds his life in danger when the wife of his treacherous Uncle, King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), gives birth to a son. Wanting his child to assume the throne instead of the young Prince, Miraz attempts to assassinate Caspian in his sleep. Prince Caspian is warned about the plot in time to escape the castle, and finds himself alone in the world for the first time.

Oddly enough, the plot concerning the heroic Prince and his family's betrayal against him is underwhelming, and hardly even dealt with. Despite a running time of nearly two and a half hours, the action never slows down long enough for Caspian to truly stop and realize what has happened to him. There's a scene where the Prince and the evil King confront one another, and the King's wife learns of what has happened (she believed Caspian had disappeared). She seems shocked by her husband's actions, but this is never elaborated on, nor do we truly get to see her after this scene. It also doesn't help that despite his actions early in the film, Miraz never comes across as a very intimidating villain, let alone an effective one. For all his schemings of murder and backstabbing, he is surprisingly dull and dry. It's a far cry from the central villain in the last film, the White Witch, who was so memorably portrayed by Tilda Swinton with the right amount of malice and deceit. In fact, when the Witch makes a brief cameo about halfway through this film, it helps remind us even more of what a much more effective threat she was in comparison to Miraz.

Back to the plot - While on the run from the King's soldiers, Caspian comes across a magical horn that when played, summons the four brave children from Earth who saved Narnia in 2005's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Siblings Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skander Keynes), and Lucy (Georgie Henley) are in London, waiting for the train to take them to school, when they find themselves magically whisked away to the kingdom of Narnia. They quickly learn that the land they came to love is quite different from when they left it. Even though one year has passed for them since their adventure through the wardrobe, over 1,000 years have passed in Narnia, and many of the places they were familiar with are now in ruin due to the actions of the evil King. The animals and mythical creatures of the land have gone into exile, and stranger still, noble Aslan the lion (voice by Liam Neeson) has disappeared. Shortly after arriving, they meet a dwarf named Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage), who clues them in on Narnia's current state, and leads them to where the exiled creatures of Narnia wait in hiding. Now that the four have returned, and Prince Caspian has joined their cause against his cruel Uncle, a second battle for the kingdom is set to begin.

Much like the plot surrounding the young Prince and the King, the four returning heroes are left somewhat underdeveloped this time around. We learn very little new about them, and they seem to mostly be here to lead everyone into battle. Unofficial leader Peter screams "For Narnia!" a lot, Susan pretty much shoots her apparently endless supply of arrows at enemies, Edmund kind of stands in the background until the battle sequences, and youngest sibling Lucy mainly sits on the sidelines, and wonders what has happened to Aslan, especially since she keeps on having visions and dreams of her majestic lion friend. There are some subplots that try to strengthen the characters a little bit, both of them concerning the kids' relationship with Caspian. Peter seems to be at odds with the Prince at times, since they both want to give orders, and individually think that they know the way to victory in battle. Susan, meanwhile, is attracted to Caspian, even though they spend little screen time together, and mainly just give each other looks most of the time. The young performers are all strong in their individual roles, even if the screenplay gives them little to do outside of the action sequences. Of particular note is Georgie Henley as Lucy, who brings the right amount of innocence to her role, without ever coming across as being forced or overly cute.

Looking over this review, I realize that I have mostly focused on the negatives up to this point. So, why am I recommending the film? I have always believed that there is a place for spectacle, and Prince Caspian definitely delivers there. As mentioned earlier, the effects work to bring the various animals, minotaurs, griffins, and other various creatures to life is stunning. Not only are the models highly detailed, they're animated to the point that they have as much personality (if not more so) than their human co-stars. A particular favorite of mine is a little mouse soldier voiced by comic actor Eddie Izzard. Call me a sucker for an easy sight gag, but seeing the little guy defeating enemy soldiers that tower over him made me laugh every time. Director Andrew Adamson has worked on some of the Shrek films in the past, and there's no doubt that he drew on the Puss in Boots character from those films in creating the dashing rodent warrior, but he's strong enough to stand on his own. As mentioned before, the action is much greater than the last film, with many lavish battle scenes that may call to mind the epic battles in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but once again, are strong enough on their own not to come across as being completely derivative. Some sequences have been expanded upon from the original novel by C.S. Lewis, and some were created for the film, but they are all expertly handled, and would be worthy enough to be showstopping climaxes in many other action films.

The thing is, I didn't really have time to think of these problems while watching the film. Prince Caspian is quickly paced and holds many memorable scenes and images, that the problems don't come to light until you stop and look back on it. I was entertained and got wrapped up into the fantasy world created in the film, so I'd call it a success in the end. Fans of the book or the previous film are bound to find a lot to like here. I certainly would welcome a third big screen visit to Narnia, as long as the characters are as developed as well as the effects and the world itself.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

What Happens in Vegas

Ashton Kutcher is a lot of things. He is an actor. He is married to Demi Moore. He may even be a nice guy if I ever got a chance to know him. One thing he is not, however, is a leading man for romantic comedies. What Happens in Vegas is a witless comedy that wants to have it both ways with Kutcher. It wants him to be a sleazy, gross slacker for most of the film, who likes to urinate in the sink and pour popcorn down his pants, then eat it. Then it suddenly asks him to do a total about face, be completely charming, and win over Cameron Diaz. I didn't buy it, and I didn't buy this movie.

This is yet another movie where two people start out hating each other, slowly start to get to know each other, and then fall in love. We're supposed to be happy when they do, but the problem is What Happens in Vegas does such a good job at making us hate these people that we don't want to see them get together. There is no explanation for the sudden change in both of their personalities. Kutcher starts the movie off as a slob, and Diaz starts the movie off as a shrieking harpy of a control freak. They're very harsh, unlikable people, and screenwriter Dana Fox (The Wedding Date) likes to remind us of this fact in scene after scene. Then the characters turn inexplicably sweet for absolutely no reason, other than the movie is over half way through, and it needs them to start warming up to each other. No one could warm up to these characters the way they're forced to behave for a majority of the running time. When they start getting close, it feels just as phony as the forced love they show to their marriage counselor (Queen Latifah) earlier in the film.

So, why are these two people together in the first place? Both are New Yorkers who find themselves in Vegas trying to forget their problems. Kutcher is Jack Fuller, a guy who just recently got fired from his dad's company. Diaz is Joy McNally, who's just been dumped by her fiance (Jason Sudeikis) at a surprise birthday party she tried to throw for him. They both arrive in Vegas with their respective best friends, and a computer glitch at the hotel they're both staying at accidentally books them in the same room. Jack and Joy initially want nothing to do with each other, but before they know it, they're both drunk and hanging all over each other. They wake up together in the same bed, and discover they married each other while they were hitting the town in a drunken stupor the night before. They agree to an immediate divorce, but things become complicated when Jack wins a $3 million jackpot on a slot machine with a quarter Joy gave him. Both want the money for themselves, so they go to court, and the Judge (Dennis Miller) decides that they have to live together for six months, get marriage counseling, and if they can stay together, they both get half of the three million.

Of course, they don't want half, they want all of it. So, they start setting up schemes and plans that will make it look like the other is being unfaithful or unwilling to make the relationship work. Joy starts sending some of her more slutty friends over to try to tempt Jack into an affair. He tries to be as gross and unruly as possible, and even tries to pass their relationship off as being abusive when he has his friends beat him up, hoping their counselor will believe Joy did it. They also try to drive each other crazy every chance they get. She hogs the bathroom all the time getting ready in the morning, so he retaliates by unscrewing the toilet seat lid off, so she falls into the water when she tries to sit down on it later. That scene in particular is odd, because we hear Joy falling into the toilet, and then Jack (who is lying on the couch) pulls the detached toilet seat out from under the couch, holding it up in the air victoriously. I wondered who he was holding the seat up to? Does he know there are cameramen in his apartment watching him? Of course, he has to hold the seat up in order for the audience to get the gag, but there was obviously a more natural and subtle way the film could have shown what happened, instead of having the character breaking the fourth wall and holding it up to us.

Here's another odd scene. Joy is trying to get a promotion at her job on the New York Stock Exchange, and her boss (Dennis Farina) invites Jack and her to the company retreat for the weekend. When Jack meets the boss, he learns that the boss' name is Richard Banger, and immediately comes to the conclusion that his name is actually "Dick Banger". Joy is horrified by his crude attempt at humor at first, until she realizes that her boss has an off color sense of humor, and immediately starts breaking out into hysterics. He loves the joke so much, he starts calling her husband "Jack Off" for the rest of the weekend. Soon, everyone at the retreat is calling Jack by the same name, as if it's a term of affection, and when Joy and him accept an award for best couple at the retreat, the crowd starts chanting "Jack Off" over and over. Of course, Mr. Banger is so delighted and taken by Jack's sense of humor that Joy eventually does get that promotion. If you're asking yourself what parallel universe the filmmakers hail from in which such a situation would even be considered remotely plausible, you're not alone.

It's at the retreat that Jack and Joy make their sudden switch in personalities, and start sharing moonlit walks with each other, sharing their personal feelings, and enjoying romantic dances to the theme song from Flashdance. Actually, right before then, Joy finds out that Jack coaches a Little League team. This has never been mentioned beforehand, nor is it ever spoken of again. It's just thrown in there to make this previously crude and disgusting man somewhat more personable. At least they had personalities when they were terrible people during the first half of the film. When the unexplained switch occurs, they both automatically turn into bland, romantic comedy cliches. Regardless, their respective best friends pretty much manage to stay the same throughout the picture. Rob Corddry plays Jack's friend, a sleazy and immature lawyer, while Lake Bell plays Diaz's best friend, who really serves no point in the film. Considering that Bell's last movie was the equally lame romantic comedy, Over Her Dead Body, I'd strongly advise she start being a bit more choosy with her projects.

I'd say What Happens in Vegas loses its edge and its nerve halfway through, but the movie doesn't have a lot of edge or nerve to start with. It's a movie about two screaming idiots who do very stupid and gross things to each other, until the screenplay decides for them that they should like each other. Cameron Diaz has been enjoyable in past comedic roles, it's a shame she has to play such a loud and unfunny personality here. As for Kutcher, he's better off playing the best friend character, not the romantic lead. This is an extremely wrong-headed and miscalculated film, and I'm honestly surprised that no one stood up during the making of the movie, and asked themselves, "Just what am I doing here"?

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Speed Racer

If Speed Racer was 90 minutes long, or even 100 minutes, I'd be able to fully get behind it. There were many moments that grabbed my inner 10-year-old, and left a goofy grin on my face. I also found myself laughing (in a good way) as I thought back on individual moments of the film. Speed Racer, however, is 135 minutes. I highly doubt anyone, not even the most devoted fan of the original cartoon, needed a movie like this that runs as long as some serious Oscar contenders. And yet, I found myself reveling certain moments, such as the following dialogue exchange that occurs after the heroes have fended off a small group of ninjas...

"Was that a ninja?"
"More like a non-ja. It's terrible what passes for a ninja these days!"

The day dialogue like that becomes looked down upon is the same day a little part of my soul dies.

Flawed or not, I don't think anyone can accuse filmmaking siblings, Larry and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix Trilogy), of not knowing what they were doing in making this movie. This is a total love letter to the show that used to thrill them as children, and you can tell that they were having the time of their lives writing this thing, and filming it. The cast is more than game, and know how to put just the right amount of ham in their performances, without causing the audience to choke upon it. It knows what it is, does not try to be anything but, and anyone in the audience who walks in expecting anything more deserves to be disappointed. Here is a movie where the heroes have names like Racer X and Inspector Detector, while the villains have names like Snake Oiler and Cruncher Block. Take it as you will. This is a live action movie set in a lavish cartoon world where the law of physics do not apply. It's centered around the sport of automobile racing, but the racers in this film seem inspired more by comic books or Professional Wrestling, and the cars are equipped with hidden weapons that look like the kind of stuff James Bond would use if his gadgets were invented by the same company that made the Coyote's gadgets in the old Looney Tunes shorts. (I especially liked the car that launched bee hives, complete with buzzing bees, at its opponents on the track.)

Of course, there's a story behind all the special effects and cartoon-inspired chaos. It's a shaky one, but I get the feeling the plot was the last thing on the filmmakers' mind. (Which is the way it should be in a Speed Racer movie.) The Racer family, headed by the aptly named Pop and Mom Racer (played by John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, respectively) have long been independents on the racing circuit, competing mainly for the thrill and fun of the sport, rather than the lucrative contract deals. There was a tragedy years ago when eldest son Rex Racer (Scott Porter from the recent Prom Night) left the family to pursue his own interests, and wound up dying on the track in an accident. Since then, young Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch from Into the Wild) has grown up wanting to restore the family name in the sport, and literally races against his brother's ghost whenever he's on the track, wanting to live up to his former glory. Speed's growing fame in the racing circuit brings him to the attention of the wealthy and sleazy promoter, Royalton (Roger Allam), who pretty much offers the young driver the world if he will race under his name. With the support of his family, and feisty yet cute girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), Speed respectively declines the offer, not wanting to enter the money and power-obsessed world Royalton lives in.

He later finds out it was a smart decision, as Royalton's company is under investigation of cheating during major races. Local police detective, Inspector Detector (Benno Furmann), wants Speed to go undercover and try to expose Royalton's dirty dealings behind the scenes. He will team up with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox), a racer who hides his identity behind a superhero's outfit, to uncover the evil plot. Along the way, he will be drawn into fights with ninjas, gangsters, and crooked drivers who will do anything to win. And just to make sure there's something for the kids to latch onto, Speed has a meddling little brother named Spritle (Paulie Litt), who causes constant comedic problems for everyone, along with his pet monkey and sidekick, Chim-Chim. Much of the antics of the kid and the chimp are designed to appeal to the youngest in the audience, but I admit, I smiled when they stopped the action right when Speed and Trixie were about to kiss, warning the audience that what was about to come may be hazardous for those in the audience not up on their Cootie Shots.

Just reading those last two paragraphs should let you know whether Speed Racer is a movie for you. The world the Wachowskis have created for their characters seems to be a melding of a 10-year-old's look at the world, crossed with a living cartoon or video game. Many have accused it of being overkill, and when I initially saw the trailers, I have to admit I agreed. And yet, seeing the film in its entirety, I admired it. This is not a special effects budget gone out of control, but controlled chaos. The action is certainly frantic, but never overwhelming and confusing, as in last summer's Transformers movie. I found myself able to keep constant track of what was going on, and who was doing what to whom. I also enjoyed the look of the different locals. The Racers' suburban home seems to be inspired by 60s pop art, with garish furnishing and flower-patterned walls. The city where Royalton's corporation makes it home seems inspired partly by the recent Star Wars films, and partly by the dreams of a very imaginative child of what the big city looks like. The races, with their winding tracks and numerous hazards (spikes rising up randomly out of the pavement, for example), looks like what car racing would be if it were designed by someone with a sick sense of humor. The Wachowski Brothers seem to have completely forgotten about what anyone else says. As long as they think it's cool and makes them grin, they put it in their screenplay. In the wrong hands, this could certainly be dangerous. But they have control over their world, and know just how to pull it off so that I was smiling right along with them, rather than feeling like I was being dragged along for the ride.

There is, however, something known as too much of a good thing. With a running time of over two hours, Speed Racer starts to wear out even the most enthused viewer. The cast is energetic, the look is imaginative, and the whole thing has a sense of just wanting to be fun. And yet, there's no denying that the film has plenty of moments that drag down the momentum. These are mostly the plot-oriented scenes, or the moments when the Racer family sit down and talk to each other about their past, or what's currently going on. Some of these moments could have been shortened or tightened up, and we'd be left with a much better film all around. I hate being on a fence with a movie, especially one that so unashamed about reaching that sense of wonder and excitement everyone has when they are young. And yet, that's squarely where I find myself looking back on this movie. Every time I find myself smiling as I think back on my favorite moments and the wonderful cast, my thoughts eventually tend to wander to what didn't work. These moments kept me from fully embracing the film, and likewise keep me from writing a fully enthused review.

Because of my ultimate position, I cannot completely recommend Speed Racer, but I do think it should be seen as long as you are in the right mind set. The film's producer, Joel Silver, has stated that this is a movie for everyone. I cannot completely agree with that statement. Some will be turned off by the goofiness and all-out approach that it takes. Although I was not completely taken, I found myself admiring what the movie tried to get away with. Despite my reservations, I have to admit, this is probably as good of a movie about a guy whose name actually is Speed Racer as we're ever going to get.

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Made of Honor

The fact that Made of Honor was produced by a production company called Original Films is funnier than any of the tired gags on display during the course of the film. There is absolutely nothing original to be found in its screenplay that is credited to three different people, but often comes across as a Frankenstein's Monster stitched together from the remains of other romantic comedies. The cast is attractive, and the scenery when the action switches overseas is pleasant, but there's absolutely nothing worthwhile on display. And no reason why audiences should be expected to waste full price and roughly 100 minutes watching it.

This is the kind of movie that has a plot where you know everything that's going to happen before you even set foot in the theater. Tom (Patrick Dempsey) and Hannah (Michelle Monaghan) have been best friends since they met in college 10 years ago. Never mind the fact that Dempsey was already well into his 30s in real life 10 years ago, and the attempt to make him look like a college student in the opening scenes don't quite come off right. We know they're right for each other, but by the standard law of the Idiot Plot, they have to be completely oblivious to the obvious. Tom's a ladies' man who finds himself with a different woman every night, and Hannah just accepts the fact that they'll always be friends. Tom, on the other hand, never quite realizes how important her friendship is until she has to leave for Scotland for six weeks on business. All of a sudden, nothing else matters, and he just wants to be with Hannah and tell her how he feels about her. When the two finally get back together, Tom is shocked to see she has a man on her arm - a dashing Scottish hunk named Colin (Kevin McKidd) who Hannah met during her trip overseas. They had a whirlwind romance during her short time there, and now they're getting married in just a few weeks.

The title comes from the fact that Hannah asks Tom to be her maid of honor at the wedding. The movie frequently portrays Hannah as a woman who doesn't exactly seem to think things through. Not only does she agree to marry this Colin guy seemingly mere days after meeting him, but she frequently puts her best friend Tom into humiliating situations that no one in their right mind would force someone to do. She forces Tom to work alongside a vindictive and spiteful ex-girlfriend of his (Busy Philipps) to help plan the wedding, completely ignoring the fact that this other woman is trying to sabotage Tom's attempts to plan the wedding. She also never once asks him what he thinks about this sudden change. The film's opening moments depict how close these two have been over the years, and then she suddenly expects him to accept the fact that she's jetting off to Scotland to live with a guy she's only known for less than a month. The fact that she never stops and asks Tom how he really feels makes her come across as more heartless and cynical than I think the filmmakers intended. So, Tom's a womanizer who essentially sees women as trophies, and Hannah's willing to throw her entire life away and leave everyone she loves behind for a cute guy she doesn't even know. And we're supposed to want to see these two people get together because?...

The filmmakers obviously never asked themselves that question, because the majority of Made of Honor is built around Tom trying to prove to Hannah that they're right for each other, and that she should marry him instead. Of course, the movie has to throw every contrived circumstance in the book to keep the characters from saying what needs to be said, or doing what needs to be done. Any semi-intelligent person could have these characters' problems solved in about ten minutes, but the film has to drag it out to feature length by having some situation or some person walk in at just the right moment to prevent them from saying those little words that would cause the end to come a lot sooner. It's a practice that makes me grow restless in my seat, especially when the characters are as uninteresting as depicted here. Patrick Dempsey and Michelle Monaghan are attractive leads, there's no denying that. But there's nothing for them to inhabit in the people they're playing. They have jobs, but never seem to actually do any work, giving Tom plenty of time to play basketball with his wacky one-liner spewing guy friends, and Hannah plenty of time to think of more ways to put Tom in awkward situations that are supposed to make us laugh, but only made me even more angry with each contrived and idiotic moment.

Tom and Hannah are not people, when you come right down to it. They do what's expected of them, and never seem to have a single thought in their heads except for what the plot requires them to think. It doesn't even matter if the thoughts they're having make any sense, as long as its convenient to the plot. I could look over this fact if the screenplay had some genuine wit to it, but it falls back on such moldy techniques as funny old ladies (an elderly woman at the wedding wears glow in the dark sex toys as jewelry, not knowing what they're supposed to be), and scenes where Tom constantly runs into people for no seemingly no reason at all, other than the writers were under the assumption he needed to fall down for an easy laugh. It can't even think of a reason for him to run into the other person, it just suddenly decides to make him a clutz at its own convenience. Everything's so manipulated and controlled in this movie that I didn't believe what I was seeing for a single second.

Romantic comedies are obviously fantasies, and a good one can make me let go of all logic, and just get wrapped into the fantasy. Made of Honor is too calculated and forced, and constantly lets it show in just about every scene. I didn't buy into the fantasy, because it kept on reminding me that the things I was seeing were supposed to happen. Here is a movie that's so focused on giving us what we expect, yet strangely manages to leave out the one thing we should expect - a likable lead couple that we want to see get together. Maybe if Tom and Hannah weren't slaves to the plot, and had some moments to be real people, I'd feel differently when the movie arrived at its inevitable and pre-packaged conclusion.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Iron Man

In a comic book movie, first impressions are crucial. Whenever a superhero is brought to life on the big screen for the first time, I believe that the introductory scene where we see the costumed figure for the first time to be one of the most important elements. For the longest time, I held Tim Burton's original Batman film as one of the all-time great introductions. The opening scene of the two thugs sitting on the rooftop, contemplating whether or not a Batman actually exists, all the while not noticing the shadowy figure approaching them from the darkness, held the top spot in my heart. After almost 20 years, a new champion is born, and it is our first glimpse of Iron Man in its prototype form.

Billionaire weapons manufacturer and playboy, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), is trapped behind enemy lines. He's been captured by an Afghan terrorist rebel army, and is being forced to build his latest missile weapon for their leader, Raza (Faran Tahir). While in captivity, Tony has an eye-opening experience when he realizes that the terrorists are using his own weapons and technology to fight against American soldiers. The realization and the guilt he feels is too much for him to bear, and he knows he has to do something. Tucked away in a secluded cave, under the watchful eye of Raza's soldiers, Stark begins to build an invention that will not only ultimately help him escape his captors, but may just help the people he has put in harm's way for so long. He constructs a crude yet powerful full-body robotic suit that turns Stark into a walking weapon. From the moment he puts the suit on, and begins fending off the soldiers who have come to investigate the strange occurrences in his cell, we know that we are watching something special.

It's an exhilarating moment seeing Iron Man in action for the first time. Though the sequence has been highly publicized in the film's trailers for about a year now, it still manages to impress, because the scene carries with it such a feeling of freedom and liberation. Raza and his army are not even the main villains in the film, but seeing their comeuppance by this everyday man who fights back in such an extaordinary fashion is a giant rush, and not just for the fanboys who have been following the comics for years. Iron Man does a great job of building up to this moment. We are brought into Tony Stark's world, we see the realization dawn on him of just what his technology has been used for, and we feel for him. We want to see him escape, and we want to see the suit in action. Director Jon Favreau (Elf, Zathura) does not disappoint in either aspect.

Tony Stark does eventually make it back home to the US, and is greeted by his faithful and loyal personal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), best friend Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), and business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Tony has been forever changed by the experience of being held captive, that much is expected. What's not expected is that he does not become a brooding or deeply troubled hero who fights in order to calm his own personal demons. Yes, there is a personal connection. He doesn't want to see his name, or his company's name, used for terror ever again. But, we also get the feeling that Stark is sharing the same exhilaration we are whenever he dons the suit that allows him to become the superpowered Iron Man. So many recent comic book movies seem determined to focus almost solely on the negative or the heavy aspects of being a superhero. Spider-Man can swing across the sky and climb buildings, but he's constantly haunted by family grief, and the last words of his dead Uncle. Batman has all those wonderful toys and wealth, but let's face it, you wouldn't really want to party with the guy. Iron Man knows that there is a big responsibility in keeping law and order in the world, but also doesn't let it completely overshadow the fun it would be to wear a robotic outfit like Stark's, and just go flying. Some critics I've read have complained about the lack of action sequences in the film. Save it for the sequel, I say. This is a movie about Tony Stark learning about what it's like to be Iron Man, and that's the way it should be.

Iron Man is the rare film that is almost certain to delight the faithful of its source material (aside from updating the early scenes from Vietnam to Afghanistan, very little has been sacrificed), and those who know very little about the character and his world. There is a certain low key feel to everything in the movie. The special effects and the CG used to bring the character to life are dazzling, but never overbearing. It knows just the right amount of wonder to use. But let's be honest here, a superhero is only as good as the guy behind the mask. Robert Downey, Jr completely owns the role of Tony Stark in this regard. He is capable of not only making Stark a genuine human being outside of the costume, but he brings so much personality, charm, and wit to the film that we get the sense that the movie almost wouldn't be the same without him. Downey has proven his talent many times in the past 20 years or so, but this is the first time he's been expected to carry a potential blockbuster and franchise almost all by himself. Just like Johnny Depp with the original Pirates of the Carribean film, I have a feeling that this will cause audiences and studio heads to look at him in a different way. He's charismatic, he has a wonderful screen presence here that makes him almost mesmerizing to watch, and he's consistently believable, even when he's stomping around in that outfit.

While his supporting cast may not grab our attention like he does, they are all notable, and each of them give surprisingly honest and heartfelt performances. Gwyneth Paltrow makes a great "Girl Friday" for Downey's character, who is with him every step of the way, but never seems quite sure what to make of her complex relationship with her employer. I'm interested to see her character and her role in the story grow in the inevitable future installments. Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard get slightly less to do for most of the movie, but they are still memorable, because of the way they approach their roles. Everyone treats the material as if this is actually happening. The performances are down to Earth, not broad in any way. When they use humor, it is appropriate for the situation, and not a case of the screenwriters trying to inject camp into the script for easy laughs. They're written as intelligent adults, and the fact that the story is set in a semi-realistic world only allows us to get more involved in the story. It's rare to see a talented cast come together so well, especially in a popcorn-fueled summer blockbuster.

The worst thing that can be said about Iron Man is that it left me wanting more when it was over. But, isn't that what a superhero movie is supposed to do? If I walk out of the cinema wishing for a sequel, I think the movie has done its job. I wanted to see more of Tony Stark, more of Iron Man, more of his relationship with Paltrow's character, and more of everything in general. As long as it doesn't fall into the trap of Spider-Man 3 of trying to tell too many plots with too many characters, I can see this film spawning many successful films. The world of Iron Man is a fascinating one, and so are the people who have been gathered to inhabit that world. You're on to something here, Marvel. Keep it coming, and don't blow it.

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