Reel Opinions

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Step Brothers

If Step Brothers was just a little more focused and less scattershot, this could have been a great comedy. The screenplay by star Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay (Talladega Nights) is all over the place, and seems pretty thin even for a 95 minute long comedy. That being said, there are some laughs to be found, and it's admirable how head-on Ferrell and his co-star, John C. Reilly, tackle the material they've been given. It's not enough to make Step Brothers a rousing success, but I have to admit, I enjoyed it more than I was expecting to.

Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) and Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) are both 40-year-old men who have never left home, can barely hold down a job, and seem to have stopped maturing when they were 12. They are brought together when Brennan's mother Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) and Dale's dad Robert (Richard Jenkins) meet at a convention, and immediately fall in love. The parents marry, and now the two men must live under the same roof with each other. Brennan and Dale initially hate each other, so much so that Brennan tries to bury Dale alive in the front yard. They soon discover that they have a common enemy when Brennan's much more successful and smarmy younger brother, Derek (Adam Scott), arrives with plans to convince the parents to move on with their lives, thereby forcing the two to actually live on their own for once and become real adults. It also becomes quite clear that the new step brothers are putting a strain on their parents' relationship. Dale and Brennan must now figure out a way to work together and prove to everyone that they can make it in the world, and to keep the family together.

There are a lot of times where Step Brothers doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. There are even less times when the movie seems to know what it wants Brennan and Dale to be. Sometimes, they come across as crude and immature, such as the scene where Brennan plays Dale's prized drum set while rubbing a certain part of the male anatomy all over it. Sometimes they are like overgrown children, given how they hide out in the tree house when things go bad, or obsess over junk food and kung fu movies. And sometimes, they are vicious monsters, such as the previously mentioned "buried alive" scene, or the part where Dale tries to drown Brennan. Fortunately, the comic energy of Ferrell and Reilly prevent their characters from becoming too hateful or annoying. While I never could like the two leads (and I don't think I was supposed to), I did admire the way that the actors completely throw themselves head-on with everything they're asked to do. John C. Reilly is certainly no stranger to dramatic roles, but it's certainly impressive how he can get in the raunchy and dumb spirit of the movie without dumbing down his performance.

While I was not exactly anticipating plot complexity walking into the film, I do think the filmmakers could have made a bit more of an effort to hide the fact that they got away with having a studio pay them to have its two lead stars act stupid for two or three months. The brothers' rivalry with Derek is never really developed to the point that it feels like it's driving the story, and a subplot concerning Derek's sexually frustrated wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) coming onto Dale never really seems to have a pay off, even if Hahn does get a couple good laughs during the film. The film is episodic in nature, with each scene kind of coming across as a series of loosely connected short films. This prevents the film from truly clicking, as it barely feels like a movie to start with. It gets to the point that I felt like I was watching a series of skits featuring a recurring Ferrell character from his Saturday Night Live days. This still doesn't excuse the unmemorable third act of the film, which loses much of the comic energy that at least kept the movie afloat.

I know it probably sounds like I didn't like the movie, but I must admit, I did laugh out loud a few times. Step Brothers is one of those movies that kind of meanders along, not really gaining your confidence, and then suddenly an inspired one liner or a piece of dialogue will hit you out of the blue, and you find yourself in a much better mood. Such moments include Dale's reaction to Brennan's singing ("Your voice is like a cross between Fergie and Jesus".), and his reaction to his step brother's collection of vintage Hustler magazines ("It's like masturbating in a time machine!"). It's unfortunate that the film's humor has to mainly rely on gross out gags (the guys being made to lick dog feces by the neighborhood bully kid) and uninspired physical humor (a running gag concerning Brennan and Dale sleepwalking), because it's the dialogue that got the biggest laughs from me. I couldn't tell if it was scripted or improvised on the spot, but the humor concerning their bizarre observations on the world had me laughing more than anything else in the film.

In terms of intentionally dumb comedies turning out to be guilty pleasures, Step Brothers didn't quite win me over the same way You Don't Mess With the Zohan did. I still chuckle to myself when I think back on that film, whereas I don't think I'll even be remembering this one a few months from now. Maybe this movie needed a little bit more honesty about its own subject matter of men who refuse to grow up. What I do know is that it needed some more work at the screenplay level. Step Brothers has all the makings of a memorable comedy, and it's a real shame that no one acted upon it.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Walking into The X-Files: I Want to Believe, I pretty much knew I probably wasn't going to be the audience this movie was looking for. I was never a devoted viewer of the TV show, though I enjoyed it occasionally, and my memories of the original 1998 X-Files movie are sketchy at best. Having seen the film, I can safely say that I don't know what audience this movie is looking for. Original series creator Chris Carter co-wrote and directed this uneven and lethargic reunion special. And yes, I Want to Believe does come across more as a really long reunion special episode of the TV series, rather than an actual movie. Unless you've been dying to see agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) back together, you'll be disappointed. Even if you have been, you might still be disappointed, as the two stars spend a large part of this film separate from each other.

The film opens promisingly enough with an attention-grabbing opening sequence where a white-haired old man is leading a team of FBI agents through a barren winter landscape. The man is Father Joe (Billy Connelly), a disgraced pedophile priest who is using his psychic powers to lead the team to the spot where a missing FBI agent might be hidden. We see some flashes of Joe's psychic visions, where the woman is attacked by some mysterious assailants. The way the film edits together the search party with the flashback of the incident creates some great atmosphere, and puts us in the right mood for what is almost certain to be an intriguing thrill ride. If only I had known that the film's most thrilling sequence comes right at the beginning, I wouldn't have gotten my hopes up. What Joe and the agents discover in that field of snow, I will not reveal, but I will say it leads to Mulder and Scully (who are both out of the FBI, and living their own lives) being forced to work together again.

Scully now works as a doctor at a Catholic hospital, where her main concern is caring for a young boy with a dangerous brain disease, and her fight to keep him alive. Mulder has since gone into isolation, and is now holed up in his home with a "mountain man" beard (the sure sign of isolation in any movie), and newspaper clippings lining the walls about the paranormal. Scully is the first to be approached about helping out the FBI with their latest case, given her past experience with strange and unexplained occurrences, and she is eventually able to talk Mulder into rejoining the team as well. They are paired up with agents Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet), who has an open mind about Mulder's obsession with the unexplained, as well as Father Joe's claims of being a psychic, and the much more narrow-minded Mosley Drummy (rap artist "Xzbit"), who thinks the priest is making up his powers to cover up his knowledge and possible personal connection to the crime. Both Mulder and Scully get involved in this bizarre case which includes shady Russians, a lot of dogs, and...well, not a whole lot else.

The X-Files seems to be constantly on the brink of hitting upon something, or cranking up the suspense a little. Oddly enough, it never does. It simply meanders through its undercooked plot of pedophile priests with supernatural powers, and FBI agents who either believe or don't believe what is going on in front of them, and restate their belief over and over again. This is the kind of movie where a character exists simply to doubt what is right in front of his eyes for no other reason than the plot requires them to. (If I saw a guy's eyes turn red, and start shedding tears of blood, I think I'd be a bit more open to the suggestion that something's not quite right here.) The story the movie tells probably wouldn't cut it on a lesser episode of the TV series, and the fact that it was considered worthy to base a movie around it some six years after the show went off the air seems a bit odd. There's no real energy on display, no real spark of innovation, and nothing really here to excite or intrigue aside from a few rare stand out scenes. It's not until the film's final 10 minutes or so that the tension finally starts to build just a little, but it's once again deflated with how quickly and effortlessly it is resolved.

The film's decision to keep Mulder and Scully apart as often as possible also seems quite odd, since it was their opposite chemistry that made them so appealing in the first place. Here, Scully exists in the film's main plot to pop up once in a while to talk to Scully about the case, or confront Father Joe in one scene. Most of her screen time is devoted to a subplot where she fights to keep medical aid active for a sick little boy, with her officials at the hospital all demanding that they drop the patient, as nothing can be done to save him. Even when the two stars are actually together, there's seldom any sparks. If the two are so close that they are sharing a bed in one scene, why do they still refer to each other constantly by their last names? What hurts even more is that Duchovny and Anderson seem to have lost what they once brought to their characters and each other. While never entirely bad, both performances seem somewhat stiff and uncomfortable, as if it was hard for both of them to get back into their most famous roles after so long. If this movie was intended to be a big reunion for the still devoted fans, I don't see how they're going to be excited over the little that is on display here.

If a movie like The Dark Knight is a summer movie that should not be missed, then The X-Files: I Want to Believe is a curious little summer oddity that seems to be speaking to no one in particular. It doesn't do anything to stand out in the crowded market, and considering most of the competition, that's just not going to cut it. Somehow, Carter was able to fool Fox into giving him a theatrical budget for something that probably would be deemed pretty mediocre by the fans if it were part of the series. The fans deserve more than what they've been given here, and so do movie goers in general.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mamma Mia

I saw the stage version of Mamma Mia shortly after it opened on Broadway, and found it to be overly fluffy and inconsequential, but still fun. I saw the movie version of Mamma Mia yesterday, and found it to be somewhat leaden and contrived. I believe the material works best on the stage, where there is more fantasy and interaction between the cast and the audience. Stuck up on the screen, in real world locations, the overly light story and almost complete lack of a compelling narrative makes for a movie that just never really seems to go anywhere. It also helps that in the stage version, they mostly cast the stars based on their singing ability, rather than needing a famous name above the title to draw in ticket buyers.

One of the major problems right off the bat is the fact that the play's original director, Phyllida Lloyd, has been charged with bringing her work to the screen. She has no prior experience working with film, and it certainly shows with its clumsy editing and uninspired camerawork. The story is set in Greece, so I obviously expected to see some glorious shots or at least some lovely backdrops. Nothing truly comes alive here, not even the musical numbers. The ABBA songs are as obnoxiously catchy in that guilty pleasure sort of way as they ever were, but the staging and the sometimes sloppy choreography drag it down. Unlike last year's Hairspray (which was released exactly one year ago this weekend), the movie is rigid and does not try to break free of its stage limitations. It also lacks the energy and spark of that film. Mamma Mia should be exuberant and joyful, and as long as the songs are on display, it comes close. It's almost everything else that drags it down.

The plot kicks off when a 20-year-old bride to be named Sophie (Amanda Seyfried from TV's Big Love) sends out three letters to three separate men whom she thinks may be her father, and invites them to her wedding. Apparently Sophie has never heard of DNA testing, so we get a lot of wacky musical hijinks as the three unassuming men arrive on the island where Sophie lives in a run-down struggling villa resort that her mother runs. Her mother is Donna (Meryl Streep), a faded pop star who is not happy to see these three men walking back into her life. The men include the charming Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), the uptight Harry Bright (Colin Firth), and the adventurous Bill (Stellan Skarsgard). The three slowly start to realize that they may or may not be Sophie's father after they each had brief affairs with Donna years apart from each other. Also on the island are the two other former members of Donna's band and her best friends, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski).

Mamma Mia has never really been a plot-heavy piece to begin with, but the movie really intensifies and emphasizes its almost complete lack of a narrative. Aside from a couple moments shared between Donna and her two friends, a lot of the characters are total bores, and not much fun to watch. Sophie's future groom, Sky (Dominic Cooper), barely has a reason for existing in the film, other than to share a duet with Sophie on "Lay All Your Love On Me". The rest of the cast is mainly reduced to standing in the background, or acting as a chorus in a song. Of the three possible dads, only Pierce Brosnan makes any sort of impression, and it's both a good and bad one. When he's playing his character and reciting his dialogue, he's perfectly fine and quite likable. When he's asked to sing, however, his voice croaks and groans as he desperately tries to stay on key with the music. It's definitely a case of an actor being cast on star power alone, rather than if he was actually right for the part. If this movie proves anything, it's that Brosnan should keep his singing in the shower, and not out in the open.

The moments where Mamma Mia does work is mainly credited to the female stars, who seem much more enthused and happy to be in this movie than the male leads do. Those who saw 1990's Postcards From the Edge, or more recently A Prairie Home Companion, know that Meryl Streep can carry a tune. While the character of Donna isn't exactly a challenging role, you can still tell that Streep is giving it her all, especially during some of her more heartfelt musical numbers like "The Winner Takes It All" late in the film. As her daughter, Amanda Seyfried is sweet, lovely to look at, and also a true talent both with her singing and her performance. Most of her work has been on television, but I think she could have a strong career in films if she wanted. Also notable are Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, who bring some much needed comic energy to the film. They get all the best lines, and although they don't really have anything to do with the plot itself, I was glad they were there, as the energy they display in their performances is infectious to the audience.

Even before I saw the movie, I kind of suspected that Mamma Mia wouldn't work the same way on the screen. On the stage, it's an interactive environment where the audience is encouraged to clap along with the songs, and even dance in the aisles at certain points. Obviously, you can't do that in a movie, though apparently the woman sitting a couple seats away from me didn't care, and decided to sing along softly with the ABBA songs anyway. The stage version was never really great theater to begin with, but it was a lot of fun, and a great little piece of escapism. The movie, aside from a couple bright spots and some catchy songs, ends up mostly being a disappointment.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Space Chimps

If I were 20 years younger, you'd be reading a very enthusiastic review of Space Chimps right about now. I'd probably still prefer The Dark Knight (provided if my parents had let me see it at that age), but I'd still be talking about how much I enjoyed the film. As an adult, I am obviously much less enthused by the film, but found myself not entirely bored while watching it. I smiled a couple times, I found the cast enthusiastic, and there's even a hint of imagination. I guess that's all anyone can hope for walking into a movie called Space Chimps.

The premise revolves around an unmanned NASA search robot being sucked into a worm hole, and ending up on a strange alien world that is inhabited by a variety of bizarre creatures. It has the misfortune of landing on the house of the planet's resident angry nut job with grand plans for global domination, the greedy Zartog (voiced by an unrecognizable Jeff Daniels). He immediately sets about using the robot's advanced technology to enslave everyone else on the planet, and proclaim himself their ruler, forcing them to build him a palace in the style of a Las Vegas hotel and casino (one of the Earth images he happens to discover stored in the computer's memory banks). Back on Earth, an oily Senator (Stanley Tucci) learns the news about the lost probe, and needs some volunteers to go up into space after it. The scientists at NASA need some guinea pigs to see if a human could survive a trip through the worm hole, and so it falls upon a trio of heroic chimps to be sent off into outer space. They include Ham III (Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg), who is the grandson of the original chimp who was sent up into orbit in the early days of the space program. He works for a circus, where his act is to be shot out of a cannon, and is taken into the space program against his will when he initially refuses. His crew on the mission include the intelligent Luna (Cheryl Hines), and the oafish Captain Titan (Patrick Warburton).

This being a family film, the monkeys obviously make it through the worm hole okay, but then find they have to survive on their own on this alien world. Now that it's under Zartog's rule, it's a much more hostile place. They befriend a strange little alien named Kilowat (Kristin Chenoweth), who the entire time she was leading them to Zartog, had me wondering if the animators had something else on their minds when they came up with her design. She's a small little flesh-colored creature with an enlarged head. The unfortunate thing is that she has a tiny little pink-colored tip on top of her head, which makes it look disturbingly like a woman's breast. At first I thought her head resembled a blown up condom, but the more I looked at it, I saw a breast. The little girl sitting next to me started staring at me when I began snickering to myself just looking at her. I simply had to apologize to the child, and hold it in from then on. I guess it goes to prove that even I cannot resist the allure of hidden unintentional (or perhaps not) sexual imagery in G-rated cartoons.

Fortunately, the rest of the adventures the brave little chimps go on didn't make me feel quite so uncomfortable. They explore dangerous jungles filled with alien snakes, they brave a cave inhabited by a giant monster, and then they have to find a way to get back home. It's quite clever how the filmmakers solve this problem. There's actually some cleverness to be found here. The jokes aren't all bad, and when one of the characters starts making monkey-related puns, at least the screenplay has the sense to call the character on it, and tell him to stop. The cast is also game, and don't sound like they're merely cashing a paycheck here. Samberg and Hines are likable as the two leading chimps, and Daniels completely disappears into his villain role, so much so that I didn't realize it was him until the end credits informed me. As far as animation goes, it's pretty low budget stuff, but it's bright and colorful and at least isn't offensive. No one will ever mistake this for Pixar, but I've seen much worse.

Space Chimps seems kind of small in scope to be on the big screen, but should do just fine on DVD as a time waster for the kids while you do stuff around the house. Plus, you won't have to explain why you laugh to yourself whenever Kilowat shows up. The movie may be nothing special, but I'd gladly take it over the uninspired Meet Dave and the gimmicky Journey to the Center of the Earth. If your kids are burned out on Wall-E and Kung Fu Panda, you could do a lot worse than this.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

If you want to see a "comic book movie", do not go see The Dark Knight. Calling it such is a great disservice to what returning co-writer/director Christopher Nolan has given us here. If you want a comic book movie, there are plenty of fine options available this summer such as Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Hellboy II. The Dark Knight is as gripping as any drama, not to mention as tense and as nerve-wracking as any thriller could hope to be. It is an intelligent and psychological crime film that has more to say about the characters who inhabit it, and a little about people in general, than just about any other film that's been released this year. The Dark Knight is not only hands-down the best movie of the summer, it is also the best film of the year so far. Believe it.

This is a very dark movie, yes, but not in the way Tim Burton gave us back in 1989 with his original take on the character. The movie is not set in some sort of twisted and dark comic book universe inhabited by brooding costumed crime fighters. The movie exists in a world that seems very real, and that's because the characters in this movie are very real. The movie does not attempt to explain its villain because he fell off a ledge into a vat of toxic chemicals. There is no explanation, actually. He is just the embodiment of anarchy, chaos, and evil. Much has been made of Heath Ledger's final performance as The Joker, and for very good reason. He is sensational, worthy of all the accolades and talk of posthumous Oscar nominations it has generated. But it wasn't just the performance that captivated me, it was the character himself. His Joker is not a villain who wants to take control of Gotham City's underworld, and he has no interest in money, despite the fact he stages a bank heist in the film's opening scene. He simply wants to see things get destroyed, people get killed, and chaos reign. There is nothing truly funny about this Joker. His few one-liners come across as deadly threats. There is no winking at the camera, and there is no "dancing with the Devil in the pale moonlight". There is simply a man who fell apart long ago for whatever reason, and he simply wants everyone else to get in on the fun, wether they want to or not.

As for Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale), he is dealing with the legacy he has created with his caped alter ego. Imitators are starting to pop up throughout the city, and the criminal underworld has been left licking its wounds, wondering how they are supposed to deal with this "bat". The new D.A., Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), has decided to take on the crime world head-on, and Bruce is starting to wonder if maybe Dent can be the knight in shining armor that Gotham truly needs. After all, his private nightlife of being a costumed vigilante is starting to take its toll on him personally and professionally. His public image is one of a cocky millionaire without a care in the world, and always with a beautiful woman (a different one for each public function, or sometimes more than one) attached to his arm. But privately, he wonders just how much good he is actually doing, despite the reassurances of his closest allies Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), and Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman). This is a theme that has been covered in many superhero films, where the hero starts to doubt what he is truly doing, but The Dark Knight takes it one step further by truly letting us into the world and fears of the man behind the mask. Let's just say there's a reason why this is the first Batman movie not to have the character's name in the title.

Bruce Wayne is no longer the secondary figure to the costumed crime fighter, who exists simply to provide a thinly developed love story. This is how he was treated in most of the past films. Here, he is the central focus, even when he is under the cape and cowl. The Dark Knight allows us to make the connection between the man and the bat, and because of this, it allows us to see so many sides of him. He is arrogant, he is protective of himself, and most of all, he longs for what he cannot have. The main person to fall under this category is Rachel, the returning female lead from Batman Begins. In that film, she was played by Katie Holmes, but here, she is portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. In my mind, the casting change is the best thing that could have happened to the character. Gyllenhaal holds herself up better in the role, and grabs our attention almost from the second she walks on screen. Much of her character revolves around the fact that she is dating Harvey Dent, while at the same time, obviously still holding feelings for Bruce. The way that the movie ends up making her more than just a piece in a love triangle subplot is challenging, and quite literally unexpected.

The Dark Knight is loaded with more than its share of thrilling action sequences that are beautifully staged, choreographed and edited. And yet, it wasn't just the action that had me grasping the arm of my theater seat. There is an unflinching sense of tension this movie is able to create. The major characters in this film, and the events they find themselves in, really are like a giant ticking time bomb. Some welcome it, such as the chaotic Joker, and some do their best to fight it, such as Harvey Dent, who tries his best to keep his composure and his status of a gallant and untarnished knight. Those who are even remotely familiar with the Batman universe, or those who saw 1995's Batman Forever, know Dent's fate before they even enter the theater. But the way Nolan handles it here is truly mesmerizing. Eckhart makes Harvey out to be a real person fighting the darkness within him and around him. He believes in his public image, and tries his best to maintain it at all times in his life. But he is also a man who is ruled by chance and luck. What he becomes is ultimately more terrifying than anything filmmaker Joel Schumacher could have dreamed up in Forever.

To accompany the mounting sense of tension and madness is the brilliant music score by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer. This is not your traditional "heroic" movie score. It is a score of building dread, one that is almost as out of control as the characters who inhabit the film itself. Shying away from the brooding and almost dream-like feel of Danny Elfman's memorable scores to the first two films, the music here is quiet, unassuming, and downright menacing. It does what a music score should do, which is to accompany the images, without drawing attention to itself. It's just one more thing in a long list of many that The Dark Knight does right. This is the kind of film that can truly transport you. You believe that the characters up on the screen are real, you forget the tragic passing of Ledger and simply focus on the character, and you are spellbound. This is not just me trying to find the words to describe the experience, either. I truly felt while I was watching the film that I was seeing another world being revealed up on the screen. It does this simply by captivating us with its characters, its story, and a truly white-knuckle climax that brings the nature of humanity into question.

There are a lot of times where I find myself watching a movie, and smiling, thinking to myself that I am enjoying it. This never happened with The Dark Knight, and yes, that is a complement. I was too wrapped up in everything to care what I thought about it. All I knew is that I was watching something truly special. That's really what this movie is. With its roots in film noir, the Batman franchise has always had the potential to be an unforgettable piece of crime fiction. Here, for the first time, is a movie that fulfills that promise.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth

It shocks me that the original Jurassic Park movie is now 15 years old, and some recent films still can't match its technical wizardry. Journey to the Center of the Earth gives us a dinosaur, carnivorous plants, oversized prehistoric fish, and something that looks like a glow-in-the-dark bluebird. But none of these effects look remotely realistic when combined with the human actors. They actually don't look very convincing in the first place, and look like they'd be more at home in your Xbox 360. If that was the only knock against Journey, I could look past that, but the movie is also gimmicky and quite pointless to boot.

Despite the title, the film is not actually an adaptation of the classic Jules Verne adventure story, although the book does play a big part in the plot. College professor and scientist, Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser), lost his brother a little over ten years ago. It seems that the brother was an adventurer who believed that the stories told in the classic novel were true, and devoted his life to discovering the secret underground world that Verne wrote about. Trevor's 13-year-old nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) comes to visit, and barely five minutes pass before the two are on a flight to Iceland after deciphering a key riddle that the brother had written down in his copy of the book. The fact that the two are off on a globe-trotting adventure before the kid has time to unload his stuff kind of tells you early on that pacing is going to be a key problem here. Shortly after arriving, the two befriend and hire a young guide named Hannah (Anita Briem), who leads them to a volcanic cave. It's here that they discover the legendary world beneath the Earth's surface, and go on a wild theme park-inspired adventure where they dodge ancient beasts, and fly across rickety old mine tracks.

Journey to the Center of the Earth was designed to be viewed in digital 3D. Unfortunately, it seems that the format is not catching on quite as quickly as the filmmakers originally intended, so many theaters are showing it in standard 2D. That's how I saw the film, and when you take away its central and sole gimmick, the movie pretty much falls apart. It's especially annoying during the film's early sequences, where the actors keep on turning directly to the camera, and throwing things at the screen that are supposed to jump out at you. In the first 10 minutes alone, the camera is assaulted by the studio logo and opening credits, a tape measure, a yo-yo, some plastic balls, and even the water that Brendan Fraser spits out after brushing his teeth. I obviously cannot vouch for the effectiveness of the film's 3D, but I imagine this approach would grow tiresome and contrived after a while. Since all this visual trickery is pretty much lost on the 2D version, we're left to just sit and wait for the plot to kick in. Like I said, it doesn't take long for our heroes to go off and running, but even then, the screenplay credited to no less than three different writers becomes depressingly shallow.

That's because it treats this other world the heroes stumble upon as a thrill ride, or perhaps a video game. The characters barely have time to register that they've discovered a lost civilization before they're falling down seemingly-endless pits, leaping across run away mine carts, escaping from stampeding beasts, and other such obstacles. Having seen Hellboy II right before I saw this film, the contrast between the two were as different as night and day. Hellboy is a wondrous and inventive film filled with imagination, and it actually seemed interested in the sights and worlds it had to show us. This movie has no time to slow down and admire its wonders. It's too busy thinking up more thrills that never really end up being all that thrilling, and having things fly at the camera so that audiences can say to themselves, "I bet that would look cool if I was actually watching this in 3D...". The movie seems to have been written solely around its central gimmick. Instead of an actual screenplay, they've given us a 90 minute technical demo that only certain audiences get to enjoy.

And yet, even if I was watching the movie the way it was intended to be seen, I think I would still be bored. Journey is never as exciting as it seems to think it is, and it just can't seem to figure out why we're supposed to care about anything we're seeing. This is a one-trick movie that is detached at every single emotional level. The lead characters are paper thin, and exist simply to run around and throw "clever" one-liners at each other. Brendan Fraser and young Josh Hutcherson are both actors that I have enjoyed and greatly admired in other films, but this movie doesn't let them slow down long enough to give actual performances. In fact, there's an unintentionally comical scene where Hutcherson is forced to jump across a series of floating platforms suspended in mid-air. Watching this, I couldn't help but think that all this scene needed was some coins magically suspended in mid-air, and we'd have a pretty fair live action recreation of a level from a Super Mario Bros. game.

Journey to the Center of the Earth plays like one of those short 3D films you see at Disney World. The big difference is that those only run 20 minutes tops, whereas this lasts just a little over 90 minutes. Strip away the 3D as well, and you have something that probably shouldn't be playing on as many screens as it is. Even as a gimmick movie, this doesn't really cut it. There needs to be a reason for the gimmick in the first place, and this movie wants us to be impressed with the same visual trick over and over again. With digital 3D expected to grow in the coming years, I can only hope that this serves as a template for future filmmakers of what not to do.

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Hellboy II: The Golden Army

2004's Hellboy left me feeling somewhat cold. It wasn't that I thought it was a bad movie, it just never captivated me the way I thought it should. I liked the character, I liked the idea behind it, I liked Ron Perlman in the title role, and I really wanted to like the movie. Maybe Hellboy II: The Golden Army caught me in a better mood, or maybe the sequel really is just that much better of a movie. All I know is that this is an extremely enthralling action film, and is what I wanted the first movie to be.

Hellboy II contains a lot of things I go to the movies for. It's visually stunning in a way I haven't seen in any other movie this year so far. It's also funny, imaginative, heartfelt, and exciting as hell. Returning writer-director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) seems to be running on all cylinders here. He's raised the stakes from the first film, and he's also opened the floodgates to his vivid imagination to create some of the most wondrous creatures and sights to hit the screen. This is a movie that offers something new or exciting to see in almost every scene. More than just a visual wonder, this is a movie with genuine characters inhabiting the effects-filled worlds that it shows us. With his soft spot for kittens, Baby Ruth candy bars, and a genuine desire just to be accepted in a world that sees him as an outcast, Hellboy is a much easier superhero to identify with than say The Incredible Hulk or Batman.

For those of you who don't remember the original film, or have never read the comic book series by Mike Mignola, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is a demon who was brought into our world when the Nazis tried to open a gateway between Earth and the demonic realm during the height of World War II. The gate was closed, but the demon (only an infant at the time) had managed to get left behind. He was adopted by the US military, and has since been living amongst us in secrecy. He now works for a top secret government organization that fights an underground war to keep the peace between the humans, the monsters, and the many other mythical creatures that exist. His allies in battle are the aquatic Abe Sapian (Doug Jones), his human love interest Liz (Selma Blair), who has the ability to generate and manipulate flames, and newcomer Johann Krauss (voice by Seth McFarlane from TV's Family Guy), who is a cloud of ectoplasmic gas living in a mechanical body. The head of the agency, Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), is always trying to keep their exploits and battles under wraps, but Hellboy's desire to live out in the open amongst the humans frequently causes problems, such as when the demon pauses for publicity shots.

As the film opens, the delicate treaty that keeps the peace and separates the various worlds is on the verge of being broken when the elf prince Nuada (Luke Goss) grows tired of the greedy and ignorant ways of the humans who live on the surface world. He overthrows and murders his father, the king, and plans to combine the three pieces of an ancient crown that, when assembled, can revive the Golden Army, an unstoppable army of mechanical soldiers that were sealed away long ago. His sister, Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), manages to escape with the last piece of the crown her brother needs to summon the Army, but finds it hard to stay ahead of him, since they share a psychic bond together. Hellboy and his team eventually track her down, and must now fight to protect her and the balance that separates the human world from the hidden fantasy worlds.

Hellboy II is definitely a lot better balanced and much more fun than its predecessor. If the original was the set up, than this is the one where it all comes together. The pacing is tighter, the humor is funnier and much better timed, the scope of the film with its heavy influence of fantasy and mythology is much broader, and the action sequences definitely blow away anything that was attempted the first time around. The film's opening action sequence, where Hellboy and his squad must fend off hundreds of carnivorous "tooth fairies" (little winged demons that eat the calcium in your teeth before they devour your entire body), is intense and a lot of fun to watch. It's also a good sign of what's to come, as the imagination only grows from there. The film's key imaginative moment comes when the heroes must visit an underground marketplace and city for monsters. The various creatures on display in this scene alone are astonishing, and pretty much made me think this is what George Lucas had in mind when he did his alien canteena scene in the original Star Wars movie. The effects are mostly physical, using puppetry and costumes whenever possible, and the CG that is used never seems glaringly obvious or intrusive. It certainly gives the worlds and creatures an organic and believable quality to them.

More than that, its what goes on behind the creatures that fascinated me the most. Despite his appearance, Hellboy longs to be like everyone else. He regularly files his horns down to tiny stubs in a vain attempt to appear slightly more normal, and he frequently has domestic squabbles with his live-in girlfriend, Liz. Ron Perlman obviously has a great amount of respect for the character, and tries to make him as human as possible, while still making him come across as a badass destructive force in battle. Selma Blair has more to do this time around, and her character seems much stronger and more confident here. Her secret that she has been keeping from Hellboy, which we learn early on, should provide an interesting plot development should Hellboy III be on the way. We also learn some information late in the film via a prophecy that has me literally jumping for more. (Del Toro is currently slated for a Doctor Strange movie, followed up by The Hobbit.) The same goes for Abe Sapian, who is much more fleshed out this time around, and even gets a touch of tragedy to his character. Of the new characters, the elven siblings who drive the plot come across the strongest, and are much more than simply a "villain" and a "damsel in distress", respectively. The bond between them plays a large part in the story, and it's handled in a mature fashion.

If there is any fault to be found in Hellboy II, it is that its climax seems somewhat rushed and surprisingly sloppy, with some last minute decisions by certain characters that had me wondering why they didn't just go ahead and do these things in the first place. Still, for a majority of its nearly two hour running time, this is one of the most imaginative films I've seen this year, and definitely the best comic book movie to come along this summer since Iron Man. With the growing and deafening buzz surrounding July 18th's The Dark Knight, I'm almost surprised it can get better than this. (Of course, I am trying my best to keep expectations in check, so I can write an honest review.) That being said, Hellboy II is everything the original should have been, and I have much more respect for del Toro's vision for this budding franchise. This is one of those rare times that I'm hoping the opening weekend numbers are big enough to get another sequel greenlit come Monday morning.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Meet Dave

The funniest thing about Meet Dave is that one of the credited screenwriters is Bill Corbett. Corbett was one of the head writers and stars of the 90s cult hit TV show devoted to bad movies, Mystery Science Theater 3000. Seeing his name here makes me think he still had bad movies on the brain when he wrote this uninspired and dull family comedy about tiny aliens coming to Earth. Take away the big budget and the name star above the title, and this movie would be right at home on the show he used to work on, and would be rightfully ridiculed.

Meet Dave reunites Eddie Murphy with his Norbit director, Brian Robbins. The good news is that this is a vast improvement over their last collaboration. The bad news is that's not saying much. As is usual in his recent films, Murphy plays a dual role. He plays the Captain of a race of microscopic intergalactic travelers who have come to Earth to save their far off world. He also plays their vessel, a giant robot/spaceship that looks and talks exactly like the Captain. The aliens pilot the robot from within, trying to fit in with human society, as they seek an orb that belongs to them and crashed on Earth three months ago. The orb is designed to destroy the Earth so that their planet can live by "borrowing" our world's resources. But, shortly after arriving on Earth, the aliens befriend a single mom named Gina (Elizabeth Banks) and her young son, Josh (Austin Myers), who discovered the orb when it initially crashed, and has been holding onto it ever since. The more time that the Captain and his crew spend around the humans, the more interested they become in our society, and begin to doubt their own mission.

Take that bare bones premise, and stretch it to the breaking point of 90 minutes, and you pretty much have the movie right there. To call Meet Dave padded is an understatement. The movie kind of sits there, unsure of what to do with itself. It throws in some subplots, such as a pair of cops who suspect that "Dave" (the name the giant robot the aliens pilot goes by) is not from around here, and a concerned neighbor of Gina's, but does absolutely nothing with its own material. It sets it up, and then forgets about it, so it can focus on more uninspired antics by Murphy and his co-stars. Not even the plots amongst the aliens themselves are developed to any real degree. There's a shy relationship between the Captain and a fellow crew member (Gabrielle Union), the crew's weapons specialist discovers he's gay after watching only 10 seconds of a Broadway musical, just so the movie can throw in some tired "flaming" stereotype humor (which seems very out of place in a movie targeted at kids), and the ship's second in command (The Daily Show's Ed Helms) stages a mutiny when he fears that the Captain is too interested in the Earthlings, and has forgotten the mission. In any other movie, these could have been workable storylines (okay, probably not the one about the weapons specialist...), but here they're just thrown about the plot at random, and genuinely ignored.

Meet Dave is quite literally a crashing bore. I was sitting there, seeing all this money thrown up on the screen, and I had to wonder what anyone saw in this project. It does not want to entertain, it does not want to inspire, and despite its imaginative premise, it does not want to be original. Say you were assigned with the task of writing a comedy about tiny aliens coming to Earth in a giant robot body to study us. Think of the possibilities and imagination such a premise would inspire. Would those possibilities you come up with include Murphy literally shooting money out of his rear end (and later hot dogs)? Would they include Murphy singing the Bee Gee's "Staying Alive" in a goofy voice for no reason? Would they include product placements for Old Navy? This is a commercially bankrupt film that did not have a single thought put into it, aside from how the filmmakers could make this as bland and lifeless as possible. And yes, I do think this was intentional. At one point maybe, this was a creative and witty concept, and maybe even a real screenplay. Then some studio heads got a hold of it, and tried to dumb it down as much as possible. The end result is a movie that will most likely already be gone before August hits. (Judging by how vacant my screening was.)

The summer movie season of 2008 has been one of the strongest in recent memory, so there's absolutely no reason for anyone to waste their time with Meet Dave. Kids will be bored, and adults will spend a majority of their time looking at their watches as the minutes slowly tick by. When it's done, you walk out a little bit sadder, and with a little less money in your wallet. No one needs that, and no one needs this movie. Murphy's career has survived much worse films (Norbit and Pluto Nash, anyone?), but if this is the best material he can find, he needs a good long vacation.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl

Although I cannot fully recommend Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, I do have to admit up front, it is made with much more skill and care than I would have expected. The film is admirable, sweet natured, and certainly watchable, just not very engaging. Still, I do have to give credit to director Patricia Rozema and screenwriter Ann Peacock (Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) for not shying away from the harsh undertones of its Great Depression setting. Compare this to the last kids movie set during the Depression, the forgettable animated film, Everyone's Hero, which made the era seem like a rollicking good time with singing hobos and wisecracking comic sidekicks. Kit Kittredge is definitely a step up.

Set in 1934, 10-year-old Kit (Abigail Breslin) has only one dream - to be a freelance reporter for the local newspaper, and to impress its curmudgeonly editor, Mr. Gibson (Wallace Shawn). All around her, the nation's problems are starting to present themselves when she starts seeing the bank foreclosing on the homes of some of her friends at school. It hits home even deeper when Kit volunteers at a soup kitchen for a school project, and sees her dad, Jack (Chris O'Donnell), waiting in line for his daily bread. It seems that the car dealer he used to work for has gone under, and now he has to travel to Chicago to look for work. Hoping to make ends meet, Kit's mother (Julia Ormond) starts renting rooms out of their house to local boarders that need a place to stay. Soon, the Kittredge home is crawling with a variety of people from different walks of life, including a magician named Jefferson Berk (Stanley Tucci), a spirited dance instructor (Jane Krakowski), and a ditzy bookmobile lady (Joan Cusack). When a string of robberies start popping up throughout the neighborhood, everyone suspects the two young hobos who are working at the Kittredge house as hired help - Will (Max Thieriot) and Countee (Willow Smith). Kit thinks otherwise, and with the aid of her two friends, Ruthie (Madison Davenport) and Stirling (Zach Mills), she's determined to solve the mystery.

There is a certain gentleness and maturity to Kit Kittredge that is certainly admirable in this day and age of family films that emphasize bathroom humor and celebrity talent over genuine story telling. Despite being based on a popular doll line for young girls, you can tell that the filmmakers were first and foremost interested in making a movie that intelligent kids around the main character's age would enjoy, and that parents would not find torturous to sit through. The movie is attractively shot, does not whitewash over its own subject matter or talk down to kids, and features some genuinely fine performances all around. Abigail Breslin once again proves herself as one of the finest young actors working today, and makes young Kit into a spirited and likable young girl that kids can look up to, and adults won't find cloying or annoying. The adult actors wisely don't play up their performances, simply because they're in a movie for kids. The movie is grounded somewhat in reality, and although its lead heroine gets involved with solving a local crime wave, the movie wisely does not stretch the realms of believability too much. Kit and her friends remain real children throughout, and don't go off doing stuff that an actual kid couldn't conceivably do.

While there is certainly a lot to admire on a technical level, the film itself is held back by the simple reason that there's just not much to get excited about here. The plight of the hobos being wrongfully persecuted against because of what they are is touched on throughout the film, but never fully developed as much as it should be, since it plays a central role in the storyline. That being said, when the true identities of the thieves are revealed, they hardly seem like a real problem. These characters, who were portrayed as fairly reasonable adults up until that point, suddenly turn into incompetent bunglers who run around, waving their arms like cartoon characters. To be fair, we are spared a Home Alone-style sequence where the kids set up a trap for the thieves, which I feared the movie was headed for once Kit and her friends started following after the villains. This whole sequence is followed up by a forced and contrived conclusion where each and every person needed to wrap up any open-ended storyline literally comes walking in through Kit's door one after another. It's phony and artificial, and betrays any sense of realism the movie may have built up to that point.

I think I enjoyed watching Kit Kittredge more than I enjoyed following the story. At the very least, as flawed as it is, it feels like an actual movie rather than a promotional tie-in for a line of dolls and books. It's also an infinitely more enjoyable experience than the last attempt to make a movie off of a doll line, last year's insufferable Bratz. (Then again, experiencing violent nausea could be argued as an infinitely more enjoyable experience than Bratz...) Young children, especially girls, are sure to find a lot to like here. Adults will smile, find the experience pleasant enough, and then pretty much forget about it as soon as the credits start to roll.

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