Reel Opinions

Saturday, April 25, 2009


I can't believe I'm saying this, but Obsessed just isn't trashy enough. You've seen the ad campaign, the one built around Beyonce Knowles and Ali Larter having a knock-down, drag-out catfight that ends up trashing a house. It promises a movie that couldn't possibly be good, but might be enjoyably campy in the right hands. We have to wait a long time for that scene to come, and everything that comes before it is pretty average at best. I expected a lot of things from Obsessed. Mediocrity was not one of them.

The screenplay by David Loughery (Lakeview Terrace) is cut from the same cloth as similar domestic psycho thrillers like Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, Swimfan, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Just like those films, it starts with a person who seemingly has it all. The person this time is Derek (Idris Elba). He's a high ranking person at the company he works for (we never learn what his company does or makes, it's just one of those generic movie office buildings), he's got a beautiful wife named Sharon (Beyonce Knowles), a cute toddler son, and a new house. It doesn't take long for "the other woman" to show up. As is the case with these films, this character is supposed to seem innocent enough at first, but slowly become mentally unhinged and show their true psychotic colors. The "other woman" is Lisa (Ali Larter), a temp filling in for Derek's assistant who's sick with the flu. Lisa seems harmless enough at first, but we've seen the trailers, so we know what's coming. All we need is for Derek to make that fateful mistake that will send the "other woman" spiraling into scene-chewing madness.

Derek makes that mistake when he comforts Lisa over a recent break up, telling her that if he were single, he would date her. This causes Lisa to throw herself upon him in the restroom during the office Christmas party. He rejects her, but the girl just won't take the hint. She follows him to his car in the parking garage, wearing nothing but her undergarments underneath a trenchcoat, she sends sexy photos of herself to Derek's computer over e-mail, she drugs his drink so she can force herself upon him while he's unconscious, she even goes so far as to break into his house. The movie keeps on coming up with contrived reasons for Derek to keep his mouth shut, so his wife won't know what's going on. She finally does find out eventually, and we get a domestic drama with Derek being kicked out of his own house and trying to patch things back up with Sharon. This plot takes up too much time and brings the movie to a near stand-still, since the psycho stalker temp all but disappears from the movie while this is going on.

If you've seen the trailer for Obsessed, then you've already seen the movie, since it literally shows every major thing that happens. It even shows the ending. In a way, I guess it saves the average theater patron some money and a lot of time. But what about us poor schmucks who review these movies? All we get is some popcorn, maybe some soda, and something that takes almost two hours to tell the exact same story that the trailer told in under three minutes. The movie doesn't really try to stand out, so it never really rises to being good or lowers itself to being truly awful. Maybe this is due to the fact that this is director Steve Shill's first theatrical effort, after working entirely in television for over 10 years. The movie needed the hand of someone who specializes in these kind of exploitive sex thrillers and knows how to make them fun. This movie takes itself too seriously, and never goes far enough.

When it does decide to finally throw caution to the wind and give us what we want, it arrives too late to make a true impact. The audience at my screening seemed to be getting a huge kick out of the heavily hyped catfight, yelling at the screen and cheering, but I was left feeling disappointed. Not just because I had already seen most of it in the trailer, but also because it comes across as being manipulative instead of rewarding. That the movie had been fairly mundane up to that point, then it suddenly decides to give us this all-out no-holds-barred craziness, felt like a cheap gimmick on the part of the filmmakers. It would have been more fitting if the rest of the movie had been just as insane. Anyone who tells you they didn't mind sitting through the domestic family squabbles before getting to this moment is lying to you and themselves.

Fun Fact: According to the IMDB, the original title for Obsessed was going to be "Oh No She Didn't". Not only is this a much better title, I'd love to see what kind of ad campaign could have been made around it. And just imagine how fun it would be to say the title to the person at the ticket window. If the makers of this movie actually preferred Obsessed to that title, then that probably explains where a lot of this movie's problems stem from.

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I don't remember the last time I have been this detached and felt this impersonal about a movie before. Fighting is a movie that's barely there, and hardly manages to generate anything resembling an emotion in its entire running time. The movie wants to tell the story of a young street hustler with a hard-knock life and past who manages to finally get respect by participating in illegal underground street fights. Problem is, the movie doesn't even seem to care. Not about the characters, not what they want, and strangest of all, not even about the fighting. If the movie were any more empty, there would be nothing to project onto the screen.

The film's hero is Shawn McArthur (Channing Tatum). While selling bootleg iPods and Harry Potter books on a street corner in the opening scene, he comes across two people who will change his life. The first is a woman named Zulay (Zulay Henao), who buys one of the bootleg books from him and will later become his love interest. The other is a fellow street hustler named Harvey Boarden (Terrance Howard). Harvey witnesses Shawn's fighting skills, and ends up introducing him to the world of underground street fighting, where a great sum of money can be made. With Harvey acting as his manager, Shawn quickly rises through the ranks of the fighting circuit. Perhaps a compelling narrative could have been crafted from such a bare bones premise, but director and co-writer Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) has crafted such a plodding and inert film that it's impossible to care about anything. We don't even care about Shawn, since all we ever learn about him is he once beat up his dad back in college. This is used to fuel a rivalry with a fellow fighter who knows about Shawn's past, but it just doesn't work because the rival fighter barely has anything to do with the movie in the first place other than to get beat up at the end.

It would be one thing if Fighting came across as cliched or if it just seemed to be going through the paces. This movie doesn't have a pace. Or seemingly a pulse. It treats everything and everyone who enters the movie with the same level of indifference. The plot isn't there, the characters are largely interchangeable, and we learn so little about everything that's happening that nothing ever seems to matter. You'd think the movie would have the decency to tell us a little bit about the world of underground street fighting. How did these things get started? Why are there so many people involved? And how can they have these things in public (including inside convenience stores) without having the entire New York police force on their asses in a matter of seconds? The movie simply uses the world of these fights as a backdrop for a string of action sequences that could be counted on one hand total, and seem to be over in less than three minutes. The fact that Shawn never seems to be in any real danger of losing any fight he participates in certainly kills any tension these sequences might have tried to create.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Fast and Furious and referred to it as "vapor". I now realize that I used that criticism too early. Fighting goes beyond being vapor to the point that it almost seems like a mirage. It leaves no impact whatsoever, has nothing to recommend for it, and simply seems like a giant waste of energy. I'm not talking about the actors up on the screen when I say this. I'm talking about the energy the theater uses to run the projector.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

The Soloist

Originally set to be released in the fall so it could hopefully earn some Award nominations, The Soloist is instead being dumped at the end of April. More specific, it's landing exactly one week before the summer movie season officially kicks off, meaning it doesn't stand a chance at the box office. Normally, this would spell trouble, but when you think about it, it probably wouldn't have stood much of a chance in the fall either up against such heavyweights like Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire. Despite two electric lead performances, The Soloist is laid back and kind of wandering in its storytelling, but not in a bad way. If the movie doesn't quite reach the greatness it desires, it's certainly not due to a lack of effort by the cast and director Joe Wright.

Wright, you'll recall, is best known for British period films like Atonement and Pride and Prejudice. He switches gears here, telling the story of real life Los Angeles Times columnist, Steve Lopez, and the strange relationship he struck up with a homeless Julliard drop out named Nathaniel Ayers. The film is based on Lopez's autobiographical novel, and although a few details have been changed (in the movie, he's divorced, but he's married in real life), the movie more or less follows what happened. Lopez is played in the movie by Robert Downey Jr, and he brings the right note to the character. He does not portray Steve as a saint, even though he is helping out this homeless man who is suffering from a mental illness that has prevented him from truly using his musical gifts to the success he used to dream of as a young man. Steve Lopez seems to be the kind of guy who specializes in destroying his closest personal relationships. He still talks to his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), but we get the sense it's mainly because they both work at the same paper. As his relationship with Nathaniel deepens, and he begins to realize that he is all Nathaniel has, he doesn't seem to know what to do. He played the Good Samaritan, hoping to get some articles out of the guy, but he didn't seem to expect an actual friendship.

Steve first meets Nathaniel when he sees him playing a violin with only two strings underneath a statue of Beethoven in a park. As played by Jamie Foxx, Nathaniel is a man suffering from schizophrenia. His mind seems to move at a mile a second, his mouth barely managing to keep up with the thoughts entering his head, so much of his speech comes out as a jumbled collection of statements, observations, and random musings that fly one after another. He mentions to Steve that he once studied at Julliard until his mental illness completely overtook his talents and destroyed his life. After doing some digging to see if the story checks out, Steve writes a column about Nathaniel, which becomes an instant hit with readers. One reader even mails a new instrument to Steve's office for Nathaniel to play. As the two spend more time together, Steve truly starts to understand the world Nathaniel comes from. He sees the world of the homeless first hand, and also sees just how far detached from reality Nathaniel can be. Sometimes, he comes across as intelligent and intellectual as a scholar, but often, he is as scared and confused about the world around him as a young child.

If Downey's performance as Steve is gritty and uncompromising, then it is Foxx's performance that truly resonates. This is a natural portrayal, never once coming across as scripted or calculated. He does not play up Nathaniel's quirks, nor does he try to make him "loveable". He is a man ravaged by disembodied voices that only he can hear, and by his own mental shutdown. In flashbacks, we witness the young Nathaniel's mental fall, and his performance here is truly terrifying, as he can't seem to explain to himself what is happening. We witness his confusion, his fear, and it allows him to sympathize with him without sugarcoating his condition or simplifying it like in some movies dealing with characters suffering from mental illness. (A Beautiful Mind springs to memory.) It is the performances of Downey and Foxx, and the chemistry they share, that gives The Soloist its effortless charm while we watch it. They are both realistic individuals, and we can sense the uneasy bond that grows between them. Usually when actors do dramas about illness, there is a tendency to get mawkish or overly sentimental. Both of the actors here never let this happen, and it helps add to the realism of the film.

Another plus is the film's sense to steer away from cheap sentiment or manipulation. The movie is frequently gritty and very real. So real, in fact, that the people inhabiting the scenes set in the homeless shelters and slum neighborhoods are not actors. They are real people of the street, and when they tell their stories, it hits home. Director Wright also throws in some stylized touches, such as a beautiful sequence when Nathaniel is listening to a live concert, closes his eyes, and we see flashes of bold colors representing the music against a black background. It's equally a touching and stunning moment. Its moments like this that hint at the greatness the movie strives for, but the screenplay by Susanah Grant (Erin Brokovich, Catch and Release) never quite keeps its momentum going when it steps away from the two lead characters. The supporting characters are well performed, but not as strong as they should be. There's a subplot concerning Nathaniel's sister (who has no idea what's become of her brother until Steve gets in touch with her) that never resonates as strong as it should. Likewise, Catherine Keener as Lopez' ex-wife never seems to come into her own. Also, for all the movie's realism, it can't help but throw in a couple sentimental moments that ring false. A scene that tracks birds taking flight while Nathaniel plays a lovely classical piece seems forced in its imagery, and the closing sequence depicting the characters dancing to music for no reason seems tacked on and pointless.

It's the uneven tone that ultimately holds The Soloist back from the movie it's trying to be. This is a very good movie, but you get the sense that with a little more effort, it could have been great. You think back fondly on the stuff that works, but don't remember a lot of the stuff that came in-between. It's a mixed work, but a strong one thanks to the performances of Downey and Foxx. It's also the second movie in a row that I've seen (after last weekend's State of Play) that's voiced frustration over the printed newspaper losing ground to electronic media. It's always a worthy message, and one that I was happy to see again.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Spliced together from footage taken from the BBC and Discovery Channel's Planet Earth TV mini series, Disney's Earth is more or less a 90 minute run through of the acclaimed TV show's stunning nature footage. Consider it the CliffsNotes version. There's a new narrator for the theatrical version (James Earl Jones) and due to the time constraints, the movie can seem a little disjointed as it jumps from one topic to the next. But there's no denying that the majestic images of nature and wildlife look all the more grand on the big screen, and make it worth the ticket price.

Let it be known that Earth the movie is no substitution for Planet Earth the series. The film is a much simplified take (most likely to appeal to young children), and has been censored. Whenever a predator attacks, we see the stalking and the initial pounce and attack, but then the movie cuts away. The best nature films always show both the beauty and cruelty of the wild, and the fact that the movie sidesteps the simple fact that life is a struggle for many animals makes the movie seem curiously uneven. We therefore often find ourselves marveling at the footage, but not as engaged as we should be. It also doesn't help that the narration by Jones is often cartoonish, and tries to humanize the animals. When we see a rainforest bird doing a mating dance for another bird, we hear Jones chime in on the soundtrack with "Time to get down!", which kind of takes us out of the experience. The movie is at its best when its letting us enjoy the footage without the voice over walking us through.

And yet, I cannot deny the power of the scenes on display. Though clearly edited to follow a loose narrative, Earth is a visual wonder, and never once feels like a TV show that's been blown up on the big screen. (A worry I initially had walking in.) The film takes us to different corners of the world, following various "families" as they try to survive in an ever-changing world. In the arctic, a mother polar bear takes her two cubs out into the world for the first time, while their father treks across the harsh land, looking for food. A herd of elephants make their way across the dry desert lands seeking water, while avoiding lions and the threat of exhaustion and dehydration. Finally, a pair of humpback whales make their way across the seas to Antarctica. We witness the struggles of their survival, with the story of the polar bear father and his quest for food being the most memorable and poignant, as he must overcome prematurely melting ice. The ultimate outcome of his story is also the film's most effectively emotional moment.

There is plenty of footage unrelated to the three central stories, and this is when the film is at its best. When the narrator goes silent, and the movie just lets us marvel at the footage, we're captivated. We feel like we're actually watching the intended footage, instead of something that's been spliced and edited together to create a narrative. The music score by George Fenton compliments the footage beautifully, and we can enjoy the movie for what it is. There are a wide variety of animals on display during these scenes, some of them far too brief. I guess this is understandable given the circumstances, but I still found myself wanting more. To its credit, the film's environmental message is obvious, yet subtle. While I was not a fan of Jones' narration, he at least does not hit us over the head with environmental guilt.

For all of its faults and questionable editing, Earth is still an experience. If anything, the movie is certain to open a lot of eyes to the world around them. I certainly was looking at my surroundings differently as I was walking home from the movie. So, I guess on that level, it works. Kids are almost certain to love it, and adults will find themselves awed at times. After seeing this movie, however, I only hope they track down the original mini series on DVD, so they can see the film as it was meant to be seen.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Crank: High Voltage

As the ending credits start to roll for Crank: High Voltage, there is a sequence that plays that seems to hint at a third film. As the thought of another sequel entered my head, the first question I had to ask myself was what could writers-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor possibly do that they haven't done in the first two Crank films? Both are experiments in "everything but the kitchen sink"-style action filmmaking. There's a paper-thin plot to drive the action, but mostly, the movies are about squeezing as many bizarre and frantic images into a roughly 90 minute time frame. The first movie worked, and I guess this one does, too. It just lacks the freshness of the original, since we've seen it before, and I kept on getting the sense that Neveldine and Taylor were constantly trying to top themselves and were maybe trying too hard.

If you'll recall, 2006's Crank told the story of a hitman named Chev Chelios (Jason Statham), who woke up one morning to find that he had been injected with a toxic poison, and was going to die unless he found a way to keep himself going. That film followed Chev as he raced around the city, trying to keep himself moving, and taking out his enemies in the process. He found his revenge, but the movie also ended with him dying as he fell from a helicopter, smashed into a car, bounced off of it, and crashed on the pavement. In High Voltage, Chev somehow survived, and as soon as he hit the street, he was literally scraped off the pavement by some Asian criminals with a giant spatula. He wakes up in a seedy hospital, and discovers his heart's been removed from his body and replaced with an artificial one that needs to be constantly charged up with a battery box. Before the criminals can harvest any more of his organs and sell them on the Black Market, Chev escapes, and goes on another madcap, blood-soaked romp through the city, trying to find different ways to keep his artificial heart charged up and pumping until he can find the person who has his real one.

That's pretty much all you need to know, and all you get here. Chev meets some new faces, like an obnoxious Asian prostitute (Bai Ling) who sees him as her hero after he saves her from an unsavory customer, and refuses to leave him alone during his search. He also encounters some old ones, like his girlfriend from the first film (Amy Smart), who is now working as a stripper and is surprised to see Chev alive. The plot is the last thing on this movie's mind, however. It's a literal assault on the senses as images flash across the screen, different film styles are thrown in (everything from video game animation to an out of the blue tribute to cheesy Japanese monster movies), random flashbacks that either tie into the first movie or seem to just be thrown in on a lark, and the movie just keeps on piling on as many ideas as it can. Even the cameos this movie throws at us seem to be completely off the wall. Can you think of any other mainstream movie that features porn star Ron Jeremy and former 80s icon Corey Haim in minor roles?

It's useless to talk about the performances here. Everybody just goes with it, which is the way it really should be in a movie like this. It's admirable that the cast go into some of the more off the wall scenes (such as when Chev and his girlfriend must have sex in public on a horse race track in order to keep his heart going) head on, and seemingly without any hesitation. The movie's random and frantic pace is matched only by its surprisingly sly sense of humor. There are some truly funny moments, such as a series of newscasts that pop up now and then detailing Chev's destructive dash through the city. If the movie gets to be a little much as it goes on, I think that was the idea the filmmakers had in mind. They got the chance to do a sequel (something that probably wasn't planned), so they tried to top themselves in every way, not caring about coherency or structure. The method works most of the time, but it gets a little tiresome eventually.

For all of its energy and humor, I wasn't quite as taken by High Voltage as I was the original. This is basically another run through of the first film's formula, only kicked up a couple hundred notches. This is, I guess, the only way one could do a sequel to Crank. I had fun with this movie, but it can't hide the fact that this is a sequel, and we're basically getting a rehash. A highly energized and an often very fun one, but a rehash nonetheless. And besides, the question remains - What do you do for an encore? Seeing as though this movie has a guy getting a majority of a rifle shoved up a spot of the human anatomy one wouldn't want a rife shoved up, I don't think I want to know.

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State of Play

In State of Play, when its hero Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) talks about the decline of newspapers for the Internet and blogs, he not only sounds like he means it, he looks like he does. Cal is a dying breed - A scruffy investigative journalist who lives off a diet of junk food and whisky, has the physical appearance of an unmade bed, and generally lives for the story he's currently working on. When his chief editor (Helen Mirren) assigns him to work alongside a young Internet blogger named Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), there's bound to be some friction.

Surprisingly, their relationship remains entirely professional during the course of State of Play. The screenplay does not see the need for an unnecessary romantic subplot, which is a good thing, since there's already enough plot in the movie as is. There's also a lot of twists and turns, but never so many that we become frustrated or feel like we're being jerked around. Right off the bat, the movie grabs our attention as we witness a double murder by a shadowy figure in the film's opening scene, followed by a young woman supposedly killing herself by jumping into the path of an oncoming subway train. The woman was working for a Washington Senator named Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), an old college friend of Cal's, whom he turns to when the press start swarming his house. He's forced to confess that he was having an affair with the young woman, which not only puts his political career in question, but obviously also that with his wife (Robin Wright Penn). Is it all some part of corporate conspiracy out to discredit Collins and allow a shady corporation to do whatever it wants without anything standing in the way?

Naturally, things are not what they seem. State of Play holds our attention with a complex web of revelations to the point that we want to know where it's all leading to as much as the characters of Cal and Della do. The film itself is an adaptation of a 5 hour British TV mini-series, and it must have been a taxing chore for screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs), Tony Gilroy (Duplicity), and Billy Ray (Breach) to squeeze all of the material from the original into a film that runs just a little over two hours. They've managed to do just that, with an engrossing plotline that never once slows down or stalls. Yes, some of the characters and their relationships suffer because of this (Cal has had a relationship with Stephen's wife, which is not touched on as much as it probably should have been.), but the movie is so tightly edited, paced, and plotted that it feels like you're watching a constant juggling act as the movie tries to keep all of its plot threads and characters up in the air.

I was also intrigued with how the movie becomes topical, working the decline of print newspapers into the plot. Cal finds himself in the race against the clock to get to the bottom of the story, because his editor is demanding an article. In this electronic information age, misinformation is unfortunately rampant, and Cal is of the firm belief that the facts come first. His editor is not unsympathetic, but at the same time, she needs those sales if she wants the paper to stay alive. And in order to get those sales, she has to have an article as quick as possible. As someone who still believes highly in the value of print, I was intrigued with how this was handled, with both Cal and Della representing both sides of the war in gathering information. It also adds another layer of tension, not that the story needed it. There are plenty of expertly crafted suspense/action sequences, such as when Cal finds himself on the run from a gunman in an abandoned parking garage, or when Della becomes a witness to an assassination attempt at a local hospital. Director Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) has a real eye for suspense scenes.

Since the plot is constantly in motion, we never get very close to the characters, but the fine cast still manage to find ways to deliver with their performances. Russell Crowe brings a sort of mischief to his portrayal, like he's weary of the world and the business he's in, but he's still able to hold onto the spark that got him into reporting in the first place. He has an easy chemistry with both Rachel McAdams and especially Helen Mirren, who completely nails the role of the understanding yet hard-nosed editor, and who I wish could have had more screen time. As for Ben Affleck, I had forgotten how good of an actor he can be with the right role. He's very vulnerable here, and brings out the various shades of his complex character quite well. The backlash he took a few years ago for his personal overexposure and his questionable film choices has resulted in a very strong reboot for his career, and I hope this continues.

State of Play unravels a little at the end, and some of the clues fall into place a little too easily, but this is still an intelligent and highly enjoyable thriller. A lot of its problems most likely stems from the fact that the filmmakers were working with such a short frame of time. The movie constantly seems to be close to obtaining greatness, but never quite reaches it. At least the impact the film has isn't lessened by this fact. It's an ideal alternative for parents as they drop their kids off to see Hannah Montana or 17 Again.

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17 Again

I think it's pretty safe to say that Hollywood has used and exploited just about all the possibilities when it comes to body swapping comedies. So, it's no surprise that 17 Again often plays like a retread of old ideas from similar films like Big, Freaky Friday, and countless others. And yet, as I always say, an old idea can still work if it's done well enough. The movie doesn't quite work well enough for me to give it a full recommendation, but I smiled more than I expected, and it features a surprisingly likable lead performance from rising young actor, Zac Efron, who proves here that there may be a life after the Disney corporate machine.

He brings a certain quiet charm and low key humor to the role of Mike O'Donnell, whom we first meet as a rising young high school basketball star in 1989. It's the night of the big game, talent scouts are in the audience keeping an eye on his performance, and he gives it all up when his girlfriend announces right before the game that she's pregnant. Flash forward 20 years later to the present, and the now 37-year-old Mike O'Donnell (now played by Matthew Perry) is your typical comic loser. Before I dig too deep into Mike's problems, let's do a little experiment. Look up a photo of both Zac Efron and Matthew Perry. Do these two even look like they could be the same person? It's a hurdle the movie never quite recovers from. We never buy the movie's suggestion, so it's fortunate that Perry's screentime is limited, and this is mainly a star vehicle for Efron. But still, you'd think the casting department could have done a little bit better of a job.

Back to the plot: We learn that Mike married his pregnant girlfriend Scarlet (played in the present by Leslie Mann) after high school, and things have been going downhill since then. It's bad enough that his relationship with his wife has soured so bad that she's not only seeking a divorce, but has kicked him out of their home, forcing Mike to live with his nerdy best friend, Ned (Thomas Lennon). As if that weren't enough, his two teenage kids Maggie (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Alex (Sterling Knight) barely acknowledge his existence. All this, and the poor guy got passed over for the promotion at his job he was certain to get. Is it any wonder Mike wonders if his life would be any different and possibly better if he had finished that fateful high school basketball game? His question is heard by a mysterious and mystical high school janitor (Brian Doyle-Murray), who kind of resembles Santa Claus and apparently lives for letting people relive their glory days. Through a magical occurence, Mike is transformed into his former 17-year-old self.

Even though Mike has gotten younger, he remains in the present. So, Ned has to pass as his father, and Mike now finds himself in the same classes as his two kids, where he finds out more about them than he ever did as a real father to them, making him realize how little he was there for them when they needed him. He's also horrified to learn that his son is the frequent target of bullies, and that his daughter is also dating the head of the bullies and is considering giving up her college dreams to go live with him after high school is over. It's all stuff we've seen before, but the light comic screenplay by Jason Filardi (Bringing Down the House) makes it all go down easy enough. Yet, the screenplay still feels somewhat undercooked, as if the ideas weren't fleshed out as much as they should be. We know that Mike's son, Alex, will become friends with the teenage Mike, not realizing who he is, and take him home to see his mom. Scarlet notices how much her son's new friend resembles her ex-husband as a teenager, and the two build a very shy and strained relationship, but not enough is done with it. We don't get enough of what Mike must be feeling every time he's around the woman he was once married to and still loves, but obviously can't say or do anything. Likewise, a Back to the Future-like subplot where Mike's own daughter develops a crush on the teenage Mike seems to come out of nowhere, and isn't given enough time to reach its potential.

What helps carry the film is an appropriately breezy tone (the movie is about 100 minutes, but felt shorter than some 80 minute movies I've seen), and a bright and energetic cast that give the material more life than it probably deserves. Efron proves here he's got some charisma and screen presence behind those looks that are currently driving "tween" girls wild. (The fact that he's not wearing a shirt the first time we see him proves that the movie at least knows its audience.) He displays a quiet and sincere comic tone here that could benefit him in more adult roles. The other main stand out is Thomas Lennon, who gets the biggest laughs as Mike's best friend. His character, Ned, is a grown up nerd who uses his wealth from writing computer software to fill his house top-to-bottom with sci-fi, comic book, and fantasy memorabilia. His character could have easily been annoying, especially when he starts awkwardly trying to romance the high school principal (Melora Hardin), but it all pays off with a very funny dinner date scene, and Lennon knows how to reign his character in enough so that he remains funny instead of obnoxious.

17 Again is a little too slight to be memorable, but it's perfectly harmless, is well-acted, and never offends. Unlike last weekend's Hannah Montana movie (another movie I described as harmless and inoffensive), this at least seemed to have a tiny bit of thought put to it, which makes it the superior movie for those looking for fun, light entertainment. I can't fully recommend it, because I wanted a few more laughs and maybe a little more depth. (A less abrupt ending would be nice, as well.) Still, I must admit, I liked this more than I expected.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Hannah Montana: The Movie

Having not been a regular viewer of the Disney Channel in about 15 years, and having no access to the opinions of preteen girls, I knew very little walking into Hannah Montana: The Movie. I did have my expectations, however, and for better or worse, the movie met them. It's gentle, it's inoffensive, and it's about as squeaky clean as a movie can get these days. But boy, is it ever bland and tedious. This is a movie designed strictly for the show's young fans. The only adults who will get anything out of it are those who don't care what they're watching, just as long as it has a happy ending.

Despite having never seen a single episode of the show, I have a feeling that the movie is more or less an extended version of one, as it often feels like a made for TV movie that's been blown up on the screen. Just like on the series, the movie deals with the double life of Miley Stewart (Miley Cyrus), who is an ordinary teenage girl at school, but is also secretly the most successful young pop singer in the world, Hannah Montana. There's a certain Clark Kent/Superman thing going on, as her "Hannah" disguise consists of nothing but her wearing flashier clothes and a blonde wig. And no, the movie never addresses why no one can tell that Miley and Hannah are one and the same. Her family, her best friend at school Lilly (Emily Osment), and her publicist Vita (Vanessa Williams) are the only ones aware of her double life, and try their hardest to keep it hidden from the public and nosey tabloid journalists, like the one who's always following her around in this movie (Peter Gunn), and exists simply to be humiliated in a series of slapstick gag pieces.

As the movie opens, the fame of being Hannah is starting to go to Miley's head a little. She upstages her best friend at Lilly's own extravagant 16th birthday party (which by my estimate, must have cost in the 4 or 5-digit range) and has been caught in some bad behavior, such as when she gets in a comical slapstick catfight with Tyra Banks over a pair of designer shoes. Miley's father (Cyrus' real-life father, Billy Ray) has had enough, and decides an intervention is in order. He takes her back to her small Tennessee hometown, Crowley Corners, to celebrate Grandma Ruby's (Margo Martindale) birthday. Miley resists at first, but soon she catches the eye of a handsomely bland young cowboy named Travis Brody (Lucas Till) who works on grandma's farm. There's also some nonsense about the town being threatened by some greedy land developers who want to build a massive shopping mall in the sleepy little town, but none of it matters. All that matters is that the movie gives the series' fans what they want with plenty of bubblegum pop and country music, cute teens, and incessantly perky energy.

As for the rest of us? Well, Hannah Montana wasn't made for the rest of us. And that's too bad, because its young star does show quite a bit of potential. I wouldn't quite put Miley Cyrus in the same league as other young heavyweights like Dakota Fanning, but she does have a certain charm to her. I can't tell if she has more potential than that, because the movie itself is pretty aimless. I didn't think it was possible, but this movie makes High School Musical 3 seem pretty complex in comparison. We get some set-up to explain why Miley and her family are going to Tennessee, and then the entire middle section seems to be made up entirely out of music montages where Miley and her boyfriend ride around on horses and swing on ropes, or scenes where the characters themselves are singing. There's literally a 15 or 20 minute stretch in the film where the characters sing one song after another, and I started to feel like I was watching an extended and expensive commercial for the film's soundtrack CD (which I most likely was).

When the movie does decide to throw a bit of plot our way, it usually degenerates into slapstick gags that are set up in a way that you can't miss them coming. See that collection of celebrity plates Grandma Ruby is so proud of? How much you want to bet they're all going to be smashed and broken before the scene is over? One of Miley's cousins is introduced as a guy who keeps a pet ferret in his pocket, then disappears from the movie completely until it's time for a fancy dinner party with the town's Mayor, so the ferret can escape and wreak havoc on the guests. Miley helps out on the farm, and puts some eggs in her back pockets, almost as if she knows she's going to fall down on her butt in a matter of seconds. You see that ladder leaning up against Grandma Ruby's house, so a character can spy in on a bedroom window? Did I mention that if said character fell from said ladder, he would wind up crushing Grandma Ruby's prized garden? These are people who have never come across a mud puddle they haven't fallen in face-first.

Much like last year's High School Musical 3, Hannah Montana is unapologetically cornball and about as close to total fluff as you can get. But, to be honest, the High School kids were a lot more energetic and entertaining than anything here. While not without the occasional sweet moment (usually between Miley and her father), the whole thing is pretty bland and instantly forgettable. It's cotton candy for the brain, and not even good cotton candy to start with.

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Observe and Report

Every other review I've read of this movie compares it to Paul Blart: Mall Cop, the surprise comedy blockbuster from three months ago, so why break tradition? - If Martin Scorsese had written and directed Paul Blart, the result would probably be very similar to Observe and Report. The hero of the story is Ronnie Barnhardt, a bipolar mall cop with sadistic tendencies, delusions of grandeur, prone to flying into fits of violent rage, is racist and simple-minded, and known to snort drugs once in a while. His saving grace that attaches him to us? The guy does usually mean well, in a warped way, and a lot of the things he says are very funny.

Yes, Observe and Report is a comedy, but it's an uncomfortable one. Writer-director Jody Hill (last year's indie comedy The Foot-Fist Way) seems to delight in shoving these unsavory characters in our faces, and making us laugh at them, even if we occasionally squirm in our seats at the things we see them doing or doing to each other. As a comedy, it's easily the funniest I've seen so far this year. For Ronnie (who is played by Seth Rogen, giving a hilarious performance here), there are two women in his life. There's his alcoholic mother whom he lives with (Celia Weston), who likes to remind him that it was his fault his father walked out on them. And then there's Brandi (Anna Faris), the woman who works at a make up counter in a department store at the mall. Brandi generally views Ronnie and his affections with disgust and appalled rage, but Ronnie's delusional mind still sees a chance for them to be together. That's why he's quick to take advantage of the situation when Brandi needs his help, after she has a run-in with a pervert who has been terrorizing female mall patrons and employees in the parking lot.

The pervert in question is a flasher, who is prone to showing his privates to anyone who approaches him. Brandi is psychologically scarred by her encounter, and Ronnie sees the chance to help her by making it his personal mission to track the pervert down. That's why he's offended when the manager of the mall calls a real police detective in on the case. The detective is Harrison (Ray Liotta), and he immediately clashes with Ronnie, who views the mall as his territory to protect and Harrison as an intruder. Harrison plainly sees Ronnie's racist and violent tendencies, and would rather let the idiot go on his own way. But the guy won't leave him alone, and even breaks into his police car at one point so he can ride along with him on a job. As the film went on, I found myself fascinated by the character of Ronnie. He's almost child-like in his refusal to accept anything but his own personal view, but he is certainly not innocent. In the character, Seth Rogen has found a perfect leading role for him, who is offbeat enough to fit his comic talents. After being disappointed by his lead turns in films like Knocked Up and Zack and Miri Make a Porno (which tried to uncomfortably shove him into generic romantic comedy roles), as well as Pineapple Express (where he was overshadowed by co-star James Franco), Rogen makes this role his own.

Observe and Report is a biting satire, and surprisingly dark and twisted for a comedy released by a mainstream studio. The closest comparison to this movie would be Bad Santa, as they both feature anti-heroes whose behavior and lack of common decency drive the plot. Even when the movie follows convention, such as when Ronnie slowly starts to develop a relationship with a nice girl who works at the coffee shop and gives him free coffee every morning (Collette Wolfe), it still manages to surprise us in little ways. It's a comedy that's not afraid to show us the worst in human nature, and make us laugh at it. It also poses some interesting ethical questions for the audience, such as why are people so offended by the nudity of the pervert, but when Ronnie violently beats some punk kids or nearly kills a man, he is treated as a hero? I am reminded of the old Hollywood joke - If your movie features a scene where a guy stabs a woman's breast with a knife, you'll get an R-rating. If your movie features a scene where a guy kisses a woman's breast, you'll get an NC-17.

This is a very funny movie, though. Probably the funniest I've seen since Tropic Thunder. It's not the kind of comedy the ads make it out to be, though. The commercials seem to be leading audiences to think this is another raunchy, screwball-fest. There is a lot of sadness behind the laughs, particularly with the character of Ronnie and how he constantly seems to be on the edge of breaking down, or maybe just snapping and killing someone. This is a movie that sometimes crosses the line, but never so much so that we become offended or lose interest in the characters. Hill's screenplay seems to be on a constant balancing act, as well as the performances. Anna Faris plays against type as the boozing and manipulative Brandi. It's a nice change of pace from her usually ditzy characters, and proves she can be quite a challenging comic actress. As for Ray Liotta, he's finally found a role where his tendency to overact actually seems to suit him.

Sometimes I admire movies for what they try to do. Observe and Report is admirable in its edginess (especially for a movie getting a mainstream release), but it goes a lot deeper than that. The movie is also tightly paced, never wears out its welcome, and is just a thrill to watch. At least it was for me. I already know this won't be a movie for everyone, and it will probably turn off a lot of viewers. It does have the makings of a cult classic, though. It also excites me for what Jody Hill has in store for us next.

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