Reel Opinions

Friday, June 26, 2009

My Sister's Keeper

There's nothing wrong with the premise of My Sister's Keeper, it just needed to be handled a different way. Here is a movie that cries out for a serious and even-handed look at the ethical issues it raises. Does a girl who is in the final stages of cancer have a right to choose to die? Does her younger sister, who was genetically created to act as a donor for the sick girl from birth, have a right to refuse to give up her organs if she wants to lead a normal life herself? If the movie had been honest and hard-hitting, it could have been a stunner.

Director and co-writer, Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook), instead takes the path of heavy-handed sentiment and sappy manipulation. Instead of actually dealing with the issues, he gives us numerous music montages, and scenes that have been manipulated to get the full melodramatic effect. Take, for example, a scene late in the film where the parents of the two girls confront each other about what's best for their dying daughter. The father, Brian Fitzgerald (Jason Patric) has gotten permission from the doctor at the hospital to allow young Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) to leave the hospital and go to the beach for one day as a final memory, since she's not getting any better, and could slip away any day. The doctor arranges for her leave. Brian takes the girl home first, where the mother, Sara (Cameron Diaz), learns what her husband is planning to do. She screams at him for letting their daughter leave the hospital, he screams back, and they threaten to divorce each other. Not once does Brian mention what the doctor told him, or that everything has been arranged. If he did, there would be no reason for the couple to spend the entire scene screaming at each other.

We learn through various clumsily-placed flashbacks (which at times take up a majority of the film) that Kate was once a normal and healthy girl, until she was diagnosed with leukemia at a young age. Brian and Sara could not find a donor, and so the doctor told them how they could genetically give birth to another child who would be a perfect genetic match, and could possibly save young Kate's life. This would obviously be a tough decision, giving birth to a child who would exist solely to be cut up and operated on as Kate needed it in her different stages of the disease. Brian and Sara, however, need only three seconds to decide to go with the plan. The child in question is Anna (Abigail Breslin). She loves her sister Kate, and understands her purpose and how important she is, but now that she is 11, she is starting to think for herself and question why she has to give up her own life so that Kate (who is worsening, and not responding well to treatments) can live. Her mom won't hear any of it, as she's too wrapped up in keeping Kate alive, and her father's hardly ever home. Her older brother, Jesse (Evan Ellingson), is no help either. He's too busy standing on street corners looking tortured, and performing sad music montages for reasons we don't understand until late in the film. That's when Anna makes an important decision.

She turns to a lawyer she sees on TV named Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin), and with $700 she got from pawning off a gold chain, hires him to take on her case - She wishes to "medically emancipate" herself from her parents, so that she doesn't have to give up her organs to her sister unless it is her own decision. The drama is supposed to build around Anna's decision, and the effect the impending trial has on the family itself, but the movie keeps on getting sidetracked with one flashback after another. We get flashbacks on how Sara gave up everything, even her job, so she could look after Kate. We get flashbacks on how Kate had a brief romantic fling with another cancer patient at the hospital named Taylor (Thomas Dekker). We get flashbacks on how brother Jesse used to suffer from dyslexia as a child. A lot of this information seems crammed into the movie, almost as if screenwriters Cassavetes and Jeremy Leven were afraid to take stuff out of the original novel by Jodi Picoult. (Surprisingly, I hear the movie changes a lot of details from the book, especially the ending.) We also get personal information on minor characters that has nothing to do with anything, and doesn't add anything to the film. The Judge who presides over the trial (Joan Cusack) lost her daughter in a drunk driving accident. Anna's lawyer in the trial needs a service dog by his side at all times, as he suffers from epileptic seizures that conveniently hit him at the right dramatic moment in the trial itself. The movie tells us this, then does nothing with it.

My Sister's Keeper works the tear ducts hard, and I did indeed hear much sniffling in the rows behind me at my screening. I personally started to wish that the movie was more interested in exploring its own ideas, rather than going for the cheap sentimentality in every scene. It ultimately ends up being as flimsy as the discarded Kleenex on the theater floor. And yet, there's a lot to admire here. The movie is well shot, and the performances are mostly strong. Young Abigail Breslin and Sofia Vassilieva have a good sisterly chemistry during their few scenes alone. We buy their relationship, and we buy that they care for each other, and why Anna has come to the decision she has at the beginning of the film when she walks into the law office. Jason Patric also stands out as the father, giving a quiet and understated performance. It's something Cameron Diaz could have learned, who spends a majority of her scenes shrieking or screaming, and generally rubbed me the wrong way every time she was on the screen. She plays up the melodrama every chance she gets, and leaves no piece of the set un-chewed when she's done. As the eldest brother of the family, Evan Ellingson is given a mainly thankless role, and never makes much of an impression. Outside of the family, both Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack bring their experience to their individual roles, but more could have been done with their characters.

I have not read the novel, so I cannot judge if something got lost in translation from the page to the screen, or if the book's flaws made it up there. All I do know is that this movie did not work for me. It was too manipulated and too perfect. I liked a lot of the performances, but I never quite connected with the characters behind them. My Sister's Keeper gave me half of the experience I was looking for.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

If Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen becomes the biggest movie of the summer, and possibly the year, as many are expecting, then we have lowered our standards a great deal in a short time. Just last summer, The Dark Knight reigned supreme. It was smart, it was suspenseful, it was thrilling, it was funny, and it was exciting - all qualities Transformers lacks. This is a joyless and bloated spectacle that not only contains everything that is wrong with big budget spectacles today, but also killed my desire to watch anymore for the rest of the summer. And June's not even over yet...

The movie is sure to have its defenders. They'll refer to it as "popcorn entertainment", or "junk food for the brain". I agree to an extent. The movie is most certainly junk food for the mind. My problem lies with the fact that this is an overindulgence of brain junk. Director Michael Bay has given us a two and a half hour sensory overload that is the cinematic equivalent of eating 25 Big Macs one after another - Both leave you feeling guilty and sick to your stomach when they're over. There is not a moment in this movie where someone is not screaming, something is not exploding or being shot at, and the sound of scraping metal or the booming, overly dramatic soundtrack is not bombarding us on the speakers. The whole experience left me feeling numb and weary. The defenders will also point out that the movie was made for kids. I don't buy that for a minute. The movie is filled with sexual references and innuendo. Plus, the way that returning heroine, Mikaela (Megan Fox), is shot in some scenes, you'd think Bay was making a soft core porno film. The first time we see her, she's draped sensually over a motorcycle, the camera centered on her tight shorts.

Of course, nothing I say here will keep people away. 2007's Transformers wasn't much better than this, and still went on to make a fortune. But it still had a small sense of wonder to it. We were seeing the Transformers in live action for the first time. Sure, they could have been handled a lot better, but it was still thrilling to see childhood icons like Optimus Prime come to life, and wonderful to hear that Peter Cullen (the original voice of Prime on the cartoon I grew up with) still sounded the same after all these years. All the robots from the first movie are back, and there are a bunch of new ones too, though very few actually have anything to do with the movie itself other than to increase the film's special effect budget. The main problem I had with the first film returns also, in that aside from a few key robots, I had a hard time distinguishing them. The evil Decepticons in particular look almost exactly alike for the most part. The screenplay by Ehren Kruger (Blood and Chocolate), and returning writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (2009's Star Trek), compensates by giving the robot characters personalities that are just as interchangeable as their appearance, for the most part. Aside from noble Prime, faithful Bumblebee, and odious comic robot sidekicks Mudflap (Reno Wilson) and Skids (Tom Kenny), very few of the robots actually stand out in the jumbled mess that is the plot.

So, what of the plot anyway? Best I can gather from the shrieking pile that is this movie, an ancient and evil Decepticon who is simply referred to as the Fallen (voice by Tony Todd) came to Earth in the prehistoric days, and was defeated by some ancient weapon. Flash forward to the present, and our young returning hero Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) is looking forward to going to college and leading a normal life, after spending the past two years dealing with giant alien robots from distant worlds. That's not gonna happen, obviously. Sam has something that the Decepticons want to revive both the Fallen, and their leader Megatron (voice by Hugo Weaving), who sank at the bottom of the sea at the end of the last movie. Sam must once again team up with the heroic Optimus Prime and his Autobots, who are now working for the government to secretly destroy any Decepticon threat. (Although seeing that they lay waste to most of Shanghai in the film's opening action sequence, I wonder how this "top secret" government division remains so.) With their evil leaders revived, the Decepticons ultimately plan to take over the world, and destroy the Earth's sun with the aid of an ancient weapon buried in the Egyptian pyramids.

The plot of Transformers relies heavily on coincidences, contrivances, and inconsistencies. The Decepticons are only as strong as the screenplay allows. Sometimes, Megatron is strong enough to rip an ocean liner in half, and sometimes he seems to be kept at bay by human gunfire. Sometimes the Transformers themselves are towering and impressive, standing stories above the human actors, and sometimes their entire bodies seem to fit in the same frame as the humans without any problem. Add to the fact that a majority of the robots literally look like walking junk piles with eyes (blue for the heroic Autobots, red for the evil Decepticons), and it's very disappointing, especially when you consider how much money was spent on the effects alone. They fill each frame of the movie, but they're not interesting to look at. It's CG clutter that is convincingly added to the live action, but still never manages to come to life in any way. Most of the robots also talk in urban slang, and have New York accents. The twin comic relief robots, despite hailing from a distant alien world, talk in cliched "black ghetto" speak, display gold teeth, and seem to have picked up on Hollywood's worst cliches. If giant alien robots from another world came to visit us, you would hope they would have more to say than one liners like "Damn, I'm good", and "Punk-ass Decepticon...".

Am I old fashioned for wanting things like interesting characters to go with my summer movie junk food? Or the slightest resemblance of an idea or creativity? This movie certainly makes me feel so. This is $200 million worth of budget vomited onto a screen, while an editor vainly tried to make sense of it all. No one says or does anything of the slightest interest or importance. The human actors are generally required to yell things like "look out", or explain the plot with forced enthusiasm, as if they think the audience is here for the plot and not the giant robots that will be added in after they go home when the shoot is over. They're also required to run away from explosions in slow motion, which I think this movie holds a new record for in terms of the number of times it's used. Heck, there's even a shot of two dogs who were previously humping each other running away from an exploding house. (Wether it was in slow motion or not, I don't remember.) The whole experience quickly becomes mind numbing. The movie can't seem to go five minutes without a chase, a shootout, or someone yelling their dialogue at the highest volume the theater's speaker can muster. All this noise, I'm guessing, is to hide the fact that very little happens during a majority of the movie's middle portion.

Revenge of the Fallen will make money. It will be hailed as one of the big box office draws of the year. It will sell toys, fast food promotions, and video game tie-ins by the truckload, all but ensuring I'll be reviewing Transformers 3 before too long. What it will never be is a good movie. I imagine it won't even be looked back on very fondly come a few years from now, and will join the ranks of other summer blockbusters that have fallen out of favor over time, like Independence Day. I can accept the fact that the movie is dumb, and exists solely to sell toys. I knew that walking in. But why couldn't it have been fun, too? That's all I was asking for. The movie is big and dumb alright, but it most certainly is not fun.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Year One

There is a strange disconnect between the talent that's behind Year One, and the final result that's up on the screen. You see the names in the opening credits, but the movie that follows doesn't look like something they should have any part in. The director and co-writer is Harold Ramis (Caddyshack, Groundhog's Day). The producer is Judd Apatow, the current king of smart adult comedies. The cast includes such names as Jack Black, Michael Cera, Oliver Platt, David Cross, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bill Hader, and Paul Rudd - all actors I've admired in other comedies. You'd think with all this talent, there would at least be a couple good laughs in store.

I didn't laugh once. I smiled a couple times early on, but I never laughed. This is a tired and witless comedy that doesn't seem to go anywhere. It also barely has a beginning, middle, and an end. It's a series of loosely connected skits, as the lead characters wander the land, and the movie meanders along with them, looking for a point. It would be one thing if the skits were funny. There's promise everywhere, but no potential is ever met. As the title suggests, the film is set in 1 A.D., and follows a pair of characters named Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera) as they encounter various faces and places from the Bible. The movie's not interested in actually parodying anything from the Bible itself, mind you. They meet feuding brothers Cain and Abel (David Cross and Paul Rudd), Abraham and his son Jacob (Hank Azaria and Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and visit the city of Sodom. But nothing is actually done with these characters or places. There's no real plot to connect them, either. The characters just show up, say a few lines, then disappear. It's movies like this that really make you appreciate the risks the Monty Python group took when they did Life of Brian.

The movie starts out harmless enough, and even seems like it might be fun. Zed and Oh are members of a small tribal village, and generally treated as outcasts. Once this is established, the very next scene features Zed deciding to take a bite out of the forbidden fruit, hoping to gain knowledge that will make him the smartest man in the tribe. We get an early glimpse of how lazy this movie will be during this scene. While Zed takes a bite out of the apple, Oh finds a snake slowly wrapping itself around him. The movie then immediately cuts to the next scene, not even bothering to establish a gag or a pay off. Zed is banished from the tribe for eating the fruit, and accidentally burns the village down as he exits. This forces Oh to go along with him on his journey, since he lost everything in the fire. This makes up a majority of the film, as the two characters wander to nowhere in particular. They just keep on stumbling upon people and places. There is a half-hearted attempt at an actual plot, when the two learn that the women they longed for back at their home village are now slaves in Sodom. How this happened, the movie doesn't go out of its way to explain. What the movie does have time for, however, is an extended and unfunny gross out gag where Oh is forced to rub oil all over a very fat, hairy, and horny high priest (Oliver Platt, in a career low point).

There are many other similar gags where that came from, including Zed willingly eating feces, and Oh urinating on himself as he's hung upside down in chains in a prison cell. This obviously begs the question, who is this movie made for? This kind of humor is too juvenile for any adult to enjoy, but the movie itself is far too crude for kids. Year One is PG-13, trimmed from its original R rating, but that doesn't make it any less vulgar or inappropriate for young viewers. In order for this kind of humor to work, it has to have a build up, or at least seem like it has a place in the movie. The gags I described above come out of nowhere, and seem to be a lazy attempt at shock humor. It's a cry of desperation from a movie that knows it's not working. The actors seem to know they're stuck in a turkey, also. Jack Black does his usual enthusiastic wild man comic performance, but it seems a lot more forced here than usual. Michael Cera made me smile a couple times with his deadpan comic delivery, but it still comes across as a pale imitation of his usual screen persona. As for the supporting cast, the less said, the better.

As I was watching the movie, I tried to figure out how it went so wrong. It must have sounded good at one point on paper. My guess is that this movie didn't get developed enough. The studio bosses pictured in their mind Jack Black wearing a loincloth, had a chuckle, and then gave the script a go without thinking it through. We can sometimes see the basic ingredients of a successful or funny scene, but they needed to be built on in order for us to laugh. As it is, the movie is more depressing than funny. It's sad to see so much talent wasted on so little. It's even more depressing when you watch the outtakes and bloopers during the end credits, and not only are they not funny, but the actors don't even really seem to be enjoying themselves in the first place. You almost wish you were watching a documentary on the making of this film, and how it went wrong. Now that would be an interesting movie, and it'd probably be a lot funnier too, because the actors would probably feel a lot more comfortable being themselves on camera.

Year One is such a pathetic little movie that it doesn't really end. It kind of slows down to a crawl and stops, letting the credits release us from its misery. How wrong-headed is this movie? It doesn't even have the sense to put its best gag in the foreground. In one scene, Zed and Oh are about to be stoned to death by angry villagers. As they await their fate, we hear a soldier in the background reading off the crimes they've been charged with. I was able to make out "thievery, puppetry, and animal husbandry", and a long list of other absurd charges. Leave it to this movie to cut away from the one bit of dialogue that came close to making me laugh.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

The Proposal

In a romantic comedy, chemistry between the leads can either sink a movie, or help it rise above the often contrived material. For evidence of the second example, see The Proposal. Here is a movie that sounds like it was written by a committee. There's not a single moment we can't predict, a single gag we can't telegraph from miles away, and not a single plot development we're not aware of before the characters are. And yet, I found myself smiling, due to the chemistry of the lead stars. They're likable, and so are the rest of the cast, who bring a lot of warmth to the movie. The Proposal is completely lacking in originality and has few big laughs, but it still manages to have a lot of charm.

The stars at the center are Sandra Bullock, a long-time veteran of the romantic comedy, and Ryan Reynolds, a relative newcomer to the genre, but he's had some success with last year's Definitely, Maybe. They play the standard movie couple who start off hating each other, but slowly grow to love each other during the course of the story. It's something that seldom happens in real life, but happens all the time in films like this. Bullock's character is Margaret Tate, who starts the movie as a vicious Ice Queen boss at a publishing company, who strikes fear into the hearts of her employees just by walking down the hall. Anyone who has seen a Sandra Bullock performance knows that this is a bit of a stretch, and indeed, these early moments where we are supposed to hate her don't work. She obviously tries, but she fails, especially when Meryl Streep's "evil boss" performance in The Devil Wears Prada is still fresh in our minds. Fortunately, the contrived plot kicks in soon enough, and Margaret slowly starts to thaw out and become more likable as she is forced into a fake marriage with her long-suffering personal assistant, Andrew Paxton (Reynolds).

The situation is that Margaret is originally from Canada, and her Visa has expired. The law is threatening to deport her back home, where she will lose everything. Thinking quickly, she tells the Immigration Official that Andrew and her are engaged to be married, so she can get her Green Card. The two blackmail each other as they work out the arrangement of the sham marriage, and soon, they find themselves flying out to Sitka, Alaska to meet Andrew's family. So far, so uninspired. But then, a funny thing started to happen. We meet Andrew's family, and I was slowly drawn into the likable characters, and the evolving relationship between Margaret and Andrew. The family is played by some great actors. Craig T. Nelson plays Andrew's father, who has a lot of issues with his son, and doesn't quite believe the marriage announcement from the start. The way the screenplay handles the character is a little smarter and more honest than normal, however. He doesn't exist simply to be wrong about everything all the time, and he genuinely cares about his son, despite their differences. The other main members of the family are Andrew's mother, played by Mary Steenburgen, and grandmother, played by character actress Betty White. While they have little to do with the actual plot itself, they still bring a lot of charm and warmth to their roles.

The Proposal shares a lot of similarities with the movie that launched Bullock's career in romantic comedies, While You Were Sleeping. Both are films about a woman who is forced into a relationship with a man she hardly knows, and comes to love him and his family over time. This is not as good of a movie as that one was, but is still leagues better than a lot of the stuff we've been getting this year like New in Town or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. While a lot of the jokes could be funnier, there are a couple scenes that made me laugh, such as when Margaret and Andrew try telling the story of how he proposed to her in the first place, and they both try different angles on the same story. It's the performances that drew me in, however. The writing is nothing original, but the actors help flesh the characters out. We believe Margaret's transformation, because when Bullock looks conflicted, or shares a warm moment with Andrew's mom or grandmother, we believe it. We may see it coming, and we've seen it before, but it's done well enough that we don't mind seeing it done again.

That's really the key here. There's nothing in particular that stands out about the movie itself. But director Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses) lets the cast do what they do best, and it lifts it out of the hole the derivative screenplay by Pete Chiarelli could have dug for it. Watching The Proposal was almost like a battle of wills. I didn't want to fall for it, because I knew the movie was manipulating every step of the way, but I eventually did. It succeeds as a crowd-pleasing date movie, and is harmless enough. If it had sharper wit, or maybe something new to show us, I could recommend it even more.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Imagine That

I cannot predict how kids will react to Imagine That. Despite the fact that the film is a Nickelodeon production, and features a family-friendly theme of a father and young daughter bonding with the aid of the child's imaginary friends, the movie too frequently gets bogged down in adult-oriented subject matter that will have young viewers squirming in their seats. I doubt many kids care about corporate investments, and buying and trading company stock. Given many people's current economic situation, most adults probably don't want to hear that stuff when they escape to the movies, either.

I can't say how kids will respond to the movie, but I can say how I did. I can't quite recommend it, but I did like it more than some of Eddie Murphy's more recent films. He's more reigned in and likable here. He's been doing a lot of character work lately, hiding behind fat suits, nerdy glasses, and CG donkeys. These disguises gave him an opportunity to go nuts, often with obnoxious results. He gets to be a little more vulnerable here as he plays Evan Danielson, an investment analyst for a major corporation, who also happens to be a workaholic single father with a seven-year-old daughter named Olivia (Yara Shahidi) from a past marriage. He has little time for the kid, as his entire life is devoted to the company, and moving up in the business world. His main competition within the company comes from John Whitefeather (Thomas Haden Church), a smarmy phony who relies on Native American mysticism to impress his bosses and clients. Church is very funny as the rival, spouting such lines as, "It's not the paint that makes the warrior", and invoking the "dream sparrow" during corporate meetings. He's the one element of comic invention in an otherwise mundane screenplay by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson (best known from writing the Bill and Ted films of the late 80s and early 90s).

Whenever Whitefeater isn't on the screen, the business scenes drag on. Fortunately, things pick up a little whenever young Olivia shows up, and the movie focuses on her relationship with her father. Olivia is an imaginative child, who frequently goes off to an imaginary world of princesses, queens, and dragons with the aid of her special security blanket that she always carries with her. One day, when Evan takes her to work with him, he discovers that these seemingly imaginary friends she talks to hold inside trader info that can give him a leg up on the competition. Evan doesn't understand it, but the corporate advice his little girl claims she got from the "princesses" always leads him in the right direction. This leads to Evan wanting to know more about these games his daughter plays with these imaginary playmates, and he begins entering her world and playing alongside her. Their relationship grows, they start spending more time together, and it leads to a lot of sweet and likable moments that work thanks to the chemistry of Murphy and rising child actor, Shahidi.

Young Yara Shahidi is definitely a promising relative newcomer. Her performance as Olivia seems like a real child. She never seems to be trying to act cute, or is forced. She also manages to get as many laughs as Murphy does during their scenes together. Imagine That has a certain low-key sweetness to these scenes that I liked. But director Karey Kirkpatrick (Over the Hedge) often is a little too low key for his own good. The movie never quite takes off, is never as imaginative as it could or should be, and never delivers on the really big laughs that we expect. The laughs that are there are small ones. It's all a little too predictable, too laid-back, and certainly too stretched out, with a nearly two hour running time. I never got restless while watching it, but I was often thinking that the movie could have used a jolt of energy somewhere. It's pleasant and it's sweet, but it never really stands out like it should.

It also starts to lose its way in the last half hour or so. Up until that point, the movie had been fairly sweet and unassuming. Then it suddenly tries to be a madcap comedy with Murphy frequently mugging for the camera, getting beat up by kids, and a climax where he has to race in order to make it to his daughter's school sing on time. This is not only tired material, but Murphy also loses the subtlety in his performance that I was enjoying. He no longer came across as a father, but instead a magnet for pratfalls and slapstick gags. This part of the film also involves Martin Sheen in a cameo that didn't need him in the first place. We smile when we first see Sheen show up, and we wait for the movie to give him something to do, but it never does. The role could have been filled by anyone, and wouldn't have changed a thing. Maybe the filmmakers thought the movie needed one more famous face, but it didn't work for me.

This is very much a middle of the road movie. It never offends, but it's not very memorable. If anything, the writers should have taken their own title to heart, and added a lot more imagination to the script. Imagine That never quite gets off the ground, but it does introduce us to a promising young actress, and reminds us that Eddie Murphy can still be likable when he's reigned in. For some people, that may be enough.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123

It was about a half hour into The Taking of Pelham 123 that I started to ask myself why the movie wasn't working for me. It's not that it was a bad movie, it just wasn't connecting with me. I didn't care about the characters, or what was happening to them. I soon come to the conclusion that screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Man on Fire, Mystic River) did not care about those things either. You could fill half the cast with cardboard cutouts or animatronics, and it would not make a whole lot of difference.

If the title sounds familiar, that's because this is the fourth take on the story that originated as a novel by John Godey, was later adapted into a 1974 film featuring Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, and was once again adapted into a made-for-TV movie in the late 90s. This time around, we have Denzel Washington and John Travolta in the lead roles. There have been a lot of changes from the original story, but the basic idea's the same. Travolta's a former Wall Street trader who was busted in a scam, sent to prison, and is now out and looking for revenge. He teams up with a small gang of thugs he befriended while he was behind bars, and stages a hostage situation on a subway train. Washington enters the picture as Walter Garber, a subway dispatcher who initially tries to make contact with the train when he sees it has stalled in the middle of the tunnel, and ends up speaking with Travolta's character over the train's radio. We learn that the leader of the criminals is named Ryder, and he demands $10 million from the Mayor of New York (James Gandolfini) in one hour, or else his men and him start killing the hostages.

Sounds like a simple and effective premise for a nail-biting thriller, but Pelham misses the mark. I didn't believe a single thing I was watching. I didn't believe that Washington's Garber character was truly sweating it out as he found himself in over his head being dragged into a hostage situation. Yes, he has the help of a real hostage negotiator (played by John Turturro) in the movie, but he never seems concerned enough, and that hurts the tension. I also didn't believe that Ryder was as smart or as evil as the movie wants us to believe he is. That's because Travolta plays him as a bad caricature of a villain. He screams and bellows, and he has a lot of facial ticks and twitches. But he's not an interesting opponent. It's no secret that both Washington and Travolta are gifted actors with the right roles, but here, they're given little to work with. The characters are supposed to build a strange antagonistic relationship with each other, as they try to get into each other's heads while talking over the radio speaker, but I didn't believe it because the characters are not there or developed in the first place.

The main thing I did not believe, and the thing that hurt the movie for me, is that I did not believe in the innocent people being held hostage on the train. They're treated entirely as a faceless mob, so there's never any tension or reason for us to get nervous when Ryder and his men start waving guns in their faces and threatening them. The closest we get to actual characters amongst the passengers are a cute little boy who needs to use the bathroom at one point, a young man who was having a video chat with his girlfriend on his laptop computer before the situation happened, and manages to film most of his time in captivity without the captors noticing, and a black guy who stands up for the little boy's mom when she is threatened. I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that the black guy is one of the few passengers who gets killed. After all, he's only fulfilling the age-old Hollywood law that the black character must be one of the first to die in movies of this type. Besides, do you really think they'd kill off the kid or the brave young man secretly videotaping everything?

The movie is directed by Tony Scott, who rose to fame back in the 80s with cheesy action hits like Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II, and has had more recent hits like Deja Vu and the previously mentioned Man on Fire. Scott is known for his rapid fire and overly stylized editing, and it suits him well sometimes, but seems out of place in Pelham. That's because the action in this movie largely revolves around the two lead characters sitting and talking to each other over a radio communication, or Denzel Washington's character talking to his superiors about what they should do while waiting for the money to arrive. Despite this, Scott still falls back on his standard editing tricks, using sped-up film, slow motion, blur effects, and dramatic freezing of a scene. It seems like overkill here. There's very little actual action to speak of, but that doesn't stop the movie from pretending there is. When the movie does throw some action sequences our way, it's grandly over the top. I especially loved the squad of police cars who careen through the city, ramming into cabs, almost running over people, and practically killing themselves in the process, all so the movie could throw in some impressive stunt shots of cars flipping and colliding into each other. These scenes seem to have been thrown in, and you can almost here Scott saying, "There's too much talking in this movie..."

I said at the beginning that The Taking of Pelham 123 is not a bad movie, and it isn't. It's one of those summer movies that doesn't quite click with you, and goes forgotten by the time August rolls around. Adults looking for entertainment would be better off seeing The Hangover, or wait for a surely better action thriller to come along. This movie just a lot of flash and overkill, without much behind it to back it up.

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

Land of the Lost

There's a lot of things I'm still trying to figure out about Land of the Lost. First of all, what audience is it targeting? Although the ad campaign seems to be signaling a family fun-fest, with goofy Will Ferrell being chased by funny dinosaurs, the movie is anything but family friendly. There are references to sex, masturbation, more toilet humor than the movie probably needed, and there's even an "F-bomb" dropped at one point, albeit a whispered one. Second, were the filmmakers trying to do a tribute of the campy Saturday Morning adventure show from the 70s, or a parody? It straddles the line and never finds the right balance. The most difficult thing I'm trying to figure out is how do I rate it?

I guess the most basic question to ask is did I laugh? Occasionally, yes, but nowhere near as I should have, and certainly nowhere near as much watching The Hangover. I laughed a lot during the early scene where Ferrell's character is on the Today Show, being grilled by Matt Lauer. Ferrell plays Dr. Rick Marshall, a "quantum paleontologist" who believes in alternate dimensions, and is working on a device that can open gates to those other worlds. The scene concerns Marshall trying to keep his cool as Lauer basically ridicules his theories, and dismisses him on live TV. The dialogue, and Ferrell's physical reaction and obvious uncomfortableness even being there are priceless. The movie cuts ahead to three years later, where Rick has now been reduced to teaching a science class to uninterested preteens. He is approached by a woman named Holly Cantrell (Anna Friel), a young scientist who actually believes in his theories and ideas, and wants to help continue them. Using his device, they discover a possible gateway to another world, which just happens to be located in the Devil's Canyon Mystery Cave - a tourist trap attraction run by a redneck named Will Stanton (Danny McBride). They enter the cave, only to discover their theory is all too real, and that the gateway does exist.

This is where our interest should pick up, but oddly enough, this is when Land of the Lost begins to lose steam. While there are still some funny one-liners here and there, there is no sense of adventure, wonder, or real wit. It also seems to lose all sense of plot right about the point they enter the alternate world. Oh sure, there's some business about a race of lizard people called the Sleestak who want Rick's dimensional device to take over other worlds. There's also a T-Rex that pursues them whom they dub "Grumpy", who does indeed seem to hold a grudge against Rick for some reason, but really is just suffering from some intestinal blockage as we learn from a gross-out gag late in the film. Finally, there's Cha-Ka (Jorma Taccone), a "missing link" ape-human creature who talks gibberish (though Holly is able to understand him due to her work with apes), and is supposed to guide them through this strange new world, but mainly supplies the film with inappropriate drug and sexual humor. (He has a knack for touching Holly's breasts and humping Rick's leg.) The entire time they were in this strange dimension of dinosaurs, giant insects, and lizard people felt like it was completely improvised there on the set. Despite the credits telling me that two screenwriters worked on this (Chris Henchy and Dennis McNicholas), it's complete lack of plot and structure, and over-reliance on one-liners from Ferrell and McBride made me assume otherwise.

I got the sense that the studio had an unfinished script, and thought Ferrell's comedy and the nostalgia of the franchise would be enough to bring people in. While there is certainly comic energy to be found in certain scenes (most of which unfortunately have been given away in the trailers), it's just not enough. I liked the world that the set designers had created. It's a strange place where different races and time periods collide. I was intrigued by the scene where the heroes are walking through the desert, and pass by partially submerged motel and gas station signs, as well as fighter planes from past wars. Unfortunately, that's all the movie treats it as - background. It never stops to explain this world, or truly explore its possibilities. It seems like a cruel tease when we can see so much wonder in the background, but the movie focuses our attention on Will Ferrell sticking his hand down his pants for a little "self-pleasuring". Director Brad Silberling (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events) does throw in some subtle references from the show for the fans, and has also given the film a charmingly low key look to its special effects. But, the whole product itself is so aimless and sometimes uninspired that it's hard to pay attention even to the stuff that does work.

So, back to the question on how to rate it. While the movie is heavily flawed, it did have a certain anarchistic sense of humor that appealed to me. Even when the gags did not hit, I admired the movie for at least trying. There are also some funny throwaway lines. I liked it when the heroes entered a seemingly-endless plane of existence hidden within a small space, and one of them commented that it was like Snoopy's doghouse. Also, you should understand that I was never a fan of the original TV program. When I was a child, the show was in reruns, and quite frankly I was more interested in the adventures of He-Man, G.I. Joe, and the Autobots. Therefore, I cannot really claim to know how the nostalgic fanbase will react. I can only judge it on my own reaction, which is severely mixed. I liked some of what I saw, and was less interested in other parts. Land of the Lost is the reason why I don't give an official rating for the movies I review with stars or an overall score. It's neither a success nor a failure.

But, if it really came down to it, I would probably give it two stars out of four. It comes dangerously close to being offensive at times, but manages to keep a certain bizarre charm. I have a feeling that a lot of this movie's problems stem from the editing room, and no one being really sure which way to take the film. It ends up being pulled in all directions, and never really seems that sure of itself. Or maybe the wonder the movie needed just wasn't there to begin with. Land of the Lost may not be a great movie, but it's given me a lot to think about.

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Friday, June 05, 2009

The Hangover

Here is a movie that has "word of mouth hit" written over it. The Hangover is not afraid to embrace it's R-rating, and can sometimes be crude. But it is never offensive, and is extremely likable throughout. It's also absolutely hilarious. It's the kind of movie where the laughs actually build. First, you laugh at the set up, then the movie surprises you by actually living up to its potential with nearly every gag. The fact that a lot of the things the characters say is actually funny helps, also. When you see as many failed comedies as I do, seeing a movie with big laughs throughout is a true blessing.

Much like this year's earlier release, I Love You, Man, The Hangover can best be described as a "bro-mantic comedy". This is the better movie, though. It's a story about three guys bonding during a Las Vegas outing that turns disastrous. It may not exactly be a deep movie, but the three friends have their charm, and actually endear themselves to us over time. The guys in question are Phil (Bradley Cooper), the unofficial leader of the three, Alan (Zach Galifianakis, wonderful here), whose bushy beard and stocky frame hide a child-like innocence, and Stu (Ed Helms), a neurotic and henpecked dentist who has managed to convince himself he is happy with his controlling live-in girlfriend (Rachael Harris), and even plans to propose to her, even though she frequently ridicules him and avoids his advances for affection. They come to Vegas for a bachelor party, as their shared friend Doug (Justin Bartha) is just two days away from getting married. They check into a $4,000+ suite, and prepare for the night of their lives.

At least that's the last thing they remember before they wake up in the morning, discovering that the suite has been completely turned upside down, and they can't remember a thing from the night before, since they spent most of it in a drug and alcohol-fueled binge. Doug, the groom-to-be, has mysteriously gone missing, there's a tiger in the bathroom, Stu is missing a tooth, and there's an abandoned baby in the closet. Phil, Alan, and Stu find themselves racing around Vegas, piecing together the few vague clues they discover about what happened, and just where Doug could be. During that night, Stu apparently married a sexy but sweet-natured hooker (Heather Graham), they stole a police car, for some reason there's a very angry naked Asian man locked in the trunk of that car, and they somehow broke into Mike Tyson's private mansion, and stole his prized tiger. Tyson's appearance has been heavily promoted in the film's ad campaign, but what it does not show is just what a good sport he is, ridiculing his own image in what is actually a minor supporting role, rather than the glorified cameo I was expecting.

The thin premise, which mostly revolves the guys running around looking for answers, leads to some genuinely funny scenes, such as when they find themselves unwilling participants in a stun gun demonstration, or when they have to transport the drugged tiger back to Tyson's house. It's more than the situations, though. The movie has a real ear for dialogue. It's not the usual snappy one liners, though there are plenty of those. There's an intelligence to the humor that lets you know some thought was put into it. Surprisingly, the screenplay is credited to Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, whose past efforts include the average Four Christmases, and the awful Ghosts of Girlfriends Past from just last month. My only explanation is that their minds were on other things when they were writing those, and this movie somehow liberated them. (Although I've heard there were a lot of script changes on the set, so I could be wrong.) There are moments where the laughs and the energy sag a little, but they don't last long.

More than the writing, it is the chemistry and energy of the cast that draws us in. The movie's been perfectly cast, and in Zach Galifianakis (an actor who's been working for over 10 years, but makes his first big impression here), it's found a star who is sure to win over just about anyone who watches it. His portrayal of the crude but sweet and simple-minded Alan is the perfect mixture of vulgarity and charm. He's the kind of guy who can be amused by the tiniest things, and genuinely seems disappointed when he finds out that the real Caesar does not live in the Caesar's Palace hotel and casino. But, he's also genuinely concerned about the missing Doug, and doesn't want to let his new friends down. Also likable is Ed Helms, who is funny and sympathetic as the put-upon Stu, who learns how to stand up for himself and truly live during the course of the film. He also gets some sweet moments with Heather Graham, so much so that I wish they had more screen time together. Helms is a comic actor who has been cursed with some film clunkers in the past, such as last summer's Eddie Murphy flop, Meet Dave. This movie and role will hopefully turn the tide.

As I was watching The Hangover, I was delighted to discover that I wasn't the only one getting big laughs out of it. The entire audience was, and that's a wonderful shared experience. I have a strong feeling that this will join the ranks of Superbad, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Tropic Thunder as adult summer comedies that grow due to word of mouth. That's my hope, anyway. I, for one, know that I'll be telling people about this movie. Hopefully it finds its place amongst the blockbusters.

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