Reel Opinions

Friday, July 31, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer is a light and fluffy summer comedy with a little bit of a dark edge underneath. This is clear right after the studio logo fades, and we get a brief personal message from the filmmaker, which states the movie is not based on any real events or people, then goes on to call out and insult a former lover by name. The movie does seem to certainly be inspired by real experiences. The feelings of love and loss that the main character, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), goes through are too honest not to be. With Hollywood seemingly churning out the same romantic comedies over and over, here's one that gets it mostly right.

Tom is a young man who aspires to be an architect, but like so many of us, has become settled in a lesser job that obviously doesn't interest him. He writes greeting cards, and although his boss constantly praises his work, he feels unfulfilled. An off camera narrator informs us that Tom feels he won't be truly happy until he finds the woman he's destined to spend his life with. He picked up this belief early on after listening to too many British pop songs growing up. He believes he's found his fated girlfriend when Summer (Zooey Deschanel) arrives at his job as his boss' new assistant. She seems hard to read as a person at first, and he gets conflicting reports as to what she's like from his friends at work. But then, they share an elevator together, and he learns that they share the same taste in music. This is enough for Tom to build a friendship with Summer, one that seems to be building to something more as the days go on.

Most romantic comedies would take this premise, and put the characters through the cliched ringer, but screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Webber (whose previous credit was The Pink Panther 2, clearly a project they did not have their hearts in) make the characters and the script itself a little bit smarter than we expect. What happens if one person is in love more than the other? What if they're looking for different things in the same relationship? It's something that happens everyday in real life, but seldom happens in movies. Tom clearly thinks Summer is "the one", and that he is destined to spend his life with her. Summer, however, doesn't believe in true love. At least that's what she says when they first sit down and talk to each other in a bar. But, there's an obvious connection. Their relationship grows stronger and becomes intimate, and at least to Tom, everything seems perfect. But there are little signs that Summer does not see things the same way he does. Tom doesn't see the signs, and at first, neither do we. But they become more telling as the movie goes on.

Tom and Summer are two of the most honest and likable leads I've come across in a romantic comedy in a while. They are real people. We identify with them in just about every way. We understand Tom's elation when the relationship seems to be getting more intimate, and we feel his loss when he begins to realize he's been ignoring so much for so long, and that Summer never once saw things the same way he did. The movie never once hits a false note during their scenes together. What I loved about the relationship is how the movie shows them doing everyday things - Going to movies, shopping at IKEA, visiting music stores - Things we seldom see characters do in films, unless the scene is important to the plot, or there's some dramatic revelation. Their relationship is never once contrived, and feels like it was built on memories instead of cliches. Likewise, the performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are very realistic. It doesn't sound like they're reciting scripted dialogue. Even their final scene together (a poignant and sad, yet somewhat uplifting, scene in a park) is free of the usual Hollywood drama, and feels like two genuine people who have gone through a lot together in the past year or so, and are a little bit smarter about each other.

It's a good thing that (500) Days of Summer focuses so much on their relationship, because there are some moments outside of the lead characters that don't seem to have been given much attention. The movie is told out of sequence, which doesn't really add much to the story. It fortunately doesn't get too confusing, it just didn't seem necessary. There's also a song and dance sequence to show Tom's joy over his relationship with Summer that seems out of place with the rest of the movie, since it's so over the top in its fantasy. Tom starts strutting down the street to "You Make My Dreams (Come True)" by Hall and Oates, and soon, the entire neighborhood is dancing along with him, complete with a marching band and animated Disney bluebirds fluttering about. I understand what the scene was trying to express, but it goes on long after we get the point and the joke. The characters outside of Tom and Summer also don't seem to have been given as much thought or attention. Tom's boss often comes across as being clueless, such as when he sees his employee is depressed over his relationship troubles, so he decides to put Tom on writing sympathy cards. Tom also has two best friends (Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler), who seem like they wandered into the movie from a failed sitcom pilot. Same goes for the wise preteen girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), who Tom is constantly seeking dating advice from, but never develops or comes across as an actual character in the story.

(500) Days of Summer gets everything so right with the lead characters, it's a shame that the movie surrounding them isn't as strong. I almost wish the screenwriters had just dumped everything and everyone else, and just focused on Tom and Summer. They make the movie worth seeing. On my way home, I found myself wondering what happened to them after the movie ended. It's not that I wanted to see them in a sequel, it's just I started thinking about where I think they would have gone after the end credits rolled. How many times have you done that at the end of a movie?

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Ugly Truth

There's a moment where The Ugly Truth seems to be self-aware. It comes at the very end, when the lead actors, Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, are in a hot air balloon. Well, they're supposed to be in a hot air balloon, but the obvious green screen effect kills the illusion. Their characters have hated each other for most of the movie, but wouldn't you know it, they've started to fall for each other. Butler finally admits his feelings, and Heigl asks him why he's in love with her. He says he doesn't know. That right there is the problem the entire movie has.

The Ugly Truth gives us two characters who share very little romantic on-screen time together, but expects us to want them to get together anyway. Their relationship (which makes up the last 20 minutes or so of the movie) almost seems like an afterthought. Their characters are supposed to be complete polar opposites who despise each other from the get-go, but slowly warm up to each other. I guess the studio is hoping we have short memory spans, and forget we saw this moldy plot just last month in The Proposal. That movie ended up working, thanks to the chemistry of its two stars. Heigl and Butler just don't have the connection to make this movie work. Few actors would. It's an uncomfortable blend of 1940s romantic comedy plotting, and present day raunch and sex humor. At least when this plot was used in the 40s, they spared us the scene when the female lead has an orgasm while trying to give a business speech, because she's wearing electronic vibrating underwear.

Heigl plays Abby Richter, a demanding control freak who produces a low-rated morning news show. She's also unlucky in love, due to the fact she's very controlling and demanding on her dates. Her boss at the TV studio wants to boost the ratings on her show, so he brings Mike Chadway (Butler) onto the team. Mike is the boorish and crude host of a cable access show called The Ugly Truth, where he delights in destroying the myths and ideas of love and relationships. Think Howard Stern giving dating advice, and you've got a pretty good mental picture. Mike is brought on as a regular segment on the news show, and on his very first episode, he ridicules the lead husband and wife news anchors and their sex life. His second segment involves scantily clad women wrestling in a pool of Jell-o. Abby is disgusted, but Mike is a hit, and the show's ratings go through the roof, so she has to keep him on. Mike and Abby are constantly at odds with each other on and off the set. But of course, Mike's not all bad. He looks after his sister's kid, hinting that he has a soft side.

Meanwhile, Abby has fallen for a handsome and seemingly-perfect young surgeon named Colin (Eric Winter), who lives across from her. She meets him when her cat accidentally knocks over her goldfish bowl, she chases the cat outside, it runs up the neighbor's tree, she climbs up after it, sees Colin naked having just gotten out of the shower, falls from the tree, and he treats her injured ankle. (Happens all the time...) Abby thinks she's finally found Mr. Right, but Mike insists she's going about it all wrong, and that if she follows his methods, Colin will fall in love with her. He's so confident Abby will be successful if she does what he says, he's willing to risk his job on the show. Abby agrees, and Mike starts following along on her dates with Colin, feeding her advice through a hidden earpiece microphone. Funny thing, Mike's advice actually works, and her relationship with Colin grows. Another funny thing: Abby and Mike start seeing each other in a different light and realize to their shock (but not ours) that maybe they are the ones who are right for each other. But the funniest thing of all is that the movie forgets to give the two leads a real reason to fall in love with each other. Only reason I could come up with is because the names of the actors playing them are above the title.

It's bad enough that The Ugly Truth follows a well-worn path, but what makes it worse is that there's absolutely nothing for us to care about. Heigl and Butler do what they can with their flimsy characters, but they can only do so much. Butler seems less interested in trying to get Heigl to fall in love with him, and more involved with making sure he doesn't drop out of his fake American accent. The film's screenplay, which is credited to three different women (surprising, given the film's sexist and unflattering view of women it usually has), is also never as funny as it should be. There are a lot of scenes that should be funny (like the previously mentioned vibrating underwear scene), but the energy isn't there, or it goes on too long. It also revels in crude humor and four-letter words, almost as if it thinks these are enough to spice up the cliched formula. It's not, obviously, and it comes across as a strained effort. If the movie cared half as much about its characters as it did about having frank discussions about sexual acts, it might have been on to something.

The worst offense The Ugly Truth pulls is that it is completely uninspired. It's not bad enough to induce rage, but it doesn't really leave any impression. It's yet another in a long line of forgettable Hollywood romantic comedies that have been programmed to be as crowd pleasing as possible, yet end up being completely generic. Things have gotten so sad that The Proposal is staring to look like a shining example of the genre, whereas in better days, it would have been treated as the fluffy little time waster that it is. At least I still remember that movie a month after seeing it. I doubt I'll remember much of The Ugly Truth come August.

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I knew I was not in very good hands fairly early on in Orphan. In the film's opening scene, Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) suffers a gruesome nightmare about the stillborn birth of her daughter. The scene is a gruesome and pointless opening, but that's not what bothered me. What bothered me is what came afterward. Kate goes into the bathroom to calm her nerves after waking up from her dream, and the camera "stalks" her, almost as if the movie wants us to think something dangerous is sneaking up behind her. Of course, we're only two minutes into the thing, and the villain hasn't even shown up yet, so we know she's not in any danger. Who is the movie trying to kid? I also laughed when Kate opened the medicine cabinet door, and it made a deafening shriek of a squeak, its sound heavily intensified on the soundtrack. It's almost like the door knows it's in a horror movie.

It's an early warning that Orphan is not exactly going to be a subtle movie, but that couldn't even prepare me for how ludicrous and idiotic the film would eventually become. If this was just your standard "killer child" movie, like The Bad Seed, I could deal with it. But Orphan is a tacky, manipulative piece of trash that is not scary in the least. It made me squirm, but for all the wrong reasons. I was never scared or disturbed by the movie, I was restless from the film's overly long two hour running time and leisurely pace. The "shock" moments that are supposed to make us jump are heavy-handed and ham-fisted. And the film's final twist seems more like a cop out than a shocker. The ending is supposed to explain all the terrible things we've seen in the film, which skirt around the issues of pedophilia and child endangerment. Rather than tackle these issues head on, the movie gives us a "reason" at the end that is not only implausible, but also cheap.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. After the opening scene, we learn that Kate is a recovering alcoholic. Her husband, John (Peter Sarsgaard) tries his best to be supportive, but we can tell from early on that he's at his wit's end. The couple have two children - a little girl named Max (Aryana Engineer) who is deaf after an accident, and a son named Daniel (Jimmy Bennett). After the miscarriage of their last child, which still weighs heavily over the couple, Kate and John decide they should adopt. They head off to the local orphanage, where the kindly old nun, Sister Abigail (CCH Pounder), shows them many happy and rambunctious kids. But John is drawn to one little withdrawn girl sitting alone in a room, painting pictures. That girl is Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a girl who is well-mannered, polite, and talented. Maybe a bit too well-mannered and polite. There seems to be something a little off about her. Maybe it's her deep Russian accent and her mature and mannered way of speaking, which makes her sound like a pre-adolescent James Bond villain. Even Sister Abigail eyes her suspiciously. But, Kate and John welcome the girl into their lives.

Esther comes across as a "golden child", even if she doesn't fit into the family all that well. While she bonds well with John and little Max, young Daniel is kind of creeped out by his new adopted sister, and Kate eventually grows some suspicions as well. The little tyke seems almost cunning and manipulative at times. And why does Esther always wear those ribbons around her neck and her wrists at all times? And why does she scream like she's being murdered when someone tries to remove them? Kate is concerned, but John thinks Kate is wrong. John is the kind of character who exists solely to be wrong throughout the movie, and not listen to reason even when the truth is staring him right in the face. When Esther starts to show some rather aggressive tendencies (she pushes a bully off the playground equipment), and Kate voices her concern, John just brushes her off. Something he'll keep on doing when Esther begins to move to murder. Her first victim is Sister Abigail, who pays a visit to the couple's home to tell them something she probably should have said back at the orphanage - People have a tendency to die and get hurt in strange accidents around the little girl. Her last parents died in an arson fire, although no arsonist was ever found or charged. As Abigail is driving back to the orphanage after sharing this information with Kate and John, little Esther stages a car accident then beats the woman to death with a hammer when she tries to escape.

The movie falls into a predictable pattern from that point on. Esther goes on a murderous rampage, wiping out anyone who upsets her or may know information about her past. Kate begins to fear for her life and the life of her children, but John continues to be oblivious to the obvious. Not even the fact that their son's treehouse spontaneously combusted in a gasoline fire with the boy inside it is enough to convince the dope. Orphan displays Esther's evil deeds in such a tactless and manipulative way, since almost all of her actions involve the other children. There's a scene where little Esther teaches Max how to play Russian Roulette with daddy's handgun. She also likes to take her new little sister skating on that particularly thin patch of ice, and threaten Daniel at knife point in the middle of the night. These scenes are supposed to shock and terrify us, but they only had me wondering what the parents of these child actors were thinking when they agreed to let them appear in this. Did they even read the script, or were they just so thrilled that their kids were going to be in a movie? The fact that two of the three main kids are experienced actors with past credits leads me to think the parents were thinking only of the money.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (2005's House of Wax) frequently seems to be at war with himself, and unsure of what kind of movie he's making. Sometimes he seems to think he's making a psychological thriller, but the movie isn't quite smart enough for that, so he decides to turn to moldy slasher cliches. (Hint: The villain is never down for good the first time they go down.) During the film's final moments, Esther loses all manipulation, and goes into all-out monster mode, knocking out the power in the house, leaping out of shadows screaming with a knife, and becoming a nearly invincible killing machine. If the reveal of Esther's true identity killed what little integrity the movie had, then the final moments buried it in the ground. Ask yourself this question while you're watching the film's final 10 minutes - How did Kate get out of the hospital without anyone stopping her? I don't want to go too deep into spoiler territory, but the ending builds to such ludicrous levels that the only thing keeping me in my seat was seeing how much further it would go, and how many more cliches it would lift.

Despite it all, you can see a lot of talent went into the film. The performances are mostly strong, especially young Aryana Engineer, who brings a lot of sympathy to her character as the couple's deaf daughter. It's also well shot and uses its winter landscape to its advantage. But so what? At its core, Orphan is a joyless little movie that doesn't even manage to generate any real scares. It just makes you wonder what the filmmakers were thinking, and what Leonardo DiCaprio's name is doing on the credits as one of the film's producers?

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Friday, July 24, 2009


Compared to Disney's last live action-talking CG animal movie, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, G-Force is certainly a step up. It's inoffensive, it doesn't wear out its welcome, and the cast is spirited and game. Well, at least the cast voicing the animals are. There's a disconnect between them and the live action cast, who seem to know that their talents are being wasted in this movie. The film exists as an excuse to show off the special effects work, which is impressive at times, and sometimes seems like an out of control video game. At the very least, it should entertain kids in the single digit area.

The premise is at least kind of cute. Four rodents have been trained to be special spy agents for the FBI. Their human handler and trainer is Ben (Zach Galifianakis, a long way from The Hangover here), who believes his G-Force team can be an invaluable help to humankind. He's taught them to be stealthful, smart, and cool under pressure when they're infiltrating the base of the villain, Saber (Bill Nighy), a former weapons dealer turned billionaire electronics manufacturer, whom Ben believes still has global domination plans. The team itself is mostly made up of guinea pigs including group leader Darwin (voice by Sam Rockwell), Juarez (Penelope Cruz), Blaster (Tracy Morgan), and a mole named Speckles (Nicolas Cage). In the film's opening scene, they successfully break into and steal some top secret computer info from Saber's mansion. Unfortunately, the FBI itself is not impressed, and sends one of their agents (Will Arnett) to shut the animal spy program down. The rodents are shipped off to a pet store, escape with the help of another guinea pig named Hurley (Jon Favreau), and must find their way back to Ben before Saber's plan can be executed.

Despite the presence of five different writers at the screenplay level, G-Force is pretty thin in the plot department. A majority of the movie is divided between over the top action sequences where the G-Force team dodge government agents and giant killer robots made out of common household appliances (Which bear a striking and not-too subtle resemblance to certain giant robots starring in another summer blockbuster that has grossed over $300 million so far...), and preachy "message" scenes where the rodents lecture each other about the importance of family and sticking together. The movie is nice to look at, but not so much to listen to. The strong visuals are not surprising when you consider the director, Hoyt Yeatman, is a special effects veteran who's been working in the business for over 30 years. The effects work on the animals is convincing, which is important, since they're the real stars of the movie. They have a surprising amount of personality, and the voice actors (especially Cruz, Rockwell, Favreau, Cage, and Steve Buscemi as a bitter little hamster they're forced to share a cage with at the pet store) all give lively line readings, and seem to be having fun.

The problem lies not with the production values or the animals themselves, but what is coming out of their mouths, and the mouths of their human co-stars. Kids probably won't mind so much, but adults might tire of the fact that the animals say nothing but one-liners and catch phrases like "This is off the hook!" for the entirety of the film. Given the actors at the microphone, I wish the filmmakers at let them improvise and let them use their comic gifts a little bit more. Still, at least the animals make some sort of impression. The entire human cast is disposable. Poor Bill Nighy gets about four scenes tops, and doesn't even get to do anything all that evil to the little creatures pestering him. As G-Force's lead human, Galifianakis seems to have his mind on other things, as does Kelli Garner, who plays his assistant Marcie. She has so little dialogue in the film, I sometimes forgot she was there. I have to wonder what most of the cast did to pass the time when they were shooting their scenes, since they spend most of their screen time standing in the background, looking at things that aren't really there.

G-Force was produced by action movie-mogul, Jerry Bruckheimer, and it really does feel like a more family friendly version of one of his adult films. It's wall-to-wall action and special effects, and total in-one-ear and out-the-other entertainment. I understand that I'm not quite the target audience for the film, but I found it tolerable. I probably wouldn't want to sit through it again, but at least it's paced well and doesn't drag on. If you have kids, take them and have fun. If you don't, this movie has nothing to offer you.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

I believe I'm beginning to detect a hint of a formula with the Harry Potter franchise. Don't get me wrong, they're still strong films. But with Half-Blood Prince, I found myself a little more restless than in previous entries. Much like the last few films, the movie tries to balance its focus on our young heroes getting older, noticing their personal feelings a little bit more, and their relationships getting stronger. While this is happening, we keep on getting ominous signs that "something is happening" behind the scenes. Dark clouds loom, and even darker figures lurk in the shadows. Even the cheery halls of Hogwarts don't seem quite so cheery anymore. I remember the first time I saw the grand dining hall in the original film, and thought it was so whimsical and inviting. Now, not so much, and I don't think it's because the wonder is wearing off on me.

As just about everyone knows, the story is starting to wind up for the ultimate showdown by this point. Half-Blood Prince exists almost solely to set up the last installment, which will be divided up into two separate films to be released in 2010 and 2011. Fans of the books obviously already know how it turns out. But those like me who mainly know the Potter saga from the films will no doubt be intrigued by the possibilities this movie promises at. And yet, that's what this movie seems to be most of the time. Promises, and lots of 'em. They are intriguing promises, no doubt. We are learning a little bit more about Harry's true destiny, about what really happened in the past, about how a seemingly innocent young wizard named Tom Riddle (Frank Dillane) became Voldemort, the most feared wizard in existence, who seems to be on the verge of staging a major comeback tour, that will probably spell the end of wizard and Muggle kind. The past few films have been leading up to this, and the latest one certainly lives up to our expectations, and creates more than a few new ones. It may have held my interest, but I couldn't help but get the feeling that it was all one big tease for the grand finale, which of course it is. Give the viewer just enough to want to come back for more.

As Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) enters his sixth year at Hogwarts, he is immediately approached by the wise old headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) to earn the trust of a professor by the name of Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). Horace was previously a recluse, but has been convinced by Dumbledore to return to the school and be the professor for the potions class. Dumbledore's reason is that Horace apparently knows some information that would be useful for the impending return of Voldemort, as he apparently held an important private meeting with the young Tom Riddle at a crucial time in his path to becoming the "Dark One". Horace is not willing to share the information he knows, but if Harry can earn his trust, they just might be able to fight back with their knowledge. There's more at stake, obviously. The Death Eaters, loyal follows of Voldemort, are increasing their attacks (they destroy the Millennium Bridge in an impressive opening scene), and Potter's long-time bully and nemesis, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is acting a lot stranger and more aggressive than usual.

It all builds, quite successfully, to a climax in an underground cave where dark secrets are hidden and revealed. It's all very strong and engaging stuff, and it's equally engaging to see the characters whom we have known from the first film have changed, and how the upcoming events will effect them. What's not so strong and engaging is the film's secondary storyline, which unfortunately seems to hijack a large majority of the story's middle section. This involves a complex love triangle/feud that revolves around Harry, his two best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), and the young women and men who walk in and out of their lives. The screenplay by Steve Kloves (who has written most of the Potter adaptations) seems to be spinning its wheels during these segments. Yes, it's nice to see the familiar faces, and also nice to see a full game of Quidditch again, which hasn't made a real appearance in the film franchise for a while now. But, many of the returning characters don't seem to play a very important role in this entry. Dumbledore aids Harry in his investigations into Voldemort's past, but the rest of the returning Hogwarts staff seem to be reduced to mere cameos, while Ron and Hermione's love-related subplots just don't have that much punch.

I still found myself admiring the film, though I was not quite as involved as in the past. A lot of this has to do with the formula I mentioned earlier. It's getting easier to predict the movies, even not having read most of the original books. We get more ominous foreshadowing, Harry learns a little bit more about his destiny, Ron and Hermione show up for comic relief and romantic tension, but have little actual bearing on anything that's really going on, and we get a few tantalizing tidbits near the end to make us anticipate what's coming. It's the same stuff that's been happening for a while now, and while it still works, it's staring to look the same to me. I have a feeling that the next two films might break with tradition. At least that's my hope. The movie still looks as wonderful as ever, perhaps even more so with its dark tones. The performances are still at the top of their games, and the characters are as likable as they were since Sorcerer's Stone.

Maybe that's the problem. As much as things are beginning to change, they are also remaining the same. Please don't read this as a negative review. Fans are sure to like it, and those who have found something to like in the past films will find something to like here, as well. If this review seems a little less enthusiastic than in the past, maybe it's just because I'm waiting for something to come along that really shakes things up. I know it's coming, and while I'm enjoying the set up, Half-Blood Prince seems to drag its feet just a little. This is just as strong a film as the earlier installments, I think I'm just ready for the big showdown already.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

I Love You, Beth Cooper

About halfway through I Love You, Beth Cooper, I went out to get a refill on my soda. At the refill station, I overheard a couple of the theater employees talking about Bruno. I joined in the conversation, and we started recalling our favorite moments. Talking about the movie I had seen yesterday was more fun than the movie I was presently watching. If I could, I would have preferred to have continued the conversation, rather than walk back into the theater and finish watching the movie.

But, I soldiered on, returned to my seat, and watched the rest of the movie. Now I can report that Beth Cooper is one of the most misguided and misdirected teen comedies to come along in a while. It's as if the movie had been designed to rub me the wrong way. Let's start with the film's hero, Denis Cooverman. He's supposed to be a geeky and nerdy high school student, but he's not the likable sort of nerdy type. He's kind of rat-faced, and he talks with this nasally tone of voice that grated on me. The fact that he's played by a 28-year-old actor named Paul Rust, who looked too old to be playing the character to begin with, didn't help matters. The character is whiny, annoying, and seems like a bad cliche come to life. If he's bad, his best friend is worse. The best friend is Rich Munsch (Jack Carpenter), a character whose running gag is that he may or may not be gay, and that he is an obsessive film geek. He's so obsessive, he constantly quotes movie lines in his dialogue, then lists the movie it's from, who directed it, and the year it came out. I have met many film geeks in my life, and have had the good fortune to never meet anyone who felt the need to talk like Rich does in this movie. That's the first problem - They don't talk like real people. These are sitcom characters, and not very good ones. Besides, someone should inform Rich that Scarface with Al Pacino came out in 1983, not 82 as he claims at one point.

Onto the plot - It's Graduation Day at their high school, and Denis has been chosen to give the speech to his classmates before the diplomas are handed out. Rich has convinced his friend to confess his true feelings for Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere from TV's Heroes) in his speech. Beth is the head cheerleader, the most popular girl in school, and Denis has secretly pined for her since the 7th Grade. The only problem? Beth is dating a coked up, violent, anti-social military reject named Kevin (Shawn Roberts). Denis takes his chances, confesses his feelings for Beth in front of the entire school, and also decides to air out his feelings about some of his other classmates, such as the kid who always bullied him, and the stuck up girl who was always mean to him. Watch this scene, and you can see so many ways that it goes wrong. Hardly anyone in the audience reacts while Denis is going on and venting his personal feelings and frustrations. There are some uncomfortable glances from the few people he points out, but everyone else seems to be silent and static. You would think there'd be cheering, or laughing, or the teachers would be trying to wrestle the microphone out of his hand. But no, everyone just sits there, not even reacting. Maybe they all read the script in advance, so they're not surprised when Denis turns the speech into an opportunity to air his personal dirty laundry.

This is an early omen of bad things to come. There are many sequences in Beth Cooper that are badly staged and carried out that you'd think the people involved had no experience making films. Sadly, this is not true. The director is Chris Columbus, who has been making movies for over 20 years, and directed the first two Harry Potter films. The writer is Larry Doyle, who used to write for The Simpsons. He also wrote the novel the movie is based on. I've not read it, and probably won't be going out of my way to correct that fact. The plot seems to be a Frankenstein's Monster made up of the various parts of past teen comedies, mostly the 80s library of John Hughes. Doyle has the formula down, but he has sucked out all the charm, pacing, and humor out of it. Hughes would have made these characters interesting, or at least human. The movie does try to humanize these people. They get some moments where they open up and are supposed to be revealing they're deeper than we initially thought, but it doesn't work, due to the heavy handed tone of these moments. The false tone of these scenes actually managed to make me hate these characters even more.

Back to the plot - After Denis' declaration of love, Beth and her two girlfriends stop by his house. Apparently the speech struck some kind of chord with her. Unfortunately, Kevin and his henchmen have followed her, and try to kill Denis. The kids escape with their lives, and the remainder of the movie follows Denis, Beth, Rich, and Beth's friends as they hit graduation parties, hang out, and open up to each other. The main hook of the movie is that Denis is supposed to see Beth for the person she truly is, not just an object of desire, by the end of the night. Beth is also supposed to open her eyes to his charms as well. The problem is, the movie never seems to have a firm grasp on the characters. They change personalities depending on the current mood of the screenplay. One moment, they're opening up about how no one understands them and they feel isolated, the next they're tipping cows and falling over manure. Beth Cooper, in particular, goes through so many personality shifts and mood swings during the course of the film, I was waiting for the scene to come that would reveal she suffers from multiple personalities. Sometimes she's sweet and sympathetic, sometimes she's sexy and manipulative (she performs an off camera sexual act on a clerk at a store so she can get liquor without I.D.), but most of the time she seems to have a death wish, judging by the fact she constantly drives recklessly, cutting off other drivers and smashing into anything that's not glued to the ground. Despite her best efforts, Panettiere never locks into a stable performance that we believe in.

The comedy feels forced and off-key throughout. Not only did I not like these characters, I wasn't laughing with them or at them. They were just unpleasant. The movie almost seems to realize this, and jumps through hoops to make them sympathetic in the last half hour or so. They hang out at a cabin that belongs to a relative, and it's here that Beth and Denis start to open up with each other. We learn that Beth had an older brother who died when she was very young from an unnamed disease (a fact that has little bearing on the character, and seems to come out of left field), and she's afraid her best days are behind her now that high school is over, and she's no longer going to be able to get by on her popularity. Once again, I feel the need to reference John Hughes. Not only did he cover this kind of stuff 20 years ago, he did it better. The moments where the characters are supposed to be the most human seem to be on autopilot. I guess the filmmakers figured why break tradition, since the rest of the movie seems to be as well. The plot is generic, the characters are broad, and there's not a single moment or scene we can't predict the outcome as soon as it starts, and not be right. The timing is also off throughout. It's missing the manic energy that a movie like this needs.

I Love You, Beth Cooper is a surprisingly awful movie made with a surprising amount of ineptitude. I didn't walk in expecting to be blown away, but I didn't expect the movie to just hit the wrong note from the very first scene, and continue all the way down the line. You know you're in trouble when there's a scene concerning the hero's parents using a vibrating cell phone as a sex toy, and it's not the worst scene in the movie. I think that says enough right there.

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I think it's safe for anyone to assume after watching Bruno that comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen should probably try to find a new line of work after this movie. It's not that I don't think he's talented, or that I want him to stop making movies. I just can't imagine there are any more envelopes he can push, any more boundaries he can cross, or any more people he can try to offend. He covers all the bases here, and the end result is a movie you're probably not ready for. Despite what I had read or heard in advance, I know I wasn't. And that's what I loved about this movie.

I laughed a lot watching Bruno, even if I wasn't always proud of myself for doing so. But, that's the whole point. Cohen reunites with his Borat director, Larry Charles, and has created a comedy so raw, it made me question many times while watching it where the R-rating ends and where the NC-17 begins. The MPAA certainly doesn't seem to know. Despite what the description of the film's rating states, I don't think children should be allowed to watch this, even with an accompanying adult. Film critic Roger Ebert has for years stated that there should be an "Adult" rating, since studios seem to be completely opposed to labeling their films anything harder than an R for financial reasons. NC-17 is treated like a kiss of death in Hollywood, so they bend over backwards and sometimes argue with the rating board to get the lesser rating. This means that a relatively tame movie, such as Away We Go, shares the same rating as something like this. There needs to be a better system in order to separate the tamer adult movies (which would be R), from the harder films (which would be "Adult"). NC-17 isn't working, obviously, since no one wants to use it, so there has to be a rating that filmmakers are actually willing to implement.

Okay, time to get off my soapbox and talk about why the movie does work. Bruno himself is another creation of Cohen's from his days on The Ali G Show. He's a flamboyantly gay (putting it mildly) fashion expert from Austria, and host of a TV show devoted to what's hot and not in the fashion and celebrity world. The opening moments revolve around Bruno giving us a guided tour of his life. We see him on the job, we see him at home, and we see his sex life with his gay pygmy lover. Bruno's world is shattered when he has an unfortunate incident at a fashion show while wearing a suit made entirely out of Velcro. It's a great bit of slapstick comedy, and Cohen pulls it off so well, he makes it look effortless. Unfortunately, the incident makes Bruno out to be a laughing stock of the fashion world, and he is fired from his job, as well as losing everything he has, including the pygmy. Since he has been disgraced in his native land, Bruno decides to head to America in order to become a celebrity. He's accompanied by his assistant, Lutz (Gustaf Hammaresten), and an off camera film crew who document his journey for fame.

Much like Borat, the plot is just an excuse to hang a series of sequences where Cohen and the filmmakers can skewer American values and beliefs with a satirical knife, and then pour salt on the open wound. The movie is staged like a documentary, following Bruno and his attempts to be famous, and the reaction of the people around him to his outrageous antics. Some of the sequences are staged, but many are real, and are the result of just throwing this Bruno character into real world situations, with people who don't know who this person is or what the heck is going on. Victims in the movie include former Presidential candidate Ron Paul (who enters a hotel room with Bruno under the impression he is to be interviewed, only to discover that Bruno wishes to film a sex tape with him), Christian pastors who believe they can cure gays, rednecks, the military, Paula Abdul, and pretty much the entire state of Arkansas by the look of it. There are moments where you actually fear for Cohen's safety in some of the situations he puts his character in. An example is a subplot concerning Bruno obtaining an African baby (whom he names "O.J."), whom he purchased by swapping an iPod. He takes the baby and tells his story on a talk show which is staged, but the audience is not in on the joke. They think the show and Bruno's story is real, and their disgust and rage is genuine to the point that they're almost attacking the stage.

The fun of the movie is seeing just how far the filmmakers will go, and trying to figure out which sequences are real and which are staged. The movie's been set up so well, it's sometimes hard to tell. Bruno himself is a great comic character, and Cohen uses him well in every situation he puts the character in. He could have easily been a one-note character, but the movie fleshes him out to a certain degree. He's so desperate to be known in America, he's willing to do anything. As this movie shows, he's not alone. There's a shocking sequence where he interviews a series of parents about a possible photo shoot, and we get see how far the parents are willing to go to get their babies into the shoot, despite the fact that Bruno describes the content of the shoot. (It's to be a photo of a baby dressed as a Nazi pushing a wheelbarrow holding a Jewish baby into an oven.) The sequence was most likely edited for best effect, but I had a sinking feeling that it was all too real as I saw a mother willingly agreeing to the idea of letting her baby be liposuctioned in order to lose 10 pounds. The movie puts such a dark and twisted spin on the "15 minutes of fame" idea that you are all at once intrigued and appalled.

Bruno is shocking, yes, but it is also outrageously funny. There are many who will probably accuse the movie of going too far, and will probably hate it for the same reasons I loved it. The movie doesn't just shock, it exposes, and it generates discussion afterward. It also creates genuine laughs, which is the ultimate goal by which the movie should be judged. I may not be recommending this one to all of my friends, but I will definitely be remembering this one for a long time. Given most of this summer's forgettable fare, that's reason enough for praise.

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Friday, July 03, 2009

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

I think it's safe to say that the Ice Age franchise exists on a solid middle ground. It's watchable, inoffensive, and not really worth remembering once the movie is over. Dawn of the Dinosaurs aims for the same standards. It plays it safe, doesn't mess too much with the formula established in the last two films, and doesn't try to stand out in any way. In a year when animated movies like Coraline and Up have raised the bar, Ice Age seems almost downright quaint.

The simple plot finds our heroes from the other movies facing changes. Wooly mammoth couple Manny (voice by Ray Romano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah) are expecting their first child. Saber-toothed tiger Diego (Dennis Leary) fears he's starting to lose his edge, and wants to strike out on his own. Meanwhile, goofy sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) wants kids of his own after seeing Manny and Ellie preparing for theirs. This causes him to wander off and discover a lost underground world of dinosaurs. He takes three discarded dino eggs, hatches them, and tries to act as their mother until their actual T-Rex mother tracks him down and carries him back to the underground world with her babies. Manny and the others make their way to the lost prehistoric world to find Sid, and along the way, befriend an insane weasel named Buck (Simon Pegg), who has had more than his share of experiences with the dangerous dinos (particularly a very dangerous carnivore that he calls "Rudy"), and has seemingly lost a good portion of his mind due to his numerous near-death encounters.

Dawn of the Dinosaurs has an attractive look, but is completely lacking in terms of storytelling. It's something that seems to be a disturbing trend for animation studio, Blue Sky. Aside from their last effort (2008's wonderful Horton Hears a Who), their movies have been passable, but mainly forgettable experiences. That's because directors Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age: The Meltdown) and Mike Thurmeier can't think of anything new to do with the cast of characters. Even placing the characters in a new setting of a lost prehistoric world that exists under the ice of their world doesn't help matters, because the movie doesn't do anything with this world. It exists simply as a backdrop to some action set pieces that seem tailor made to be transformed into levels for the video game tie-in that's probably sitting on store shelves now. The dinosaurs play a surprisingly small role in the overall plot as well, and are mainly kept in the background, or lurking menacingly in the shadows. The filmmakers seem to be wasting their own potential here, choosing instead to play it safe, and focus on the same characters who haven't changed at all from the previous installment.

The new characters do what they can to liven up what seems to be a strictly average cash-in sequel. The previously mentioned Buck gets the best lines, thanks to the way Pegg completely throws himself into the role of this bizarre character. He gives the film what little energy there is, and should there be an Ice Age 4, I will be very disappointed if he does not return. There is also now a romantic interest/comic foil for Scrat, that strange squirrel-like creature who has long been a fan favorite. It livens up his comic hunt for an acorn, but doesn't really add anything to the movie overall. As for the returning characters, a lot of them seem underused here. They say a few puns or make a statement about what they're looking at, but they seldom do anything. It's disappointing, since I found the characters likable in the previous films. Here, the filmmakers almost seem to forget that they're supposed to be the stars of the film, and treat them as casual observers.

Dawn of the Dinosaurs isn't unwatchable, but it sure does seem awfully juvenile. The humor and storytelling is aimed almost directly at kids in the single digits, except for a few inappropriate adult jokes that sneak in to give the movie a PG-rating. I suppose families view these movies as sort of cinematic comfort food. It's safe and kid-friendly for the most part, and they know exactly what to expect. Unless you have kids who are dying to see this film, you can find something better to do with your time.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Public Enemies

Michael Mann's Public Enemies sometimes seems more interested in the period the story is set in, rather than the people inhabiting it. Great care was taken in recreating the clothing, cars, and look of the 1930s. The characters, on the other hand, don't stand out that much. Much of this was intentional, as the movie seems to take a very low key approach. Anyone expecting the grand epic feel of Brian De Palma's The Untouchables will be disappointed.

Does this make it a bad movie? Not really. I was engaged for the most part, while some scenes seemed to keep me at a total distance. The movie makes a surprising and perhaps risky decision of not really telling us anything about its main character, John Dillinger (played here by Johnny Depp). We don't get his history, we don't get to see how he began his career as a gangster, and we don't get to see how he captured the imagination of the people. He captured their imagination so much so that when he is captured by the police at one point and is brought before the press, the reporters treat him as if he's a movie star instead of a criminal. The movie opens in 1933, when Dillinger was already well into his career, and follows up to that fateful night on July 21st, 1934, when he was shot and killed outside of Biograph Theater. During that time, we see him rob banks across the Midwest, sees those who were once his friends and allies turn against him, and try to hold onto the one woman who means anything to him - Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), who is drawn into Dillinger. He genuinely cares about her, and their relationship is the one main human element that holds the movie together.

What works best in Public Enemies is Dillinger himself, or rather Depp's portrayal of him. He is not made out grandiose, likable, or a legend. He can be smooth and charming, or he can be prone to violence at a moment's notice. The movie and the performance gets to show every side of him, without going too deep into him. This is not a biography film about Dillinger, this is a dramatization of the last year of his life. This approach both intrigued and frustrated me. It intrigued me, because Depp lets us close enough into his character, while still lending his portrayal plenty of mystery. Depp and director Mann see their subject as a smart but simple man. He likes the simple things in life like fast cars, women, and movies. He also has a genuine passion for what he does, as just hearing about the potential haul of a bank heist is enough to make him raise his eyebrows with interest. But, he's also a careful man. He doesn't want anyone to get hurt during his jobs, and to ensure that neither he or his men are put in harms way, he takes hostages, who he then drops safely off when they're away from the police. We can understand why Dillinger becomes frustrated when he's forced to work alongside Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) late in the film. Nelson is reckless and violent, and Dillinger does not feel safe following his methods.

The part that frustrated me about the portrayal is that sometimes I felt like there needed to be more information, almost as if the movie was speaking directly to people who knew exactly what it was talking about, so it didn't feel as if it needed to give any more information. In the film's opening scene, Dillinger stages a prison break out for some of his friends, and loses one of them in the escape. The movie makes it clear to us that this person was important to him, but never really tells us why. It's a problem that carries throughout the film. Aside from his relationship with Billie, we never get a true sense of his feelings or relationships to many of the people he works with. This lessens the impact of what should be a great scene late in the film. It certainly starts out great. Dillinger manages to walk into a police station, and waltzes right into the section of the office that is devoted to catching him. No one realizes who he is, as he's changed his appearance, and he walks freely through the office, talking to a group of guys huddled around a radio, listening to a baseball game. What rubbed me the wrong away about this scene is the part that should have been the most emotional moment of it. He passes by a series of mug shots of his friends and allies (including Billie's), and he sees the word "Deceased" stamped across almost all of them. I saw it as he was in a way mourning the people who used to work alongside him, but since many of these people are never established as real characters in the movie itself, it does not have the effect that Mann intends.

If the material covering John Dillinger is flawed but generally engaging, then the side plot covering the formation of the FBI to track him and other gangsters down does not work quite as well. We see J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and his obsession with capturing or killing Dillinger, but the movie pretty much stops there. He comes and goes from the movie, never really leaving much of an impression, except for Crudup's performance, which allows the actor to disappear into the character.. The one working for Hoover that is supposed to make an impression, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), never does. Bale portrays him as a single-minded man, and often comes across as a stereotype of the grim, stone-faced lawman who thinks of nothing but catching the criminal. The character and the performance come across as being one-dimensional, and just makes us want to see Depp come up on the screen again. Every time the movie switches over the side of the law, the movie's energy level seems to dip. There is a scene where Purvis rescues Billie, who is being beaten by another agent as he interrogates her for information on Dillinger. Since we learn nothing about Purvis other than his obsession to kill Dillinger, the scene and his actions don't quite hit the dramatic note that the movie intends.

And yet, for all of its flaws and shortcomings, I still admire and am still recommending the movie. This may not be the movie I thought it would be or delve as deep into the characters as I thought it should have, but it's not without its great individual moments. One such moment is when Dillinger and some other prisoners escape from jail, steal a car, and find themselves stalled at a stop light, with law enforcement officials right on the sidewalk next to them. They don't want to draw attention to themselves, so they must make the agonizing wait for the light to change, and hope they're not noticed. It's a throwaway moment, but a very tense and wonderful one. As I also mentioned, Depp and Marion Cotillard get some wonderful moments together. We can sense the sexual and personal attraction between them during their scenes.

Public Enemies also has a wonderful eye for detail, though I do sometimes wish Mann would linger a bit longer. He uses a lot of quick edits and handheld camera work which is not as distracting as it could be or has been in other films, but still made me wish I could see more. I've just looked over everything I've written, and I realize the movie is probably better than I've made it sound. The movie has its share of flaws, but I was never bored, and the performances and the great scenes within held my attention. As long as you don't walk in expecting a history lesson on the life of John Dillinger, you should not be completely disappointed.

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