Reel Opinions

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Edge of Darkness

It's no secret that Edge of Darkness is an important movie for Mel Gibson, and serves as an opportunity for him and the major Hollywood studios to see if there's still an interest in the star after having not had a leading role since 2002's Signs, and several personal and legal tabloid incidents. My reaction after seeing the film? He's still an intriguing screen presence. He's older and a lot more leather-skinned than you might remember him, and the character he plays here isn't his deepest or most memorable. But, he makes it his own, nonetheless.

picThe movie throws him into a complex, and somewhat silly conspiracy theory thriller, where he plays a grizzled but kindhearted homicide detective named Thomas Craven. Thomas is tough as nails, but generally a good guy. He doesn't seem to have any vices (he prefers a ginger ale over any alcoholic beverage), and his 24-year-old daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic) is the light of his life. When Emma pays a surprise visit, Thomas notices that something is wrong. She seems violently ill, and suffers from brief bursts of nausea. Thomas tries to take her to the hospital, but as soon as they step out the front door, a masked gunman cries out and shoots Emma dead before fleeing. The authorities and the press assume that the bullet that killed his daughter was intended for him, but he's not so sure when he searches through Emma's belongings and finds a loaded gun. Digging further, Thomas discovers that there are a lot of people connected to his daughter fearing for their lives, including Emma's boyfriend (Shawn Roberts) and a former co-worker (Caterina Scorsone). The signs all seem to point that Emma was trying to be a whistle blower at the corporation where she worked, Northmoor Research Facility, which handles nuclear materials for the U.S. government.

picEdge of Darkness doesn't rewrite the rules of the thriller genre, but it plays by the rules well enough to entertain. The film itself is based on a five part British TV mini series, and although I can't compare it to the source material, the film does not feel too rushed or tossed together. The screenplay by William Monahan (The Departed) and Andrew Bovell has to pull a difficult balancing act of juggling a convoluted and sometimes confusing plot, with a lot of characters. First and foremost, there's the shady boss at the corporation where Emma used to work, who is obviously hiding something. He's played by Danny Huston, who portrays the character as a smarmy villain who thinks he's above it all. He sometimes comes across as almost a James Bond villain, hiding in his sleek fortress-like corporation, poisoning and gassing his victims, and dumping bodies in the water, using his connections to cover them up as "accidents". Meanwhile, there's a shady government operative (Ray Winstone), and equally shady government figures and Senators who all have plenty of secrets to hide. It's not very hard to point out the bad guys in this movie, as they usually drive around in big, black, suspicious-looking vehicles that practically scream "property of evil henchmen".

picIt's all ridiculous, of course, and we usually are one step ahead of the characters. Not even the seemingly innocent character who ends up double crossing Gibson's character and selling him out to the bad guys is much of a surprise. Despite it all, I found it enjoyable in an escapist, popcorn entertainment sort of way. You pay to see Mel Gibson pissed off and seeking revenge against slimy corporate and political people, and you get it here. You also get it done rather well. The entire cast is strong, and director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) keeps the pace lively enough so that we're engaged in the search for the truth. The movie makes some missteps, such as some scenes early on when Gibson's character has "conversations" with his dead daughter, and the film's final scene is kind of goofy in the way it tries to put a feel good spin on a relatively downer ending. Fortunately, it does not step into the area of wrong-headedness too often, and managed to hold my interest.

picThe movie all rests on Gibson, however. His character of Thomas Craven sometimes seems kind of one note in his quest for revenge, but he manages to sneak in a little sly, vicious fun here and there, such as a scene where he tells a person he's interrogating to take off his glasses, and when the man complies, Gibson punches him in the face. We don't exactly get a chance to feel for the character. Aside from a scene where he scatters his daughter's ashes on a beach they used to visit when she was a child, we don't really get to see him truly mourn for her. Still, he fits the role of the angry vengeance-driven hero pushed to the edge well. We can sense his fuse getting shorter in each passing scene, and he does get to show that intensity that made him famous. He gives just the right amount of rage to get the audience behind his quest for revenge. Now if he could have actually brought some genuine characteristics or emotion, this could have been a good movie, instead of a fun escapist thriller.
I'm recommending the film for what it is. It shows that Gibson still has what it takes, and it's made well enough. Edge of Darkness is not a great movie, but it works on all the right basic levels. It's a vendetta movie, it's an entertaining one, it's ridiculous but not so much that it winds up hurting the film, and that's really all that needs to be said.

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Friday, January 29, 2010

When in Rome

Much like this month's other romantic comedy release, Leap Year, When In Rome is a perfectly standard example of the genre that gets a little extra mileage out of its lead stars. In this case, it's Kristen Bell (of TV's Veronica Mars) and Josh Duhamel (from the Transformers films). They both bring a certain down to earth charm, which is much needed in this film, as it's humor is often so broad that it resembles a live action cartoon, and not in a good way. With all the goofiness surrounding these two likable performances, I sometimes found myself wishing they were falling in love in a different movie.

picThe plot is strictly by the numbers, which is to be expected. Kristen Bell plays Beth, a museum curator who is married to her work, and doesn't have time for a relationship ever since her heart was broken in her last one. Early on in the film, she's approached by her little sister (Alexis Dziena), who is getting married in Rome after a brief whirlwind love affair. Beth is forced to drop everything and fly off to Italy to attend the wedding, where she meets a man named Nick (Josh Duhamel), who despite being highly accident prone and a magnet for pratfalls, could be the guy she's looking for. Just when Beth is about to make her move to get closer to him, she sees Nick seemingly being intimate with another woman. We obviously know it's not what it looks like, and the whole situation could be resolved if one of the characters just said a few words. But, Beth takes it the wrong way, gets drunk, and goes wading in the water in Rome's famous "Fountain of Love". There's a superstition that if you remove a coin that was thrown into the fountain, the person who tossed that coin will fall in love with you. Beth, in her drunken haze, removes four coins (and a poker chip), and when she returns home to New York, she suddenly finds herself stalked by four total strangers who seem infatuated with her, and won't leave until they profess their love to her.

picThe fact that these four people who tossed the coins into the fountain in Italy all just happen to live in New York and within walking distance to Beth is hard to swallow, but I digress. The men who start chasing after and following Beth everywhere she goes includes an insane artist with a foot fetish (Will Arnett), a vain and egotistical male model (Dax Shepard), a street magician who is obviously supposed to be a parody of stunt illusionist Criss Angel (Jon Heder), and a middle aged sausage tycoon (Danny DeVito). These characters can sometimes be funny (especially Heder), but they often come across as creepy, as a lot of the things they do to get closer to Beth would probably lead to them being arrested in real life, or at least a restraining order or two. And what of the poker chip she picked up from the fountain? Beth assumes that it belongs to Nick, since he starts calling as soon as she returns home, and seems genuinely interested in her. He explains the situation with the other woman that night, but she still thinks he's only after her because of the magic from the fountain. But then she starts to warm up to him the more time they spend together.

picAre they destined to be together? Is it the magic of the fountain that is making Nick fall in love, or is it real? And if it is the magic, is it right for Beth to take advantage of it? These are the kind of questions you can only get away with asking in a movie like When in Rome. It's featherweight, it's silly, and it's not exactly that memorable. But it has to be said that the performances of Bell and Duhamel go a long way. The characters are thinly written, but their on screen chemistry and individual performances actually make us want to see them get together. I was grateful for this, as the film itself has very little to offer. While I chuckled at some of the more offbeat moments of humor (including an early scene concerning a very stubborn vase that refuses to shatter), the jokes can sometimes gets a little too broad, especially concerning the four obsessed suitors who start following Beth around everywhere. That, or the scenes have disappointing payoffs, such as a sequence where Nick takes Beth to dinner at a bizarre restaurant where it's pitch black, and the servers wear night vision goggles. There's a lot that could have been done with this scene, but the script goes for the predictable gags.

picOutside of the charm of the two leads, there's not a lot that stands out. Director Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider) and writers David Diamond and David Weissman (Old Dogs) go the predictable route, right down to the casting. Beth has some supportive best friends, who look and act like the best friends from other romantic comedies. The icy boss at Beth's job is played by Anjelica Huston, who specializes in these kind of roles whenever she's cashing a paycheck in a movie. Even the Rome settings have been swiped from other romantic movies, and seem to be staged the same way. Even if we feel like we've seen it all before, at least the movie is never boring. And the whole thing has a breezy tone that keeps the experience of watching it as painless as possible, no matter how generic it sometimes gets.
Can you tell that I'm fishing for complements here? That's because like almost every other January release this year, When in Rome is harmless and inoffensive, but not memorable in the slightest. It will work as a date movie, but that's about it. For many, I'm guessing, that will be enough.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010


"I don't believe in God.
That's okay. He doesn't believe in you, either".
-Dialogue exchange from Legion.

Legion starts out so spectacularly silly, it's almost a shame that it loses faith in itself and becomes conventional. An apocalypse movie that starts out with possessed old ladies crawling the walls and screaming obscenities, as well as possessed ice cream truck drivers, should not end with martial arts fights, car chases, and explosions. But it does, sadly. Co-writer and director Scott Stewart (a special effects artist making his feature film debut) gives his film a sense of self-awareness early on, and loses it.

picThings kick off when an angel named Michael (Paul Bettany) drops from Heaven, cuts off his wings, grabs some weapons, and swipes a police car to drive to a small roadside diner and service station in the middle of the desert. It's here that a young woman named Charlie (Adrianne Palicki) works and lives in a trailer behind the diner. She's eight months pregnant, and doesn't know that the child she carries will be mankind's last hope. It seems that God has lost faith in humanity, and is sending an army of angels led by Gabriel (Kevin Durand) down to Earth to wipe out all life. Her future child is the only hope we have for survival, though it's never really explained why, or what he is destined to accomplish. The angel Michael thinks that humanity still has hope, so he has disobeyed orders, and is fighting to protect Charlie and the few innocent bystanders that become trapped in the diner when the opposing angels begin surrounding the place.

picThe angels possess humans, and attempt to pass themselves off as being normal. In one memorable scene, an angel possesses a little old lady with a walker, and tries to act casual. She doesn't get very far, though, and arouses the suspicions of everyone else in the diner when she starts screaming that everyone there will die and burn. The angel gives up the charade, turns into a screaming monstrosity, and starts climbing the walls and ceilings. The owner of the diner (Dennis Quaid) doesn't know what to make of any of this, until Michael shows up, and explains the whole situation. Even then, Quaid's character is not convinced when Michael starts talking about angels. You'd think seeing a little old lady grow fangs, rip the lungs out of an unfortunate bystander with her teeth, and climb the ceiling, blood dripping from her jowls, would be enough to convince the guy that hey, maybe something's not right here.

picCharlie's reaction to the news that she will give birth to humanity's savior is priceless. When Michael informs her of her destiny, she replies with, "I'm just a waitress. I don't even own a car"! I was having a lot of fun with Legion right around this point. It was the kind of gloriously stupid B-movie that I can enjoy. I silently hoped that it could keep this momentum, and not fall flat. It was right around this point that the movie did indeed fall flat. While never unwatchable, the movie just seems to stop trying, and goes for the conventional approach. We get a lot of shoot outs as the survivors barricade themselves within the diner, and we get a couple car chases that are done well enough, but never raise the excitement level like they should. We also never get a moment quite like the angel possessing the old lady. We get one that seems promising, when a possessed ice cream man threatens the survivors, but nothing is done with him.

picSpeaking of the survivors, they're your usual stock group. There's Jeep (Lucas Black), who's the son of the diner's owner and an all around nice guy, so he falls into the hero role. There's also a dysfunctional family with a troubled teen daughter (Willa Howard) that's run into car trouble, a religious cook (Charles S. Dutton) who begins to question his faith, and a shady guy (Tyrese Gibson) passing through. Most of these characters spend a lot of time looking out windows, or picking off any angels that get close to the diner, so we never get to know them that well. Of the characters, Jeep obviously plays the biggest role, as he protects Charlie. The ending also hints that he will play some kind of part in the war for humanity to come, but it's not very clear on the details.
I started out watching this movie with a big goofy grin on my face. This could have been so much more if the filmmakers had just had the courage to embrace the silliness of it all. Instead, Legion cops out by taking itself seriously during the second half. If ever there was a movie to not take itself seriously, a movie where the apocalypse is battled out in a roadside diner is that movie.

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The Tooth Fairy

Compared to recent kids comedies like The Spy Next Door and the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks film, The Tooth Fairy is certainly better than I expected. The big difference between this film and the other two is that it does not seem to completely be running on autopilot. There's some imagination on display, a bright cast who seem to be having a lot of fun with the material, and even a few genuine laughs. I can't quite recommend it to anyone over the age of 12, but I must be honest when I say I enjoyed this film more than I thought I would.

picThe film stars Dwayne Johnson, whose charisma and screen presence seems well suited for a kids movie. He plays Derek, a former professional hockey player who was sent back to the minors after an injury. The injury has long healed, but he's stayed put, giving up on his dreams. This has made him somewhat bitter and cynical at the world. Despite this, Derek has found fame in the minors as being "The Tooth Fairy", as his fans have dubbed him. He's called this, because he specializes in powerful body blows that, yes, knock the teeth out of his opponents. He's good at playing for the crowd, and even has his own personal recliner chair in the penalty box. Off the ice, Derek is dating a single mom named Carly (Ashley Judd) with two kids. One fateful night while taking care of the kids, he tells Carly's six-year-old daughter Tess (Destiny Whitlock) that the Tooth Fairy she's anxiously waiting for to leave money under her pillow does not exist.

picThis angers Carly, and someone else unexpected as well. We learn that the Head Fairy (Julie Andrews) up in Fairy Land, who is in charge of all the Tooth Fairies in the world, has had enough of Derek shattering the hopes and dreams of children with his cynicism. She summons him up to Fairy Land, where he is sentenced to be an actual Tooth Fairy himself until he can learn to be a better person. This is where the movie starts to have a little fun with itself. Derek is assigned a case worker named Tracy (Stephen Merchant), who dreams of being a tooth fairy himself, but since he doesn't have wings, he has to settle for supervising Derek in his new job. There's a lot that goes into being a Tooth Fairy, it turns out. They have special equipment that can be used to avoid detection (amnesia dust, invisible spray, devices that can scare away pesky cats or dogs), which are provided by a fellow fairy named Jerry (Billy Crystal). Merchant and Crystal are both naturally skilled comedians, and they get to slip in some funny bits of dialogue, most of which I imagine were improvised on the set.

picThe film somewhat resembles the tone and structure of The Santa Clause films with Tim Allen, so I was not surprised to learn that director Michael Lembeck worked on both sequels for that movie. Still, I admit I had a little bit more fun with The Tooth Fairy. One thing that helps is that star Dwayne Johnson seems willing to go to just about any lengths to get a laugh. Don a pink tutu, put on a pair of frilly fairy wings, run around pretending that he's six inches tall while trying to avoid a hungry cat, or play tricks on his fellow hockey players with the help of his invisible spray. Kids will likely find this stuff hilarious, and adults in the audience will smile. The cast that has been gathered is also a little bit brighter than the norm. It's always welcome to see Julie Andrews in a movie, even if she is a little under used here. Stephen Merchant gets off plenty of one liners that fly over kids' heads, but adults will laugh at. And Billy Crystal's introduction scene gets some of the biggest genuine laughs in the film. The movie's obviously trying to appeal to both sides of its own audience, without coming across as being inappropriate for the younger viewers.

picToo bad the conventional plot has to keep on getting in the way. While it never becomes unbearable or sappy, the scenes concerning Derek softening and warming up to Carly's two kids seem rather uninspired compared to the scenes that do work. Some parts of the movie seem to be clever and sly, while others seem to be written on total autopilot. The fact that there are five writers credited to the screenplay (the script's apparently been floating around Hollywood for almost 20 years, and was originally set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger) explains this. There's just such a huge difference in the quality of the writing from scene to scene. Whenever Johnson and Merchant are trading barbs and insults with each other, the dialogue is lively and fun. The dialogue whenever Johnson is talking to the kids or to his on-screen girlfriend seem to have been written by committee. It doesn't quite drag the film down, but it's disappointing none the less.
Anyone looking for something pleasant and inoffensive to take the kids to will find it with The Tooth Fairy. Heck, the parents might smile more than they thought they would. As long as that's all you want, you'll find what you need. The movie is gentle, funny in parts, and would probably get a rave review from me if I were 20 years younger.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Extraoridnary Measures

Like a lot of inspirational movies "inspired by true stories", Extraordinary Measures plays loose with the facts of the story it's based on. We meet John (Brendan Fraser) and Aileen Crowley (Keri Russell), a married couple with three children facing a crisis. Two of their kids, eight-year-old Meagan (Meredith Droeger) and six-year-old Patrick (Diego Velazquez) have a rare and deadly illness called Pompe disease. John works as an executive at a big business company, but spends most of his time tirelessly searching for information on the Internet for information on the disease, and for a possible cure, of which there is none. The average life expectancy of a child with Pompe is nine years, so he is running out of time.

picDuring his search for information, John comes across an article about a medical scientist who is working on a cure, but can't find funding for his research. In real life, that scientist was Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen, but since there are no Asian male actors working in Hollywood capable of having above the title status in a medical drama, Dr. Chen has become Dr. Robert Stonehill. He's played by Harrison Ford, a marketable name. Dr. Stonehill is a bit of a wild card. He's reckless, he has a short temper, he doesn't listen to authority, and he likes to blast rock music while he works at odd hours, which annoys his fellow scientists. But, John sees something in his theories, and thinks he could find a cure with the proper funding. John gathers up the money Stonehill needs, and the two go into business together.

picDespite the family crisis angle, and the race against time to find a cure, Extraordinary Measures is somewhat laid back. Like a lot of movies I've reviewed recently, there's a lack of emotion that prevents the audience from getting involved. Even though little Meagan and Patrick are fighting for their lives, the movie does not emphasize this. Meagan has a medical scare early on that sends her to the hospital, but after that, she's a pretty happy and plucky little girl. She spouts off one-liners like a pro, and acts more like a standard Hollywood movie child, than a girl facing her own mortality. Poor Patrick is barely touched upon in the film. His big scene revolves around the fact that the disease has made his body so weak, he can no longer throw bits of bread to feed the ducks with the rest of his family. The kids are not so much characters in the story, but manipulations of the plot.

picThat leaves us the adults. They're certainly all played by fine actors. Ford is obviously an old pro, and Fraser and Russell are both underrated as actors when it comes to drama. But here, they all seem to simply be filling the roles, or giving just enough that the material requires. We never get a sense of the relationship between Fraser and Russell, as all of their scenes are based around worrying about their kids. The fact that Russell is pushed into the background once Ford's character enters the plot doesn't help matters. Speaking of Ford, his portrayal of Dr. Stonehill can best be described as predictable. He's a gruff, cold-hearted cynic whose heart slowly melts the more time he spends with the Crowleys and their adorable dying children. He plays the role well enough, but there's nothing that comes through in his performance. We learn so little about Stonehill, I wouldn't be surprised if the entire performance was based solely on a brief character description given to Ford by screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs (The Water Horse).

picThe movie itself is just as sketchy as the main characters, and that's just the problem. The whole thing feels like it's been clean and sanitized, and often feels like a not very memorable made-for-TV movie being projected on the screen. Perhaps this is the influence of the film's distributor, CBS Studios. Whatever the case, the movie feels toothless instead of engaging. We can't get behind the thinly developed characters, and the story is so paint-by-numbers, it never gets off the ground. As Extraordinary Measures played out, and obstacles kept on flying in the way of John and Dr. Stonehill, it felt like director Tom Vaughan (What Happens in Vegas) was stretching things out, rather than staying true to the facts. I grew restless when I began to realize that the movie had no intention of really explaining how the cure came to be (very little time is actually spent within the lab), but would focus on mawkish melodrama.
I'm sure the real story could make a compelling movie, but this is not it. This is one of those movies that you never feel reaching you emotionally, despite its best efforts. If good intentions were all it took, this film would be a winner. Unfortunately, it takes so much more. It takes a lot of stuff that Extraordinary Measures just doesn't have.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Lovely Bones

In bringing Alice Sebold's acclaimed novel to the screen, filmmaker Peter Jackson seems to have gotten the basic plot of The Lovely Bones, but nothing else that made it stand out on the page. The movie is scattered, confused, and surprisingly weak. There are wild swings in tones, characters that aren't even developed to half the level they were in the novel, and an overall sense that Jackson understands the plot, but doesn't have a clue where the heart of the story lies. This is supposed to be a story about love and loss, but the film is mechanical when it should be engaging.

picJust like in the original story, we are introduced to 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saorise Ronan), who narrates the film, and tells us up front that she is dead, and that she met her end on December 6, 1973, at the hand of a man from her own neighborhood. We see glimpses of Susie's life - The love for model sailboats that she shared with her father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), how she dreamed of being a photographer, and the building feelings she felt for a fellow and older classmate (Reece Ritchie). All of this came to an abrupt end while crossing a cornfield on her way home from school. She had a run-in with the man across the street from her home, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who lures her into an underground room, and murders her. Susie is sent to an afterlife, where she watches her family get torn apart by her disappearance. Jack becomes obsessed with finding information on Susie's killer, her mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) has to leave when she can no longer stand the pain, and Susie's younger sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) becomes suspicious of Mr. Harvey, when he begins stalking her as well.

picAll of this is emotionally gripping on the written page, but the screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson misses the point, or sometimes takes some extreme short cuts in order to fit it all into a two hour narrative. The actions of the characters sometimes make little sense in the script. and the movie never focuses on them enough to the point that we become emotionally attached to them. One of the key victims of this treatment is Susie herself. As soon as she is murdered, she becomes rather boring. We see her wander around in the afterlife, which is pulled off beautifully on a technical level with special effects creating a dream-like landscape, but never grabs us on any emotional level. It quickly turns into Susie walking around a technical demo, and grinds the narrative to almost a total halt whenever the story switches over to her.

picThe Lovely Bones is a complex story. Perhaps too complex to put on the screen. Characters have become overly simplified, and the narrative has lost much of its power. Part of this has to do with the way Jackson has softened the blow of Susie's murder. It occurs off screen, and no mention of the sexual assault is made. This was obviously done to secure a PG-13 rating, but this is obviously a story for mature audiences, so why was the effort made to tone it down? Other sacrifices include the character of George Harvey losing much of his personality in the transition. While the performance by Stanley Tucci is chilling, the character is disappointingly thin. He's nothing more than a standard creepy, shifty-eyed killer type, and somewhat boring. Then again, the narrative jumps around so much here, it never gives any of the characters a chance to stand out. Jack's obsession to find the truth about his daughter doesn't have half the emotional impact as on the page, and often seems convoluted how he stumbles upon the right information.

picSo, the obvious question becomes, would I like the film better if I had no knowledge of the source material? I think I would have been even more confused, frankly. The choppy narrative, under-written characters, and sometimes confused editing prevent us from getting a real handle on what's going on. I think this is a case of the filmmakers feeling so close to the source material that they forget to clue us in. Or maybe years of handling epics like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and King Kong have lessened Jackson's ability to relate to human drama and characters. I can't say for sure. He seems to be trying for a similar vibe here that he created in 1994's Heavenly Creatures, which successfully blended spectacle with drama and tragedy. He's lost the heart with this film. We don't feel the sense of loss with the family, we don't feel the horror with the murder, and we don't feel the wonder with the scenes in the afterlife. All of this makes The Lovely Bones a curiosity, rather than the engaging experience it wants to be.
I don't want to put across the sense that this is a bad, or even an unwatchable movie. It's disappointing, even largely so if you're a fan of the novel. Maybe the fans were right when they said the story was unfilmable. Maybe Jackson wasn't the right person to tell this story. All I know is that the film adaptation of The Lovely Bones knows the music, but it doesn't know the words.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Spy Next Door

I guess most people will get what they need out of The Spy Next Door. Kids under 10 are bound to love it, and Jackie Chan does get to show off a little bit of his stuff. (Though it's nowhere near what he used to be able to do.) It sure is bland and unimaginative, though. It's also pretty mindless and forgettable. In other words, its a standard-issue kids movie that doesn't even really try to stand out. For some, I suspect this will be enough. Sorry to report it wasn't enough for me.

picThe plot casts Chan as an international secret agent named Bob Ho. We see his heroics during the opening of the film, but it seems that Bob has had enough of saving the world from evil Russians who plot to manipulate the world's oil supply. He's been dating a pretty single mom who lives next door to him named Gillian (Amber Valletta), and is ready to retire from the spy business to get closer to and possibly marry her. Gillian has three kids from past marriages, and they all don't like Bob, especially oldest daughter Farren (Madeline Carroll). She still thinks her dad will come back, and get together with Gillian. The other two kids, Ian (Will Shadley) and Nora (Alina Foley) just think he's boring. Gillian has to leave to take care of her sick father, so Bob volunteers to watch over the kids. He teaches them how to stand up to bullies and not to lie, they teach him about Halloween. (I find it hard to believe an international secret agent, even a foreign one, would have absolutely no idea what Halloween is.) Meanwhile, the Russian villains start snooping around. They're after a top secret file that Ian accidentally downloaded. Fortunately, the villains are of the comical variety, not very smart, and all talk like they learned English by mimicking Boris and Natasha from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.

picThis is one of those movies where there's just not really a lot to say about it. There's a subplot about a mole in the spy organization feeding information to the Russians, and Billy Ray Cyrus turns up as a fellow secret agent who helps out Jackie Chan from time to time, and that's about it. It always boggles my mind when I see a movie as bland as The Spy Next Door, and then I see multiple people credited to the screenplay. In this case, there's three people credited. Did the team of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer (Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector), along with Gregory Poirier (Tomcats), really have to put their heads together for this? Aside from a few personal moments that Bob shares with Farren, the kids don't get the chance to stand out as individuals. Instead, we get some gags about Bob trying to cook for the kids (never trust a super spy to make oatmeal), and the kids chasing around the various pets they have around the house. The animals (which include a pig, a turtle, and a kitten) all provide silent commentary, giving appropriate reaction shots or double takes when something happens.

picKids will have an easier time buying all of this than adults will. They won't question things like, how did the mom know where to pick up the kids when she finds out Bob is a spy? When Bob and the kids arrive at a Chinese restaurant to hide from the Russian villains, how did one of the evil operatives get their first? How did they know they'd be at the restaurant in the first place? And why does Bob think it's a good idea to teach little Ian how to use deadly spy weapons? Does he somehow know it will come in handy later during the climax? I know, I'm not supposed to be asking these questions, but my mind does tend to wander if the movie I'm watching fails to give me anything else to think about or notice.
None of this is Chan's fault. He's as likable as ever, and it can't be easy to do the stuff he does at 55. I have no problem with him doing a family action film, he just needs to find one where the creativity did not start and end with "let's put Jackie Chan in a movie with kids". The Spy Next Door barely rises to mediocrity, and the problem is, it doesn't seem to see the harm in that.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

The Book of Eli

The last time filmmakers Albert and Allen Hughes stepped behind the camera, it was to make 2001's From Hell. I don't know what they saw in The Book of Eli that made them want to make this their first film in nearly 10 years, but whatever it was, it's not up on the screen. This is a lethargic and frequently dull post-apocalyptic journey that we've seen one too many times up on the screen, and Eli gives us very little reason to care to see it again. Yeah, there are some good visuals on display, and the strong cast is game, but there's not much here to get excited about.

picFirst off, let's talk about the look of the film. It's another one of those doomed depictions of a ruined Earth that's struggling to survive after a war wiped out most of humanity. The scattered remains of society seem to have built their lives around the styles and teachings of old Westerns, and every other post-apocalyptic movie ever made, but mainly the Mad Max films. The Hughes Brothers try to add some visual flair (slow-mo, roaming and tracking camera with Matrix-style effects), but that's all it is. It doesn't serve the story necessarily, it's just there for stylistic purposes only. The plot itself is a rather bloated one about a "Walker" who roams the land. His name is Eli, and he's played by Denzel Washington. Eli comes across as a blank slate for most of the movie, and intentionally so. He's one of the few who remembers what the world was like before the war, and wanders the land, searching for a destination that even he is not sure of. All he knows is that he has to head West, and that he must protect a book that he carries at all times.

picHow does Eli know which way he's going, and what's waiting for him? "Faith", he replies simply. He says a voice within him guided him to the book, and now he must deliver it. It's a dangerous world, full of thieves and motorcycle biker gang rejects. Fortunately, Eli is pretty handy with a gun, blade, spear, arrow, or just about anything sharp and pointy he can get his hands on. These skills come in handy when he wanders into a town run by the evil Carnegie (Gary Oldman, who seems to have been paid by the amount of scenery he chews). Carnegie has been having his henchmen search the land for a book that could help him rule not just his current town, but many others. It just so happens to be the one that Eli carries. I'm being intentionally vague as to what the book is, but it's not hard to figure out while you're watching the film itself. Eli is joined by a young woman named Solara (Mila Kunis), who used to work for Carnegie along with her blind mother (Jennifer Beals), but teams up with Eli when she realizes the power the book he carries holds.

picThe Book of Eli was obviously made by talented people. It just fails to grab our attention. The pace is nearly glacial. I think the Hughes Brothers were trying for an atmospheric approach, but the problem with this is that the world the movie is set in looks exactly like stuff we've seen too many times before, so it's not strong enough to carry the movie just on visuals alone. That leaves us with the plot and characters, both of which are severely undernourished. The characters are thinly written, and never come across as people we can become emotionally attached to. This is intentional for Eli, who is supposed to be a mysterious loner, but I was distressed to learn that everyone else has the same amount of personality. Despite the presence of some strong actors like Washington and Oldman, and even cameos by Michael Gambon and Malcolm McDowell, they're not given interesting characters to play, or they're not developed enough.

picBecause nothing grabs our attention, we're left to concentrate on some of the many lapses of logic the film expects us to believe. I especially love the fact that Eli's female companion, Solara, constantly has perfect hair and make up. This cannot be easy, given she lives in a world where water is scarce, everyone else is forced to wear rags, and generally look like they have sand and dust coming out of their pores. Even escaping from an armored vehicle that's flipped over leaves little more than a scar, and maybe slightly messed up hair. (The captors within the vehicle that she escapes from aren't so lucky to get off so easily.) As an actress, I've always found Kunis more comfortable in comic roles. She's not as out of place here as she was in Max Payne (where she played the least-convincing femme fatale in recent memory), but she still frequently seems lost, and sometimes seems to be reading off of cue cards just out of the camera's frame.
This is a movie that obviously had grand ambitions, but got lost somewhere during the trip to the screen. The Book of Eli is bloated and dull, when it wants to be big and exciting. It also has one of those endings that makes you rethink everything that came before it, and not in a good way. I admire what the film tried to do, but I think it needed a big shot of humanity in order to work.

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Youth in Revolt

Usually when a film has been sitting on the studio shelf for over a year and shuffled through various release dates, only to get dumped in theaters in early January, it is a sign that the film is a total dog. Fortunately, this is not the case with Youth in Revolt. It was merely a victim of the financial troubles of the film's fledgling distributor, Dimension Films. This is a smart, frequently very funny, and offbeat coming of age love story that gets a lot of mileage out of a great cast, and some creative touches that indie filmmaker Miguel Arteta (Chuck and Buck) gives the film.

picBased on a series of novels by C.D. Payne, Youth in Revolt introduces us to a teenager named Nick Twisp (Michael Cera). He tells us in his opening narration that he hates his last name. "It sounds like an evil nurse at some mental hospital", he says. There's a lot of things that Nick hates about himself and his life. He hates that his mom (Jean Smart) always has a new boyfriend every few weeks. Her latest catch, Jerry (Zach Galifanakis), is a pathological liar and con artist. He hates that people are always looking down on him because he's smart, and would rather watch a classic Italian movie than the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Most of all, he hates that he has never been in a romantic relationship with a girl. That all changes when Jerry takes Nick and his mom on a last minute family vacation to a trailer park, so he can avoid some sailors who want to kill him for selling them a broken down car. It's at this trailer park that Nick meets the lovely Sheeni Saunders (bright young newcomer, Portia Doubleday). She shares the same interests as Nick, and seems like the girl he has dreamed of all of his life. Unfortunately, she's only into rebellious French guys. Besides that, various obstacles strive to keep them apart.

picNick returns home, and is determined to get back to Sheeni at any cost. His estranged birth father (Steve Buscemi) lives near where Sheeni does, so if he could somehow live with him, all his problems would be solved. He decides that if he's ever going to be with his true love, he's going to have to get kicked out of his mom's house by rebelling against authority. In order to inspire him, Nick creates a bad boy alter ego to help. This is Francois Dillinger. He looks exactly like Nick (he's also played by Cera), except he has a pencil-thin mustache, and he doesn't take nothing from anybody. With the help and advice of this imaginary alter ego, Nick manages to raise enough hell that mom and her latest boyfriend (Ray Liota) can't take it anymore. He's sent to live with his dad, only to learn that Sheeni's God-fearing parents have sent her to live in a French boarding school, due to the fact they think Nick is a bad influence on her. Not only that, the police are on Nick's trail, after an accident he tried to cause so his mom would kick him out ended up destroying part of the town.

picYouth in Revolt is frequently very funny, and blessed with a cast who know how to handle this material. They're deadpan, and don't play up the laughs. Michael Cera is obviously a master at this kind of dry humor, so he's perfect in the lead role as Nick, as well as his "bad boy" alter ego. The rest of the cast is equally strong. Aside from the actors mentioned, the cast also includes Justin Long as Sheeni's brother who has a thing for mushrooms, Mary Kay Place and M. Emmet Walsh as Sheeni's strict parents, and Fred Willard as Nick's bizarre neighbor. The cast makes this film work. In the wrong hands, I could easily imagine this movie coming across as being pretentious or overly broad. But everybody here finds the right tone. The embrace the film's dry and sometimes off the wall humor, but they don't really react to it. This is a movie that never draws attention to itself, and I loved it for it.

picI admired a lot of the unique, creative touches that director Arteta uses to tell the story. There are some clever and well done animated sequences placed throughout, as well as some very funny voice overs from Nick. These help the movie stand out, and prevent it from becoming a cliche. I also liked the slowly building relationship between Nick and Sheeni. It's love at first sight for him, while she likes him enough at first, but wants things to build between them. Portia Doubleday is a real find as the female lead. She only has two previous film credits (one of them being something called Legend of the Mummy), and I think this could be a star-making role for her. She gives Sheeni this sweet, yet independent nature that grabs our attention. She's also attractive, and has good chemistry with the rest of the cast. Hopefully Hollywood will use her to the fullest of her talents.
I have some questions if this will find an audience during its theatrical run. It's very laid back, and sometimes feels like an independent art house comedy that somehow managed to get a wide release. However, I can easily see Youth in Revolt becoming the cult classic it deserves to be on DVD. This is the rare comedy that understands that it's funnier when the audience are reacting to the jokes, and the actors are not.

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