Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Guy Ritchie Finally Hits His Stride With His First Blockbuster, And Downey, Jr. Hits Another Home Run As "Sherlock Holmes"

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material.
128 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures
**** out of 5

I have a love/hate relationship with Guy Ritchie. Loved “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” since it was released eleven years ago but have since felt he has never come close to following up that walloping debut. With the likes of his Sam Raimi idea of essentially remaking “Lock, Stock” with “Snatch” yet failing miserably in both the director’s chair and in the story department, who knew that it would take Hollywood calling to finally get him back at the top of his game with “Sherlock Holmes.”

Over the years I’ve taken a lot of flack for not liking “Snatch” and in my own defense I have tried numerous times to re-watch and try to see what all the fuss is about. I have yet to be won over aside from the squeaking dog and Brad Pitt’s indecipherable accent. Things really went awry upon his marriage to Madonna when he gave us the likes of “Swept Away” and “Revolver.” Not even another outing with British fave Jason Statham could get Ritchie back in his element.

While I found “RocknRolla” to be a step in the right direction (and coincidentally came after his divorce from what seems to have been a personal black hole of ideas), it ultimately was no better than the two preceding films. Many people probably thought he was in no way the right choice for an updating of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s all too famous detective, but thankfully, with the help of a fantastic cast, Ritchie has managed to roll out a fantastic reinvention of London’s greatest detective in one of this winter’s most fun films, “Sherlock Holmes.”

It’s another dreary day in London, 1891, and Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) has just caught up with black magic entrepreneur Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). In the midst of an attempted sacrifice, Holmes and trusty right-hand-man Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) burst onto the scene and save the day much to Inspector Lestrade’s (Eddie Marsan) dismay. Lestrade makes a quick complaint that Holmes is always getting ahead of the police, which only further amuses Holmes, of course.

Three months later, Blackwood is sentenced to hanging upon his indictment of five murders. While imprisoned Blackwood’s last request is a visit with Holmes. Holmes agrees only to find that Blackwood has been keeping his idle hands busy in prison by continuing his occult driven manners by marking up his cell with all kinds of symbols and inscriptions. Blackwood informs Holmes that not only will he cheat death but three more related murders will occur from beyond his grave.

Also during all the proceedings Holmes is visited by an old friend, American Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), requesting his assistance in finding a “ginger-haired midget.” Holmes finds the midget in Blackwood’s own casket after a groundskeeper sees Blackwood rising from the grave and walking amongst the cemetery. Holmes comes to find that an elusive man-in-black named Moriarty sent Irene to Holmes. Watson, who announced Blackwood dead at the hanging himself now needs to clear his name while Holmes is on the case sending him to the British governments underbelly where the day must be saved before there’s panic in the streets of London from the reappearance of Blackwood.

Thus, the trio of Holmes, Watson and Irene begin many misadventures that may predate “Indiana Jones” but would certainly make him proud. While the plot mainly consists of them all getting into one close encounter after another, the cast brings their all to lend credibility to the outlandish action set pieces.

Huge kudos have to be given to the screenwriters as this normally could’ve been over convoluted and yet another bad case of cobbled together rewrites. With three credited writers – sophomore Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham (“Invictus”) and Simon Kinberg (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) – this luckily is not another case of ‘written by committee.’ The story flows along nicely and I’m sure it helps to have such a great source material to pull from. Dating all the way back to Holmes first appearance in 1887, I’m sure between all the original stories, television incarnations and feature films there was lots to pick and pull from but with Downey, Jr. as the rascally detective things have been greatly updated even if not necessarily improved upon.

While there are many instances where Ritchie-isms shine through (an abundance of slow motion for instance), it’s put to full use in bringing out the brains behind the brawn that this version of Holmes happens to be. How does a man of Holmes’ stature bring a giant to his knees? A nicely rendered fight scene shows you in these instances of slo-mo before the fisticuffs ensue. Another interesting take is how it also manages to update itself by slipping in some hilariously unmistakable “bromance” elements.

While it may not be the greatest Holmes adventure ever told, it certainly takes the same liberties as this previous summer’s “Star Trek” and opens up a whole new world to expand upon. It’s also noticeable how some things from the trailer wound up on the cutting room floor. One can’t help but wonder if this was originally rated R and cut down to reach a broader audience. Thankfully, it’s for the better in this case. How do you update such an old character while staying true to its roots? Why, elementary, of course, dear readers. It’s all in the action and “Sherlock Holmes” delivers in spades.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cameron Is King Of The Na'vi World. Hopefully The Box Office Is Next

Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking.
162 minutes
20th Century Fox
**** out of 5

When it comes to bringing forth sheer spectacle in a darkened movie theater, James Cameron is the self-proclaimed King of the World. When “Titanic” dominated not just the box office with over one billion dollars worldwide but moved on to win 11 Oscars the title was very deserving. That was 12 years ago.

In his absence, he has dedicated oodles of his own money in order to bring us the next big thing in filmmaking. While 3-D technology has provided its fair share of the good, the bad and the overrated (“Up,” “Jaws 3-D” and “Coraline”) it is here to stay.

With a $241 million worldwide opening weekend it appears that while no one would say it’s the strongest plotted film ever, where it lacks in the story department, “Avatar” and writer/director Cameron usher in the next decade with visuals of the likes you’ve never seen before. Finally, 3-D technology is used to completely engross the audience into this futuristic world instead of simply using gimmicks to throw objects in your face.

Cameron has never been the greatest storyteller and that’s not what his personal gimmick is even if he’s written or co-written all but one of his features. What Cameron brings to the table with each film is a new sense of shock and awe to the senses. Sure, there are elements heavily borrowed from other films, mostly “Dances with Wolves” and “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest,” but since when do directors have to be completely original to tell a compelling fantasy?

“Titanic” gave us a fictionalized account of the infamous sinking ship filled with stock characters and a generic romance. What brought me back three times was to witness the audacious moments as the boat goes down. “True Lies” gave us Cameron’s third Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle that was simply a family dramedy where the father happens to be a spy.

“Terminator 2: Judgment Day” was a huge step forward for both sequels and computer-generated special effects. While a robot was able to make a fanboy cry over the sight of a thumb sinking into molten steel, the plot was not what drove the film. Anyone who’s crying fowl should turn back to the sci-fi classic and take it all into account again.

When he gave us both the theatrical and director’s cut of “The Abyss” there were many on both sides of the fence that remained feeling short changed with the two radically different endings. “Aliens,” was essentially one of the most well made action films set in space, the original “Terminator” was very basic and a true classic thriller with sci-fi overtones, while the less said about his only guilty pleasure entry, “Piranha 2: The Spawning,” the better.

In the far future, 2154 to be exact, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is being recruited by the military to take the place of his departed twin brother, Tom – a scientist – and travel to the planet Pandora. It is explained that the reason for his selection is that as a twin he is genetically identical to his brother and therefore able to control Tom’s avatar.

Avatars are genetically bred human-Na’vi hybrids used by the government to interact with the local inhabitants of Pandora who happen to be sitting on the planet’s largest deposit of Unobtanium, which can be used to save Earth from an energy crisis.

Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) has other plans for Jake and uses Colonel Miles Quatrich (Stephen Lang) to convince Jake into playing double agent against the scientific side of things. They want Jake to either convince the Na’vi to leave their home and relocate or bring back information about the tree they live within in case the military needs to force the Na’vi out.

While deep in being covert the Na’vi wind up making Jake one of their own after he is saved and trained by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Also, after being the newest Na’vi inductee Jake mates with Neytiri but none too soon before the military begins to lose its patience and destroys an ancient territory almost killing Jake and Neytiri. After Jake attacks one of the bulldozers, Colonel Quatrich decides that Jake has chosen sides and that the military must now be forced to drive the Na’vi out whether he has to take out Jake along with the Na’vi or not.

Many complaints have been made about the lack of story and that the runtime is far too long. Anyone going into the film looking for a mind-blowing social commentary is ill begotten. What James Cameron has provided is a huge leap into the future of filmmaking.

Through the use of motion-capture, CGI and a boat load of money, Cameron has given a huge middle finger to George Lucas and his ill-conceived trilogy of prequels and Michael Bay who can’t hold his camera still long enough to see or comprehend anything happening on screen. Jar Jar Binks the Na’vi are definitely not.

Robert Zemekis should also pay attention to what’s happening here as the biggest trumpeter of motion-capture. Leave it to Cameron and Peter Jackson to give us the best uses of this style to date. The horrendous backfire of Zemekis’s “A Christmas Carol” and his even worse “Polar Express” adaptations cannot be overlooked when Cameron gives us such a fully realized world that you never once don’t believe that what you’re looking at is real. At least as far as the world of Pandora is concerned.

The cast does their best with what they’re given and it’s nice to see Sigourney Weaver back in action quickly bringing to mind her turn as Ripley in the “Alien” series. Sam Worthington is given far more to do here than when we last saw him in another Cameron-related film, “Terminator Salvation,” where he was reduced to little more than the robot his character was.

Zoe Saldana gives a giant improvement over what was already a fantastic debut in this past summer’s mega-hit, “Star Trek” as Uhura. Bringing a huge sense of sexiness and danger as a fully computer-generated character shows just how far an actress can go in so little time. When we next see her kicking butt and taking names in next spring’s “The Losers,” I can only imagine how great she hopefully will be as she’s given a full action-oriented character.

This is a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen. It is exactly where James Cameron has intended it to be partaken of. If you feel you must see it on your local IMAX screen then you may wind up shortchanging yourself as it was not filmed for IMAX so there’s no way it can look as spectacular as it does through digital projection.

Who knows if it will wind up being the biggest blockbuster of the year but so far it’s definitely on track to being at least one of them. While some over-sized, testicled, racist robots will probably come out on top, it’s nice to see a far better film come along to give it a run for its money. Welcome back, Cameron, your throne awaits its king’s return.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Can One Sport Unite The Country? You May Already Know, But Knowing Is Half The Battle

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.
134 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures
*** ½ out of 5

I may not be a huge fan of sports in general, but I’m learning. I root for only two professional teams, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Pittsburgh Steelers. One by choice, the other I’ve grown to love circumstantially.

Sports movies on the other hand, I seem to have a secret soft spot for. My favorites range all over the map - from “Caddyshack,” “Happy Gilmore,” “Any Given Sunday,” “Tin Cup,” “Major League,” “Kicking and Screaming,” “Mean Machine” and “Shaolin Soccer” just to name a few.

Films about politics I am even less inclined to enjoy unless they bring something more to the table or consist of a great story to begin with. Some of these favorites include – “Frost/Nixon,” “In the Loop,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Last King of Scotland” and it may be a stretch but I’d even go so far as to include “Election.”

Clint Eastwood loves to bring to light racial tension, none more so than in his last film “Grand Torino.” A sports film coming from the man who portrayed Dirty Harry so long ago could seem like a surprise. Nevertheless, as a director, Eastwood has been in Hollywood long enough that it’s pretty evident he can get away with just about anything.

Matt Damon seemed to be everyone’s last choice when he was given the role of Jason Bourne in the “Bourne” trilogy but managed to prove himself not only a charismatic leading man but also a bonafide badass. If you thought his prowess was impressive as Bourne, just wait until you see him plowing the field as a rugby player in Eastwood’s sports-meets-politics combo, “Invictus.”

With Anthony Peckham adapting the novel “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation” by John Carlin, we begin with Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) being released from serving 27 years in prison after being imprisoned on Robben Island for sabotage. Skip to Mandela being elected President of South Africa as an hour-long history lesson follows where we see Mandela’s coping with apartheid spread throughout his beloved country.

Mandela comes up with the idea of using South Africa’s Springboks rugby team to win the 1995 World Cup to unite the country. Mandela enlists the aid of Francois Pienaar (Damon) to lead the team to victory in spite of them having a horrible record.

Here’s where the faults heavily lie. By focusing most of the run time on the political aspects then trying to intermingle the sports angle midway it loses focus and the rugby aspect is never fully realized enough to merit any true importance. Also, anyone looking to understand the crazy game of rugby need look elsewhere as all hope for any kind of explanation of the game never happens. Audiences will have an easier time figuring out how to play whackbat watching “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

At least we get to learn where the film’s title comes from. I won’t spoil that as it’s one of the more emotional moments of the film. However, most of the audience are surely partaking of this film for it’s incredible acting pedigree. While Morgan Freeman is probably the only convincing big name star that could pull off such a great portrait of one of the world’s greatest leaders, you never forget you’re watching Morgan Freeman. His cool demeanor and over-used voice shines through in almost every scene.

When it comes time for Oscar nods, he’s more than likely to be nominated, although the true winner should be Matt Damon. While his oversized muscles are a sure sign of his training under Chester Williams at the Gardens Rugby Club to prepare himself for the battle out on the field, he never once lets his own persona take over (Leonardo DiCaprio, take note).

Engulfing an ever-convincing South African accent and displaying a sheer level of athleticism while giving us a fully realized portrait of what could have been belittled to a clichéd caricature shows just how far young “Good Will Hunting” has come.

The photography keeps everything well focused whether it’s quiet office meetings or out on the field and the score keeps the mood intense thanks to Michael Stevens and Kyle Eastwood, Clint’s son. Speaking of the photography, there’s an outstanding sequence involving a low flying airliner that at first brings great fear and then at the last second winds up as a great joke. Whether it really happened or not doesn’t matter as the moment works beautifully on film.

While it may not get the mixture completely right, at least the two leads give their all and never try to one up the other when onscreen together. As a sports movie it falls a little short, which is a shame since that’s how some of the advertising is feigning it to be. What we truly have is a portrait of a time that should never be forgotten. Even if a catch 22 is being used to put butts in the seats.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

While Not Quite As "Fantastic" As The Best And Not Quite "Up" To Oscar, This One's Well Worth Every Penny

Rated G
97 minutes
Walt Disney Pictures
**** ½ out of 5

We all know Disney has a long line of hand-drawn animation behind them. Dating as far back as 1937 with their first full-length animated feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," they have always been quite the powerhouse of quality, and never more so than during their heyday in the '90s when we were lucky enough to get the likes of "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," "The Lion King," "Pocahontas," "Hercules," "Mulan," and "Tarzan."

You could also lump in the likes of some of their more underrated films ("The Black Cauldron," "The Great Mouse Detective," and "Oliver & Company") and one of their truest classics, "The Little Mermaid," into this canon of spectacular quality. One right after the other, they were knocking them out of the ballpark.

With a few missteps along the way ("Atlantis: The Lost Empire," "Treasure Planet," and "Brother Bear") there were still a few to keep the faith alive ("The Emperor’s New Groove," "Lilo & Stitch," and "Home on the Range").

Then along came a little production company by the name of Pixar and they went ahead and changed everything. Pixar ushered in a new era of full-length, computer-animated feature films, and I don’t have to tell you about that string of hits. With other major studios seeking out this new medium and hitching a ride on the bandwagon, many have thought for years that the days of traditional 2-D films were completely behind us. Thanks to the likes of some extraordinarily talented veteran creators, we have returned to an era that has lain dormant far too long.

With their latest venture, "The Princess and the Frog," directors Ron Clements and John Musker also mark their return to form. These two were responsible for some of Disney’s biggest hits: "The Great Mouse Detective," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," and "Hercules." With the exception of the bland "Treasure Planet," it’s no wonder these two were handed the keys to the animation kingdom to bring fair advantage to the playing field.

Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose, "Dreamgirls") lives a modest life in New Orleans. We first see her as a young child living with her mother Eudora (voiced by Oprah Winfrey) and her father James (voiced by Terrence Howard). What’s this? Tiana has a father? Well, don’t worry, the staples of Disney are still with us as we flash forward to when she’s older and her father has, of course, passed on.

All James wanted for his daughter was a great life filled with what she needs and the dream of opening their own restaurant filled with jambalaya and beignets. All she needs is to make sure she serves everything with a steaming cup of chicory coffee and I’d be sold myself. Being on the poor side of life is fine with Tiana but she still dreams big and has just saved enough to pay for the bayou-side building she wants to turn into her restaurant.

When Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos) arrives on the scene it causes quite a stir in the French Quarter. Particularly with Tiana’s best friend, the uber-rich Charlotte (voiced by Jennifer Cody) who is bound and determined to marry Prince Naveen and become a true life princess just like the ones from the fairy tales Eudora used to read to her and Tiana when they were children.

Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David) has different plans altogether and tricks Prince Naveen into giving up a blood sample held within a voodoo amulet. The tables turn as Prince Naveen gets turned into a frog while his original form is taken over by his clumsy and greedy assistant, Lawrence (voiced by Peter Bartlett). Facilier tells Naveen that to become human again he must kiss a princess. He mistakes Tiana for a princess and winds up turning her into a frog as well.

The two make due with their sticky situation and set out to find the likes of Mama Odie (voiced by Jenifer Lewis) who tells them that the only way they can both be saved is for Naveen to find a true princess to kiss him before the clock strikes midnight. Their journey wouldn’t be complete, however, without its fair share of helpful characters.

Along the way they first meet up with Louis (voiced by Michael Leon-Wooley), a trumpet-tooting alligator who simply wants to find equality and play in a jazz band or become human himself to be taken more seriously. After all, who wants a wild creature trumpeting away and scaring off everyone in sight?

Also along for the ride is the heart of the film, Ray (voiced by Winnie and Tigger himself, Jim Cummings), a firefly whose butt lights up. Here we may have what some could consider to be one of the more stereotyped characters in the whole movie, but his character is played with such whimsy and joy for life that it’s very easy to look past it and it will honestly go over all children’s heads. All Ray wants is to find the love of his life, the evening star he’s mistakenly named and thinks is another firefly.

Anyone who thinks things will all go according to plan are luckily proven wrong. The directors and writers have plenty of twists on this age-old tale and some serious surprises await (along with a certain level of darkness which I have always felt was required to make a true children’s film play fair with the entire audience).

While many things may seem overly familiar, it’s only because after 70 years in the business it should be expected that you can’t keep things completely fresh. Louis comes across as a cross between Tiger from the "American Tail" films and King Louie in "The Jungle Book." All he wants to do is blow his horn and give you a great big hug. Also, Naveen’s assistant Lawrence brings to mind Nathaniel from "Enchanted."

Even some of the song sequences could be deemed slightly redundant but thankfully the songs themselves, from Disney mainstay Randy Newman, are immediately memorable and stake their own claim among the classics of yesteryear. The most noticeable are how similar "Almost There" is to "Be Our Guest" or how "Friends on the Other Side" seems like a sequel to "Friend Like Me" and "When We’re Human" calls to mind "The Bare Necessities" as everyone floats along a river bed.

While everything comes together in the end and happily ever after comes full circle, it all moves merrily along and there won’t be a disappointed member in any family. This may not be the best animated film of the year but I would definitely say it ranks right up there in the top three. Only the double whammy of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" (hands down the best animated film of the year) and "Up" (which was the surefire pick until Wes Anderson and company showed up to steal the thunder) are better.

When two of the three happen to be from the same production company, yet created in completely different mediums, it shows just how far Disney has come and that there’s plenty of room for all kinds of animation, be it by hand, stop-motion, or computer-animated. Welcome back Mouse House, it’s been too long.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Far More Than "Fantastic," This "Fox" Has Oscar Contender Written All Over It

Rated PG for action, smoking and slang humor.
87 minutes
Fox Searchlight
***** out of 5

Wes Anderson has truly outdone himself. While his last film was his most mature (The Darjeeling Limited), Fantastic Mr. Fox, based on the Roald Dahl novel, is far more adult and crowd pleasing than anyone could possibly imagine, even with the use of stop-motion and a family-friendly orientation.

While Anderson’s films have also never been box office gold (his highest grossing, The Royal Tenenbaums, only pulled in $52 million) they have also suffered from a case of love them or hate them. While they mainly appeal to the art house crowd, they have always been favorites of mine. I hope that the times are changing for Mr. Anderson, although with an opening gross of only $6.9 million it looks like Fox Searchlight needs to find a better way to market this astounding achievement.

Not since the heyday of Aardman (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run and the underrated Flushed Away) has a stop-motion feature film been so full of so many different things. While it does have its depictions of alcohol use, smoking, and slang curse words, (the word “cuss” is used with abundance) most of those things are used with such innocence the youngest members will hardly recognize them. Although, if your children are going to pick up any kind of curse word from watching movies, I can’t think of any cussin’ better.

Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) lives a mischievous life with a day job of killing and stealing chickens. One night while out with Mrs. Fox (voiced by Meryl Streep) they are caught in a trap where Mrs. Fox informs Mr. Fox that she is pregnant. The fake smile plastered upon Mr. Fox’s face will instantly delight and bowl you over with laughter and this is all within the opening few minutes. Mrs. Fox demands Mr. Fox to give up his dangerous job for the sake of their new family, which he obliges.

After raising their son Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) whilst living inside the hole of an evergreen tree for a year (or 12 fox years), Mr. Fox finally decides to hatch his ultimate scheme. This plan Mr. Fox has been devising over the past year. It is a three-phase master plan devised to steal discreetly from the farmers who caught him. Earlier we see that the reason he chose their particular tree is only because it is right across from the farmers Boggis, a chicken farmer (voiced by Robin Hurlstone), Bunce, a duck and goose farmer (voiced by Hugo Guinness), and Bean, a turkey and apple farmer (voiced by Michael Gambon).

With the help of his seemingly only friend, Kylie (voiced by Wallace Wolodarsky) an opossum, Mr. Fox begins to exact his revenge, which goes pretty well at first only to wind up with Mr. Fox having his tail shot off. Bean wears Mr. Fox’s tail around his neck as a tie, much to Mr. Fox’s dismay. Bean has also hatched his own plan to dig out the Foxes from beneath their evergreen and possibly kill off all the local wildlife in the process. All the animals wind up going literally underground in escape and insist Mr. Fox find a way to get them all out of this “cluster-cuss.”

Everything from the beautifully detailed animation, clever song selections, and outstanding vocal choices come together for the most masterful animated film event of the year. If this is what Fox Searchlight has up their sleeve then Pixar better begin to seriously up the ante and not just in-house.

The beautiful script was written by director Anderson along with his friend, Noah Baumbauch (The Squid and the Whale and Anderson’s own The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). The two have packed so many one-liners and double entendres into such a compact runtime that it will take anyone tons of repeat viewings to catch every line of hilarious dialogue.

Then there is the cast. In addition to the likes of Clooney, Streep, Schwartzman, and Gambon, we also get some spectacular assistance with the side characters. Just to name some of the most recognizable and memorable actors we get Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Brian Cox, and Adrien Brody. Also along for this witty romp are the likes of music video director (son of Francis Ford) Roman Coppola, Garth Jennings (Son of Rambow, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and even Anderson himself (as a weasel).

When it comes time for a video release this will truly be a sight to behold on Blu-ray. However, if you are lucky enough to see this with digital projection there are tons of tiny details that you could nitpick for days on end. Whether it’s an amazing long take chock full of action or the many trains, planes, and automobiles that saunter through a scene or even just the fact that the film opens with the shot of a book cover which reads, “Now a Major Motion Picture” along the bottom, the filmmakers and animators have gone to quite another level of overload.

If anyone thought that Pixar was going to be taking home yet another Oscar with this summer’s Up, it appears that the tables have turned and hopefully this will walk away with the coveted naked gold man. As much as I absolutely adore Up (I happen to be listening to that film’s original score as I write this), I am 104% positive that the winner will indeed be Fantastic Mr. Fox. My apologies in advance to Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, along with Carl, Russel, Kevin and Dug, but Anderson and company have truly given us the animated family comedy event of the year.

The Team Behind "The Matrix" Present: "Splat!: The Movie"

Rated R for strong bloody stylized violence throughout, and language.
99 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures
*** 1/2 out of 5

Congratulations, gentlemen. After months of suffering through all those wretched date-night chick flicks this year, your revenge has finally arrived. Now that New Line Cinema’s final theatrical releases are being distributed by Warner Bros. I hope this means that with the recent success of The Final Destination (the fourth and supposed “final” installment in spite of being the highest grossing yet), and what the filmmakers of Ninja Assassin (both Warner Bros. films) have unleashed upon us, this new blood gets my vote as to who should be placed in charge of a fifth Final Destination.

Producers Joel Silver and the Wachowski Brothers, along with director James McTeigue, aren’t necessarily known for bringing forth a bloodbath such as the likes of their new film, Ninja Assassin, but it definitely gives most gore fests a clear run for their money. Yes, it is a video game adaptation but all’s fair when you think a scene can’t possibly become any more gruesome then along comes another whizzing throwing star or swishing katana sword to slice another limb and spill gallons of blood.

In case you were ever wondering just how much blood the human body contains do not look to this film for answers. Every wound and lopped off appendage sprays a never-ending fountain of bright red blood. Coagulates are at an all-time low and the film feels more like an Americanized remake of Ichi the Killer from one of Japan’s busiest directors, cult favorite Takashi Miike.

The filmmaking assemblage here could possibly result in Miike having to make something even more outlandish as the ante has been upped considerably. Any filmmakers who cut from blood beginning to drip from a dryer to ketchup squirted upon a batch of French fries have their own sense of humor about them and I’m more than happy to share it.

The opening scene sets an immediate tone as a group of goofy Yakuza boys are hanging out while one is being tattooed. A sealed envelope is delivered full of black sand which immediately catches the attention of the old man delivering said tattoo. He delivers a speech warning the young men that the last time he saw that type of envelope he only survived the blood-soaked attack due to a convenient birth defect which caused his heart to develop in the wrong spot (and if you think that won’t rear its head again before the show's over you are far from the target demographic).

A quick attack nastily disposes of everyone, including the man whose heart’s on the wrong sleeve, which is brought to the attention of Berlin-stationed Europol agent Mika (Naomie Harris) who’s also discovered a money trail linking numerous political assassinations to an underground society of assassins. She brings this to the attention of her superior and confidante Ryan Maslow (Ben Miles) who at first doesn’t believe her until Mika is attacked herself after searching through secret files given to her by the wife of one of the assassination victims.

Raizo (Rain) was raised in this world of secret ninjas known as the Ozunu Clan and through flashbacks we see all the clichéd but still fun-to-watch training exercises which are brutal, bloody, and unflinching. While growing up in this world he also finds time for a love interest who is killed after she decides she’d rather live a free life. Now Raizo is out for revenge against the Ozunu Clan and wants to protect Mika to try and bring down everyone involved including his master, Takeshi (Rick Yune).

This being a movie about ninjas makes the plot way more convoluted than I have made it sound. The reason anyone will want to run out and watch this movie is because they know what they are getting: plenty of action scenes, ridiculously choreographed fight scenes, and body parts flung at the screen to no end. This was the first time I have watched a film of this type and actually longed for a 3-D IMAX release. As if the film wasn’t already silly and funny enough it would completely add a whole new level of meaning to in-your-face.

Speaking of which, there is a particular fight scene that takes place in a bathroom that is so outrageous and blood splattered yet brutal and disgusting that it gives new depth to the meaning of bathroom “break.” Someone’s face pounded into the edge of a porcelain urinal is gross once, but when it is continually hammered into at least five times it just makes it hilarious. This opinion is not just mine; the audience seemed to think this was hilarious too as there was a growing sound of laughter as the scene progressed.

Anyone who has born witness this year to the likes of Bride Wars, The Ugly Truth, Confessions of a Shopaholic, He’s Just Not That into You or All About Steve have rightfully deserved this hilarious splatterfest. Any girl who thinks she can’t sit through this should have to after the abysmal onslaught of chick flicks forced upon the male consciousness this year. You don’t have to watch the trailer to know what you’re in for but keeping your female counterpart away from it will more than likely help your cause.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Old Dogs" Should Be Put Down Like "Old Yeller"

Rated PG for some mild rude humor.
88 minutes
Walt Disney Pictures
Zero out of 5 stars

Walt Becker should never, ever be allowed to direct again. I’ll freely admit, for better and worse, that his debut film, “Van Wilder,” is among a long list of my guilty pleasure movies. It is not a great movie and at times even a downright disgusting movie, but it knew its target audience and played along the lines of the then-current crop of gross-out features. It also brought to light the now hugely reliable star Ryan Reynolds but he’s about the only good thing to come from a film that also featured Tara Reid.

Since this first film Becker has been on quite a steady downward spiral as he also gave us “Buying the Cow” starring Jerry O’Connell and then the surprise smash hit, and I mean surprise, “Wild Hogs.” This was a movie that went on to be one of 2007’s biggest hits in spite of being one of that year’s absolute worst comedies, if not film.

When your big name cast consists of so-called “comedians” who may be great on stage are usually horrific on-screen they should never be allowed to act together in one film. Yet there they were; Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence right alongside John Travolta and William H. Macy. Along for the ride we also saw Marisa Tomei turn up as Macy’s love interest who managed to be the only two that escaped slightly unscathed.

Having not had the displeasure of witnessing neither “I Love You, Beth Cooper” nor “All About Steve,” I have to say that from what I’ve seen so far, I award this year’s Cinematic Abortion Award to Walt Becker’s “Old Dogs.”

Here we find John Travolta returning for another undeserved paycheck along with Robin Williams who phones in his performance and goes completely over-the-top by the likes we haven’t seen from him in awhile. In some cases that could be a good thing, but with a director who has no filmmaking sensibilities in the slightest and nary a rope in sight to yield Williams in at any point we get this atrocious piece of slap dash unintentional terror film.

Dan (Robin Williams) and Charlie (John Travolta) live single and boisterously care free. Dan is seeking plight in his old age where Charlie is still lapping it up as the ladies man he always has been. As business and unintentional life partners they have apparently more time and money than they know how to deal with but are trying to close a deal with some Japanese businessmen apparently only to string along the racial and ethnic jokes for the duration of the running time.

Dan also can’t seem to get over his one night stand with Vicki (Kelly Preston, Travolta’s real-life wife) that was 7 years ago whom he feels might have been the love of his life which he drunkenly married then quickly annulled. After receiving a message that Vicki wants to meet for lunch he thinks maybe she wants to try things out again between them. What he finds out she really wants is to introduce him to his twin children Zach and Emily (Conner Rayburn and Travolta and Preston’s real-life daughter, Ella Bleu Travolta).

Dan has never been good with kids as we witness in a bad case of child abuse when Dan kicks a soccer ball back to a group of kids in Central Park and of course the ball flies across screen only to smash the kid in the face. A simple, “My bad,” seems to be all it takes to smooth one over for these guys.

Vicki comes clean with Dan during their lunch and it is revealed that she is going to serve jail time for a trespassing episode. Originally the plan was to have the kids stay with Vicki’s cross-eyed hand model best friend Jenna (Rita Wilson). After Dan smashes Jenna’s hands in a car trunk to the tune of “Big Girl’s Don’t Cry” blasting in your face the supposed hilarity of ruining someone’s career it is forced upon Dan to take the children under his wing for two weeks while Vicki does her time.

And on that note we cue the music, so-to-speak. I don’t know who hired the Dave Jordan as the Music Supervisor but along with director Becker, he too should be run out of Hollywood with a bulldozer. Nothing that is happening onscreen ever makes sense or is used to bludgeon the moment into the audiences forehead like a musical lobotomy.

As for the shenanigans: see Williams and Travolta in a PG rated film have a night on the town consisting of oversized alcoholic beverages and getting so wasted that they wind up in a tattoo parlor and partaking of one night stands. Witness Williams receiving the world’s worst spray-on tan accident where at Grand Central Station he actually questions if he is the new United Nations as stereotyped foreigners continually ask him random things in foreign languages.

Bare the humility of Williams and Travolta having their daily pills mixed up by Zach and Emily then ingested to all kinds of “hilarity” ensuing. A day on the golf course turns into lame sight gags and Seth Green getting hit in the crotch not just once, but twice, then to add insult to injury upon the audience we also witness another character being torpedoed in the crotch with a golf ball.

Supposedly this film was pushed back from its original release date after the untimely death of the great Bernie Mac. If it was pushed back in honor of his passing his estate should have done him one better and had it seen to that all prints of this disaster were destroyed and never spoke of again. He may only be in the film for around five minutes but this is an even worse send off than Donald Pleasance’s final performance in “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers.”

The single biggest culprits here would honestly have to be the screenwriting duo of David Diamond and David Weissman. This is their third big studio release, following the likes of the Brett Ratner holiday crapfest “The Family Man” and the surprisingly spry and at least sporadically entertaining Ivan Reitman helmed “Evolution.” After “Family Man” and “Old Dogs” I have a sneaking suspicion that “Evolution” was single handedly written by the original story creditor and third party scripter Don Jakoby.

Scene after scene makes your jaw drop lower and lower as the stupidity abounds and reaches new lows at an astounding rate. With a new film on its way from Diamond and Weissman being a January released Kristen Bell starring romantic comedy from the director of “Simon Birch,” “Daredevil” and “Ghost Rider,” I can only fear for my eyes and ears as that one encroaches upon us for the new year. When a film can’t even make a dog owner feel empathy by killing off a 14-year-old dog then something has gone awry. If only we, the audience were as lucky as that dog.

In a film made by children, starring actors acting like children, in a film that hates everyone, you already know if this film is for you. I also forgot to make mention of poor Seth Green who was apparently only cast to sneer at and mug for the camera and repeat whatever Dan and Charlie say to hammer the lines home and become the first primate rape victim since “Trading Places.” This is a “family” film?!

Not even the ever gracefully aging Ann-Margret escapes unscathed in a scene where Charlie unknowingly attends a grief counseling weekend group with a clearly computer animated “Joker” smile. “Clearly” meaning that when Travolta tries to imitate said smile he is completely unable to at a board meeting with the Japanese business men. So, as the great late Bernie Mac would say, “America…,” if this film’s for you there’s no hope for the future.

Friday, November 20, 2009

"Vampires" And Werewolves And Teen Angst, Oy Vey!

Rated PG-13 for some violence and action.
130 minutes
Summit Entertainment
** out of 5

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right now; I am not this series’ target audience. Now that we have that out of the way let me just say that while I do not enjoy these films nor will I ever waste my energy trudging through the novels they should still find some way to have a broader appeal. All I can say is that if people have dubbed “Seinfeld” a show about nothing, they ain’t seen nothing yet.

Upping the production budget and adding more established actors (Dakota Fanning and Michael Sheen) to stand around doing as little as the rest of the cast a better movie does not make. According to some, this film cost about $20 million more to make than “Twilight” did and all I can see we get out of this is a longer, more boring, sillier and ultimately repetitive and inferior film.

It is nowhere near what you could call one of the worst films of the year, but I guess since the movie has a built in fan base it ultimately doesn’t truly matter what I think. Fans will flock, the movie will probably make more money than the last one, and maybe by the third entry, “Eclipse,” director David Slade will be able to finally make a film with a broader appeal. The fact that Slade also directed the graphic novel adaptation “30 Days of Night” gives me hope in that he’s dealt with the genre before.

In “New Moon” the “vampires” and werewolves are back with a much heavier emphasis thankfully on the wolf pack. I know people love their Robert Pattinson but he is absolutely the most boring aspect of both films. It seems to be that his only direction is to stare at the ground, mumble his lines and take 5 minutes to say one sentence and in that time almost never finish a thought. Team Edward needs a new leader. Alice Cullen (Ashley Greene) would do nicely as at least she appears to have some kind of personality.

We’re told it’s been 10 years since the Cullen clan have moved to Forks, WA and people are starting to notice that Carlisle (Mike Dexter himself, Peter Facinelli) ain’t gettin’ any older. This is what Edward gives as his excuse to Bella (Kristen Stewart) for his needing to leave her and he can never return. The audience knows that it was actually due to her blood riddled 18th birthday party. These events set in motion a long, and I mean long, string of montages that are so repetitive it turns the film into a case of self-parody and this is only the first sequel.

With Edward gone and Bella giving a performance consisting of child birth reenactment as she wakes up screaming over and over again she finally decides she needs to move on. She seeks solace in the company of her second string love interest Jacob (surprisingly charismatic Taylor Lautner). The two begin hanging out and take place in even more montages as we see them begin to maybe fall in love and rebuild a couple of dirt bikes.

After one of Jacob’s friends reveals himself to be a werewolf it’s all passed off with a shrug and a one-liner which is more than can be said with how Meyer’s breed of “blood suckers” (as Jacob hilariously continually calls them). These are an interesting group of people and are cast with much more aplomb than any of the Cullen clan. They are a seemingly rag tag fun bunch and if the films followed them exclusively and possibly changed the series title to “Moonlight” I could totally get behind these films.

During one of the many montages, Bella finds out that whenever risk or danger is near, she begins seeing hilariously evaporative images of Edward forewarning her of imminent doom. Is he really there in spirit or simply a figment of Bella’s imagination? It’s never made clear and simply makes Bella look possibly insane. He even shows up while she’s drowning after a cliff diving stunt which makes things even more confusing as she’s not conscious.

I’m sure all of this makes sense in the book but in a film where things are literally not spelled out for you there needs to be some kind of exposition so the rest of the viewing community can make heads or tails of what the intent is of these scenes. My guess is that Edward leaving has driven Bella to madness especially since they keep referring to “Romeo & Juliet” which is by far the last thing a film of this caliber should be trying to compare itself to.

Eventually Alice returns to tell Bella that Edward thinks she died during the cliff diving episode and has gone to ask the Volturi to take his life, as he cannot continue living without her. Am I an idiot or are vampires undead? I know that you can “kill” a vampire and whatnot but there is so much emphasis on him not being able to “live” without Bella that it just gets funnier every time it’s mentioned.

Alice picks up Bella and whisks her off to Italy to stop Edward from exposing himself to the public and risk also exposing the truth that vampires do exist to the world. Maybe I’m hazy on the facts here but I remember a huge deal being made and it is also mentioned in this new film that vampires are very fast. Why are they driving around in Porsche’s and taking plane rides? Seems like a huge waste of time to me but I digress. This film’s idea of subtlety seems to be having Bella fly Virgin Airlines.

In the end anything I say here will be null and void as there’s nothing anyone can say or do from drying up this new cash cow and more power to Summit Entertainment for grabbing the rights to a series that can be made on the cheap and bring in the big bucks.

Some final words are that at least Kristen Stewart is far more tolerable here than in “Twilight” and Taylor Lautner is an admitted stake to the heart of adrenaline whenever he’s onscreen. They may not have a lot of chemistry together but at least he forces Stewart to put forth more effort into her role.

Also, some may find Michael Sheen’s performance too over-the-top but I thought he seemed to be one of very few in the cast that see just how silly all of this really is and acts accordingly. As for Dakota Fanning, all she gets to do is stare into the camera causing Edward great pain while Bella pretends to have an orgasm when she’s supposed to be exuding fear of death to her beloved.

Thankfully, everything ends with a cliffhanger, which is more than can be said for the first film that was the biggest moment of anti-climax seen in a long time. In 130 minutes of runtime it is Chris Weitz’ biggest achievement even if it takes Edward an eternity to deliver his line which is about how long it feels like it takes this movie to end.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Oprah Produced It, Does That Mean You Should See It?

Rated R for child abuse including sexual assault, and pervasive language.
110 minutes
*** ½ out of 5

Forgive the pun, but child abuse is a very touchy topic. This was all I really knew about this film upon entering the theater for what I will truncate as “Precious.” All I knew was that it was about a pregnant 16-year-old who is carrying her father’s child. If you think that is more than enough to turn you away then you’ll be missing out on one of the years most superbly acted films.

Mo’Nique is not whom you’d call a household name and with her past choices in film and her stand-up it’s not totally surprising. Okay, she may be a household name for some, but not for your standard Utah art house crowd. If she keeps giving performances to the likes of her portrayal of Mary, lead character Precious’s (Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe) mother, she will be.

Gabby Sidibe has never been in a film before and again forgive the pun, has quite a heavy load to bare. Playing an obese 16-year-old teen impregnated by her mother’s boyfriend (who also happens to be her own father) who is also heavily illiterate and far from what one would call well-educated is more than most actresses would ever dream of attempting in their film debut.

While she holds up very well in the dramatic and surprisingly hilarious moments, I truly hope she isn’t another one-trick-pony who winds up suffering from Jennifer Hudson Syndrome. After bursting into the Hollywood spotlight in her Academy Award winning role in “Dreamgirls” she has since been degraded to second fiddle roles in the likes of the “Sex and the City” film or has taken part in films that most have not seen (“Winged Creatures,” “The Secret Life of Bees”).

In “Precious” we meet the young title character who likes to be called by her middle name which is Precious. She lives with her mother, Mary, who is abusive beyond the likes I’ve seen in films lately. Here is a mother who is not scared to beat her child, smoke a cigarette while holding a newborn and will throw a television set at your head down a flight of stairs.

One morning Precious is called to the principal’s office where Mrs. Lichtenstein (Nealla Gordon) asks point blank if she’s pregnant with her second child; she is, upon which she is discharged from school. The principal stops by their apartment and informs Precious of an alternative school called Each One Teach One because Precious happens to be very gifted in math so why not in the rest of her schooling.

Here Precious meets a group of girls not too much unlike herself; outcasts who just want to do well enough if not better for at least an inkling of hope for their futures. She also meets Ms. Rain who is the nicest anyone has ever been to Precious. She believes in her and loves her and wants what’s absolutely best for her. Precious has also been spending time with a social worker, Mrs. Weiss (a very drab looking Mariah Carey) who just wants Precious to come to terms with the truth of her life situations to keep receiving her welfare to provide for her children.

Precious doesn’t always live in reality. Intermittent flashes of glitz and flash are sprinkled throughout whenever life gets just a little too rough for Precious. This is a good thing for her as it also gives her the hope that there is a good life that may be out of reach but at least gives her something to look forward to even if in her own head.

When the moment of truth is revealed in Mrs. Weiss’ cubicle as Mary is reunited with Precious after spending some time living with Mrs. Rain and her life partner (yes, Mrs. Rain happens to be a lesbian which Precious finds very amusing) we get the moment of a lifetime for Mo’Nique. As her character struggles to bring everyone to light the circumstances behind everything they’ve gone through as a family her lip quibbles, her grammar stutters and the tears begin to flow.

While the powerhouse performances strictly belong to Mo’Nique and newbie Sidibe, much press has been made regarding Mariah Carey. While she does seem to be not wearing any makeup and sports her worst hairdo ever and definitely gives what is actually a performance in a film, it is not what you’d call the performance of a lifetime. Or maybe it is, and this is the best we’ll ever see of her (which could be true considering what we’ve seen in the past).

The handheld camera work from director Lee Daniels throws you into every scene headfirst and leaves you spellbound by what’s taking place. Most of the movie is what you could call a train wreck but not because of shoddy production values. This is very well made and is portrayed with such raw brutality and realism that you buy every little thing that happens throughout.

This is a movie that is not afraid to bully you into a corner, give you a black eye and send you to bed with no dinner. It’s that tough and that draining upon your senses. In one word: exhaustive. As soon as the film was over all I could do was breathe a sigh of relief but it was only because the onslaught would continue no more. During a particular scene a character, Rhonda (Chyna Layne) is asked if she knows what the word “unrelenting” means and surprisingly she does. This also appears to be the director’s intent and he pulls through admirably.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

It's The End Of The World As We Know It But With John Cusack I Feel Fine

Rated PG-13 for intense disaster sequences and some language.
158 minutes
Columbia Pictures
**** out of 5

If you’re going to bring the world to and end, or make any kind of disaster flick in general, it needs to be big, dumb and most of all, fun. The emphasis should always be on the word fun. Let that be a lesson to you Hollywood hotshots. This includes Bay, McG and Sommers.

With a long history of destruction and CGI driven films tucked tightly under his belt, Roland Emmerich once agains brings us an exhaustive 158 minute whirlwind excursion into what has been appropriately deemed “disaster porn.” Horror may have its “torture porn” but action aficionados now have their own crown which is a lot more fun for what it is.

According to, Emmerich has directed four of the top five highest grossing disaster film weekend openings. The only other director included in this list is Steven Spielberg who by turns is obviously the better director but it’s still a very interesting fact. Aside from “War of the Worlds” the top five also includes “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Independence Day,” “Godzilla” and Emmerich’s possible masterpiece, “2012.”

In 2009 we begin where Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) learns that there has been an explosion on the sun causing Earth’s core temperature to increase very rapidly. Helmsley quickly returns to Washington, D.C. to deliver the message to Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) who for once takes a maniacal sounding scientist seriously and delivers the message to President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover, who seems to be literally getting too old for this shit).

Jumping through 2010 and 2011, President Wilson informs other heads of states the situation while Wilson’s daughter, Laura (Thandie Newton, still seemingly playing an SNL sketch character as she did in “W”) finds the Mona Lisa missing after she thought it had been sealed away for safe keeping.

Finally in the year 2012, we meet Jackson Curtis (J.C. himself, John Cusack) who drives limousines and is divorced from Kate (Amanda Peet). They have two children (Liam James and Morgan Lily) together who seem to favor Kate’s boyfriend Gordon (Thomas McCarthy) but Jackson is bound to take his children camping for some father/kid time in Yellowstone. When they arrive they find Jackson’s favorite lake has evaporated and the government has sealed off the area.

While in Yellowstone, Jackson meets crazy-man cliché Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson). An automatic Art Bell rip off, Frost is convinced that the world is indeed ending and he will be broadcasting the events on his own radio show from atop a mountain side which we witness as Yellowstone erupts in a blaze of glory.

Yes, the Mayans are right and 2012 will be the end of the world as we know it. Unfortunately it just may be earlier than anyone expected which of course puts a hiccup in any kind of evacuation plans the government may have up their sleeve. When Jackson realizes that Frost is right he hightails it to pick up his kids and ex-wife along with the new father figure and so begins what may be this years most hilarious two hours special effects extravaganza.

In “Hot Shots: Part Deux” there is a scene where Charlie Sheen’s character is continually gunning down bad guys with a machine gun. Along the bottom of the screen runs a body count keeping track of how many people he kills. At one point it proclaims, “Bloodiest Movie Ever.” With how many on-screen deaths this film throws at you — whether its folks falling from buildings or into crevices, drowning in tsunami’s or being crushed by monuments — it almost seems like a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” version of “The Final Destination” series going global. But even funnier!

Eventually we learn that the government has been selling tickets for giant arks that are going to save the human race. Along with rich bitches there are loads of animals and things start to look even more biblical than before. When someone asks you why the Himalayans were selected as the place to build these arks the answer is of course, “So they can crash into Mount Everest “Titanic”-style.”

The cast very obviously seem to be in on the joke even if luckily director Emmerich is not. He always takes his own films far too seriously which just makes all of the proceedings that much sillier. It’s a huge shame that the easiest jokes are never the ones that make it into the final product.

When you have Danny Glover sifting himself from debris, covered in soot from the toppling of the Washington Monument only to see a giant tidal wave plowing towards him with the USS John F. Kennedy surfing into The White House there’s no excuse for him not uttering his most quoted line of dialogue from the “Lethal Weapon” series. Thankfully the rest of the movie is so outlandish and unintentionally hilarious it more than makes up for it in the long run.

If you want to see the world coming to an end and actually be able to see it, this is the film for you. No shaky cam or quick-cut editing here. Emmerich has spent a supposed $200 million plus on his budget and wants you to see every penny that went into making this as bloated and gloriously over-the-top it is. There are lots of long takes where there is nothing but seemingly endless destruction taking place and when it comes to this genre, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Friday, November 13, 2009

When This Boat's A-Rockin' You'll Wish You Could Come A-Knockin'

Rated R for language, and some sexual content including brief nudity.
135 minutes
Universal Pictures
**** out of 5

I remember the first time I watched a Richard Curtis film. I was 14 years old and I sat down with my grandma to watch a little film called “Four Weddings and a Funeral” which then went on to receive a Best Picture nod. I have always been just as interested in who made a movie as much as the final product.

Since then I have always had Richard Curtis on my radar as he single handedly introduced me to the greatness that is the British film industry. Whether it’s his early work in television (“The Black Adder” and “Mr. Bean”) through his more well known films (“Notting Hill” and the adaptation of “Bridget Jones’s Diary”).

I am always interested to see what witty line of dialogue or genuine emotion he would display for us next which brings us to his new movie, “The Boat That Rocked.” Or as it has been Americanized in the name of profit, “Pirate Radio.”

In 1966, a motley crew of radio pirates are sitting on a boat in the ocean playing rock and pop music 24 hours a day for the good people of Britain. This is their only means as the British government denies it being played locally and is trying their damnedest to outlaw the boats in their midst. The crew of Radio Rock has the biggest following and extremely loyal listeners much to the government’s dismay.

“Young” Carl (Tom Sturridge) has just come aboard Radio Rock and is introduced to his godfather Quentin (brilliantly played by Bill Nighy) and it is explained that his mom has made the “spectacular mistake” of sending him to the high seas to learn a thing or two and is told it is punishment for smoking, both drugs and cigarettes. This is of course responded to by Quentin with, “Well done.”

Carl is introduced to the crew consisting of head DJ, The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in full “Twister” Dusty mode); News John (Will Adamsdale); Dave (surprisingly suavely portrayed by Nick Frost of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” glory); Angus (Rhys Darby, Murray from “The Flight of the Conchords), and his roommate Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke).

In hopes of banning the pirate radio ships, Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) has brought under his wing a character only ever known as Twatt (Jack Davenport, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” trilogy and the hilarious BBC series “Coupling”) to bring them down. A cat-and-mouse game begins as Twatt finds one way of silencing them while the crew of Radio Rock find another way around it.

One such device is to make advertising illegal for the pirates raiding the airwaves. While their funding slowly dwindles away it makes for the return of their most demanded DJ, Gavin. Once aboard the ship the allegiances begin shifting while everyone aboard tries to maintain order to stay afloat.

Lessons are learned and relations are made with some great cameos by the likes of Emma Thompson (as Carl’s mother, Charlotte), Talulah Riley, Gemma Arterton and January Jones. Some people have felt that the movie dwells on far too long and that the climax feels too forced and unnecessary but I loved every second of it and that’s when some of the films biggest and best jokes arise even while the ship starts to go down.

Curtis seems to work best when writing with an ensemble cast in mind. It’s when he has to provide a feature length script for one main character when it seems to land with a thud. Anyone who has bared witness of “Bean” knows exactly what I am talking about.

In “Four Weddings” he gave us great roles for Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, Kristin Scott Thomas and John Hannah. For “Notting Hill” we had Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant again, and Rhys Ifans. In “Bridget Jones’s Diary” he managed to bring the book to great life with established characters played perfectly by Renee Zellweger, Gemma Jones, Colin Firth, Jim Broadbent and for the third time Hugh Grant. The less said about the abysmal in-it-for-the-money sequel the better.

With “Love Actually” he gave us a movie filled to the brim with organic, loveable and realistic characters with so much characterization you long for the full four hour director’s cut. After writing for Hugh Grant in five films (he’s also in the “Bridget Jones” sequel and “Love Actually”) one would think that he was Curtis’s full-time muse but never once does he appear in his new film “The Boat That Rocked” and this may be the only thing that keeps it from being his biggest accomplishment. I still find “Love Actually” to be my personal favorite.

Curtis proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that his behind the camera work with “Love Actually” was no fluke. And as much a fuss has been made about the soundtrack I feel like I don’t really need to contribute. But I have a genre I love to mention that I call the “unintentional musical” which is where a movie uses music to tell its story even if not outright sung by it’s characters and this is definitely one of those and ranks among the best of them.

If you’re looking for something hilarious and lighthearted, a little saucy with a side of wholesomeness then look no further. Every moment rings true and there are many amazing moments of cinematic brilliance spread throughout.

I watched an imported British region free Blu-ray which can be purchased through (hence the review title being for “The Boat that Rocked” and not the sub par American title “Pirate Radio”). This is the only way you can experience the full version in its 135 minute glory so order a copy immediately. While visiting the site you may as well throw in a copy of the soundtrack since once the film is over you’ll want to pop it in and listen to it over and over.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"The Fourth Kind" Is Called The Worst Kind... Just Like This Movie

Rated PG-13 for violent/disturbing images, some terror, thematic elements and brief sexuality.
98 minutes
Universal Pictures
* out of 5

With a long history behind it, sci-fi films don’t always have to deal with alien abduction. Amongst a wide range of quality, some are silly (“Men in Black” and “The Arrival”) or have been offered up for television (the James Earl Jones starring “The UFO Incident,” Spielberg’s “Taken,” the controversial “Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction,” and the “X-Files,” along with both the original and current “V” miniseries).

Many are done very dramatically and serve their purpose well: “Signs,” the “Alien” series, “War of the Worlds,” “E.T.” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Some are done in a more matter of fact way such as Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Fire in the Sky” where stuff happens and it’s up to you to decide if it’s believable based on your suspension of disbelief.

When a filmmaker wants to present you with “facts” and is trying to make a case study they better come up with a great way to present these or you polarize your audience. While director Olatunde Osunsanmi has come up with a brilliant idea for his use of piecing together actual footage he completely undermines any kind of effect by having the “live” events unfold with a split screen of dramatization at the exact same time.

Show me something purportedly real happening on screen and there’s a good chance I can buy it. Even if I know it’s fake or have an assumption at least let me take in the footage and make up my own mind. Don’t begin your film with a disclaimer that what you are about to see is real when you don’t have the guts to allow the footage to stake its own claim on your subconscious.

In Osunsanmi’s new alien abduction thriller, “The Fourth Kind” we are immediately introduced to the star of the film, actress Milla Jovovich. She announces that while the footage is real she will be playing the part of Dr. Abbey Tyler in the re-enactment sequences. Considering how atrocious Jovovich’s acting has been in the past and how much the real Dr. Tyler looks like Julianne Moore, this is a major misstep of casting and calls immediate attention to itself within the first five minutes.

Dr. Tyler is a psychologist in Nome, Alaska. Currently she has been having sessions with three patients who are leading her to believe that they were all part of separate alien abductions beginning with spying a white owl staring into their rooms at night. Having her husband recently killed during an attempted abduction she immediately finds herself intrigued by these notions.

Feeling that all of these patients are heavily suppressing something, she records their sessions where strange occurrences begin to happen while the patients are under hypnosis. After one patient, Tommy Fisher (Corey Johnson) winds up shooting his family and committing suicide the cases are brought to the attention of local Sheriff August (Will Patton) who thinks that Abbey may have something more to do with what’s happening.

UFO’s are sighted, bodies are levitated, anal probes whir, Sumerian dialect is uttered and ultimately Abbey’s daughter too is abducted. A lot happens in this movie but when Osunsanmi doesn’t have the guts to follow through with a great idea (to present facts) and continually shoots himself in the foot with the horrible re-enactments you can’t help but jump back and forth mentally from believing one minute to laughing unintentionally at the next. Not to mention that the big reveal of what really happened to Abbey’s husband undercuts the whole plot; you’ll know it when it happens and it is a true moment of utter ridiculous storytelling.

Another culprit in these proceedings is Will Patton who sounds like a drunken grizzly bear every time he’s on screen. The only people worthy of the dramatic side to this are Elias Koteas (playing Abbey’s fellow colleague and friend aliased Abel Campos) and Hakeem Kae-Kazim (playing author Dr. Awolowa Odusami who may or may not have known Abbey’s husband).

The whole movie plays out like a cross between “Paranormal Activity” and “The Mothman Prophecies.” If you’re going to make a documentary and have faith in your subject than that’s one thing and if you’re going to make a re-enactment then do that. But don’t present both side by side and make the audience try to figure out what they should be watching.

The “real” footage is cobbled together with the dramatized portions as if someone has watched Ang Lee’s “Hulk” way too many times. While I admit that the “real” footage is quite intense, effective and ultimately quite chilling, all of the portions with the actors feel like it was made for a Lifetime movie of the week and fails admirably. In the film it is said that the fourth kind of encounter is the worst kind and those words couldn’t be any truer for this whole production.

Another Holiday Season, Another Zemekis Mess

Rated PG for scary sequences and images.
96 minutes
Walt Disney Pictures
1 ½ out of 5

Oh, how I love a good Christmas film and there are lots to choose from when the season roles around every year. Starting on Nov. 1 is when I typically begin letting the season’s music start jingling in my ears. When it comes to picking which ones to watch every year there are standards, the non-traditional and then there are the unintentional.

Typically the one that I have to watch with my mom every year is “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” However, once November hits I usually break out as many as I can in order to squeeze them all in before the big day arrives. I even admit that as I write this I am listening to the sounds of the season.

The standards are the obvious – “A Christmas Story,” “Home Alone,” “Elf,” “Holiday Inn,” “White Christmas,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” (just released on Blu-ray this week) and the original “Miracle on 34th Street.”

My personal tastes however, bring out others that most would probably not watch or typically think of during the season – “Scrooged,” “Bad Santa,” “Love Actually,” “Ernest Saves Christmas,” “Home Alone 2,” “Jingle All the Way,” and “Santa’s Slay” or even the little seen “Stalking Santa.”

I mentioned before the unintentional Christmas film and I’m sure you were wondering what those would consist of, just to name a few – “Scream” and “Scream 2” (both released in December), “Lethal Weapon,” “Die Hard,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “Gremlins.” Not exactly Christmas movies per se but with the exception of the “Scream” films, they all take place during the holiday and the season tends to exude itself throughout the run times.

Like I said, I love Christmas movies, of all shapes and sizes. What I do not like is when someone of such high acclaim as Robert Zemekis comes along and bastardizes one of such high regard itself. This brings us to the latest in motion-capture failure, “Disney’s A Christmas Carol.” They can keep that moniker because this is far from Charles Dickens’ original classic.

Oh yes, it definitely keeps all of the major plot points but there are a few major missteps that completely change the tone of the film. Originally the turning point of the story involved Scrooge (voiced by Jim Carrey) finally realizing the error of his money grubbing ways when he sees that poor crippled Tiny Tim (inexplicably voiced by Gary Oldman) has passed on.

Yes, that’s right. Tiny Tim has had his scenes cut to one. Now we see Scrooge coming to terms with his petulance only upon seeing his own tombstone; my how times have changed.

Speaking of which, this brings us to the only man responsible for this blundering attempt at retelling one of the most cherished Christmas novels of all time. It’s one thing when a hack job is represented by either an incompetent director or possibly if the script was written by-committee. But when this film is produced, written and directed solely by Zemekis himself then all the blame can be placed solely upon him.

When I first saw his attempt of “The Polar Express” I thought it was too scary for children and too boring for adults. The same rings true here as well except that where I felt “Polar Express” was unintentionally frightening this one is outright in your face scary. Not even just simply haunting.

Children throughout the theater for the screening were huddled into their parents’ arms too afraid to watch the screen. That is only one of the problems; the other is the fact that when you don’t care about Tiny Tim or forget he’s even in the movie, then you have even more problems.

Zemekis has become so obsessed with his own technology. When I saw that he was the only screenwriter my hopes were raised. Imagine how upset I was to find the movie such a complete bore that even the animation itself couldn’t keep my interest for what should have been a quick 90 minutes of holiday cheer with a few moments of creepiness as all versions of this film have included before.

With his version of “Polar Express” you could be more forgiving for its lacking in the animation department. For when it was released it was quite groundbreaking except that every character in the movie seemed to be talking to themselves and not one “person” blinked for the entire length of the film.

In “A Christmas Carol,” I paid close attention thinking that maybe under the guidelines of Disney they would finally manage to pull through some emotion. I counted every single character except Scrooge blinking while he was only able to scour and glare into the audience.

I know that this has been adapted probably far more than any other classic Christmas tale. And yes, some liberties possibly needed to be made in order to keep things fresh for a new audience. But in the tale most know by heart we are to find that everything that happens to Scrooge took place throughout a single night. Upon talking to other press members we realized that this film takes place on Christmas Eve, what would be Christmas Day and finally ends the day after Christmas.

This makes no sense in any form whatsoever. It’s simply just bad filmmaking. Another inconsistency is when Bob Cratchit (another character voiced by Gary Oldman, but at least this one isn’t a child) begins the final narration as Scrooge lifts Tiny Tim onto his shoulders and marches through the streets seems so abrupt and out of place you can’t help but think that Zemekis forgot that it was even part of the story.

I will probably be in the minority who feel that this film should be shunned by all but it is guaranteed to go on to make loads of money for Disney as it’s a well known property and sells itself. The fact that it stars Jim Carrey, is presented in 3-D and seems to be a 90 minute trailer for an upcoming park attraction are yet further reasons why many will flock to see this abomination of such a well established treasure.

If you’re looking for something to see this season I fully recommend staying home and watching the standards. No matter how many times you watch them at least they stay true to their roots. As for this, you are far better off re-watching “A Muppet Christmas Carol” or another lesser known version starring George C. Scott.

This version may be called “Disney’s” “A Christmas Carol” but now dearly departed Walt himself needs to pay Mr. Zemekis a late night visit to let him know that what he has reaped upon the world has made him roll over in his grave. As Scrooge himself has been known to say, I say it too for this, “bah, humbug” indeed.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Those Local Yokels Are Back For More... This Time With Sam Rockwell and Snake Poop!

Rated PG-13 for some crude humor.
90 minutes
Fox Searchlight
*** ½ out of 5

With only three directing jobs under his belt now, Jared Hess, working with his wife, screenwriter Jerusha Hess, has managed to make three very separately unique films even if instantly recognizable to the viewer. Bursting onto the scene in 2004 with the indie darling “Napoleon Dynamite” he managed to make loveable losers a household name. After that exploded he moved on to working with another friend he made along the way Jack Black and popped out “Nacho Libre.”

Many thought that “Nacho Libre” was more of the same with a bigger name in the title role, which it kind of was. But when you have a formula that works, why fix what’s not broken? Another friend made along the way is Mike White. This is the man responsible for something everyone should seek out and treat yourselves to immediately, the cancelled-too-soon TV show “Freaks & Geeks.” Most of that show’s brilliance has been credited to now-Hollywood hotshot Judd Apatow but he was only one of the show’s producers as was White.

Jemaine Clement is now well known as half of one of my favorite folk duo Flight of the Conchords. Yes, they do have their TV show on HBO but they’ve been together far before that premiered. He’s been in a few independent films and that’s probably where he’s made friends with the Hesses along the years. This man can make the driest line or off-the-cuff remark as hysterical as anyone who’s been working in Hollywood their entire lives. If you’ve never seen “The Flight of the Conchords” or heard one of their albums I suggest doing so as soon as possible.

In the newest Hess venture, “Gentlemen Broncos,” we meet young Benjamin (Michael Angarano, last seen in “Forbidden Kingdom”) whom lives with his mother, Judith (played to the quirky hilt by the always reliable Jennifer Coolidge, best known as Stifler’s mom) in a dome house in the fictional town of Salt Air, Utah. Benjamin is an aspiring science-fiction writer whose novels normally wind up making his mother cry or ill.

While at Cletus Fest, a writer’s camp, for the weekend Benjamin is very excited to meet and learn from his greatest idol, Dr. Ronald Chevalier (played wickedly clueless by Clement). In a class Chevalier is teaching he quickly manages to burst Benjamin’s idolistic bubble after offering up the worst protagonist names in literature history and putting down everyone in the class. While at the camp he hesitantly allows Tabatha to read one of his novels, “Yeast Lords.”

After an upsetting call from his editor, Chevalier is informed that his latest manuscript is of no use and can not be published. Devastated, Chevalier ransacks his own hotel room only to discover what he thinks will be the greatest science-fiction masterpiece ever. But not without a little help from a quick rewrite of course. Somehow making the main character particularly flamboyant and blowing everything up to outrageous proportions now deems the manuscript ready for print.

Without knowing that Chevalier has stolen his entire idea, Benjamin is offered a movie deal from a local production company run by Lonnie Donaho (“Nacho Libre’s” rubbery-faced Hector Jimenez). The “studio” is so small that Benjamin has to use costumes stolen from his mother and huge plot points and characters are changed to keep the costs within their means. This of course spells big trouble for anything coherent reaching the big screen.

Once the film is made and a local screening is held Benjamin loses his lunch over the final product and storms out of the theater which leads him to a local bookstore where he discovers Chevalier’s latest bestseller, “The Chronicles of Brutus and Balzaak.” With Tabatha by his side and Lonnie sucking up local success in the media Benjamin sets out to reap revenge and take back what’s rightfully his.

All of the excerpts from the book that the film’s characters read are played out on-screen in over-the-top fashion with everything from testicles in jars, Cyclops, and surveillance does, to the funniest case of projectile vomiting in a long time. The novel’s protagonist is played with manic glee by another indie favorite, Sam Rockwell. The things the Hesses managed to get him to do for the sake of their own script are pretty far out there at times.

Some may call the humor in this film, “Utah/Idaho” based. Well that could very well be but if you’ve seen either “Napoleon Dynamite” or “Nacho Libre” then you definitely know whether you’re going to enjoy this or not. “Napoleon Dynamite” has definitely found its own niche within pop culture and this film falls somewhere comfortably in between the two. But if you’re in the mood for something as dry as Utah’s own Salt Flats or maybe just something that refuses to settle within the confines of typical Hollywood comedies then boy have the Hesses got a show for you.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"This Is It?" Thankfully It's More Than You'd Think

Rated PG for some suggestive choreography and scary images.
112 minutes
Sony Pictures
**** out of 5

I have never been a big fan of Michael Jackson. That could be considered offensive to say in a review of a film put together so soon after his death. As a child of the ‘80s however, I am fully aware of the icon the man truly is. My parents weren’t fans and neither are any of my friends from that time period. All I really have known about the man is that he is mostly referred to as “The King of Pop” and has about a “million” hit singles played regularly on the radio or at Halloween parties.

The songs I am most familiar with are definitely his hits from when I was growing up as a child. From “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Thriller,” and “We Are the World” to “Bad,” “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man In the Mirror” and the Disneyland 3-D film “Captain EO,” this is what I am most familiar with. Going into “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” I was worried I wouldn’t be as familiar with his material and not have any kind of connection to make as a new fan.

Aside from the fact that he is a tabloid star and has had two “Weird” Al Yankovic spoofs, “Fat” and “Eat It” it was quite the treat to hear a soundtrack consisting of all the songs I did know and was surprised by how many of his more recent tunes I knew as well. I am pretty sure there were maybe two songs performed in the 112 minute runtime that I flat out did not know. Not a bad track record for someone who owns no Michael Jackson albums to this day.

Upon sitting down for the film I was totally unaware that it was directed by Kenny Ortega. I would have to say that as much as I am not a huge fan of Michael Jackson, I am even far less of a fan of Ortega’s. This is the man responsible for the glutton of Disney merchandising and local filmmaking hemorrhaging at Salt Lake City’s downtown located East High School. Yes, the director of this great documentary is none other than the same man who has unleashed three “High School Musical’s” upon an unsuspecting public starting back in 2006.

Ortega was announced at one point to be sought after as director of the upcoming “Footloose” remake starring “High School Musical’s” own Zac Efron. While I am not in the demographic of the “HSM” films I do have to admit that Efron is the least irritating thing to emerge from the epidemic of said trilogy. And after seeing how genial and wholehearted Kenny Ortega is while directing I hope that they both manage to set their sights higher for future projects.

“This Is It” consists of footage shot during the rehearsal stages of Michael Jackson’s proposed return to the stage. Overly elaborate at every turn yet immaculately and loving constructed to appease long time fans and win over new fans. What is seen within the film was definitely going to be a return to form for a man long associated as the butt of years of jokes, spoofs and satire.

The film opens with on-screen interviews of his personally selected background dancers. Listening to them praise the man that they have yet to work with and discuss how much of an affect Jackson has had on their lives leading up to their moment to shine on stage with one of the world’s biggest stars churns up quite a wave of an emotionally heartbreaking undercurrent.

Watching everyone perform together in what could have been quite the extravaganza is nothing less than the spectacle you can imagine. At one point Jackson is rising in the air on a lift and he is so excited and wants to be raised so much higher that he seems to forget where he is and lets go of the handrails prompting automatic concern from director Ortega who begins pleading with him stop using his hands and hold on. One can’t help but think to themselves with his untimely death that at least someone was trying to look after him.

As much fun as it is to watch the man who would’ve turned an amazing 51 years-old this past August dance with as much conviction as he did with the Jackson 5 and his early solo years, something happens halfway through the show. A petite blonde guitarist steps from out of the shadows and almost completely steals the spotlight. Orianthi Panagris may only be half Jackson’s age but this “youngster” can play the guitar and is even encouraged along by Jackson to take her playing to another level when he has a one-on-one moment and he keeps telling her, “this is your time to shine.” He couldn’t be speaking more true words.

But of course the true spotlight of the film is always shining directly on Michael Jackson and that is obviously where it belongs. No one may publicly know what was truly going on behind the scenes in his home life causing his death on June 25th, but seeing the man still able to moonwalk like he first did when he invented the move is breathtaking in every right. I don’t think I’ve personally seen him exude this much energy in years, period.

In a couple of weird life-imitating-art-imitating-life moments we see what would have been a new rendition of a “Thriller” video which was filmed in 3-D and would have been implemented into the stage show. Complete with background dancers dressed in Halloween costumes and a giant spider that makes quite an entrance it would’ve been a pretty unique update of a true classic video originally directed by John Landis.

The second instance is when we see them filming Jackson against lots of green screen for another video update pitting him against Humphrey Bogart himself in scenes from “The Big Sleep” for “Smooth Criminal.” I don’t think I need to spell out the weird yet cool visual of seeing a man so recently deceased inserted into a film from so long ago with another iconic symbol himself deceased. However, seeing Jackson running around sets and sliding down banisters is truly astonishing for a man said to be continually hopped up on drugs and under constant medical care.

He says many times mostly throughout the beginning of the film that he is doing this show “for the fans.” While this would’ve been his final curtain call, in a way it still wound up holding true even if not in his original intent. While his 50 sold out London shows obviously had to be cancelled, what we were given in a way is a chance for truly the entire world to share in one last moment that will be more defining that he ever imagined. The film has made me a believer in the “King of Pop” and even if this is it, it is more than enough.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Astro Boy? More Like Astro Turd As Another Bastardized Comic Adaptation Hits the Big Screen

Rated PG for some action and peril, and brief mild language.
94 minutes
Summit Entertainment
** out of 5

With the current releases of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and Pixar’s “Toy Story” 3-D double feature you could assume that a major studio release of yet another CG-animated film would be a bad idea. If the quality could match either of those two releases one would be wrong. That Summit Entertainment has unleashed such a gross misappropriation of expectations would be an understatement.

David Bowers yields from the United Kingdom and in his first feature outing, “Flushed Away” made for Aardman Features and distributed domestically via Dreamworks, he managed to bring a British sensibility to a big studio production. As co-writer of that film and his newest offering “Astro Boy” you can sense the tiniest inkling of his own brand of humor. A few off color jokes and random acts of complete silliness are about all he manages to muster is what winds up being the biggest train wreck of a children’s script seen in years.

Having also worked on some excellent children’s animated films back in the day you would think Bowers could manage something on par with at least 20th Century Fox’s own Blue Sky which brought us the “Ice Age” series and “Robots.” Any of those are easier to sit through than “Astro Boy.” You also expect a lot more from a film when it is screened at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, but I digress.

Bowers has worked on some high profile projects such as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West,” “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest,” “We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story,” along with “Chicken Run” and “Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” But apparently working alongside the likes of Robert Zemekis, Steven Spielberg, Simon Wells and Nick Park has done nothing for his own work. Maybe “Flushed Away” was a complete fluke.

In “Astro Boy,” based on an original comic by Osamu Tezuka, we meet the young and supposedly brilliant Toby (voiced by Freddie Highmore). He is the son of Dr. Tenma (voiced by the insanely bored sounding Nicolas Cage) who dies in a tragic accident while Dr. Tenma is testing out a new defense weapon for General Stone (voiced by Donald Sutherland). While Dr. Tenma doesn’t seem exactly all too upset over the death of his own son he does find time to clone him as a robot with superpowers now named Astro Boy.

All of this happens on the hovering-above-Earth Metro City. The floating city is designed to be a new metropolis as their garbage, consisting mostly of destroyed robots, is dumped down to the real Earth below. To make a long action sequence short, when Dr. Tenma decides that Astro Boy is ultimately not his son and tries to banish him to the ground below, Astro Boy discovers his superpowers but not before he still gets grounded to the wastelands.

Here he meets a gang of misfits lead by Cora (voiced by Kristen Bell) who has run away from home but still yearns to reach out and call her parents. Cora and her friends live with Ham Egg (voiced by Nathan Lane) who likes to repair robots only to have them be part of his own “Robot Wars” where they proceed to fight and destroy each other for the sake of entertainment.

When Ham Egg decides to put Astro Boy himself into the “Robot Wars” everyone finds that maybe robots are able to mimic human emotion and aren’t meant for the scrapheap after all. When the evil plot is discovered that General Stone wants to start a war between humans and robots so that he himself can save the day and win an election Astro Boy must return to the surface to defend the people and defeat General Stone.

If the script sounds like a huge hodgepodge of far better movies it’s because it really is. Everything from “Spider-man” and “Wall-E” to “The Incredibles,” “E.T.” and even “Pinocchio” are stolen from at a moments notice. Most kids might not care but it shows a complete disregard for originality and undermines children’s intelligence.

Most of these issues are possibly to blame on director Bowers co-writer Timothy Harris. He has brought upon us the likes of some lackluster scripts. While some were better than others (“Trading Places,” “Brewster’s Millions” and even “Kindergarten Cop”), he has also “blessed” us with the likes of “Twins,” “My Stepmother is an Alien,” “Pure Luck” and “Space Jam.” Oh sure, some of the worst offenders here were crowd pleasers, but what does that say about the general movie going public? There are a few jokes that really do work but those are very early in the film as everything begins to fall apart minute-by-minute.

The animation isn’t a complete bust however I would like to note that this is the first digitally projected screening I have ever attended that was out of focus for the entire duration of the film. Hopefully it is at least crystal clear for regular showings so that the film only puts a strain on your brain and not your eyes as well. There are far worse children’s films released every year at a continuing rate so if you’re truly interested in seeing how they’ve managed to blunder through another comic book adaptation look no further than the most current abomination.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Come One, Come All, Freaks Unleash The Funny While "The Vampire's Assistant" Gets His Training

Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense supernatural violence and action, disturbing images, thematic elements and some language.
108 minutes
Universal Pictures
*** ½ out of 5

When it comes to famous directing siblings, perhaps the first names that spring to mind are either the kings of gross Farrelly brothers (“Dumb and Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “Stuck on You” and “Fever Pitch”) or the Academy Award winning team the Coen brothers (“Blood Simple”, “Raising Arizona,” “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “Burn After Reading”).

With the double vampire tag team of films coming up we’ll see which brother reigns supreme. I don’t need to tell you which one is the more highly “anticipated” of the two but between Paul and Chris Weitz, my money is Paul as to which delivers the goods. Early word of mouth does not sound promising for “New Moon” but “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” will be far and away the better of the films.

Between the two directors, Paul has a far better resume. To be fair, however, most of their films have been directed together. From their breakout cash cow “American Pie” through the Chris Rock vehicle “Down to Earth” and the fabulous Nick Hornby adaptation “About a Boy,” I’d say they’ve done fairly well working together.

After they decided to tackle their own projects is where their choices started to lag in quality. While Chris cracked out another novel adaptation with “The Golden Compass,” Paul gave us the hilarious “In Good Company” but also the Mandy Moore starring “American Dreamz.” Luckily with the latter he was working again with Hugh Grant whom he first teamed up with for “About a Boy.”

Paul has also managed to now work with two great co-writers while not working directly with brother Chris. While “Down to Earth” was written rather lacklusterly by Chris Rock and his friends, he has been able to work with the great Peter Hedges on “About a Boy” and has now teamed up with Brian Helgeland for “Cirque du Freak.”

Thankfully, Helgeland is working in his element here seeing how he has written both great and pretty dismal offerings himself – “The Taking of Pelham 123,” “Man on Fire,” “Mystic River,” “Blood Work,” “A Knight’s Tale,” “Payback,” “The Postman,” “Conspiracy Theory,” “L.A. Confidential,” “Assassins” and has also ventured into the horror genre before with some offerings in TV (“Friday the 13th” and “Tales From the Crypt”) and on the big screen – “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master” and Robert Englund’s directorial debut “976-EVIL.”

In “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” we meet teenager Darren Shan, played by Chris Massoglia (Darren Shan also happens to be the author’s name of the book series). He’s popular enough and gets good grades in school. His parents love him dearly for making the most out of academics but are none too fond of his best friend Steve (Josh Hutcherson).

When Darren gets in trouble after shattering lights with rocks on the roof of the school, Darren’s parents force him to not be friends with Steve anymore. While discussing them being now “secret” best friends in front of the school a car passes by fluttering out a flier for Cirque du Freak. An underground freak show has come to town and the boys are far too curious as to of course not check it out.

After a biting entrance they meet Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe) who instructs them to say they’re 21-years-old before being allowed to take their seats. Here they see a few shows consisting of Alexander Ribs (Orlando Jones) who’s waist is about an inch, Rhamus Twobellies (Frankie Faison) who can eat just about anything, Gertha Teeth (Kristen Schaal) who has extra large front teeth, Corma Limbs (Jane Krakowski) who can regenerate any body part, Evra the Snake Boy (Utah’s own Patrick Fugit) and finally Madame Truska (Salma Hayek) who can grow a beard while touching a man’s face.

Lastly they see Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly), whom Steve recognizes as a vampire from a book he’s read, perform along with his pet spider Octa. Crepsley’s part of the program is abruptly shut down by one of Darren and Steve’s teachers and the boys separate in order not to be seen.

While hiding out in Crepsley’s closet after stealing Octa from Crepsley Darren overhears Crepsley talking with fellow vampire Gavner Purl (Willem Dafoe) about a feud between normal vamps and what are called “vampaneze.” These "vampaneze" insist on fully draining and killing their victims where the rest only drink enough to sustain their needs and keep from getting hunted down by lynch mobs. Darren also overhears Steve confess that he hates his life and wants to be made a vampire.

Crepsley denies Steve his desire which infuriates him and Darren escapes with Octa in tow. The next day at school Octa escapes from Darren’s backpack and bites Steve on the cheek. Darren seeks out Crepsley for an antidote which is only to be granted after Darren agrees to allow Crepsley to turn him into a half-vampire. This means he can run errands for Crepsley during the day and won’t have to rely solely on blood for survival.

Steve finds solace in the likes of Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris) who grants him his vampiric wish and is assigned a mentor, Murlaugh (Ray Stevenson). Unbeknownst to Steve, Mr. Tiny actually wants to concoct a war between vampires and the “vampaneze” to end the truce which he feels has gone on far too long. Mr. Tiny uses Steve to find Darren to fight and possibly kill each other to bring the truce to an end.

As you can see there is a lot of exposition. That it all flows so well is quite a surprise with such a truncated running time. You can tell that there are huge chunks missing with jarring transitional scenes and characters that are seen rather briefly but obviously originally had much more screen time. At least the film doesn’t suffer from the same thing the “Harry Potter” series and “Twilight” do which is the director’s inability to not film the book page-for-page.

Last week, “Where the Wild Things Are” managed to pull off quite the stunt by making me literally feel like a kid again while this week I get another one that makes me remember what it was like to watch a film as a young kid. The sense of ooh and ahh is quite high here and at least Universal is releasing it at exactly the right time with Halloween only a week away. Kudos to Paul Weitz managing to shorten his own work but still find the time to offer some fun characterization.

Josh Hutcherson may be the better known actor but compared to Chris Massoglia in the lead, Hutcherson still has quite a way to go in the acting department. The supporting cast is great as the cast of “freaks” they all are but the film’s greatest strength comes from the always fantastic John C. Reilly. Whether he’s Mr. Cellophane in “Chicago” to playing sidekick to Will Ferrell in “Talladega Nights” and “Stepbrothers,” the man is always a delight with his ever fuzzy head of hair and drop dead-pan delivery.

A slight point of interest I noticed too was how refreshing it was to watch a film aimed at the “tween” demographic which features an actual score. Only a few choice songs were used throughout the film and seemed to be used more for their sense of tone in the scene than simply to plaster another boy band or emo pop group on the back of the soundtrack.

The opening credit sequence is very fun and cleverly done while managing to set up the overall tone of sinister and camp. It also made the film seem like a mix of “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “The Monster Squad.” And any director who can bring more attention to one of my favorite bands, The Fratellis, the better in my book.

The so-called message of the film comes off pretty forced as almost an afterthought and it was definitely not needed. However, if you’re looking for something slightly spooky this season thankfully they have managed to squeeze in an appropriate edge and the film definitely earns its PG-13 rating. This one is even more so not for the youngsters than most thought last week’s children’s film was. If the film feels even slightly choppy that may be because it was but at least what was left in the final cut flows evenly enough, the loose ends are tied up and the sequel is lead into. The best news is that at least these vampires follow centuries of mythology and thankfully no one sparkles.