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Creepy, annoying holiday fare only Scrooge would enjoy
Like a bad combination of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Toys," the Robin Williams turkey from 1992, this dud not only made me put aside all belief in magic, it had me questioning my very faith, among other things.
Dustin Hoffman, an actor about 180-years old plays Edward Magorium, a doddering character 243-years old (we're given no reason WHY he is 243-years old, by the way), who happens to own a magical toy store in the middle of New York City. And even though thousands of kids and their parents visit the establishment annually, no one (especially the media) seems to know of the wonderful things that go on inside. Nor does any customer seem to think it's at all unusual.
Helping out is Natalie Portman as Mahoney, who seems perfectly at ease with her Hillary Swank "Boys Don't Cry" haircut; but, for some reason (despite several years of working at the store and seeing supernatural occurrences constantly), she refuses to believe the store is magic when Edward tells her he will soon depart (i.e. die).
Aiding Mahoney is a weird loner kid, Eric, who collects hats and seems to have channeled the spirit of Morrissay. He mopes around in a state of constant depression and then wonders aloud why he has no friends (hey, I've got a clue, it's because you collect hats and mope around all the time!) The store is even a character in this film, getting so angry that Magorium is going to "depart" (i.e. get his ticket punched), that it "throws a tantrum." The problem is, it throws a tantrum by making things fly about the building, much like what goes on at the place everyday.
Enter the film's everyman character, accountant Henry Weston (Jason Bateman), who signs on to help the senile Magorium do his books so he can "depart" (i.e. kick the bucket). Of course, since Weston represents us, he sees nothing unusual going on in the store. But, we do, so maybe he doesn't represent anything.
Maybe this movie doesn't represent anything, either. I still cannot figure out the message here, friends. Is it that we have to believe for magic to be real; or is it that only our dreams are real and the magic never dies: or is it that the power of the magic and our dreams will live on if we believe? I have no idea.
All I know is the writing is pathetic, the jokes stink (Magorium uses the "avid shoe-wearer" line about five times), the direction consists of aiming the camera at things and then leaving it there (like the same lame toys over and over and over), the "special" effects weren't, the acting is laughable (except in one tearful scene), it's boring and Hoffman's character is a vapid and irritating cross between "Rainman" and "Tootsie" with none of the charm or intelligence of either.
Is it safe, Dustin? Not with "Magorium" haunting the box office. Better to rent the "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" version of "Merlin's Shop of Magical Wonders," get a few laughs and save some money.
That's my Christmas gift to you.
The Game Plan (2007)
Silly and pointless, but harmless enough
A football film starring former pro wrestler, The Rock, gee, how novel. But wait, there is something very different about this gridiron picture. It's the first in which the star is billing himself as Duane "The Rock" Johnson, and uh, well, maybe that's the ONLY thing different about this newest Disney release.
Rock/Johnson plays ace pro quarterback, Joe Kingman (he plays for a team called the Boston Rebels they can't even get a real NFL franchise to appear here), and he's the world's most eligible bachelor and most arrogant stiff in the known world.
He's also the most selfish man in professional sports, never throwing to his open receivers, opting instead to run the ball himself, no matter how it might harm the team (sort of like Vince Young).
Soon, however, his swinging'single life is interrupted thanks to the arrival of an 8-year old daughter, Payton (Madison Pettis, Disney TV series "Cory in the House"), he did not know existed. Her arrival is the epitome of bad timing, since Kingman is trying to lead his squad into the football championship (whatever league they're in).
Of course, the new situation is much harder on Kingman, who has to adapt and change his whole lifestyle to accommodate the little moppet. For instance, she messes up his love and social life, as well as his emotions. She also puts a tutu on his bulldog and bubble bath in the jacuzzi.
But he doesn't really seem to mind, because, you see, he's slowly becoming a daddy. Aww. isn't that just adorable? After he grudgingly converts to fatherhood (like Dustin Hoffman's character in "Kramer vs. Kramer"), Kingman becomes so soft he actually participates in a ballet recital.
Johnson, for what it's worth, is okay here, after all, the role isn't much of a stretch. And despite the silliness, the movie is fairly harmless. Pointless but harmless.
The Kingdom (2007)
Decent action film deals with serious subject
One of the first movies to deal with Saudi terrorism while the "War on Terror" is still being fought, "The Kingdom" overcomes some obvious and deep plot holes, the result being a top-notch action/adventure with a contemporary political touch.
And while the historical connection between the U.S. desire for Arabian oil since World War II is chronicled extensively in the film's opening minutes, politics soon gives way to old-fashioned gun-play as Jamie Foxx ("Ray", "Stealth"), Chris Cooper ("American Beauty," "Adaptation," "Breach"), Jennifer Garner (TV series "Alias") and Jason Bateman (TV series "Arrested Development") battle fanatical Muslims and Saudi police officers.
The plot has two bombs going off on an American military base in the Kingdom of Saud, killing over 100 and forcing the United States into action. Well, sort of. The bureaucrats at the state department decide an armed conflict is out of the question; but they do have a solution.
After conferring with top brass, a team of four FBI agents, Ronald Fluery (Foxx), Grant Sykes (Cooper), Janet Mayes (Garner) and Adam Leavitt (Bateman), is sent covertly, of course to Riyadh to investigate the bombing.
Once there, however, they find their investigative abilities stymied by Saudi officials. They are kept confined to certain areas, have no arrest or detaining powers and have to turn over their weapons. Even worse, Mayes is treated like every other woman in an Islamic country like crap.
The group is also not taken seriously by their own countryman, including a smarmy state department official, Damon Schmidt (Jeremy Piven, "Smokin' Aces," "Old School", the TV series "Entourage"), who seems only interested in when they will be leaving.
Still, despite these obstacles (and the middle of the film turning into an episode of "CSI: Dubai"), the quartet doggedly fights on and soon results begin to take shape. Finally, thanks to a friendly Arab policeman, Sergeant Haytham (Ali Suliman, Paradise Now"), the gang discovers some hidden terrorist cells and are finally forced to take action.
Director Peter Berg ("Very Bad Things," "Friday Night Lights") keeps things moving nicely, while the cinematography (Mauro Fiore, "The Island," "Tears of the Sun") showcases the good, bad and ugly of a somewhat modern Middle Eastern metropolis.
Foxx and Cooper are fine in their Harrison Ford-type roles (in fact, this movie plays a lot like "Clear and Present Danger"), and Bateman is fairly funny in comic relief. Garner, however, despite being a very pretty face, is rather non-descript.
A somewhat implausible ending dampens things a bit, but does nothing to detract for the overall suspense and interest of this picture, one of the better action films of the year.
In the Valley of Elah (2007)
Conflict in Iraq told from a somewhat subdued Haggis
Writer/director Paul Haggis is no stranger to putting quality work on the screen (his "Million Dollar Baby" screenplay won the Academy Award in 2004); he's also not above pounding his messages home with a sledgehammer and a few sticks of dynamite (see the ridiculously over-praised "Crash").
So, when Haggis decided to go after the current war in Iraq, I was expecting the sparks to fly. Thankfully, however, his work with Clint Eastwood must have taught him a little restraint, as his newest release, "In the Valley of Elah" (pronounced "EE-lah"), is surprisingly subtle for Haggis, that is.
Still, the rather unsubtle conclusion leaves no doubt about the director's sympathies regarding the conflict; which, I suppose is in sync with the sensibilities of many Americans.
The plot, however, has little to do with the actual fighting in Mesopotamia, dealing instead with a soldier who returns home only to end up dead and dismembered near his army base. It's basically a murder-mystery whodunit set against the backdrop of this most divisive issue.
The father, retired army sergeant, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones, "The Fugitive"), is informed of his son's disappearance by military authorities, but they and local law enforcement seem helpless to do much about it.
When a dismembered body is found to be his son, Deerfield teams up with a town police detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron, "Monster"), in an attempt to uncover the crime. Used to having his own way (he was an investigator in the army), Deerfield bullies his way into the situation, going over everyone's head in various undiplomatic ways.
He's also smart enough to figure out clues ordinary investigators would overlook; and while Sanders resents his interference at first, she begins to grudgingly accept his assistance. Despite this double-team, though, their work leads up several promising - but ultimately blind - alleys until they finally stumble onto what really took place.
Meanwhile, Hank has recovered his son's cell phone with several disturbing video images from the war-torn country which may or may not lead to the killer(s).
With able support from Susan Sarandon (much funnier here as a grieving mother than she ever was in "Mr. Woodcock"), Jason Patric ("Narc"), James Franco ("Spider-Man," "The Great Raid") and Barry Corbin ("WarGames," the TV series "Northern Exposure"), among others, In the Valley of Elah (the biblical area in which David slew Goliath) is an interesting, if not fine piece of film craft.
It has it's flaws, of course, and it's allusions to better works, such as "Missing" and "Coming Home," spotlight these shortcomings even more.
The picture, however, is carried by Jones, who with a few facial expressions and grunts, conveys more emotion and thoughtfulness than pages of dialog. His scene when informed of his boy's death is heartbreaking; while his brief interaction with Emily's young son has a sweet edge, revealing the battle-hardened career military man to have somewhat of a soft center.
Some viewers may have problems with the less-than-tactful ending, however, utilizing an American flag (which seems to pander to a certain segment of the audience), as well as implying that most of our soldiers fighting in Iraq are sadistic killers.
When Haggis sticks to the murder mystery aspect, he travels a much more interesting (if not overly conventional) path. When he veers into politics, though, he tends to get bogged down like a heavy-handed lecture from Al Gore. This does not detract - too much - from an overall decent bit of work.
Mr. Woodcock (2007)
Pointless comedy with few laughs
I tried to think of funnier Billy Bob Thornton films than his latest tepid comedy, "Mr. Woodcock," and came up with the following: "Bad News Bears," "Ice Harvest," "Pushing Tin," "Friday Night Lights," "Bad Santa," "Monster's Ball" and "Sling Blade." Heck, even "Goodfellas and "Passion of the Christ" had more laughs than this pointless piece of dredge which takes the worst elements of "Meet the Parents" and "The Girl Most Likely To," although with none of the charm, intelligence or humor of these pictures.
After viewing this movie, however, I have a new-found respect for such comedic works as "R.V.," "Are We There/Done Yet?," "License To Wed," "Guess Who?," "Soul Plane," "King's Ranson," "My Baby's Daddy," "Little Man" and any of the "Scary Movie" versions.
So, I suppose the experience wasn't all terrible ...
Ah, but this film was. With two Academy Award-nominated lead actors (Thornton, nominated for "Sling Blade" in 1996, and Susan Sarandon, winner in 1995 for "Dead Man Walking") joining up with Seann William Scott ("American Pie," "Old School") one would think some snickers would result, but few come about.
The plot has Williams as John Farley (where's CHRIS Farley when we need him?), a successful self-help author, whose latest book, "Getting Past Your Past," is climbing the bestseller charts. This notoriety allows him to be honored by his small hometown in Nebraska.
Going back to receive the Corn County Key honor, his trip home only results in the depressing reality that his mother (Sarandon) will marry his old gym teacher, Mr. Woodcock (Thornton). Woodcock was not only an intense physical education instructor, but a sadist.
He humiliates, insults and verbally berates his students, throws balls at them, forces them to run laps and do push-ups as punishment, even those with asthma. But he saves his special vindictiveness for Farley, whom he delights in abusing - mentally and physically. He throws him to the ground repeatedly while teaching wrestling moves; and even forces him to undress and do pull-ups in front of the other students.
Now, if something like this REALLY took place, one of the pupils would have surely mentioned it to SOMEONE, and disciplinary action would have been taken against Woodcock. But, evidently, for over 20 years, no one has ever said anything bout this abuse, so the town decides to honor him as educator of the year - to be given at the same time as Farley's.
Also, everyone in the berg seems to love the old guy, while Farley's significant other, Tracy (Melissa Sagemiller, "The Guardian") admits to having a crush on him.
Meanwhile, dredging up all of those bad memories and combining them with the fact that the evil man is having sex with his mother, causes Farley to abandon his nice, passive, positive philosophy and do everything he can to bring Woodcock down. In this endeavor, he utilizes the aid of his extremely stupid friend, Nederman (Ethan Suplee, "My Name Is Earl"). In fact, the only likable character is Maggie (Amy Poehler, "SNL"), Farley's bitchy agent.
He challenges him to a workout contest, as well as a series of carnival midway games and even a corn-eating contest. None of these situations is even remotely funny in any way, shape or form. During its mercifully-short 90-minute run, I laughed just twice - once at the very beginning, and once at the very end.
That last guffaw was no doubt brought on by the delirium of the closeness of the closing credits, however. And longtime commercial director Craig Gillespie (in his film debut) doses out the "comedy" with large slices of schmaltz, as well as a muddled conclusion, leaving patrons wondering off to movies like "Death Sentence" and "The Brave One" to satisfy their urge to laugh.
Weird, but bad
This movie is as depressing a vision as anything else coming out of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, including such goodies as poverty, oppression and governmental corruption. A disturbingly horrid version of "Cinderella," this picture is populated with the usual untalented Russo-Finnish "actors" and retarded special effects seen in such stupid films as "The Magic Voyage Of Sinbad" and "The Sword And The Dragon," among others.
I'm sorry, but when I read the "Variety" reviews stating that this is "an enchanting tale," and "the competition between U.S. and the U.S.S.R. is heating up into a 'hot war,'" I can't help but think of how full of crap the writers were. Let's face it, the only lasting effects of Communism, if judged by "Jack Frost," was their ability to constantly reverse the film.
But I digress. The plot, what there is of it, has goofy blonde braggart, Ivan (Eduard Isotov, no explanation is given for amazing strength, by the way) following a feather, meeting a mushroom gnome, turning into a bear, meeting the overly cute Nastenka (Natasha Sedyka), fighting a witch ("Baba Yaga," played by Yuri Milyar) and defeating a group of bearded reprobates. Fortunately, the producers made NO attempt to translate the songs, and the dubbing is ten levels below ANYTHING Sandy Frank or K. Gordon Murray could have thought up.
It's a nightmarish movie that is NOT charming, or even appealing. More like the last film someone would have watched before being executed in one of the many Soviet Blood Purges, or something only Jeffrey Dahmer could enjoy.
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Finally, a decent remake
When the original film, "3:10 To Yuma," (starring Glenn Ford and Van Hefflin) was released in 1957, it actually almost out-High Nooned "High Noon." With its allegories to U.S. patriotism and the rising paranoia over Communism, the Delmer Daves work featured the now-quaint notion of doing the right thing and standing up for what one believes - in the face of overwhelming odds, just like the Fred Zinnemann classic that won Gary Cooper his second (and most well-deserved Academy Award).
Thank goodness these particular virtues were not left out of this new version, directed by James Mangold ("Cop Land," "Girl, Interrupted," Walk The Line"). And while the violence level has been increased tenfold, the basic underlying message is still prominently displayed.
Playing the reluctant hero (as he did in "Batman Begins"), Dan Evans, is Christian Bale, a struggling one-legged farmer and Civil War veteran in the Arizona Territory. When he witnesses a stage robbery pulled off by Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and his violent gang, he'd prefer to stay out of it, but his nature gets the better of him.
Ultimately, he aids in the capture of Wade, and (for money he desperately needs) agrees to help transport him to a distant town and put him on the train to Yuma Prison. He is joined by his son, William (Logan Lerman, "The Number 23"), Pinkerton guard, Byron McLeroy (Peter Fonda, "Ghost Rider"), railroad official Grayson Butterfield (Dallas Roberts, "Walk The Line")and a young doctor (Alan Tudyk, "Knocked Up," "I, Robot," "Death At a Funeral").
Wade's henchmen, however, led by the psychotic Charlie Prince (Ben Foster, "30 Days of Night," "Alpha Dog"), is hot on their heels. Foster is fantastic in a supporting role dripping with nonchalant evil, like Ralph Feinnes in "Schindler's List."
After encountering renegade Apaches and a revenge-minded lawman (Emilio Estevez, "Bobby"), the guards and prisoner arrive at the depot. Unfortunately, Wade's gang gets there shortly thereafter.
When Prince offers the townspeople $200 to shoot anyone trying to take Wade to the depot, the only one who stands up for justice is the farmer. The concluding shootout is certainly loud and confusing, but is gripping and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats.
Crowe is marvelous in the role, blending an almost Zen-like philosophy of Zarathustrian virtue with a violently demented killer's instinct (he callously shoots one of his own gang for a simple mistake).
Meanwhile, as the tortured family man trapped in a circumstance beyond his control, Bale is wonderfully understated and nuanced here. In fact, if this was not a late summer release, I'd say either of these men could cop some award nominations, but it's too early to predict anything right now.
Kudos must also be given to the camera work of Phedon Paramichael ("Walk The Line," "Sideways"), who brings Monument Valley and other beautiful locations to life.
And while certainly not the greatest western film to appear on the silver screen, it is the best since "Open Range," and represents a woefully under-appreciated genre very, very well.
Shoot 'Em Up (2007)
Tries hard but fails to reach top of genre
The title is certainly appropriate here, as there are any number of shootouts featured in this Michael Davis (Monster Man, Girl Fever) jet black comedy starring Clive Owen ("Derailed," "Children of Men") and Paul Giamatti ("Lady in the Water," "Cinderella Man").
Yes, there are gun battles in warehouses, in the streets, in office buildings, restrooms, on highways, on a jet airliner and in midair.
There's even a gunfight in a gun manufacturing plant. Hoo boy.
It's a hybrid of "Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill," "The Shooter" and Mel Gibson's "Payback," with a little bit of "The Island" thrown in; but it's ultimately a violent, muddled mess with a confusing plot and little or no character development. For instance, we know nothing of the motivation of either lead, and the premise meanders like a rat in a laboratory maze.
Part James Bond and part "Sin City" rogue antihero, Owen plays carrot-munching lone wolf, Mr. Smith, who rescues a baby from the hands of an evil, unnamed gang led by Hertz (Giamatti). He saves the child during you guessed it a gunfight.
Don't ask me to get too deep here (as the movie doesn't), but the infant is part of a baby farm operation used to harvest blood for an ill and aging Democratic presidential candidate. Yeah, I really didn't get it, either.
Smith then hands the kid off to a lactating prostitute, DQ (Monica Bellucci, "Passion of the Christ," "Brothers Grimm"), and puts up a spirited defense that leaves hundreds of bad guys dead and the audience bewitched, bothered and bewildered.
Owen, with his suave British manner and cocky deadpan delivery (he makes bad jokes after almost every killing) is fine here; as is the maniacal villain, with appropriate facial ticks and exasperation at his incompetent henchman. Giamatti also looks like he took several blows to the cheeks with a lead pipe, as well.
Bellucci, however, is awful, constantly being out-acted by a three-month old child and its puppet stand-in. It's okay, though, as she spends much of the film hiding inside a World War II era Sherman tank.
Of course, thespian talents are not really necessary here, with what little dialog there is being used only to connect the many shootouts together.
This isn't to say the film is not worth seeing. It's Tarrantino-like dark humor (with a nod and a wink to Sergio Leone and John Woo) will certainly attract a following (mostly a male college-age crowd), and it does have it's moments.
But, like a fellow reviewer commented during the credits, "It's like watching a video game." I added, "No, it's like watching someone else play a video game." And, if I've learned anything, the only thing worse than playing a video game, it's watching someone else play a video game.
Balls of Fury (2007)
Film may have 'Balls,' but not a whole lot of laughs
In the realm of sports satire films, there's the top of the heap ("Bad News Bears" original version, "Slap Shot," "Caddyshack," etc.) and everything else (including "Major League," "Dodgeball," "Kicking & Screaming," "Taladega Nights," "Nacho Libre," "Blades of Glory," "Baseketball," "Benchwarmers" and many others).
The newest poke-fun-at-athletics release, "Balls of Fury," easily falls into that latter category. And while there are some decent belly laughs, mostly coming from dramatic actor Christopher Walken (who won an Oscar for one of the heaviest dramas of all-time, "The Deer Hunter"), as the androgynous, villainous Amerasian Fu Man Chu knockoff, Feng.
The space usually reserved for Will Ferrell or Jack Black in a picture like this is duly filled by Tony Award-winning (in 2002 for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee") actor, Dan Fogler. Sure, he's puffed up, unkempt and scruffy, but he appears to be doing a bad Jack Black "School of Rock" impersonation (even 1980s heavy metal band Def Leppard music fills the soundtrack).
With all of the charm of a stinky, unshaven Donkey Kong geek, it's very difficult to fall in love or even root for this character, whose name (for the record) is Randy Daytona.
Uh, okay, I suppose as a professional, I have to describe a plot at this stage of the article, although I don't know what the point really is. Randy was a star table tennis player at the age of 12 in the 1988 Olympics, but an embarrassing forfeit loss to obnoxious East German Karl Wolfschtagg (Thomas Lennon, the film and TV series, "Reno 911") made him a national laughingstock.
Now, some 20 years later, he is forced to sustain himself by performing at a local run-down night club. These are some of the funniest scenes in the movie as Randy does a series of cheesy, humiliating tricks while the few patrons basically ignore the effort.
Enter FBI agent Ernie Rodriquez (George Lopez, "Shark Boy & Lava Girl," where he played a light bulb), who persuades the chubby dork to enter a state tournament in hopes of being invited to Feng's annual ping-pong tournament. Rodriquez wants Randy to spy on Feng, who is suspected of smuggling guns, or something like that. Oh, and it seems that the evil Asian also killed Randy's Marine sergeant father (Robert Patrick, "Walk the Line").
Another chuckle moment comes when Randy is beaten by the short, goofy asthmatic Payton Oswald (King of Queens, a voice in "Ratatouille"); but he rebounds to crush "The Dragon," a 10-year old girl (Na Shi La).
He is trained by ancient Chinese player, Master Wong (James Hong), and his beautiful daughter, Maggie (Maggie Q, "Live Free Or Die Hard"), and soon secures an invitation (in the form of a golden paddle).
Once at the tournament, it's standard comic convention, with one-by-one elimination of the players until only Randy and Wolfschtagg are left; but in order to avoid being too conventional, there are a few twists and turns here and there.
Like previously mentioned, Walken (even though he looks like he's doing a poor John Lithgow impression from "The Mikado") carries the movie as far as it can be carried. Just appearing on the screen, he causes enough laughter to make one forget the rest of the stupidity.
Almost a parody on his own career, at least Walken is not afraid to roll around in the dirt for a few cheap laughs. And, in this film, he really rolls around a lot.
But, if you're looking for light (and I mean very light) summer fare, one could do worse than "Balls of Fury." Not MUCH worse, granted, but certainly as bad.
Like "Mr. Bean's Holiday," for instance.
Mr. Bean's Holiday (2007)
'Mr. Bean' harmless enough; not that funny, though
I suppose one has to have a taste for Rowan Atkinson's befuddled, almost retarded Bean character like having a taste for Brussels sprouts or anything with okra in it.
And if Monty Python ranks an 11 on the British comedy meter, then Bean would rate about a 3.5 at the most. Still, apart from being a colossal moron, Bean (an idiot savant without the savant) is essentially harmless; and the sequel to his self-titled 1997 film, "Mr. Bean's Holiday," is diverting, if not all that funny.
Assuming we know all about this upper-class twit with a horrible, elastic face, the plot here quickly cuts through all the superfluous nonsense and cuts right to the chase; Bean enters a raffle where first prize is a week's vacation on the beach in Cannes, France.
Of course, for the sake of the film, he holds the winning ticket (even though at first he does not realize it), and is soon off to Paris.
Naturally, though, he becomes involved in a series of misadventures, some of which are funny, others falling flatter than pancakes. Most of these jokes involve the man-child Bean wrecking someone's personal effects or disrupting something of great importance.
The two more hilarious segments include an attempt to devour a seafood platter at a Parisian restaurant; and the introduction of Willem Defoe as a pretentious movie director attending the Cannes International Film Festival.
Those scenes which do not work include Bean destroying a guy's laptop, causing a father and son to be separated (he then travels with the kid), trying to steal a man's moped, dancing to Shaggy's 1993 hit, "Boombastic," and attempting to chase down a chicken with a bus ticket attached to its foot.
That last bit seems to go on forever, with little payoff. Plus, instead of just getting a new bus ticket, he leaves the boy and chases the bird for (what seems like) hundreds of miles with no payoff on the whole premise.
Some of "Holiday" is like that, however, long expository setups for little or no bang for the punchlines. Another thing that bothered me was the irritating hand-held camera shots (simulating the camcorder Bean has with him at all times); most of these feature (far too) many extreme closeups of his rubbery-contorted face and barely intelligible mumblings.
Atkinson, whom I liked much better in the TV series "Blackadder," as well as his supporting work in films like "Scooby-Doo" and "Rat Race," among others, nevertheless plays the cretin very well in that many times during the picture one feels like slapping the crap out of him.
Much of the movie's short 87-minute run, he plays like a poor man's Jerry Lewis, and his slapstick routines score below the Three Stooges.
All in all, though, it's the last few minutes that really saves this production(in fact, it almost worth the price of admission to see a creepy Defoe singing "Beyond The Sea" in French) from going off the deep end.
The Invasion (2007)
A boring 'Invasion' hits the box office
Hey, wait a second. I've seen this film before in fact, I've seen it twice. The plot was first witnessed in the 1956 sci-fi classic, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," then in its 1978 re-make.
So, since both of these movies still exist in some form or another, there's absolutely no reason to shell out good money to see this dud.
Here, Nicole Kidman (showing the acting talents she displayed in the "Stepford Wives," only not as frantic) plays psychiatrist Carol Bennell, who begins witnessing strange and unemotional behavior in her patients and colleagues after a space shuttle explodes.
One woman, Veronica Cartwright, explains that her violent husband no longer beats her. "He doesn't love me anymore," she sobs. Oh, and he also killed the family dog.
The evil organism which causes the world's enemies to sign multiple peace treaties goes to work while the victim is asleep. The Alien-like cocoons then awake like lobotomized store mannequins. Thus, being stoic and passionless means an alien organism has taken over the individual (so Al Gore is an extraterrestrial?!).
Walking down the street and staring straight ahead, Bennell (who's searching Baltimore for her cute-as-a-button moppet, Oliver, Jackson Bond), fools enough of the infected to make her way to an Army base where Dr. Stephen Galeano (Jeffrey Wright, "Broken Flowers") is working on a cure.
Support is given to her by another physician, Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig, "Casino Royale"), which makes the acting pedigree of this picture second to none. However, since the main premise here is for the lead characters not to fall asleep, one wonders why the audience isn't treated with the same respect.
Only 93 minutes, this movie is nonetheless a tedious exercise in stilted writing, awkward pacing, bad editing and poor direction (blame Oliver Hirschbiegel in his American debut).
Once again, unless all copies of either version of "Body Snatchers" are destroyed or otherwise missing, rent it and save yourself a lot of pain and money.
By far one of the worst films - ever
Had I not been forced to see this film because of my occupation (and the fact I have two young daughters), I would have avoided this particular production like Richard Simmons avoids women.
However, no such luck came my way on this night, and I was subjected to one of the single most shallow, insignificant, poorly-directed, badly-acted movies of the year.
Or in ANY year, for that matter.
"Bratz, The Movie" is supposedly based on those slutty-looking dolls with huge eyes, full lips and no noses; figures which many parents feel imbues their daughters with an overinflated infatuation with clothes, shoes and make-up. Unfortunately, this movie is live action (but still concentrates on the whole "appearance is the most important" thing).
And while the film tries to touch on friendships being key, the main message here is that only thin, good-looking people are worth anything; and the only way to make a difference in the world is to wear the latest, most expensive fashions.
As if any of this makes any difference, here's the basic plot outline: Four adolescent girls (all beautiful with perfect bodies), Yasmin (Natalie Ramos), Jade (Janel Parish), Sasha (Logan Browning) and Chloe (Skyler Shaye) enter high school. It's also needless to mention that none of these young women has even the most remote acting talents, whatsoever.
In fact, I've seen better acting in a morgue. Friends, the combined talent of the entire cast and crew of "Bratz" could be put in a thimble and there would still be room for Rosie O'Donnell's butt.
But I digress ...
Anyway, these four vapid souls enter Carrie A. Nation High School (which is more than appropriate since I wanted to take a hatchet to the projection room during this preview) and immediately clash with uptight beauty queen, Meredith (Chelsea Staub) and her group of "Heathers" wannabes.
Meredith - even though a freshman - has divided the entire academy into clicks (emo's, skaters, geeks, potheads, jocks, tree-huggers and other assorted losers). Why anyone accepts this pigeon-holing is beyond me, but wondering about this isn't worth the time it takes for a synapse to fire, so ...
And while it's easy to see the above-mentioned no-names populating this production, it's quite disheartening to watch a veteran actor such as Jon Voight, who plays Meredith's father and school principal. He not only embarrasses himself in the movie, but has put a stamp of incompetence on what was once a stellar career.
Oh, there's also a deaf kid, Dylan (Ian Nelson) who somehow has the power to hear Yasmin singing (oh, and he can spin turntables, as well).
The picture's witless conclusion consists of a huge birthday bash for Meredith (see enters on an elephant) and a loud and irritating musical number (it's amazing what passes for entertainment in today's world).
My little girls liked this film, but then again they are 3 and 7-years old. Unless you fit into this particular gender or age group - or are in a coma - you will see this entire enterprise as shallow as a saucer and empty-headed as Paris Hilton.
Truly one of the worst movie-going experiences since "Are We Done Yet?"
Hot Rod (2007)
'Hot Rod': Stupid, silly, cheap and hilarious
This silly, pointless and almost plot less production sort of a cross between "Napoleon Dynamite" and an episode of "Super Dave Osborn" (despite the ultra cheap production values and ham-fisted acting) is nonetheless one of the funniest films of the summer.
Story basically has self-proclaimed stuntman, Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg, "Saturday Night Live") attempting to better Evil Kenevil by jumping over 15 school buses. He is doing this to raise $50,000 for a heart transplant operation for his violent stepfather, Frank Powell (Ian McShane, "Lovejoy," "Deadwood").
This would be all well and good, however, if Rod were a legitimate daredevil. Instead, he can only afford a moped while his other jumps (over a mail truck and a local swimming pool) end in complete failure. It seems he was led to believe his real father was a real stuntman who died while testing a jump for Kenevil.
It turns out, though, that his dad choked to death on a piece of pie. Thus the movie's silliness is established.
As in all films like this which blend lowbrow comedy with the raw isolation and humiliation of its protagonist a group of goof-ball buddies revolves about for any number of reasons.
In "Hot Rod," the doofus friends include the quasi-gay stepbrother, Kevin Powell (Sandberg's high school bud, Jorme Taconne); the semi-retarded Dave (Bill Hader, "Superbad"); and the psychotic Rico (Danny McBride, "The Heartbreak Kid").
There's also an unrealistic love interest, Denise (Ilsa Fisher, "Wedding Crashers," "The Lookout"), who leaves her rich, handsome, successful, jerk of a boyfriend, Jonathan (Will Arnett, "Blades of Glory," "Grindhouse"), for the shaggy-haired nerd.
This, of course, only happens in "reel" life. In real life, girls stay with guys like Jonathan forever and losers like Rod end up eating alone at Denny's at 2 a.m.
Meanwhile, despite his attempts to earn money and save his step-dad's life, Rod is constantly berated and beaten up by McShane (who gives a hilarious, deadpan comic performance), while his mother, Marie (Oscar winner Sissy Spacek, "Coal Miner's Daughter") a bizarro twist on June Cleaver makes token efforts to stop the abuse.
Rod wears ridiculous 1980s retro clothes, sports a tacky fake mustache and listens to songs from the hair band Europe ("Carrie," "The Final Countdown"); he is also dopey and lovable, representing all of use poor saps who can never reach even our most attainable goals.
As Rod goes through various efforts to raise funds (he performs "stunts" for local birthday parties and corporate functions, rents himself out as a piñata and produces an ill-fated documentary on his training techniques), he finds himself woefully short (about $50,000) of his goal.
That is until he convinces a local AM radio station, run by the delusional Barry Pasternak ("SNL"'s Chris Parnell) of the worthiness and stupidity of the endeavor.
With laughs coming from the lowest common denominator and silly pratfall gags, Hot Rod delivers the goods. This isn't Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder, but it's funny in its own stupid, pathetic way.
And after a summer of sex, violence and explosions, that's not half bad at all.
Surprisingly deep despite subject matter
The biggest surprise I received upon viewing the newest Dreamworks release, "Transformers," was how mature the script was, especially coming from a concept deeply rooted in Saturday morning cartoon origins.
Running from 1984-87, the animated TV series competed with the likes of "He Man, Master of the Universe" and "Thundercats" for the macho affections of young boys growing up in that decade. Now, thanks to the efforts of producer Steven Spielberg and director Michael Bay ("The Rock," "Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor," "The Island"), a live-action version that combines the adventure and violence that is Bay's trademark, with some crisp writing and fairly humorous situations (thanks to screenwriters Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, ""Legend of Zorro," "The Island").
A little known fact amongst those not as familiar with the cartoon or comic book is that this live-action version was not the first feature film. In 1986, the animated "Transformers: The Movie" appeared. It jumped the action forward in time 20 years to the then-future of 2005 and pitted both the Autobots and Decepticons against the menace of the giant planet-eating robot, Unicron.
Well, except for joining together and the the Unicron part, this new version features pretty much the same plot. Now, though, the story is helped along with the inclusion of young stars, Shai LeBeouf ("Holes," "Disturbia") and Megan Fox (TV series "Hope and Faith," "Two And A-Half Men") and some seasoned veterans, Jon Voight, Bernie Mac and John Tuturro, this is one (dare I say?) fairly funny and complex film.
Okay, it isn't "Hamlet," (in fact, it's not even "In the Line of Fire"), but it is still enjoyable and exciting at the same time. Another interesting concept is the three simultaneous plot lines, including a high school nerd, Sam Witwickey (LeBeouf) trying to impress a girl, Mikaela (Fox) and get his first automobile; an attack on a group of soldiers (led by Josh Duhamel) in Qatar by a renegade helicopter/robot; and the hacking of the United States defense computer system. In this latter story, Voight plays the Secretary of Defense John Keller, sort of a more compassionate Donald Rumsfeld.
Taking the forms of cars, trucks, aircraft and even a radio (for comic relief), the Autobots, led by Prime (voice of Peter Cullen), and the Decepticons, under the rule of Megatron (Hugo Weaving, "The Matrix," "Lord of the Rings"), are fighting a thousand-year conflict over a cube of ultimate power. The poor dopes on Earth are simply pawns in this galactic struggle and, more often than not, caught in the middle.
Still, the humans are not entirely helpless, as the soldiers, Sam, Mikaela and even Keller (who wields a shotgun like Dick Cheney on steroids), help to battle the baddies in the streets of New York at the end.
The graphics are nicely done, with the rather difficult illusion of switching from an innocent looking vehicle to a huge, deadly robotic monster appearing quite realistic. The acting gets a bit hammy now and then, but nothing like Bay's earlier efforts. And, as previously mentioned, the scribbling is clever enough to keep the older set in their seats during some of the more redundant battle sequences.
Not a perfect summer movie by any means (it's extremely loud, it goes on for about 15 minutes too long and in some cases, it's difficult to tell the good automatons from the bad ones), but, overall, not bad.
Not bad at all.
Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
A 'Hard' man is good to find - even 20 years later
The basic formula for the "Die Hard" film series is this: A seemingly invincible foe with multiple henchmen, unlimited resources and access to the latest in cutting edge technology hold a group of people or the government hostage, killing at will and demanding an unbelievable ransom until the bad guys meet unbreakable police officer John McClane.
Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1987, the world met the tough, sarcastic LAPD constable played by Bruce Willis (who became a household word as the bumbling private detective in the quirky TV series, "Moonlighting"). With his wife among a group of hostages at the huge Nokitomi Building in Los Angeles, McClane systematically dismantled the terrorists' plans and defeated the head villain, Alan Rickman.
Two inferior sequels followed suit.
Flash-forward two decades to the franchise's fourth installment, "Live Free or Die Hard." Now a New York Police detective, McClane happens upon a geeky young computer hacker, Matthew Farrell (Justin Long, "Accepted"), who was the target of a bombing attempt. Dragging him from the scene (as McClane does to lots of people in this role), he finds out the kid was part of a complicated computer plot with a network of other hackers all of whom have now been blown to pieces.
Meanwhile, a group of sophisticated cyber-terrorists, led by Thomas Garbriel (Timothy Olyphant, a character in such TV series as "My Name Is Earl" and "Deadwood"), has shut down all traffic, utility and communication networks throughout the Eastern Seaboard, causing major disruptions, financial chaos and wholesale panic in the streets.
The idiot villains also make the ultimate mistake and kidnap the gruff cop's equally feisty daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, "Grindhouse," "Bobby"). Now it's personal.
Gathering what information he can from the rebellious Farrell, McClane figures out that Gabriel is using a "fire sale" or a catastrophic computer meltdown to hide the fact he is trying to steal billions in money form the government treasuries. Of course, McClane is the hardware to Farrell's software he will kill people and blow things up, while the nerd will try to foil the bad guys' plans cybernetically.
It's a combination that goes together pretty well. I mean, this isn't Shakespeare, so don't expect a lot of philosophical rambling or long dialogs about art, literature or physics. It's basically Bruce Willis killing people and breaking things and then wryly commenting on what he just did.
That's okay with me. I wasn't expecting to be intellectually enlightened by this experience, just entertained for a few hours; and that's what happened with "Live Free or Die Hard." I now look forward to the fifth version in 2027, "Live and Let Die Hard."
Newest Pixar film a real charmer
The charm - and ultimately the success - of John Lassiter and Pixar Studios has been its ability to create motion pictures that are pretty much ageless in their appeal.
Such films as "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," "Monster's Inc.," "Toy Story 2," "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles" and "Cars," have thrilled youngsters with their brilliant, colorful animation and fun, goofy characters; while adults could savor the multi-layered story lines and familiar pop cultural references.
The organization has also made a staple out of the two-hour "cartoon" movie, something unheard of before the advent of Pixar.
The newest offering, "Ratatouille" (pronouced "rat-a-tooie"), does not divert from that formula, telling the tale of an amazing Parisian rat, Remy (voiced by Patton Oswald, the short, nerdy actor who's made a name for himself on such TV series as "Crank Yankers," "Mr. Show with Bob & David" and "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," among others), who cannot abide eating the same garbage day after day.
Blessed with an acute sense of smell (he sniffs out rat poison for his colony) and an ultra-sensitive palette, he soon finds his way to Gusteau's Bistro, a world famous restaurant that has fallen upon hard times since a negative newspaper review by Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole) caused Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett, "Everybody Love Raymond") to fall into a funk and die.
Here, Remy runs into a poor sap of a cleaning boy, Linguini (Pat Romano), a cross between Jerry Lewis and Napoleon Dynamite. While trying to add to a soup dish one night, Linguini only succeeds in making the food unpalatable; fortunately, Remy saves the day, creates an amazing concoction and earns everyone's praise - for Linguini.
The rodent is soon captured, and Linguini is ordered to kill it by the Chef (Ian Holm, "Alien," "Lord of War"). He can't do it, however, and the two make an agreement - Remy will aid Linguini in the preparation of food, and the latter will take credit for it.
Taking advantage of the rat's innate ability to create amazing dishes, Gustaeu's become a popular Paris hot-spot once again. This incites the jealousy of Chef, the anger of Ego and the resentment of Remy's stern pop, who tells his boy never to trust humans.
To complicate things even more, while trying to keep this secret from being discovered, Linguini falls for fellow chef, Collette (Janeane Garofalo).
Soon, though, complications arise, and on the very night Ego intends to visit (and write what he thinks will be another scathing review), Remy's role in the deception is uncovered, causing everyone - including Collette - to walk out of the restaurant.
Will the day be saved? Will Linguini and Collette end up together? And what of Remy and his dreams? Well, you'll have to see the film. To me, this picture elevates the craft, at least as mature storytelling is concerned. This isn't the best Pixar film, but it is certainly one of the most complicated and nuanced.
From the subtle and appropriate musical arrangements to the perfect vocal characterizations to the aforementioned animation (just the lush, sweeping views of Paris at night are worth the price of admission) to the complex tale. No bells and whistles here - it isn't necessary - just a sweet love story (love between friends, family and, of course, a boy and a girl). In addition, the message is no matter what someone looks like on the outside, it's the inner character that counts.
It's a moral that's been told countless times, but "Ratatouille" delivers it in a fresh, new and charming way.
Evan Almighty (2007)
Heavy-handed and preachy, this is not an 'Almighty' effort
While not a huge fan of the original "Bruce Almighty," the Jim Carrey comedy from 2004, I now look back fondly upon it as a sweet respite; especially in light of its follow-up, "Evan Almighty," starring Steve Carell and Morgan Freeman.
In "Bruce," Evan Baxter (Carell) was the smarmy reporter who was given the news anchor position over Carrey; now he's the popular TV personality who was just elected to congress on a "Let's Change the World" platform. The film does not mention which party he belongs to, but it's probably the GOP.
Evan resigns his lucrative news job and heads to Washington. There, he immediately settles into a huge mansion (I mean HUGE) and jumps into his first day on the Hill. There we meet his staff, chief Marty (John Michael Higgins, "The Break-Up"), executive secretary, Rita (Wanda Sykes) and fat creepy intern, Eugene (Jonah Hill, "Accepted," "Knocked Up").
He is also bamboozled into supporting a colleague's (John Goodman) bill to allow private development in national parks (that's why I assume he's a Republican, since Hollywood naturally believes that party wants to allow private development in national parks ...). With all of this new work, he (like most movie fathers) begins to complete ignore his family.
Meanwhile, he begins to receive bizarre items in the mail, such as a set of archaic hand tools and deliveries of tons of wood and other materials. Finally, the long-awaited appearance of God (Freeman) takes place and Evan is instructed to build an ark.
At first, of course, he scoffs at the idea, but as more and more items are delivered, eight adjacent neighborhood lots are purchased in his name and animals of all kinds begin to follow him, he begins to take things seriously. Also, God performs a few little miracles and Evan grows facial hair slightly faster than a woodland gorilla (or Robin Williams), to get the point across.
Now a bearded, robe-wearing, hippy outcast, Evan loses his family, job and status, yet remains true, even working to finish the project by himself. God convinces him to undertake this seemingly impossible task by tossing about a few platitudes and performing some more miracles.
Purported to be one of the most expensive comedies ever made (estimated between $140-200 million), the word "comedy" is loosely tossed about here. Sure, Carell, who made his film debut in "Bruce," then parlayed that into key roles in "Anchorman," "The 40-Year Old Virgin" and the hit NBC series, "The Office," is funny in spots, but very rarely here.
He's either the selfish, idealistic congressman, or the idiotic, idealistic latter-day Noah with little development of either character. The laughs in this one come from Sykes (who ad-libbed 90 percent of her dialog) and Hill, who knows more about Evan than Evan.
Carell spends most of his time prat-falling while trying to construct the massive boat, or crying in the wilderness with a staff in his hand like a demented Charleton Heston. The only thing missing is his "The End Is Near" sign.
The situation of a politician turning into a crazed Old Testament prophet is certainly ripe for yucks, but director Tom Shadyac ("Bruce Almighty," "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry") chooses the heavy-handed approach, substituting hilarity for a stifling environmental message.
Yeah, we KNOW saving the Earth is good; we KNOW developing in national parks is BAD. In an attempt to create a modern version of "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington," Shadyac spreads the sentiment too thick with a heaping helping of maudlin on the side, then applies it with a sledgehammer.
Much of the budget here was wasted on the animals sequences. Evidently, photos of each beast were taken separately, and then incorporated digitally into the final product. They should have just CGI'ed everything, since that's what the outcome looks like, anyway.
And Sykes and Hill, while very funny in their short screen times, are not enough to bail the onrushing water out of this sinking vessel. Also, what was with the closing credits? Just various actors (as well as other personnel) involved in the movie gyrating to C.C. and the Music Company's "Everybody Dance, Now."
You'll leave the theaters (probably two by two) feeling like a biblical curse has been placed upon you after this flood of nonsense.
Talk about "original sin."
4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Better than the first one ...
After enduring the first installment of Marvel's "Fantastic Four," ANY sequel would have looked good by comparison, so while I did have high hopes, I would have accepted much less.
It's safe to write, however, that "Fanastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," is entertaining enough to be much more successful than the first installment. The movie is often dark, funny and exciting at the same time.
Hey, as far as second servings go, it's no "Empire Strikes Back," (it's not even a "Jaws 2"), but it keeps one in their seat for its rather short, 90-minute running time.
Picking up from where the initial film left off, our intrepid quartet (the ultra flexible Reed Richards, Ioan Gruffudd; invisible force-field lady Sue Storm, Jessica Alba; human torch Johnny Storm, Chris Evans; and the rock-like monstrosity Ben Grimm, Michael Chiklis) is now used to the constant publicity extolling their exploits.
Johnny is especially prone to this publicity, constantly looking to make endorsement deals and mugging before any camera he sees.
The paparazzi is even ga-ga over the upcoming wedding of Reed and Sue (despite the oil-vinegar mix of the beautiful, sensual young lady and the goofy dullard), which has been in the works several times now, always falling through at the last minute.
Meanwhile, a strange meteor flashes across the globe, completely freezing whatever it passes over (the Sea of Japan, the Sphinx, Los Angeles, etc.); the anomaly also creates huge craters and eventually dries up the surrounding vicinity.
During the latest wedding, the phenomenon disrupts electrical and communication transmissions and causes a helicopter to crash, wrecking chairs and ruining a lot of perfectly good food. It's a literal media circus, not unlike the nuptials between Sean Penn and Madonna.
Johnny Torch then follows the thing, only to discover it is the Silver Surfer (we have a title!), who is the guide for Galactus, a huge cloudy entity that absorbs and destroys planets to stay alive.
Look, this premise was never really fleshed out in the film, suffice it to say the CGI looks pretty awesome here (not during the rest of the movie, though). Anyway, the Surfer pummels the Torch and escapes. His flyover also thaws out Dr. Vincent von Doom (Julian McMahon, "Premonition") from his metallic freeze prison, which adds another villainous subplot.
In addition, a group of gung-ho soldiers, led by Gen. Hagar (Andre Braugher, "Glory," "Poseiden"), gets involved, as well. And, thanks to his contact with the Surfer (body by Doug Fisher, voiced by Laurence Fishburne), Torch loses control of his powers, passing them along to the other three and taking upon theirs in turn.
These are the rare funny moments in this picture.
Finally, Reed (who is reluctantly forced to accept von Doom's assistance) tracks down and captures the Surfer with a series of scientific devices that we - as the audience - have no business comprehending. It is only then that we discover the humanity of the character.
He doesn't mean to lead the carnivorous Galactus to eat, digest and eliminate all these worlds, he's just made that way, I suppose. No one realizes this more than Sue, who tries to convince him that, somehow, helping to destroy the Earth would be a bad thing ...
After a short, climatic battle, however, things just come to a rather unsatisfying conclusion. We're never really presented with the motivation behind what Galactus is or why its always so hungry for energy; or, as an all-powerful, omnipotent being, why it needs the Silver Surfer in the first place.
Still, with all of its faults, its often disjointed plot line, its ambiguous ending, it still keeps you interested, and its short duration is just enough time to spend with these rather tepid superheroes.
Nancy Drew (2007)
Unless you're a young girl, 'Nancy' will baffle
For generations of fans worldwide, the name Nancy Drew is synonymous with adventure. This young amateur detective has a mind of her own, a passion for solving mysteries and a reputation for getting into and out of some very tricky situations.
This summer, "Nancy Drew" brings the timeless heroine to Los Angeles, where she is faced with a fresh set of challenges and her most baffling case yet.
All of that being written, however, the movie peaks after a clever opening sequence (original illustrations from the classic novel series), and brings nothing new to the genre. Worst of all, most of the picture has her reading, sitting, searching for secret passages, listening to strange sounds in the night and getting picked on by schoolmates.
"My Dinner With Andre" has more action scenes than this supposed whodunit.
Nancy (16-year-old Emma Roberts, "Aquamarine"), like the cast of the "Brady Bunch" films, is hopelessly trapped in the 1960s, with pleated skirts, matching sweaters, knee socks and penny loafers. The folks in her hometown of River Heights (state unnamed) think she's clever, resourceful and cute-as-a-button (so do I).
But complications arise when her father, Carson Drew (Tate Donavon, "Good Night, And Good Luck"), is temporarily transferred to Los Angeles.
In the cliché Hollywood high filled with punks, sluts, potheads, zipoids, emo's, scumbags, jocks, gangstas, and other assorted losers, Nancy just doesn't fit it (who would?).
Soon, after moving into the huge, haunted, creepy, rented mansion, another mystery seems to be in the making. Unfortunately, the solution to said enigma can easily be deduced by anyone over the age of 12, and I count myself in that category.
And, in spite of stern dad's admonition about "no more sleuthing," Nancy teams up with a fat freshman, Corky (Josh Flitter, who played the goofy caddy in "The Greatest Game Ever Played"), and tries to discover the secret of a Catherine Zeta-Jones-type film star who died under suspicious circumstances in 1981.
When she does uncover the "horrible truth," though, the movie becomes a maudlin domestic drama with an empowering message for single moms. Kind of heavy for the demographic it purports to target.
Showing up for mild support is Barry Bostwick (who once played George Washington in the 1970s and was then the addled mayor in the TV series, "Spin City"), as a bigwig lawyer; Max Thieriot (Ned Nickerson, "The Astronaut Farmer"), as Nancy's hang-dog boyfriend too dopey to realize she's just in it for the crime solving; Marshall Bell ("Capote", Stand By Me") as a crazed caretaker; and Chris Kattan ("Corky Romano," former "SNL" cast member), as a sappy crook.
Bruce Willis and Adam Goldberg even make completely unnecessary cameos in a sequence that leads absolutely nowhere. Still, it is the movie's most interesting moment.
Young girls, however, should get a kick out of seeing one of their own triumph over the odds and bad guys in the end, so I suppose it can't be all bad. And it is nice to see Hollywood think of the Suger & Spice set instead of sending us yet another film made exclusively for 14-18-year old boys.
Thank goodness for the small things ...
Surf's Up (2007)
'Happy Feet' knock-off mildly entertaining
Let's say as an animated film, the newest Sony release "Surf's Up," is not terrible, but it is far from the most interesting or entertaining installment of the genre. Basically, a follow-up to last year's enormously popular "Happy Feet," this tells the tale of a young slacker surfer dude penguin, Cory Maverick (apparently, these animals now have last names, unlike their "Happy" counterparts), who slums in a fish sorting position at Shiverpool (get it?) in the Antartic.
Instead of tap dancing, however, these flightless, web-footed little suckers "hang six" and ride frigid waves.
Cory is voiced by Shai LeBeouf ("Holes," "The Greatest Game Ever Played"), and he's much put-upon by his mother, Edna (Dana Belden), and his older brother, Glen (Brian Posehn), because he spends his time surfing instead of helping gather food and aiding his colony's survival (animals are funny that way).
When Cody was a young bird, the most famous surfing penguin of them all, Big Z (Jeff Daniels, taking a break from doing all of those "Come to Michigan" commercials), came to visit, and ever since that time, the little guy has been hooked on the activity.
Years later, after Z's tragic death in Hawaii (yeah, I know, a penguin in Hawaii), Cody gets a chance to participate in the Big Z Memorial surf competition there. He faces the film's bad guy, an emperor penguin named Tank Evans (Dietrich Bader, a voice on the Disney cartoon, "Kim Possible").
Cody also runs into a beautiful girl penguin (I'm only guessing she's beautiful, since, sadly, all penguins look alike to me), Lani (Zooey Deschanel, "Elf", as well as a pot-headed chicken, Joe (Jon Heder, one of the few really funny characters in this movie). Okay, there is also James Woods as the slimy promotions guy, Reggie Belafonte, complete with Don King do and appropriately smarmy demeanor.
Of course, other complications occur before the big showdown against the big Kahuna, Tank, take place, as Cody learns a few things about what a slacker he is, I suppose. In the end, everyone gets what they deserve whether they deserve it or not.
The CGI animation here is very well done, with realistic scenes of beaches, coves, reefs, icebergs, jungles, eddies and other locations. The animal-centric characters are also nicely created.
Unfortunately, the story does not live up to the rest of the production. It's also partly told in a mockumentary (think "This Is Spinal Tap" meets the "Real World") motif, with asides from the characters and simulated hand-held camera shots. There are also long stretches of time where nothing really happens, which is not a good thing for a children's picture.
It seems that Z isn't really dead, only faking it because the pressure got to him. Now he spends his time loafing on the beach being taken care of by his niece, Lani. Soon, Cody and his mentor team up to take on their nemesis in the All-Penguin surfing championships (except, of course, that there's a chicken involved, as well, so the whole All-Penguin thing is kind of moot, I guess).
Another problem is that the kids will probably not get the whole surfer attitude or MTV style, while the adults will quickly grow tired of the weak premise.
'Pirates 3' returns to original form - sort of
If ever a film prematurely broadcasts a sequel, it's "Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End." Halfway through the three-hour plus feature, one gets the distinct feeling that there will be another installment. Near the end, there is no doubt Capt. Jack Sparrow & Co. will be back for more.
Especially if these movies continue to almost double their predecessor's take.
Here, no expense is spared in CGI, effects, cinematography, set design and location costs. It's too bad the story is a bit muddled (certainly not as much as "Dead Man's Chest") and the running time is too long.
Other than that, part three is all about action and entertainment with a few nice twists at the conclusion. It about 40 minutes too long, but what there is of it, holds one s attention fairly well.
Here's the plot - if I can synopsize it with any clarity: Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is in the Land of the Dead (the Bonneville Salt Flats) where he is doomed to haul the Black Pearl over the alabaster turf for eternity.
Meanwhile, the British-sponsored East India Company (led by Lord Cutler Beckett - Thomas Hollander) has cracked down on Pirates throughout the Pacific Rim (aided by the Flying Dutchman), hanging dozens of criminals and their associates in efficient, economical multiple executions.
In far off Singapore, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly) and Capt. Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, Oscar winner for "Shine") meet with Asian pirate lord, Sao Feng (Yun Fat-Chow, "The Replacement Killers," "Bulletproof Monk") to convince him and his charges to oppose the EIC. A series of firefights, however, disrupts those plans -for a while, at least.
William Turner (Orlando Bloom), sent to serve on the Flying Dutchman to pay the penance for Sparrow's misdeeds, once again vows to his father, Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), to deliver him from the clutches of Davy Jones (Bill Nighy).
Finally sailing "over the edge and over again," Barbossa, Swann and the pirates rescue Jack and begin sailing to Shipwreck Island to meet with all nine pirate lords to discuss the freeing of the Goddess Calypso (Naomie Harris), who has assumed human form.
Later, in the movie's most unintentionally hilarious scene, during the climactic battle between the forces of Davy Jones, the East India Company and the pirate federation, Calypso begins to grow until she resembles a 50-foot Michael Jackson. I cannot think of anything creepier than that, friends.
Some highlights include Sparrow's hallucinating conversations with himself; thousands of rocks/crabs that transport the Black Pearl through the desert; a gory hanging sequence; some typical swashbuckling and daring-do; beautiful set locations from the Bahamas to Singapore to the Antartic; and some decent acting (for this type of film).
Moments of incredulity do occur, such as Lord Beckett's complete idiocy as an 18th century English sea commander, Swann's conversion into a silly Ang Lee heroine and some overdone subplots, but overall, the experience is a positive one.
Critics and others who say this completes the trilogy, though, must not have watched the film as I did, since the ambiguous conclusion leaves no resolution and the last frames almost announce to the world, "Argh! There be a sequel coming!"
Also, while it may be a chore to some, try to sit through all of the credits for a small but interesting payoff.
Shrek the Third (2007)
Once vibrant series showing signs of middle age
Halfway through the third installment of the popular CGI franchise, "Shrek," one gets the distinct feeling that the end is near. What prompts these emotions? Oh, just the fact that the writers seem to have run out of ideas, funny jokes and interesting new characters.
I suppose I'd feel different if I were an eight-year-old child, but ...
As far as ideas go, the plot here has Harold, the frog king of Far Far Away (voice of John Cleese), dying (a hilarious segment that recalls Paul Reubens death scene in "Buffy, The Vampire Slayer") and trusting the kingdom to either Shrek (Mike Myers in his Scottish brogue) or the monarch's wimpy nephew, Arthur (Justin Timberlake). Meanwhile, in another bit of inspired comedy, defeated "Prince" Charming (Rupert Everett) is reduced to performing in a cheap dinner theater.
This is basically where the originality ends, however. That does not mean the rest of the picture is bad - it is at least entertaining - but there's not much new any more. If "Shrek The Third" were a person, he'd be yelling at the neighbor kids to get off his lawn and eating supper at the IHOP at 3:30 p.m.
Cases in point: Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) finds out she's pregnant and, like every expectant father in TV sit-com history, Shrek is frightened by his future parental obligations; Charming enlists all of the fairy tale villains in the land to join with him, invade Far Far Away and change the outcome of nursery rhymes (sounds like the plot of the turkey from earlier this year, "Happily N'ever After"); and the captured women of Far Far Away, Fiona, Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews), Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White and Rapunzel (voiced by "SNL" cast members Cheri Oteri, Amy Sedaris, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph, respectively) become ninja warriors to try and save the day. Ho hum.
Even the goofy antics of sidekicks Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss-In-Boots (Antonio Banderas), as well as the vocal "talents" of Regis Philbin and Larry King (as the two ugly stepsisters), bring only smiles and smirks instead of side-splitting laughs like in the old days. In fact, the writers are forced to use the word "poop" several times to try and please an increasingly immature and vapid film-going audience.
Only "Monty Python" alum Eric Idle (as an addled Merlin the Magician who switches Donkey and Puss' personalities) is even remotely funny and original among the new characters.
After a battle featuring more windbag philosophy than daring-do, the rightful king is crowned and Fiona goes on to have a litter of baby ogres, who like the Ewoks in "Return of the Jedi" look cute, but add nothing special to the production.
Even the usually-clever closing credits (where the cast sings a classic song) was uninspired and listless this time around.
As usual, the animation of this series is first-rate; unfortunately, the story does not match the technology and those who appreciate the combination will most likely be left feeling a bit empty inside.
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
A tangled web ...
In the first of a trio of popular film part threes being released soon, Marvel Studios brings its long-awaited "Spiderman" franchise third installment to fruition. And while it is safe to say this was a bit better than part two (in my opinion, of course) where Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire ) constantly agonized over his lot as a super hero and struggled with his inner doubts and turmoils it still does not approach the original in sheer fun and excitement.
The filmmakers also learned about what audiences (specifically the 14-18-year-old males Hollywood seems to be in love with lately) want action, action and more action. Here it is provided with not one, but three main villains for Spidey to take on, including a battle with himself that takes the movie on a decidedly "Superman III" tack for a while.
It's now five years from the time Peter is first bitten by that pesky radioactive arachnid in the science lab. He's still in school (is he trying to become a doctor?!), dates Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and is comfortable enough in the role of hero that he puts all self-doubts to rest. In fact, he loves the adoration given to him, so much so, he's become obsessed.
Meanwhile, Harry Osborn (James Franco, given a few lead roles since "Spiderman 2," including "The Great Raid" and "Tristan & Isolde"), is still ticked off at the web-slinger for supposedly killing his old man (Willem DeFoe), Cracks develop in Peter and Mary Jane's fantasy world, as well when she is fired from a Broadway show because she cannot sing (she really can't, but wouldn't the producers and director have notice that minor flaw before the production played before an audience?).
Then, while sitting together in a tree one night, a meteorite lands near them (they, of course do not see this) and a black squidlike creature emerges and attaches itself to Peter's scooter. Where this thing came from and why it goes after Parker is never explained, by the way. I guess we're just supposed to take the movie's word that it is a very important event.
While all of this is going on, an escaped convict, (Thomas Haden Church, "Sideways"), is caught is a fusion reactor thing in the middle of the desert and is turned into a sandman by the experiment. Once again, massive does of radiation does not cause tumors and painful death, it only mutates the victim into a creature more powerful and frightening than any seen before. The message from movies like this is never ever engage in any type of scientific experiment, as it only leads to mutilation and destruction, never anything good.
In this case, the sand guy has the power to grow huge and rob armored cars and banks. He does it, we find out, to save his little daughter, who has an unnamed disease. Of course, Spiderman has to deal with this large angry sand dune, but Harry has also morphed into a Green Goblin-like clone on a deadly glider and is now looking for some payback, as well.
Our friendly neighborhood super hero seems to have his hands full, but that's not the end of the fun. As Peter, he is also vying for a full-time job on the "Daily Planet" (is that a subplot anyone cares about?!), and the black thing has taken over his body causing him to don a cool black costume and pull off the bad bug routine. This creature also causes him to turn into a 1970s a-hole who abuses Mary Jane and gets his newspaper rival, Eddie Brock (a blonded Topher Grace, "In Good Company," "That 70s Show") fired.
If those aren't enough plot confusions, Brock is soon infected by the squid and becomes at last Venom, a villain with roughly to same powers as the Spider dude himself. Unfortunately, we don't get to meet this intriguing character until about 15 minutes remaining in the movie.
Valuable plot time is consumed dealing with the duality of Peter Parker, his love life problems and the big sand monster (which, by the way, is one of the most uninteresting bad guys since Catwoman in "Batman Returns").
One would assume that with three major villains, plus a battle with himself, "Spiderman 3" would be three times as interesting as its predecessors. Well, one would make an "ass" of himself assuming such things, though. With all of the loose ends flying about and the movie clocking in at just under two-and-a-half hours, this installment might rate high on the "oooh" and "ahhh" scale, but "interesting" wouldn't be my choice description.
Still, look for part trey to make a mint at the box office, only because we want to love these kinds of films. Plus, as the first major summer blockbuster, we are hoping against hope for that this one ushers in many more enjoyable pictures to come over the next three months - just like last year. Oops, forget I wrote that.
Revisionist history and poor filmcraft collide
A dim-witted effort which attempts to not only rewrite history, but turn it upside down, as North American Indians and Vikings battle it out in a pre-apocalyptic world. It's as if Terrence Malik directed "Conan The Barbarian," stole bits and pieces from "Last of the Mohicans" and "300" and then solicited advice from Mel Gibson.
Now, I like history as much as the next person, but I don't remember the Norsemen taking on Native Americans (maybe I slept through that semester), however, if it happened, fine.
My problem is the sum of all the parts adds up to a big bore the death knell for a film which features Indians fighting Vikings with enough decapitations to make the Reign of Terror look like a Three Stooges film festival. I actually dozed off for a few minutes (and probably missed the whole point of the picture).
Of course, this is no surprise, considering the director, Marcus Nispel, was the man behind the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" remake (as if we were all clamoring for THAT particular effort). Probably as bad a movie one will see between January and April (the time studios notoriously release their flotsam in preparation for the summer blockbuster and fall awards seasons).
Okay, I suppose some sort of a plot detail is necessary here (although I don't know why it really matters). Abandoned by his Norse brethren as a child, Ghost (Karl Urban, "Bourne Supremacy," "Out of the Blue," and who seems clad in a diaper Pebbles Flintstone wouldn't wear), is raised by the peaceful tribe his cousins tried to conquer.
Urban, by the way, is perfect for this role, since a Viking brought up by Indians probably doesn't have to say very much, if anything. This role suits his acting skills to a tee. Anyway, learning the ways of the native, however, he's prepared when the long-boatmen come back to finish the job (real Viking fans know, however, they always fade in the second half).
Led by Clancy Brown (he was much more frightening as the evil guard in "The Shawshank Redemption"), the Europeans attack without mercy or merit, but will Ghost allow blood to be thicker than bad acting?
Don't bet on it.
Fairly interesting courtroom thriller
After far too many films in which Anthony Hopkins (I'll withhold the "Sir" title until all prints of "Bobby" are destroyed) portrays an addled, long-winded, over-the-top American character (see the aforementioned "Bobby," as well as "Proof," "Amistad" and "All the King's Men"), he is finally featured in a role in which his crusty, yet suave British mannerisms are perfectly suited.
"Fracture" isn't his best role (that was far and away "Remains of the Day"), nor is it a great film, but it's a tight little drama with nice work from its leads, Hopkins and Ryan Gosling (fresh off his Oscar nod for "Half-Nelson").
Here, Hopkins plays Ted Crawford, a meticulous structural engineer who designs and builds elaborate contraptions in his spare time. When he catches his wife, having an affair with a cop, however, he snaps, confronts and shoots her.
It's all pretty open-and-shut, but in court, against pretty boy prosecutor, Willie Beachum (Gosling), a series of technicalities allows him to escape his foul deed. Now it's up to Beachum (who was about to quit the DA's office and join a top corporate firm) to grow a conscience and attempt to put the cool and calculating intellectual behind bars.
With first-class work by the leads, as well as David Strathairn ("Good Night, And Good Luck," "We Are Marshall"), "Fracture" walks the thin line between cynical manipulation and a genuine courtroom-cat-and-mouse thriller, like "Anatomy of a Murder" (only without the "panties" references).
Hopkins' character is a combination of Hannibal Lechter (of course) and Al Pacino in "The Devil's Advocate"; while Gosling's "aw shucks" demeanor may get a bit tedious, at times, but does not detract from the film's overall sharpness.
The look on Hopkin's face near the end is priceless, and makes us remember his work before his recent ham hock roles when he could do more with a glance or a single word than most did with a page of dialog.