Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Game Plan

Director: Andy Fickman
Starring: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Madison Pettis, Kyra Sedgwick, Roselyn Sanchez, Paige Turco

Running Time: 110 min.

Rating: PG

*** (out of ****)

It is what it is, and for what it is, it works. That's my reasoning for mildly recommending Disney's The Game Plan starring The Rock, excuse me, Dwayne Johnson. Maybe I'm getting soft, but even I have to admit it's a movie kids will likely love and their parents will find reasonably amusing and entertaining. It's a good way to pass the time but if you happened to miss it, it wouldn't be the end of the world. It's a sappy paint-by-the numbers Disney movie that, to its credit, executes its premise well enough to earn a look.

This is the first film I've actually ever seen starring Johnson, and I figured that in the best case scenario maybe he'd be able to take a mediocre movie and make it at least watchable just on the strength of his natural charisma. I was wrong. He does one better and takes a movie that has little going for it and makes it pretty good. He gives a fantastic comic performance and the best news to come out of this film is the prospect that with stronger material he could really turn into something special as an actor in the future. In a way I kind of felt sorry for him having to "pay his dues" here this but it is good role for him and a showcase for his strengths as a performer.

At times I was blown away by how good his comic timing was and what he brought to what could have been a middling effort. He also gets a little help from an adorable and unannoyingly precocious child actress who also gives it everything she has. Despite its obvious shortcomings, the film has its heart in the right place and is quality family entertainment, an increasingly rare phenomenon in Hollywood lately. It's far from perfect and occasionally very stupid, but mostly on the strength of the lead performances it reaches the goal line in achieving everything it sets out to do.

Johnson is Joe "The King" Kingman, the cocky, arrogant star quarterback of the Boston Rebels who's in for the surprise of his life when little eight-year-old Peyton (Madison Pettis) shows up at the doorstep of his palatial bachelor pad, suitcase and all. She announces that she's the daughter his ex-wife conveniently neglected to tell him about after they divorced. At this point I was watching very carefully to see if the movie would be so dumb as to not address the fact that a child that age is traveling alone without a guardian and showed up unattended in a big city apartment complex. Most films wouldn't. This one does, however, as Joe is as flabbergasted as we are and we get a reasonable explanation for the whole situation later on.

Joe isn't exactly "Mr. Mom" and much to the distaste of his overbearing agent (a grating Kyra Sedgwick) his time is now spent unwittingly wearing bedazzled clothes and chauffeuring Peyton to ballet class. The dance teacher (Rosalyn Sanchez) demands full parental involvement in the class and isn't the slightest bit impressed by Joe's fame and accomplishments. Obviously, she's being set up as a love interest for Joe, but I was surprised at the restraint the writers showed in handling it. Actually, it really isn't handled at all, which was a welcome relief. Although I'm sure a lot of that had to do with the fact this is supposed to be a PG rated family movie.

We know exactly where all of this is going and where it'll end up yet somehow I found myself entertained throughout the slightly overlong picture and most of why is the chemistry between Johnson and Pettis. They play off each other really well and are believable as father and daughter. It's fun watching Johnson's reactions to her behavior as he tries to find a way to contain himself and deal with it in a reasonable manner. She isn't a brat, just a regular hyperactive kid, but this guy is still in way over his head.

I also like how director Andy Fickman lets Johnson slide in some personality traits and mannerisms from his wrestling character, like his Elvis obsession and tendency to refer to himself in the third person. It fits perfectly and the opening sequence where we're introduced to the character is great, in no small part due to the fact he has one of the coolest apartments in existence. As a wrestler The Rock was known as a guy who could flip from "good" to bad" at the drop of a hat. I never would've thought that skill would come in handy for him as an actor, but it does here. How Johnson conveys his character's transformation throughout the film is subtly and skillfully done and as much as I tried to fight it, by the end, I really ended up caring about this father-daughter relationship.

The film does hit a couple of sour notes, namely musical ones. Nathan Wang's score is annoying, unnecessarily adding an exclamation point to each scene and highlighting every little emotion. It actually calls attention to itself, something a film score should never do under any circumstances. Kyra Sedgwick's agent is also unbearable, but most of the blame can be put on Fickman for letting her indulge that broadly. I know it's a Disney film and the villains are supposed to be cartoonish, but it didn't seem to fit and her performance seemed excessive even for this type of film. At 110 minutes it could have used a little bit of a trim job, but I can't say it dragged or I was ever bored. The charm of the two leads carried it through.

To the surprise of many, this film actually cleaned up at the box office and I can see why. This is one of those rare cases where audiences were right and the critics struck out, overanalyzing things. It's just inoffensive fun and a welcome throwback to an era when Disney used to release quality live action films that were marketed as family affairs. Yes, the script is corny and simplistic but it's executed well onscreen and serves the audience it's aimed for.

You couldn't convince me The Game Plan is any less intelligent than other lightweight fare from 2007 like Hairspray or the fluffy Waitress, and I'd go out on a limb and say this is actually smarter than the latter, which dished out life lessons with a helping of sugar so sweet it could put a diabetic in a coma. That took an adult problem and approached it with a five-year-old mentality, while at least this is supposed to be simplistic and doesn't put on false pretences of being highly intellectual. It knows what it's trying to do and does it. What more could you ask for?

I'm not even a part of the audience this movie is aimed for and enjoyed myself, so I can only imagine how much kids would love it. They'll also love Johnson, who takes low-level material and knocks it out of the park. It's scary to think what he's capable of delivering if ever handed material of genuine substance. I have a feeling it won't be too long before we find out.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Top 10 Best Uses of Songs in Movies

The marriage of movies and music can be a beautiful thing. At its worst it can seem cloy and obvious, but when it works, magic unfolds. At its best it can be difficult to imagine the song or the movie existing without one another. And in the rarest of cases (as with my number one choice on this list) the perfect placement of a certain song in just the right scene can actually enhance the entire film, bringing something out of the song we didn't know was there before and changing the way we listen to it.

I don't think anyone expected to be rocking out to Wilson Phillips' "Hold On" during Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. Of course the song sucks but that's the point and it was exploited brilliantly in that scene. And for a just a second it sucked a whole lot less. Everyone may have hated the series finale of The Sopranos but there's no denying David Chase's use of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" was pure genius. There's a reason that song's sales increased by a couple of hundred percent following the episode. It always a great song, we had just forgotten. That scene reminded us in a big way.

I'm not ranking the films here or even their soundtracks, just the use of the song in the movie. Musicals obviously don't count. I had planned to do a top 10 but found 11 choices I really loved so I declared a tie for tenth place. At the bottom I listed some choices that just missed the list. Be warned that some these choices DO CONTAIN PLOT SPOILERS.

(TIE) 10. "Tiny Dancer," Elton John (Almost Famous)
No director receives more criticism for how he uses music in his films than Cameron Crowe. That's never been truer than with his more recent soundtrack efforts in Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown. But what has to be understood about Crowe is that he's a filmmaker who wears his heart on his sleeve and makes no apologies for his musical tastes. As a former writer for Rolling Stone, he's earned the right not to. He's not afraid to use his movies as his own personal mix tapes and if I didn't love all the music he uses in them I probably wouldn't be able to stand it. But I do, so I can not only stand it, but love it.

Even his biggest detractors would come clean and say he was never more in his element with a soundtrack than with his autobiographical love letter to Rock, Almost Famous. The gang spontaneously breaking out into Elton John's Tiny Dancer" after being burned out by the grinds of the road shouldn't work at all. But it does. And I guess that must be Crowe's gift. Taking moments that should be too syrupy and making them believable and heartfelt. Yes, these characters would do something like this. There's another Crowe moment just like this later on in this list. And why has this song (which I previously considered one of Elton John's lesser efforts) sounded so much better to me ever since seeing this film?

(TIE) 10. "Needle In The Hay," Elliot Smith (The Royal Tennenbaums
Wes Anderson is pretty much infamous for employing "quirky" musical tastes in his films ever since Rushmore. But there's nothing "quirky" about this selection in 2001's criminally underrated The Royal Tenenbaums. After years of failing to meet his family's expectations and his own washed-up professional tennis pro Richie Tenenbaum is frozen in time. Forever stuck, physically and emotionally, in the moment of the on-court meltdown that ended his career and plagued with guilt over his feelings for his sister, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow).

In a family of geniuses that all failed to live up to their promise, he's the biggest disappointment of them all. He hardly does or says anything the entire film, until a key scene where he says and does something VERY BIG. "I'm going to kill myself tomorrow." With those words begins a profoundly disturbing scene and the song playing during is Elliot Smith's "Needle in the Hay." If there was any doubt this song was destined to appear in this particular scene consider that both the actor who co-wrote the film (Owen Wilson) and the man who wrote and performed the song (Smith) both attempted suicide. Wilson survived. Smith, tragically, didn't.

9. "Save Me," Aimee Mann (Magnolia)
Recent Academy Award nominated director Paul Thomas Anderson's polarizing 1999 film Magnolia contemplates the randomness and unfairness of everyday life through nine separate but connecting stories about regular people struggling to come to grips with their pasts and present. The use of music in this film differs from the others listed here in that the film was actually WRITTEN AROUND THE MUSIC, not the other way around as we're accustomed to. Anderson has stated that it was Aimee Mann's music that provided the basis for the story and inspired him to write the screenplay. I can't ever remember a case of that happening, or if there was, we've never heard of it. She supplied every single song in the film and it's more than fair to say that without her music we wouldn't have even had a movie.

The film explores themes such as loneliness, forgiveness and, in what made audiences most uncomfortable, the idea that some things are just unexplained or out of your hands. At the end of the film all the emotions that have been building in us and the characters for over two hours just come pouring out (literally) in one memorable scene. The song we hear: "Save Me," by Aimee Mann. It's perfect. Even if you hate Magnolia or find it self-indulgent (and a lot of people do) you can't deny that it's unforgettable. A major reason why is the music. This is the first of two P.T. Anderson films that will be appearing on this list.

8. "Where Is My Mind," Pixies (Fight Club)
It's shameful for me to admit now but I wasn't that familiar with the Pixies were before the infamous strains of "Where Is My Mind?" blasted during the final moments of one of the best films of the '90's, David Fincher's Fight Club. There's no better choice to accompany one of the bleakest, most catastrophic endings of a motion picture you're ever likely to see. And when it's happening this is the song we hear. It couldn't be more fitting, both the song and its title.

What Fincher is an expert at is using famous songs sparingly, but when he does use them it's done perfectly at just the right time and has an unbelievable effect. When we hear them in his movies it almost takes a second to recognize because it engulfs the film so deeply. His use of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" in The Game and more recently Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" in Zodiac both almost made this list. I picked this one though because in the context of the film it's the best of the three, as agonizing as it was to choose. And I'm sure Fincher isn't even close to done with supplying us more memorable music moments in his films.

7. "Mad World," Gary Jules (Donnie Darko)

I usually hate it when a film ends with a song. It just feels so contrived and obvious most of the time. This, on the other hand, is one of those rare exceptions. I can't even picture the ending of Donnie Darko without Gary Jules' hauntingly beautiful cover of Tears For Fears "Mad World" accompanying it. The main character has made the ultimate sacrifice and when Jules' song kicks up we realize we were watching something much more than just a clever time travel movie. It gives the story an added emotional pull that takes it over the top and makes it heartbreaking. Up until that point it was a very good film, but that helped make it a great, moving one. And it's a rare cover that's superior to the original, extracting something out of the song we never knew existed.

6. "Singin In The Rain," Gene Kelly (A Clockwork Orange)
I'm cheating a little here since the song isn't actually played during the scene, just sung by one of the characters. But as we know that doesn't make its appearance any less memorable. When Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of droogs break into the old man's house and rape his wife it's a brutal, uncomfortable moment. But when, out of nowhere, Alex starts singing the most famous of all American movie musical numbers it becomes a sick, depraved one and Stanley Kubrick literally takes the song away from Gene Kelly and claims it as his own.

Before 1971 this song invoked warm and fuzzy feelings. Since then all it's done is produce nightmares. I've actually met people who think the "Singin' In The Rain" originated in this film, and honestly, I can't say I blame them. In a way, it kind of did. Supposedly Anthony Burgess was unhappy with what Kubrick did to his book, precisely because of scenes like this. But whether he likes it or not, it paid off because we're still talking about it over thirty years later.

5. "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon," Urge Overkill (Pulp Fiction)
The reason this isn't ranked higher is only because Pulp Fiction is a movie that uses all its music so brilliantly throughout the film as a whole rather than being remembered for one particular song in a scene. "Son of a Preacher Man," "Let's Stay Together," "Flowers on the Wall." The list goes on and on. You could make an argument for any one of those making this list and if I didn't have to pick just one I could have filled the entire top 10 with songs from this film. It's unquestionably the greatest motion picture soundtrack of all-time. I just picked Urge Overkill's cover of "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" because it just sticks out in my mind as the most memorable, which is really saying a lot with a soundtrack like this.

When Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) hits "PLAY" on the tape deck even if you've heard the song before it feels like the first time. Could there possibly be a more appropriate song for that character to play at that moment? If there is, I can't think of any, or at least Tarantino won't let us. I have no idea whether Neil Diamond was approached by Tarantino about using his version for the film and turned him down. If he did, then he's a moron. But it all worked out for the best because Urge Overkill's is better.

4. "Stuck In the Middle (With You)," Steelers Wheels (Reservoir Dogs)
"Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right." You knew this one was appearing on the list. It's funny because before Quentin Tarantino employed Steelers Wheels "Stuck In The Middle With You" so memorably in his directorial debut no one had ever really heard of it. Now you can't flip on any classic rock station in the country without hearing it. That's because of Reservoir Dogs. And that's why Tarantino is so damn good. His love and knowledge of music runs just as deep as that for film and when the two converge it's something very special.

Tarantino is known for having resurrected the careers of washed up actors like John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster and David Carradine but it's hardly ever mentioned what he's done for all these obscure or underappreciated musical artists like Steelers Wheels. Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) playing this song while cutting a man's ear off is brilliant on about a thousand different levels.

3. "In Your Eyes," Peter Gabriel (Say Anything)
I wonder how Peter Gabriel feels about the fact that no matter what he accomplishes in his career he'll always be remembered for his "In Your Eyes" blasting from Lloyd Dobler's boom box. And how does John Cusack feel knowing that no matter what role he plays, THAT will be the one for which he's most remembered? I'm guessing they're both pretty pissed about it, but they shouldn't be. They should be proud and honored to have been part of it. Is the scene syrupy? Yes. Is it corny? Absolutely. But no one could ever claim Cameron Crowe's seminal teen flick doesn't earn every second of it. It's ironic that in a film called Say Anything the most memorable moment comes when the main character lets the music do all the talking for him.

2. "Mrs. Robinson," Simon and Garfunkel (The Graduate)

Imagine you're a songwriter named Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel and you're assigned a task, one that pays a considerable amount of money. Come up with some songs for Mike Nichols coming-of-age film about a recent college graduate (Dustin Hoffman) who's seduced by the sexy mother of his girlfriend. And then you come up with THAT. Sure it was a very good film, but I don't think anyone would be discussing it now, nor would it have ended up on the American Film Institute's list of 100 greatest movies if not for Simon and Garfunkel's most famous song.

It wasn't just the perfect song for the film or the moment. It was the perfect song for that period in our country. I think we take for granted just how good it is because it's become so ingrained in our the fabric of our American culture. How many other songs from movies can you say that about? Another one of their musical contributions that opened film, "The Sounds of Silence" isn't too far behind. Upon the film's release in 1967 Roger Ebert called Simon and Garfunkel's soundtrack "forgettable." Oops. I guess even Ebert's entitled to an off day.

1. "Sister Christian," Night Ranger (Boogie Nights)

The stage is set: Dirk (Donnie Wahlberg), Reed (John C. Reilly) and Todd (Thomas Jane) arrive at the house of the insane, strung out Rashad Jackson (superbly played by Alfred Molina) for a drug deal that's about to go very bad. The tension builds. Firecrackers go off. A song is blasting from Rashad's stereo. It's… "SISTER CHRISTIAN?" Paul Thomas Anderson's ode to skinema is full of big risks but his choice of this forgotten '80's power ballad is the biggest, and most brilliant. It's just kind of song this crazed creep would listen to. How about when he tells everyone to shut up when the chorus comes? Classic.

There may be more "respectable" choices on here but I don't care. This is the best. What's interesting about it is it really isn't the focus of the scene, but a character in it. It may be tough initially to recognize just how much it adds because it blends in so seamlessly, but I'm betting if we played the scene without the song everything would seem different and nearly all the emotional energy would be drained. It plays as big a role in the scene's success, if not bigger, than anyone acting in it.

One of the many reasons I put this in the top spot is most of the other choices were songs pretty much everyone loved, even before their appearance in that particular film. Previously, if Night Ranger's Sister Christian had come on the radio I'm sure many would probably switch the dial, writing it off as cheesy 80's corporate rock. I know I would have. What was our problem? How could we be so wrong? And thanks to Anderson I can now admit that without embarrassment (or at least a whole lot less than before).

It takes only a moment for him to change our perception of the song, redefine a band's legacy and lift his film to even greater heights. He takes a dorky song and makes it cool, giving us a case study on how to effectively use music in a motion picture. In fact, the soundtrack to this film is so strong they actually had to come out with a second volume. I have both and also harbor no shame in blasting Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" (which also appears in that same scene) as loud as I can.

Part of me thinks I only posted this blog to profess my love for this song and actually first got the idea to compile this list when listening to my ipod and discovering out of the thousands of songs on it, guess which is the most played? Even after hearing it half a million times I still get chills up and down my spine and get as excited as Rashad when that chorus kicks in. I'm kind of pissed that The Game came out in 1997 so I couldn't name this masterpiece (which has aged VERY, VERY WELL) as the best film of that year. Heather Graham AND Julianne Moore. Burt Reynolds in the greatest role of his career. Night Ranger. It doesn't get any better than this.

Honorable Mention: "Everybody's Talkin," Harry Nilsson (Midnight Cowboy), "Trouble" and "If You Want to Sing Out," Cat Stevens (Harold and Maude), "America," Simon and Garfunkel (Almost Famous), "Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen (Wayne's World), "Sounds of Silence," Simon and Garfunkel (The Graduate), Every Song from Pulp Fiction "Secret Garden," Bruce Springsteen (Jerry Maguire), "Hurdy, Gurdy Man," Donovan (Zodiac), "White Rabbit," Jefferson Airplane (The Game), "Miracles," Jefferson Starship (Crank), "Without You," Harry Nilsson (The Rules of Attraction), "Hip To Be Square," Huey Lewis and The News (American Psycho), "Against The Wind," Bob Seger (Forrest Gump), "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head, B.J. Thomas (Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid), "Layla (Piano Exit)," Derek And The Dominos (Goodfellas), "I'm Shipping Up To Boston," Dropkick Murphys (The Departed), "Comfortably Numb," Roger Waters feat. Van Morrison And The Band (The Departed), "New Slang," The Shins (Garden State)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Mr. Woodcock

Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Seann William Scott, Susan Sarandon, Amy Poehler, Melissa Sagemiller, Ethan Suplee
Running Time: 87 min.

Rating: PG-13

*** (out of ****)

We've all had a teacher like Jasper Woodcock at some point during our lives. Also at some point we've all shaken our heads in disbelief as seemingly attractive and intelligent women actually marry guys like him. If you're as unlucky as the main character in this film maybe one of those women was your mom. It's that glimmer of recognition and other clever life observations that make the humor in Mr. Woodcock work. You could tell yourself that the movie is exaggerating or takes things too far, but if it is, it's not by much. Teachers like Woodcock exist and they're often rewarded for their despicable behavior because either people are too dumb to notice or afraid to do anything about it.

Much to my amazement, the movie takes this situation and rather than exploit it with silly sight gags or toilet humor instead looks at it intelligently and mines laughs from the absurdity of everyday life. Despite what its off-color title may suggest, other than some sexual innuendo, this is a comedy that the whole family can enjoy together and also delivers a positive message without pandering to its audience. Most importantly, all the actors look like they're having a great time, except for Billy Bob Thornton who, as usual, is paid to look like he's not. It's a role he's mastered and even if you're sick of it by now, there's no one who does it better.

As a child John Farley (Seann William Scott) was tormented daily by his sadistic gym teacher, Mr. Woodcock (Thornton). Constantly harassed about his weight and even forced to do pull-ups in his underwear he somehow managed to overcome this childhood trauma and become a successful self-help guru and bestselling author ala Tony Robbins. His book, titled "Letting Go" gave inspiration to millions hoping to let go of their pasts and reach their full potentials. Fresh off his book tour, John returns to his mid-west hometown to be honored by the community for his accomplishments and take part in the annual "Cornival." He instead comes home to a terrifying reality: His widowed mom Beverly (Susan Sarandon) is dating Mr. Woodcock. What the film does with this information is a good example of what differentiates a smart comedy script from a stupid one. Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert wrote a surprisingly smart one.

You'd probably expect the rest of the movie to consist of John conjuring up sick, disgusting schemes to break up Woodcock and his mom with Woodcock retaliating and making his life hell again. But actually John approaches the problem logically, as any of us would, and Woodcock doesn't let John's slowly growing hysteria over the situation get to him one bit. Thornton plays it as straight as he would if he were in an Oscar nominated drama, which just makes everything that much funnier. Rather than relying on gross-out gags director Craig Gillespie lets the situation do the work and relies on the two actors to play off one another, which they do quite well.

The movie also goes unburdened with useless, distracting sub-plots and gets a lot of details right regarding small-town life. That hot girl you went to grade school with does eventually become a teacher there and that old buddy from your class still works at the pizza place. This stuff happens…all the time. It'll be 20 years later and no one has left the town. It's funny because it's so true. John's budding relationship with his crush (played by Melissa Sagemiller) isn't shoved down our throats, nor does it just exist for John to make a blubbering fool out of himself as it would any other comedy. It can't really go anywhere because while he's convinced everyone else he's let go of the past, he hasn't fully convinced himself. I liked how they're just two people at different places in their lives and it doesn't work out. That's how it goes sometimes. The script doesn't go for any unnecessary fireworks that would potentially distract from the main storyline.

You'd understand how a community that celebrates structure would be blind to Woodcock's sadistic behavior and even want to honor him. And honestly, how many times in your life have you seen complete assholes praised for their "accomplishments?" I'm sure too many instances to name. In one hilarious scene he torments the elderly, but you'd see why they'd appreciate it because they finally have someone who won't talk down to them and treat them like everyone else. Think of how smart it was for the screenwriters to subtly slide that detail in there. It changes everything. The movie's send-up of the self-help profession is a highlight, with Seann William Scott being not only likable, but surprisingly believable as a motivational speaker and bestselling self-help author. Amy Poehler also has some really funny scenes as his high-strung alcoholic agent.

Thornton finds a way to slide some humanity into the performance, so Woodcock comes very close but stops just short of going too far. Well, okay he does go too far but we accept it in this context. The way he plays him he seems more like a guy with an anti-social disorder and major baggage than just an evil jerk. People like this exist. If any other actress but Susan Sarandon was playing the lovelorn Beverly I'm convinced we wouldn't buy it. She somehow makes us believe she would fall for this guy without looking like a complete idiot. The underrated script knows that sometimes people are so caught up in the idea of being in love they ignore their partner's obvious character flaws. And yes, even if those flaws are as reprehensible as Mr. Woodcock's. It also knows that some act differently around those they care about to the point that they can seem like a completely different person.

For a change, the characters don't undergo a huge transformation overnight that results in a contrived ending. They still have their problems and have to learn to tolerate one another and work through them. Other than one grandstanding gag I was amazed how restrained and intelligent the finale was for this type of movie. With Bad Santa, The Bad News Bears and School for Scoundrels Billy Bob Thornton has been accused of playing variations the same role over and over again. While I agree that it's definitely time for him to move on to something new, there's a little more depth to it this time around and he can take some credit for supplying it. Mr. Woodcock may not be a great film, but it doesn't do much wrong and is consistently entertaining. That's a lot more than you could say for most of the other comedies released these days.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Good Luck Chuck

Director: Mark Helrich
Starring: Dane Cook, Jessica Alba, Dan Fogler, Ellia English, Chelan Simmons, Sasha Pieterse

Running Time: 96 Min.

Rating: R

** (out of ****)

I like to think I go into every film objectively, but who am I kidding? When you go into something like Good Luck Chuck there comes with it a certain set of expectations and not all of them are good. Especially when it stars two celebrities like Dane Cook and Jessica Alba who have so far proven themselves unworthy of being referred to as anything other than just "celebrities." This film does very little to change that and didn't go far at all in exceeding my already low expectations. I anticipated it being bad but I think what surprised me most was the manner in which was.

Cook is Chuck Logan, a dentist who in his adolescence has a hex put on him by a goth girl he rejected at a "Spin The Bottle" party in 1985. Now every woman he sleeps with falls in love and marries the next guy she dates after him. The secret gets out and girls are banging down his door. Of course, only in the movies would that be considered any kind of "curse." The only person who actually seems to recognize this is his best friend, Stu (Dan Fogler), resident plastic surgeon and pervert. That he's a plastic surgeon is a much more important detail in this film than it should be and a fact Stu not so subtly reminds us of throughout. Come to think of it, Stu is incapable of doing or saying anything "subtly."

The full effect of this hex is felt when Chuck meets and dates the clumsy but beautiful Cam (Alba) who he meets at his ex-girlfriend's wedding. She's prone to pratfalls, an unnecessary addition to josh Stolberg and Scott Glenn's already somewhat brainless script and a joke that's executed about 15 times too many during the course of the picture. It gets very, very tiresome. She's also a penguin keeper at the local zoo, one of the few details I enjoyed in the film. I like penguins because they're funny without ever trying to be, something you can't say about any of the humans in this picture. So now Chuck's problem is that if he sleeps with Cam he'll lose her for good. But how can he NOT sleep with her? It's Jessica Alba! So now Chuck (with help from Stu) has to figure out how to reverse this curse or at the least find some way around it. You probably won't be surprised to hear that the results of this are often vulgar and disgusting, lacking even the slightest hint of wit or intelligence on the part of screenwriters.

Considering the commercials and trailers for the film (which marketed it as a light romantic comedy) it really came out of left field how crude and crass it ended up being. There isn't a single scene that doesn't feature people either talking about sex or having it. Nearly every woman (except for Alba) appears topless and I was starting to think my copy of Good Luck Chuck was replaced with a soft-core porno. Don't get me wrong I'm not usually one to look a gift horse in the mouth but here it comes off strange and creepy. Besides the tone being way off, the way it's presented by director Mark Helrich is actually disturbing and uncomfortable. Imagine if a light, fluffy comedy like You've Got Mail was interrupted mid-film by a Boogie Nights training video. The obvious inspiration for this was raunchy R rated comedies like Wedding Crashers and Knocked Up, but all it does is succeed in imitating the misogynist spirit of the latter without any of the heart. In all fairness, even Knocked Up (which I didn't enjoy) was better than this. Not by much though. If your idea of a good time is watching Dan Fogler pleasure himself with a melon I'm sure you'll have a blast.

Jessica Alba is actually fine here. She's cute and adorable, which is really all she needs to be. She's in her comfort zone with this role and far from the biggest problem in the picture. But before she uncorks the champagne and starts celebrating not being awful for a change I still say she desperately needs to take this time off to sit down with her agent and have a long talk. In the past year or so you may have noticed the public's perception of her has slowly shifted from "She so hot!" to "Wow, she can't act at all." Unless she finds better projects with directors who will push her to improve as an actress she'll have problems because moviegoers are starting to catch on.

Cook, on the other hand, is woefully miscast. He has many critics but in his defense with this and Employee of the Month he hasn't exactly been given the greatest material or leading ladies. I don't think he's a bad actor but he's one that gives off a certain vibe and unless he's cast in the right role he won't be effective. He excels when playing a leech in a supporting role like in Mr. Brooks, but when we're asked to root for him as an underdog in a light comedy it doesn't work because he comes off as a womanizing creep. He has zero chemistry with Alba and they give off no sparks at all. Hilariously enough, he has better chemistry with the actresses who play the myriad of topless women who appear throughout the picture, one of whom (Chelan Simmons) is blessed with considerably more charisma and even looks better than Alba. She probably would have been a better choice for the lead.

The film's real horror is my old pal from Balls of Fury, Dan Fogler. It's never one person's fault that a movie fails but Fogler's performance here is as close as you're ever going to get. Every line of dialogue he shrieks and each word he yelps is like a hammer to the skull. The sole purpose of his presence in the film is to annoy the hell out of us. Mission accomplished. Scariest of all, this Tony-Award Winning star of stage and screen is actually set to play Alfred Hitchcock in the upcoming film, Number 13 later this year. The "Master of Suspense" is shaking in his grave I'm sure.

I have to admit there was one scene I found hysterical. It occurs toward the end and involves airport security. Although I'm not sure what it says when the actor playing the airport security guard gives a better performance than just about anyone else in the film. As bad as this movie is I'd still rank it above other comic disasters like Cook's own aforementioned Employee of the Month or something like The Heartbreak Kid because it did take risks and I wasn't bored. Just occasionally repulsed. The kindest thing I could say about Good Luck Chuck is at least it failed memorably, and not at all how I expected it to.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Death Sentence

Director: James Wan
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kelly Preston, Garrett Hedlund, Matt O' Leary, Aisha Tyler, John Goodman

Running Time: 106 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

If Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs were updated but lobotomized, we'd be left with something similar to Death Sentence, the latest film to put audiences in the uncomfortable position of cheering revenge killings. It takes a serious issue and exploits it for thrills and violence. Some of you may even be tricked into thinking you're watching something of value because of Kevin Bacon's phenomenal performance and your own perspective on the deep issues NOT being tackled by this film.

At times the movie is shameless and deplorable almost to the point where I had difficulty just getting through it. It's an unpleasant experience, but maybe that's how it was supposed to be. But as much as it pains me I have to say the film's almost recommendable because of that aforementioned lead performance and the fact it's well-made and frequently very exciting. But if anyone thinks they can convince me it contains an anti-violence message or is making any kind of social commentary I'm not biting. This movie is against violence about much as Scarface is a "Just Say No To Drugs" Public Service Announcement.

I, like many other film fans, try as often as possible to defend filmmakers against attacks from crazed watchdog groups looking to censor violence in cinema. It's times like this though when I feel let down and they make me look like a fool for doing it. Despite Bacon's best efforts to convey more this movie has only a single message and it's a scary one I can only hope audiences choose not to take home with them: When in pain and confronted with a problem, just pick up a gun and start firing. The message isn't intentional, but it's delivered nonetheless.

It's not that the movie doesn't acknowledge that the behavior is wrong. Of course it is. That's understood. The problem is in the way it's presented and glorified throughout the course of the picture while conveniently skimming past the real psychological ramifications of the situation. That it comes from the same director of Saw ends ups up being of little surprise because James Wan shoots this in a similar tone and style to that horror film. Except this time the story hits way too close to home to do that.

Nick Hume (Bacon) is a risk assessment executive with two sons and a beautiful wife (Kelly Preston) whose life is turned upside down when he and his eldest son, Brendan (Garrett Hedlund) stop at a gas station at the wrong end of town following a hockey game. While Nick fills the tank, Brendan runs in to get a drink and is brutally murdered by a street gang staging a hold up. If you've seen any of the trailers or commercials for this movie you know what comes next and it happens pretty much exactly how you'd expect it to. Other than Nick's testimony there isn't enough evidence to convict Brendan's assailant, much less even go to trial so he walks and Nick takes the law into his own hands, becoming a one-man vigilante killing machine hell-bent on revenge. At first he seems surprised at his own actions and in disbelief at what he's gotten himself tangled in with this vicious gang. But his feelings quickly wear off and we're treated to some spectacular shoot-outs and chase scenes, particularly a heart-pounding one through a parking garage that left me on the edge of my seat.

The movie is exciting and I really do see what it was trying do but unfortunately there's a feeling that there's a real disconnect between the intentions of Ian Jeffers screenplay (which is loosely based on Death Wish author Brian Garfield's 1975 novel) and what Wan shows on screen. They introduce a gut-wrenching scenario early on and make a promise of an involving drama, even book ending the film with home movie footage of Nick and his family. As each scene progresses though the movie turns uglier and moves further away from the thought provoking issue we began with and reveals itself to be more of an action vehicle along the lines of Crank or Shoot 'Em Up, except meaner in tone. There's a big twist about three quarters of the way through the film that caught me off guard but it exists only as an excuse to take the violence to even greater heights.

Part of the problem with this film is that there's no one worth rooting for. Our sympathy for Bacon's character dwindles by each passing second as he selfishly puts his family in danger and we certainly can't empathize with the gang members who murdered his son. The reaction to Nick's behavior from the other characters is strange. First of all, no one at work even seems to notice or care that Nick is walking around bruised and battered all the time for some strange reason. Even when a gang member shows up at work everyone seems to shrug it off as it being "just another day at the office." Does this guy have any friends? Shouldn't they be concerned he's involved in something deep and dangerous here? He also finds a way to murder gang members in broad daylight in a big city without anyone noticing or thinking to call the police.

Although I don't think I'd call the police either if I knew they'd be as laid-back as Aisha Tyler's Detective Wallis. She knows exactly what's going on yet only sporadically appears to give Nick a slap on the wrist and a stern warning. Um…he's murdering people. Shouldn't she arrest him? It's no wonder crime in this city is so bad. But the filmmakers can't be bothered with these little details because that would interrupt all the killings which have been so much fun to watch. There's another supporting character, a sick, depraved gun seller played by John Goodman who fits into this movie like a glove. He has a bizarre exchange with Nick that's actually the closest the film comes to exploring the issues that are simmering just below the surface.

I had mentioned Straw Dogs, the 1971 film starring Dustin Hoffman as a American mathematician traveling abroad whose wife is raped and terrorized by a gang of low lifes. I hesitate even invoking the name of that masterpiece in a review for this film but a comparison is valid. That movie explored the psychological impact of the event on its main character and we slowly saw the pain eat away at him until he couldn't take it anymore and slowly became what he hated most. Perhaps if Nick's character underwent a slower, subtler transformation like that the story would have had more of an impact. Instead he just starts killing people senselessly.

Bacon does his best with the role but if you want to see an intelligent Kevin Bacon film that deals with an important social issue seriously, rent The Woodsman instead. This isn't a meditation on revenge and I think it's fooled people into thinking otherwise because it's a controversial topic that inspires people to bring their own strong beliefs into the film with them. Any intelligence in the film is provided by those watching it and Bacon's dedication, not in the script or in Wan's over-the-top handling of it.

As frustrated as I am with the film it did provoke a very strong reaction in me which is never, under any circumstances, a bad thing. I'd much rather walk away from a film angry than feel nothing at all, which was the case with too many other movies this past year. It pushed my buttons so I have to give it credit for that.

I also have to credit to James Wan for not just falling back on the success of the Saw franchise and getting out after the first film to try other projects. It would have been easy for him to just sit back and coast on the success of that for the rest of his career. He's already proven he has one great film in him, but unfortunately this wasn't his second. Many critics unfairly and short-sightedly labeled Saw as "torture porn" but ironically that label may be better suited to this film. If you think about it, Saw actually had more to say about the value of human life than Death Sentence, which dishes out a different kind of emotional torture to its audience.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

3:10 To Yuma

Director: James Mangold
Starring: Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Logan Lerman, Ben Foster, Dallas Roberts, Peter Fonda, Vinessa Shaw, Alan Tudyk, Gretchen Mol, Luke Wilson

Running Time: 122 min.
Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

Years from now movie buffs and film historians will look back on James Mangold's remake of the classic 1950's Western, 3:10 To Yuma as the rare opportunity to watch two acting legends square off. It'll rank alongside such memorable moments as the Pacino/DeNiro face off in Heat only this takes it a step further. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale don't just share one measely scene in this film.

We get everything we hoped for as two of our finest actors give each other and us everything they have for 2 straight hours and it's a testament to their performances that when it's over it's the story that's remembered most. You can add to that mix another actor who, if his work this year is any indication, may soon be joining their elite company, and we have one hell of a motion picture experience.

There are certain genres, like war and espionage films, I generally tend to stay away from because my interest in the subject matter is low. Westerns are a different story. I always had an interest in them but my exposure was limited and, with very few exceptions, they seemed to have gone out of style in the past two decades, making a bit of a comeback only recently. As I was watching this film it occurred to me just how much I missed them and how truly great and exhilarating they can be when executed well.

So for those tentative about going into Western, don't think of it as one. It could better be classified as The Departed, set in the West as it shares many of that film's qualities thematically. The best in the genre aren't about gunfights or cowboy hats, but are morality plays that explore the thin line between good and evil and the importance of standing up for what you believe is just. They're about honor. It seems simple and clichéd when I type it, but it actually isn't at all. There's nothing simple about this story or the characters in it, at least not in the way that this magnificent film grippingly presents it.

Dan Evans (Bale) is an impoverished rancher who lost his foot in the Civil War and is struggling to make ends meet for his wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) and two young sons. His situation worsens when his ranch is burnt to the ground by two henchmen of a man to whom Dan owes money. The next day while herding cattle Dan and his sons witness the violent robbery of a stagecoach by notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Crowe) and they discover the sole survivor of the ambush, seriously wounded bounty hunter Byron McElroy (Peter Fonda).

In desperate need of cash and about to lose his land to the railroad Dan agrees to join McElroy, Sheriff Butterfield (Dallas Roberts) and Doc Potter (Alan Tudyk) for a fee of $200 to accompany Wade to Contention where he'll be put on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison and await hanging. But Wade has other plans, as does his posse now led by his right-hand man, the psychotic Charlie Prince (an electrifying Ben Foster). Dan needs the money to keep his home and family together, but must also consider whether the reward is worth the price if his widow is left to care for their sons alone. Dan is just a crippled rancher, not law enforcement, and has no business being involved with someone as dangerous as Wade. The chances of him surviving this journey are slim to none.

Motivating Dan further, however, is the fact that his eldest son William (Logan Lerman) views his father as a weak coward incapable of standing up for himself. William is so disappointed and has such little faith in his father that the overambitious teen even continuously demands to come along for help despite his dad's adamant objections. Dan's involvement in escorting Wade to Contention with the rest of the men never goes where we think it will, nor does his complicated relationship with his son, or most importantly, his even more complicated relationship with the ruthless Wade. I can't say I was shocked how it all went down but I was shocked at how conflicted I became about the characters on the journey and how emotionally powerful the final minutes of this picture were.

Everything about this film is perfect and at its center is the relationship between Dan and Wade and how both actors choose to play it. They're not friends but they're not exactly enemies either and the casting of Crowe and Bale in these roles was brilliant and isn't done as a vanity project for the stars or a stab at stunt casting. It serves the material every step of the way. You can feel the tension as they're both on opposite sides of the law, but there's also strong mutual respect between two men who are really much more alike than different as far as their goals. How each go about reaching them is a different story. That mutual respect and tension changes in ways I won't reveal throughout the picture and the beauty of the casting choices is that you can't help but wonder if the complicated relationship between the two characters mirrored the one between Crowe and Bale on set (where supposedly they got along really well).

In one of the most memorable scenes the outlaw Wade joins the Evans family for dinner and Alice remarks that he Wade wasn't at all what she expected him to be. He's not what we expected either as Crowe manages to make this cold-blooded killer come off as polite, respectful, intelligent and even likable. Not too likable though and that's where it's to the film's benefit to have an actor like Crowe playing the role and knowing just how much is too much. Praising him is becoming old hat by now, but it's nice when a role like this comes along to remind us just how good he really is. He leaves it all right there on screen and this is one of his most subdued and nuanced performances.

It's also a rare treat to see Bale in a role we're not accustomed to: that of a weak, defeated man. He owns it and believably conveys his slow transformation throughout this journey. When this was over I had to wonder just how much longer Bale can continue giving performances like this (and the one in Rescue Dawn earlier in the year) without being recognized with an Academy Award nomination. There's no doubt he'll get one eventually and when the day comes it'll be that much more meaningful knowing he left behind a body of work that includes performances like this.

The relationship between Dan and his son is heartbreaking not only because of the boy's low opinion of his father but the prospect that this teen could one day turn into the man Wade has become. It's a very real and scary prospect that's alluded to many times throughout the film. Lerman plays William exceptionally, holding his own with the two best at the top of their games. It would be an intimidating situation for any young actor, but watching his work here you'd never know it.

As good as Crowe and Bale are though, they're both nearly upstaged by Ben Foster, whose threatening presence holds this movie captive. Every word he speaks and action he takes literally shakes you to the core. What's most amazing is his Charlie Prince doesn't even have all that much screen time over the course of the film but Foster makes every second of contained menace count. It's the quality, not quantity.

One of the great benefits of seeing so many movies is getting to follow the career trajectory of all these actors, some of whom really end up surprising you. I don't think anyone would have guessed that Foster, a graduate of such films as the forgettable teen comedy Get Over It, would morph himself into an actor of such force. When the Oscar nominations are announced on January 22nd one thing that would have me jumping out of my seat would be hearing his name announced as a nominee for Best Supporting Actor for his work here or his equally powerful turn in Alpha Dog early last year. Take your pick. Either performance is deserving.

Watching this film it occurred to me that James Mangold, dating all the way back to Cop Land over a decade ago, might be the only director who actually improves with each outing. Walk The Line may always remain my favorite film of his but there's little argument on my end that this is his personal best. Having not seen the original 1957 film (which itself was based on an Elmore Leonard short story) I've heard that this expands the scope of the tale, giving us more details and motivation. I believe it and if this wasn't such a crowded year, a film like this would usually be a lock for a Best Picture nod.

It's a throwback to a time in movies when the story, not computer generated special effects, were the reason audiences came to the theaters. It's all done right and feels authentic. Everything from Marco Beltrami's score to the gorgeous cinematography. There's even a Fonda in it for good measure. The return of the Western has to be one of the more positive developments to come out of Hollywood in recent years and I'm curious to see how the year's other big Western, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford fares against this. It definitely has its work cut out for it. So those thinking of staying away from 3:10 To Yuma and writing it off just merely an accurate recreation or faithful re-imagining of a genre left for dead years ago, think again. This is the real thing.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

2007 Year-End Awards

I have to say doing this really brought back memories (some traumatic) of the year in film for 2007. I can't say it was a great year but everyone has assurred me that's only because all the great movies have been released in the past two months and I haven't seen them yet. You'll get reviews of those in 2008. Before anyone says that I have 2006 releases on here let me point out that these awards include movies I either saw or REVIEWED in 2007.

You Liked it, I Didn't: 300, Hairspray, Waitress, Black Snake Moan

I Liked it, You Didn't: Spider-Man 3, Georgia Rule, Mr. Brooks

The Whole Country Liked it, I Didn't: Knocked Up

Most Overrated Comedy: Knocked Up

Most Underrated Comedy: Hot Rod

Most Underrated Drama: Mr. Brooks

Most Overrated Performance By An Actress in a Comedy: Katherine Heigl (Knocked Up)

Most Underrated Performance By An Actress in a Comedy: Leslie Mann (Knocked Up)

Worst Lead Performance By An Actress in a Comedy:
Malin Akerman (The Heartbreak Kid)

Worst Performance By An Actor in a Dramatic Role: Matthew McConaughey (We Are Marshall)

Worst Lead Performance By An Actor in a Comedy: Dan Fogler (Balls of Fury)

Worst Supporting Performance By an Actor in a Comedy: John Travolta (Hairspray)

Best Summer Action Popcorn Movie: Live Free or Die Hard

Separated at Birth Award: Déjà vu, Premonition and Next

"Sorry, it wasn't THAT good" Award: Hot Fuzz

Most Polarizing Movie of The Year (TIE): Smokin' Aces and Shoot 'Em Up

Most Disappointing Movie of the Year: Saw IV

Funniest Comedy of the Year: Superbad

Unintentional Comedy of the Year:

The Robin Williams Award For Worst Comedy of the Year: Balls of Fury (barely edging out Williams' own License To Wed)

Most Overrated Clive Owen Movie:
Children of Men

Most Underrated Clive Owen Movie: Shoot 'Em Up

Most Needlessly Convoluted Screenplay of the Year:

"I'm Hot But I Can't Act" Award (Tie): Jessica Alba (Fantastic Four: Rise of The Silver Surfer) and Jessica Biel (Next)

"I'm Hot, But I CAN act" Award: Sarah Roemer (Disturbia)

"I Need a New Agent" Award (Actor): Nicolas Cage (Ghost Rider and Next)

"I Need a New Agent" Award (Actress): Mandy Moore (License To Wed)

Best Cure for Insomnia: Angelina Jolie (A Might Heart and The Good Shepherd)

The Dame Judi Dench/Chronicles of Riddick Quick Payday Award: Julianne Moore (Next)

Should Be Nominated For Best Actor But Won't: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Lookout)

Should be Nominated For Best Supporting Actor But Won't: Jeff Daniels (The Lookout)

Should Be Nominated For Best Picture But Won't: Zodiac

Shouldn't Be nominated For Best Actress But Might
: Keri Russell (Waitress)

Best "Torture Porn" of the Year: Hostel Part 2

Worst "Torture Porn" of the Year: I Know Who Killed Me

Most Welcome Return To Form: Kevin Costner in Mr. Brooks

Best Remake: Halloween

Worst Remake (TIE): The Heartbreak Kid and The Hitcher

The Whole Really is Greater Than The Sum of Its Parts Award: Grindhouse

Best Twist Ending: Smokin' Aces

Worst Twist Ending: Saw IV

Most Laughable Twist Ending: Perfect Stranger

Biggest Cheat of an Ending: The Prestige

Best Cameo: Alan Thicke (Yes, THAT Alan Thicke) in Alpha Dog

Best Performance as a Convicted Pedophile in a Motion Picture:
Jackie Earl Haley (Little Children)

Best Performance by a Convicted Pedophile in a Motion Picture: Jeffrey Jones (Who's Your Caddy?)

Best Wardrobe Decision: Mary Elizabeth Winstead's cheerleader outfit in Death Proof

Worst Wardrobe Decision: Sharon Stone's fat suit in Alpha Dog

"There's No Way This Movie Can Be As Good as Its Trailer " Award: Across The Universe

Most Hilariously Titled Movie: In The Land of Women

Gutsiest Filmmaking: Craig Brewer for Black Snake Moan

Coolest Villain: Maggie Q (Live Free or Die Hard)

Lamest Villain: Wes Bentley (Ghost Rider)

Creepiest Villain: Frank Whaley (Vacancy)

William Hurt Award For Best Performance in a Single Scene: John Carroll Lynch (Zodiac)

Best Body Part: Megan Fox's tummy (and everything else) in Transformers

Worst Body Part:
Lindsay Lohan's robotic hand in I Know Who Killed Me

Best Performance By a Director: Kevin Smith in Live Free or Die Hard

Worst Performance By a Director (TIE): Quentin Tarantino (Planet Terror and Death Proof), Eli Roth (Death Proof)

Guiltiest Pleasure of The Year: Shoot 'Em Up

Future Cult Trash Classic:
Alpha Dog

Worst WWE Film: The Marine

Least Worst (I Refuse to say "Best") WWE Film: The Condemned

"Hollywood Fluff" Award: Ocean's Thirteen

"Wow, He Can Really Act" Award: Justin Timberlake (Black Snake Moan and Alpha Dog)

Best Score: Clint Mansell (The Fountain)

Movie I Desperately Wanted To See and Review But Didn't: Southland Tales

Sign of the Apocalypse Award: The box office success of films like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Sign There May Still Be Hope: The box office failure of "timely" political dramas like Lions For Lambs, The Kingdom, In The Valley of Elah, and Rendition.

Movie I Most Enjoyed Reviewing:

Movie I Least Enjoyed Reviewing:
The Good Shepherd

Best Movie I Didn't See or Review (TIE):
Bug and Breach

Movie I'm Most Looking Forward to in 2008 (Tie):
The Dark Knight and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Monday, January 7, 2008

Shoot 'Em Up

Director: Michael Davis
Starring: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Belucci, Stephen McHattie
Running Time: 86 min.

Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

Whenever I review a film I ask myself one question first: DOES IT SUCCEED IN WHAT IT'S TRYING TO DO? For those perplexed by the star rating you see above I'd like to refer you back to that question. I am aware that Shoot 'Em Up is the most polarizing film of 2007 and I'm sure there are more than quite a few readers who would like to reach their hands through the computer screen and strangle me right now. But even those who absolutely despise the film can't argue that for what it is it's flawless. You may hate it, but you know it really gets the job done. It's the most appropriately titled film of the year and just seeing the title you probably know whether you're the type of person who would enjoy it. Who says there's no truth in advertising?

This is an overindulgent exercise in fearless, guerilla cinema and a glimpse into what happens when a studio takes off the handcuffs and removes any obstacles that could possibly make a movie not work. Everyone has free reigns and you almost feel guilty watching two actors of this high a caliber having so much damn fun. It's as if someone took Clive Owen's character from Children of Men and inserted him into Smokin' Aces, turning up the volume to the maximum degree.

The film is 86 minutes but it feels more like 6. It's so slickly edited and masterfully directed that excitement engulfs the screen in every single frame and not a moment drags. It may be the quickest movie I ever sat through and cinematic equivalent of injecting yourself with pure sugar. It's a crying shame that most actually took the film at face value and missed the funniest spoof of the action genre in years. Only it's smarter and more exciting than any of the John Woo films it's spoofing and could work not only as the best action movie of the year, but the best comedy. I was laughing so hard I was literally crying. It's pure joy from start to finish.

Opponents of this film have argued that if you took away the spectacular action sequences and the ballet of bullets that fill its running time you'd be left with nothing. Of course you would. That's the point. Let's be honest here: You don't go into a movie called Shoot 'Em Up expecting a deep meditation on life. But you know what? The plot is actually very good, the dialogue is sharp and there are some surprises. The movie opens with the mysterious and grumpy Mr. Smith (Owen) sitting on a park bench sipping his coffee and eating his carrot when he's unwillingly thrust into a dangerous situation involving a hitman known as Hertz (Paul Giamatti) and the pregnant woman he's after.

The movie gets down to business right away without pausing so much as a second to introduce any characters or take a breather. The level of forward moving momentum the story has is unmatched, which is well established in just the opening seconds. After delivering the woman's baby amidst a hail of bullets Smith is left to care for the infant that Hertz so desperately wants to get his hands on for a reason that will soon become very clear. The loner Smith calls upon the only help he knows, a lactating hooker (Monica Belucci) who he hopes can look after the child. With the determined Hertz and his henchmen on their tale things don't exactly work out as planned and what unfolds are some of the craziest, hilarious and memorable shoot-outs you'll ever see.

I love it when a movie shows me things I've never seen before and the action scenes in this film had me jumping up and down on my couch screaming. This Smith guy sure knows how to handle a firearm as he's able to shoot anything and anyone from some absolutely insane angles. I've actually heard some criticize this movie because the action is "implausible." Again... that's the point. Smith pulls a brilliant trick out of his hat involving a car windshield that just left me with my mouth wide open. Just when you think this guy can't possibly get out of a situation he'll pull off something else you haven't seen before.

It's really sick how many endlessly creative and inventive ways he finds to shoot people and director Michael Davis films it as if it's poetry in motion. And I haven't even mentioned the baby. He does most of this while carrying "it," as he so lovingly refers to the little one. As if the scenes weren't hilarious enough already. And the movie is smart too. Smart enough to cut to reaction shots of the baby as all this is happening. Smart enough to have the characters make little life observations like Smith complaining about how rich people drive or Hertz lamenting about his marital problems. Hertz's interaction and ribbing of his henchmen is classic. As clever as Smith is, Hertz is always right there along with him being the rare villain in this kind of movie who makes smart decisions. The cat-and-mouse game between them feels epic and losing isn't an option. It's just not in their nature. The movie doesn't let up even in its final minutes, ending in a parade of gunfire.

Usually after an actor is nominated for or wins an Academy Award their career can go in one of two directions. It can go the way of someone like Cate Blanchett, who's used it as a springboard to even more prestigious, Oscar-worthy roles, or it can go the direction of Nicolas Cage, who's used it to earn bigger paydays with mainstream blockbusters. But then I remembered… Clive Owen and Paul Giamatti have never won Academy Awards. Both have been nominated in the supporting actor category (for Closer and Cinderella Man, respectively) but lost. But it does sure seem like, based on their resumes, both should have Oscars by now.

Their names on the movie poster mean you're almost always getting something of high-class quality. Watching both of them together in this is a rare treat and is the equivalent of Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman headlining Saw V. It's ironic then that while they're supposedly "lowering" themselves in mainstream fare, Owen and Giamatti deliver two of their most entertaining performances. For some reason Owen gets some flack for playing the same role (that of Clive Owen) over and over again, but why complain when he does it so well? There's a scene in the film where we finally find out details of Mr. Smith's past and when we hear them it isn't anything we didn't already know. That's because we could read those details ON OWEN'S FACE AND THEY WERE PRESENT IN THE PERFORMANCE from the very beginning.

Giamatti doesn't look at all like your typical hitman, but that just enhances the mesmerizing, scene-devouring power of the performance. But the real joy of it is how despite being a sick, sadistic bastard he still gives off the vibe that this character would be a cool guy to go out and have a beer with. I was always a fan of Giamatti but this performance only increases my appreciation of his skills ten-fold. Who knew he had this in him? It was so much fun watching him let go, having such a good of a time. Forget about Sideways, he deserves a nomination... FOR THIS! I wouldn't mind seeing him tackle similar roles in the future provided he doesn't start abusing the privilege like Cage has. Monica Belucci plays the least important role in the film, but she does a fine job. She has a massive, drooling fan base and even they're given a special treat in this film. The movie has it all: Sex, violence, and, in one memorable instance, both simultaneously in the same scene. And it isn't hiding behind fancy airs or pretending to be something it's not. This is just balls-to-the-wall non-stop excitement.

Having never heard of the film's director, I looked him up and discovered that Michael Davis did direct another movie I liked, 2000's little-seen romantic comedy 100 Girls. This is about as far from that film as you can get. You may as well call this 100,000 Bullets. But I do think it says something that he's a director capable of making two such radically disparate films. How many filmmakers can claim to have two good titles in complete opposite genres on their resume? This guy is definitely someone to watch. I'm aware that I may take some heat for praising this when I bashed 300 but that film actually had the nerve to pretend it was something of substance when it was just a robotic videogame of killings. This is inventive, purposeful filmmaking. I'm not mystified why such a risk-taking film would show up on a lot of lists of the years worst. It'll probably be showing up on a list of mine too, just not that one.

Anyone who hates it owes me no explanation. I get it. It isn't for everyone. But so many movies these days are afraid to go all the way. This one pushes the envelope and just when you think it can't push it any more it goes even further. My only regret about the film was that I had a free pass to see it in theaters, but didn't. I'm sure it would have been twice as enjoyable on the big screen. It joins Crank as one of the best adrenaline fueled action rushes of recent years. If you loved that movie, you'll love this. Even if I'm afraid to know what it says about me that I enjoyed it this much.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Heartbreak Kid

Directors: Bobby and Peter Farrelly
Starring: Ben Stiller, Michelle Monaghan, Malin Akerman, Jerry Stiller, Robb Corddry, Carlos Mencia

Running Time: 115 min.

Rating: R

** (out of ****)

The Heartbreak Kid is a flat, lifeless comedy that's easily one of the worst efforts of the Farrelly Brothers' previously successful careers. They can take pride in the fact that they didn't write the script this time so at least some of the blame falls elsewhere. At its center is maybe the most annoying, obnoxious character to appear on screen this year. Every second we spend with her is infinitely more painful for us than the almost equally unlikable main character in the film. Very early on I found myself impatiently counting down the minutes to when Michelle Monaghan would come in and attempt to save the film, thinking that she'd really have her work cut out for her this time.

Unsurprisingly, things get significantly better upon her arrival but it lasts only a fleeting moment, as the stupidity of the screenplay kicks into overdrive again just in time for the final act. It's here where a movie that started as just a somewhat realistically grounded exercise in stupidity makes a huge detour into insane fantasyland, taking all the actors with it. This is a remake of the 1972 comedy starring Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd and I don't think it's unfair of me to say, despite having never seen the original, that it must be far superior to this. It even seems to have been made with a certain degree of laziness and it's the first of the Farrelly films that should have gone direct-to-DVD. The only reason anyone could have any interest in seeing this is because of Monaghan, who deserves a medal of honor for somehow managing to give a good performance in a film this bad.

Eddie Kantro (Ben Stiller) is a single sporting goods store owner unlucky at love, drowning his sorrows at his ex-girlfriend's wedding where he's the unwitting subject of the groom's toast. That toast, and his seating placement at the event, are pretty much the only laughs we get during this entire picture. Unfortunately both are out of the way within the first five minutes and there's still over ninety left to go. With his father (Jerry Stiller) hounding him about his inability to find a good woman and settle down things do start to look up. After coming to the aid of beautiful young purse snatching victim, Lila (Malin Akerman) they eventually start seeing each other and he gives into temptation, marrying her on a whim despite having only dated her for a couple of weeks. It's on their way to the honeymoon that this movie goes straight to hell.

It soon becomes painfully obvious to Eddie (and unfortunately us as well) that Lila is a complete lunatic. Why this revelation is just now coming to the surface I have no idea. What were they doing the whole time they were dating? Lila's borderline psychotic tendencies are so over-the-top and unbelievable you'd think they'd have presented themselves right away. This isn't just a case of someone misrepresenting themselves. They go many steps too far when the lame-brained screenplay has Lila reveal all these irritating facets of her personality. No one would ever behave like this, but more importantly, it's not humorous. Sure, Eddie has to put up with it...but so do we.

Then there's the awful, grating performance of Akerman that deserves Razzie Award consideration. I could call her a Cameron Diaz clone (since she was only cast because of the slight physical resemblance) but that would be an insult to a talented actress with charisma. Even if you're not a Diaz fan, you will be after you witness Akerman's lifeless imitation of her. By casting a look alike the Farrelly Brothers hoped to recapture the magic of There's Something About Mary. Except that movie was funny.

It's on their honeymoon that Eddie runs into Miranda (Monaghan) and because she's so likable the film does have a little streak going in the middle act where it's actually quite good. The encounters with her feel real because she actually seems like a real person and for just a moment the movie accurately captures that feeling when you're on vacation and meet someone that completely floors you. Naturalness is a tough quality to convey but Monaghan makes it look easy, confirming suspicions that Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang wasn't a fluke and she deserves a promotion to the A-list.

Even her family seem like regular, everyday people not stereotyped movie characters. They interact with each other like real family members would and the jokes they shared amongst one another were funny, unlike much of the crude humor that permeates through the rest of the film. This got my hopes up that things were actually taking a more intelligent turn. Those hopes were smashed when the movie goes off the deep end reminding us that Stiller's character is a selfish, two-timing creep.

As bad as Lila is, Eddie's worse, lying, stringing her along, and seeing this other woman behind her back. Even worse he's lying to Miranda and her family, the only likable characters in the movie. And we're supposed to root for this guy? Of course the time will come when Eddie's double dealing is exposed to both women and the consequences were far stupider than I could have imagined in even my wildest dreams. The last half hour of the film is just a train wreck.

I'm sure I'm making this sound worse than it is only because I expect so much more from talents like Bobby and Peter Farrelly. The tone of the film is also off. It seems like a really lightweight romantic comedy but then, out of nowhere, an unusually crude or hurtful comment would come out of a character's mouth or something really gross would occur. The Farellys are usually good at balancing this type of thing, but here it seems like someone took a PG-rated script and scribbled profanities on it with a red magic marker. Comedian Carlos Mencia has a small, unfunny role in the film. I don't know much about him other than that I heard his comedy is supposedly edgy. Nothing about this movie is edgy.

I did realize something very important while watching this: Ben Stiller just isn't believable playing a nice guy. There's this undercurrent of nastiness to all his behaviors and mannerisms and he has problems conveying sincerity. It's been a trend throughout his career and if you look back, all his effective comic roles have been as villains. Even when he just cameos as a nefarious character (like in Happy Gilmore or The Cable Guy) he's far more successful.

Stiller has no chemistry with either of the female leads, something you could easily justify with Akerman, but that he has none with Monaghan is pathetic. No excuses on that one. She'd be able to create chemistry with a brick wall. By the end of The Heartbreak Kid I was thinking my time would have been better spent watching a career retrospective on professional wrestler Shawn Michaels. Yes, love blows. And so does this movie.