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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Jackass 3D

Title: Jackass 3D

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: October 15th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

When Forrest Gump coined the phrase "Stupid is as stupid does," maybe this is what he was talking about.

When Jackass first aired on the MTV network ten years ago, it quickly became the talk of the pop culture media and its stars became celebrities overnight. Some people were offended. While the stunts on the show were creative, they were far from classy and were often stomach-turning. It was seen as a sign of the times and an example of how low our standards for humor have fallen. Other people thought it was the greatest thing to ever hit television. Although each episode only had a twenty minute running time excluding advertisements, parties and social gatherings revolved around the anticipation of what these crazy people would do next. The network named their Sunday night lineup "Jackass Sunday" as a nod to its off-the-charts popularity.

Ironically, its popularity is what doomed the show to a short lifespan. Because a good portion of the programming revolved around the cast pulling candid camera style pranks on the general public, the success rate dropped to a low level because their faces were easily recognizable. Performing stunts became difficult too because of all the fans crowding around to see the action.

Jackass was given a much needed break before returning with grand fashion in 2002 as a feature length movie (which operated as a ninety minute episode). To compensate for their still existing popularity, many stunts were filmed in places where they were less likely to be recognized such as Japan. It grossed over eleven million dollars.

After the movie's release, the cast went their separate ways for a while. The series' main star Johnny Knoxville began a successful movie career while others became involved in spin-off projects that resembled the juvenile humor of Jackass. The cast reunited for a second film in 2006 that earned almost twice as much revenue as the previous project, proving that there was still an audience for the franchise despite the long gap in exposure.

Two weeks ago to this writing date, Jackass returned again, this time boasting state-of-the-art 3D effects so fans can get even closer to the messy action. As a long time follower of the group, my experience watching this is best described as jaw dropping, disturbing, disgusting, degenerate and flat out fun. In other words, it's exactly what a Jackass fan wants to see.

The premiere was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which should tell you a number of things. Among them should be that someone somewhere considers the stunts performed in this film to be artistic and that the definition of art is now more subjective than ever. In a strange way, I can actually see some of the reasoning behind it. Jackass has never been a project where a hand held camera was turned on and they filmed whatever they felt like shooting. Almost nothing is done "on-the-fly." Things are carefully planned down to the cast members' starting position to where the cameras are placed to capture the action. There are some stunts that don't even need explaining for the audience to know what is coming. One scene begins with a shot of Steve-O wearing only his underwear standing behind of a baseball tee that has a revolving lever attached to it. At the end of the lever is a metal ball the size of a standard baseball. And standing next to the tee is another cast member with a baseball bat in his hands. Put two and two together and you will quickly realize that what's about to happen will not end well.

Other stunts find beauty in the unexpected. In the opening skit, unsuspecting cast members are individually brought upstairs in an office building, thinking that they are simply fulfilling a delivery request. As they enter the room where the item is to be delivered, Jason "Wee Man" Acuna welcomes them with a shout-out of "High five!"; the signal. A gigantic hand comes swinging around the corner and the victim is knocked off his feet like a Looney Tunes character.

And then there's the material that is created to shock you with how sick and twisted the humor can be. The world we live in is so crazy that some people had an idea to launch someone trapped in a portable toilet high up into the air, video capture the volunteer and all the loose human waste that covers him, release the footage in a three dimensional format to give the illusion of being trapped in the toilet with him, and other people would pay money to have the pleasure of watching. Pushing the envelope is the key to drawing interest. It takes advantage of the public's desire to see something, anything, that they haven't seen before. It's shameless. It knows it. And most fans won't have it any other way.

The 3D effects bring new insanity to the madness. The hits are more painful and the gross stuff is extra disgusting. It does not however, make the stunts funnier. The "art" behind Jackass is all about the moment, not how one witnesses the moment. So by that reasoning, you can consider the 3D effects to be a luxury option for admiring the set-ups if you happen to get a high paycheck that week. It's certainly not mandatory for the laugh factor.

Here are some other things that can enhance the experience. Bring along friends. The more the merrier. If a particular stunt isn't appealing, you might still laugh at the reaction of another person. Have a good hearty meal at least an hour before the show starts and give yourself equal time after the movie. Just because the cast gets nauseous at times doesn't mean you have to. Keep telling yourself that it's okay to laugh at other people's pain. It was a risk they accepted beforehand. You have no moral responsibility here.

The last and most important rule: Never try any of these stunts at home. The movie is called Jackass for a reason.

Rating: 7

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Title: A Nightmare on Elm Street

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: October 13th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

When the news broke that the planned Freddy versus Jason sequel had been scrapped in favor of rebooting both of the respective horror franchises, I was disappointed and a little excited at the same time. Even though the Nightmare on Elm Street series had strayed far from his frightening roots in later sequels and often crossed the line into self-parody, I still found the Freddy Krueger character to be incredibly intriguing and entertaining even when the studios weren't taking him seriously at all. As far as the Friday the 13th series went, there was less to sacrifice and much more to gain. Its star character Jason Voorhees had a great look but acted as carbon-copy as horror villains could be. Any sort of reboot would be a step above the franchise that launched this character's popularity.

When the 2009 Friday the 13th movie was released, it killed (no pun intended) any optimism I had regarding New Line's decision to restart the franchises. Sure, it was better than the 1980 cult classic. That didn't take much effort. But it took no risks nor did it justify a reason to separate itself from the original series. It was a remake in name only and could have easily been just another sequel. If this dismissive attitude is what they had in store for the new Nightmare franchise, there was plenty of reason to worry.

After a good thirty minutes into watching this new Nightmare, I breathed a sigh of relief and realized that things were going to be okay. It reminds me how sometimes the production crew can make a bigger difference than the studio label. The movie won't be a classic but it does exhibit a surprising amount of respect for the path that Wes Craven paved to make this one happen.

The original setup hasn't changed. To the world, Freddy Krueger doesn't exist. But for a few select teenagers, he is as real as the bed they sleep in. One at a time, these kids get slashed apart while they dream, killing them in reality. After realizing that they all are dreaming of the same person, the survivors try to discover the meaning behind the madness in an effort to save themselves from becoming Freddy's next victim.

Freddy is played by Jackie Earle Haley, taking over the role made famous by Robert Englund who had played the character in all eight previous Nightmare movies. Unlike Jason Voorhees, Freddy has a personality and a dark sense of humor. This time around, the character returns to his roots in the way Wes Craven wrote him. He is more interested in making his victims feel terror than cranking out one-liners and chasing them through elaborate set pieces. His backstory is also given a more thorough examination through flashbacks. Freddy wasn't always a monster. He was once a normal human being, working as a gardener at a preschool. And he loved children so much that the parents would become concerned over how much alone time he spent with them. The concern turned into growing paranoia until one day Freddy found himself trapped in a warehouse with all the angry adult residents of Elm Street surrounding it. One of them throws in a burning torch that results in the building getting engulfed in flames with Freddy burning to death.

Save for an unnecessary revealing moment in the finale, we do not know if Freddy is really guilty of a crime or not. This assists in making his character all the more interesting. Neither us or the victims are quite sure what to make of this maniac who has somehow found a way to enter the dreams of all the children that he interacted with at that preschool and murder them in revenge.

Director Samuel Bayer does an exceptional job presenting the atmosphere of Freddy's nightmare realm. Especially when you take into consideration that his prior filmography consisted solely of rock music videos. Funny how a lot of rock artists seem to have an affection for horror films. Day turns to night and night turns to darker nights faster than it takes to realize that you have fallen asleep. What's missing is the doubt that the audience needs to feel over whether what they are seeing is reality or the dream world. The overblown shadows make it far too obvious when the characters are really in danger. So what lacked in the psychological scare department needed to be made up for in atmosphere and general anticipation of what would happen next. This is where the film is strongest.

The use of "jump scares" is the most overdone technique in horror films. It's the best way to get a six year old to scream and the best way to get a seasoned movie watcher to roll his/her eyes. In this sort of movie, it's actually a very welcoming feature. Still overdone perhaps, but it's necessary to hammer in the idea that we are watching a dream world. Think back to any nightmares that you may have experienced in your own life. Chances are, most of the time you were awakened with a "jolt" where you reacted to an event that would have been traumatic had the experience been real. The characters in this movie are "jolted" back to reality if they are lucky enough to survive the night. It's all part of the atmosphere psychology that's necessary to sell the audience into suspending disbelief.

Since so much focus was placed on the atmosphere, it also had to sacrifice development of the Freddy Krueger character. Even with the new backstory, I was still left wanting more. My wishes may be answered soon since it was recently confirmed that a sequel in on the way. It's clear that Haley studied the character closely and possibly even changed himself a bit to do him justice. Many of his lines were improvised and he has all the mannerisms down to the ever important claw threats nailed down perfectly. Having said that and no matter how unfair it may be, I think I still prefer Englund's work since he demonstrated such versatility with Freddy's personality. His unpredictable nature is a valuable asset to this "anything goes" idea that the franchise is all about. Haley and Bayer however still have time to swing my opinion.

For the always important death scenes, longtime fans of the franchise might be pleased to see some familiar scenarios being reworked with new special effects to improve its credibility. Others may be upset at the lack of new ideas. My hunch is that Bayer and the writers wanted to show appropriate homage to the series first before letting loose with their own creativity in future installments. I hope they do not make me regret giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Unlike the revisiting of the Camp Crystal Lake killer, this new Nightmare franchise seems to be heading somewhere. And better, it seems aware of what has succeeded in the past and what needs to be reinvented. When Freddy makes his next return to the big screen, let's hope to see some big dreamers behind the scenes with him.

Rating: 8

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Robin Hood

Title: Robin Hood

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: October 10th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott reunite for the umpteenth time in a new variation of the Robin Hood legend. Just in case the trailer didn't make it obvious enough, there is no campiness to be found here. It's grounded and gritty but offers little that hasn't been seen before.

The film operates as a prologue of sorts. Crowe's portrayal of Robin Longstride is not of the famed outlaw that most pop culture aficionados have engraved in their minds. It is actually the story of his transformation into that familiar image.

As a soldier serving under the watchful eye of King Richard, Robin draws attention to himself after engaging in a brawl with a fellow comrade, his future right-hand man; Little John. When confronted about the situation, Robin takes the blame despite not being the one that instigated the fight. Sir Godfrey takes his questioning a step further and dares Robin to share his honest thoughts regarding the Crusade mission. He obliges and denounces everything, insisting that the last battle that claimed the lives of many Muslims had turned them all into barbarians. Insulted by the brutal honesty, the king confines Robin and his clique into the stockades.

In the midst of an attack, Robin and his crew are freed and Sir Robert Loxley is killed in the battle. Before passing on, he gets Robin to agree to carry out his dying wish; returning Loxley's stolen sword to its rightful owner; his father.

After this point, the film devolves into a rather vague setup of how Robin Hood leads an uprising against Sir Godfrey and becomes a rogue hero to Nottingham. Events are plentiful but most are not given the focus that they demand.

The movie works off a checklist. Lady Marion and Friar Tuck introductions? Check. Russell Crowe acting coldly in the way only Russell Crowe can? Check. An epic battle between the anti-hero and an army of carbon-copy villains? Check. An inspiring speech spoken by the anti-hero before said battle? Check. A final jaw dropping kill followed by a sequel invitation? Oh yes.

It feels more like Braveheart-lite than a Robin Hood film. I could have saved a lot of time and simply used that sentence in place of a full review but it would be an insult to the movie's professionalism. There is nothing wrong with Ridley Scott's style. He just needs to find a compatible dipping sauce to go with his breadsticks. Then he would really be on to something. You can argue that sauce is only a bonus item and doesn't really mean much if the bread is delicious enough. But you'd be ignoring the fact that the adventure genre is just as widely distributed as breadsticks. You need a special touch to earn a fanbase that can stay with you after the first meal or movie. Robin Hood doesn't have that. So it's just a generic breadstick.

The preceding weird paragraph was the result of A: Writer's block and B: Lack of nourishment today. Forgive me, folks. Sometimes these things are too overpowering. But maybe if the movie was interesting to watch, it wouldn't have been a problem.

A newer serious Robin Hood would have been a welcome addition had the result not ended up so cliche. Scott's efforts are admirable but there was too little to work with when it came to making a lasting impression. If the foreshadowed sequel does get produced, it needs to be bigger and bolder. Playing it safe is not always the best choice and I'm sure Robin Hood himself would agree.

Rating: 5

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Title: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: October 9th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

The following review has the potential to be mistaken for a thank-you card. There are times when my giddy affection for a movie can take over my objectivity. In the case this turns out to be one of those times, I would like to apologize beforehand while I am still sane enough to do so. In fact, I'll get my thanks out of the way first just to get it off the checklist.

Thank you, Terry Gilliam. I really needed this.

Set in London during an unspecified time period when everyone dressed in costumes more likely to be found at a Renaissance festival than the actual Renaissance, the titled Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his family of entertainers are the stars of their own traveling magic show, much like the kind found at carnivals. Except of course the magic is real. The Doctor's already extraordinary mind has the power to be linked to other minds. His show offers volunteers the chance to enter the Imaginarium room to explore a fantasy world from their own imaginations. A morality choice awaits them at the end of their journey. Making the correct choice would purify their minds and let them live life without care. The wrong choice would doom them. It's a system of conscious hypnosis.

Times are tough for the old doctor. And I mean OLD. His age is close to a thousand years. When you can brag that you outlived Yoda, you're the king of senior citizens for sure. How could he have lived so long? The trick is more complex than vitamin supplements. Long ago, he made a deal with the devil (Those never end well.) and won immortality. When he met his true love, a second deal was made that granted him youth. This one had a price attached. His first born child would become the devil's property when he/she reached the age of sixteen. The time leading up to the fateful day is soon approaching and the Doctor is mentally out of sorts. His fifteen-year-old daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) has her future hanging in the balance.

Following a show gone awry, the Doctor's family discover the body of a mysterious stranger (Heath Ledger) hanging from a rope underneath a bridge. After pulling him to safety, the stranger awakens without any memory of the events that led up to his attempted execution. He joins the cast of the traveling show and uses his charm to help maximize their revenue. Around this time, the devil returns to haunt the Doctor and claim his female prize. A third deal is wagered and it depended on the next Imaginarium volunteers. If five of them realize purification through their morality choices, Valentina will be spared. If five souls are collected by wrong choices first, Valentina will be collected.

The stranger's mysterious past begins to unravel at the most inconvenient of times. But he may be their only hope to influence five souls before the devil does.

Heath Ledger passed away before the filming of his scenes could be completed. Fortunately, the project was salvageable thanks to the story's fantasy rules. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all appear in different scenes as Ledger's character inside the Imaginarium. To maintain continuity, each of the stranger's journeys inside these worlds are explored through different personalities designed to sway each subject's soul to the desired rite of passage. According to reports, the work provided by the three replacement actors was motivated solely by their respect for the late Heath Ledger. No payments were accepted.

Ledger himself still seemed to be detoxing himself from his Joker role. Some of his mannerisms gave off an eccentric vibe that seemed out of place. But this was in no way a poor performance. He delivered the right kind of charisma that this "tweener" character needed to be liked by the audience and irritating to his companions.

If you're the type of film fan that values creativity over everything else, this is the perfect movie for you. Early on, the story clues us in that real world rules do not apply and anything could happen at any time. Within five minutes, we already watch our first spectator take on their quest in the Imaginarium. The entire movie is full of Terry Gilliam's trademark quirkiness but the Imaginarium scenes are what steals the show, even from the actors. It's like watching an art painting with vibrant color overtones coming to life. According to interviews, several real paintings were the inspiration for some settings. Some of my more purist friends would slap me for even suggesting such a thing, but I would have loved to put on 3D glasses to enter these wonderful worlds. The presentation style almost looks three-dimensional by itself anyway. Why not make it official?

How cool is it to see Verne Troyer get a decent role again? He's actually doing things instead of getting kicked around all movie long. Good for him.

The writing is pretty solid and only shows signs of disorientation toward the finale. While not bad by any means, the ending was doomed to be a letdown since it had such a tough act to follow.

This movie was such a great way to rebound my mood after watching the uninspired Remember Me the night before. After the film had finished, a special line of text appeared on the screen.

A film from Heath Ledger and friends.

Whoa, hold on a minute. Just exactly how many "friends" do I need to write thank-you cards for?

Rating: 8

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Remember Me

Title: Remember Me

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: October 6th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Robert Pattinson leaves the vampire make-up at home in this real world drama set in New York City at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Pattinson plays Tyler Hawkins, a twenty-one year old university student with a seemingly permanent chip on his shoulder. The only person he does not treat with contempt is his young sister Caroline (Ruby Jerins). Most of his family-related stress stems from the bullying classmates in Caroline's life and his business-oriented father's (Pierce Brosnan) negligence.

Tyler's anger gets the best of him one night and he gets involved in a brawl outside a city bar. Police officer Neil Craig (Chris Cooper) is about to let Tyler off with a warning but pushes his button at the last moment, resulting in Tyler being jailed for aggressive behavior toward an officer.

After getting released on bail, a friend convinces Tyler to try and win over the affection of Neil's daughter Ally (Emilie De Ravin), a fellow university student. The intent is to coast through the relationship and eventually break her heart. It would be his act of revenge against Officer Neil.

Ally has a troubled life of her own. Due to her father's overprotective nature, she rarely gets along with him. Ten years ago, her mother was robbed and murdered in a subway station, causing her a phobia of underground transportation. A chance to be around Tyler would be a welcome distraction. Tyler soon grows to enjoy Ally's company and the relationship becomes legit. Now his only goal is to hide the truth so it won't blow up in his face. As time takes its course, the impossible nature of this way of life only grows more complicated.

It's bad enough that we have to endure a movie full of unlikable characters. When an unlikable situation is piled on top it, the result is an immensely irritating story. Tyler uses violence or property destruction as his solution to everything and doesn't even seem to grasp the meaning of authority. Of course, it doesn't help when every person of authority is portrayed as an airhead. Tyler's father doesn't even appear to be a part of the family tree and only shows interest in bonding after Tyler throws a fit of aggression directed toward Caroline's tormentors. Ally's father is a self-pitying community officer on a power trip. The whole romance between Ally and Tyler stays in poor taste and is never believable. The girl resists at first then changes her mind thirty seconds later even though the guy exhibits no genuine charm. It's mean-spirited and in a way, offensive. It portrays women as being too gullible and men as being egotistical.

Pattinson and Ravin do a good enough job of suppressing their native speech accents, but miss the mark on their most dramatic scenes. Pattinson's character eventually reaches an "enough is enough" breaking point with his father and confronts him in the presence of his business colleagues, pouring out his soul. It's supposed to be the moment where we can finally rally behind him. For whatever reason though, Tyler comes across as more pathetic than his antagonist father.

The words of Mahatma Gandhi are used as an attempt to draw symbolic meanings around these characters. Tyler opens his introduction scene by reciting these words: "Whatever you do in life will be insignificant. But it's very important that you do it." He agrees with the first part only. We wait all movie long to learn why the second part is supposed to be true. I'm still waiting and will wait forever thanks to the story's manipulative conclusion that all but erases the events that we are conditioned to care about.

This movie was first drawn to my attention after overhearing a bus ride conversation by a young lady who saw the film on opening weekend. The detail she discussed most was the ending. Having that spoiled for me is usually a pet peeve. This time however, it was ironic. I became more interested in seeing the film than if I did not have that advance knowledge. I wanted to see how the story's context could lead up a finale designed to be drastic. The short answer is it doesn't. The ending is foreshadowed several times, but never subtly enough to mean anything. The screenwriter insists that the ending was not "tacked on" but I remain unconvinced. The story is void of any spiritual or philosophical depth that can relate to the final events. It feels like it came from a different movie. The filmmakers must have realized that their story had no heart so they gave us this phony tear-jerking tactic to pretend that the movie is important.

Remember Me will only be remembered in my book as a movie that was too in love with itself. It's phony, manipulative and teaches us nothing.

Rating: 3

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Expendables

Title: The Expendables

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: October 4th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

The Expendables is louder than a Philadelphia sports venue and stars everyone on Sylvester Stallone's speed dial. It's about as formulaic as it gets and doesn't care in the least.

Stallone plays Barney Ross, the leader of an infamous and deadly group of mercenaries that call guessed it...The Expendables. His team receives deployment missions to various parts of the world but seem to mostly operate on their own. The latest mission takes Barney's team to the city of Vilena, ruled by evil dictator General Garza (David Zayas) and influenced by former CIA agent James Munroe (Eric Roberts). Ross' team is sent in to eliminate Garza from power, but things go awry enough for the mission to get aborted. Sandra (Giselle Itie), the team's initial contact and ally is revealed to be Garza's daughter, operating independently to protect her fellow citizens from her father's corruption.

After declining an opportunity to flee the city with the mercenaries, Sandra is arrested and tortured with execution being inevitable. After hearing a friend relate the situation to an old war story where a girl was left to die, Ross decides to return to Vilena for a rescue mission. And if they're lucky, Garza's posse won't live to see the aftermath.

There are several other subplots inserted into the script to coincide with the impressive cast list. They range from mildly interesting to laughably lame. Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Dolph Lundgren and Terry Crews (my cousin Andy and I both referred to him as "the guy in those Old Spice commercials" since we couldn't remember his name) all have roles as members of the Expendable mercenaries. Statham's character is trying to patch up a relationship that's hurt from all the time he spends away from home. Li's character is in financial trouble. Couture's character is bothered by a cauliflower ear. And Lundgren's character uses methods that are considered unacceptable by his teammates. These stories don't even have enough substance to sustain a generic television episode. So it's all the more bewildering to see them here. I admire the effort to give everyone a little background history. But in the end, they shouldn't have bothered. Nobody pays to see a movie like The Expendables for a character study. They pay to see explosions, guns and more explosions. All this side nonsense just slows things down.

The accompanying studio buzz that claimed that the movie was going to be an homage to 1980's action films is both true and misleading. Nearly all of the 80s icons are there and the plot is a disguise for the perfect action set-piece. But the style and overall tone is still very much present day, and not in a good way. Quite a surprise considering Stallone was supposedly the man behind the camera. Perhaps there was an uncredited ghost director somewhere? Far too many cut-away shots spoil the early fight scenes. Shaky cameras should not act as a substitute for excitement, only as an enhancement tool. The mood has the right amount of dark undertones but an uneven amount of comic relief. I was disappointed in not having any memorable one-liners to trade with friends for reference. We were instead given unoriginal jokes like cell phones interrupting a serious confrontation. There is enough of that happening in real life, so why would it be amusing to see in a movie?

The long promoted scene featuring Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis all sharing the same screen (or as I like to call it: Planet Hollywood The Movie) is a disappointment in itself. According to IMDB reports, Schwarzenegger and Willis agreed to work on a handshake deal out of their mutual friendship with Stallone. The scene was filmed in six hours. I'm surprised it took that long. It serves its purpose by setting up the plot but doesn't feel like anything more than a clever marketing tactic. At least we get to see friends helping out friends. That's always nice.

Stallone may be over the hill but his dangerous screen aura is just as strong as it was in 1982. In fact, the "it" factor that helped all of these stars earn their recognition in the first place never seems missing. So while some fans will inevitably be disappointed that their favorite hero didn't get as much screen time as they would have liked, they can be assured that all of them get at least one powerhouse punch in worthy of applause.

The final thirty minutes of the film is when the action goes for broke and unleashes all of the testosterone and heavy artillery that everyone wants to see. The action is significantly better during this third act. Enough so that it's almost alone worth the price of admission.

Even though my conscience cannot declare The Expendables to be a good picture by any standard, I would be lying if I said I was sorry for watching it. As my viewing companion was wise enough to point out, expectations need to be kept low and realistic. It's a movie made by men for men. It's like our version of Sex and the City. A stupid guilty pleasure. Too bad so much time is wasted on the ridiculous subplots. Otherwise it would have simply been a stupid pleasure.

Rating: 5

Friday, October 8, 2010

Rat Race

Title: Rat Race

Year of Release: 2001

Date Viewed: October 3rd, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Place your bets on your favorite comedian. They're about to race!

Helmed by one of the co-directors of Airplane, this loose re-imagining of 1963's It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World stars over a dozen actors that were popular in 2001 with only some retaining that popularity today. I don't really believe it's fair to draw a direct comparison between these two films. But if you insist on doing so, you can give the edge to Mad World for having the more reputable cast.

The story begins in Las Vegas, Nevada. We are introduced to a series of otherwise unconnected gamblers. Whoopi Goldberg and Lanai Chapman are a mother/daughter pair reuniting for the first time since their early separation. Jon Lovitz is an average family man in town to see a live David Copperfield performance. Seth Green and Vince Vieluf are brothers barely making ends meet hoping to catch their lucky break. Cuba Gooding Jr. is an NFL referee hiding out in Las Vegas to avoid the media that's mocking him for a recent controversy. Breckin Meyer is an uptight aspiring lawyer. And last but not least, Rowan Atkinson is a foreign visitor who keeps fumbling the English language in humorous ways.

All the characters win a special slot machine token that promises a "once in a lifetime opportunity." They are summoned by Vegas hotel owner and billionaire Donald Sinclair (John Cleese). They have all been randomly selected as contestants in his game. In Silver City New Mexico, there is a locker located in a train station that contains a bag with two million dollars in cash inside. Each of the contestants are given an identical matching key that opens up the locker. The individual or team that reaches the loot first gets to keep the entire prize while the rest go home empty-handed. There are no rules to the game. Reach the goal first by any means necessary.

Is this game just an exhibition of Sinclair's generosity? Of course not. As the uptight lawyer points out, there is always an angle. Sinclair is a gambler too. He is part of the highest rollers of Vegas that enjoy betting on anything and everything. To go into further detail would spoil some gags. This race is just one of the many things that his club are trying to bet and win big on.

That about sums up the plot. The rest is a nonstop fun ride involving planes, trains and automobiles. Sadly no John Hughes involvement though.

It's essentially a "one gag followed by another" kind of movie. The first fifteen minutes is agonizingly slow and would cause most watchers to wonder if they had invested in something beneath their intelligence level. But underneath all its zaniness, Rat Race is a patient film. The parts add up to the whole. Some scenes that seem pointless early on will have a payoff down the road. My favorite running gag involves Jon Lovitz's character losing his vehicle then hijacking an antique car formerly owned by Adolf Hitler's army. Trouble follows him and each situation is funnier than the last.

This is one of those comedies that I like to pull from the DVD shelves whenever I'm hosting company. It's amusing to watch how different people react to different material. Some scenes that you expect to draw laughs do not and vice versa. I feel obligated to warn that some of the gags are not for the easily offended. One friend almost walked out after watching Rowan Atkinson's character mishandle a human organ that was being transported for surgery. It might have hit a little too close to home. It's probably best to know your audience a little bit before suggesting this for an evening's entertainment.

Other gags simply wear out their welcome by the second half. Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character commandeers a tour bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators on their way to an I Love Lucy convention. Amusing at first, but I wanted to plug up my ears after the fourth "Lucy whine". Gooding himself is actually golden in this. Around the time of this movie's release, he had mainly been known for dramas and I remember being surprised at how good he was at making a panic attack funny.

The only seriously frustrating part is the finale. It almost works because it ties up all the loose ends, remains loyal to the characters who I grew to love, and ends on a welcome happy note. But it doesn't work because it is doomed to be forever dated with the pop culture that it's associated with. It's a glaring example of how studios can sell themselves out through commercialism at the cost of remaining timeless. I have not seen It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad world, but many film fanatics that I mingle with consider it to be a timeless classic. I sort of broke my own promise of not comparing the movies but I had to point out a reason for why Rat Race is not a classic despite having so much in common with its inspiration.

The moments of brilliance in Rat Race always make me forget about its shortcomings. That's why I enjoy revisiting it as often as I do. I would love to see some readers share their favorite moments if they feel inclined enough.

Rating: 7

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Title: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga-Hoole

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: September 30th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG

I wish everyone could have seen my surprise when I learned that the man responsible for the book-to-film adaptation of Legend of the Guardians was the same person that directed 300 and Watchmen; Zach Snyder. The studio went with the safer route by advertising this as "from the studio that brought you Happy Feet". Imagine if they had used a 300-esque trailer for the marketing campaign instead. It would have either become the most popular thing to hit YouTube or one large backfire. Or maybe both. Truth be told, Legend of the Guardians actually has more in common with those two graphic novels than the family-friendly story, minus the excessive sex and violence.

Almost every character in the film is an owl. At least on the outside. They behave as maturely as humans and face some real human issues. It reminds me of the strange but real "puppet therapy" that some dysfunctional families use to address some problems. There is something effecvtive about channeling your feelings through an inanimate object, or in this case a bird, that can make it easier to get a message across. Probably because it's simply unusual.

Our hero is named Soren (voice of Jim Sturgess), a young owl with the intelligence of a teenage human raised in a peaceful family. They spend many nights entertaining themselves with folk tales about the Guardians, a rogue group of warrior owls that act like wise Jedi Knights and vanquish evil wherever it lurks.

Evil hits home one day. Soren has a brother named Kludd (voice of Ryan Kwanten) whom he constantly quarrels with. One such confrontation was so physical that they both fall away from their tree home and crash into unknown territory. (Neither of them have learned to fly yet.) As a result, they are both abducted by a clan that hail from the city of St. Aggie. The clan has already kidnapped dozens of young owls and forced them into slavery or their own military.

Soren finds help and is able to escape captivity and fly to the city of Ga'Hoole where the famed Guardians of his childhood stories live ready and waiting for their next selfless act of heroism. The Guardians prepare themselves for a battle to save the good citizens while Soren faces his own battles; one of which is fighting his brainwashed brother now serving under evil.

What I liked most about the film was how the birds physically behaved in conjunction with their personalities. As I mentioned before, these characters have the intelligence of humans but their natural movement and mannerisms are true to their bird form. Very little is compromised for the sake of dramatics. Speaking of dramatics, there is plenty to see here. Slavery and child soldiers are not issues to be taken lightly and the film knows it.

But not everything is dark and gloomy. Bird lovers will want to reach out and hug these adorable creatures, especially during moments of peril. They also probably make up the main demographic of those that buy tickets to see this film. Comic relief is set up at different places channeled through the more innocent characters.

Much like real birds, most of the birds seen here have a fixed expression on their face carried through the entire story, changing only enough times to keep up with the tone changes. Jim Sturgess was a superb choice for the role of Soren since his voice compliments Soren's worried face so well. You have to be heartless not to wish good things upon this protagonist.

I watched the 3D version of this film, which turned out to be both a great choice and a frustrating one. This particular 3D presentation will not win over any new fans. But those that already appreciate the format will be pleased to see how smooth and often breathtaking the visuals are. The frustrating part involves the choice of POV shots during the flying scenes. Opportunities to showcase the scenery are brushed aside in favor of mug shots. It's admirable to watch a film that has its primary concern being the characters. But come on. These birds are flying! We need to share that sensation of flying and we can't do that by watching the characters journey toward the screen. Diverse angles were badly needed here.

Fortunately, the 3D proves it's worth during the climatic confrontation between the guardians and the slave-holders. I didn't think that an epic battle scene involving birds would be exciting. Good thing Zack Snyder had enough creativity to prove me wrong. Until this point, the film had felt a little too formulaic. The buildup and payoff to the final battle was enough to make it a winner.

Legend of the Guardians will probably surprise most who watch it. The poster makes it look purely like a children's film while the trailer makes it look too serious. Neither perception is really fair. The story tries hard to relate itself to a wide audience and I believe it mostly succeeds. Sometimes seeing really is believing.

Rating: 7

Cop Out

Title: Cop Out

Year of Release: 2010

Date Viewed: September 29th, 2010

MPAA Rating: R

Kevin Smith returns to the director's chair but not the writing desk for this 80's cop movie homage.

Our two best-buddy policemen are Bruce Willis as Jimmy Monroe and Tracy Morgan as Paul Hodges. Jimmy is a no-nonsense by-the-book detective with the skills to back up his words. Paul is mostly talk, does things his own way and never seems to be focused when he most needs to. If you've watched and enjoyed Rush Hour or Tango & Cash, you'll feel right at home here.

After a seek-and-capture mission goes wrong, Jimmy and Paul are both suspended for thirty days without pay. Jimmy has a crisis at home too. His daughter is recently engaged. Due to a divorce, the two have barely had a relationship. Jimmy still loves her enough to offer to pay for the wedding himself, but it's mostly just his way of sticking it to her dorky stepfather. To cover the costs, Jimmy heads to a pawn shop to sell a rare baseball collector's card worth upwards of eighty thousand dollars. Before the sale could take place, he is ambushed by a group of thugs employed by a sports memorabilia obsessed criminal.

Jimmy and Paul follow their leads to the gangster's hideout and embark on various misadventures to reclaim the valuable card and exact revenge, pay or no pay.

Although Kevin Smith did not write this film, his signature humor is fingerprinted everywhere. Pop culture is name-dropped by the characters; a style that counts entirely on audience recognition for laughs. Modern vocabulary is messed around with. Try not to laugh while watching the heated discussion full of curse words being self-censored to prevent a ten-year old kid from hearing them.

Even though most of the comedy works, the script is rather weak overall, which means that Willis and Morgan had to carry the film if it had any hopes of finding an audience. Willis has perfected a facial expression that reads "Are you freaking kidding me?". Every time I see it, I laugh like a middle school child. Morgan's shtick usually gets old fast but it helps that he splits the screentime with Willis, so he doesn't wear out his welcome too soon.

Just about all of the 80s cliches are here. Explosions that the heroes run away from just in time. The police chief growing frustrated with the heroes' tactics and threatening to fire them even though they get the job done better than anyone else. A love interest being fought over by everyone good and evil. Even the music score is given a retro sound, composed by synth master Harold Faltermeyer. The only thing missing is a colorful villain. In fact, the villains are so boring here that it felt like they were given too much exposure even though none of their personalities were fully developed. They should made up their minds before filming if they were going to try for an interesting subplot.

What is missing in the villain department is made up for with a hilarious supporting character played by Seann William Scott. He is primarily used as the heroes' scapegoat and it's entertaining to watch him still act conceited after all the embarrassing stuff he is put through. It's the perfect role for Scott and one of the best highlights.

The first half of the movie runs at a breezing pace with plenty of fun moments. The second half has a glaring lack of confidence in what had already been working okay. Willis and Morgan suddenly act disinterested and the story struggles to figure out a logical conclusion. The ending itself is eye-rolling bad.

80s homages seem to be becoming a genre in itself with how often they get greenlighted. The definitive nostalgic entertainment package has yet to be made. Cop Out stands as a middle ground attempt. Its good and bad qualities average out to a watchable product that is ultimately forgettable.

Rating: 6

Friday, October 1, 2010


Title: Creation

Year of Release: 2009

Date Viewed: September 29th, 2010

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Is it possible that God does not have a plan for everything? World renowned scientist Charles Darwin challenges the Almighty in the BBC-produced Creation. Evolution would have probably been a more sensible title, but Ivan Reitman already called dibs on that one.

Paul Bettany is cast as Darwin, portrayed here as a humble and worried man. His work as a scientist is just as important to him as family. He is embarking on a revolutionary task of discovering an alternative theory to the origin of life as we know it. His work is destined to become an influential research book titled "On the Origin of Species."

After his beloved eldest daughter Annie (Martha West) dies from complications related to Scarlet Fever, Darwin is unsure what kind of a sign it may be. Is God punishing him for daring to challenge his word? Or is the tragedy just further evidence that not everything happens for a reason?

Adding further stress in his life is Darwin's wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly), who uses her religious upbringing and dinner prayers to grieve over the loss of their daughter. Darwin came from religious background himself but is growing more distant from the weekly sermons as his research brings about new ideas. His goal is not to make anyone angry and he still respects his peers' beliefs. But his desire for truth is stronger than anything.

Darwin has such a difficult time coping with the loss of Annie that he begins to have hallucinations of her. Nightmares also arrive, one of which has Annie's ghost directly blaming him for her death. Torn between his family loyalty and his conscience, it may ultimately be up to Emma if "On the Origin of Species" will ever see the light of day.

Even though Darwin's story is a battle between science and religion, the movie focuses more on Darwin's struggles with himself. I was expecting and hoping for some interesting debates supporting the different points of view. Then I realized that a movie like that would end up redundant. All the information that can be learned on the theories can be easily researched. Spoon-feeding it to an audience would only cement the film as a college course visual aid. That's why it needed a story that cannot be found in a textbook. How one man tries to win the respect of both his colleagues and his skeptics.

We do not see Darwin in his lab very often. He spends most of his screen time communicating with his wife and daughter, alternating present and flashback scenes. Annie has a fascination with sad stories and requests her father to re-tell one of her favorite tales about an orangutan separated from its natural habitat. Emma is getting fed up with her husband's nightmares and demands that he seeks help. But what Darwin needs help with most is battling his religious dilemma. Loss of faith is never an easy thing to deal with and the movie captures this inner struggle very well.

Although I don't expect many people of faith to watch this movie, they should be aware that some manipulative plot devices are used. One such device helps justify Darwin's frustration with the church. A priest forces Annie to kneel in rock salt after she debates the creation process of some species with him. I have no doubt that many religious extremists like this priest exist, especially in Darwin's time. But since the movie has no pro-evolution characters who behave this intolerant, it becomes an uneven picture.

Bettany and Connelly have a much-needed positive chemistry. They ought to, as they are real life husband and wife. Their soap opera-esque scenes are well acted but suffer from overlong duration. The scenes between father and daughter are much better since they have a variety in narrative structure and Annie's personality is charming despite her dark traits. Most of the family conflict scenes work overall, so the movie works.

Whether you believe in Darwin's research or not, he deserves respect for his courage. The film does a good enough job elaborating that point. Not only did he have the gumption to challenge everything that his faith taught him, he gave it the middle finger. His devotion to the science he believed in was strong enough to overcome his fear of damnation. Even Darwin's church seemed to have recognized his strong character. According to the information provided by the film's epilogue, Darwin was buried at Westminster Abbey with full Christian honors.

Rating: 6