Thursday, May 29, 2008


If you’ve placed your finger on the critical pulse in the past week or so, you have probably heard from someone—friend, critic, or other—who has seen The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. And odds are, if you’ve heard from them, you’ve heard that they didn’t like it. As you might expect, those who didn’t like the first film don’t much care for this one. And actually, a lot of other people are saying that this sequel just isn’t as good as the first film, 2005’s The Lion,  the Witch, and the Wardrobe. So, critics aren’t liking it, audiences aren’t liking it, those who hated the first film aren’t liking it, and those who liked the first film aren’t liking it. And they're all right.

Prince Caspian is long, dull, and unimaginative, the exact antithesis of its predecessor. Where the first film was surprising and engaging, this film is predictable and leaden. Where the first film was delightful in its whimsy, this one is purely action-oriented, without any attention to the film’s characters and mythology. And while the first film was a sleeper hit even for an epic fantasy, nearly raking in a leggy $300-million domestic gross, this film won’t even come close.

But Prince Caspian is not just a failure when compared to the first film—it is a dud in its own right, too. It is a film that packs its overlong first half with dour exposition that ultimately explains nothing and builds no real drama. It then forces nearly non-stop epic battle sequences into its also-overlong second half. These sometimes good-looking, sometimes sloppy FX sequences are soulless and empty, relentlessly boring when they are intended to be increasingly riveting.

The child actors also can’t match their own work on the first film, though I refuse to blame them for that (with the exception of newcomer Ben Barnes, whose performance as the titular character is half dull and half atrocious). True blame belongs to Prince Caspian’s screenplay, which is a complete mess—it can never decide if it wants to focus on Caspian or the four Pevensie kids, and that indecision makes us care about precisely none of them. Likewise, the script can never decide if it wants to focus on drama or action, without realizing that there is a delicate balance to be struck between those two important elements.

Three years ago, when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was released, I was surprisingly satisfied that relative newbie Andrew Adamson (who had only ever directed animation before) delivered a strong epic fantasy that could satisfy children and adults on completely different levels. After Prince Caspian, it’s clear he wants to keep edging closer and closer to the PG-13 line, and in so doing has lost not only the potential for kid viewers, but also the heart of his material. He obviously wants to be compared to The Lord of the Rings, but can now only be compared to The Mummy or The Golden Compass.


Speed Racer is a revolutionary reinvention of everything we've come to understand as "cinema." It is also the defining film of Summer 2008, one that will influence the visual style of countless future films with similar aspirations.

But here's the rub: while the film will define this Summer season with the virtuosity of its stunning visual style, the film itself has failed in an attempt to fully define itself. As a result, audiences have not arrived in droves. In fact, it sort of seems like they've stayed away in droves. The film's unfortunate and unworthy box office result is not surprising, given the film's sheer, boundary-crushing, status quo-redefining visual palette. People never quite knew what to make of this weird, wild new world of bright colors, moving backgrounds, and incessantly visceral action sequences. However, time will be on Speed Racer's side. In the years to come, people will remember the impact and power of this film, perhaps even more so than the impact of massively successful and entirely different Iron Man.

The Wachowski Brothers, Andy and Larry, those wacky, audacious sibling directors who previously changed the action film landscape with The Matrix and its two sequels, return to their director's chairs for the first time in five bring us a bright, funny, PG-rated film for the whole family? It might seem like an odd fit, but the Wachowskis have never been big on "making things fit." Their specialty is redefining our expectations to fit their own brilliant vision. And Speed Racer is no exception.

Most of us are familiar with the original Speed cartoons, those fast-paced, high-intrigue blasts of retro-anime delight. And for years, several different filmmakers have entered the Speed Racer fray, attempting to bring the cartoon to full, big-sceen life--and then promptly exited said fray after failing to form a legitimate vision. Taking a few steps back to get a greater perspective, Speed Racer's long journey to the big screen is actually indicative of the much greater Hollywood conundrum: making a live-action version of the ever-expressive, ever-outlandish, ever-unreal world of Japanese anime. Japan has continually produced some of the greatest animators the world has ever known, among them Katsuhiro Otomo, director of the legendary anime film, Akira; Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of Cowboy Bebop, one of Japan's most popular serials in the U.S.; and probably the greatest of them all, Hayao Miyazaki, director of films such films as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. The anime style is continually copied but never accurately reproduced by animators the world over--a style that consists of big, expressive eyes; spectacular, other-worldly action sequences; and a color palette that uses seemingly every possible shade on the visible spectrum. In short, it is nearly impossible to capture the power of anime in a live-action film. "Live-action," it would seem, is nearly a contradiction to the anime style.

With Speed Racer, Andy and Larry Wachowski have accomplished the impossible: they have made the world's first live-action anime film, one that pops and shines with all of the animated form's intangible gloss, and one that explodes off the screen like a stunning, virtual-reality experience. They have also crafted a wonderful screenplay that speaks to the heart in us all, and places the pulse-pounding action of their film in a firmly-grounded context of ever-identifiable humanity.

The story is simple: Speed (Emile Hirsch) is emerging as one of the greatest drivers to ever step on the racetrack. He is also living in the shadow of his older brother, Rex, who was racing's Golden Boy, and who disappeared mysteriously when Speed was very young. The film tells the story of how Speed comes into his own, and how he finds his soul amid a racing world that is becoming increasingly dominated by marketing, money, and megalomaniacs. There are lots of intriguing sideplots, some of which become just slightly too complicated for their own good. But the heart of this story lies in the struggle of Speed's heart and head: can he, and should he, step out of the shadow of his beloved brother; can he, and should he, become part of a well-oiled racing conglomerate and abandon the independent team formed by his gruff-but-loving father, Pops Racer (John Goodman, perfection); can he, and should he, be part of a racing league that is being taken over by corporate greed and underhanded business...or will he, CAN he, take the racing world back to its true, humble roots?

Speed Racer is a stunning, unmatched filmmaking accomplishment. The Wachowskis instinctually realize what no other filmmakers currently do: if you want to make a film in the image of an artform that transcends the live-action tradition, then you have to make a film that transcends traditional filmmaking altogether. Speed Racer does just that, and with it the Wachowskis have moved themselves into the highest order of working filmmakers. Their film is the natural progression (though it is entirely different) of their Matrix trilogy, and it proves that this team of brothers will be at the cutting edge of not only film as technology, but film as art, for years to come. They are moving the medium forward in ways that must be seen to be believed--and in ways that only a few select filmmakers can, among them Paul Thomas Anderson, Fernando Meirelles, and the Crowned King of All Living Directors, Lord Scorsese.

Unfortunately, that incredible virtuosity--that which makes this film so brilliant--is the precise reason it will be seen as a box office failure. Something so powerfully different just doesn't sit well with traditional movie patrons. Some viewers have and will continue to completely buck against it (and a lot of the critics have, too). Speed Racer is the wildest ride of the year, one that completely challenges conventional notions of live-action cinema from the storytelling to the basic visual structure. It will make some audience members' heads explode.

Whatever one's ultimate reservations are, however, one cannot deny the staggering feat the filmmakers have pulled off. They have successfully made a film in the elusive, prodigious image of Japanese anime; and even more than that, they have made a film that resonates in a more powerful visual way than any film that's ever come before it, and one that resonates just as strongly in the heart.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Iron Man rocks!

I refrain from using such otherwise immature, unprofessional terms like “rocks” in any of my writing. It just reflects badly on me as a writer. But in the case of this film, there is no other word to use. From its perfect, AC/DC-fueled opening frames to its juicy P.S. after the end credits roll, everything about Iron Man simply rocks. There is no better way to start the summer season, and though there may well be a few overall “better” films, there will probably not be any more knowingly witty, consistently funny, and sufficiently rollicking cinematic experiences in all of the 2008 Summer Movie Season.

The film is the latest comic in the Marvel vault to be adapted for the big screen, and it is one of the very best comic book adaptations to come from Marvel or any other name. It is the most joyous trip down superhero lane since Spiderman 2, a movie that so exceedingly surpasses audience expectations that the sneak preview crowd I viewed the film with was cheering and screaming from beginning to end. We are witnessing the beginning of the next big franchise.

The story is fairly simple, yet filled with typical origin-story minutiae: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is an incredibly intelligent but ridiculously arrogant weapons manufacturer and chauvinistic womanizer whose caddish charms have made him a celebrity, even though his only claims to fame are providing weapons that perpetuate foreign wars, and bedding every woman he sets his sights on. As the film begins, Stark is in Afghanistan to unveil his latest work of destruction, but his world changes when terrorists invade the ceremony, capturing Stark and holding him to build a new missile for their own sinister purposes. Instead, Stark builds an armored suit that helps him escape his captors. Upon returning to the U.S., he ceases weapons manufacturing and begins revamping his suit…Iron Man is born.

It is hard to produce a brilliant, hilarious, star-making performance in a big-budget superhero film, where the effects are supposed to take center stage. But Downey’s work in Iron Man is exactly that—this is a star re-making performance, one that completely and effortlessly centers the film on Downey’s charm and magnetism. He is reason alone to see this film, but he is joined by one of the best supporting casts a comic book adaptation has ever been graced with: Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s loyal assistant and witty love interest, Pepper Potts; Terrence Howard as Stark’s best friend, Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes; and Jeff Bridges, bearded and bald, looking brilliantly Marvel-ian as Obadiah Stane, second-in-command at Stark industries and eventual ubervillain. These actors, all of whom are generally known for more serious roles, sink their teeth into the giddy fun of playing these iconic characters, and in so doing refresh both our expectations of their acting talent, as well as our expectations of stereotypical popcorn movie casting.

Iron Man was directed by Jon Favreau, who started as a struggling actor, then broke through with his script for Swingers, and after making his directorial debut with Made, moved almost directly into making big movies. He made the delightful Elf, then the surprisingly effective Zathura, and now this. The common thread in all of Favreau’s films is the old-school willingness to leave all inhibitions at the door and just have fun. In Elf, the North Pole resembled the beautifully artificial worlds of the stop-motion versions of Frosty and Rudolph from the 60s. Zathura delicately toed the line between being identifiable for kids and being just a little too prickly, much like the children’s films of the 70s and 80s. And now, with Iron Man, Favreau makes a forceful, razor-sharp superhero film that nails every signature moment with heedless joy. Favreau has approached this material as a fan first—he understands exactly how to please the audience, and knocks every last stand-up-and-cheer moment right out of the park.

The filmmakers approach the material with such cheer that the same abandon that infuses the film’s best scenes with such joy also creates the film’s few missteps. Tony Stark is obviously supposed to be a charming cad, but Favreau and Co. adore him a little too much to make his ultimate ascendance from selfish prig to selfless hero as harsh and revelatory as it could be. I would have liked the film to go a little deeper and darker to fully mine the destructive nature of the pre-superhero Stark. Nonetheless, any film in America’s war-torn climate that tells the story of how an arrogant weapons manufacturer decides to dedicate his life to stopping the crimes he previously subsidized is laudable, whether the shift is sharp-edged or not.

So, quite a long-winded dissection of what would seem just your typical, bone-headed summer blockbuster. But there is a lot more going on in Iron Man than just blockbuster action…more to absorb, more to discuss, and more to love.

About halfway into Iron Man, I briefly snapped out of my concentration on the film. I stopped and took note of the fact that I, normally one whose brain is on hyperdrive even in the middle of a great film, was completely entranced in the world of the movie. It was in that moment that I realized what unadulterated fun it all was. “Wow,” I thought, “this is one hell of a great ride.”

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Baby Mama would have been a lot better if its two lead actresses had written it. The film is a pregnancy-slash-female buddy comedy that stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, probably the two biggest female comedy stars of the moment, and two of the best comic actresses of this or any other generation. Fey was the first woman head writer of Saturday Night Live, and together she and Poehler co-anchored the best "Weekend Update" sketches in the show's recent history. Fey’s writing is some of the sharpest satire out there right now, Poehler is an electric comic performer, and their chemistry onscreen is undeniable. If only the material were up to their talents.

The film is both exactly the same and entirely different than one might expect after being inundated by the film’s ad campaign. Fey plays a single career woman who decides to stop waiting for Mr. Right and have a child on her own. But when she discovers she has a “million-to-one shot” at getting pregnant, she decides to employ a surrogate to carry her child. Enter Poehler, who was raised as a rowdy South Philly girl and is in a bad relationship with a redneck boyfriend (Dax Shepard, who manages to be funny despite the film’s best efforts to undercut his comic timing). The film’s story tracks Fey and Poehler’s relationship throughout the pregnancy, as the stakes are raised when Poehler’s character moves in with Fey…mayhem ensues, etc. Without giving anything away, there are several different plot elements that throw the characters in unexpected directions, and while the filmmakers should be credited for making a clear effort to be quirky and surprising, the twists all feel forced…and what’s worse, unfunny.

Baby Mama was written and directed by veteran SNL writer Michael McCullers, who is taking his first shot as standalone screenwriter, and he clearly can’t reach beyond the simplicity of one-note sketches. McCullers helped write some pretty funny goofball films in the past, from Austin Powers to the still-undervalued Undercover Brother. But when trying to tell an engaging comedic story, McCullers can’t seem to rise above the standard pratfalls. Baby Mama suffers from the sorts of gags that would work in an Austin Powers film: lame pot shots, sight gags, and uncomfortable silences that are supposed to be funny but stop at just uncomfortable. It works for silly satires because they are essentially extended sketches, but Baby Mama is in a different stratosphere.

What is strange is that since this film is clearly designed as a vehicle for Fey and Poehler, why didn’t McCullers let them mangle his level-one script into something biting and poignant? Even as it is, I credit the film’s few laughs to the obvious input of its talented female leads—as well as to the ever-brilliant Steve Martin, who has plenty of experience being better than the material, and gets every last chuckle out of his small supporting role.

Baby Mama's premise might seem generic at first glance, but it is actually an interesting concept for a strong comedy. In Fey's hands, the material could have soared. But in an actress-only role, there is only so much she and Poehler can do to keep the film from drifting into lame comedy oblivion, where it inevitably and unfortunately lands.


Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a kinder, gentler version of the Judd Apatow raunchfest comedies that have become the standard by which all adult comedies are now made. The boundaries of acceptable language and good taste are still being pushed, but the heart that the Apatow brand swears is at the center of every successive film is even bigger here…way more apparent than in the just-plain-filthy Knocked Up. In its own way, this film might even have a bigger heart than Superbad, which still resorted to degradation humor a little too often. And if it doesn’t have a bigger heart than The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it at least has a more generous and understanding mind—as in, there are more than two complex and interesting characters in the film.

Such a development comes as quite a shock, given the sort of boys-are-flawed-and-that-makes-them-great stories that Apatow has all but copyrighted. As funny and sometimes even groundbreaking as Apatow’s reign as comedy writer/producer king has been, there has always been a mean streak to his material, like he is so pleased with himself for overcoming the system that he delights a little too much in his raunchiness. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, writer/star Jason Segel has used the Apatow clout but freed himself from the complete Apatow influence…the humor is still bawdy and very funny, but the script is about 50 degrees more respectful to women and to humanity in general.

Segel plays Peter, a musician who scores a cheesy nighttime crime drama headlined by his girlfriend, the uber-celebrity Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell). But Peter receives a rude awakening when Sarah returns home only to break up with him. Broken-hearted and lonely, Peter decides to go on vacation to Hawaii in order to, per the title, forget Sarah Marshall. Once he arrives, he meets a fiery new friend in hotel employee Rachel (Mila Kunis), but also discovers that Sarah is vacationing on the same resort…with her new boyfriend, a ridiculous British pop sensation.

The set-up is pretty simple, but once all the pieces are in place, Segel’s script allows the characters to each learn something about each other and about themselves. It would be obvious for Peter to fall for Rachel…but their relationship is not handled in an obvious way. Similarly, it is a cute concept for Peter to just happen to vacation on the same resort as his dreaded ex…but as the layers are peeled away, we find that there is more to Sarah—and to Peter himself—than we first realized. This is a film that understands the responsibilities and pitfalls of relationships, and that finds humor in understated, unpredictable ways.

So, where does Forgetting Sarah Marshall rank in the Apatow Era? It is certainly better than Knocked Up (I will never be able to fully embrace such a well-meaning but ultimately very wrong-headed film), and there is a sensitivity here that topples even Virgin’s. As a complete package, it is not as great as Superbad, basically because there something that still seems lightweight about Marshall, like for all its heart, there isn’t a whole lot of substance to act as the film’s foundation. A lot of that has to do with the fact that first-time director Nick Stoller doesn’t know how to play many of the dramatic moments. He is probably even a notch above Judd Apatow himself in the directing department, but his skills at this point don’t do the material any favors.

On a similar note, the joke the film has already become famous for—the quick glimpses of Segel’s penis—may be one of the film’s defining images for as long as it is in existence, but for me, it is its least successful element. It’s not that I take issue with a film showing a naked phallus…in point of fact, I am all for a film that pushes that envelope in a Hollywood where showing male parts is somehow forbidden but showing female parts is routine. I take issue with the film’s own fear of showing too much—the "penis scenes" are edited with such care that the Money Shots only fill a few stray frames. As such, they don’t become part of the drama of the film, and are therefore not very funny. They become a stunt whereas they could have been a classic comedic moment.

All of these issues keep Forgetting Sarah Marshall from being a bonafide classic of the genre. But flawed as it sometimes is, the film is not simply more of the same from Apatow and Co. It is really a breath of fresh air—funny but truly sweet, poignant without ringing false. There is a maturity to this film that is lacking from a lot of Apatow’s work…it is not perfect, but it understands humanity in an engaging, humorous, and effecting way.


Leatherheads is the sort of screwball comedy that happens when you take out the comedy and are only left with the screwball. It is certainly zany, but it’s not funny, and therefore not engaging or entertaining.

The film is based on an over-a-decade-old script by Sports Illustrated writers Rick Reilly and Duncan Brantley, and while I have admired their sports commentary in the past, writing a sports film is an entirely different beast. Apparently their original script took a more serious angle, which for this material would have been disastrous. Clooney snapped up the project years later and put his own goofy comic spin on it…which doesn’t really work, either. It doesn’t seem as if Clooney has his heart in it, to be honest…it’s like he took the original script and just made every scene as silly as he could, without realizing that each individual scene may not work in harmony with every other scene. Such discord is standard for Leatherheads, which never comes close to hitting either its dramatic stride or comic rhythm. It just plays on the screen, waiting to be chuckled at.

Leatherheads is set loosely against the backdrop of the rise of professional football in 1925 America. Clooney himself plays Dodge, an aging football player who wants to bring his rag-tag group of beer-bellied brawlers to an organized, professional league. In his quest to legitimize his efforts, he recruits Carter Rutherford, a revered war hero (and cocky college football star) to bring the league a household name and force sponsors to take notice. Carter is played by The Office’s John Krasinski, who is sterling on that wonderful show, but who seems disingenuous playing a character who is so…well, disingenuous. Covering the story is a “scrappy female journalist” named Lexie (Renee Zellweger), who is fighting to be just one of the guys, and who unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly) draws the affections of both Dodge and Carter.

Essentially, the film consists of a series of screwball scenes loosely held together by what could only be described as a pseudo-plot, a clothesline on which much zaniness is hung. The true purpose of the film is not to seriously discuss American football in the 1920s, or to even make a sincere romantic comedy. The point is to emulate the sassy comedies of Billy Wilder (or even further back to the films of Preston Sturges, but this film is far too tame to even touch the master’s throne). Clooney and especially Zellweger, whose performance possesses more vivacious life than the entire rest of the film, are up to the challenge. Their repartee is almost as witty as Clooney was expecting it to be, and is where the film is at its best. Krasinski seems so out of his element as a jerky football player that perhaps being typecast as Jim Halpert might be a good thing for his career. There are a few legitimate laughs between the three leads, but it takes so long to get to the point where their screwball romantic exploits are actually connecting that the film has already run out of steam.

Why Clooney chose this as his post-Oscar directorial effort is beyond me. He obviously has a close relationship with the Coen brothers, and perhaps thought he could bring a similar offbeat sensibility to this ultimately very standard, very unsurprising material. But Clooney must have forgotten that it takes a certain magic to make a Coen brothers comedy work (which is why they must simultaneously take full credit for Fargo and take the blame for The Ladykillers). I am convinced that Clooney is capable of that magic—I have seen his other two wonderful films. But those films were much darker than this trifle, and straight screwball comedy is a much shakier high-wire than anything Clooney has walked as a director before. I am sure he will get there…but you can’t expect to be Billy Wilder—or even Joel and Ethan Coen—right out of the gate. Clooney is still a baby in the directing game. And he is a prodigy, but now he needs to work towards pushing even further.

For someone like Clooney, it won’t take long. But Leatherheads is a pretty unfortunate bump in the road.


I don’t need to spend too much on this one. I lamented in my Horton Hears a Who review that 2008 was devoid of any great family films. Nim’s Island is probably the most well-meaning and the worst-made of all of them. It is truly horrible. Badly written, directed without any true vision, and acted with great vigor by Jodie Foster, Abigail Breslin, and Gerard Butler…but damn, how wrong they all are for this material.

Breslin might make a credible Nim in a stronger script, but here she just seems to be going through the motions. Butler hams it up in two roles (though one of them requires him to be off-screen for the majority of the film, which works out for him), but he can barely pull off a convincing American accent, let alone make us believe in his two characters. As for Foster, uh, yikes…she gives it her best, but this role is such a complete comic deadzone that it makes even an Oscar-winning icon like Jodie Foster seem like a simpering idiot.

Nim’s Island was directed by Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, and together they possess the filmmaking prowess of less-than-one competent director. Their film is imagination-less and ugly-looking, with ham-fisted camera moves and lousy special effects. The story is based on an apparently-beloved children’s book that I haven’t read—but it better be a masterpiece compared to this movie, which makes me never want to take my kids to the theater again. Not because there is anything immoral or wrong for them to see, but because I want them to grow to appreciate films that challenge them, make them think, and appreciate what fine filmmaking really is.

Nim’s Island is one of the worst examples of any of those three criteria, and one of the worst films of the year.


Horton Hears a Who is unimaginative and unfortunate, considering how important the work of Dr. Seuss has been to many generations of children. I can honestly say it is the best film adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book yet, but when compared to the likes of the dingy How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the abysmal Cat in the Hat, I’m pretty sure that is damning with faint praise. I have re-read several Seuss books with my five-year-old daughter, and a lot of them are absolutely wonderful, bending the language to tell funny, playful stories that pack sincere, powerful sentiments about the importance of every individual in this big, crazy world. The film version of Horton Hears a Who is satisfied to reach “playful” and not work to explore the power of those playful words.

If you remember the Seuss book, Horton is a giant elephant who swears he can hear a cry for help coming from a speck of dust that lands in his jungle home. Of course, that speck of dust is actually a whole other world of tiny people called “Who”s. Among them is the Mayor of Whoville (voiced by Steve Carell), who has nineteen children and is so overwhelmed by his bratty daughters and passive-aggressive wife (yikes) that he spends no time with his oldest son, who never speaks. Whoville is in danger and Horton swears to help its citizens, even though he has more potential to destroy a world he can’t even see. Standing in his way are his fellow jungle inhabitants, who think Horton is crazy. Their ringleader is Mother Kangaroo (Carol Burnett), who is yet another sadistic and controlling woman getting in the male hero’s way.

I was struck by how male-centered and female-phobic the film was, so I determined to go back and revisit the book to see if the film detoured from it. Upon my next visit to the bookstore, I discovered that the film actually stays as close to the book as it possibly can, with the exception that the film's lengthier dialogue allows the villainous females to keep spewing their nastiness, which is intended to be comic but only comes off as eerily and damagingly sexist.

Sociological examinations aside, Horton Hears a Who is nothing extraordinary or even mildly amusing. The CG animation is not particularly imaginative, the script fails to bring adequate life to the book’s story and characters, and much of the film’s additions feel more like filler than engaging and necessary. Even Steve Carell as the Mayor—a casting the filmmakers surely intended as a slam-dunk—is not as exciting as usual, a credit to his whiny and uninteresting character, who is supposed to be a sort of co-lead with Horton, but who lacks any real engaging traits other than his exasperation. The other voice actors (among them Isla Fisher, Will Arnett, and Seth Rogen) all bring their game but are essentially wasted. And the female representations are, again, abhorrent.

The only saving grace is the voice work of Jim Carrey, who is the perfect choice to play Horton and brings a natural good humor to the role. Yet even Carrey is forced to do the stuff we’ve seen a million times before—he does a lot of in-joke celebrity impersonations, he makes silly know, all the stuff that you throw at an audience when there’s no substance in the material.

Last year was really a landmark year for family films. As for 2008…I’m still waiting for one movie worth the admission price of an entire family.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


He's right. Simply put, he is totally right.

And for me to agree that a film that joyfully utters the C-word nearly 192 times is a delightful sundae replete with a cherry on top, well, that is really saying something.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


In Bruges is beautiful and brilliant, and one of the only films in the first half of 2008 to truly strive for adjectives like that.

Written and directed by playwright Martin McDonagh, the film is a bizarre travelscape blended with a hard-boiled crime thriller, peppered with vulgar wit and topped off with a surprising philosophical cherry. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play Ray and Ken, two Irish hitmen on a forced sabbatical in the picturesque Belgian city of Bruges, a major tourist attraction and the bane of a hitman's existence. Waiting for their mysterious boss to call them back into action, the two men find themselves at very different crossroads. For Ray, young, cynical, and tormented by the skeletons in his closet, it is a trap from which he cannot escape. For Ken, much older and wiser about the world, it is a chance to escape from his hellish job (read: life) for as long as he is permitted.

A simple plot summary makes In Bruges sound interesting, if a little strange. But nothing is as simple as it seems in this film, which plays like a comic tragedy written by an acid-tripping poet. There are brutal murders, dirty jokes, sweet romances, and drunken romps with dwarfs and prostitutes. If it sounds like too much, that's because words cannot describe the rhythm by which In Bruges hits its stride, and the nimble brilliance with which writer/director McDonagh walks such a tonal high-wire.

Everything about the film is skewed about 45 degrees, and the screenplay doesn't so much break convention as it does riddle convention with bullets. Here is a film that is shockingly bloody, bitingly hilarious, and amazingly, more tender and introspective than one could ever imagine. Sure, it is incredibly violent...sure, it is one of the most gleefully profane films ever to be released...and sure, it packs its share of bawdy humor. But at its core, In Bruges is about desperate and depressed men in a desperate and depressed business. And for all its sly humor and irrepressible cynicism, its sense of hope is what leaves the greatest impression. In Bruges is, in essence, a film about hopeless men who find the will to live.


Friday, May 16, 2008


Smart People grated my nerves from just about the first frame. It wants so badly to be the next precious, bittersweet, bitingly funny semi-independent underground hit that it forgets that simply assembling a puzzle that worked a couple times before doesn't make the feat amazing when all the pieces are frayed. Watching the film is like that grandest of all critic-speak metaphors--the slow-motion train wreck. We see the actors speaking their lines like they actually mean something, we hear the music hit in all the perfect spots as if we are supposed to be moved by its placement, and we see a screenplay being flickered on the screen that is so enamored with its own virtue that it loses sight of what virtue really means.

In essence, the film is another downbeat story of a middle-aged prick's arrested development, and, finally, his coming-of-age. A more tired premise I cannot immediately think of at this moment, but said premise--tired as it may be--can certainly produce brilliance. Great stories can be told about familiar subjects. As the great Roger Ebert always said, "It's not what a film is about--it's how it is about it." Smart People is about it in all the wrong ways. It wants the emotional payoff without doing any of the hard work to get there. It wants to sacrifice its story and characters in order to pose as Sideways 2. It wants to touch all the standard bases and let that suffice.

The most unfortunate thing about Smart People is that the screenplay failure mars what is actually a great piece of acting by Dennis Quaid. He is grizzled and world-weary with not a hint of artifice--the perfect fit for what this movie really wanted to be. Quaid really is like we've never seen him before, and if there is one positive to take away from this film, he is it. Church is fun, too, especially in his scenes with the brilliant Page, where the film is at its best. But in reality, Page is actually completely miscast as the stiff Republican daughter, and saddest of all, Sarah Jessica Parker is forced to play an empty shell of a character who operates as she does solely because the screenplay calls for her to. She is victim of Smart People's greatest injustice.

I like to consider myself a smart person. And hell, I know it to be true that oftentimes, the smartest people often have the most to learn. With that in mind, I will take that lesson to never watching Smart People again.

Getting Our Bearings...

Life always seems to get in the way. That's about as simple a description as I can muster. 

Life gets in the way of the constant posting flow I would like to establish. In simpler terms, I want to post more, but never seem to find the time. But I think I have found a solution.

For the time being, whenever we see a new film, we will start writing a few words just to get the word out. It is the idea of writing longer reviews of the many films we see that is holding up the posts, so to remedy that, we will try something new: shorter reviews.

If, for whatever reason, we do write longer reviews, so be it. But I feel it's important to get some thoughts out there, in however few words those thoughts are expressed. If we're not actively sharing our views, what's the point of this blogging venture?

So, in the days and weeks to come, look for more reviews. Some may be considerably shorter than the ones you are used to (and much shorter than the ones I am used to writing), but they will finally be here for you to consider and discuss.

Among them (in no particular order):
In Bruges
Funny Games
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Horton Hears a Who
Nim's Island
Smart People
Iron Man
Speed Racer
Baby Mama
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
The Visitor

Stay Tuned. For the love of God, stay tuned....

Friday, May 2, 2008

It's Man Season Already: A Summer Preview and Angry Tirade

Just when you thought films could not get anymore male-based, this year's summer blockbusters are about to burst onto the screen and remind us who makes movies, who goes to movies, and who matters most on screen--and really, who matters most in our culture.

The other day, I was dialoguing with an Honors student in my Gender and Film composition class about her "lack of female athletes in cinema" paper, and I couldn't help but remark about how nearly every genre is jam packed with male characters, but females are either not present, relegated to the sidelines, or objectified. And in our conversation, my head started doing the math.

Starting last night with Iron Man and continuing with 5 more films in a matter of mere weeks, we will be treated with all the rippling muscles and testosterone we can handle... or even some we can't. It's Hero Time, folks, and since women are just not capable of being anyone's hero, this translates to men, men, men on screen. Men saving the day, (did I say "day"? Try saving the world), men learning life lessons, men scoring with women, men acting badass, men triumphing over adversity, and men being just fucking super cool.

In the wake of Iron Man, we get the male hero in Speed Racer next weekend, followed two weeks later by the perennial hero, Indiana Jones (May 22). A few short weeks later, on June 13, we get The Incredible Hulk...again (because the first time with an angst driven green man was not enough). And of course, no one can overlook the king of all Independence Day releases, Will Smith, suiting up for another hero role in Hancock on July 2.

Whew. That's a lot. Right? Nope. Apparently not, for a few weeks later, we also get the brooding, very handsome, manly, mysterious Batman in The Dark Knight (July 25).

Wow. I believe we get to see every age bracket of man represented on screen as superhero this summer, all between May and July. Where are the women?

Aside from just the super hero roles, most of the comedies this summer are also heavily male laden: Adam Sandler in You Don't Mess with the Zohan (June 6), Mike Myers in The Love Guru (June 20), Eddie Murphy in Meet Dave (July 11), and Seth Rogen in Pineapple Express (August 8). The only female-centered films of any kind that jump to mind are Sex in the City and Mamma Mia! (May 30 and July 18, respectively). Hardly the barrage we see of the male dominated flicks. In between said barrage, men dominate the animated films as well. Within the weeks of all the aforementioned movies, Kung Fu Panda (June 6) and WALL-E (June 27), both centered on male characters, are released.

Just as we can't find female centered characters in the sports film genre, we can't find any female super heroes either. So, apparently in the minds of writers, producers, and directors, no women play sports, have real important angst, and certainly no women are capable of being heroic. Are the creative teams just responding to what audiences want? Why are women not interesting to anyone unless they are spinning around a pole or are coifed side kicks?

I really don't know who I was kidding. Every season is Man Season... but at least we don't get the unadulterated hero worship like we do during the popcorn months. Look, I love film. I saw Iron Man last night and absolutely loved it (save a few issues I had, all of which will be enumerated in my forthcoming review). This tirade of mine is not about being pissed that movies are made with men in the lead. The point is that it's not just men that matter. It's not just men who have something to contribute. Women should be fairly represented on screen as well. And based on this summer's lineup, we have more than a long way to go, baby.