Friday, May 26, 2006

Shouldn’t They Be Called X-People? “X-Men: The Last Stand:” Sufficient but Far From X-cellent

The third go round of the popular X-Men films is simply a fun, entertaining film. The movie plays out like a chapter in a TV series that feels it needs to have strange things happen (read: kill) to its main characters just to get high ratings. I can see fans of these films either loving it, or hating it. Nonetheless I was surprised with what transpired in X-Men: The Last Stand, and while it is fine summer entertainment it seems to set up good ideas for a great movie and doesn’t really pull its weight in creating the possible(?) ending to a popular comic book cinematic trilogy. Perhaps director Brett Ratner, taking the reigns from Bryan Singer who opted to direct Superman Returns instead, just wasn’t the right guy after all to have the mutants tell their third story.

The X-Men films have always dealt with sociopolitical themes with the conflict of humans vs. mutants, with the mutants very much standing in for modern suppressed people such as homosexuals and other societal minorities. The big idea in this third go-round is in the not so distant future scientists have come up with a “cure” for the mutant x-gene that “plagues” much of society. There are the mutants that would do anything to be cured and others that oppose the need to be cured of what many think of as an illness and threat to society. This idea of a cure is a wonderful plot idea for an X-Men film (perhaps a 4th installment will involve the mutants' right to marriage?) but I don’t think it all plays out too well. The first two X-Men films, while based on comic books, always took themselves seriously for the most part. You always felt an emotional connection to the characters, whether it being Rogue not being able to touch the ones she loves to Iceman having to confess to his family that he’s a mutant. I can’t help but feel that this third film has decided to take more of a Fantastic Four route and watered things down a bit. We get some cheesy dialogue and some campy acting. This can work in many films of this type, but I feel the X-Men movies have been too good for this kind of approach. The slight silliness seems to undercut the powerful, emotional idea that mutants might be cured and be able to live a “normal” lifestyle.

All of the main cast returns including Halle Berry as Storm, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier, Ian McKellen as Magneto, Anna Paquin as Rogue, James Marsden as Cyclops, Shawn Ashmore as Iceman, and Rebecca Romijn as Mystique. And of course there is plenty more where that came from. Kelsey Grammer is introduced as Beast a furry blue mutant who serves in The Department of Mutant Affairs. At the end of the second film, Famke Jensen’s character Jean Grey was supposedly killed, however all the fans knew she was going to come back. And she does. And boy does she EVER. Probably one of the most interesting parts of the film, besides the whole mutant cure, was Jean Grey. Watching a character go from being good for two films and then turning evil is probably one of the most fascinating aspects a film like this can have. What is really surprising is what actually happens to some of the characters we’ve come to like so much in these films. Like I said fans will either rejoice or run away. And of course the standout is always the magnificent Ian McKellen who always adds the correct amount of flavor to a film. His evil, human-hating Magneto is a wonderful portrayal of a man sick and tired of what society wants him to be. And he can crush cars the like the best of them.

As exciting as some parts were, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed during the film. The introduction of a new character was handled awkwardly. The part of Angel (Six Feet Under’s Ben Foster) was basically a cameo. As the son of the man who invented the cure for the x-gene he serves as a plot device rather than a character. The poor guy gets about three lines, and I was left thinking what’s the point? Perhaps they should have canned him and used the money he got paid to improve anything else on the film. If this character was hardly going to be given a part, why was an entire flashback featuring him even used? I was also left underwhelmed by the film’s look. There was nothing really visually exciting, the action seemed rather run of the mill and the effects were just sort of adequate. Come on, this is supposed to be X-Men 3! We’re supposed to be blown away! I can’t help but feel the filmmakers thought this was going direct to video or something. It just didn’t have too much punch. And a certain character’s “exit” is unexplained, unsatisfying and altogether irritating.

The Last Stand is entertaining and has some interesting ideas, but unlike the previous two films, I couldn’t help feeling that things here were just by the numbers. This film failed to reach the emotional depth the other films. This is a summer action movie that supposedly wants to deal with important social issues but decides to dumb itself down for the sake of being a summer action movie. While I’m not exactly a raging fan of the X-Men films to begin with, perhaps I’m not the best judge. For light summer adventure, you could do a lot worse than the third X-Men film. GRADE: B-

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Into the Woods: Satirically Ripe “Over the Hedge” Confirms We’re Living in a Fast Food Nation

How appropriate that half the audience was chomping on fresh, hot popcorn smothered in fake buttery goodness, while watching “Over the Hedge?” From the makers of Shrek and Madagascar, we now have Over the Hedge a wonderful animated film with laughs, beautiful computer generated imagery and witty social commentary to boot. The animators and writers get everything right about a small group of woodland creatures who wake up one spring to find that a huge hedge has cut them off from the rest of the forest. Of course, on the other side is a housing development where the homes and families seemed to have been xeroxed. We get a cute movie that’s not cutesy and a satirical take on suburban community without forgetting this is a warm family adventure.

First of all the animation here is beautiful. Not since Finding Nemo have I been so impressed with the colors and shapes of an animated film. With so many CGI animated films being released it’s easy to forget which ones really stand out. The animal characters are lifelike but still very much cartoony, if that’s even a real word. The textures are simply smashing. The leader of the group a humble turtle, much like Marlin in Finding Nemo, named Verne (Gary Shandling) just looks so squishy I wanted to reach out and squeeze his adorable, green head. The fur on the critters is also extremely realistic. Every animated movie is just more amazing than the next, but it seems terrifying to think there wouldn’t be the need for live action films anymore. What a scary, dark future that would be!

So what’s the film all about anyways? Verne is the unofficial leader of a small band of kind woodland creatures including as a porcupine family, a father and daughter opossum family, a wacked out squirrel, and a wisecracking skunk. After waking up from hibernation, they realize there’s no food left and human beings have been moving in on their turf. The one saving grace is the loner, know-how raccoon named RJ (Bruce Willis) who owes a large debt to a big brown bear. RJ has a week to gather months and months worth of food or else he becomes lunch. RJ introduces the gang to everything human from nacho chips to watching television. The suburban society on the other side of the hedge is an extreme reflection of how many people live their lives. Of course it's not that far off. A nice house with all the perks, gas guzzling SUVs, Girl Scouts selling cookies door to door and junk food junk food junk food!

The characters are so funny (and terrifically voiced by such comic gems as Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Steve Carell, and Wanda Sykes) because they’re not a very far exaggeration from their real life counterparts. For instance, the opossum plays dead when threatened, this is milked for all it’s worth and it’s hysterical. The film isn’t without its influences. There seems to be strong aura of the early Pixar hits Toy Story and A Bug’s Life. There are some pop culture references ala the Shrek films without ever coming close to going overboard like those films do. (Fake product placement is used effectively, those are supposed to be Pringles right?) And Allison Janney voices an evil suburban, possibly desperate, housewife with a Cruella DeVil streak and Thomas Haden Church gives voice to a slightly sadistic pest control guy.

What these animals do and go through is really true to life. It’s like an Amish village unaware of the perks of suburban life, the creatures are awed by the humans' technology and ways of life but ultimately realize all that stuff means nothing without the ones you love. This movie is gorgeous, fresh, and just plain fun. Now grab some junk food, and see it already! GRADE: A-

Friday, May 19, 2006

O Draconian Devils! O Lame Critics! What Were They Thinking Ripping “The Da Vinci Code” to Shreds? PS: It's Good

Was it Robert Langdon in the Louvre with the Revolver? That is the initial question at the start of “The Da Vinci Code,” the film based on the hugely popular best-selling novel by Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code (I actually read it, so it must be good) is a great story with good writing but it’s definitely not To Kill a Mockingbird. So is it so surprising that the film version isn’t exactly Citizen Kane? Let me give it to you straight: the movie is very good and it’s probably the best filmed version that could have been made from the source material. The book itself wasn’t exactly screaming to be made into a film, so there you go. I have to say that I’m surprised and slightly ashamed of some of the critics’ thoughts on the film. I broke my cardinal rule of movie going and actually read nearly every critic’s review before seeing the film. The opinions ranged from the good (NY Post), the bad (Entertainment Weekly) and the ugly (Rolling Stone). Perhaps it’s the most hyped film of the millennium, but let’s break bread with director Ron Howard and writer Akiva Goldsman and see what they gave us.

So what did Opie get right? Well the movie follows the plot of the book very closely, but there are plenty of tweaks here and there. The beginning of the film goes by very fast and if I hadn’t read the novel I might have been slightly lost. It’s as if they want to get past the murder scene and get on with everything else. If you don’t know the story here it is. Jacques Sauniere the curator of the Louvre in Paris is murdered by an albino Monk named Silas played by a campy, disturbing Paul Bettany who spends his free time getting naked and whipping himself as if he were Jesus (I thought this was a family friendly Catholic film, oh wait I’m wrong, Catholics hate it). Silas is a part of a conservative religious group Opus Dei who want certain people to shut up about “a secret so powerful that if revealed it would devastate the very foundations of mankind.” And it’s not that Brittany Spears is pregnant again. But we’re on the right track…

Enter Harvard professor and expert symbolist Robert Langdon (a subdued Tom Hanks) who is brought to the scene to help answer some questions. You see while bleeding to death, Mr. Sauniere got naked and covered himself with symbols, laid out a bunch of clues and posed himself like Da Vinci’s Vertuvian Man (the sketch of the naked guy in the circle). Officer Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) really wants to charge Langdon with the crime to make things easier on the French police. Enter Sophie Neveu (Amelie’s Audrey Tautou) a French cryptologist who quickly befriends Langdon because she knows Fache is going to make him the scapegoat. Oh and by the way Sauniere is her grandfather.

This leads to the scavenger hunt to end all scavenger hunts. We get car chases, chases on foot and a stop at Da Vinci’s greatest masterpiece, The Mona Lisa. It is the mystery of why Sauniere was killed, why he arranged himself in such an odd way before dying and what artist Leonardo Da Vinci has to do with any of it that made the book such a fascinating page-turner. Each chapter was a cliffhanger and the film wants to be the same thing. Most critics attacked the film’s drawn out exposition between characters. This is the kind of stuff that makes for in-depth reading but on film can seem tedious or boring. However, it never really seemed tedious or boring to me. Howard uses what’s supposed to look like stock footage during the characters’ history lessons that help show the audience what actually went on. This story required a lot of exposition and history lessons about Christianity and symbols and all that other junk reserved for college lectures.

Let’s face it; this is why perhaps adapting the book for the big screen just wasn’t the greatest idea in the history of great ideas. Howard alters parts of the book so they make better sense on film. Good job! He actually CUTS OUT a lot of exposition from the book and even adds a little bit more to the characters. The ending has been changed just a little and surprisingly makes a whole lot more sense. And kudos to Ian McKellen for another top-notch performance as Langdon’s hobbling professor friend Leigh Teabing. And great job Hans Zimmer for another haunting score that's put to good use.

I wont say anything else about the plot even though I’ve left out QUITE a lot. (I wouldn't want to give you too much exposition, God forbid) The movie and novel, which is FICTION, so don’t get your knickers in a twist when you realize what the story is trying to propose, (silly conservatives!) will be a lot more fun if you don’t know its secrets. If the film does anything wrong it brings out the book's ultimate flaws. The characters are paper thin, and the book is really just a few characters going here, trying to figure out a puzzle or math problem, and then moving on to a new location.

Even though I knew the story going into it, the movie is a fun, exciting way to spend two and a half hours. Shame on the critics who shrugged off the film like it was the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious. This is a smart thriller that doesn’t rely on explosions or Arnold Schwarzenegger to create suspenseful excitement. God forbid we, as moviegoers have to think during the summer months. For the first time, I’m ashamed to call myself a film critic.

NOTE: At the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, supposedly the audience burst out in laughter during one of the film’s big revelations. I do know where in the film the viewers most likely laughed and no one in the theater laughed when I saw it. However, even if you do laugh, what do you expect from the guy who wrote the dialogue for Batman & Robin? Case closed. GRADE: B+

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

“Akeelah and the Bee:” It is S-P-E-L-L-B-I-N-D-I-N-G

If there is anyone with the best catch phrase to compliment the wonderful family friendly “Akeelah and the Bee” it would be Tony the Tiger. His two-word review would simply be, “It’s grrrrreat!” This has to be the most suspenseful, nerve-wracking film that doesn’t involve a single gunshot, explosion or CGI effect. I give kudos, sheer brilliant kudos, to fairly new director Doug Atchinson for taking the typical movie-of-the-week feel good film and making it one of the best films so far this year. If you are one of the few who saw the excellent Oscar nominated documentary “Spellbound” then you’re sure to love this fictional tale about a young girl who wants to win the National Spelling Bee.

Eleven-year-old Akeelah Anderson is very smart. So smart in fact that she feels embarrassed by it. She has skipped a grade because she’s that beyond the other students. However she’s not doing well in school because she skips classes because they aren’t intellectually stimulating for her. Living in a slightly impoverished Los Angeles area doesn’t help her much either. Her school runs on a very tight budget and according to one little student, they can hardly afford kickballs. Akeelah has lost her father but lives with her mom (a ripped Angela Bassett) and her other siblings. So there sets up the typical I like this character because I want to see her overcome obstacles. But you know what it works. The film refuses to turn its characters into clichés and instead makes them into real people.

Akeelah is urged to enter a spelling bee contest at her school, but of course she doesn’t want to enter because the smart kids get beat up. After being forced to enter by her well-meaning teacher, wouldn’t you know little Akeelah kicks everyone’s butts! The school’s principal (ex-Revenge of the Nerd cast member Curtis Armstrong) is very encouraging to Akeelah and so enters his friend former college professor Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne) to discover her sensational spelling skills. Dr. Larabee agrees to help coach Akeelah on her quest to become the nation’s best speller.

The film plays with emotions without ever making you feel manipulated. We get to laugh and have our heartstrings pulled in a terrific emotional balancing act that I must commend Atchinson (whose previous filmmaking effort was The Pornographer, whatever that may be) who wrote the script and directs which such fantastic whimsy. The film feels independent but has such a mainstream vibe that I’m surprised at the lack of promotion this film has received. (Even after being financially backed by Starbucks) The film’s editing is rapid fire which adds tremendously to the spelling scenes in which competitor after competitor is finally whisked away by a misspelled word.

The cast is uniformly good. Some of the actors are so unknown that sometimes their performances are a little too stiff. And if anything it almost seems to forget the race relations of the cast. For instance, Dr. Larabee refuses to coach Akeelah until she stops talking “ghetto” because it makes her sound unintelligent. Hey if I was as smart as her I would talk anyway I want. A main highlight is the film’s tremendously strong supporting character fellow Speller Javier (J.R. Villarreal) who befriends Akeelah at her first regional competition. Their friendship is strong and true, as opposed to most of these family-friendly films in which these relationships are unbelievable.

In the third act, which I won’t say what happens for it is too fun to spoil here, certain characters obviously make it to the National Spelling Bee in Washington DC, and the competition is fierce. It’s so refreshing to see kids competing in an intellectual challenge rather than winning the big game, the race or hitting that final homerun. It’s fun for the audience because we get to use our brains too. Of course with kids spelling such gargantuan words, I felt my IQ drop about 10 points. Akeelah and the Bee is a great story and it is told in such a captivating way. This is highly recommended viewing for E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E. GRADE: A-

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Das Boat: The New “Poseidon” is Hardly Hell Upside-down

So May gives us our first “remake” of the summer movie season. Director Wolfgang Peterson who brought us such gripping films as Outbreak, Air Force One, and The Perfect Storm decided to go the disaster route and pay homage to those “let’s throw a bunch of has been celebrities together and watch them try to survive” genre films of the 1970s. I’m all up for watching people try to overcome ridiculous obstacles, which is why The Poseidon Adventure from 1972 is one of my favorite disaster films. It has everything to enjoy in a film about a luxury ocean liner that’s capsized by a tidal wave on New Years Eve leaving only a handful of former Oscar-winners to climb up through the dangerous, overturned ship in hopes of a rescue. Well now that you know the plot of the original. Let’s see how the new film, staring Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss and a handful of other third rate actors, stands up.

The original film had a running time of about two hours. It takes an entire (slightly boring) thirty minutes to get to plot point one AKA the capsizing of the ship. The new film hardly wastes any time pushing the capsizing to within the first fifteen minutes. UPGRADE! Even though the actors in the original film had strong acting pedigrees, most of the supporting characters were stubbornly horrible actors. Take that little kid. Who wasn’t praying that little tyke was going to drown first? The acting in the new film is not particularly memorable but it’s far from terrible. UPGRADE! While the opening of the original film took a while to get going it at least set up memorable characters. I actually find myself caring about who lives and who dies. The new film spends about five minutes setting up the characters and their “stories” but alas the boat turns over before we can learn anything worthy of remembering. DOWNGRADE!

Remember I mentioned all the former Oscar-winners from the original film? The cast included the preachy Gene Hackman, the grouchy Ernest Borgnine, and champion swimmer Shelly Winters. It was rather fun watching such stars ham it up as they made their way through the ship. The new film plops people like Kurt Russell and Josh Lucas into our laps. But just our luck, Richard Dreyfuss shows up as an aging gay man. Of course we know he’s gay because he has a huge stud in his ear, and refers to someone on the other line of his cell phone as “he.” Welcome to the 21st century Poseidon! The rest of the cast consists of people you don’t really know. You know the “oh she’s from that movie” and “oh isn’t that the guy from…” type of people. We do get Oscar-nominee Matt Dillon's younger brother, Kevin Dillon looking pretty ticked off that he's stuck in films like Poseidon. This new cast? DOWNGRADE! Speaking of the cast, there is a serious lack of cutesy, Jewish elderly people! Where are the Shelly Winters and Jack Albertson replacements? One of the best parts of the original film was the Oscar-nominated performance of Ms. Winters, who gained weight for her role. DOWNGRADE!

One of the most obvious reasons for updating this story is to create more realistic and more intense special effects. The original film was made prior to CGI technology and it handled its effects rather well. (It earned a special achievement Oscar at the Academy Awards that year for special effects) I was worried that the new film was going to have the cast act in front of a blue screen the whole time. And while certain parts were obviously computer effects, I was pleased with how they turned out. UPGRADE! The film is a lot gristlier than the original. The capsizing of the ship by the “rogue wave”, and the horror it creates for the passengers, was done pretty well. UPGRADE! And now the most unfortunate thing missing from this new adventure: camp value. The original was goofy in such a good way that it made it that much better. This film pretty much takes it self seriously, as if it were Titanic 2 or something. While the whole premise itself is cheesy, I must admit the cheese factor was slightly low. The entire movie seemed to be lactose intolerant. DOWNGRADE!

If you’re even a slight fan of the original you’re probably going to enjoy this “reimagining” which according to its opening credits is based on the book. Oh I’m sure. At least it’s not “based on a true story.” This is pure, summer action-adventure. Turn your brains off like you had to do to enjoy Twister or Dante’s Peak and just enjoy the ride. GRADE: B

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Mr. Scientology is Back in the Explosive “Mission: Impossible III,” Just Accept It

The first Mission: Impossible movie could have easily been called Mission: Incomprehensible. The plot of that film is so intricate and complicated it would of helped had it been spoken in German. But we accept what’s going on and just go with it. We know there are good guys and bad guys and its suspenseful seeing the good guys try and outsmart the bad guys. The second Mission: Impossible film’s story was a lot more streamlined but so was everything else in the film. The characters were just caricatures who spent half the movie running or driving around in slow motion with John Woo’s trademark birds flapping around in the background. Mission: Impossible III while not altogether original or brilliant manages to take the best aspects of the first two films and make a fun and exciting spy caper.

Thankfully taking the helm this time is first time director J.J. Abrams, creator of TV’s Alias and the sensational Lost. Abrams breathes some new life into the MI franchise by infusing the necessary items a film like this should have: an appealing visual style, action scenes that support and enhance the story, and of course all the behind the scenes spy stuff. Most of the film is shot using handheld cameras, which added a sense of urgency to the proceedings. It’s very hard to think any of the characters’ lives are really at stake when someone like Tom Cruise is the star. I really enjoyed the color palette of the film with its strong use of yellows and blues that seemed rather rare for a film like this. The film opens with a disjointing scene in which Cruise is tied up while Oscar-winning Capote star Philip Seymour Hoffman wields a gun next to a pretty girl’s face. In what could have easily been setup for a “woman in crisis” story the film fortunately doesn’t follow that lead.

The story does involve some unnecessarily complicated plot proceedings that seemed better left to Mission: Impossible I but I’m not really complaining. Let’s just say that Hitchcock would be proud because this entire plot of the film is a McGuffin. If you don’t know what a McGuffin is perhaps you shouldn’t be reading this. Take a film class for God’s sake! The film wants to be twisty without being confusing, but when it comes right down to it you get so caught up in what you think might be going on that you just go with it. I’d have to say at times I was a bit, lost (No pun intended). Which is why I won’t attempt to tell you what the film is really about.

Hoffman was a great choice to play the bad guy, which is one of the reasons the third Impossible outing stands out. We’re so used to Hoffman playing the nerdy or repressed supporting role that it seems so fresh to hear him say lines like “I’m gonna hurt her. And then I’m gonna kill you right in front of her.” Although it does seem like he’s just playing a more homicidal version of his creepy stalker character from Happiness. But I digress. And of course as Ethan Hunt, Cruise is really just playing Tom Cruise without the crazy jumping on couches thing. And his wife seems like more of a stand in for Katie Holms. You never really look up at the screen and say “Wow I wonder if Ethan Hunt is going to make it out alive.” But that’s to be expected.

This film probably has more action than the first two films combined which seems surprising given the John Woo treatment of number 2. The action setups seem natural in the way the film plays out. It’s never as if, ok things are getting slow, let’s blow something up. And remember I mentioned the spy stuff? While the second film seemed to forget it was a spy film, number 3 doesn’t. In one of the film’s coolest scenes we actually get to see Cruise’s team make a Philip Seymour Hoffman mask and in the blink of an eye we go from watching Cruise wearing a mask to the actual actor. Now THAT’S a visual effect.

Mission: Impossible III won’t win awards and it probably won’t really be remembered come ten years. It is however a great start to what looks like a great summer movie season. If this is any indication as to what the next few months has in store, it’s going to be impossible to wait. The film is cool and entertaining and fresh even at number three. Everyone involved with MI3? Mission accomplished. GRADE: B+