Monday, July 31, 2006

Love & Death: Woody Allen Serves Up “Scoop” and Gets Everything Right

Woody Allen certainly is on a roll. Last year’s Match Point was a tremendously entertaining drama about murder and lust. And now we have this year’s Scoop, which in a way is about the same things, except done with Allen’s trademark comic flair. First of all, if you’re a true Woody Allen fan you’re going to enjoy Scoop. You may not love it, it may not be your favorite, but if Allen’s comedic taste is the same as yours, you’re bound to have a good time. What of non-Allen fans? There are other aspects to enjoy, such as actors Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman. Allen seems to have gone back to some of his older films put some parts in a blender and poof he got Scoop. Those who are sick of Allen’s nervous ramblings, one-liners, and jokes about being Jewish are likely to be tired of this mishmash of Woody-isms. I, however, loved it.

We start off with the death of a journalist in England. Joe (Ian McShane) is now a spirit on a ship being steered to the underworld by none other than Death himself. He learns from one of the other dead passengers that she was poisoned by a British aristocrat who she believes to be a serial killer presently making his way through England. Enter Woody Allen as Sid Waterman, a stage magician and his lucky audience participant Sondra Pranksy (Johansson). Sondra is an American journalism student and while being “dematerialized” during Sid’s act, Joe “materializes” and gives her the biggest scoop of the decade: Peter Lyman (Hackman) the son of a rich businessman is the Tarot Card serial killer. This leads to Sondra and Sid reluctantly teaming up to get proof that Peter is the killer.

This leads to funny situation after funny situation along with Allen’s trademark shtick, which nearly 30 years after Annie Hall seems just as funny. Like Sid would say, Allen is a credit to his race and I mean that out of all due respect. Sid poses as Sondra’s father, which adds tremendous comedy, as he’s supposed to also be a rich business man into gold, silver and digging for oil. He’s also pretty good at entertaining fellow debutants at rich parties held by Peter with his card tricks and one-liners. Of course Peter becomes infatuated with Sondra. There are plenty of suspenseful snooping around scenes as Sondra and Sid look for clues. Many scenes here are reminiscent of Manhattan Murder Mystery (one of my favorites) or The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. And again it’s obvious with the story and the situations that Allen is obsessed with death as ever. He uses existentialistic situations (the appearance of James as a ghost, and the Grim Reaper) to contrast the love story between Peter and Sondra.

Allen delivers a terrific, lightweight comedy yet again. The actors do a great job of portraying realistic people (although it seems bizarre at first that Sondra and Sid would really team up and spend so much time together seeing as they hardly know one another) who do realistic things, in a rather unrealistic situation. Allen has great timing and a sensational ear for humorous dialogue (he tells Sondra that he’d like to take her out for a fancy birthday dinner and asks her if she’s a fan of the McNugget) and although some would say he’s just recycling his older material, I say does it really matter? If you enjoy Woody Allen there’s little to complain about here. GRADE: A-

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Corruption Junction: “Miami Vice’s” Function is to Put the Audience to Sleep

I’m inclined to call Michael Mann’s Miami Vice a thriller, but that would imply that the film actually thrills. It doesn’t. How could the executive producer of the hit show that defined a generation suck all the fun out of a tale about corruption, cops and cocaine (I needed a word that began with C; I’m not sure if the drugs were actually cocaine but I digress). This new Miami Vice (and by new I mean it’s nothing like the TV show, which isn’t really a bad thing) is all flash, style and suave, but what it has in flair it lacks in anything remotely resembling excitement. I’m stupefied as to how the director of Collateral, a film so equally balanced in style, story and fun could have made a film that is fun to look at, but not fun to watch.

Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell (maybe someday Colin) play a pair of tough and rugged Miami cops. They certainly mean business. They hang out in seedy nightclubs, get caught up in booze and babes and spend some time putting the bad guys behind bars. If you want to know what the story is in this film you’re asking the wrong person. I felt like it’s easier to understand a foreign film without subtitles than to comprehend anything going on in this movie. Foxx and Farrell go undercover as drug dealers to nab some Columbian drug load (never heard of that before) and in the meantime Farrell falls in love and Foxx’s fox gets in trouble. Everything the characters say and do are simply incomprehensible and in turn made the film nearly head scratching. Although everyone in the film is extremely good at being confusing. I believed these guys were tough cops (Farrell more so than Foxx). Everyone gets lost in his or her role as much I got lost trying to figure out what was going on.

This is a Michael Mann film remember and what the film lacks in comprehension it makes up in visual flair. The film was shot on digital video like Mann’s far superior Collateral. Except I felt this time the picture was much more dark and grainy which really added to the grittiness to the whole procedure. Mann isn’t afraid to get really close to his actors and he let’s the focus go in and out. I felt like I was watching a slickly produced episode of Cops. Mann also doesn't turn away from the brutal violence and sensuality that was hardly present in the show (Of course I'm no Miami Vice expert seeing as though I was 5 when the show originally aired).

I have to give credit to Mann for delivering a film in the summer months that doesn’t rely on special effects nor actual film itself. The movie is dark, nary a pastel jacket in sight. However with all its visual finesse it fails to be a story worth investing any time in. The trailer is amazing, cool and well edited with that perfectly matched Linkin Park song (which thankfully appears in the film) You’d be better off watching the movie’s trailer for a much better example of style and story mixed extremely well. I have to admit the trailer is never boring, unlike it's film. GRADE: C-

Three Dimensions are Better than One; “Monster House” is a Frightfully Good Time

My biggest concern going in to see Monster House was whether the 3D glasses would fit over my regular glasses. I didn’t seem to care that I felt like a cornball having fallen for the gimmicky cinema-going process of having images on the screen leap out at you. I was rest assured by the goofy trio of twenty something males who seemed like should have been going to see The Hills Have Eyes, not a PG-rated cartoon. I have to admit that this was my first venture into the cinematic 3D world. Of course I’ve been on the typical theme park rides and attractions that feature 3D. The Muppet show at MGM in Florida, the pirate adventure at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. I’ve even had the pleasure of seeing a segment of The Birds in 3D back at Universal Studios Orlando, and they had the gall to tear it down. For shame! Of course REAL movies that featured 3D mostly came out when I was a wee boy. Jaws 3? Friday the 13th Part 3? Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare? All done cheesily, in the let’s-throw-stuff-at-the-camera style of 3D gimmickry. Now we have Monster House whose 3D process seems to help serve the story instead of just throwing crap in our face to wow us.

The film’s story is pretty simple. It’s based on that old, creepy house that every kid growing up had in his or her neighborhood. It’s the property in which if a ball or Frisbee ever went over the fence, it was bye bye toy. The mean old man or lady who owns the house was scary and whacked out. But what if the house itself was just as evil as the person living inside it? Young DJ and Chowder, young boys on the brink of adolescence (according to DJ’s dad anyways) are convinced the house across the street is real and it keeps eating things that go wondering into the yard. There’s a mystery behind the cranky (and by cranky I mean if I was 5 years old, I’d be having nightmares for weeks) old man who lives in the house and why the house is “alive.” The movie can actually be pretty intense for a PG rated movie and is certainly scarier than anything in The Amityville Horror. Think of this as a horror movie for preteens. Of course there is plenty to enjoy as adults.

The animation is just as gorgeous and luscious without the 3D process, but it’s definitely more fun in 3D (The film is only being shown in 3D in certain theaters, this isn’t an exclusively 3D film). And I have to give kudos to first time feature director Gil Kenan for not just throwing objects at the screen. The characters are funny and charming, the situation is spookily fun and the dialogue is fresh and witty. The character of DJ’s babysitter (voiced by Maggie Gyllenhal) is definitely one of the standouts. She runs with the character. Her interactions with her young charges are very entertaining.

If you’re an adult but a kid at heart, you’re most likely going to enjoy Monster House. It’s an entertaining romp and the beautiful 3D animation serves the story extremely well. Watching an entire feature length film in 3D wasn’t as hard on the eyes at it could have been. And with its amusing freshness you might even find your brain being stimulated as well. GRADE: B+

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Breaking Up is Hard to Do: “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” is Entertaining Fluff

I was sort of hoping to see Anna Faris fly through the sky, a trail of dust in her swift wake. I was patient and I got what I wished for. Hopefully that didn’t ruin any surprise for you involving My Super Ex-Girlfriend, but on a slightly positive note, it’s a movie that gets better (even if it gets caught up in loopy plot contrivances) as it goes along. This is a movie that can’t really be taken too seriously and if you do, you’re bound to have just a mediocre time. However, if you’re willing to make sense of all the nonsense perhaps you’ll find yourself having a fairly super time. In the vein of director Ivan Reitman’s film Ghostbusters, this is a fantastical, high-concept comedy. As a send-up of either superhero films or romantic comedies it doesn’t really deliver anything too insightful but it’s a fun and playful film that tends to hit as many marks as it misses.

Like the recent You, Me & Dupree, (along with starring a Wilson brother, this time Luke) My Super Ex-Girlfriend is a formula film that relies on the contrived “ideas” and characterizations brought upon by its script. Characters act the way the script wants them to act, not because these are real people with true motivations. Point being, Matt is an ordinary guy (and by ordinary I mean he isn’t really well written) who has trouble finding the right woman. His unhelpful, womanizing friend is Vaughn, gamely played by Rainn Wilson. I know him from Six Feet Under, but you may know from TV’s The Office. Matt approaches a woman on the subway train nearly by random. There doesn’t seem to be anything special about her, except that she’s chosen by the script. She basically blows him off, until some jerk snatches her purse and Matt heroically chases the guy. Since this woman, with the appropriately alliterated name Jenny Johnson, (Uma Thurman) just so happens to be the city’s only active female superhero, she’s accepts a date on behalf of Matt’s attempt to do something good for her.

It isn’t long before Matt comes to find out there’s something peculiar about his new flame. Yes she’s controlling, jealous and manipulative as women tend to be in these films, but she also has superpowers and Matt just can’t deal. So he breaks up with her. Big mistake on his part because Jenny becomes extremely P.O.ed and uses nearly every superpower in her body to cause him misery. Jenny is introduced as a fun woman: funny, charming with a knack of selflessness that I enjoyed. Of course as soon as the relationship turns ugly so does she and we’re forced to choose sides. Do we empathize with Matt or Jenny? Frankly I’d have to empathize with Jenny otherwise she’d kick my ass. They also introduce Professor Badlam (Eddie Izzard) as the super arch nemesis. This is where the film runs into some trouble. At times you don’t know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and I don’t really think the screenwriter knows either but I digress. Just go with it.

It’s hard to believe that these two are really in love and it seems just crazy that Jenny would get so ticked off. She’s insecure yes, but that’s really just her alter ego. As G-Girl (a superhero name that I’m guessing was given to her so that they could squeeze in a G-Spot joke) she’s powerful and pushover for anyone. It seems silly she’d go out of her way to throw live sharks at Matt, hurl his car into orbit around the Earth and boil his goldfish alive with her heat vision. But of course for the film, as a comedy, it just seems to make sense. Which is why to get any fun out of this you must sit back relax and like I said before, just go with it.

There’s genuine attempt to give a backstory, but let’s face it; this isn’t Spiderman or Batman. This is simply a gimmicky twist on the whole romantic comedy. It’s a romantic comedy on steroids if you will, with none of the wit or psychological insight into relationships or dating, but in the end does it even really matter? There’s plenty to enjoy here and the film sort of has a wink wink, nudge nudge quality that I liked. Take for instance the scene in which Jenny refuses to stop a missile heading for the city because she doesn’t want to leave Matt alone with another woman. I laughed a lot. The supporting cast is decent if not altogether fully utilized. Wanda Sykes, as Matt’s boss, is here for a couple of scenes but thank God for Anna Faris. As much as I enjoyed Thurman, I would of loved to see Faris as the Super Ex-Girlfriend and if you’d like to too, just keep watching. It’s a movie that gets better as it goes along. In the battle of the Wilson brothers comedies My Super Ex-Girlfriend certainly flies circles around that loser Dupree. GRADE: B-

Friday, July 21, 2006

Movie to Drown By: “Lady in the Water” is a Waterlogged Mess

I have never had such an insulting and tedious time at the movies. In fact I was so insulted by the once great M. Night Shyamalan (who egoistically and unnecessarily gives himself a large role) that I was tempted to give a review that simply said “this movie sucks” but I’m too above that. This film should come with a disclaimer for anyone having suicidal tendencies. Had there been a pool nearby I might have jumped in without coming up for air.

Lady in the Water is a grave miscalculation. Nearly every character is annoying. Oscar-nominee Paul Giamatti has an annoying stuttering problem that seemed insulting to stutterers all over the world. Bryce Dallas Howard gave E.T. a run for his money in the skinny and pale “from another world” department. The character might have been better played by a puppet. The rest of the characters are residents of an apartment building. We get a group of stoners, some Hispanic sisters, a man and son who enjoy puzzles, and the new guy who’s a stubbornly pompous film critic who is supposedly a slap in the face to all those that hated The Village. As if to add insult to injury Shyamalan gives us some of the most fake looking CGI monsters I’ve ever seen. The animated wolves in The Day After Tomorrow were scarier. I can’t believe the man who gave us the brilliant The Sixth Sense made this piece of whimsical garbage.

So why does this film suck so much? This is supposed to be a fairy tale/bedtime story taking place in the “real world.” This is the most unrealistic real world I’ve seen. Paul Giamatti as the building’s superintendent slips in the pool and magically wakes up later in his bed. Was it a dream? No! He was saved by a sea nymph (Howard) who lives in a world just beyond the swimming pool. He doesn’t seem to think that a sea nymph living in his pool is a strange thing. And then there’s the insulting Asian mother/daughter team. The mother is a wise, old lady who knows of the bedtime story that is boringly unfolding before us. This woman knows everything, and rambles on and on in unfunny scenes about what the purpose of the sea nymph is and why she shows herself to the people who live on land. And then there’s something about grass monsters, and mirrors, and looking into their eyes, and guardians, and an interpreter (I needed one to understand what the heck was the point of all this) and a CGI eagle. Oh and then there’s the stupid tree monkey things. Is any of this making any sense? Where’s Robert Langdon when you need him?

Had this story been present in a Harry Potter film, I'd be slightly willing to believe it. This film's story is unbelievable and hardly interesting in the slightest. No wonder Shyamalan told this story to his kids at bedtime. I'm sure they were out like a light. I have to quote Roger Ebert when I say, “I hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie.” (That comes from his scathing review of Rob Reiner’s “North”) Luckily, Mr. Thumbs is in the hospital recovering from surgery and he won’t be able to review this stinker. In fact, I wish I could have avoided it myself.

Who would have thought that M. Night “Surprise Ending” Shyamalan has given us his biggest twist yet: one of the worst films in recent memory. I’m looking forward to Snakes on a Plane more each and every day.

NOTE: I actually enjoyed James Newton Howard’s score for the film. Nice job. If anything, I’d much rather stare at a blank wall and listen to the soundtrack then have anything else to do with this retched motion picture. GRADE: F

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Domestic Disturbance: “You, Me & Dupree” is a Very Unwelcome Guest

“You, Me and Dupree” is a bad movie. A very bad movie. And it’s not even one of those, so-bad-it’s-good movies. But I have to give it a little credit because there is something of deep value here: how to not write a screenplay. Everything the script does is insulting to not only the audience but to the characters as well. And I must give credit to Matt Dillon, Owen Wilson and Kate Hudson who are all appealing performers, but are trapped in a story and script that goes no where and refuses to let the audience be, in the very slightest, entertained.

Dillon and Hudson are newlyweds. Wilson is the best man. Wilson is one of those Van Wilder types who never grew out of his college phase frat boy-like behavior (hanging out in bars, getting drunk, hooking up with chicks, ya know the drill). I must say that Wilson’s character, although mildly annoying, isn’t very cocky just goofy and childish (yet the script apparently thinks he’s talented because halfway through the film he's apparently into poetry, reading Mensa books and a master chef). Before we know it Wilson, not surprisingly, has no job and no place to live. So it’s off to live with the newlyweds. Here is where I can give fine examples of how a script can maneuver the characters just because it can, not because it should.

At first, Hudson is not very happy that Wilson, as Dupree, has to stay with them. They’ve just moved into their new house and she’s happy to start living as a real married couple. Dillon insists that Dupree will only be around for a couple days while he gets back on his feet. Days stretch into weeks. Dupree does idiotic/annoying things while being the ultimate house pest. They wake up the first morning to Dupree’s naked rear end starting them in the face. Dillon insists he’ll buy Dupree some PJs. Oh and there’s the scene where Dupree nearly burns down the house during a buttery sexual tryst. Is that supposed to be a nod to Last Tango in Paris? Of course enough is enough and Dupree is kicked out (Not before getting hit by a car on his bike, which garnered a humbling, if predictable, guffaw). Then one cold and rainy night Hudson and Dillon come across Dupree sitting on a bench. He still has nowhere to go and, in a shocking role reversal, Hudson decides to let him come back to live at the house. And now Dillon doesn’t want him there. Is there any reason for Hudson's sudden change of heart? Of course not. Why do the characters act this way? The script says they can, so they do.

Then there are the strange inconsistencies. Michael Douglas plays Hudson’s roguish father who insists that his daughter not take her husband’s name. He feels that there’s a certain strength in a man’s surname and since he only has one daughter, his family’s legacy will be broken if her name is changed. He insists that perhaps Dillon hyphenate his last name to include both surnames. Yet, a few scenes later Douglas also insists that Dillon get a vasectomy because Douglas got one and it was the best thing that he’s done. It’s a safe in and out procedure, yet it means they won’t be able to have children. And with no children, how is Douglas’ name supposed to be passed on? You got me. And even still shockingly Dillon asks Dupree to fill in for him at Career Day at the elementary school where Hudson works. Would he really ask Dupree to speak at Career Day? Dupree. Career Day. The two don’t really go together (and the scene unfortunately doesn't even have a funny payoff).

You, Me and Dupree isn’t really even “passable” entertainment. You know the movies I’m talking about. Something like “Deuce Bigalow”, where every critic hates it. It’s a bad movie, and yet you can find something to enjoy or laugh about, no matter how cruel or poorly written it is. “Dupree” is just weak with hardly anything good worth mentioning about it.

Alas there were two visual jokes that I found amusing. In a rather strange subplot that goes nowhere, Dupree dates a nymphomaniac librarian (who we never see) and she has a funny bumper sticker on her car. It reads, “Do the Dewey.” You know, as in the Dewey Decimal System. I dunno it made me laugh. And one of Dupree’s shirts that he wears for the film’s last third reads “Say Hello to My Little Friend” and there’s a picture of a little garden gnome on it. I dunno it made me laugh. Nice job in the prop and wardrobe department. I wish I could say the same for everyone else. GRADE: D+

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Fart School Confidential: “Strangers With Candy” an Appropriately Inappropriate Big Screen Adaptation

If you’ve never watched the slightly cult hit Comedy Central show that lasted for about three short seasons you’re certainly in for a surprise with Strangers with Candy. Apparently, the film is a prequel to the series about a 43 year-old woman who after spending some time in prison for drugs, prostitution (you name it) is finally paroled and promises to turn her odd life around for her dying father. What a bizarre character, in an even more bizarre world. It’s a world where teachers have a bar in the faculty lounge, male teachers fall in love, science class is taught from the Bible, and a 43 year-old former junkie who looks like a she spent too much time getting her make-up applied by a blind person at Wal-Mart, can go back to high school to make things right in her life. Where a man in a coma can be in several locations, including a science fair, unconsciously cheering on his ex-hooker daughter. Louis Armstrong sang it best: “what a wonderful world.”

If any of this sounds like a fun time to you, then you’ll most likely enjoy Strangers with Candy. It stars Amy Sedaris in the lead role as Jerri Blank. Like I said earlier, this is based on the cable TV show. The film, I read, is supposed to be sort of prequel to the TV series, as it shows why and how Jerri gets out of prison and is determined to turn her life into something slightly meaningful. Of course she’s still rude and crude, stopping occasionally to feel up her best girl friend, ogle the class hunk and stab her brother with a fork. The thin plot (this IS of course a TV sitcom stretched to feature film length) revolves around Jerri’s attempt to make a good name for herself by winning the science fair at school. Here she befriends some teens Megawatti and Maria. The latter being a beautiful red head, who upon first sight Jerri asks whether her drapes match the carpet.

Jerri Blank is one amazingly twisted character, a whacked out woman who those on SNL only wish they could have dreamt up. Sedaris seems to be channeling bits of Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon and Amy Pohler and she does it darn well. The plot is predictably weak, as is the case with most films like this, but what it lacks in plot it makes up for with huge laughs. The mere sight of nude butch prison gals bullying our hero in the shower made my stomach hurt from laughter. Like the equally strange (yet a million times dirtier) Napoleon Dynamite, just the mere sight of our main character creates chuckles. The dialogue is funny and extremely raunchy with dirty words you wouldn’t want your parents hear you say nor would want to hear them say. The film goes so far with out going overboard. Jerri’s altercations with her younger brother (who is captain of the JV squatting team, whatever that is) are inspired.

And of course there are the other whacked out supporting players who help light up the screen. We get cameos from people like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Allison Janney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristen Johnston, Ian Holm, and in a larger role Matthew Broderick who all really have no business being in a gross-out movie like this, but are all the better for it. Their roles are all short but sweet. And lest we forget the Strangers with Candy alums including Stephen Colbert as Mr. Noblet, who instructs from the Holy Bible and makes his students turn to the back of the room when he’s feeling emotionally stressed and Paul Dinello (who also directed) as his secret art teacher lover Geoffrey. And of course Greg Hollimon, who recites his lines as if he were auditioning for a play in high school, as Principle Blackman. You, guessed it, he’s a black man. It’s that kind of movie.

If you’re in the mood for a wacky movie, with bizarre characters, funny moments and extremely tastefully distasteful humor, Strangers with Candy is your ticket. I must stay that it was certainly an enjoyable if not terribly rewarding movie experience. Kudos to Sedaris, she just may be the mother of vulgarity. GRADE: B