Monday, February 26, 2007

Music and Lyrics

MUSIC AND LYRICS (Marc Lawrence, 2007)

In MUSIC AND LYRICS 80s pop star Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) gets a chance at a comeback when he's asked to pen a song for teen sensation Cora Corman (Haley Bennett). She wants to debut the new tune with him at a Madison Square Garden concert. It sounds like just the break Alex needs to abandon high school reunion and amusement park performances that have kept him afloat all these years. The catch is that Cora has solicited songs from several other composers, and the song must be finished in 48 hours.

Former co-lead singer of the disbanded group PoP!, Alex was always more at home writing the music. His agent Chris (Brad Garrett) connects him with a lyricist (Jason Antoon), but the collaborators can't get on the same page. Enter Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), the clumsy substitute plant caretaker in Alex's apartment who effortlessly rattles off some lines that Alex thinks are perfect for a pop song. Desperate for the right lyrics, Alex compels Sophie to assist him. As they stay up all night sweating over every note and word, an attraction begins to form.

One of my primary complaints about the majority of today's movies is the lack of emotional truth. Be it a comic book movie or romantic comedy, moviegoers are often looking for heightened versions of reality but reality nonetheless. The actions are bolder and emotions more intense, but in the end we're seeking recognizable human behavior and feelings displayed on a larger canvas. Yet so many films fail to make their characters relatable.

Oddly enough, romantic comedies, potentially the easiest genre for depicting familiar people and scenarios, regularly get mucked up with plot contrivances that make them alien to viewer experiences. Perhaps that's why MUSIC AND LYRICS is so refreshing. Marc Lawrence's romantic comedy succeeds because it develops lovable, realistic characters. The film finds the budding couple sharing the majority of the scenes. How novel to make a romance in which the leads spend time together rather than being forced apart for arbitrary reasons. Better yet is the fact that they actually talk about the problems that creep into their relationship rather than let some absurd misunderstanding ruin what they might have.

It helps that Grant and Barrymore are charming performers with wonderful screen chemistry. Separately they've appeared in two of the best romantic comedies in recent years--adaptations of Nick Hornby's ABOUT A BOY and FEVER PITCH. There's a strong hint of Hornby's pop sensibility and romanticism here too. Together the actors shine, with Grant's foppishness counterbalanced nicely by Barrymore's easygoing goofiness. (This is a role Brittany Murphy would kill for.) She has an inspired bit of physical comedy when trying to avoid being spotted by a former lover in a restaurant.

Although not officially a musical, the songs in MUSIC AND LYRICS are a big part of the film's appeal. Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger wrote several excellent 80s pop imitations for Grant's character, many of which are performed in their entirety. The songs are credible radio fluff that withstand the scrutiny of being front and center and stick in the ear long after being heard.

Per the film's title, dialogue also plays a crucial component. It's always a pleasure to hear two intelligent characters zinging witticisms back and forth. Credit Lawrence for having the confidence not to oversell the verbal humor. Grant and Barrymore put the jokes out there without drawing attention to them. Grant in particular delivers several offhanded gems that might slip by unnoticed, although my favorite is Sophie's observation that Cora's Indian-flavored remix of their song sounds like "an orgasm set to the GANDHI soundtrack".

Like a catchy pop song you can't stop humming, the sublime romantic melody of MUSIC AND LYRICS puts a smile on your face and love in your heart. Whether it's four minutes of verse chorus verse or ninety minutes of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, what more could you ask for?

Grade: A

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Predicting the 2007 Oscars

To me awards season felt like it ended when the Central Ohio Film Critics Association announced our winners. Tonight officially caps it. For the sake of proving whatever talent I might have for picking the winners, here are my predictions for tonight's Academy Awards:

Best Director: Martin Scorsese, THE DEPARTED
Best Actor: Forest Whitaker, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND
Best Actress: Helen Mirren, THE QUEEN
Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson, DREAMGIRLS

Best Adapted Screenplay: THE DEPARTED
Best Animated Feature: CARS
Best Animated Short Film: THE LITTLE MATCHGIRL
Best Art Direction: DREAMGIRLS
Best Cinematography: CHILDREN OF MEN
Best Costume Design: MARIE ANTOINETTE

Best Documentary Feature: AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH
Best Documentary Short: TWO HANDS
Best Film Editing: UNITED 93
Best Foreign Language Film: PAN'S LABYRINTH
Best Live Action Short Film: HELMER & SON

Best Original Score: BABEL
Best Original Screenplay: LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
Best Original Song: "Listen", DREAMGIRLS
Best Sound Mixing: DREAMGIRLS

Bridge to Terabithia

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (Gabor Csupo, 2007)

Katherine Paterson's Newbery Medal-winning book BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA lingers in my mind for being the first tragedy I remember reading as a child. While the story details have faded in memory, the tearjerking ending made enough of an impression that the book stuck with me.

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA tells of the unlikely friendship between Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) and Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb). Jesse dislikes the new girl in his class almost immediately. Her funky clothes and active imagination attract scrutiny from his classmates, but Jesse has a problem with her because she beat him at a race. You know that boys can't let girls be better than them.

Jesse's family struggles to get by, meaning that when his taped-up running shoes can no longer stay together, he gets a hand-me-down pair of his sister's pink sneakers as replacements. It's how his family survives, but such fashion disasters make him a bully magnet.

Jesse warms up to Leslie when he notices her fearlessness in facing the bullies. Something of an outcast herself, Leslie makes a concerted effort to become friends with the boy next door. She admires Jesse's drawings, and the two discover that they share creative spirits. They develop a magical world of their own dubbed Terabithia in a section of the forest reachable only by using a rope to swing over the creek. There Jesse and Leslie are free to indulge their fantasies in a place where they are the invulnerable rulers who fight off monsters.

Unlike many films aimed at children, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA has a grungy feel to match its heavier themes. The screenplay, adapted by Jeff Stockwell and the novelist's son David Paterson, addresses financial hardship and the cruelty of kids in a manner that's startling for anything coming out of Hollywood, let alone a movie for younger viewers.

While it's admirable that BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA isn't sugar-coated, more often than not it plays as miserabilism for kids. Jesse gets remote race cars and a track for his birthday. When the toy doesn't work to perfection, his father (Robert Patrick) explodes with anger because he couldn't afford something better. It's an honest moment, but this and plenty more like it become oppressive, especially since the friendship scenes don't balance the weightier subject matter.

First time feature director Gabor Csupo lacks assurance in managing the intermingling of hardscrabble daily life and fantasy elements. The Terabithia scenes have been NARNIA-ized, a choice out of step with the story's more grounded nature. This material is ripe for David Gordon Green's poetic touch. From his delicate Terrence Malick-influenced GEORGE WASHINGTON to UNDERTOW, a clear riff on THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, Green has demonstrated his capacity for rendering wonder and fear through the eyes of children.

Thematically BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA bites off more than it can chew. The movie has already been undone by too many big, underexplored matters when a discussion about God and religion is shoehorned into it. The pivotal third act event, the one part I remember from the book, doesn't flow naturally from the plot and feels like a cheat. (I don't recall whether this is a weakness in Paterson's novel also.)

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA realistically presents childhood worries and smart main characters. That and its determination not to speak down to pre-adolescents are nice changes from kids' movies that treasure stupidity. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA can be too serious for its own good, though. In failing to decide between being a coming-of-age tale or a fantasy film, it hits some sour notes that confirm the perception that those with the brains are drags.

Grade: C

The Astronaut Farmer

THE ASTRONAUT FARMER (Michael Polish, 2007)

Going to outer space is a dream for many, but Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) is one of the few determined to achieve that goal. Family issues forced him to leave an astronaut training program when he was younger. Nevertheless, Farmer, a name befitting the Texas rancher, refuses to abandon his desire to orbit the planet. In THE ASTRONAUT FARMER he designs a rocket and capsule, obtains scrap parts from the junkyard, and tinkers on the project year after year in his barn. He even has a space suit that was otherwise going to be discarded.

Farmer's folly is a source of amusement for the townsfolk, none of whom really think he can launch himself into space but encourage him anyway. Government officials aren't so tickled when they learn of his plans. His attempt to purchase thousands of gallons of rocket fuel alerts them to this dangerous undertaking. Naturally, they refuse Farmer's request to shoot himself into the atmosphere, not that this space cowboy needs the government's seal of approval.

The situation becomes more urgent when the bank seeks to collect on the loans that have kept Farmer's dream possible. Seeing that the window to fulfill his lifelong ambition is closing, he steps up his work with the help of his family. Wife Audrey (Virginia Madsen) has been supportive throughout their relationship. Sure, Farmer has had his head in the clouds and beyond. It's a quality she likes in him, but Audrey questions his priorities when it comes out that they may lose their home.

With THE ASTRONAUT FARMER writer-director Michael Polish and his co-writer brother Mark continue a foray into American mythmaking that began with NORTHFORK. THE ASTRONAUT FARMER'S alternative history of rugged American individualism and ingenuity opens on a shot of Farmer dressed in his astronaut gear and riding a horse, the spitting image of the nation's pioneering past and future.

At a time when corporations and politicians seem to have the power over the little guy, an inversion of the country's founding principles, the Polish brothers fire back with a regular hero whose pursuit of happiness is an affront to the ruling monoliths. Farmer denies to recognize the government's self-proclaimed authority over the heavens and exploits corporate sponsorship and media coverage to his advantage to propel his mission.

Thornton's the go-to guy for this brand of offbeat average joe. He charms and inspires with down-home humility and confidence. Thornton's performance says that this whole idea is crazy but asks wouldn't it be great if a good ol' boy could conduct a space launch with his son just like they might make a soap box derby racer?

This modern fairy tale may stretch the limits of believability, although more from a crucial decision Audrey makes than the aerospace stuff, but it's the kind of story we'd like to think could be true. Shoot for the stars and maybe, just maybe, you can reach them.

Grade: B-

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Reno 911!: Miami

RENO 911!: MIAMI (Ben Garant, 2007)

Comedy Central COPS parody RENO 911! gets the movie treatment with RENO 911!: MIAMI. A police convention sends the bumbling officers of the Reno sheriff's department to the sunshine state. Lt. Jim Dangle's (Thomas Lennon) band of law enforcement outsiders are turned away at the conference registration table, but they are pressed into emergency service when a bioterrorist substance is released in the convention center. The Miami Beach police and all visiting officers must be sealed in the building until the threat can be identified and eradicated. That leaves Reno's finest to keep order.

In addition to responding to regular calls, the Reno cops deal with Ethan (Paul Rudd), a drug lord who patterns himself on Tony Montana. After a night of drunken revelry deputy Clementine Johnson (Wendy McLendon-Covey) searches for the man tattooed on her left breast. Deputy Trudy Wiegel (Kerri Kenney) hopes to romance Lt. Dangle despite signs that he prefers men in uniform.

RENO 911!: MIAMI isn't up to the task of replanting its sketch comedy roots in feature film territory. A rudimentary arc provides structure, but it's merely a means of propping up the feeble jokes for 84 minutes. It's not that plot is essential to this film. Why bother, though, when there's no commitment to the weak story set-up?

Nor does RENO 911!: MIAMI make an effective transition from TV to film. The primary difference is the insertion of language and nudity not permitted on basic cable. Director Ben Garant widens the scale somewhat. In a scene outside a cheap hotel, two tracking shots are stitched together in an attempt to pull off a big visual joke. The sequence goes on too long, and the technical qualities are too shaky to make it anything more than an ambitious failure.

Financial considerations shouldn't have any bearing on evaluating what shows up on screen, but it's apparent that the filmmakers had a limited budget and suffer for it. RENO 911!: MIAMI uses a helicopter as though it was being rented by the hour. The uncreative shooting of the yacht scenes from faraway gives the impression that the troupe was stealing shots on an unattended boat.

Of course, the sketch comedy nature, medium, and production costs wouldn't matter if RENO 911!: MIAMI were funnier. The main performers are known for quirkier work on THE STATE and VIVA VARIETY, but you wouldn't know it by the tepid, predictable humor throughout this film. RENO 911!: MIAMI'S punchlines are too easy to anticipate and finish scenes with a whimper rather than a bang. A semi-funny cameo with an action star plays out like poor improv. That quality bedevils the whole film.

RENO 911!: MIAMI is too safe and unremarkable to be a crime against comedy a la NORBIT, but anyone in search of a laugh feels robbed all the same.

Grade: D+

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Number 23

THE NUMBER 23 (Joel Schumacher, 2007)

A dog-eared paperback novel of obsession takes over the life of dogcatcher Walter Sparrow (Jim Carrey) in THE NUMBER 23. Topsy Kretts' book of the same name bears striking similarities to Walter's past. Paranoid protagonist Fingerling's story reads like something from the pages of a pulp magazine, hardly the stuff of Walter's daily routine chasing canines and coming home to his wife and son, yet he can't shake the feeling that the author is writing about him.

Like Fingerling, Walter starts seeing 23 in everything: the sum of the numbers in his home address, the numerical value of his name, the fateful day (February 3) he began reading the book. The deeper he gets into THE NUMBER 23, the more he believes that the number is something sinister affecting his state of mind. He fantasizes about killing Agatha (Virginia Madsen) just like Fingerling murders his lover. Walter becomes desperate to find Topsy Kretts and get an explanation. His search digs up more questions than answers and amplifies his obsession to a worrisome level.

There is a visible pattern that's hard to deny in THE NUMBER 23, but it's not one that benefits the film. Whether fair or not, Carrey brings expectations of comedy to almost everything he does. He has done good work in serious roles, but playing a manic character becoming unglued isn't the best fit for him. Unlike Guy Pearce in MEMENTO and Christian Bale in THE MACHINIST, Carrey has difficulty playing inner torment without making it look funny, an issue magnified by the silliness of the film's concept and director Joel Schumacher's concessions to utilizing the actor's skills to get laughs.

THE NUMBER 23 labors to convince the audience that there is mystical power in the number, but as these things go, the film makes a less persuasive case than those insisting that Pink Floyd's THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON really was meant to be synchronized with THE WIZARD OF OZ. Finding patterns among random things is easy to do if you use a loose definition for spotting the reoccurring phenomenon. THE NUMBER 23 doesn't provide enough spooky evidence to give us pause or reason to buy into the idea that an otherwise normal person would take this hokum to be true at face value.

This fever dream of a film is too slight in mounting its case for 23's evil properties. At least THE DA VINCI CODE developed an elaborate, history-based conspiracy to influence people that there was something to it. THE NUMBER 23 barely has enough material to squeeze out a feature film. It reaches that running time with a drawn out explanation lacking "gotcha" quality. The big reveal elicits a knowing yawn rather than an exclamation of surprise. That's the only curse to be found in the film.

Grade: C-

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ghost Rider

GHOST RIDER (Mark Steven Johnson, 2007)

If there's one lesson to be learned from GHOST RIDER, it's that a lawyer should first examine any contract presented to you. If there's a second lesson to be learned, it's that laughing through a bad film can ease the sting of wasted time and money.

Following in his father's footsteps, daredevil Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) makes a living jumping motorcycles over impossible lengths. One stunt calls for him to leap six helicopters lined up the distance of a football field. No doubt about it, Johnny's the best there is and one of the luckiest too. When a jump ends with him falling on his head, he gets up without a scratch, even though his crew removes his helmet and slaps his face rather than stabilizing his neck after the nasty tumble.

Johnny's good fortune isn't what it appears to be, though. As a teen he made a deal with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) that cost him his soul in return for curing his father's cancer. (He gets a cruel reminder that the devil is in the details.) Under the dark lord's watch, Johnny can't get hurt before fulfilling his end of the bargain. His destiny is to be the devil's bounty hunter known as Ghost Rider. In the presence of evil, Johnny changes from flesh and blood to a flaming skeleton.

As luck would have it, Mephistopheles comes to collect the same night Johnny is to be reunited with childhood sweetheart Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes). The devil's son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) is in search of a long lost contract that could give him the power to unseat his father. Ghost Rider is commanded to stop Blackheart. At least it's a reasonable excuse for standing up Roxanne, not that she's likely to buy Johnny's story.

Based on the Marvel character, GHOST RIDER is a comic fan's celluloid nightmare. Jokey to a fault and weighty as newsprint, it lives down to the negative attributes attached to the comic book film tag. The performances and dialogue are riotously funny in the manner of bad English dubs of Asian martial arts films. Fonda is in pure hambone mode while Bentley camps it up like a high school drama club member making a home video with friends. Mendes plays the world's most unconvincing TV news reporter. Writer-director Mark Steven Johnson never decides if she's supposed to be a local or out-of-towner, so maybe that explains her confusion in the role.

And then there's Cage. Wearing a bad hairpiece and channelling Elvis, his Johnny lives up to the actor's reputation of playing eccentrics. (Alas, he doesn't don a bear suit.) He sips yellow and red jelly beans from a martini glass, unwinds to the smooth sounds of The Carpenters, and loves watching monkey videos. The unintended hilarity of GHOST RIDER and THE WICKER MAN are quite the dubious one-two combination for Cage. He's all wrong for the part--too old and too quirky--which is what makes him absolutely perfect if one's to enjoy this for all of its badness.

As bad as the performers are, Johnson ought to shoulder the bulk of GHOST RIDER'S failings. The film asks if one youthful mistake should determine the rest of a person's life, yet the idea gets lost in the scattershot plot. Johnson draws stick figure characters in single, disconnected panels where the material demands richly sketched individuals linked through multiple frames and pages.

Sam Elliott's grizzled opening narration over a western landscape in GHOST RIDER reminds viewers of another very funny movie about an unlikely hero. The problem for GHOST RIDER is that only THE BIG LEBOWSKI was a comedy.

Grade: D+

Monday, February 12, 2007

Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait (Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle)

ZIDANE: A 21ST-CENTURY PORTRAIT (ZIDANE, UN PORTRAIT DU 21E SIÈCLE) (Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, 2006)

France's Zinédine Zidane was one of the most compelling figures in the 2006 World Cup before he stepped on the pitch for the Final versus Italy. Everything was in place to provide a Hollywood ending to the formidable midfielder's career--Zidane even had his own movie in French theaters during the tournament--but late in the game the captain lowered his head and planted it into the chest of Marco Materazzi. The curious action earned him a red card and an ejection, providing a self-imposed tragic ending for what might have been his crowning achievement.

Shot during the April 23, 2005 match between his Real Madrid team and Villarreal, ZIDANE: A 21ST-CENTURY PORTRAIT follows the soccer legend in this unusual mix of sports movie and art film. Rather than telling a story with an arc of triumph or loss, ZIDANE is concerned with the ambience of the experience. Seventeen cameras are trained on Zidane as he competes in Bernabeu Stadium. The persistent roar of the crowd accompanies the visuals, along with spare use made of Mogwai's score and subtitled Zidane quotes.

Watching a single athlete for the duration of a game is an interesting concept, but ZIDANE is better in theory than in execution. The 92-minute running time mirrors the approximate length of a match, but ZIDANE is primarily composed of the parts one wouldn't see on a television broadcast...and for good reason. Close-ups and mid-range shots of the soccer player waiting for play to reach him or being involved briefly in the flow are only so absorbing before turning into numbing repetition. Since Zidane is often divorced from the action, the viewer has no sense of what is happening or how he fits into it. His greatness, at least to this soccer novice, is hardly apparent from what Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno's film shows. Despite some excellent cinematography that lionizes Zidane, the lower quality wide shots taken from the TV feed are more satisfying in revealing the events on the pitch.

Zidane is typically expressionless while playing, so the endless time spent focusing on him gives no sign of what he might be thinking. The directors try to add some substance by inserting the sound of children playing in one section. Flourishes like this work within the limitations of a shorter piece. In a feature film they're merely welcome breaks from the repetitive tedium. When his stony face cracks, it's a momentous occasion, but by that point in ZIDANE, the viewer is grasping for anything. His temper has been known to flare, but as it was in the World Cup incident, there is no context for his random display of anger.

Grade: C-

Because I Said So

BECAUSE I SAID SO (Michael Lehmann, 2007)

Like any good mother, Daphne (Diane Keaton) worries that her daughter Milly (Mandy Moore) won't find a good man to settle down with. Her two other daughters, Maggie (Lauren Graham) and Mae (Piper Perabo), are blissfuly married, but her youngest just doesn't seem to have much relationship success. Daphne fears that Milly is following her example of failed romances and takes extra measures in BECAUSE I SAID SO to find her love and happiness.

Unbeknownst to Milly, Daphne places an online dating ad and conducts an exhaustive interview process of potential suitors. Predictably, she meets the usual freakazoids and social outcasts until Jason (Tom Everett Scott), a charming architect, arrives. Daphne thinks he's perfect for Milly, but Johnny (Gabriel Macht), a bemused musician who has observed this whole ritual, doesn't think Jason is as great as he appears to be. He proposes that Daphne introduce him to her daughter, an idea that she swiftly dismisses. Johnny manages to get Milly's contact info, though, and sets out to prove dear old mom wrong.

Milly is still in the dark about the whole process when she meets Jason. He and Daphne conspire to have Milly cater one of his events. Mom even picks out a polka dot dress she knows he will like. Much to Daphne's satisfaction, Milly and Jason hit it off, but little does she know that her daughter has also met Johnny and is seeing him as well.

Milly's wounded reaction about the secret matchmaking and wooing done on her behalf in BECAUSE I SAID SO could be cleared up with one well-placed statement from several people, but this is another romantic comedy that lets the conflict spiral out of control because no one can speak directly. Communication problems are a fact of life. Active deception by those who supposedly care a lot for the duped person is something else.

The unintended effect of all this duplicity results in unsympathetic characters, a critical misstep for a film predicated on likable people finding joy. Daphne's attempts to manipulate Milly's life border on pathological behavior. BECAUSE I SAID SO prefers Johnny over Jason as Milly's romantic partner, yet both guys are less than forthcoming about how they came to know about her. Jason's blueblood heritage and the attendant temper seem to be the main things working against him, but Johnny, whose initial interest in Milly stems from showing up Daphne, isn't much better. Even Milly comes off poorly. She gets seriously involved with both guys and keeps them on a string even after a marriage proposal. Her indignation at learning the truth isn't earned since her actions aren't noble either.

Some of the nonsense could be overlooked as part of rom com conventions, but BECAUSE I SAID SO'S shrillness makes for an exhausting experience. Keaton's Daphne means well, but the actress plays the hysterical mother as though she's in need of serious medication. Either she is or the viewer is to handle her. The screen isn't wide enough for the broad comedy that falls flat more often than not. Yet again a character becomes a victim to the miraculously failing technology when stumbling upon an "adult" website. Suddenly a competent computer user must resort to flailing wildly at the keyboard and mouse while the heretofore perfectly working machine fails to comply. (See the malfunctioning TV remote in AMERICAN PIE for another example.) Of course, the audible embarrassment inspires a lusty response from the character's dog too.

With the electronic tools at everyone's disposal, today's single adults may know all too well how a parent's love and good intentions can end up being more meddlesome than helpful when it comes to finding that special someone. BECAUSE I SAID SO might have found more of that emotional truth and humor if it stayed on a relatable level than the cartoonish theatrics it displays.

Grade: C-

Friday, February 09, 2007


NORBIT (Brian Robbins, 2007)

If NORBIT doesn't kill cinema, nothing will.

Imagine a less preachy Tyler Perry-scripted live-action cartoon with Eddie Murphy playing a Napoleon Dynamite-like lead to get a rough idea of what this stunningly bad film is like.

Raised at a Chinese restaurant/orphanage run by Mr. Wong (Murphy), dweeby orphan Norbit (Murphy, again) grows up to be a nice doormat of a man trampled by his elephantine wife Rasputia (Murphy, yet again). As children Norbit and Rasputia developed a relationship of convenience. She fended off bullies and provided the semblance of family when her three criminal brothers took him in. Norbit was the only kid who didn't quake in her intimidating presence.

As married adults Norbit waits hand and foot on his monstrous spouse and doesn't complain until he discovers Rasputia getting more than just a private lesson from her power tap dance instructor. Soon thereafter Norbit runs into Kate (Thandie Newton), his first true love at the orphanage and someone he hasn't seen since she was adopted. She has returned to Tennessee to purchase and operate the children's institution.

The sight of Kate rekindles old feelings in Norbit, but unfortunately she's engaged to Deion (Cuba Gooding Jr.), a slickster whose facial hair should be a tip-off that he's bad news. Rasputia doesn't take kindly to Kate's reappearance and works overtime to make Norbit more miserable than he already is.

In recent years Murphy has carved out a niche with family-friendly films like DADDY DAY CARE and the DR. DOLITTLE movies. On the surface NORBIT might look like silly entertainment for all ages, but parents should think twice about the appropriateness of this crude comedy for their kids (or themselves, for that matter). NORBIT'S humor is as broad as Rasputia's ample backside, and many of the jokes are concerned with lower body functions.

There's nothing inherently wrong with bawdy humor--it didn't hurt Chaucer's reputation in literary circles--but NORBIT is the kind of film that bounces stupid rays at those within reach of the light reflected off the screen. The comedy lacks energy, cleverness, and originality. Rasputia's endlessly repeated "How you doin'?"is a desperate bid to create a catch phrase already popularized on FRIENDS. (Nevermind that it's employed in a different manner here.) Whenever NORBIT is flagging--the film's entire duration--it isn't long until those three words are shouted with attitude.

In the second season of the TV series EXTRAS, Ricky Gervais' Andy Millman grits his teeth at finally achieving success, albeit from delivering a lame catch phrase and wearing a wacky wig and goofy glasses on a lowbrow sitcom. Murphy is probably being better compensated for doing the same in NORBIT than the fictional Millman is on his show within a show, but it's sad to see a capable performer slumming in a film he must know is garbage. More DREAMGIRLS roles, Eddie, less of this dreck. (Poor Thandie Newton. The talented actress deserves much better than this, even if roles like it allow her to take meatier but lower paying parts.)

Like the curse averse Napoleon Dynamite--Norbit speaks just the first letter of vulgarities--Murphy's backbone-searching naïf is supposed to be funny because he's so pathetic. Although set up to be a lovable loser, Norbit is an unappealing character. He's just less objectionable than the other misfits in his community.

Deficient in laughs, flatly lit, and unimaginatively directed by Brian Robbins, NORBIT is the movie equivalent of the main character's favorite meal: turkey butt. Eat it up, America. Better yet, please don't.

Grade: F

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Messengers

THE MESSENGERS (Danny Pang and Oxide Pang, 2007)

Only in the movies is moving to a creepy, isolated farmhouse considered a good idea for helping a family recover from a major trauma. In the end it usually works out but not before a maniac or homicidal spirits have tested their resolve. Hasn't anyone heard of group therapy?

In THE MESSENGERS the emotionally bruised family leaves Chicago to start anew on a North Dakota sunflower farm. The dark cloud of an unmentioned incident hangs over them and is responsible for the visible tension between Jess (Kristen Stewart) and her mother Denise (Penelope Ann Miller). Jess' father Roy (Dylan McDermott) hasn't erased the past from his memory, but he's willing to give his daughter a second chance.

Bad omens manifest almost as soon as they arrive at their new home. Crows hover around the house, with a few finding their way inside. Colby Price (William B. Davis) swoops in to offer Roy a contract guaranteeing him fifteen percent profit on the property, a deal he swiftly declines. Strange mold stains keep appearing on the walls. Jess' little brother Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner) sees ghosts but can't tell anyone because the youngster doesn't talk.

Things start looking up as the sunflower crop flourishes, thanks in part to Burwell (John Corbett). Roy can't pay the out-of-work farmhand until the harvest, but he puts him up in the workers' quarters and provides meals. The offer is good enough for Burwell, who soon becomes like a fifth member of the family.

The good times are shaken when Jess notices weird phenomena around the house, but no one will believe her because of her recent history.

Today's horror films seem to exist on the extreme ends of the spectrum. There are those like HOSTEL that leave nothing to the imagination in graphically depicting bodies being shredded and splattered. At the other pole are the minimalist films, like THE GRUDGE 2 and THE RETURN. They try to create scares through silence and patience in revealing the secrets of the mysteries. The problem with many of these minimalist horror movies is that they strip away plot and character development too. While tone is important, a gripping story and interesting characters are necessary as well. Sometimes watching nothing happen builds tension, and sometimes it's like watching nothing happen. If I wanted to look down a hallway for a long time, I could stay at home and save the cost of a ticket.

THE MESSENGERS comes from the Pang brothers, who made the eerily effective THE EYE, but any hope that their background in Asian horror might improve this weak Hollywood knockoff is quickly squashed. The film's problems boil down to story. THE MESSENGERS has none, or nothing beyond the sketch of an idea: family with troubled past moves into spooky new home.

This is boilerplate filmmaking at its lousiest. It assumes the viewers know the rules from similar films, yet anyone who has seen comparable movies will be bored to tears by knowing everything that will come. It's not until three-quarters of the way through that the family's secret comes out. The revelation is hardly worth the wait. It just as well could have been mentioned in the first scene. And why bother casting the Cigarette Smoking Man from THE X-FILES when his role has no relevance?

During the film I saw the glare of cell phone lights from almost every member of the audience. It's indicative of how much moviegoing etiquette has declined, but such behavior is also a signal of how uninterested everyone was. Eighty minutes of a tracking shot through the sunflower fields would have been more dramatic than what THE MESSENGERS delivers. There you go Hollywood, the idea for the next #1 movie in America. It won't call for a cast, and it won't interrupt the viewers' other activities during the film. Just make sure to spell my name right in the credits.

Grade: D