Monday, April 30, 2007


NEXT (Lee Tamahori, 2007)

Jean-Luc Godard stated that "the cinema is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie." While the visibly unbroken shots in CHILDREN OF MEN demonstrate that the statement needs amending for the digital age, the idea remains that deceit is stitched into the fabric of movies. As moviegoers we expect filmmaker trickery to entertain and engage us, not just in breaking reality but also in telling compelling stories.

Lies of omission are generally deemed acceptable. If the audience is told everything from the start, what's left to reveal? The permissibility of lies of commission depends on the context, although even in the most fitting instances--dream logic films, such as MULHOLLAND DR.--some viewers are angered.

The sci-fi/action film NEXT tells a lie of commission that leaves viewers feeling cheated. Filmmakers can get away with breaking the audience's trust if the lie dazzles, if it enhances rather than detracts. NEXT'S cinematic whopper doesn't ruin a good film. This mundane adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel story THE GOLDEN MAN can't muster any suspense or much of a plot. Instead the lie adds insult to injury.

Las Vegas magician Cris Johnson (Nicolas Cage), who performs as Frank Cadillac, can pull off a pretty neat feat. He can see two minutes into the future, although this is one trick he doesn't want anyone to know is in his repertoire. Cris was born with the ability and has spent his life trying to stay off the radar of those who want to exploit his gift. Two minutes of advance knowledge has its limits, but his precognitive skill is useful for winning at the casinos and strategizing the right way to flirt with a woman.

The government believes he is capable of providing the urgent help they need in finding a nuclear weapon terrorists are plotting to detonate in Los Angeles. FBI agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore) pursues Cris to no avail. When Liz (Jessica Biel), a stranger with whom Cris shares a mysterious connection, is put in harm's way, he finally agrees to assist the feds.

NEXT plays like the most boring episode ever of 24, with a little extrasensory flavor tossed in for good measure. The terrorists are an international amalgamation with no discernible agenda or personalities. There's no explanation for why they are so hung up on finding and eliminating Cris when he isn't terribly concerned about what they're doing. If he had it his way, the FBI would leave him alone. He's an aloof hero more than a reluctant one, a quality heightened by Cage's somnambulant performance.

NEXT is not a superhero movie, but it trawls in the same waters. Rather than exploring the obligations of a person blessed and burdened with super powers, the film's husk of a main character gets blown in whatever direction the slim plot dictates and reminds us he isn't happy about it.

The challenge in adapting Dick's stories into Hollywood features is balancing ideas and the demands for science fiction and action thrills. Director Lee Tamahori takes a half-hearted stab at both aspects and butchers the film in the process. Lacking in visceral excitement and intellectual depth, NEXT offers nothing but filler. The title invites us to take a pass on it. No arguments here.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ebertfest 2007: Opening Night

That the 9th annual Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival is taking place is a testament to the man whose name adorns the event and the movie lovers who return year after year. Health-wise, the past ten months haven't been the greatest for the critic with the famous thumb. No one would have begrudged him the festival's cancellation if he wasn't up to the task. I wondered what was going to happen, especially when his vows to return to more active duty failed to materialize. The Ebertfest schedule's later than usual announcement also sparked suspicion that perhaps this year the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois would not be invaded by more than a thousand cinemagoers for five days in April.

With the announcement of this year's selections came news that Ebert would be unable to introduce his movie picks and lead post-film discussions; however, he would be attending. Earlier this week the feisty critic issued a letter to let everyone know that his illness meant his appearance would not match what people are accustomed to seeing, but his desire to spend time at the festival superceded any concerns about how he looks and what others might think.

In Ebert's festival program welcome and his wife Chaz's greeting from the Virginia stage, it was revealed that canceling this year's celebration of film was discussed. Associate festival director Mary Susan Britt informed him that all passes had been sold out in about a week, which apparently was enough to convince him to push on. Ebert's struggle to return to full health has obviously been more serious than periodic statements have led the public to believe. Not that there is any doubt, but if this commitment doesn't say how much he loves the movies, what else is there for him to do?

Although unable to speak, Ebert, decked out in the colors of his beloved alma mater, greeted the adoring audience with his wife by his side. Naturally, the gesture and his words, read by Chaz, earned much applause and a standing ovation. I've been attending Ebertfest since 2001, so it comes as no surprise to me how much the people here love him. Still, it's pretty remarkable to see the genuine affection that goes both ways, he for the community where he grew up and the people of Champaign-Urbana for one of their own.

I'll be honest that I was disappointed when I saw this year's schedule and noticed that the opening night film is not in 70mm. I liked GATTACA enough to put in on my 1997 honorable mentions list, but it's no 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or PLAYTIME. I'm not sure if there was a particular reason for showing it to open the festival other than the fact that Ebert liked it a lot, but after seeing it tonight, its inclusion made perfect sense.

Above all else, GATTACA is about the triumph of the human spirit, how will and desire can push people to overcome the obstacles set in their paths. Ebert has endured a lot of serious health issues in the last year, and I can see him finding inspiration in Ethan Hawke's Vincent Freeman wanting to prove everyone wrong in their expectations of what he is able to do in spite of what his genetic makeup predicts. Ebert may have a La-Z-Boy occupying the space where an uncomfortable theater seat had been, and he may not be able to fulfill his hosting functions as he has every other year. Nevertheless, he's bound and determined to show that the Virginia Theatre and his ninth annual festival are where he should be even if he isn't at one hundred percent. And you know what, something tells me that soaking up the movies and the warmth from the well-wishers will do him a lot of good.

It's good to be back, Roger, and it's good to see you here.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Roger Ebert at Ebertfest 2007

Presumably I received the following press release since I have a press pass for Ebertfest in Champaign, Illinois from April 25-29. While Roger Ebert has been open about his health issues and recovery, I think readers and festival attendees have wondered if he would be able to come to his own event. When the titles were announced, it was clear that he would be at the Virginia Theatre but not participating in the pre-film introductions and post-film discussions. Now comes this statement from Ebert about his appearance at his film festival:
My Ninth Annual Film Festival opens Wednesday night at the University of Illinois at Urbana, and Chaz and I will be in attendance. This year I won’t be speaking, however, as I await another surgery. I have received a lot of advice that I should not attend the Festival. I’m told that paparazzi will take unflattering pictures, people will be unkind, etc. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. As a journalist I can take it as well as dish it out.

So let’s talk turkey. What will I look like? To paraphrase a line from “Raging Bull,” I ain’t a pretty boy no more. (Not that I ever was. The original appeal of Siskel & Ebert was that we didn’t look like we belonged on TV.)

What happened was, cancer of the salivary gland spread to my right lower jaw. A segment of the mandible was removed. Two operations to replace the missing segment were unsuccessful, both leading to unanticipated bleeding.

A tracheostomy was necessary so, for the time being, I cannot speak. I make do with written notes and a lot of hand waving and eye-rolling. The doctors now plan an approach that does not involve the risk of unplanned bleeding. If all goes well, my speech will be restored.

So when I turn up in Urbana, I will be wearing a gauze bandage around my neck, and my mouth will be seen to droop. So it goes.

I was told photos of me in this condition would attract the gossip papers. So what? I have been very sick, am getting better and this is how it looks. I still have my brain and my typing fingers.

Although months in bed after the bleeding episodes caused a lack of strength and co-ordination, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago restored my ability to walk on my own, climb stairs, etc. I no longer use a walker much and the wheelchair is more for occasional speed and comfort than need. Just today we went for a long stroll in Lincoln Park.

We spend too much time hiding illness. There is an assumption that I must always look the same. I hope to look better than I look now. But I’m not going to miss my Festival.

Why do I want to go? Above all, to see the movies. Then to meet old friends and great directors and personally thank all the loyal audience members who continue to support the Festival. At least, not being able to speak, I am spared the need to explain why every film is “overlooked,” or why I wrote “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”

Being sick is no fun. But you can have fun while you’re sick. I wouldn’t miss the Festival for anything!

P.S. To Gossip Rags: I have some back pain, and to make it easier for me to sit through screenings, the Festival has installed my very own La-Z-Boy chair. Photos of me in the chair should be captioned, “La-Z-Critic.”
He sounds bound and determined not to let his illness keep him from taking his usual spot and enjoying the festival. Never let it be said that he doesn't love the movies. One year during the festival he was injured and had to get his arm in a sling, but he was there as cheerful as ever before each of the films. This year sounds like an even greater challenge that he's ready to meet.

Ebertfest attendees are always so happy to be at the festival. Imagine what it must mean for the man it is named after.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Deep Focus Film Festival is underway

If you're in Columbus or nearby, be sure to stop by the Deep Focus Film Festival this weekend. Yeah, the weather's nice, but if you love movies, which would you rather do: enjoy a day or two of good weather or see some films that may not pass through local theaters again? The correct answer is the latter.

One of the nice things about this small local festival is that you can see several films without spending all day in darkened auditoriums. You can get your dose of sunlight and see three tonight and three tomorrow.

In past years I've attempted to blog each day of the festival, but I've resigned myself to the fact that it's not going to happen this year. I'll post reviews as available. The must-see of the fest is probably AIR GUITAR NATION. It's showing again Sunday night at 6:00 p.m. at the Arena Grand. Consider yourself informed.

Each year the Deep Focus Film Fest has opened with a really terrific movie. That's no knock on the films that follow. It's just that opening night has always set a good tone. (Disclaimer: Yes, I'm involved with festival programming. I've never seen any of the opening night films until the gala.) Year one was OFF THE MAP. Last year brought BRICK. This year's selection was WAITRESS, a sweet and funny look at the life of a woman seeking a fresh start.

Then it was over to the TBD Tavern for free drinks courtesy of Grey Goose and chatting with fellow film critics. But you don't want to hear about that.

Be sure to thank alive! assistant editor Melissa Starker for her tireless work in pulling the festival together for another year. By thanks, I mean buy a ticket or two and bring a few friends with you. See you at the Arena Grand.

Air Guitar Nation

AIR GUITAR NATION (Alexandra Lipsitz, 2006)

AIR GUITAR NATION brings pretend rocking out of the bedroom and onto the world stage. Since 1996 Oulu, Finland has hosted the Air Guitar World Championships. The tongue-in-cheek event is based on the idea that the world would be a better place if people carried air guitars rather than weapons.

Until 2003 the United States did not have a representative in the contest. Seeking to show that you can still rock in America, two guys organized the U.S. Air Guitar Championships. The documentary follows the search for our initial ambassador of air and focuses on two dynamic performers who battle time and again with their invisible axes.

On one side is David S. Jung, who goes by the name of C-Diddy. Wearing a red robe and a Hello Kitty backpack as a breastplate, C-Diddy is a master of technical precision and comical presentation. His fiercest competitor is Dan Crane, a.k.a. Björn Türoque. (Great name and use of the heavy metal umlauts.) Björn is more of a straight-up rocker brimming with energy and an indefatigable desire to unseat prohibitive front runner C-Diddy.

If you didn't know better, you might think AIR GUITAR NATION is a mockumentary. As unlikely as it sounds, the documentary isn't a put-on. The organizers, performers, and director Alexandra Lipsitz approach the subject with humor and a knowing sense of absurdity, but their affection for air guitar antics is legitimate. Actor/comedian Jung admits that his C-Diddy shtick is really silly. How could he not acknowledge as much? Regardless, he would love to be considered the best in the world for something, even if it is air guitar playing.

AIR GUITAR NATION plucks the same note repeatedly rather than shredding arpeggios, but that single joke is strong enough to sustain a feature film. Contestants come up with endlessly creative ways to fill their sixty seconds of air guitar heroics. Costumes are integral, but showmanship is what keeps the parade of air guitarists interesting. Leg kicks, flips, air guitar tosses, and flicking picks into the audience are some of the ways performers spice up their acts.

Playing air guitar might sound like it requires no skill, but after becoming acclimated to the performance art, the talent and ingenuity that go into the craft can be appreciated. Björn Türoque's almost perfect qualifying round provides an electrifying bit of entertainment that it doesn't matter that he's on stage with nothing but attitude and conviction to burn.

AIR GUITAR NATION is as substantial as the six-stringers' instruments, but sometimes you just want to rock out without a care in the world. Sure, excelling at air guitar is a frivolous indulgence. What's the harm in the good fun the participants and onlookers are having? This very funny film should get audiences strumming along on their own air guitars and flashing devil horns in support of these masters of mock rock.

Grade: B+

Friday, April 20, 2007


VACANCY (Nimród Antal, 2007)

The Pinewood Motel looks like the kind of roadside accommodations where guests are as likely to be murdered as they are to get a good night's rest. In VACANCY David and Amy Fox (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) have no choice but to stay there, though. A shortcut on the local highway to avoid backed up interstate traffic gets them lost. To make matters worse, the car engine conks out, and no mechanics are open at the late hour.

The Foxes are the only people occupying a room for the evening, so the creepy manager Mason (Frank Whaley) upgrades them to the honeymoon suite. It's an ironic place for the unhappy couple to be since their marriage is on its last legs. Their son's death has created a rift between them. The only reason David and Amy are still together is to maintain appearances for her parents' anniversary celebration.

Weird things start happening soon after the Foxes settle into their room. The telephone rings but nobody responds. Someone pounds on the front door and the adjoining one. While the manager follows up on the complaint, David pops in the videotapes atop the TV. The movies show some nasty murders in a familiar place. A quick look around makes him realize that there are multiple cameras hidden in the vents and that the homemade snuff films were shot in their room.

From the nifty Saul Bass-inspired opening credits until the end, VACANCY is persistent in streamlining its thriller tropes. David and Amy's tense relationship and their predicament in the motel are introduced with a few quick and effective brushstrokes before director Nimród Antal hunkers down to the meat of the story. The first scenes in the car are pregnant with enough hostility that it isn't necessary to spell out every last detail of their troubled history. The threat to the Foxes and their response is plainly an allegory for how their marriage can be salvaged. That provides the modicum of a human touch required to engage us in the challenges thrown at them.

The nature of VACANCY'S scenario boxes screenwriter Mark L. Smith into a corner. How do the Foxes escape when they have no vehicle, weapons, knowledge of the area, means to contact the authorities, and ability to have most of their movements unmonitored? Although VACANCY isn't full of surprises, by staying in the moment it keeps the suspense ratcheted up. Strangely, the film isn't as claustrophobic as it has the potential to be, but Antal massages the set-up so that it's hard to get comfortable at any point.

VACANCY tingles the spine with nimble pacing and pervasive dread. It isn't drenched in blood, so the brutal bursts of violence are all the more unsettling when depicted. Who needs lots of torn flesh when a place where cell phone signals don't reach and only cash is accepted is far scarier to contemporary viewers?

Grade: B-

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Hot Fuzz

HOT FUZZ (Edgar Wright, 2007)

London supercop Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is so good at what he does that his superiors promote him to sergeant and transfer him so that he'll stop making everyone else look bad. Angel's new assignment places him in Sandford, a postcard town where no murders have been recorded for twenty years. According to one neighborhood watch member, the biggest threat to public peace is the The Living Statue, a performance artist who stands frozen in the square.

Sgt. Angel's no-nonsense, by the book approach in HOT FUZZ clashes with how Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent) runs the department and how his fellow officers conduct themselves. His partner Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) is like an overgrown kid and treated as such. His punishment for attempting to drive while intoxicated is to bake a cake for the office and keep the freezer stocked with ice cream.

Danny's perception of law enforcement is informed by the hundreds of action movies in his closet, but Sgt. Angel assures him that it's nothing like that on the beat. It certainly isn't in Sandford, where a runaway swan and hoodie-wearing teen vandals are the top priorities.

As he becomes more acquainted with the village, Sgt. Angel observes that the murder rate may be nonexistent because the the accident rate is unusually high. His conclusion that there is a murderer in their midst is scoffed at while the body count rises.

With HOT FUZZ writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer and star Pegg send up action films in the same vein that SHAUN OF THE DEAD goofed on the horror genre. Rather than engaging in outright parody, they construct an original story that lovingly lampoons cop movie conventions.

HOT FUZZ sprints out of the gate with a sidesplitting montage introducing Angel. Wright pokes fun at action movie grammar and clichés by employing absurdly overdone sound effects to accompany the most mundane tasks (shuffling papers, scribbled signatures), utilizing perpetual motion camerawork when static shots would suffice, and cutting at a breakneck pace. As his GRINDHOUSE trailer for DON'T signified, Wright has a strong feel for imitating filmmaking forms and exploiting them for laughs.

The harried style is carried out through HOT FUZZ, which keeps it clicking for a robust 121 minutes. It's a long running time for a comedy, but the lightning pace prevents the film from lagging. If anything, the speed of the jokes requires strict attention to catch everything.

The screenwriting is efficient and razor-sharp. Seemingly inconsequential lines and references return to produce bigger laughs. So much of modern comedy relies on lazy pop culture name-checking, as if mentioning another movie is inherently funny. Wright and Pegg's screenplay contains plenty of clever wordplay. When they include references, it's in service of creating better jokes. An amusing discussion about POINT BREAK leads to a late scene that has laughs rippling through the audience before the punchline arrives.

Blessed with an airtight script, a sterling cast of comedic actors, and a director in peak form, HOT FUZZ is an arresting farce sure to keep audiences locked up with laughter.

Grade: A

In the Land of Women

IN THE LAND OF WOMEN (Jon Kasdan, 2007)

Carter Webb (Adam Brody) is down in the dumps. His actress girlfriend Sofia (Elena Anaya) has broken up with him. His job writing softcore porn is keeping Carter from working on the screenplay about high school that's been percolating for years. The aimless 26-year-old decides to get away from it all by going to Michigan to care for his delusional grandmother Phyllis (Olympia Dukakis).

IN THE LAND OF WOMEN drops Carter across the street from the Hardwicke family. Sarah (Meg Ryan) is wrestling with recently diagnosed breast cancer and knowledge of her husband's affair. Oldest daughter Lucy (Kristen Stewart), an artist fond of vintage rock tees, is angry at her mom and confused about how to handle the high school quarterback she's sort of dating.

Sarah takes a shine to the young man with the appearance of a wounded puppy. They have meaningful conversations while walking her dog, but Sarah resists telling Carter about her cancer. She wants to help him regain his self-esteem and encourages Lucy to ask him to the movies as a friendly gesture. Carter's confused relationships with the Hardwicke women throws them all for a loop in the midst of the other chaos they're enduring.

Writer-director Jon Kasdan's attempt at character-based dramedy manages some good scenes, but as a whole IN THE LAND OF WOMEN feels incomplete and inauthentic. Scenes end with fades to white and skip forward days. The passage of time is unimportant since nothing appears to change. Kasdan's passive characters sit around waiting for a bolt of lightning to strike them. It's probably indicative of how most of us are, but in execution it comes across as though the first-time director didn't have specific ideas about what to do with these people. The characters are in pain and will sort of muddle through it together more by accident than any shared wisdom.

The strained attempts at edginess--Carter's occupation and the romantic tension with mother and daughter--belong in a different film. If these aspects were better developed, maybe they'd be believable. Still, what is the likelihood that Sarah would be foisting Lucy on Carter one minute and bristling about a kiss the next? Kind of your fault, isn't it, mom? If Lucy were a few years older--a junior in college instead of an adolescent--the subplot would add up. Sarah is fighting feelings of her own inadequacies because her spouse cheats on her and she has undergone a mastectomy. She wants to live through her daughter but is jealous all the same. Having Lucy be in high school introduces an unsavory element that IN THE LAND OF WOMEN isn't prepared to handle or portray convincingly.

Carter, the mopey child of privilege, doesn't exactly foster sympathy. The guy can bail on his job without any noticeable repercussions and has women of all ages throwing themselves at him. He didn't get what he envisions as the classic John Hughes high school experience and regrets it close to ten years later. Rough life, isn't it? Carter doesn't have to be likeable or relatable--truth be told, Brody plays him like an OK guy--but it's hard to feel much for him when his problems are minor compared to everyone else in the film.

IN THE LAND OF WOMEN'S shortcomings are more apparent upon reflection than while it unspools. Kasdan's TV pacing, some funny lines, and agreeable performances keep things moving even when the story doesn't advance. Ryan lands one of her most appealing parts in years. It's too bad that Sarah is half conceived at best and the botox injections and/or plastic surgery the actress has subjected herself to aren't yielding any favors.

A primary criticism of Lawrence Kasdan's films are that he grants undue attention and affection on the problems of the self-absorbed upper middle class. Unfortunately for his son Jon, he borrows his father's weakness for his debut feature.

Grade: C

Year of the Dog

YEAR OF THE DOG (Mike White, 2007)

Peggy (Molly Shannon) loves, loves, loves dogs. Her adorable pup Pencil shares a cherished spot on Peggy's lap while watching TV after work, beside her in bed, and on her Christmas cards. A man is conspicuously absent in her life, but she doesn't seem to mind. People will always disappoint you, but a dog's love and loyalty are never in doubt.

In YEAR OF THE DOG Peggy must seek a new best friend when her beloved beagle eats something poisonous in her neighbor's yard and dies. Out of the sadness comes a glimmer of hope. Al (John C. Reilly), the construction worker next door, takes her to dinner to boost her spirits, but an avid hunter who proudly displays mounted trophies and a knife collection on his walls isn't the right guy for her.

Animal shelter employee Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) is more her type. He noticed how upset Peggy was when Pencil died and thinks that he has an abused and rescued dog that could use her special care as much as she needs a pet. Peggy's attraction to Newt and his love for animals is so strong that she follows his choices to be a vegan and animal rights crusader. Problem is that he has more affection for animals--no, not in that way--than he does for women or men.

YEAR OF THE DOG writer-director Mike White's sense of humor is so low-key at times that it might better be described as no-key. He often takes the comedy of discomfort--think BORAT or either version of THE OFFICE--to painful and dark places where it ceases to be funny in even an awkward way. He strives to capture the clumsy moments. It's edited so that one can almost here the word "action" being uttered as the actors say their lines. Rather than revealing some truth about the characters, it plays as sloppy filmmaking.

White knows how to find the stinging comment in supposedly reassuring statements, as when Peggy's friend Layla (Regina King) tells the lonely gal not to give up because "even retarded crippled people get married". He also has a wicked touch with needling the self-righteous. There's a ruthlessly hilarious scene in which Peggy gives her brother's family gifts of emancipated farm animals that are named after them and live at a nature sanctuary. Her brother and sister-in-law think the presents are jokes, especially since a pig bears his name and a cow his wife's, but Peggy couldn't be more pleased with herself.

It can be difficult to determine if White is as contemptuous of the characters as he seems to be. YEAR OF THE DOG adopts a sneering tone that verges on the sanctimonious, ironically enough. He relishes rubbing the characters' noses in their pathetic natures, yet clearly White feels some twisted admiration for them and their warts--Peggy, above all others. She is a PETA poster child, a vegan warrior. Shannon performs a reversal of her typical shtick. That she trades her spastic behavior for a morose outlook and fewer broad outbursts still won't create fans out of those like me who find the comic actress off-putting.

White, the screenwriter of THE SCHOOL OF ROCK and NACHO LIBRE, has made a film with his sensibility front and center, but the deadpan jokes can be hard to detect or simply aren't funny. Canines hear sounds inaudible to human ears. Maybe the same is true of the humor in YEAR OF THE DOG.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


FRACTURE (Gregory Hoblit, 2007)

After two hours of evidence collection, the courtroom thriller FRACTURE is resolved via a legal loophole. That's as satisfying as a weeks-long case being dismissed on a technicality. It makes all that time feel like a monumental waste.

There's no mistaking the basic facts of the case. Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) shoots his adulterous wife Jennifer (Embeth Davidtz) in the head and then calmly goes about finetuning the crime scene's appearance to his advantage. The police arrive, confiscate his weapon, and obtain a signed confession. For prosecutor Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling), it's just what he needs to close out his service in the district attorney's office before moving on to a lucrative job with a private firm. If ever there was an open and shut case, this is it.

Except it isn't. Arresting officer Rob Nunally (Billy Burke) was having an affair with Ted's wife. His involvement in the matter and presence at the interrogation nullifies the confession. There's also the pesky issue of the attempted murder weapon. The gun in evidence shows no sign of ever being fired. Ted, who has chosen to represent himself, is proving to be a wilier adversary than Willy expected. His setbacks in court are beginning to put his corporate job in jeopardy.

In FRACTURE Hopkins again gets to play the evil genius toying with his young counterpart; however, this refined criminal mastermind isn't even a shadow of Hannibal Lecter, arguably the actor's defining role. He winks his way through the film, literally and metaphorically, and adopts a Scottish brogue that comes and go. (Gosling's southern accent wanes too.) Ted is an aeronautics whiz with an uncanny ability to spot structural and personal weaknesses. It would stand to reason that his battle of wits with Willy would push the action, but their jousting is of the indirect variety.

Gosling's subdued vibe fits with the emotionless nature of the film and the law. Although Willy begins to connect with the comatose Jennifer, his prosecutorial passion derives from his desire to win every time. Not getting personally invested may be an ideal tactic for lawyers, but it doesn't help a film in need of energy. Gosling's assured performance will sustain his status as a critical favorite, but adding minor affectations isn't enough to improve a character as thinly written as Willy.

The same goes for FRACTURE'S other main players. Ted is the prototypical villain begging for a cat-and-mouse duel. As he counts on pride undoing Willy, so will his own hubris sabotage his carefully plotted plan. Maybe this would be richer if Ted were flesh and blood instead of a mechanical antagonist. Nikki Gardner (Rosamund Pike), Willy's new boss, is shoehorned into the film presumably because every movie needs an ostensible love interest for the hero. Nikki appears intermittently to remind Willy that he's endangering his status as a new hire. She's a perfunctory character driving a superfluous subplot.

Part of the fun of a movie like FRACTURE is trying to crack the mystery before the characters do. The case isn't complex enough to hold interest as the film dutifully plods through the procedural elements. There seems to be no question that Ted is guilty despite what the ballistics report concludes about the gun recovered from the scene. With no tools for solving the crime, the audience must wait patiently for a crackerjack ending that the film can't produce.

FRACTURE has the opposite problem of PERFECT STRANGER. It wraps with the faint pop of a paper bag rather than end with a bombshell's loud bang. It's a shoulder-shrugging conclusion instead of headshaking foolishness. Whatever.

Grade: C-


DISTURBIA (D.J. Caruso, 2007)

A year after his father is killed in a car accident, Kale (Shia LaBeouf) still exhibits the emotional bruises of his own brush with death. In DISTURBIA the bright, easygoing teenager is now sullen and easily provoked. When his Spanish teacher chastizes him, Kale slugs him in front of the rest of the class. Since he's still a minor, he catches a break from the judge and is sentenced to three months of house arrest for the summer.

Considering the wealth of home entertainment options, there could be worse ways to be punished. His mom Julie (Carrie-Ann Moss) knows this, so she blocks access to XBox Live and iTunes and snips the power cord on the TV in Kale's room. With all the time in the world on his hands and an electronic leash limiting him to no farther than one hundred yards from his kitchen, Kale has to find other ways to spend his time.

He realizes that a pair of binoculars gives him plenty to look at in his subdivision, especially the pretty girl who moves in next door. Ashley (Sarah Roemer) catches Kale and his friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) spying on her, but rather than raise a fuss, she joins in with their neighborhood watch.

Reports of a missing girl and the possibility of the case's connection to old, unsolved Texas serial killings dominate local news. Kale notices that Mr. Turner (David Morse) drives a classic car matching the suspect vehicle's description, so he, Ashley, and Ronnie set up a stakeout of this mysterious man.

DISTURBIA plays reasonably well as a junior version of REAR WINDOW. The teen movie form comfortably adapts to the themes of isolation and ineffectualness. (Aside from referencing reality TV, it doesn't do much with Hitchcock's exploration of voyeurism.) Kale's testing of literal boundaries provides amusing commentary on teenage rebelliousness while dispensing key information about where he can go. Kale, Ronnie, and Ashley's video monitoring seems like mostly harmless mischief kids get into when there are rumors about one unusual resident in the neighborhood.

Director D.J. Caruso takes time to unfold suspicions about Mr. Turner's neighborly activities, although this is a case where the film would have benefited from cutting to the chase sooner. Caruso could have afforded to be more patient if he sustained stronger senses of claustrophobia and helplessness. Kale occupies a large home, has plenty of mobility, and can summon the police on a moment's notice, even if they'll initially be searching for him. These factors remove a significant part of the threat and the experience of the walls closing in on Kale.

Morse displays a delicious flair for menace. His confrontation of Ashley, who was following him around a hardware store, is creepy without him doing anything that might get him in hot water. The uneasy air about Mr. Turner is almost enough to compensate for the overblown showdown that sends DISTURBIA into a tailspin.

With the burden of inevitable comparisons to Hitchcock's masterpiece upon it, DISTURBIA carves out its own modest spot as a decent thriller until caving in to the demand for a big finish. Even when he doesn't quite get suspenseful scenes to work--Caruso blows the section equivalent to Grace Kelly in Raymond Burr's apartment--the director is more adept at suggesting impending trouble than depicting it. This otherwise levelheaded film loses its smarts and its cool in the end.

Grade: C+

Friday, April 13, 2007

Perfect Stranger

PERFECT STRANGER (James Foley, 2007)

PERFECT STRANGER is a perfectly mediocre thriller until the spectacularly stupid ending arrives. Nothing much happens while director James Foley's film lopes through the paces of a generic procedural destined for endless plays on basic cable. Red herrings are dutifully dispensed, but there's little intrigue in this high gloss murder mystery. Except for the ending, a thing so misconceived that it has to be seen to believed, PERFECT STRANGER is uninteresting yet tolerable because of the comfort its familiar form engenders.

New York Courier investigative reporter Rowena Price (Halle Berry) thrives on exposing the corruption of powerful men. She quits in a huff when her explosive piece about a politician gets torpedoed, but it doesn't take long for another juicy story to fall into her hands.

Rowena's childhood friend Grace (Nicki Aycox) is murdered, and all indications are that advertising executive Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis) is responsible. Grace had been having an affair with him and kept a file of their scandalous chat room conversations and e-mails. With the assistance of her tech genius friend Miles (Giovanni Ribisi), Rowena plots to catch Hill. She infiltrates his company H2A as a temporary employee and tempts him with suggestive online chats in the hope of getting the necessary evidence to convict him.

Rowena doesn't turn to the police because she assumes that once again the rich will buy their way out of trouble. Plus, she'd lose a dynamite story. It's never clear how her undercover work is intended to cinch the case against Hill. She might be able to prove that he is unfaithful to his wife, but that hardly puts him on the hook for murder. The file in her possession is more damning than anything she can coax from the hound dog. Thus the game being played in PERFECT STRANGER seems irrelevant other than as a way of spicing up the proceedings.

The film has the shadings of an erotic thriller, but it's a bloodless affair. Harrison's a slimeball while Rowena is cold and calculating. The majority of their interactions come via internet chats. The actors read most of the text they're seen typing, a surefire way to kill momentum. Their disconnected flirtations generate zero heat, not that it's any warmer when they share the frame.

PERFECT STRANGER has an alarmist view of computers and the internet that might have gained more traction ten years ago than it will now. It's shocked--shocked!--that people online might not be who and what they present themselves as being. Ooh, this newfangled technology can intrude into our lives and permit people to misrepresent their identities and intentions. Scary!

Really, though, there's nothing notable about PERFECT STRANGER until an ending that will prompt quizzical expressions on the faces of audience members. Or, in instant message terms, WTF?!

Grade: D

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

2007 Deep Focus Film Festival lineup

While I'm working on some reviews, how about a look at the press release announcing next weekend's Deep Focus Film Festival slate?

2007 alive! Deep Focus Film Festival to open with Waitress

Modern Classics, special presentations and more events added to ’07 schedule

Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress, a charming romantic comedy that was the talk of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, kicks off the third annual alive! Deep Focus Film Festival, April 19-22 at the Arena Grand Theatre in Columbus.

Waitress is one of 10 new independent films to be shown at this year’s event, and the festival’s celebration of great film has expanded to include anniversary screenings of modern classics from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, a special presentation of award-winning commercials, and a sports film selection chosen through an online poll.

“The Deep Focus Film Fest is chance for movie overs to see a lot of great films, to get a first look at some Ohio premieres, and also enjoy a fun weekend in the Arena District,” said alive! Managing Editor Brian Lindamood. “It’s part of our mission to help alive! readers make the most of city life—to have a great time and celebrate the best of Columbus arts and entertainment.”

Special Events
In addition to the films, Deep Focus includes a variety of related events at venues around the Arena District, all with free admission for festival patrons.

Immediately following the Gala screening of Waitress on Thursday night, ticket holders are invited to a private after-party at TBD Tavern, 191 W. Nationwide Blvd., with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails courtesy of Grey Goose.

Before the Modern Classics screening of Moonstruck, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday, patrons are invited to a “Girls’ Night Out” happy hour with snack and drink specials at the Arena Grand Bar & Bistro.

Following the Friday night screening of Air Guitar Nation, moviegoers who present their ticket stub at the door of the Lodge Bar, 165 Vine St., receive free admission to a face-off between local air guitarists. Closet rockers can enter the contest at; the grand prize is a guitar provided by Guitar Center.

After the screening of Daniel Burman’s Family Law on Saturday, ticket holders are invited to join alive! sister publication Fronteras for a Latin dance party at Sugar Bar, 525 Park St.

Ticket Prices
For New Independent selections and World’s Best Commercials, tickets are $10 general admission; $8 for students with ID, seniors over 60, alive! City Card holders and Wexner Center members. Tickets for Modern Classics screenings and the Sports Film Spotlight are $5 each. Tickets are on sale now at the Arena Grand box office and online at

The Deep Focus Film Fest is sponsored by alive! and Firestone.

Deep Focus Film Fest lineup

New Independents
Opening Night Gala:
Midwest premiere
DIR/SCR: Adrienne Shelly
CAST: Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Sisto, Andy Griffith
A Fox Searchlight release
From the late actress-turned-filmmaker comes tale of a poor
small-town waitress (Russell) who finds a second chance at happiness when she
least expects it.
Screening Thursday, April 19, 7 p.m.

After the Wedding
Columbus premiere
DIR: Susanne Bier
SCR: Susanne Bier,
Anders Thomas Jensen
CAST: Mads Mikkelsen, Rolf Lassgard, Sidse Babett Knudsen
An IFC Films release
The Brothers creative team of Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen return to the Deep Focus Fest with this Oscar-nominated Danish drama, in which an orphanage worker in India is forced to return home and face his difficult past.
Screening Saturday, April 21, 5:45 p.m.

Air Guitar Nation
Ohio premiere
DIR: Alexandra Lipsitz
A Shadow Distribution release
Alexandra Lipsitz’s hilarious yet respectful doc follows the first Americans to compete in the World Air Guitar Championship in Finland. Preceded by the short Blissful, by Columbus creative team LeftChannel.
Screening Friday, April 20, 7 p.m.; and Sunday, April 22, 6 p.m.

Broken English
Midwest premiere
DIR/SCR: Zoe Cassavetes
CAST: Parker Posey, Drea De Matteo, Gena Rowlands, Melvil Poupaud
A Magnolia Pictures release
Zoe Cassavetes makes her filmmaking debut with this quirky comedy in which Parker Posey is a thirty-something New Yorker about to give up on romance, right about the same time a possible Mr. Right appears. Preceded by the short The Fixer, by Columbus filmmaker John Whitney.
Screening Saturday, April 21, 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, April 22, 3:15 p.m.

Dare Not Walk Alone
Midwest premiere
DIR: Jeremy Dean
A ThinkFilm release
Jeremy Dean uses amazing, never-before-seen archival footage of racial clashes in St. Augustine, Florida, America’s oldest city, to spotlight the role the town played in the passage of the Civil Rights Act and take a hard look at the legacy left behind.
Screening Friday, April 20, 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 22, 5:30 p.m.

Family Law
Columbus premiere
DIR/SCR: Daniel Burman
CAST: Daniel Hendler, Arturo Goetz, Eloy Burman, Julieta Diaz
An IFC First Take release
From Argentine filmmaker Daniel Burman comes a lighthearted look at a successful man who finds that with the responsibilities of new parenthood comes a need to develop more respect for his own father.
Screening Saturday, April 21, 8:30 p.m.

DIR: Andrew Currie
SCR: Robert Chomiak, Andrew Currie,
CAST: Carrie-Ann Moss, Dylan Baker, Billy Connolly, Tim Blake Nelson
A Lionsgate Films release
Carrie-Ann Moss and Billy Connolly stand out in this retro zombie comedy about keeping up with the Joneses when most of the planet has been seized by the undead.
Screening Saturday, April 21, 10:15 p.m.

Maxed Out
Ohio premiere
DIR: James Scurlock
A Magnolia Pictures release
The subject of a recent Nightline segment, James Scurlock’s doc examines our country’s ever-increasing debt, the predatory practices of credit companies and the personal fallout for Americans.
Screening Friday, April 20, 9 p.m.; Sunday, April 22, 5:45 p.m.

Columbus premiere
DIR: Satoshi Kon
SCR: Satoshi Kon, Seishi Minakami
CAST (voice): Megumi Hayashibara, Toro Furuya, Koichi Yamadera
A Sony Pictures Classics release
Satoshi Kon’s mind-blowing anime feature centers on a research team’s hunt for a stolen device built to enter another person’s dreams, and the discovery of the more dangerous potential the device has in the wrong hands. Preceded by a sampler of work in progress by time-based media students at Columbus College of Art and
Screening Saturday, April 21, 8 p.m.

Closing Night Selection: The Hip Hop Project
Columbus premiere
DIR: Matt Ruskin
A ThinkFilm release
Executive produced by Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah, this inspiring documentary captures a New York City program that channels teens’ true life experiences into powerful hip hop.
Screening Sunday, April 22, 7:30 p.m.

Special presentations
“World’s Best Commercials”
This crowd-pleasing program presents award-winning commercials from the Cannes International Ad Festival.
Screening Saturday, April 21, 6 p.m.; Sunday, April 22, 4 p.m.

Modern Classics
Moonstruck: 20th anniversary screening
Friday, April 20, 7:30 p.m.
Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion: 10th anniversary screening
Friday, April 20, 9:30 p.m.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
: 30th anniversary screening
Saturday, April 21, 3:30 p.m.
Glengarry Glen Ross: 15th anniversary screening
Sunday, April 22, 2 p.m.

Sports Film Spotlight
By online poll on and, Boaz Yakin’s 2000 gridiron drama Remember the Titans was selected as the sports film Columbus movie lovers would most like to see on the big screen.
Screening Sunday, April 22, 3 p.m.

Additional program updates will be announced in the coming days. For more information, including trailers, click to

alive! is a weekly entertainment newspaper published by the Dispatch Printing Company and distributed throughout central Ohio. For more information about alive! including a complete list of distribution locations, visit

The Dispatch Printing Company is a privately held, family-owned, media organization whose affiliates include The Columbus Dispatch, WBNS-10TV, the Ohio News Network, Mix 97.1, Sports Radio 1460 The Fan, Dispatch Digital, ThisWeek Community Newspapers, alive!, Fronteras, Radio Sound Network, On Target Marketing/TheBAG and Columbus Parent in Columbus; WTHR-TV and WALV-CA in Indianapolis, Indiana; and Dispatch Interactive Television in Columbus and Indianapolis.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

First Snow

FIRST SNOW (Mark Fergus, 2006)

Sidelined in a New Mexico desert town until his car can be repaired, flooring salesman Jimmy (Guy Pearce) bides his time getting some diner grub and extolling the virtues of a vintage Wurlitzer jukebox to his bartender. Left with nothing better to do, Jimmy wanders by a fortune teller working out of his silver camper and decides to pay for a reading. He figures it ought to be good for a laugh, but the experience leaves him unsatisfied. Vacaro (J.K. Simmons) starts with the usual rigamarole about the outcome of a basketball game and a financial windfall. Then he seizes, presumably from what he envisions, declares the session over, and refunds Jimmy's fifteen dollars.

In FIRST SNOW Jimmy thinks nothing of it until the predictions are fulfilled and troubling occurrences begin piling up. He gets recurring staticky phone calls in which no one on the other end speaks. A physician discovers that Jimmy has a lazy heart valve that presents no immediate concerns but needs to be monitored. He has to inform a coworker of his dismissal and later finds a shooting range target in his mailbox.

Jimmy obsesses over what Vacaro must have seen that led him to cut short the reading. He ditches work to demand answers from the trailer park oracle, but the most specific information he gets is that his remaining time will last until the first snow.

In MEMENTO Guy Pearce's character couldn't remember what happened to him minutes before; in FIRST SNOW he is haunted with the knowledge of his imminent death. While these opposing predicaments provide pleasing symmetry in the actor's body of work, just one film is worth the time that's so precious to Pearce's protagonists.

FIRST SNOW'S stumbling point is the non-starter nature of the story. Early scenes lay out where the plot will lead Jimmy and never waver. Sure, he can go into paranoid freakout mode and hole up in a hotel room in an attempt to avoid the fate awaiting him. It doesn't matter. All he can do is make things right before his time expires.

In terms of the five stages of grief, Jimmy spends most of the film in denial and anger--understandably so--but it grinds FIRST SNOW into dramatic inertia. The trickle of information about what wrongs Jimmy must atone for compounds the film's frustrating stillness. Considering that the character is powerless to change his dilemma's outcome, or so he believes, adding emotional context to his choices in life would deepen the tragedy. Instead FIRST SNOW shrugs its shoulders and fails to give Jimmy much substance. Additionally, he never becomes fully active in embracing his destiny, so when he plays the part he knows is required, his rote actions fail to carry any weight.

Writer-director Mark Fergus and co-writer Hawk Ostby were among the five credited for the CHILDREN OF MEN screenplay. Pearce has built his career playing complex and fascinating characters. Unfortunately, FIRST SNOW produces merely a dusting of what these key collaborators are capable of doing.

Grade: C-

Monday, April 09, 2007


TMNT (Kevin Munroe, 2007)

There's trouble in the sewer among the crime-fighting, pizza-loving turtles in the CGI-animated TMNT. With their nemesis The Shredder no longer on the scene, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, four brothers named after Renaissance painters, are no longer busy keeping Manhattan safe.

Leonardo, the leader of the group, has been sent to Central America to improve his skills managing his brothers' talents and temperaments. With Leonardo away, the other turtles do their own things. Donatello spends his days on the phone as tech support. Michelangelo is a children's party entertainer in a turtle costume. Raphael, on the other hand, patrols the streets as the vigilante dubbed The Nightwatcher.

Meanwhile, wealthy industrialist Max Winters (voiced by Patrick Stewart) hires TMNT pal April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) to retrieve several statues known as The Generals. He also employs the remaining members of The Foot Clan to catch thirteen monsters that were unleashed 3000 years ago. Leonardo returns home when it becomes apparent that these developments could put the Turtles' hometown at risk.

With three iterations of the animated TV series, three live-action feature films, and comic books loaded with Turtles lore, TMNT'S makers feel no need to retell the origin story. Why bother? The abbreviated title makes it unlikely that anyone outside the hardcore fanbase will wander into the theater. A cursory description of who they are and what they do addresses the basic questions any newbies might have.

While the animation was done faster and cheaper than is par for the course on most major studio efforts, TMNT looks pretty good, especially when compared to quick and lousy jobs like HAPPILY N'EVER AFTER. The dank sewers and darkened cityscape create a thrilling atmosphere. The nighttime setting is convenient for skimping on background detail, but the animators do a solid job of evoking the environments.

CGI is a better match for the Turtles themselves. Free from physical limitations in live-action, the characters move and react more expressively. TMNT boasts two rousing fight scenes--one between Leonardo and Raphael and another with the whole gang attacking the army of villains--that would have been less fluid if the Turtles were guys in foam suits. A nice sewer skateboarding sequence probably would have been done in a computer anyway, so it makes sense to do the whole film in that manner.

It's best not to let the mythological gobbledygook about an immortal warrior and planet alignment opening another dimension get in the way of the simple pleasures of these wise-cracking, bone-crunching ninja reptiles. The action is fast and furious, perhaps too much so for younger viewers, and the Turtles are fun, if difficult to differentiate. (It doesn't help that Leonardo and Raphael bogart most of the screen time, leaving Michelangelo and Donatello lost in the shuffle.) TMNT amounts to no more than an extended episode of a television cartoon, but this new adventure gets in enough laughs and action to make it worth fans coming out with their shells on to see it.

Grade: B-

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Reaping

THE REAPING (Stephen Hopkins, 2007)

In THE REAPING something strange is happening in the sleepy little town of Haven, Louisiana. Twelve-year-old Loren McConnell (AnnaSophia Robb) is suspected of killing her brother, an action that is blamed for turning the river red. Locals believe that the water has transformed into blood. The religious folks conclude that it is the first of ten plagues God will visit upon them just like in the stories in Exodus.

The townspeople appoint Doug (David Morrissey), an elementary school science teacher, to persuade Louisiana State University professor Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank), a renowned religious miracle mythbuster, to come and investigate the phenomenon. Katherine is the least likely person to attribute the goings-on to supernatural forces. She lost her faith when her husband and daughter were murdered during a mission trip in Sudan and has since dedicated her life to debunking miracles credited to God.

Along with her born-again assistant Ben (Idris Elba), Katherine can't help but acknowledge that there is an odd confluence of events occurring in this area. Frogs rain from the sky. The livestock fall ill and die for no apparent reasons. A deadly breakout of boils spreads among the Haven population. Regardless, Katherine stands by scientific explanations for the Biblical tales and what she is witnessing.

In almost every film pitting faith versus science, faith wins, if only because we often see what is supposed to be impossible. That tips the scales, don't you think? Plus, faith doesn't impose limitations and thus provides for more interesting cinematic possibilities. Like a southern fried X-FILES, THE REAPING explores peculiar incidents with a mix of belief and skepticism, at least for a time, but it loses its potency as paranormal answers become verified.

Katherine and Ben engage in an awful lot of sample collecting, but those scenes allow THE REAPING to soak up the creepy ambiance without deliberating too much on the mystery of it all. Whether or not a scientific explanation can be given for the river looking like it has turned into blood, it's an unsettling image. When the secrets are revealed, THE REAPING plays as profound silliness.

Director Stephen Hopkins uses dream and hallucination sequences to depict how Katherine's past continues to haunt her and occasionally to keep the audience off track as to what is really happening. It's the right instinct, except it is used haphazardly. Rather than creating questions of what is real and what isn't, the technique comes off as a lazy way of manufacturing scares that the film doesn't have.

Using Old Testament events and religious esoterica--or, more likely, outright fiction--to build its ominous atmosphere, THE REAPING conjures a vague sense of evil, but the endgame is too convoluted to make an impact. The film's conclusion requires two flashback montages to explain everything, which should have been the first sign that the film needed recut. Hopkins, a one-time producer and director for TV action serial 24, gives THE REAPING a cliffhanger ending that is ridiculously optimistic that the film deserves a sequel and a really stupid way to wrap up this schlock.

Grade: C-

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Meet the Robinsons

MEET THE ROBINSONS (Stephen J. Anderson, 2007)

Lewis is a smart, creative kid who can make anything he could ever want except for one thing: a family. Left on an orphanage's doorstep as a baby, Lewis dreams of the mother who gave him up and the parents who have yet to adopt him.

Much to his baseball-obsessed roommate Michael "Goob" Yagoobian's aggravation, Lewis works day and night on his most ambitious project yet. Although his memory scanner is ostensibly a science fair project, the invention's true purpose is to help him remember what his mother looked like so he can be go on a quest to be reunited with her.

Lewis' plan in MEET THE ROBINSONS changes course when a kid named Wilbur Robinson appears on the scene. He claims to be from the future and warns Lewis to watch out for the twirly-mustached Bowler Hat Guy. Naturally, Lewis is skeptical of the kid with the prominent cowlick, but he's inclined to believe the claim when the man in question crashes the science fair, sabotages his invention, and slips away with the contraption.

The bespectacled brainiac and his new friend hop into Wilbur's time machine with the future their destination and a desire to make things right their mission. Although Wilbur tries to keep Lewis hidden from his family, Lewis can't help but meet the mansion populated with playful eccentrics. Although he's had to jump forward in time, he's found the family he's always wanted. Unfortunately, Lewis probably won't be allowed to stay.

The mantra in MEET THE ROBINSONS is "keep moving forward", but it's in going back to traditional narrative and filmmaking values that helps set this animated romp apart from many of its contemporaries. Streams of pop culture references and the trumpeting of stunt voicecasting in today's animated films have pulled the emphasis from story. MEET THE ROBINSONS proudly sets its focus on telling a good story rather than getting caught up in trying to be hip and determining what celebrity name can be put on the poster.

The film preaches embracing mistakes as learning opportunities instead of things to regret. This "keep moving forward" philosophy is put to practice in all of its messy and ambitious form. The story is more complicated and meandering--not to mention a tad weighty--than is necessary. As can be the case with corrective measures, MEET THE ROBINSONS over does it. Still, it's encouraging that the film slips up from time to time in pursuit of entertaining with off-the-wall humor and delivering a message. If it gets off course in forging its own path, that's OK.

MEET THE ROBINSONS stays on message in its technical aspects too. It seems that the sky is the limit for what animators can do these days. The retrofuturist MEET THE ROBINSONS boasts delightful strokes that render a bright shining tomorrow in 3-D. (The film is also being exhibited in a 2-D version.) The novelty of 3-D wears off after a short period of time, but the depth of field and tactile sense on display is something to behold.

The jokes can be very random, a quality that gives the film much of its zing. Equally surprising is the nuanced view of the so-called villains in MEET THE ROBINSONS. While the Bowler Hat Guy and his scheming, metallic-tentacled hat Doris fit the bad guy mold, their backstories paint sympathetic portraits that come entirely unexpected. Bowler Hat Guy's past, present, and future add a poignant touch to this otherwise cheerful and good-natured film.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Blades of Glory

BLADES OF GLORY (Josh Gordon and Will Speck, 2007)

In BLADES OF GLORY the chill in the rink isn't just because of the massive sheet of ice. The rivalry between men's figure skaters Chazz Michael Michaels (Will Ferrell) and Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) is enough to freeze water too.

Michaels emerged from Detroit's underground sewer skating scene to stardom on ice and in pornos. The streetwise, hedonistic Michaels stands in stark contrast to MacElroy, a one-time orphan whose sheltered life has been devoted to the pursuit of gold medals. Tied for gold at the World Wintersport Games, Chazz and Jimmy get in a tussle on the medal stand, an embarrassing episode that gets them banned for life from men's singles competitions.

Fast forward three and a half years later. Chazz drunkenly bumbles through his role as a wizard in a children's ice show to cobble together a living. MacElroy is a pent-up clerk at a skate shop. For Jimmy the upside of still having a stalker fan (Nick Swardson) is that he learns of a loophole in the skating association's rules. There's nothing keeping Jimmy from skating in pairs.

Despite their distaste for one another and the peculiarity of being the first male pair, Chazz and Jimmy team up for their reentry onto the world stage. Under the strict tutelage of Jimmy's former coach (Craig T. Nelson), they work on a routine that strikes fear in the hearts of brother-sister duo Stranz and Fairchild Van Waldenberg (Will Arnett and Amy Poehler).

Chazz and Jimmy may share the spotlight, but BLADES OF GLORY is Ferrell's film. It's a new sport but the same shtick for the TALLADEGA NIGHTS star. The pomposity and self-unawareness Ferrell brings to his character generate regular laughs, although he is in danger of repeating himself one time too many. He's able to overcome the familiar nature of his jokes through sheer force of personality, but he'd be wise to continue to break up his silly comedies with slightly more substantive fare like STRANGER THAN FICTION.

On the other hand, Heder's slack-jawed act is getting old quickly. He's a one-note actor who does fine in support of Ferrell but is too dull to carry scenes on his own. Perhaps he is suffering the curse of debuting with a defining role in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE that he is asked to repeat. Whatever the case, his monotone delivery is better suited for the droll NAPOLEON than the all-out zaniness of BLADES.

The figure skating world provides easy pickings for everyone involved. Real costumes and routines sometimes function as parodies of themselves. The film runs with it, giving Jimmy a ridiculous peacock outfit and having Chazz shoot flames at the end of his performances. The music in figure skating routines tend to run a decade or two behind pop culture, and BLADES OF GLORY does a hilarious send-up of such tone deafness with the Van Waldenbergs doing a dated hip-hop number. (The Van Waldenbergs are also good for some jokes at the expense of sibling pairs whose intimate skating contact raises eyebrows.)

The physical comedy takes care of itself. Ferrell's beefy build is a reliable source of humor. Compared to the lithe top-level athletes, he looks like he belongs nowhere near the ice. Heder's lanky frame and blond mop of hair is an amusing incongruity when he and Ferrell skate together. They look totally ridiculous. If it weren't for the film's bad compositing, it could have used more scenes of their outrageous routines.

BLADES OF GLORY has the sport's absurd elements down cold and skates by on Ferrell's comic bluster. Even the French judge would agree.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Are We Done Yet?

ARE WE DONE YET? (Steve Carr, 2007)

In ARE WE DONE YET? newly married Nick Persons (Ice Cube) finds that his condo doesn't have enough room for everyone. His wife Suzanne (Nia Long), stepkids Lindsey (Aleisha Allen) and Kevin (Philip Bolden), and their dog Coco are too many bodies to squeeze into his former bachelor pad. That's before he learns that Suzanne is pregnant with twins.

Nick realizes that married life means making some changes. He sells his partial ownership in a sports memorabilia shop so he can work from home on a start-up sports magazine. OK, so maybe entering the publishing world with its high rate of attrition isn't the wisest decision, but it would probably be smart to trade the hustle and bustle of life in downtown Portland for a bucolic home, right?

The Persons find their potential dream house: five bedrooms, four bathrooms (including a master bath larger than a studio apartment), a guest cottage that can double as Nick's home office, and an apple orchard. Nick falls over himself--and the roof's railing--to tell realtor Chuck Mitchell Jr. (John C. McGinley) that they'll take it.

The house is something of a fixer upper, but Nick is sure that he can handle whatever work needs to be done. If not, he'll get plenty of practice. The electrical wiring and plumbing need to be overhauled, the walls have dry rot, the floor is infested with termites, and the foundation must be replaced, to name a few necessary improvements. To add insult to injury, the raccoons keep taking his corn nuts.

No one will mistake Ice Cube's comic timing for Cary Grant's, but this remake of the 1948 RKO comedy MR. BLANDINGS BUILDS HIS DREAM HOUSE is a moderately amusing family film, if not a terribly inspired one. Nick's apopleptic reactions to the escalating repair costs and his exasperation with Chuck, the local Mr. Everything (contractor, inspector, and midwife, among other things), features some of the film's best moments. McGinley works overtime to mold Chuck into a curly redheaded sweetheart that Nick's family adores and who is a good guy by all appearances. He invests Chuck with irrepressible enthusiasm, which naturally causes Nick's temper to flare more. The downside is Cube is too lacking in energy to match McGinley's go-for-broke performance, which is like something out of a cartoon.

McGinley's endearingly manic turn fits with the film's live-action cartoon style. A hooked sturgeon pulls Kevin across the surface of a pond like a skipping stone. Surprised animals react with spoken exclamations. A bird of prey plucks a chipmunk out of Nick's hand in the film's best sight gag. Even the opening and ending are animated. The zanier elements aren't always successful. Too many times something is thrown out of frame and followed by a "funny" sound effect. I can't decide if the blind plumbers are in bad taste or not.

ARE WE DONE YET? is certainly a substantial improvement over ARE WE THERE YET? The children were actively malicious in the original but take a break from tormenting Nick in the sequel. They do some sassing, but it's nothing like the gleeful meanness they indulged (and which was implicitly endorsed) in the first film. Parents weary of scatological humor in family movies can take comfort in its near absence in ARE WE DONE YET? There are no kicks to the crotch, which I thought were legislated joke requirements for films of this ilk.

Following the lead of its halfhearted star, ARE WE DONE YET? feels like it is going through the motions. Some jokes hit their marks, even if they are long past their originality expiration dates. It's not a bad film, just a stale one. Families could do worse than to spend an hour and a half at ARE WE DONE YET? (For starters, they could watch its predecessor.) They could also do better.

Grade: C+