Friday, April 25, 2008

Baby Mama

“I just don’t like your uterus.”

Kate Holbrook (Tina Fey) is a career businesswoman and a Vice President of a successful line of health food stores. Her life, however, is incomplete.

Informed by her doctor (John Hodgman) of her inability to conceive, and unable to wait for adoption, Kate decides to go in a different direction. She enlists the help of Chaffe Bicknell (Sigourney Weaver) who offers the service of uniting women wanting children with surrogate mothers.

Kate shells out $100,000 and finds white trash Angie (Amy Poehler) and her deadbeat common law husband Carl (Dax Shepard) on her doorstep. Angie agrees to carry Kate’s baby to term and before you can say shenanigans things get crazy.

Fey is well cast in the main role and balances the facets of the character with a grace I’m betting wasn’t on the page. The rest of the cast however isn’t as lucky. Poehler’s main role in the film is to act dumb, annoying, and weird, and keep getting into contrived situations (over the ninety-minutes she pees in the sink, binges Hostess cupcakes only to vomit moments later, sticks her used gum under the table, lies, and complains non-stop). Had the film taken her character as seriously as Fey’s there might have been something to explore here.

The movie also includes a subplot about Kate’s new relationship with a former lawyer and juice shop owner (Greg Kinnear). It’s by far the most honest relationship in the film but sadly is just getting started when it gets derailed for typical romcom plot points involving lies and misunderstandings which only occur in films like this and are later fixed just in time for the happy ending.

The humor of the film is also pretty hit and miss. For some reason the film believes health food is hysterical, and although it doesn’t give us much reason to accept the premise it demands we think so too. Of course the obligatory pregnancy jokes are here as well (including the birth video which drives the obligatory guy who sees it crazy). Although there are a few genuine funny moments, they occur only when the film isn’t trying so hard to push the expected easy joke.

Steve Martin and Maura Tierney show up for small roles in the film and provide some energy to the project, but aren’t granted much to do other than crack a couple of jokes and then disappear back into the unknown.

Baby Mama isn’t a bad film; it just isn’t a very good one either. When it stays away from pat formulaic jokes and situations you can see the film this could have been. On the other hand it could have been much worse. At least those few genuine moments save you from what otherwise would have been a complete waste of time.


“Not lies Jonathan. That was foreplay; now you’re fucked!”

Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is an accountant. Like all accountants in movies his life has no purpose outside his job, which involves auditing the books of large corporations.

At work one day Jonathan bumps into Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) who strikes up a friendship with our guy. Through an “accident” Jonathan finds himself lost in Wyatt’s world of an underground sex club known simply as The List. He has anonymous sexual encounters with many women before falling for a one of the girls (Michelle Williams) who he once saw on the subway.

Here’s where things get dicey. Wyatt, whose name isn’t Wyatt, kidnaps the young woman and forces Jonathan to steal money from the next company he is scheduled to audit.

The movie’s plot relies on coincidence and unlikely twists. For Wyatt’s scam to work he has to be seen in the company Jonathan is auditing, talking with people, and never getting noticed as an intruder. Good thing large companies don’t have security, right?

Wyatt’s plan also relies on Jonathan falling for the Michelle Williams character who we know only as “S” because of a tag on her purse. Isn’t it just as likely he would fall for one of the other women on The List such as Natasha Henstridge, Paz de la Huerta, Daisy Bates, Shannan Click, Jordan Testay, Maggie Q, or Charlotte Rampling?

The film further muddies the plot with a Police Detective (Lisa Gay Harden) who doesn’t believe Jonathan’s story of a kidnapped girl, until she suddenly does and thinks he’s a killer. Such large leaps in logic are commonplace here. Despite the fact that Jonathan has Wyatt’s phone which keeps getting sent text and picture messages which prove he’s kidnapped “S,” Jonathan never thinks that this might be something he should share with the police.

Things get even less believable later in the film involving fake passports (which materialize out of nowhere), a final twist (which you should see coming long before Jonathan), a twist relying on Jackman and McGregor looking so much alike (?), and a ridiculous ending which would have stretched all believability to the breaking point if it hadn’t already been broken much earlier in the film.

Deception wants to be smart and secretive, but doesn’t allow the characters enough brains to carry it off. Jonathan, and Wyatt for that matter, are just smart enough to keep following the plot and just stupid enough to keep screwing up and leaving evidence around for anyone, except our rather dim Police Detective, to find. Although the acting isn’t too bad, the plot sinks the film early on and leaves us with a sleazy skin-flick murder mystery more at home on Cinemax than the movie theater.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

“I’ll kill you witch!”
“Not if I kill you first orphan bitch!”

Based on one of the four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Journey to the West, this new adaptation tells the story of a Jason (Michael Angarano) a young boy from Boston who finds himself thrust into a magical world and charged with returning the golden staff to the Monkey King (Jet Li) thus freeing him from his stone prison and freeing the land from the tyranny of the man who turned him into a statue, the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou).

Along the way to seek the wizard, um, I mean Warlord, Jason encounters companions who journey with him to help him on his quest including a drunken master (Jackie Chan), a beautiful girl hell-bent on revenge (Yifei Liu), and a monk (Jet Li).

Together this small band of rebels travels through forests and deserts across the yellow brick road to reach the fortress, take on the Jade Army, led by the Warlord’s assassin (Li Bing Bing), and defeat Cobra Kai, um, I mean release the Monkey King.

The more mystical and religious elements of the original tale are played down in favor of a more mythological, adventure, and coming of age tale which will remind you of countless films. Those familiar to the original tale itself might have the upper hand here, especially since early on the film gives Jackie Chan the charge to explain the situation in one long narrative sequence. Not a great idea. I caught most of it, but I’m pretty sure subtitles would help this scene in particular, and a few scenes throughout the film, where actors struggle with their English lines.

The film itself is a nice romp, even if it is a little too familiar (I found myself humming “Where Off to See the Wizard” once or twice, and looking around for flying monkeys and William Zabka). It should draw attention not only for it’s retelling of a classic tale but for the pairing of Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the same film. The pair’s first scene together is an all out brawl in an empty monastery which is one of the film’s best fight sequences.

Although fun, the film does have it’s flaws. The production value of the film is hit and miss throughout. In some cases the lavish detail is impressive, at other times (such as Li Bing Bing’s white wig which looks like someone picked it out of a bargain bin a week after Halloween) it is not.

The film is also cursed with some clunky dialogue that will have anyone over the age of seven rolling their eyes at times (such as the quote at the top of this review). The actors do what they can with the sillier moments and pull them off quite well - especially Chan and Li.

Although a tad flawed the film is still enjoyable, and many of it’s issues can be laughed off as cheesy over-the-top indulgences. If you go in expecting something akin to The Wizard of Oz meets The Karate Kid you should have fun. Kids should enjoy the tale and adults should find enough here worth the ticket price for the fight sequences and a chance to see Chan and Li on the screen together.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Smart People

“You told me my paper was sophomoric. I was a freshman.”
“That’s not what sophomoric means.”

The basic premise of the film is that smart people can be dumb too. As premises go, it’s not exactly insightful.

Lawrence Wetherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a grumpy professor of English literature who finds himself in need of assistance after an accident involving his car, the campus impound lot, and a fence. His children are both as miserable as he is (although the film is less sure why) including his Young Republican daughter Vanessa (Ellen Page) and his son (Ashton Holmes) who wants to be a poet. Enter Lawrence’s brother, by adoption, Chuck (Thomas Hayden Church) the free spirit and a former student, now doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker), to further stir the pot.

I know these characters; you know these characters. We’ve seen them in countless films. We’ve got the grump who learns to care. The uptight kid. The misunderstood kid. The smart and attractive woman entering their screwed-up world. And the dummy with more simple wisdom then all of them combined.

Ten-minutes into the film you’ll recognize the patterns and know exactly what will happen to each of these characters, what lessons they will learn, and how each will end the film happier than when it started.

Everything seems in place, but the film just seems empty. The acting is fine, though low-key, almost minimalistic in places, and the situations presented lend themselves to conflicts, discussions, and moments which are never capitalized on. The movie simply starts and then ends 95 minutes later without asking too much of itself or of the audience.

The Diagnosis
Smart People isn’t a bad film, Hollywood has made enough just like it that they have the pattern down. It’s simply a paint-by-the-number tale from a first time director and a first time writer which is afraid to color outside the lines.

Street Kings

“We can get these guys!”

Detective Tom Ludlow (Keanu Reeves) is a problem solver. Part of a specially trained unit put together by his boss (Forest Whitaker), Tom is asked to do the dirty work which needs to be done.

Tom’s life gets complicated when a former member of the unit (Terry Crews) is killed while he is tailing him and looking for payback. Tom instantly becomes part of an Internal Affairs investigation led by Hugh Lurie (without a cane), is forced to destroy evidence, and begins questioning his role as a cop as he searches for the killers who no one wants found.

This film, based on a story by James Elroy, has been passed around Hollywood for years before landing in the lap of director David Ayer. What he gives us is an okay action flick which wants desperately to also be a stark drama, for which they cast Keanu Reeves. Reeves does what he can with the material, but he isn’t able to elevate it to make it mean something more.

At least it’s better than Ayer’s last attempt at a self-destructive cop on the edge (read that review).

Should Tom be saved? Should he win the day? The film never answers, or even asks, this basic question. Given his recent past he certainly doesn’t deserve to win, and the film gives us no real reason to root for the character other than the fact that he’s a bad ass and we need cops like him to break every rule in the book to keep society functioning (a conclusion which the film starts with and never tries to back-up with silly stuff like evidence). The film never decides how bad of a person, or how good of a person stuck in a screwed-up situation, Tom is. And if the film doesn’t know, how is the audience to decide?

There are some nice moments here and there, but the film is closer to a Steven Segal flick than something like last year’s American Gangster (read the DVD review). Street Kings isn’t a bad film, it’s simply one which you’ll see coming. If you’re looking for an action flick with some nice stunts, gun play, and fair acting (also with plot twists, bad dialogue, and main character you never care for) you could do worse. Just take a clue from the makers of the film and keep your expectations low.

Friday, April 4, 2008


“The game of professional football has come of age.”

The year was 1925 and professional football was a joke and losing money fast. Out of money and options Dodge Connelly (George Clooney), the owner, captain, and marketer of the Duluth Bulldogs, comes up with a plan to save the sport by offering college stand-out and war hero Carter Rutherford (John Krasinski) a spot on the team.

The film has both big jokes and a sly wit. Dodge, it turns out, is the game’s best promoter, and does what it takes to make his meal-ticket into a star even at the cost of his own glory. Although the film takes pleasure in Dodge’s loosing influence over the team and the sport, if you watch closely you will also notice Dodge slowly helping out and making sure it’s Carter’s play which gets celebrated.

The film, also directed by Clooney, is light and enjoyable. Although I wouldn’t classify it as fluff, I wouldn’t spend too much time arguing against that description, either. Clooney instills a tone, look, and humor to the film not dissimilar to the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Although it covers the early days of football it’s not exactly a sports movie. And although it includes a love triangle between Carter, Dodge, and a reporter on the scent of a story (Renée Zellweger), it’s not exactly a love story either. The film is a screwball comedy filled with some fun jokes and some pretty good dialogue.

Clooney provides a terrific look the film with a golden hue and has a nice eye for framing indvidual shots and scenes. As he did on Good Night, and Good Luck (read that review) he also shows his interest in recreating not only the look but the sound of an era, and fills this film with just the right music of the period.

Leatherheads is a nice quirky little film with charm and a kind of class and style that might not be apparent to many on their first viewing. There’s obviously much talent and work that went into making the picture, and, as I’ve said before, one of Clooney’s strengths, both as an actor and director, is to make the process seem so effortless. Those expecting an in-depth period piece about the history of football, or the rah-rah sports film like Rudy may feel a little let down. But if you like old school comedy and a film that takes the extra time and effort to make the film look, feel, and sound authentic, than you should give Leatherheads a chance.

The Ruins

Scott Smith adapts his own novel for the screen, and maybe he should farm himself out for other projects because if he can do this good a job with a screenplay about a some dumb kids and a plant think what he could do for the countless other horror scripts out their which need some serious help.

Two couples (Jonathan Tucker and Jena Malone, Shawn Ashmore and Laura Ramsey) on vacation in Mexico learn there are more things to be afraid of than the local water.

A chance encounter with a German (Joe Anderson) leads the group on an expedition of a recently uncovered Mayan temple deep in the jungle. Despite the distance the group makes it to the temple only to find themselves attacked by a local tribe and quarantined for their exposure to the forbidden locale. Surveying the scene and searching for the archaeological team leads some of the members into the temple and to uncover the reason why the locals fear the place and will make sure nothing leaves the area.

Although the film really isn’t scary, it will make you wince. Instead of monsters or critters the only monster in the film is the unique vegetation which has overgrown the area. How each of the characters is effected by their circumstances is actually much more interesting than the plant itself, and, thankfully for us, it’s the characters and not the plant which are the focus of the film.

One of the interesting choices taken by director Carter Smith is to cast familiar, but not widely recognizable, stars for the film rather than complete unknowns. By doing this 1) the acting is better than expected, and 2) the audience can immeadiately feel some familiarity to the characters. I don’t know that I’d list this as a high point for any of their careers, but it’s not a complete train wreck to keep off your resume and hope people forget either, and for a horror flick that’s pretty good.

The film does fall back on cliché (it is a horror flick, afterall). These youngsters continue to make your typical horror film mistakes and continue to miss clues to what is going on around them. At times you may even start rooting for the plant, because it’s neither good or evil, simply nature weeding out the weak (and stupid). There’s something a little Darwinian about the whole thing.

There’s actually a bit to enjoy here. I like the different choice of a non-sentient vegetative lifeform, instead of an alien creature or monster, which forces the focus to be on the characters and not the effects. The film deals more with the reactions of the travelers to the events than attacks by some hidden threat. And, as in most horror films, these dumb kids are their own worst enemy. It’s certainly not a film for everyone, but, for what it is, The Ruins turns out to be a pleasant surprise.

Nim's Island

“Be the hero of your own life story.”

Abigail Breslin stars as Nim, a headstrong young girl with a good heart who lives on a deserted island with her reclusive scientist of a father (Gerard Butler). When her father is delayed on an expedition Nim asks for help from the most logical source - the hero of her favorite novels Alex Rover (also played by Gerard Butler).

Nim’s cries for help do not reach Alex Rover adventurer, but Alexandria Rover (Jodie Foster) author. Alexandria suffers from acute agorophobia, motion sickness, and a host of other issues which makes it impossible for her to help Nim, but she can’t turn the child down. And so with her make-believe hero in tow (also, quizzically, played by Butler) Alexandria begins a trip by boat, plane, and helicopter, to help.

Nim’s situation if further complicated by a cruise ship who decides to stop on the island and let its passengers enjoy the beach. Unwilling to allow this encroachment into her home, Nim forms a plan with the help of her animal companions to turn away the invaders.

Nim’s Island is filed with creatures including sea turtles, lizards, pelicans, and a sea lion. All of these animals of course have names, and Nim is able to communicate to them and teach them, most of the time. Think of it as a live action Disney cartoon. Although this ability is never explained (nor is the reasoning for Butler to be playing two characters - seriously, what’s up with that?), kids should enjoy it anyway. And this isn’t the type of film you go in looking for logic; at least it keeps the fart jokes to a minimum (one).

The movie, based off a children’s book, comes off as a mishmash from other projects - a bit Romancing the Stone, a bit Home Alone, and a also bits of Tarzan and Doctor Dolittle. Like most films with multiple influences it suffers from time to time.

Although Nim’s Island probably won’t wow young kids, they should have a good time, and at 95 minutes it isn’t too long for adults either. It’s got a few issues, but is better (including some impressive production design) than most films made strictly for young kids.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Jessica Biel vs. Kristy Swanson

We are not here to argue which is the more talented actress, or which is the more attractive woman. What we are examining is the overall body of work both Jessica Biel and Kristy Swanson have accumulated, and examining said work in ten categories we hope to discover which of these talented and beautiful women has wasted more of their career on such horrible projects. Remember our goal is to find the lesser career, to win a category one actress must under-perform the other and grab points towards proving herself the holder of the more mediocre career. Let's get started.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer vs. Next

I'm a much bigger fan of the Buffy television show than the movie which introduced the character. Swanson stars here as valley girl Buffy Summers who is called to become the next vampire slayer and save the world. Though the film has more cheese than I'd like it's still an enjoyable romp. In Next (read the review) Biel co-stars as the woman who a man, with the ability to see two-minutes into the future, decides to stalk. For some reason she thinks this is charming. Biel isn't asked to do anything more than look like the kind of girl someone would like to stalk, and although the film includes some okay special effects the plot is abysmal. Swanson at least carries her film.

Advantage - Biel


Living Death vs. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

Living Death is a laughably bad straight-to-video release of a woman's (Swanson) attempt to kill her masochist husband only to have him rise from the "dead" (see he was only in a coma, but the autopsy was don't really care do you?) and seek his revenge. 2003's remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pointless deja vu about five college kids (including Biel) who find themselves hunted by a serial killer. At least the production values are higher in Biel's film.

Advantage - Swanson

Romantic Comedy

The Chase vs. Summer Catch

In The Chase Swanson stars as a spoiled rich girl kidnapped by a man (Charlie Sheen) wrongly convicted of a crime and about to be sent away to prison. Temporally losing his mind and taking advantage of the situation Jack hijacks her car, tries to outrun the high speed pursuit and make it to Mexico. Most of the movie takes place in the confines of the car and is really just conversations between the pair, and includes a dangerous (and highly unlikely) sexual encounter. In Summer Catch Biel stars as a rich girl who falls for a a local boy (Freddie Prinze Jr.) trying to make it to the major leagues. The Chase is a train wreck but includes a few nice moments, Summer Catch is simply insipid.

Advantage - Biel

Comic Book

Blade Trinity vs. The Phantom

Biel stars as Whistler's daughter in the third (and hopefully final) entry into the series. Along with Ryan Reynolds she tries to look tough and fights vampires with a bow and her iPod. Aside from the few moments of comic relief supplied by Reynolds this is perhaps the worst comic book movie, E-V-E-R! In The Phantom Swanson co-stars as the love interest to the Phantom (Billy Zane), and gets to do some cat-fighting with Catherine Zeta-Jones. The Phantom is not a great comic book movie, but to beat out Blade Trinity it doesn't have to be.

Advantage - Biel

Bit Roles

Elizabethtown vs. Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Although both actresses seem destined to star in mundane and bad films, at times they have taken smaller roles in projects that they hoped would be of a higher quality. Although I had a pretty mixed reaction to Elizabethtown (read the review) I will admit Biel has a fairly nice small role in the opening moments as Drew's (Orlando Bloom) girlfriend. Now, Ferris Bueller is a classic, but (aside from die-hard fans of the film) many would have trouble remembering a young Miss Swanson from her bit role in the film.

Advantage - Swanson

Dumb Comedy

Dude, Where's My Car? vs. I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry

I'm pretty sure the total combined brain power it took to write, star, and direct both these films could light a light-bulb, for about twelve-seconds. Of the pair Dude, Where's My Car is the most harmless.

Advantage - Biel


Soul Assassin vs. Stealth

More believable - Swanson as a hitman or Biel as an ace fighter pilot? Ugh! Read the Stealth review.

Advantage - None


The Illusionist vs. Mannequin 2: On the Move

I was disappointed with The Illusionist (read the review) for it's willingness, make that eagerness, to give away too many of its secrets far too easily and far too early for a suspense film. Biel however isn't too bad as the duchess and childhood friend of the illusionist (Edward Norton), though I don't think her look is right for the period. Swanson stars as a department store mannequin who is actually a cursed 17th Century princess in this unremarkable follow-up to Mannequin. Although The Illusionist gives away its magic, at least it had some to begin with.

Advantage - Swanson


7th Heaven vs. Early Edition

Biel began her career in earnest on the the popular show centering around the Reverend Eric Camdem and his family dealing weekly with moral and ethical issues on a weekly basis. Swanson co-starred for one season of Early Edition as a single mother who knew the series hero's (Kyle Chandler) secret. I was never a fan of either show, but Biel's character was a bigger piece of the overall show (at least during the seasons she was a part of the show), and the role launched her career, where as Swanson was only stopping over to fill a needed role for a season after she had already made several films.

Advantage - Swanson


The Rules of Attraction vs. Zebra Lounge

Okay, neither of these actresses actually made softcore porn, but both delved into the lurid pool from time to time. The Rules of Attraction is tease about drugs, bisexuality, sexual abuse, promiscuity, and love without delivering much in any of these areas. All it really delivers is some pop psychology, a host of unlikable characters, and nifty camera tricks. Biel co-stars as a promiscuous bad girl who, sadly for us, isn't really that promiscuous on screen. Zebra Lounge makes no such quibbles with what it is or wants to be. Swanson stars as one half of an experienced swinging couple who completely disrupt the lives of another couple (Brandy Ledford, Cameron Daddo) who they meet at a local club. Neither can really be taken seriously, and at least Zebra Lounge knows what it is and doesn't try to be something more. Be careful with this clip, it's NSFW.

Advantage - Biel

Our winner

Our winner, by the close vote of 5 to 4, of having the more mediocre career is Jessica Biel.