Friday, August 29, 2008

Mamma Mia! Sing-Along

“Audiences at these specially selected theaters are invited to bring friends and family to experience the smash hit movie musical in a whole new way by singing along to the songs they love. Mamma Mia!: The Sing-Along Edition will feature the lyrics to every musical number on the screen, and you are invited to sing and dance along.”

I enjoyed Mamma Mia!, but it has a few flaws (read that review) and seemed to be missing something. It turns out what it was missing was an active audience. This new Sing-Along Edition, released today in select theaters, provides karaoke style lyrics and the bottom of the screen for all of the musical numbers. The audience is encouraged to sing along with the actors.

If you can get into a theater at least 2/3 full of Mamma Mia! fans this is the best way to see the film. First, the audience singing along with the stars helps some of the actors (mostly the men) who struggle with their numbers. And second, it’s just fun!

The Diagnosis
Now, if you aren’t an ABBA fan this isn’t going to change anything, but this active experience (much like the Buffy-Sing-Along or The Rocky Horror Picture Show) adds energy, magic, and fun, to the film making it an enjoyable time at the movies. If, over time, the experience is tweaked even further with the addition of props and audience activities this film could earn a long life in late night screenings.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


“I need to know the truth.”

Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) is a bomb maker, a devout Muslim, and a terrorist. Or is he? Based on a story from wild & crazy Steve Martin (yeah, that Steve Martin) comes a suprisingly smart tale about the lengths people will go to both commit and stop terrorism. If you were expecting a good action film you will get it, but oh so much more as well.

Cheadle is excellent in a role that has to carry the film, but not give away too much too soon. This is one of those films I’d advise you not to watch the trailer which tells a bit too much of the plot.

So what is the plot? The simple explanation is it’s about a man cut-off and immersed in a complicated world that expects several things from him - not all of which he’s comfortable delivering.

After being captured for selling bombs Samir comes to the attention of both the CIA (Guy Pearce, Neal McDonough) and a terrorist leader (Aly Khan) and his most trusted associate (Said Taghmaoui). Both sides have plans for Samir, but whose side is he really on?

What follows is a whirlwind tale across the globe which should feel fractured and jumbled, but the pace and flow of the story is managed by writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff with expert skill. The film will (and has) draw comparisons to the Jason Bourne films, but this one takes things up a notch. Yes there is action and suspense, but at the heart Traitor is a drama which is moved forward not simply by plot and twists, but by the emotions and struggles of its characters.

There are several important secondary characters introduced throughout the course of the film including a wide range of Americans of all races and creeds willing to give up their lives to further the terrorist cause. Unlike many Hollywood action films the film isn’t anti-terrorism as much as it is about examining the appeals, the reasons behind, and the great costs, involved in such activities.

Three of the supporting characters need to be mentioned. The first is Jeff Daniels in a small but vital role to the plot, and the second is in Samir’s long lost love Chandra played by Archie Panjabi. Both provide different aspects of the story in relation to Samir, and in the investigation by the CIA. The final worthy of special mention is Said Taghmaoui the terrorist Samir gets to know best over the course of the film. He, like Samir, is more than he seems with his own conflicting beliefs and doubts. These aren’t your regular Hollywood version of terrorists, but people with deep beliefs about doing what needs to be done to further their own interests.

As I said, the film is character not plot driven, but it also provides many twists and turns along the way for those who enjoy films that like to keep the audience guessing. And this film includes a twist so good you don’t want to miss it!

I do have one small quibble with the film, which is impossible to discuss without giving way, way too much away, but it involves an epilogue scene unnecesarily tagged onto the end of the film. I understand it’s purpose, but it’s the one instance where the film feels forced. But thankfully that’s my only major complaint.

Traitor is one of those films that not only succeeds, but succeeds so well you begin to expect more from the genre. It reminds us you can make a thriller and spy story that is as much about people, emotions, and ideas as it is about explosions and body counts. The film looks at the rationale behind terrorism, and makes some astute observations about the lengths which are taken in the name of stamping it out. It’s not a political film, but it is a smart one. And a smart action/thriller at the end of summer is something we should all be thankful for.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The House Bunny

“But I’m 27.”
“That’s 59 in Bunny years.”

The day after her 27th birthday Shelly (Anna Faris) is thrown out of her comfy lifestyle in the Playboy Mansion. Her initial forays into the real world aren’t too successful, and an unlikely misunderstanding with a cop (Dan Patrick) even lands her in jail for a night.

Her luck changes with the discovery of an entire street of mini-Playboy Mansions and a new calling as a House Mother for the lamest sorority on campus, the one full of the kind of misfits you only find in movies like this and Sydney White (read the DVD review) and is constantly facing probation, expulsion, or both. From here you can guess what happens next.

Shelly uses her gifts to turn all the other girls (Emma Stone, Kat Dennings, Katherine McPhee, Dana Goodman, Rumer Willis, Kiely Williams) into hotties, fights off the mean sorority girls across the street (Sarah Wright, Rachel Specter), learns an important lesson about herself, and saves the Zeta’s house in a last-minute impassioned plea to the Dean.

There are also a couple sub-plots involving the truth behind Shelley’s expulsion from the mansion and Shelley’s disastrous attempts at dating a normal guy (Colin Hanks). And Hugh Hefner shows up in a small supporting role which provides a few laughs. None of these are as funny as they should be, but they will draw a chuckle or two.

The script is about as cookie-cutter as you come with Faris in a role she could probably do in her sleep by now. I can only hope that she’s grown half as tired playing these roles as I am watching them and gets cast in something which shows some range.

It’s not a bad film, and in many ways it resembles it’s main character. The film looks good, isn’t too bright or puts forth more effort than necessary, but does hold a bit of a sparkle and some hidden heart beneath a shallow surface. Not all the jokes work, in fact many don’t, but there is enough here to make it a slight recommendation for fans of this genre.

Hamlet 2

“It was stupid, but it was also theater.”

Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) is a former actor turned high school drama teacher in Tuscon, Arizona (which the movie reminds repeatedly is the worst place on Earth).

Dana’s simple life is complicated when his class of two (Phoebe Strole, Skylar Astin) is increased by other art and computer classes being shutdown, followed by the news that the Drama department is the next to get the axe, leaving Dana unemployed.

Hoping to raise enough money to keep the program and inspire his new students Dana dumps his usual of adapting the latest film to stage (previous plays at the high school include Erin Brockovich) and begins work on a new play - Hamlet 2: The Musical.

The script by Andrew Fleming and Pam Brady goes for the outrageous and when it succeeds is very funny. When it misses you can hear a pin drop anywhere in the theater. Coogan carries the film through most of the rough patches, though it’s hard to believe it took the school district this long to fire this guy.

Catherine Keener and David Arquette also star in sub-plot about Dana’s homelife that works well in the beginning but begins to drag over the course of the film. The students all put in solid work and I was particularly impressed with Phoebe Strole who has a great screen presence and does a good job even with some of her character’s more cringe worthy moments (FX viewers might remember her from a small role from the first season of Rescue Me). The film also gives us a humorous new take on the theater critic (Shea Pepe). And I have to give huge props to Elisabeth Shue, who appears as herself in the film, for a fearless performance.

Although the cast is solid it’s the show itself which is the real star here. My major complaint is the script takes too long to get to Hamlet 2. The stage show outrages and intrigues the entire community with a plot which includes Satan french-kissing the President of the United States (sadly, off-camera), references to sexual acts (including rape), Hamlet and Jesus Christ traveling through time in a time machine, and catchy musical numbers such as “Rock Me Jesus.” No, it’s not exactly The Sound of Music, but it’s not without its own charm.

Those who liked Get Over It (read that review) should enjoy this similar, though more adult, comedy. You will see many better films than Hamlet 2 this year, but here’s one that will stay with you. Memorable, in both good ways and bad, the film slingshots back and forth between moments of genius and stretches which are better off forgotten. But I think it’s the good moments, the catchy tunes and numbers, some outrageoulsy inappropriate humor, and a lesson about enjoyment and passion being more important than talent, which will stay with you. It’s not for everybody, but for the right audience all I can say is Rock Me Sexy Jesus.

Death Race

“So do what you do best. Drive.”

The economy of the United States has collapsed. In this near future (roughly four years from today) prisons are run by cooperations, for a profit. Though what type of cooperation would go for this is never explained (gee, I wonder why Budweiser wouldn’t want to be marketed in the film?).

Unemployment is out an all-time high and the most watched program on the air is a pay-per-view Internet program which involves prisoners fighting for their lives. Hmm… haven’t we seen something like this before, once, twice, three times, or more?

Jason Statham stars as former NASCAR driver Jensen Ames struggling to support his wife (Janaya Stephens) and child. And then he’s framed by a one-armed man, masked man for the murder of his wife and sent to a prison/reality-TV show!

There he meets the warden (Joan Allen in a role which will make you question her sanity) who offers Ames a shot at freedom by winning the Death Race, a three day race around an enlarged prison yard in suped-up cars with everything except the music from Spy Hunter.

The film is a remake of Roger Corman‘s Death Race 2000 which was about a deadly motor race across the country (think Cannonball Run with a way higher body count). Setting the illogical concept in a confined prison (and arming some of worst dregs of humanity with high-tech weapons, full body shops, tools, and explosive chemicals, with only limited control) seems more than a little daft to me.

Often in action films logic gets bent, even sometimes thrown out the window. Here it is refused existence. The film runs more like a convict’s wet dream than something anyone could take seriously on any level. The plot involving Ames frame and need for revenge constantly gets in the way of the stunts which are the only thing the film does have going for it. And don’t even get me started on the dialogue (are we sure this isn’t a Michael Bay film?).

Throw in some shameless T&A with the arrival of women prisoners (Natalie Martinez, and others) to help in the race because… the script needed some shameless T&A (the film doesn’t even try to come up with a reasonable explanation for their inclusion), casting most of the criminals as heroes and all the guards as sadistic monsters, an overly-elaborate storyline about Ames pretending to be another driver (which no one notices, not even the other drivers??), and you’ve got something which makes Sylvester Stallone‘s Lock-Up look like a prison documentary.

The film banks everything on some impressive real-life stunt sequences and the star power of Stratham and Gibson but puts no energy into creating any semblance of a story which won’t be laughed off the screen in ten minutes. If you want to spend your time and money for car crashes, explosions, and some pretty tame T&A, you could do worse than Death Race but you could also do far, far better.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

“You’ve got spunk… I hate spunk!”
—Lou Grant, The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Taking place between Episode II: Attack of the Clones (read the review) and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (read the review) this new animated film follows Generals Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter) in their continuing battle to put down the resistance of the Separatists and their near-endless supply of droid armies.

When Jabba the Hutt’s (Kevin Michael Richardson) son is taken hostage Anakin, along with his spunky new tweenage padawan Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), is sent to retrieve the young Huttling from Count Dooku’s Dark Jedi assassin Asaji Ventress (Nika Futterman). Control of Hutt space in the Outer Rim could be a deciding factor in the war and the Republic can not afford the Jedi to fail.

Only a few of the supporting characters are voiced by those who played the roles in the three prequels. Christopher Lee returns as Count Dooku, Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, and Anthony Daniels shows up in a cameo as C-3P0. Here’s one of the few times you’ll see me give props the the casting coordinator as Jenn Berry does a terrific job in finding actors with similiar voices and inflections for almost all of the iconic characters. She even fooled me once or twice as when Amadala showed up voiced by Catherine Taber and not Natalie Portman.

In terms of story and plot the film isn’t as strong. More than any Star Wars film yet this one is really for the kiddies, and it seems like Lucas is really going after young girls with the introduction of the spunky Asoka. There’s enough fun to keep your interest, but there’s nothing all that memorable about this entry into the franchise and there’s simply too much sitcom-style adolescent humor.

There are some other odd changes as well. We don’t get the scrolling marquee to open the film (replaced here by some clunky naration instead) and even the iconic opening theme has been tweaked. Yes it’s still Star Wars, but some of the magic is gone.

In terms of animation the CGI style of the film is a little hit and miss. The look of backgrounds, creatures, droids, and the like is quite good, but the human characters, at times, come off looking more than a little like moving marianettes or dolls than actual people (I wonder if that will hurt or help merchandising sales). And this style of animation still hasn’t mastered the look of human hair (which is especially noticeable in Obi-Wan’s rectangular jawline and beard). Although better than some CGI, the format still hasn’t worked out all the bugs which is a little disconcerting going into the 100+ episodes of the new series Lucas has envisioned.

Originally aimed for a television audience as part of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars cartoon series for Cartoon Network the new film is a mixed bag, though as a Star Wars fanboy I’ll admit I had some fun. I’d recommend this for fanboys who can’t get enough Star Wars, but casual fans would be better off waiting until the series makes its debut later this fall on Cartoon Network and TNT.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tropic Thunder

“I don’t read the script. The script reads me.”

In an attempt to teach their spoiled stars a lesson the director (Steve Coogan) and author (Nick Nolte) of the new war film send the actors into the jungle where they encounter real danger and are forced to fight for their lives.

The platoon is led by action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) whose career is on a downhill spiral. His choices for roles outside his chosen genre (with his insane amount of sequels), such as a mentally-impaired farm hand called Simple Jack, have earned him scorn and tanked at the box office.

He is joined by renown five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.). The Australian actor has gone through a controversial medical procedure to play the African American platoon seargent (and becomes hopelessly lost in the role). Rounding out the group are comedian turned actor Jeff Portney (Jack Black), music star and candy and cola pimping Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and character actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), the only one who has read the script or done any research on the project.

The film is a parody of war films (including Platoon and Apocalypse Now) and of Hollywood itself. The film’s sly jokes about trailers, Hollywood marketing and politics, why an actor should never go “full retard,” a short but sweet moment of Jack Black hilariously crapping all over Eddie Murphy‘s recent career, and star behavior on the set, have more than a little truth behind them. Tom Cruise gives a terrific over-the-top performance as a drunk with power studio head, and Matthew McConaughey has a nice role as Tugg’s agent who is forced to choose between his star client’s well-being and loads of cash.

Although all the cast is great Downey steals the show. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him having more fun with a role, and he goes all out for this performance. There’s been some Internet flack (all by those who haven’t seen the film) on the role, but there’s no malice here, just plenty of humor in a film which takes nothing seriously.

Although terrifically funny at times the film isn’t perfect. Although Jack Black has some funny moments his character is limited, and we grow tired of him acting crazy all the time (though I will remember his scene with that bat for a long time). I could also have used a bit less dancing from Cruise, and the script overall needs to be tightened-up in places where it gets off-track from time to time. Even with these small complaints, it’s an easy recommendation to make.

Tropic Thunder is an immensely enjoyable flick which is perhaps only one more rewrite away from becoming a great comedy. Though it gets off-track at times it always manages to find its way back with terrific moments, espically from Downey. It’s not quite as good as last winter’s parody Walk Hard (read the DVD review), but it’s similar in how it uses outrageous humor, and some damn funny moments, to spoof an industry that too often takes itself a little too seriously.

Friday, August 8, 2008

American Teen

“You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princesss, and a criminal.”
-The Breakfast Club

The documentary by Nanette Burstein follows a small group of diverse high school students from Warsaw, Indiana, over their final year through graduation. Burstein’s chosen subjects run the gamut from the high school basketball stud trying to land a scholarship and the most popular (and nastiest) girl in school, to your typical band geek and the lonely art student who wants nothing more than to get as far from Indiana as possible.

Events over this year include each of the subjects dealing with relationships, both romantic and platonic, fears about the future, the awkwardness of adolescence, bad choices, and a cruelty that can only be found in American high schools and Turkish prisons.

Although all of the subjects are given equal time the two young ladies of the piece stood out for me. It’s hard to imagine a sweeter and more compasionate character than Hannah Bailey who is constantly disappointed by family, friends, and the boys she falls for. Her fears about fitting and not being seen as too soft almost destroy her, but thankfully her passion for life and willingness to pursue here dreams far away from home sustain her through even the most difficult times.

If there’s an anti-Hannah it’s got to be Megan Kriszmanich, the cool cruel girl who will shock you with her selfishness and the lengths she will go to get revenge on those she feels have wronged her. However Burstein is careful to show Megan’s insecurities, pressures, and past tragedies, which shape her into the character that at times even her best friends can’t stand (and don’t dare cross). Although the other stories involving the two jocks and the band geek each give the film different flavors, for me, it’s these two contrasting tales which capture the all the beauty and beastliness of high school.

Bustein gives us and engaging documentary that looks deep into the lives of her subjects. A year of footage couldn’t have been easily edited into a final cut, and at times the flow and timeline of the story seems to jump around a bit, but the end result is some remarkable moments captured on film. The pressures these students put on themselves, and have thrust on them by family members (well intentioned or not) is something many parents could use as a cautionary tale. And for those still struggling in high school, there’s a lesson for you as well - whether you’re the band geek or the most popular girl in school you can survive high school and move on to pursue your dreams.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the latest from the movie franchise which has spawned prequels and sequels. Brandon Frasier returns to stop a Mummy, this time with the help of Maria Bello (who takes over for Rachel Weisz), their brash young son (Luke Ford, in a performance everyone will want to forget), and a mysterious Asian woman (Isabella Leong) who holds answers to their questions.

Ridiculous from beginning to end, instead of a review I’m going to give you some of the “highlights” of the flick which provides some lessons worth discussing. For more on the ins and outs of the film itself check out Ian’s review.

The 7 Lessons from the Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The term mummy, it appears, can be applied to any creature who escapes from a tomb, whether or not he was ever mummified. That the Dragon King (Jet Li), can be referred to as a mummy makes me wonder if the Creature from the Black Lagoon would also fit under this new all-inclusive definition.

Maria Bello (playing Evelyn O’Connell) can do a descent Rachel Weisz impression, even if she’s terribly miscast, and way too smart, for this clunker of a film.

Control over all the elements is really cool. The Dragon Emperor uses these abilities throughout the film to great effect (breathing fire, making spikes out of ice). I do have one question however, which one of these elements gives him the ability to shape-shift into a three-headed dragon? I’m guessing it’s wood.

The secretive race of Yetis (think werewolves from Underworld spray-painted white with soulful bright blue eyes) living deep in the Himalyan Mountains, it turns out, are NFL fans.

Oh, and these Yetis are powerful creatures with a built-in invulnerability to avalanches (don’t ask).

Men turned to stone can slightly change shape and position over the centuries in order to fit better camera angles when they are brought back to life. How accommodating!

Swords (both ancient and modern) and even spears, it turns out, can cut through stone statues like butter causing them to shatter in many pieces. Who knew?

These are just a few of the laughably bad “lessons” learned from this disaster which steals from its predecessors and countless other films to blend together a forgettable movie which feels more like a half-thought-out second-rate video game than a feature film. This Mummy should have stayed entombed.

Swing Vote

“You’re ruining America!”

When the outcome of the Presidential election comes down to one uncounted ballot in New Mexico the entire country’s attention becomes focused on Earnest “Bud” Johnson (Kevin Costner) an unemployed single father from a small town called Texaco.

Both campaigns, along with news media from around the country land in Texaco to court this doofus who, in ten days time, will decide the fate of the election.

The film is many things, part parody and part cautionary tale. At the heart of the film is the relationship between Bud and his much smarter daughter Molly Johnson (young Madeline Carroll, who steals the film in her first performance on screen). There’s also a subplot about the secret of Bud’s ballot which, although sets up the story, is a bit burdensome to the plot.

By the way, Judge Reinhold fans (yes, he’s still alive, who knew!?) should look for him in a small role as Bud’s friend Walter, complete with laughably bad facial hair. And as a DS9 fan Nana Vistor‘s small role brought a smile to my face. What a cast!

As Bud becomes the center of a media storm both candidates (Kelsey Grammer, Dennis Hopper) are forced to ask themselves how far they will go to win one man’s vote as their campaign leaders (Stanley Tucci, Nathan Lane) are prepared to disregard their own beliefs and those of their party in order to win the deciding vote. The results are hugely entertaining as the film takes selling your soul to win an election to a new level. Also burdened is young reporter Kate Madison (Paula Patton) who is forced to bend and even break her own rules and ethics to get to the heart of the story.

It’s in these tough choices and questions that film finally finds it’s voice. The second half of the film works better than the first, though there are funny moments scattered throughout. In terms of style and content the film reminded me a bit of both 1999’s Edtv and 2006’s Man of the Year (read that review), though it’s a slightly better film than both.

The Diagnosis
There’s a lot which works here, and much that doesn’t as well. The film never really settles on a tone, jumping from parody to drama and back again. However, as a message about civic responsibility and a humorous examination at all that is good and bad with politics and media, it hits more than it misses. Although shaky at the beginning, the film slowly, much like Bud himself, finds its voice and, it turns out, has something to say. I liked the film more and more as the story settled down and became less about antics and more about choices and consequences. If you’re patient I think you’ll find this one worth your time, as there is much here to enjoy and discuss afterwards (even if the film isn’t quite as smart as the ideas it introduces). And if young Ms. Carroll doesn’t earn a nomination she should demand a recount.