Archive for April, 2011
YATES: Cast can’t save this film
In the spirit of Easter, and to prepare myself for the wave of children’s movies I will no doubt experience in the next decade with the impending birth of my first born child, I flew the coup over Easter weekend to see “Hop.” This was the first true children’s film I’ve seen in a theater since, well, I was a child. The experience was, different. I learned that in addition to the exciting tale unfolding on the silver screen in front of you, there is also the added bonus of little feet kicking the back of your chair (annoying), children shouting out the lines to their favorite parts of the film (charming), and candy and beverages spilled throughout the film (adorable). I may have learned the fictional story behind the Easter Bunny from the plot, but I learned a lot more about what my future looks like after two hours in a theater full of kids.
But enough about me, on to the bunny! Directed by Tim Hill (2007′s “Alvin and the Chipmunks”), “Hop” tells the story of the Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Laurie, TV’s “House”) and his slacker teenage son E.B. (voiced by Russell Brand — is there anything he isn’t in right now?), who is expected to take over the Easter enterprise. E.B. is more interested in becoming a drummer than taking over for dad, and the night before his anointing as the new Easter Bunny he leaves his home on Easter Island (yep), jumps down the rabbit hole (uh-huh) and heads for Hollywood. His first stop? Where else would a jammin’ bunny be welcome, but the Playboy Mansion? Rather inappropriate for a family-friendly movie, but let’s hop along. Denied access to the mansion, E.B. eventually encounters his human slacker doppelganger Fred O’Hare (James Marsden, “X-Men”). Like E.B., Fred isn’t interested in doing what his parents want him to do, and instead wants to…well, that is really never established. Fred takes E.B. in and the two eventually form a strong friendship involving a mutual slacker understanding. Meanwhile back on Easter Island, evil Chick Carlos (Hank Azaria, “The Simpsons”) tries to take over Easter with plans to replace holiday staples of candy and eggs with chicken-friendly foods like grass and corn. It is up to E.B. and Fred, who confesses his longing to become the Easter Bunny himself, to save Easter.
Now I’ll admit, it has been a while since I’ve attended a children’s movie in the theater, but I have seen my fair share of recent hits such as “Up” and “WALL-E.” I’m always pleasantly surprised by the films that offer an inspiring message wrapped in a fun narrative that both kids and adults seem to enjoy. “Hop” on the other hand offers a formulaic plot with flat characters and no beneficial message whatsoever. Hill — who is no stranger to directing films featuring animated characters with “Chipmunks” and 2006′s “Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties” — does a great job of incorporating the CG’d bunnies into the film. Unfortunately, outside of the seamlessly integrated animation, the film offers the nourishment equivalent of an Easter basket full of sugar and marshmallow.
Dare I say the message is actually a bit harmful to children? What I assume to be the principal moral of “be yourself” is lost amidst shifting plot-lines and patronizing protagonists who somehow justify going through life as slackers at all costs. Fred – who is a grown man in the film – is the subject of an intervention held by his parents and sister, begging him to get a job and move out of the house. Moments later, Fred’s sister leaves him the keys to her boss’s mansion with the responsibility of house-sitting for a week. So the slacker with no job ends up spending the majority of the film in a mansion. When E.B. reaches the epiphany that he has been a selfish rabbit and must help his father for the good of all mankind, it comes not from within, but from the wisdom of David Hasselhoff…playing himself. Once becoming the Co-Easter Bunny, Fred and his father (Gary Cole, “Office Space”) actually share what I think is meant to be a heartwarming moment where Fred’s father finally tells him he’s proud. I swear, I’m not making this up.
Normally when a film takes a shellacking (I hope you get it, along with the other bad Easter puns I worked so diligently to include) by critics, I’ll search laboriously for its redeeming qualities (see my “Sucker Punch” review). But frankly, as deep as you dig through the fake green grass in the metaphorical film basket, the qualities just aren’t there. The cast is a talented and a versatile group, with Brand and Azaria providing voices for the major characters, and Cole and Elizabeth Perkins (TV’s “Weeds) filling minor roles, but it will take more than a collection of accomplished actors to save this film. The main discernible trait of E.B. is that he can poop flavored jelly beans. I think that sums it all up. “Hop” is one giant flavored jelly bean.
WIEGENSTEIN: Film doesn’t speak well for bunnies
Given that Christmas has an entire genre of movies to itself, it makes some sense that the other major Christian holiday on the calendar was due for a little more time onscreen. And just as winter-holiday movies focus on Santa and stockings, “Hop” is a film about the rabbit-overseen mass distribution of Marshmallow Peeps, with a stale, saccharine plot to match.
We meet the current Easter bunny (voiced plummily by Hugh Laurie) at the outset of “Hop,” and he informs both the audience and his son, E.B. (Russell Brand) within minutes that it will soon fall to E.B. to assume all egg-hiding and basket-giving duties. Despite E.B.’s initial doubt, it’s clear from the start that he’ll wind up learning and appreciating his family trade. But it’s a long, long Bunny Trail to trek.
The blueprint for “Hop” is lifted from 1994‘s “The Santa Clause,” with James Marsden’s character, Fred O’Hare (get it?) as the springtime fill-in for Tim Allen. E.B. runs away to find fame as the first rock-drumming bunny and runs into Fred, who is coincidentally both fixated on Easter and without employment. After a few days in that crazy town called Hollywood, the pair meets everyone from David Hasselhoff to the staggeringly out-of-place Blind Boys Of Alabama. And somewhere along the way, Fred begins training to become the world’s first human Easter bunny.
Oh, and there’s a subplot about an evil chick (Hank Azaria, who always winds up voicing these types of parts) attempting to overthrow the current Easter bunny. I mention it as an afterthought, because that’s what it appears to be on the part of the writers. The extra scenes from the workshop on Easter Island (of course) are useful only in demonstrating the truly lovely animation work on the animal characters.
I can’t imagine the mental state one uses to perform alongside zany animals that don’t exist, much less acting with unfunny ones. At least Roger Rabbit was entertaining. Marsden is a supremely charming actor, and his strengths lie with an over-the-top style (his turn as the airheaded Prince Edward in “Enchanted” is still his best work to date). But some things — scenes that involve mass singing to “I Want Candy,” scenes featuring Chelsea Handler attempting to register human emotion on her face — just can’t be redeemed. Both Brand and Laurie are gifted vocal performers, but the latter has nothing to do with the former, while the former is thrown off by attempting to be edgy, while keeping the all-important PG rating.
Bunnies are my most loved animals, be they bearing Cadbury eggs or not. But I can’t imagine they’d want a film like “Hop” speaking for them.
YATES: “Dog Day Afternoon”
This week I chose “Dog Day Afternoon” in remembrance of director Sidney Lumet, who passed away earlier this month. If you put Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen in a blender, the end result would look a lot like a Sidney Lumet film. He contributed more than 40 films to Hollywood, many of them heavy with emotional dialogue and deep in verisimilitude, including classics such as “Serpico” and “Network.”
“Dog Day Afternoon” documents the true story of a botched New York City bank robbery and, more importantly, the motivation behind the crime. On a summer afternoon in 1972, Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) walked into a bank and demanded they empty the vault. The joke is on Sonny, as the vault contents was collected earlier that day, and all that remains is around a thousand dollars. The police show up before Sonny and cohort Sal (John Cazale, “The Deer Hunter”) can escape, creating a hostage situation and a local media frenzy. As the crisis wears on, Sonny reveals he robbed the bank because he needs money to pay for a sex change for his boyfriend Leon (veteran television actor Chris Sarandon). With frayed nerves and no options left, Sonny and Sal make a futile escape attempt that leaves Sal dead and Sonny arrested by the FBI.
The film is surprisingly charming and witty, considering the nature of the crime. Sonny’s aloof interactions with his hostages make him likeable, in spite of his menacing sidekick Sal. When the hostage negotiator sends pizza into the bank for the hostages, Sonny attempts to pay for the pizza himself. He also whips the gathering crowd into a frenzy with the now infamous line “Attica! Attica!” in reference to the recent Attica Prison riots. Sonny’s character development is strong, as Lumet wisely takes his time with the reveal that Sonny is gay and needs the money to pay for a sex change for his boyfriend. A young Al Pacino is brilliant in a difficult and complex role of bisexual bank robber and Vietnam veteran.
“Dog Day Afternoon” is a classic representation of the 1970′s film movement that featured gritty realism and anti-establishment themes. It features an anti-hero internalizing his struggle with everyday life after returning home from Vietnam, putting it on par with Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” It is an under-utilized style most recently employed by Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler” and “Black Swan”). The only real criticism I have is the lack of illumination regarding Sonny’s relationship with Sal. Sonny obviously feels a strong loyalty to his partner in crime, but we never learn why. It is implied that Sal was previously in prison, but we don’t know what for. Ultimately, we know nothing about the relationship of the two men who are on screen together the most. Perhaps that is the way Lumet wanted it, instead emphasizing Sonny’s off-screen relationship with Leon.
Lumet stayed very true to the actual events that occurred on the fateful 1972 afternoon. John Wojtowicz, the bank robber who inspired the film, said that for the most part the film realistically portrays the events that unfolded during the botched bank heist. In the tragic real-life denouement, Wojtowicz ended up serving 20 years in prison for the robbery and other parole violations. While in prison, he received $7,500 for the rights to his story and paid for his boyfriend’s (Ernest Aron who went on to become Elizabeth Eden post-surgery) sex change operation with the money. After the sex change, Eden went on to marry someone else. She died in 1987 at age 41, and Wojtowicz died in 2006. The two were never married.
As one who studied journalism, I obviously must be well-versed on all cinematic takes on the field, from last month’s “Morning Glory” all the way back to “His Girl Friday.” So, my choice of 1976’s “Network” for this week’s Sidney Lumet tribute was a no-brainer. It’s a film powerful enough for television broadcasting to still use its plot as a yardstick for just how ridiculous the fall programming schedule will be, and one that was made to be cited in j-school classes the world over for decades to come.
It’s also a movie that can seem simple to peg – when crazed newsman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) glares into the camera to say “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” the quote is familiar, and sets up a fairly easy “lesson” for viewers to learn. Old-guard journalist goes off the rails and wakes up a brain-dead nation, television is evil, the end.
But what makes “Network” so compelling isn’t so much Beale as a solo character – what matters is that in screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky’s landscape, everyone is crazy. Programming exec Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, in her prime) might not have the populace screaming catchphrases, but she is someone who explains on a first date, “All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating.” It’s the genius of the story to allow the legitimately-unhinged Howard to serve as an entry point into all the nastier, more pointed kinds of insanity that lurk behind the broadcast cameras. If this was the kind of atmosphere I worked it, I’d probably have suicidal thoughts on air before too long myself.
Alongside, there are network higher-ups (Robert Duvall and Ned Beatty most notably) who share her single-mindedness for audience numbers. Howard’s best friend and former co-worker Max (William Holden) is the ostensible voice of reason, but hero he’s certainly not. The only person onscreen with a functioning moral compass is Max’s wife, played by Beatrice Straight with enough power that a single scene won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (still the record-holder for shortest performance).
While Howard Beale’s numerous onscreen tirades provide the bulk of the movie’s signature quotes, Chayevsky’s script allows every character time to pontificate. This mostly happens in extraordinarily loud voices, which can grate somewhat by the film’s conclusion. For the most part, Lumet maintains his reputation as an “actor’s director” by getting out of the way of the dialogue. But the moments where his visual flair takes over a bit — Ned Beatty’s one-scene-wonder, to take a prominent example — are remarkable.
“Network” thoroughly plants itself within the 1970s — there are mentions of Watergate and Patricia Hearst, not to mention the overwhelmingly brown color palette Dunaway is clothed in. But it is indeed timeless, and not in the sentimental, universal-values way that Capra movies are. It’s one of the lucky films that gets “prophetic” in 90% of its description, though the prophecy it holds doesn’t bode so well for the rest of the TV-watching populace of today. We can’t say they didn’t warn us.
I’ll be honest, I knew absolutely nothing about “I Love You Phillip Morris” going into this week’s new DVD release review. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Going into a film completely blind appeals to my sense of adventure and offers a completely blank slate of expectations. My wife doesn’t share in my excitement of the unknown; as a rule, she must read some sort of synopsis before committing to a movie. Because I invited her to join me in this week’s screening, I was forced to take a sneak peek on the ever-faithful Internet Movie Database for some pre-film reconnaissance. Was this a “Thank You For Smoking” sequel? Perhaps a Michael Moore-esque indictment on the smoking industry? No, this was something much different, and my interest was immediately piqued after reading the film’s description.
Steven Russell (Jim Carrey) is living a normal existence with a wife Debbie (Leslie Mann, “Knocked Up”) and young daughter when a series of events lead him to eschew his former life and embrace his repressed homosexuality. As he becomes increasingly flamboyant, Steven realizes living the gay life is expensive, leading to a life of crime. He eventually ends up in prison where he meets and falls in love with the handsome, reserved Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). Once free from prison and with Phillip at his side, Steven begins life as a con-man in a never-ending effort to create an exorbitant life with his new love.
With a strong cast and unconventional storyline, “I Love You Phillip Morris” had a ton of potential. Unfortunately freshmen directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa take the film in a curious direction, offering up a quirky narrative that opts for comedy rather than drama. The plot plays out much like 2002′s “Catch Me if you Can,” with con man Steven running from his past while trying to build a future with the love of his life. However the kitschy, 1950′s style comedy setting robs the film of any real sincerity. The plot vaguely touches on the struggles faced by gay couples who want to be open about their sexuality. It isn’t until the film’s final twenty minutes that you begin to understand the profoundness of the relationship shared by Steven and Phillip – something that should have been fleshed out in the early stages of the movie.
Much like the grief Zach Snyder received for the lack of character depth in “Sucker Punch,” the characters here are equally flat. You want to root for Steven (thanks mostly to Carrey’s performance), but his failures as a father and inability to learn from his mistakes make him an unsavory protagonist. Despite being purported as the love of Steven’s life, Phillip simply serves as additional furnishing for Steven’s luxurious lifestyle. Steven’s former family appears sparingly, typically for some type of chicanery such as Steven sending boxes of cash to his ex-wife and daughter for Christmas. Despite a promising plot and well-rounded cast, “I Love You Phillip Morris” lacks any real intrigue and will likely leave audiences rather apathetic about the story — however real it might have been.
“I Love You Phillip Morris” is a genius fake-out of a title, and not just because it sounds like a scrapped sequel to “Thank You For Smoking.” It’s a bold, romantic statement, and this is a film where truthfulness is hard to find anywhere, even in the heart. Not to mention that the guy getting name-dropped is merely a vessel through which the main character funnels his crazy.
On the other hand, calling the film “Steven Russell Lies All The Time” just doesn’t have enough panache.
Jim Carrey, playing real-life conman Russell, has always had the manic onscreen countenance of one with a fast-and-loose relationship with the truth — “Liar Liar,” a personal favorite, is a reverse-image of “Phillip Morris.” But, as the movie is keen to remind us, this plot (all of it, no really) is true. Steven Jay Russell actually managed all these cons, and yes, a lot of them were in pursuit of his boyfriend, Phillip Morris.
John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who wrote and directed “I Love You, Phillip Morris” together, were previously the hands behind the acidic new-Christmas-tradition movie “Bad Santa,” and their taste for black humor hasn’t left them. The tale is told from Steven’s POV and with his wry voiceover, which allows for a lot of playful time-jumps. They wisely leave Carrey’s recognizable physical comedy style to a minimum, choosing to mine the already-ridiculous field of corporate business jargon for humor instead.
The film, however, paints with extremely broad strokes – colorful, but basic. Past parts of Steven’s life represented by an affectionate ex-wife (Leslie Mann) and his first serious boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro) offer him tinge of depth, but for the most part he’s a cartoon. And while Steven’s character is easy to gauge from a distance, titular love interest Phillip (Ewan McGregor) can’t quite overcome the vagueness surrounding his personality.
I’d knock over banks for Ewan any day, don’t get me wrong, but all Phillip truly offers the plot is a sweetly-tempered blank. Their falling-in-love montage is adorable (or as close as it can come, being set within a prison, you know), but it’s hard to see what make the two click when they’re out of lockdown. That said, McGregor does get to remind the audience of his talent in an epic monologue late in the film — perhaps the most heartfelt moment of the story at all.
The disc offers little in the way of extras, save an anemic, 10-minute “Making Of.” I yearn for the moment when movies will be so past the point of sexual preference that it won’t be necessary to spend six of those 10 minutes discussing how unimportant it is.
Director Zach Snyder (“300” and “Watchmen”) is known for films that rely more on visual effects than gripping storylines – and that trend continues with “Sucker Punch.” Reviews of the film have been fairly harsh — mostly because it is structured more as a hybrid video game/music video/motion picture than a traditional narrative film. In Snyder’s defense, the film is what it promised to be — a visual rollercoaster with a plot popularized by “Inception” that involves multiple planes of reality happening all at once.
The film’s gritty exposition draws you in when Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and her sister are left in the hands of an abusive stepfather after their mother dies. Baby Doll accidentally shoots and kills her sister while trying to thwart an assault by the stepfather, leading to her committal at a run-down all-girls mental asylum. Baby Doll is turned over to corrupt orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac), who takes a bribe in exchange for a promised lobotomy within the week. From there the film moves from reality to the first plane of Baby Doll’s imagination – a burlesque style brothel where Blue orders the girls to perform for “clients.” Baby Doll is informed that a high roller, aka the doctor performing the lobotomy, will arrive for her in five days. With the threat of the high roller looming, Baby Doll plans her escape with the help of the now-sexily clad inmates made up of Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish, “Stop-Loss”), Rocket (Jena Malone, “The Ruins”), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens, “High School Musical”) and Amber (Jamie Chung, “Sorority Row”).
Their plan to escape involves five items the girls must acquire within the asylum. Each of Baby Doll’s machinations to acquire the items takes us to the second plane of her imagination, where girl power is amped to the nth degree. The girls function as a super-hero like special ops group facing enemies that include steampunk zombies, fire-breathing dragons, and artillery-clad robots. This is where the film shines, as the visual effects take precedence over the characters and plot. Each mission pays homage to genre-specific writers and film directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Isaac Asimov and J.R.R. Tolkien. The film’s soundtrack — consisting of modern covers of bands such as The Eurythmics, The Beatles and The Pixies, many with vocals by star Emily Browning — also plays a central role in taking you from plane to plane throughout the film.
The message of “Sucker Punch” is self-empowerment, but the lack of connection with the characters vastly nullifies the intended edict. The characters in the film lack any real depth, and the initial plotline involving the abuse and fate of the girls at the asylum is quickly abandoned for the more visually pleasing wraiths inside Baby Doll’s imagination. The plot holes are so numerous you should do what Snyder seemed to do — ignore them altogether. However, despite its flaws the film is unique enough to stand on its own. The cinematography moves at breakneck pace, the visuals are sensational, and the action is well choreographed. If you are a fan of Snyder’s earlier films and are willing to allow for the plot misgivings and lack of character development, you’ll get a kick (or punch) out of “Sucker Punch.”
“You will be unprepared.”
This is the slogan the PR team behind “Sucker Punch” have chosen to go with, presumably to suit its equally-extreme-sounding title. But because “Sucker Punch” is the work of Zach Snyder, nothing could be further from the truth. The plot twists are visible from miles away, a glance at the poster art reveals all one could ever need to know about the story: there are girls. They pack heat. It looks steampunk-y, sort of. The only thing surprising about the film is just how soulless and lurching it is.
Snyder has already carved out a place for himself among contemporary filmmakers — with the possible exception of last year animated “Legend Of The Guardians: The Owls Of Ga’hoole,” he’s made it easy for his visual style to be identified. “Sucker Punch” has the same oversaturated, pseudo-video game look as “300.” But unlike both “300” and his adaptation of “Watchmen” (another film that managed to zap an interesting plot of all its energy), he works with a script of his own creation — Snyder has to answer for all the stilted dialogue himself this time around.
Given his history and well-known love of comics, I can’t fault Snyder for going full-tilt crazy, now that he finally holds the reins of his story. Nazi steam-powered soldiers, giant dragons, a runaway train with a nuclear device, whatever, go for it. But while other geek-tastic passion projects vibrate with energy — be they “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” or the 1950s schlock of Ed Wood — “Sucker Punch” plays out like a to-do list. Helicopter fight, check, and so on.
The blank-in-all-senses page that these items are written on: Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is brought to an all-girl asylum after a serious of horrific family accidents, and is fast-tracked toward a lobotomy with no help from the neglectful-to-criminal staff (including Carla Gugino, who always manages to pop up in roles requiring ridiculous all-purpose accents). Her only option is to retreat several layers within her own mind, where there’s a cabaret/bordello joint housing other lost souls (most notably Jena Malone, but also Vanessa “I’ll Never Escape ‘High School Musical’” Hudgens). They plan a break-out, but this can only be done if Baby Doll goes another layer deeper, to the place where…wait! Is that a giant robot I see over there?
This attention-deficit storytelling shouldn’t be too much of an issue, considering that “Sucker Punch” was envisioned as a (rather brainless) thrill ride from the get-go. Unfortunately, the action set pieces, the things that ought to be distracting us from how ridiculous the “real world” sections of the film are, are more of a snooze than the rest. Snyder continues to rely heavily on bullet time sequences during his fight sequences, hoping to ramp up enthusiasm based on the technical effects alone. But while a couple slo-mo shots here and there can spice things up, featuring entire battle scenes that way grind the action down to a near-complete stop.
It’s inevitable that some of the “Sucker Punch” criticism will stem from the viewer’s ideas on Baby Doll’s potential status as a model of kickassery. Expressions of physical female strength are nothing new within the comic/sci-fi universe; this is the genre that gave us “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” after all. But while the ladies of “Sucker Punch” each rack up a significant body count, they do so with massive machine guns and bored looks on their faces. It’s the spirit behind “Kill Bill” meshed with the leather-and-lace visual appeal of “Sin City,” then drained of all energy and emotional engagement.
Ultimately, I don’t find the gender issue troubling so much as the sheer badness on display. Were the film to be recast as all-male, it would still be tedious, though it might be interesting to imagine Zach Snyder keeping the bordello-dancehall plotline intact. Girls always need heroes. But all audiences need quality entertainment, whether it wields a katana in slow motion or not. “Sucker Punch” provides neither.