Archive for June, 2012
REVIEW: Sandler returns to his roots with ‘That’s my Boy’
Adam Sandler enjoyed a string of cinematic gold in the mid-1990s when he made the switch from television’s “Saturday Night Live” to the big screen. Films like “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore” have become cult classics that are still heavily quoted today. After an auspicious transition from TV to film, Sandler’s career has been filled with peaks and valleys that include some duds (“You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”), genre-jumping branching out periods (“Punch Drunk Love” and “Funny People”) and some solid comedies that didn’t match the success of his early classics. His latest film attempts to recapture some of that early magic with a project filled with sophomoric humor and a young SNL alum making the permanent jump to the silver screen — this time around it’s Andy Samberg.
In 1984, 12-year old Donny Berger (Sandler) becomes a minor celebrity when he has a child with his 22-year teacher. Fast forward to present day where Donny is broke, has few friends, and is estranged from his son, ridiculously named Han Solo Berger (Samberg). In an attempt to avoid prison for back taxes, Donny hatches a plan to reunite his dysfunctional family on a reality television program. The timing couldn’t be worse as Han — now known as Todd Peterson in an effort to escape his family’s infamy — is on the eve of his wedding and about to make partner at his finance firm. When Donny begins to rebuild his relationship with Han, he must choose between a relationship with his son and his own freedom.
It is safe to say that Sandler returns to his roots with “That’s my Boy.” There are some cringe-worthy comedic moments involving everything from inappropriate nudity to incest, but a lot of the comedy is simply tongue in cheek jabs at our pop culture. Surprisingly, it is not Sandler’s scenes that supply the majority of laughs — partially because we’ve seen it all from him already. With his staying power, there’s not much comedic ground left for Sandler to break.
Andy Samberg takes a nice leap in his effort to become a Hollywood leading man. Perfectly cast as Sandler’s awkward son, his role is full of duality — from his name (changed from Han Solo Berger to Todd Peterson) to the inner conflict with his relationship with his father. He’s the butt of most jokes and plays the “aww shucks” role to the hilt. The supporting cast is effective in giving the script a novel feel while Sandler runs through what feels like recycled material. Though he plays a caricature of his ‘90s self, Vanilla Ice embraces his own B-list celebrity status and plays along with jokes at his expense. Milo Ventimiglia (TV’s “Heroes”) is a scene-stealer as an over-masculine marine.
I often discuss with my students the context in which you view a film. Like many of my peers, I thoroughly enjoyed Sandler’s early films like “Billy Madison.” The debate on whether shampoo or conditioner is better still rages on in my mind, and don’t even ask about when someone around me says the word chlorophyll. However, I was 19 years old when “Billy Madison” was released, so it makes sense that the film was right up my alley. Sandler’s recent films haven’t had the same appeal, likely because the humor has remained the same as I have changed.
Sandler faces a difficult dilemma in that his fans expect more “Billy Madison” style films whereas he has moved on to more age-appropriate films such as “Click” and “Grown Ups” that feature family-oriented protagonists rather than infinite slackers. “That’s my Boy” is a happy medium where the slacker grows up and becomes the family man he always wanted to be. For Sandler, it should quench the thirst of his hardcore fans and casual fans alike. As for Samberg, this could be the big beginning that Samberg needs to launch his own lengthy film career.
DVD REVIEW: Fun of ‘Safe House’ begins outside the title locale
After a few hit and miss weeks at the theater, I decided to brave the weekend heat wave with a new DVD release in “Safe House.” I’ve been critical in the past of mystery and intrigue films that reveal either too much or too little, ruining the audience experience. “Safe House” is a CIA-themed spy flick that appears to have the right formula on paper with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds co-starring. I went undercover into sleuth mode to find out how the spy film would compare up to its predecessors in this week’s review.
Rookie CIA agent Matt Weston (Reynolds) feels like he’s wasting away running a CIA safe house in Cape Town, South Africa, when a team shows up with former agent and current international criminal Tobin Frost (Washington). The safe house is compromised while agents interrogate Frost, and, as the only surviving agent, Weston is responsible for keeping Frost safe and delivering him to the CIA. While on the run, Weston begins to slowly unravel a mystery that makes protecting Frost more important than he could have possibly imagined.
The film’s mise-en-scene — the overall look and feel of a film — is perfect for the genre. Spy films are typically set in exotic locations and feature exciting chase sequences. “Safe House” features a deep, rich color scheme with an emphasis on blues and reds. I view mise-en-scene as an invisible character that can have as much effect on the audience as a major character, though we may not even realize it. Despite not knowing much of their backstories, Weston and Frost are sympathetic characters that evoke a lot of emotion, so the choice of vivid colors representing these emotions makes sense from a plot standpoint. The Cape Town backdrop delivers on the aforementioned exotic locale as much of the film is a cat and mouse chase showing off the diverse settings. The mise-en-scene delivers, telling a story in its own right in the film’s visuals.
Rookie screenwriter David Guggenheim does a fantastic job of balancing what we need to know immediately as an audience and what should be slowly revealed as we work our way through the three acts. You get the sense early on that Frost is not the CIA traitor he is perceived to be, setting up the first of several mysteries for the audience to track. Reynolds holds his own next to Washington, creating a humble conflicted protagonist. Though the plot does become somewhat predictable, there are a few fun twists along the way that keeps your interest. The one big miss is a moment where Guggenheim tries to introduce a plot pinch by questioning Weston’s loyalty to the CIA — something too far-fetched at that point — and the idea is quickly (and wisely) forgotten.
The supporting cast is solid without overshadowing Washington or Reynolds. Brendan Gleeson is genuine as Weston’s CIA mentor, and Sam Shepard is the perfect choice for the CIA Director trying to run operations from a safe distance — very similar to his role in “Blackhawk Down.” The always-evil Jason Patrick has a bit role as an interrogator — another excellent choice. Relatively unknown Nora Arnezeder plays Reynolds’ love interest Ana, which is fitting as their relationship — though important — plays out as a small sub-plot. Though mostly at odds in the film, the cast plays nice together, so to speak, on camera.
“Safe House” ended up as a pleasant surprise for me. I assumed too much of the film based on the title, when in reality the fun of the film begins once the safe house is compromised and forgotten about. It all leads to an intrigue-filled chase where you — along with Weston — are left trying to figure out who is friend and who is foe. Weston’s comeuppance with his final line of the film will leave you smiling — though the premise of the film is frighteningly ripped from the headlines of today’s political scandals.
REVIEW: ‘Prometheus’ as much a mystery whodunit as it is a classic sci-fi film
Famed director Ridley Scott makes his long awaited return to the sci-fi genre with last weekend’s debut of “Prometheus.” Scott begins with a premise that is nothing new to the genre — searching for the origins of life — and culls together bits of sci-fi ancestors like “Alien” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” With a somewhat recycled premise would Scott’s return be a triumph, or would he crash and burn before leaving the atmosphere?
In 2089, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, 2009’s foreign version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green, TV’s “Dark Blue”) discover a series of connected interplanetary maps from distant cultures and interpret them as an invitation from the creators of our civilization. In search of our origins, the scientists embark on a journey to a distant moon, funded by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), CEO of the tech-driven Weyland Corporation. The crew spends two years in stasis while the Weyland-created android David (Michael Fassbender, “Haywire”) oversees the trip. Once on the targeted moon, the crew must manage opposing agendas while a series of deadly mishaps occur — each revealing more depth to the alien civilization inhabiting the moon.
Many people are calling “Prometheus” a prequel to “Alien.” While there are some elements in place, including a reverse-engineered set design that allowed “Alien” to become what Scott called a jumping off point for the film, it really is a stand-alone project. The film’s themes of faith and the search for God largely dominate all of the small winks and nods to the “Alien” franchise. You could call “Prometheus” a cousin of the “Alien” franchise, sharing tidbits of the same DNA but distinct with its own personality.
Surprisingly “Prometheus” is as much a mystery whodunit as it is a classic sci-fi film. The film introduces as many questions as it answers, with cryptic hints even the keenest of eyes may not catch in just one viewing. The film hints at a 2,000-year-old event on Earth that upset our creators. What big event happened two thousand years ago that may have sparked such anger, and more important, why would it spawn such hatred? The answer is a no brainer, it is connecting the dots together in the film to see the timeline that is difficult. I won’t give anything else away, but there are additional clues analogous to our own mythologies to uncover — making the film incredibly thought provoking.
In addition to the enigmatic plot, the characters play an important role in connecting audiences to the film. Though most of the characters are flat — predictable actions and little depth — they keep the plot manageable while the overall world of the film becomes immense. British actor Idris Elba shines as Janek, the grounded captain of the ship who serves as an informal leader and conscience for the group. Fassbender’s portrayal of the android David evokes images of a lifelike HAL 9000 computer from “2001: A Space Oddysey” and serves in a similar antagonist role. Though his onscreen time is limited, the aura of mission benefactor Peter Weyland weighs ominously over the crew. Elizabeth Shaw’s role is eerily similar to Sigourney Weaver’s character in “Alien” as the irrepressible female protagonist.
Though the film sets itself up nicely for a sequel, Ridley Scott is noncommittal at this point. Given the mythical nature of the film’s premise and the potential cryptic answers given throughout the movie, “Prometheus” could be a self-contained story that also plants the seeds for the “Alien” franchise. Scott hits on all cylinders in his return to the genre that launched him into fame in 1979. He has some fun paying homage to his own work as well as other sci-fi classics while setting up a mystery that will leave you thinking long after your departure from the theater. Welcome back to deep space Ridley Scott, we hope you stay a while.
DVD REVIEW: ‘John Carter’ worth a look on DVD to see Burrough’s literary vision
Disney’s “John Carter” is the perfect case study on how not to produce and advertise a film. After a reported loss of more than $160 million, we can take a look back (hindsight is powerful tool for analysts and experts) and examine what went wrong with a film that has literally been decades in the making. An unproven cast, a director with roots in animation and a spotty ad campaign are just a few of the reasons “John Carter” ended up a domestic box office bomb. Available on DVD this week, “John Carter” gets a second chance to prove its worth as a blockbuster science fiction fantasy film.
While searching the Arizona territory for gold, rogue Civil War veteran Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, “Battleship”) finds a mysterious device that transports him to Mars. He is quickly captured by the Tharks, an alien race of 12 foot, six-limbed, green-skinned Martians, and thrown in the middle of a thousand-year civil war between the human-like inhabited cities of Helium and Zodanga. Larger forces are at work as a powerful group of Therns — descendants of the original Martians — are masterminding the war efforts between the two cities for their own gain. When Carter falls for Dejah Throis, the Princess of Helium, he must decide whether to stay and fight for the Tharks and the people of Helium, or return to the gold and haunting memories waiting for him back on Earth.
One of the film’s failures is trying to cram too much into a two-hour span. The film is based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel “A Princess of Mars” — the first in an 11-novel series. The screenwriters wanted to stay true to the novel, but a byproduct is way too much happening on screen — especially in the film’s multiple expositions. We first meet Carter on Earth, followed by a second exposition that introduces the complicated situation and cast of characters on Mars. You are able to get lost in the story once you get a grasp on everything happening, but that moment doesn’t come until about midway through the film.
“John Carter” offers a visually stunning depiction of Mars, or Barsoom as it is referred to by the natives. This is not a surprise given director Andrew Stanton’s background in animation — he also directed “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo.” The bigger surprise was Disney’s decision to go with an unproven live action director for a project of this magnitude. The integration of live action and animated characters isn’t always believable, and several scenes have that “green screen” feel to them. Stanton also had control over much of the marketing campaign, and often times butted heads with the studio over the overall vision for advertising the film. It’s no surprise that audiences didn’t know quite what to expect from the film, leaving many to avoid it altogether.
The same question marks could be posed regarding the film’s casting. With a budget of roughly $250 million it was certainly a risk in going with an unproven lead in Taylor Kitsch. Though he may be well-known to fans of TV’s “Friday Night Lights” this was his first major cinematic role. Kitsch appears wooden at times — though it is a much improved effort over his recent performance in “Battleship.” Carter’s love interest, Princess Dejah Thoris, is played by an even lesser-known Lynn Collins. For such an expensive project, you have to wonder why producers opted for relatively unknown protagonists.
“John Carter” is purported as an interplanetary fantasy with the savior of a planet at war, but is more of Carter’s personal, singular journey. Too busy at times and perhaps a bit deep for Disney’s typical demographic, “John Carter” missed the mark when trying to attract its target audience. The film is a wild ride — though one we’ve taken before as you can feel the “Star Wars” inspirations dripping from the screen — and would likely improve with multiple viewings. Financially, the film was doomed from the beginning with a massive budget, questionable casting, and an ineffective marketing campaign. If you are one of the many who avoided “John Carter” in the theater, it is worth a look on DVD. It may be the only time we see Burrough’s literary vision told cinematically, as the financial losses have put a planned sequel on hold.