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What Happens in Vegas

When invited to join me at the press screening for What Happens In Vegas, a good friend of mine declined, e-mailing, “I can only stand one romantic comedy a year, and No Country for Old Men was it for me in ‘08.” That quip’s funnier than anything found in the actual movie, and 20th Century Fox would have done well to hire him to pen the film’s screenplay.

As it stands, this is the year’s umpteenth assembly-line rom-com, although it’s admittedly easier to take than most of its predecessors: It’s less obnoxious than Fool’s Gold, less forced than Made of Honor and less formulaic (well, by a sliver, anyway) than 27 Dresses. Cameron Diaz plays Joy, an ambitious Wall Street trader who’s just been dumped by her fiancé (Jason Sudeikis); Ashton Kutcher is Jack, a slacker who’s just been fired from the company business by his own dad (Treat Williams). They both decide to head to Vegas, where they meet, get drunk and wind up married. After sobering up, they realize they don’t even like each other, so once they’re back in New York, they try desperately to get a divorce. Instead, the judge (Dennis Miller) sentences them to six months of marriage, requiring them to visit a counselor (Queen Latifah) weekly to monitor their progress.Diaz is typically winning, while Kutcher doesn’t blend in with the furniture as much as he usually does. But those attending the film hoping to scope out the title city will be disappointed, since most of the action takes place in New York City.

Speed Racer

To complain about the excesses of Speed Racer would be like bitching that there are too many rib eyes kept on ice at your local steakhouse, or that there are too many references to God in the Holy Bible. Anyone who ever watched the original 1960s cartoon series (which, along with Kimba the White Lion, largely introduced Americans to Japanese anime long before it became the mainstream rage) can recall that show’s frenetic pace, often zippy visuals and gaudy color schemes. In fact, those were the reasons kids tuned into the series in the first place; certainly, it wasn’t to marvel at the flat characterizations or infantile dialogue. The Wachowski Brothers, who created a whole new world with The Matrix, have now decided to push the envelope once again, this time by transforming the cheesy, on-the-cheap cartoon into a gargantuan, all-expenses-paid summer blockbuster. It’s clear that one of their goals was to introduce a new visual vocabulary to cinema, perhaps even influencing the direction of the medium itself. That’s not likely to happen. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the visual wizardry behind Speed Racer. But visual wizardry is about all that the movie has going for it, and it’s hard to rally the troops behind so chilly a leader. Not that the film doesn’t eventually warm up a degree or two. At first, though, it’s all bombast, as we see how Speed Racer (Into the Wild’s Emile Hirsch), part of a loving family whose members include Pops (John Goodman), Mom (Susan Sarandon) and kid brother Spritle (Paulie Litt) and his pet monkey Chim Chim (older brother Rex is thought to have been killed in a car crash), dreams of nothing but racing and gets behind the wheel every chance he gets. His automotive prowess earns him an invitation to join the team owned by filthy-rich industrialist Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam, channeling Ian McDiarmid’s Chancellor Palpatine from the Star Wars flicks); he declines the offer, causing an angry Royalton to retaliate by smearing the Racer family name. Determined to do the right thing, Speed joins forces with the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) in an attempt to bring down Royalton and his corrupt empire. Much as Francis Coppola did with his audacious interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the Wachowskis use vintage or off-kilter cinematic techniques to tell their tale -- note the frame-wipes designed to segue from one sequence to the next. Moving far beyond Coppola, though, the siblings soup up the old-school ideas with cutting-edge CGI. Because their use here is largely relegated to inanimate objects like cars and racetracks, the result is frequently stunning. It’s also something of an artistic mind-meld: Peter Max by way of Andy Warhol by way of Dr. Seuss.

Then She Found Me

Before Then She Found Me, it appeared that only two reactions to the soft-spoken Colin Firth were at all possible. Either audiences found him charming in that brooding sort of way (as did the legions of women who swooned over him in Bridget Jones’s Diary and the miniseries Pride and Prejudice) or they found him on the dull side in that drowsy-Brit sort of way. But with this picture, Helen Hunt successfully turns Firth into something new: an annoyance. Firth delivers such an aggravating performance that you just want to separate him from his character and slap them both. Then again, everything about Hunt’s directorial debut -- she also co-wrote the script and served as one of the 13 producers -- is similarly obnoxious, to say nothing of arch and artificial. Hunt stars as April Epner, an elementary school teacher who, at 39, is desperate to have a baby. Having been adopted, she’s insistent on giving birth herself, a problem when her newly anointed husband Ben (Matthew Broderick, becoming less interesting all the time) abandons her. She does strike up a relationship with the dad (Firth) of one of her students, but even that romance is fraught with tension. Most of her troubles, however, come from the fact that her natural mother (Bette Midler) shows up after all these years hoping to get to know the daughter she gave up decades earlier.Hunt, an overrated actress (her Oscar for As Good As It Gets should be classified as a felony on the part of the Academy), directs as unimaginatively as she performs, which is to say in the traditionally limiting manner of the TV sitcom genre in which she garnered her fame and fortune.

Iron Man

Given their general status as popcorn flicks heavier on the decadent calories than on the nutritional value, I’m always pleasantly surprised by how much care Hollywood studios take when it comes to casting their superheroes in franchise flicks.

Otherwise, we’d have had to endure such box office draws as Adam Sandler as Superman, Will Ferrell as Spider-Man and Mike Myers as Wolverine. Instead, we’ve been lucky enough to have been privy to (for starters) Christopher Reeve as Superman, Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (George Clooney as Batman, not so much). With Iron Man, Paramount Pictures settled on an actor who turned out to be both unexpected and just right. Robert Downey Jr. is hardly an unknown, yet any baggage he brings to the role only serves to enhance the character, not diminish him. Centering on the Marvel Comics character created back in 1963, Iron Man smoothly updates the action from the Vietnam War era to the Iraq War era without missing a beat. Swaggering, self-centered inventor and industrialist Tony Stark (Downey) has attained both fame and fortune by providing the U.S. military with its most reliable weapons of mass destruction. While in Afghanistan to show off his latest invention, Stark is captured and injured by a group of insurgents who drag him off to their mountainside lair. There, a fellow prisoner (Shaun Toub) creates an electromagnetic device that prevents shrapnel from reaching Stark’s heart. Realizing that this is only a temporary fix, the two set about working from Stark’s designs on how to build a special suit of armor. Back home, Stark re-evaluates his life and realizes that instead of continuing to build instruments of death, he wants to dedicate himself to fighting for peace. This decision perplexes his faithful right-hand woman Pepper Potts (a game Gwyneth Paltrow), his best friend Rhodey (Terrence Howard, asked to coast until the next film) and his business partner Obadiah Stane (an imaginatively cast Jeff Bridges). Nevertheless, Stark won’t be swayed, and to accomplish his goal, he sets about building a sleeker, more efficient and infinitely cooler outfit. Stark’s difficulties provide the film with many of its most amusing moments, as do the flirtatious interludes between Stark and Pepper (Downey and Paltrow work well together).

Made of Honor

Those of us reviewing films back in the late 80s/early 90s remember Patrick Dempsey as a talentless 20-something who regularly turned up in bombs like Run and Loverboy. He largely disappeared for a decade or so, occasionally popping up in minor TV projects and straight-to-DVD titles, before unexpectedly rising Lazarus-like from the dead with a career-redefining turn on the hit series Grey’s Anatomy. It must be said that middle age agrees with the 42-year-old Dempsey. As witnessed in last year’s Enchanted and now Made of Honor, Dempsey has settled into being a competent (if passive) romantic lead on the big screen. And for his first starring role since his rebirth (since Enchanted was all about Amy Adams), he’s wisely picked a project that will only further his standing as the country’s resident “McDreamy.” Unfortunately, those of us hoping for entertainment value beyond mere eye candy will be sorely left hanging with Made of Honor, the sort of romantic comedy that Hollywood spits out of the formula factory on a tight schedule. The second underachieving rom-com of the year to headline a Grey’s Anatomy player (the first was Katherine Heigl’s 27 Dresses), this cribs from the vastly superior My Best Friend’s Wedding in its portrayal of two longtime pals -- one male (Dempsey’s womanizing Tom), one female (Michelle Monaghan’s brainy Hannah) -- who have always been afraid that intimacy would ruin their perfect camaraderie. But once Hannah goes to Scotland for six weeks, Tom realizes that she’s been the right one all along; unfortunately, when she returns stateside, it’s with a fiancé (Kevin McKidd) in tow. Comic desperation can be seen at alarmingly frequent intervals. The fellating-female-bobblehead gag was handled far more wittily in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (is this 2008’s unexpected movie trend?), while other dim comic bits include such Hail Mary desperation passes as Hannah’s grandmother mistaking glow-in-the-dark anal beads for a necklace (and of course wearing them throughout the film) and a Scottish relative’s name, Athol, being misunderstood by the Americans as -- well, take a guess.

Redbelt

If there’s one thing that Tom Cruise proved with his race-car lovefest Days of Thunder, it’s that it can be dangerous for filmmakers to lovingly place their hobbies right up there on the big screen for all to see. The latest case in point is Redbelt, writer-director David Mamet’s salute to jiu-jitsu. Mamet, a real-life practitioner of the martial art, has cobbled together a samurai flick, a sports yarn and a con game (his specialty) in order to pay service to this noble undertaking. The result is as schizophrenic as any movie certain to open in 2008, as an interesting character study finally sinks under the weight of the plot’s predictable twists as well as a climactic fight so absurd, it makes the matches between Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago seem as realistic as the real-life Ali-Foreman championship bout. The fine actor Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in the leading role of jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry, who teaches both cops and citizens alike in his Los Angeles studio. Presented as a cross between Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Mr. Miyagi, Mike prizes honor above all else, and he refuses to enter martial arts competitions because he feels they’re degrading. But his trusting nature proves to be a detriment as he’s duped by several shady characters and unwittingly dragged into a major sporting event riddled with corruption. As a gruff movie star, Tim Allen lands the first interesting role of his 14-year screen career (the animated Buzz Lightyear excepted), and the movie could have used more of him.

Baby Mama

With Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and other comedians routinely hoarding the screens in our nation’s multiplexes, here come Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to remind audiences that, like their male counterparts, girls just want to have fun. Indeed, the Cyndi Lauper hit of that name is granted its own karaoke-set scene in Baby Mama, and its inclusion is fitting in a movie that’s similarly pointed, joyous, and light on its feet.Even funnier than the current Forgetting Sarah Marshall (which itself is pretty damn funny), Baby Mama stars Fey as Kate Holbrook, a successful businesswoman who finds out that she only has a one-in-a-million chance of getting pregnant. Wanting a child more than a man (but open to both), this news hits her hard, and she turns to an agency to provide her with a surrogate mom. She ends up getting Angie Ostrowiski (Poehler), who clearly resides several rungs down the social ladder. After Angie becomes pregnant, circumstances force her to move in with Kate, and it’s not long before Angie’s slovenly lifestyle clashes with Kate’s obsessive-compulsive behavior, and vice versa. The plot complications arrive with clockwork precision, and it’s this rigid formula (along with a ludicrous development at the end) that prevents a fine movie from being even better. Yet judging it strictly on its comic merits, Baby Mama delivers (pun not intended, I assure you). Scripter Michael McCullers (who also directed) serves up several killer quips guaranteed to remain among the year’s freshest, and the two perfectly cast leading ladies are backed by an engaging mix of emerging talents and seasoned veterans. Among the relative newcomers, Romany Malco is a bright presence as a straight-talking doorman, while Dax Shepard holds his own as Angie’s doofus boyfriend. Yet it’s the old pros who really shine: Sigourney Weaver is suitably smug as the head of the surrogate center, gamely being shellacked by some of the script’s best zingers. And then there’s Steven Martin, spot-on as the creator of the organic health food chain for which Kate works. Mocking New Age-y tendencies is a moldy idea long past its expiration date, yet in his portrayal of the ponytailed Barry, Martin positively makes it seem like a notion that’s never been tackled before. Whether name-dropping celebrities with delicate precision or “rewarding” Kate with five minutes of uninterrupted eye contact, Barry is a real piece of P.C. work.

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Back in 2004, I gave Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle 2-1/2 stars, and I’d be a hypocrite if I elected to stick with that rating. That’s because I’ve since been compelled to see the movie twice more, and what originally struck me as a fairly even mix between sharp satire and sophomore humor has proven itself to clearly be a clever comedy in which even the bawdy gags display a certain degree of ingenuity in their conception and execution. It’s pretty much guaranteed that Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay won’t be enjoying a similar critical ascension in the years to come. Aside from a crack involving Osama bin Laden’s beard, the gross-out gags aren’t particularly fresh, and because the satire is less subversive and more overt than before, what you see is basically what you get. As the brash and impulsive Indian-American Kumar and the more sensible and sensitive Korean-American Harold, Kal Penn and John Cho again deserve the lion’s share of the credit for making these pictures work. They’re an engaging team, and here, the plot requires their characters to get mistaken for terrorists while on an international flight; soon, they’re being interrogated by a moronic Homeland Security honcho (Rob Corddry) who decides to send them to Guantanamo Bay to enjoy a steady diet of “cock-meat sandwiches.” But before long, the boys escape and find themselves on a cross-country odyssey that involves in-bred Southerners, a “bottomless” party, dimwitted Klansmen (or is that a redundancy?) and even George W. Bush himself. And yes, Neil Patrick Harris returns, again playing himself as a sex-crazed, foul-mouthed party animal. Kumar’s pursuit of a former college flame provides the film with more plot than its predecessor, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. And bringing back Harris was wise, but did we really need a replay of Kumar’s fantasy sequence involving an anthropomorphic bag of pot? More amusing is the dead-on parody of Red State twits (repped by Corddry’s government agent, who literally wipes his ass with a copy of the Bill of Rights) who question the patriotism of everyone who isn’t exactly like them (i.e. white and pseudo-Christian); these scenes aren’t exactly subtle, but they do point out the line that can barely divide satire from reality (just ask Barack “Do you believe in the American flag?” Obama).Curiously, the movie’s portrayal of Dubya is a sympathetic one. As played by frequent Bush impersonator James Adomian, the president turns out to be a congenial, simple-minded pothead who isn’t evil, just misunderstood. Coming from Hollywood, that’s high praise indeed.

Nim's Island

If your kids have been totally weaned on ADD-addled animated flicks that mostly coast on crude humor and instantly dated pop culture references, then this clearly isn’t the film for them. If, however, said children still find as much enjoyment (if not more so) in opening a book as in piloting a video game’s remote control, then this delightful family film will satisfy them in no small measure. Like last year’s Bridge to Terabithia, it views a child’s imagination as a tangible playground, and this angle is sharply delineated by the colorful flourishes of directors Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin. Jodie Foster, the most prominent child actress of the 1970s, here hands the torch to Abigail Breslin, with the latter playing Nim, a precocious girl who lives on a remote island with her scientist father (Gerard Butler). When she’s not frolicking with her animal friends, Nim enjoys reading adventure novels featuring the Indiana Jones-like Alex Rover, so when her dad goes missing and strangers invade the island, she naturally e-mails Alex Rover to help her. What her young mind doesn’t grasp is that her hero doesn’t actually exist; instead, the books are written by Alexandra Rover (Foster), an eccentric agoraphobe who carries on conversations with her fictional creation (also played by Butler) and who reluctantly sets out to help Nim in her hour of need.

Drillbit Taylor

An assembly-line comedy in virtually every facet -- you can set your watch by the moment when the formerly aloof Drillbit (Owen Wilson) is visibly moved by a charitable act on the part of one of the kids -- this dispiriting attempt at corralling laughs has little to offer anyone except die-hard Owen Wilson fans.

, and even those devotees might feel dejected after watching this charming if one-note actor spinning his wheels in such a tiresome character type.

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