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You Don't Mess With the Zohan

It was Mae West who famously quipped (in 1933’s I’m No Angel), “When I’m good, I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.” You Don’t Mess With the Zohan inspires a bastardization of that quote: When it’s funny, it’s very, very funny, but when it’s bad, it’s downright awful.

That’s a shame, because choice moments suggest that this could have been Adam Sandler’s best comedy -- not a Herculean feat, by any means, but after a career littered by the likes of Big Daddy, Little Nicky and the dismal remake of The Longest Yard, we’ll take what we can get. Penning the script with Robert Smigel and omniscient “It” guy Judd Apatow, Sandler, whose newly buff frame and stylish facial hair prove to be a good look for him, plays Zohan, an Israeli antiterrorist agent who tires of his violent lot in life. While battling his arch-nemesis, the Palestinian warrior The Phantom (John Turturro), Zohan fakes his own death and moves to New York City to pursue his dream of becoming a hair stylist (his Bible is an 80s-era Paul Mitchell catalogue). Zohan’s ability to make his place of employment’s elderly customers feel attractive turns him into a salon star, but trouble rears its head after he’s spotted by a Palestinian cab driver (Rob Schneider) seeking personal revenge for a past slight. This one contains a greater success ratio than most Sandler flicks: The opening act’s skewering of macho action film conventions is inspired, as is a telling scene in which a political discussion among Middle Eastern immigrants disintegrates into a chat about which female political figures are babes (it’s decided that John McCain’s wife is not only hot but also probably “isn’t getting any”). But the humorous moments are too few and too far between, like Easter eggs hidden throughout a grassy field. Most of the time, we’re forced to contend with elements that drag down the vast majority of Sandler comedies: puerile humor aimed at 10-year-old boys, “gay-panic”-inspired discussions of penis sizes, and Sandler regular Schneider again demonstrating that he possesses the comic instincts of Dick Cheney.

KUNG FU PANDA

It isn’t obnoxious. It isn’t without heart or soul. It isn’t packed to the rafters with potty humor. And it isn’t made solely for the ADD-afflicted. In short, it isn’t like the majority of today’s non-Pixar animated features. It’s important not to oversell the picture, because at the end of the day, it’s still a formulaic family film featuring the usual type of underachiever who invariably headlines toon romps of this nature. But in other ways, it’s a delight, wrapping its familiar messages of acceptance and self-confidence in the middle of a provocative visual scheme that’s always pleasant to study and absorb. Jack Black employs his patented shtick as an overweight panda who longs to become a martial arts expert, but it suits this story just fine. As the vicious snow leopard who seeks to claim the high-and-mighty title of Dragon Warrior, Deadwood’s Ian McShane effectively provides guttural menace. And while the actors who provide the voices for the legendary martial arts outfit The Furious Five aren’t given enough to do (Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu and especially poor Jackie Chan are the victims), all is forgiven whenever the character of Master Shifu appears on screen. It’s a sizable part, meaning that we’re constantly treated to Dustin Hoffman’s quirky take on the role of a diminutive red panda who serves as mentor to the other animals. Hoffman has played a remarkable array of characters over his 41-year film career -- Benjamin Braddock, Ratzo Rizzo, Dorothy Michaels, etc. -- but I never thought he’d be tackling Mr. Miyagi. I was wrong.

Sex and the City

Despite endless online whining from the fanboys — those mega-geeks who make any self-respecting male contemplate a sex-change operation lest he be mistaken for one of these pathetic creatures — anyone who’s ever bothered to watch the acclaimed HBO series can realize that this motion picture sequel-of-sorts need not be the exclusive property of women and homosexuals. At its heart, the show was about the necessity of enduring friendships and how they can serve as an anchor in a roiling sea of emotional upheavals. Based on the book by Candace Bushnell, the series cannily focused on four New Yorkers who ideally represented different types of women: inquisitive Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), perpetually horny Samantha (Kim Cattrall), brainy, brittle Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and reserved, constantly upbeat Charlotte (Kristin Davis). The show ended with the characters either married or in settled relationships, and the movie picks up several years after that point. That has changed the dynamic of the product, since the fun of watching these four single gals whoop it up in the Big Apple has by necessity been curtailed to focus on their triumphs and travails as attached women. Thus, Carrie is preoccupied with her upcoming marriage to longtime beau Mr. Big (Chris Roth); Samantha valiantly resists the call of the penis as she struggles to remain faithful to her hunky if unavailable boyfriend Jerry (Jason Lewis); Miranda contends with issues of infidelity as they relate to her husband Steve (David Eigenberg); and Charlotte is content with life with hubbie Harry (Evan Handler) and their adopted daughter. Sex and the City works because its ability to mix real-world issues with reel-world fantasies provides it with both gravity and buoyancy. The rawness of the Miranda-Steve situation serves as an effective counterpoint to Samantha’s comic ogling of a hunky neighbor (Gilles Marini), and the contrast elevates both plot threads. In fact, writer-director Michael Patrick King humanizes all these characters far more than detractors insist: Carrie seeks lasting love more than anything superficial, so how is her perennial desire for designer shoes any more offensive than any given guy’s ceaseless longing for a kick-ass home entertainment center? To be sure, the movie makes a few missteps. I really didn’t need the running gag of a dog that humps everything in sight. And the new character of Louise, Carrie’s personal assistant, is not only unnecessary but, worse, reveals that without any showstopping tunes to hide behind, Dreamgirls Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson might not possess an ounce of acting talent.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is one of cinema’s all-time greats, while Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) are two sequels that can hold their heads high. Nineteen years after the last installment, Steven Spielberg and pals again demonstrate they weren’t about to rest on their laurels. It’s now 1957, and World War II has since been replaced by the Cold War, meaning our intrepid archeologist-professor-swashbuckler now has his hands full battling Commies instead of Nazis. The Russians, led by a slinky ball of black-haired menace named Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), need Indy’s cooperation in helping them obtain an object -- a crystal skull, of course -- that will aid them in their quest for world domination. Indie’s journey to thwart them reunites him with Marion Ravenwood (three cheers for the return of Raiders’ Karen Allen) and also allows him to share adventures with a brash young greaser (Shia LaBeouf) and a loony old professor (John Hurt). Longtime fans will find the references to past films delightful and they’ll similarly be pleased to find Spielberg once again at his most limber. The first two-thirds of the film are such a blast that it makes the final section feel even more like a downer than it would under other circumstances. The plot in each of the first three pictures was convoluted, but all the disparate elements eventually coalesced. By the time we get to the climax here, we demand something truly marvelous, but all we get is a fairly lackluster finale that shamelessly borrows pieces from the Raiders and Last Crusade endings. Equally disappointing is the realization that the film showcases paper villains not worthy of Indy’s time: Even Blanchett’s Irina Spalko is fairly dry, lacking the suave menace of Paul Freeman’s Belloq (from Raiders) or the slimy sadism of Ronald Lacey’s Major Toht (ditto). But Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is really about one character, the man who, to borrow the auto slogan, is Built Ford Tough. It’s been 11 years since the superstar has appeared in a movie that entertained (Air Force One), and it’s been depressing watching him fritter away a once-illustrious career in garbage like Hollywood Homicide and Firewall. Here, though, the 65-year-old actor again dons the role that fits him like a glove, and his enthusiasm and athleticism (as always, he performed many of his own stunts) serve to further fuel our own glee for the project.

The Strangers

Is there a point to this anemic thriller in which a young couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) are terrorized in a secluded vacation home by three masked invaders? Maybe the point is to show how none of us are really safe from the evils of the outside world, even when we’re in our own homes. But The Strangers isn’t scary, only boring, and the final image shows that director Bryan Bertino didn’t even have the balls to follow the story to its logical ending. His cop-out may not make the movie even more pointless, but it certainly makes it more insulting.

Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

That rare sequel which improves upon the original. Prince Caspian is decidedly a darker picture than its predecessor, which seems to be the path taken by many second installments in film franchises (The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Back to the Future Part II, The Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation). In this one, the four Pevensie kids -- Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley) -- find themselves at a London subway station one minute and back in the magical land of Narnia the next. But this isn’t the lovely, bright Narnia they left behind; now 1,300 years later (in Narnian time, of course), they’ve returned to find a gloomy environment in which humans (the Telmarine race) have taken over and all mystical creatures are believed to be extinct. One of the Telmarines, the dashing Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes), is the rightful heir to the throne, but after an assassination attempt by his uncle (Sergio Castellitto), he elects to hightail it to the woods, where he discovers that talking animals and other enchanted Narnia denizens still exist after all. Eventually, the prince, the woodland inhabitants and the Pevensie siblings band forces to restore Narnia to its previous glory. A couple of familiar faces from the previous picture return in small roles, yet it’s cast newcomer Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) who walks away with this film; he’s excellent as Trumpkin, a surly dwarf who slowly warms up to the four children who invade his territory. As for the kids, this is clearly a case where girls rule, boys drool. Susan cuts a fierce figure as a warrior queen, while Lucy is allowed to establish the strongest bonds with the Narnians. On the other hand, the interesting Edmund is given too little to do, while Peter is only slightly less generic than fellow pretty-boy Caspian.

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 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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