Get Smart, the now-cult TV sitcom that aired from 1965 to 1970, was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, and these legendary funnymen are listed in the credits of the new motion picture spinoff Get Smart as “creative consultants.” The word is that neither of them actually had any input in what turns up on the screen, which probably explains why major facets of this motion picture differ from what fans fondly recall about the show. But in at least one respect, there’s a striking similarity: Both have no problem providing the laughs.
In the series that ran during the heyday of the Cold War, Don Adams starred as bumbling agent Maxwell Smart while Barbara Feldon played his more competent partner, Agent 99. Working for a government outfit known as C.O.N.T.R.O.L., the secret agents had their hands full protecting the world from the nefarious schemes perpetrated by the members of the rival outfit K.A.O.S. This new version does away with the Cold War backdrop, though there’s also no mention of the War on Terror or 9/11 or any other unpleasantness soiling this modern world. In fact, except for a snarky comment about liberal Hollywood stars and the sight of James Caan as a dim bulb president who can’t pronounce the word “nuclear,” there’s very little real-world relevance, which is just fine. Instead, the well-worn plot finds K.A.O.S. head Siegfried (Terence Stamp, taking over Bernie Kopell’s role from the series) threatening to destroy the world unless he gets paid a substantial sum, and the movie seems as much a Bond spoof as a Get Smart homage. Carell, whose Maxwell Smart is (slightly) more intelligent than Don Adams’, and Hathaway are well-paired, and there are choice supporting stints by Alan Arkin as The Chief and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the macho Agent 23. In between all the gags and all the action scenes, there’s an identifiable human element at work, and this empathy prevents this from becoming just another big, dumb summer comedy.
If I had ever entertained the notion that Mike Myers would make another movie as awful as The Cat In the Hat, I might have opted for early retirement. Yet here comes The Love Guru. Myers, who also co-wrote (with Graham Gordy) what we’ll loosely refer to as the screenplay, stars as Guru Pitka, an American-born, Indian-raised spiritual leader who’s miffed that he places second to Deepak Chopra when it comes to the popularity of self-help gurus. As children, both Pitka and Chopra were taught by -- say it fast to get the “joke” -- Guru Tugginmypudha, who trains his young charges by urinating in a bucket and then making his pupils fight each other with piss-saturated mops. Tugginmypudha is played by none other than Ben Kingsley, who 25 years ago won an Oscar for playing the great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi. Pitka is given a golden opportunity to pass Chopra in mass appeal when he’s hired by Toronto Maple Leafs owner Jane Bullard (Jessica Alba, and you know you’re in trouble when she’s one of the more tolerable aspects of a movie) to patch matters up between the hockey team’s star player, Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco), and his estranged wife Prudence (Meagan Good), who lately has been stepping out with the enormously endowed Los Angeles Kings goalie Jacques “Le Coq” Grande (Justin Timberlake). And yes, every time Le Coq pulls out le cock, we predictably hear a thud as it hits the floor. In fact, predictability is a rampant problem with The Love Guru. When Pitka’s parents are revealed to have been dog groomers before becoming missionaries, we count the seconds until Tugginmypudha cracks about how they were into doggie style before they switched to the missionary position. That’s not to say every joke is apparent before the fact. I didn’t expect to see Pitka pull a cue stick out of his ass and smell it. Or Pitka literally shove his head up said ass while demonstrating yoga positions. For months, Hindu groups have been protesting this film’s release. I’m surprised the outfit Little People of America hasn’t joined them, given the amount of jokes aimed at Verne Troyer, the diminutive actor who plays Maple Leafs coach Cherkov. Blatantly non-P.C. humor can certainly be funny, but when it fails to deliver the laughs it merely comes across as pathetic and mean-spirited and more than a little embarrassing.
Based on the graphic novel series, Wanted initially feels like an unofficial remake of Fight Club, as cubicle nobody Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy, speaking of Atonement) narrates how he’s been beaten down by his mundane, miserable existence (cheating girlfriend, obnoxious boss, dead-end job). Into his life walks not Tyler Durden but Fox (Angelina Jolie), a tattooed beauty who insists that he’s been targeted for elimination by the same man (Thomas Kretschmann) who recently killed his father. Fox soon introduces Wesley to The Fraternity, a clandestine outfit led by the cordial Sloan (Morgan Freeman). Shucking aside any moral qualms, Wesley joins the group, in the process learning that he possesses untapped skills that make him a natural for this line of work. Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, best known for the visually striking yet dramatically inert Nochnoi Dozor (Night Watch) and its sequels, has crafted a slam-bang feature that revels in its own ridiculousness: To criticize the movie’s outlandish situations would be to miss the whole point of Bekmambetiv’s exercise in excess. Still, the script’s twists and turns aren’t nearly as clever as writers Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan pretend and after a while, the movie’s gleeful approach to nihilism proves wearying.
Is it just me, or is anyone else hankering to go out and rent a handful of episodes from the late 70s/early 80s TV series The Incredible Hulk? Bill Bixby was a smart choice to play the smart scientist, and in retrospect, it was downright comforting to have his rampaging alter ego played by an oversized actor spray-painted in green. In this modern age, moviemakers have opted to keep Dr. Jekyll but do away with Mr. Hyde, replacing him with a CGI creation. The results were disastrous in Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk. This attempt to save the franchise (new director, new writer, new cast) is clearly a superior follow-up, even if the computers still can’t quite capture the misunderstood monster on film. That’s a shame, because Edward Norton does his part by providing Bruce Banner with the requisite sense of torn humanity, and the film is filled with imaginative asides for fans of the comic book and/or TV series (my favorite is the shout-out to the late Bixby, showing him on a TV screen in an episode from his popular sitcom The Courtship of Eddie’s Father).
The Happening starts off well before steadily traipsing downhill, and in that respect, it perfectly mirrors writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s career in this vein right up until this latest release. The Sixth Sense may have been a critical and commercial smash, but each subsequent film was less satisfying than the one which preceded it. The Happening at least represents a step up. Opening in Central Park and then combing out through the NYC streets, the first scenes show countless people suddenly become zombie-like before proceeding to take their own lives. It’s soon revealed that this phenomenon is spreading to all major cities throughout the northeast chamber of the country; this includes Philadelphia, where high school science teacher Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) elect to leave town before the plague hits. Or is it a plague? No one has a definitive answer. It’s during these early passages, when we’re as baffled as the characters, that the film is at its strongest. But the self-appointed master of the last-minute twist here elects to reveal the mystery somewhere around the picture’s halfway mark. It’s such a threadbare revelation -- not to mention a rather silly one, to boot -- that the movie ambles forward with nothing else left to say.
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 to pursue his dream of becoming a hair stylist.
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.
Based on the book by Candace Bushnell, the HBO 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.
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.
That rare sequel which improves upon the original. Prince Caspian is 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 return, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.