The kids are alright in Superbad; it’s the adults who prove to be a drag. Coming from some of the same talents involved with The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, this can’t match the impact of its predecessors, despite its best intentions to (slightly) set itself apart in the “teen sex comedy” genre. The movie begins promisingly, as longtime best friends Seth and Evan (Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, both perfectly cast) hope to spend their last couple of months in high school attending cool parties and dating hot girls. With their ultra-geeky pal Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) along for the ride, the boys hope to score some alcohol to bring to a major bash. Using Fogell’s fake ID (on which he’s identified as a 25-year-old simply named McLovin), they set out across town on their holy quest, a mission that turns sour after a robbery spoils their plans and separates Fogell from his pals. Potty-mouthed but true to its milieu, Superbad hums along until two cops (played by co-writer Seth Rogen and Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader) come along to spoil the fun. Tiresome characters, they steer the picture away from its mother lode of comic material, and rather than disappear after making their mark, the pair hang around for the remainder of the film. Superbad gets back on track in the late innings, and it’s here that the movie’s true theme -- the fierce and touching bond that can establish itself between two boys suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous high school shenanigans -- becomes most pronounced. So whenever it centers on its teenage characters, Superbad is a likable coming-of-age comedy; whenever it focuses on the tedious antics of the cops, it turns into a bad SNL skit.
The black hole that goes by the name of Josh Hartnett has managed to swallow up many movies, but Resurrecting the Champ is not one of them. For that, we have to thank the force of nature that goes by the name of Samuel L. Jackson. To be fair, Hartnett isn’t completely awful in the role of a sportswriter who stumbles onto a career-making -- and subsequently career-breaking -- story. But roiling emotions are clearly out of his range, and he’s shown up as a lightweight in his frequent scenes with Mr. Jackson. The latter delivers a formidable performance as a homeless man who calls himself Champ. Raspy-voiced and not all there mentally, he reveals himself to Hartnett’s Erik Kernan as Battling Bob Satterfield, a former boxing great. Erik, stuck covering stories on high school athletics, realizes this could be his ticket to the big time, so he devotes all his energy to turning Champ’s life story into a must-read article. But suspicions eventually surface regarding Champ’s history, and Erik soon realizes that he might have made a huge mistake in choosing his subject matter. The picture’s various themes -- the union between fathers and sons, the importance of journalistic integrity, the ease with which history can be rewritten -- are handled with care, though there’s nothing particularly revelatory on view here (Shattered Glass, for instance, is a far superior film about media misconduct).
I suppose every generation deserves its own sociopolitical take on Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, though The Invasion does neither the audience nor the source material any favors. Depending on one’s political bent, the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which emotionless “pod people” from outer space take over human beings, was either a warning about Communism or an indictment of McCarthyism. The 1978 version (same title) tapped into post-Watergate paranoia, also finding room to mock the rampant New Age-y philosophies of the time. And 1994’s Body Snatchers honed in on teen alienation while also examining the splintering of the nuclear family. So what agenda rests on The Invasion’s plate? Hard to tell, given the general muddle of the piece (much of it was refilmed after poor test screenings, and it shows). There’s some talk of eradicating humankind’s intrinsic need to destroy (and plenty of TV sets showing scenes from Iraq), but it’s unconvincing lip service. There’s a hint that this might satirize our nation’s obsession with medicating its populace, but that’s quickly dismissed. Without anything to chew on, we’re left with a straightforward thriller -- and a fairly effective one until the film self-destructs with a wretched ending that had me slapping my forehead in staggering disbelief.
By borrowing from Jacques Tati, Jerry Lewis and silent-cinema icons like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson managed to concoct his own singularly unique comic creation in the bumbling Mr. Bean. It’s just a shame that the actor has yet to find a feature film to do his character justice. Mr. Bean’s Holiday has some amusing moments scattered throughout (check out his introduction to a seafood platter), but they’re not enough to sustain an entire picture. That the plot is completely disposable (Bean wins a trip to the south of France but has trouble reaching his destination) shouldn’t matter -- after all, the Tim Burton gem Pee-wee’s Big Adventure wasn’t about anything more than a guy looking for a bicycle -- but for a skeletal framework to properly function, the gags need to be as complex as the story is thin (for prime examples, rent Tati’s masterpieces Playtime and Mon Oncle). But inspiration runs dry long before the film reaches its Cannes-set climax, though cineasts will take pleasure in this portion’s tweaking of pretentious art-house twaddle. Now whether the small kids who are taken to this G-rated confection view this segment with anything other than boredom remains to be seen.
Writer-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the team behind 2003’s American Splendor, have now returned with an adaptation of The Nanny Diaries, the best-selling (and hotly debated) novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. As before, Berman and Pulcini attempt to embellish their tale with all manner of visual flourishes and eccentric details, but working from a blueprint that doesn’t always lend itself to such touches, the results are more heavy-handed than before. That’s not to say that this doesn’t offer several rewards of its own making, starting with the strong performances by Scarlett Johansson and Laura Linney. Johansson plays Annie Braddock, a college graduate who, wary of the demands of a career in high finance, ends up landing what she believes will be a less stressful gig as a nanny for a wealthy Manhattan couple known as Mr. and Mrs. X (Paul Giamatti and Linney). Her young charge, Grayer (Nicholas Art), proves difficult at first but over time softens toward Annie, who’s merely the latest in a long line of nannies. A spiritual companion to The Devil Wears Prada (Nanny preceded Prada in print by one year, and in the film, Mrs. X can be glimpsed reading the fashion industry tell-all), this offers some nicely staged sequences to help gloss over the broad characterizations.
Thoughts of Max von Sydow have been commanding much of my time these last two weeks. First, the recent death of the legendary Ingmar Bergman brought to mind many of the director’s classics, several of which he made with von Sydow (the pair had a working relationship similar to Ford-Wayne, Kurosawa-Mifune and Scorsese-De Niro). Then there’s the recent DVD release of Flash Gordon, with von Sydow cast as the villainous Emperor Ming. And now there’s Rush Hour 3, which casts the great Swedish actor in a supporting role (narratively, no different than the part he essayed in Minority Report). Exactly 50 years ago, Von Sydow was exploring philosophical issues of life and death in Bergman’s masterpiece The Seventh Seal; now, he’s shunted to the background to make room for the increasingly unfunny antics of Chris Tucker. If there’s a more depressing commentary to be made on the current state of cinema, I can’t imagine what it might be.
The third time’s the charm with The Bourne Ultimatum, the best in the series of films based on the popular novels by the late Robert Ludlum. Matt Damon, suitably taciturn even though he’s still too young for the role, again stars as Jason Bourne, the former CIA assassin whose continuing bout of amnesia regarding his past perpetually keeps him searching for the truth, even as his agency handlers seek to have him terminated. Taking over villainous duties from Chris Cooper and Brian Cox is David Strathairn, cast as the latest government suit hoping to protect his own nefarious interests by taking out Bourne. The reactions of Strathairn’s character to constantly being outsmarted by Bourne are priceless and provide the film with its brief flashes of humor. And adding some much needed humanity to the proceedings are Joan Allen and Julia Stiles, returning to their roles as CIA operatives of different ranks. Paul Greengrass, returning to the series after taking time off to earn a Best Director Oscar nomination for United 93, tops himself with action set pieces that prove to be more exciting than those on display in his Supremacy or Identity. One of the lengthy chase scenes is especially impressive, and makes one wonder if Damon elected to forego a straight salary in order to be paid by the kilometer.
Perfectly pleasant yet also somewhat pointless, Becoming Jane comes across less as a motion picture and more as a victim of identity theft. Given the glut of exemplary films based on the works of Austen -- from the fairly faithful (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice) to the radically reworked (Bridget Jones’s Diary, Clueless) -- the only sound reasons to create a movie based on Jane herself would be either to suggest some insights into what turned this country girl into one of the most acclaimed writers in the English language or to provide a comprehensive overview of her life and times. But Becoming Jane prefers to take a more narrow view, focusing on one small period in her life (and, based on historical records, a spotty one at that) and trumping up the details of her brief flirtation with a dashing rogue named Tom Lefroy, who would later become Lord High Justice of Ireland. Anne Hathaway, all-American in The Devil Wears Prada and Brokeback Mountain, adopts a British accent (shades of Renee Zellweger tackling Bridget Jones) and makes for a lively Jane (even if, physically, she more resembles Austen’s contemporary, Lady Caroline Lamb).
Crafting a motion picture from a current television series that’s been around for nearly two decades is a dicey proposition, but The Simpsons Movie fills the larger dimensions of the theater screen quite nicely. Running the length of four combined episodes, this flick takes Homer’s weekly display of idiocy to a new level, as his bumbling disrespect for the environment leads to Springfield being blocked off from the rest of the world by a giant dome, with the town’s destruction the ultimate goal of the overzealous head of the Environmental Protection Agency (voiced by Albert Brooks, billed in the credits as “A. Brooks”). Knowing that Homer is the culprit, the town’s residents soon come a-calling with torches in hand and nooses hanging from nearby trees (baby Maggie’s rope has a little pacifier attached). But if there’s one area in which Hollywood remains blissfully, even blessedly, optimistic, it’s in the strength of the family unit, and as long as Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie stick together, they can lick any and all odds.
One of this summer’s few out-and-out delights, smoothing out but never compromising the issues that made John Waters’ original film such a quirky delight. An ode to being different, Hairspray stars delightful newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager who won’t let her pleasantly plump figure get in the way of following her dream in 1960s Baltimore. The movie’s first and foremost a musical, and director Adam Shankman does a commendable job of filming the song-and-dance routines in a manner that accentuates the total skills involved (the noticeable lack of rapid MTV-style cuts is greatly appreciated).
Those who like their Potter black will find much to appreciate in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth and moodiest of the J.K. Rowling adaptations to date. Chris Columbus’ first two entries focused mainly on fun and games, with the subsequent installments helmed by Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell taking on darker dimensions. The level of malevolence is raised even further here, thanks to the taut direction by unknown David Yates and a forceful performance by lead Daniel Radcliffe.
A movie about robots that turn into cars (and trucks and tanks and airplanes) would seem to have a more limited fan base than many other blockbuster wanna-bes, and the presence of Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor) as director certainly puts critics on alert. Yet the secret ingredient is in the producing credits. Instead of Bay’s usual partner in crime, Jerry Bruckheimer, it’s Steven Spielberg who snags an executive producer citation, so it can’t be a coincidence that this picture harkens back to the sort of filmic roller coaster rides that Spielberg often built during the 80s. What makes the initial hour-and-change so enjoyable is the expository material that former Alias scripters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman bring to the table. After quickly explaining that two sets of intergalactic robots -- the heroic Autobots and the nefarious Decepticons -- have brought their battle to our planet, we’re introduced to characters who will eventually gather to help the good ‘bots defeat the evil ones. Chief among the human protagonists is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a teenager who’s so busy wooing a lovely classmate (Megan Fox) that he’s slow to realize that there’s more than meets the eye about his new Camaro. Meanwhile, in Qatar, two members (Tyrese Gibson and Josh Duhamel) of an army outfit find themselves trying to stay alive from the metallic menace that has wiped out their base. And the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Jon Voight) tries to figure out what’s going on with the help of a computer analyst (Rachael Taylor) and her “advisor,” a computer hacker (Anthony Anderson). Bolstered by ample amounts of humor and more character-driven than expected, Transformers for the most part does a fine job of balancing action with emotion, which makes the final half-hour -- wall to wall battles -- a bit of a slog.