Support the Girls


The ladies of Double Whammies strike a pose.

(2018) Comedy (Magnolia) Regina Hall, Shayna McHayle, Haley Lu Richardson, James LeGros, Lea DeLaria, John Elvis, Steve Zapata, Dylan Gelula, Ann McCaskey, Elizabeth Trieu, Zoe Graham, Lawrence Varnado, AJ Michalka, Brooklyn Decker, Lindsay Kent, Jesse Marshall, Luis Olmeda, Krista Hayes, Jermichael Grey, Pete Partida, AnnaClare Hicks. Directed by Andrew Bujalski

 

In 2018 we have seen women in Hollywood stand up to the sexual mistreatment of men – particularly powerful men – in the industry. However, it is not just celebrities who have been the recipients of this shameful treatment; women in all walks of life must endure objectification at the hands of men and even by other women in all strata of society. If you doubt it, have a meal at a Twisted Kilt, Twin Peaks or Hooters sometime.

Double Whammies belongs in that group. It is a sports bar in a suburban Houston strip mall where the waitresses are all women and all wear skimpy uniforms that show off their cleavage, their legs, their butts and their navels (not necessarily in that order) where the customers are mainly there not for the food (a rule of thumb is that most of the restaurants that rely on sex to pull customers in generally have crappy food) and perhaps not even for the beer or the big game on TV but to ogle the waitresses. The girls pretty much accept it; the tips, after all, are better here.

Lisa (Hall) is their manager and den mother. She loves her girls like a mother loves her daughters but the drama of 20-something girls (and there is always drama with 20-something girls) is getting to her, as well as a thousand other things. For instance, her husband (Varnado) has essentially given up, spending his days surfing the net and playing on his laptop, not even able to rouse himself from his rut to go and see an apartment she very much wants to move into (and he very much does not want to). Her boss (LeGros) is a pig who has NO respect for his employees and treats Lisa with bitter condescension which has put her right at the breaking point.

One of her girls (Kramer) has attacked her abusive boyfriend by deliberately hitting him with her truck and is now staying at Lisa’s place. Lisa puts together a charity car wash to pay her legal fees. She’s also coping with a group of new hires who her top waitress Maci (Richardson) is training on the art of flirting just enough to get those high tips but not enough to make the family-friendly dynamic of Double Whammies (and yes, Lisa considers the sports bar as a family establishment) spiral down the toilet. It’s a fine line to walk but Lisa seems to have a handle on it, but on this day when things are beginning to fall apart – from discovering a would-be burglar trapped in the air ducts to having to fire a waitress because of a tattoo of Stephon Curry on her waist to coping with the national franchise “sports bar with curves” Mancave coming into the neighborhood; well, it’s enough to make even the hardiest of women cry in her car in the parking lot before work.

Bujalski who has made some pretty decent films up to now, has a golden opportunity here to really drill down into the plight of working women facing non-stop discrimination and objectification in the workplace and to a certain extent he does, if only obliquely. However, he lacks the courage of his convictions to show the uncomfortable lengths of abuse women endure from both co-workers (especially male managers) and customers who decide if their President can grab genitalia at his own whim, why shouldn’t they get to. We see none of that and most of the abuse that the women face is decidedly non-sexual such as when a biker makes a joke that one of the waitresses is fat when she clearly isn’t and gets marched out by a furiously protective Lisa, backed up by a pair of cops who were there to deal with the burglar but are also regulars at the bar. I get the sense that Bujalski, who also wrote the screenplay, didn’t talk to a lot of women who work in such establishments to find out what sorts of things they have to go through every day.

The thing though that makes this movie is the girls themselves, particularly Regina Hall as Lisa. Hall is a fine actress although not utilized as well as she might be throughout her career. Given a chance to shine here, she nails the part and absolutely takes over the screen. She has star quality but as yet hasn’t gotten a role that really challenges her skills. Her performance here might just lead to such roles. Newcomer McHayle as Lisa’s confidante and closest friend is a real find, both compassionate and kickass at once. I for one would love to see more of her. DeLaria also shines as a butch truck driver who also looks after the girls.

As comedies go, this one is a bit light on laughs but despite some of its flaws managed to capture my heart. I ended up genuinely caring about the characters and wishing I could hang out with them. You end up wanting to spend time at Double Whammies (despite the jerk of an owner) and that’s about all you can ask of a movie like this. Yeah, the postscript of the film goes on way too long (despite a wonderful cameo by Brooklyn Decker) but I found myself liking the film anyway and I suspect you will too – unless you’re one of the misogynist jerks who thinks you’re entitled to grab a waitress’ behind at a place like this. In that case you might end up feeling a bit uncomfortable and deservedly so.

REASONS TO GO: The characters are (mainly) likable. The filmmakers obliquely tackle the way women are regarded in modern society. Regina Hall is at the top of her game.
REASONS TO STAY: The comedy falls flat most of the time. The last scene on the roof goes on too long. The movie drops the ball on showing real workplace sexism by whitewashing it a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and mild sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was a Smith family affair, with brothers Josh, Tate and Porter Smith involved both behind and in front of the camera, sister Janelle doing costuming and father David producing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Flixfling, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting…
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Mudbound

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The Spiderwick Chronicles


Who says kids don't listen?

Who says kids don’t listen?

(2008) Fantasy (Paramount) Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, Martin Short (voice), Seth Rogan (voice), Andrew McCarthy, Jordy Benattar, Tod Fennell, Mariah Inger, Jeremy Lavalley, Lise Durocher-Viens, Ron Perlman (voice), Tyler Patrick Jones, Kyle Switzer, Stefanie Broos. Directed by Mark Waters

Young adult fantasy novels have fared poorly when given the cinematic treatment by various Hollywood entities, some worse than others. While studios are obviously eager to find the next Harry Potter or the next Katniss Everdeen, sometimes in an effort to make a franchise they overlook the simple solution of telling a good story well.

The Grace family has taken their share of blows lately. Mother Helen (Parker) has packed up and moved from New York City into “the middle of nowhere” to a decrepit estate she has inherited from her Aunt Lucinda (Plowright), who has been taken to a sanitarium after a suicide attempt. Her children are handling their situation differently. Mallory (Bolger), the oldest, clearly is behind her mother. She’s obsessed with fencing (the kind with swords, not pickets) and carries her sword with her nearly everywhere she goes. Younger brother Simon (Highmore) has become decidedly non-confrontational (perhaps in response to conflicts between his parents) and instead focuses on his love for animals.

It is Simon’s twin Jared (Highmore again) who is having the toughest time. Already burdened with anger control issues, he feels betrayed by his mother and is anxious to live with his father (McCarthy) instead. He lashes out at his siblings and mother, who tries very hard to be understanding but is obviously close to cracking herself.

It all starts with Jared hearing noises in the wall, banging on them with a broom. Eventually, Mallory accidentally uncovers a dumbwaiter, hidden in the walls behind plaster. In the dumbwaiter are trinkets, including some small items that have disappeared, such as Mallory’s fencing medals and Helen’s car keys, as well as a curious looking key with an old-fashioned letter “S” fashioned into it. Jared is blamed for this (it seems he is usually blamed for any mischief that occurs) and decides to see what is at the other end of the dumbwaiter.

He discovers the dusty old laboratory of his great grand-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (Strathairn), who disappeared years ago. Using the strange key to open up a trunk he finds in the room, he finds a hard-bound book that has been sealed with wax accompanied by a note warning the finder not to read the book upon peril of their lives. Of course, that only whets the boy’s curiosity and of course like any idiot Hollywood boy he opens it up and reads it.

What he finds is Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, with copious notes about magical creatures – fairies, trolls, goblins, griffons and ogres, to name a few – as well as means of performing all manners of magic. Unfortunately, the opening of the book has set into motion events that put the lives of the Grace family, as well as all the magical creatures in the book, in mortal danger. Young Jared will have to summon all the courage he can find to survive the perils of the Fantastical World.

A surprisingly solid cast for what is intended to be the first of series of movies which, I’m sure, Paramount was hoping to be successful along the lines of the Harry Potter novels. Children’s fantasy movies, however, have fared less than stellar other than the Potter and Narnia books – see The Golden Compass, The Last Mimzy and Eragon if you haven’t already.

Getting Highmore is a good first step. He’s done exceedingly well in such movies as Finding Neverland and August Rush. This isn’t, sadly, one of his better performances – I think it was a bit much to ask him to take two differing roles. He does OK with Jared, but Simon becomes washed-out and forgettable. The producers would have been better served to get another young actor to take the Simon role. Bolger is decent enough as the sister and Parker does some good work as the much put-upon mother.

Plowright nearly steals the movie as Aunt Lucinda; she is simply so much better than the rest of the cast. Strathairn is one of my favorite actors, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do here. Even so, he makes the role of Arthur Spiderwick living and breathing.

As for the voice actors, Martin Short is decent as the brownie Thimbletack, but it is Rogan who is so much more entertaining as the easily distracted hobgoblin Hogsqueal. Nolte gets brief on-screen time as the shape-shifting Mulgarath but it is mostly his rumbling voice that we hear throughout.

As solid as the cast is, the talent behind the camera is impressive as well. Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall have, among others, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark to their credits. Legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of Zooey and Emily) is responsible for the creepy atmosphere and gorgeous vistas. Oscar-winning composer James Horner has supplied some memorable theme music over the years, although his score doesn’t really hold up as well in this instance. Some Jim Dandy special effects here, mostly from ILM and Tippett Studios (Phil Tippett himself worked for ILM back in the Star Wars days). That’s a good thing, since the movie relies heavily on special effects.

The supporting performances are certainly worth noting. Some of the special effects are magnificent, although not groundbreaking. The creatures (particularly Hogsqueal) are all given a certain amount of individuality and come off realistically and holistically. The story is a little different from most children’s fantasies going on at the moment, although for God’s sake can’t the kids in these stories have two actual parents present? Ye Gods!

The kid actors can be kinda grating. Jared is not an easy character to like and at times, you wonder if everyone involved wouldn’t be much happier if Mulgarath would only eat him.  Occasionally, the effects work actually overwhelms the action. There are some instances in which the children are being chased by various nasty varmints and quite frankly, couldn’t possibly get away given the speed of the creatures and the distance behind the kids they are. After the third instance of this, you really begin to notice it.

It is very enjoyable for the whole family (except as delineated above). Sometimes, kid’s fantasy movies seem a bit too sanitized; this is most assuredly not that. The peril seems real and life-threatening, and while the effects aren’t eye-popping, they nevertheless are enjoyable. Think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a modern setting with all the viscera intact and you won’t be far from the mark here.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive cast, impressive effects. Refreshingly original as recent young adult franchise novels go. The creatures, although frightening, are plenty imaginative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jared is intensely unlikable. Some of the physics don’t work.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the creatures are much scarier than the PG rating would indicate. There are also plenty of instances of kids in peril, and some of the thematic content is on the mature side.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first Nickelodeon branded film has been released in the IMAX format.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are interviews with the book’s authors, as well as comparisons between the book’s illustrations and the creatures as they appeared in the film. These appear on both DVD and Blu-Ray editions.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $162.8M on a $90M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Eye in the Sky

Results


Running on empty.

Running on empty.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (Magnolia) Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan, Giovanni Ribisi, Brooklyn Decker, Anthony Michael Hall, Constance Zimmer, Tishuan Scott, Zoe Graham, David Benton, Greg Dorchak, Donn Adelman, Graham Carter, Laura Frances, Lindsay Anne Kent, Stephen Latham, Katie Folger, Elizabeth Berridge. Directed by Andrew Bujalski

Florida Film Festival 2015

When it comes to fitness, only results matter. Either you go from overweight and flabby to fit and muscled or you don’t. Either you start a wellness regimen that works for you or you don’t. If the latter, than no matter what your diet is, no matter how much effort you put in, you are still out-of-shape.

Trevor (Pearce) owns a gym, or as gym owners tend to characterize them these days, a fitness center. He has high hopes to expand his Austin-based property into a franchise, and is on the verge of doing just that. His Power 4 Life fitness center has incorporated a goals-based training philosophy into its way of doing business and employs some fairly expert personal fitness trainers. Chief among them is Kat (Smulders), a high-strung trainer with anger issues. She’s an effective motivator and a patient teacher for the most part but get her outside the training regimen and she’s a mess.

Into the mix comes Danny (Corrigan), a lonely divorcee who is new to Austin. Just days after his divorce became final, he inherited millions and now has nobody to share his new-found wealth with. He vaguely wants to become more fit, fit enough as he tells Trevor, to take a punch. Trevor is a little bit nonplussed but everyone has their reasons for getting fit. As long as the check clears, it’s all good. After some soul searching, he assigns Kat (with whom he’s had a previous relationship that didn’t work out) to be Danny’s personal trainer and sends her to Danny’s palatial but empty mansion.

Danny has enough money to buy him everything but happiness and while he has made the acquaintance of a kind of semi-shady lawyer sort (Ribisi), he really has no friends. So of course he becomes a bit besotted by Kat who reacts – or some would say overreacts – accordingly. This leads to an adjustment in the relationship between Trevor and Kat, a new friendship between Danny and Trevor which eventually dissolves – because of Kat. Relationships are a hell of a lot more complicated than getting in shape.

Bujalski has plenty of indie street cred for his quirky black and white comedy Computer Chess. This is his second feature and has a much bigger budget and recognizable stars, not the least of which is the always reliable Pearce who as usual has the kind of screen presence that plenty of bigger stars don’t come close to possessing. Utilizing his native Aussie accent here, Pearce gives Trevor a kind of Zen-like external calm but inside he’s the proverbial chicken with his head cut off as he tries to cut a deal with the Russian fitness master Grigoriy (Hall) to invest in his gyms.

Smulders, who’s stint on How I Met Your Mother made her a TV star and her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Agent Maria Hill has given her a steady paycheck after that series ended gets to exercise her indie legs, albeit in quite the challenging role. She doesn’t quite pull it off though, being written to be so thoroughly unlikable that even Leona Helmsley seems like Mother Teresa in comparison. Even though she mellows a little by the end of the movie, she has just been so damn annoying all the way through that you don’t much care.

Corrigan, a long time indie stalwart, shines here. He is kind of an Oliver Platt for this generation and that’s a pretty high compliment. Even though Danny is quite the schlub and turns out to be rather petulant and a bit of an asshole at the end of the day, you still end up liking him a little bit.

In fact none of the characters are truly likable, although you end up rooting for Trevor kind of by default. Also, don’t be fooled by the “comedy” portion of the romantic comedy; the wit here is dry as the Mojave in August and those into a broader kind of humor and a more formula kind of romantic comedy may take issue with what they find here. Still, those who appreciate that kind of humor are going to really dig this movie which has a lot going for it, although at the end of the day ends up being a fairly entertaining film but ultimately one that you aren’t going to remember much about once the end credits roll.

REASONS TO GO: Has a bit of fun with gym culture. Pearce always does yeoman work.
REASONS TO STAY: Mostly disposable. Cat is so unlikable that she becomes annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of harsh language, some sexuality and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Smulders was five months pregnant during filming and great pains were taken to disguise her pregnancy. Director Bujalski’s wife also gave birth with two days left remaining in the shooting schedule, forcing a brief delay.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Breaking Away
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: San Andreas

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1


Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

(2014) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Willow Shields, Mahershala Ali, Paula Malcomson, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Stef Dawson, Sarita Choudhury. Directed by Francis Lawrence

It has become something of a habit now for Hollywood to take the final book in a young adult franchise based on a book and split it in two; this has been done for the Harry Potter series, Twilight and now The Hunger Games with the same fate planned for the Divergent series. This is a blatant cash grab that cynical studios use to squeeze every last penny that they can out of a successful franchise. As for the Potter series, the first part was the weakest movie of the eight-film franchise (although the second part turned out to be one of the strongest). In the Twilight series Lionsgate both movies were poor and the final entry the worst of the entire series.

In this penultimate film, the events of Catching Fire have led to the complete carpet bombing and destruction of District 12, home of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) who has been taken to the previously-thought abandoned District 13. However her love Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) had been left behind and was captured by the men of President Snow (Sutherland) and brought back to the Capital. There he is used as a pawn, with interviews conducted by the smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) which essentially are propaganda pieces.

District 13 president Alma Coin (Moore) is wary of using Katniss for the same purpose; clearly Katniss is shell-shocked and not in an emotional state where she is able to be a spokesman for the revolution that is sweeping Panem. However uber-patient ex-boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) is on hand to help Katniss make it through; old friends Haymitch (Harrelson), Effie Trinket (Banks) and Finnick (Claflin) are there to support Katniss. Rescued from the rubble of District 12 are Kat’s sister Primrose (Shields) and mom (Malcomson).

Pulling the strings in District 13 is Plutarch (Hoffman) a cynical but brilliant marketing man who is selling the revolution to the people of Panem whereas President Snow is selling safety and security while providing neither. A villain of the first order, he callously orders the bombing of a hospital in order to set an example of what happens to people when they allow a visit from the Girl on Fire who is now referred to as the Mockingjay. This pisses Katniss off enough to pull out of her funk temporarily – until the callow Peeta makes another plea for peace. Who knew the face of revolution would be so emotional?

And so after that atrocity the rebels are finally moved to push into an offensive against the Capital, giving them the opportunity to rescue Peeta and the other Victors held captive by the President, including Finnick’s girlfriend Anna (Dawson). However, they don’t begin to see the depth of the game being played by President Snow – and how far he is willing to go to win it.

As any fan of the series will tell you, it’s all about Katniss and thus it’s all about Jennifer Lawrence. Normally I’d say that’s a pretty safe bet; after all, she has become one of the hottest actresses in the world, with Oscar wins as well as starring in one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood today. However, I can’t say as I like what is happening to her character here.

Now I’ll admit that it should be taken into account that I’m not a teenage girl nor have I ever been one – nor am I likely to ever be one. I may be getting this all wrong but I feel cheated a little bit by what Katniss has become in this movie. I had always viewed her as a good role model for young girls; strong, independent, able to defend herself and those around her and with a strong moral compass. I’m not sure what the author’s intentions were  but I saw the same thing happen to Bella Swan in Twilight as well. Both series were written by women but I’m not sure if they were saying it’s okay to be ruled by your emotions to the point where you become virtually immobilized by them, or if they’re saying that’s part of being female.

I don’t know about that part. How is it role model material for your strong, independent heroine to be literally whining “It’s not fair!” while pining away for her boyfriend to the point that she’s willing to let all sorts of people – including her sister and mom – be killed because she’s too emotional to act to prevent it. That kind of self-centeredness may be part of modern culture but it seems out of place for a movie heroine. Of course, my perceptions of what a role model should be may be hopelessly outdated but I do like to think that there are some things that are fairly basic and timeless.

Lawrence is a terrific actress but she seems curiously lifeless here. Even so, she still manages to dominate the screen and while this isn’t her best work, it certainly is enough to carry the movie. She gets some able support, particularly from the late Hoffman whom the film is dedicated to. Mostly though this is a lot of people going through the motions for a paycheck and Moore, also a fine actress, looks distinctly uncomfortable in an unfortunate wig.

There’s just not a lot of energy and life to this movie even though the visuals are well shot and there are some pleasant moments in idyllic forests. Most of the movie takes place in District 13’s underground bunker and is perpetually underlit. Even without 3D this movie is dark and dingy-looking most of the time. You have to admit though it does set a certain kind of bleak mood.

There is subtext here about image-making and its use in manipulating opinion, and while that is a fascinating subject, the filmmakers tend to thunk us over the head with a shillelagh rather than skewer us with a rapier which would be much more preferable. There isn’t a lot of subtlety here but then again, I get the sense that the filmmakers don’t respect their target audience a whole lot. Certainly the kind of girls that identify with Katniss are capable of understanding subtlety.

This is a big disappointment for me. Thus far I’ve actually enjoyed the series and was looking forward to seeing this one. Although it is reasonably entertaining to earn a feeble recommendation, I was hoping for so much more. With any luck,  the finale next Thanksgiving will pull out all the stops and let the series end on a high note rather than a whimper or a whine which is where it seems to be going. Prove me wrong. Please.

REASONS TO GO: Some pleasing eye-candy. Lawrence is terrific even when she’s subpar.
REASONS TO STAY: Turgid and boring. Lacks any kind of spark. Katniss, a strong and courageous soul, is reduced to a weepy teen pining for her boyfriend and feeling sorry for herself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some intense violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoffman passed away a week before filming concluded; rather than recasting the part, the filmmakers did some rewrites so that the portions Hoffman didn’t film could be incorporated in different ways.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Divergent
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Daybreakers

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian


The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Ben Barnes has sworn off taking LSD before battle sequences.

(2008) Fantasy (Disney) Ben Barnes, Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley, Anna Popplewell, Peter Dinklage, Warwick Davis, Liam Neeson (voice), Sergio Castellitto, Eddie Izzard (voice), Vincent Grass, Harry Gregson-Williams (voice), Tilda Swinton. Directed by Andrew Adamson

 

When last we left the magical world of Narnia, the Pevensies – High King Peter (Moseley), King Edmund (Keynes), Princess Susan (Popplewell) and Princess Lucy (Henley) have returned to our world of wartime England only moments after they left, despite having spent a lifetime in Narnia, growing up to be young men and women. Instead, they are children again with a lifetime of memories and experiences. I guess they can scarcely be called children with that in their heads.

While standing in a London tube station they suddenly realize that they are being called back into Narnia and wind up on the beach. But isn’t that Cair Paravel, their beautiful Camelot-like castle? And why is it in ruins?

Things have changed in Narnia. For one thing, centuries have passed and the Four Kings and Queens have passed into legend. Narnia has been invaded by a race called the Telmarines who speak with a Latin accent (some say Spanish, others Italian) who have routed the magical creatures that live there until they have faded into mythology. Some say they never existed.

Miraz (Castellitto), brother of the recently deceased King of Narnia and Uncle of the rightful heir Caspian (Barnes) , is the proud father of a newborn baby. It’s an occasion for joy, but what Caspian doesn’t realize is that Miraz was the one who had his father killed. He needed Caspian to legitimize his rule over the kingdom; now that Miraz has a son, Caspian is unnecessary. Caspian’s tutor, Doctor Cornelius (Grass) realizes this. He also, being a native Narnian (an increasingly rare breed under Telmarine rule) is privy to the information that the magical creatures are still alive and living in hiding in the woods of Narnia.

Cornelius urges Caspian to flee and find the natives which he does, but Miraz discovers his absence and sets out his soldiers to find him. Caspian blows on a horn – Susan’s horn – which is what summons the Pevensies back. It also gets Caspian aid from the creatures of Narnia, whom Caspian had always thought of as monsters. There are some tense moments as neither Caspian nor the Narnians trust each other.

However after the Pevensies witness some Telmarine soldiers preparing to drown Trumpkin (Dinklage), a surly dwarf, they rescue him and in return he takes them to the headquarters of the Narnians where they meet up with Caspian. Of course, a bit of a pissing contest ensues between the ancient King of Narnia and the rightful king but as Caspian’s confidence grows, Peter realizes that he isn’t there to run things.

As the Telmarines begin building a bridge that will allow their main army to attack the Narnians (over which they have a vast numerical advantage), the Narnians must lead a daring raid on the castle and then prepare to defend themselves against the Telmarines. With Aslan (Neeson) nowhere in sight, it will take a miracle to save Narnia and restore her to her rightful citizens.

This is a much darker film than The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe which was more of a straightforward fantasy. This has political intrigue as well as medieval battle scenes which are realistic although fairly bloodless. It is also a bit more talky than the first movie which was a bit more action-oriented.

The problem with the Narnia series is that the lead quartet of actors are just not nearly as accomplished as the Harry Potter leads. Simply put, they’re bland and not as appealing – Keynes and Henley, the two younger ones, can be downright annoying in places (although Keynes would redeem himself in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). Barnes, the latest addition to the main cast, is handsome but he seems a little bit unsure of himself in the movie. This isn’t his first rodeo but I doubt any of his other projects have put as much weight on his shoulders and on top of that he’s given a ridiculous accent to master, one that disappears (thankfully) in Dawn Treader.

Dinklage and Izzard fare well in their roles bringing some gravitas and comic relief and the effects can be marvelous. The battle scenes are well-choreographed and much better than those in the first film. While they don’t have an antagonist as evil as the White Witch nor a performance on par with Swinton’s (who makes a cameo as the Witch midway through the movie). However, the Telmarines are far more realistic a foe, giving the movie an entirely different feel, which is a good thing.

This is to date the weakest of the three films although it isn’t that bad as you can see by the score. The series is currently on hold; a fourth film was planned but the untimely death of one of the producers has left the franchise waiting for someone to pick up the slack and bring the series back on track. Certainly given the box office of this film, the future movies in the series (if any) will have much smaller budgets.

While this series has never gotten the love of other fantasy franchises, it’s still managed  to produce some quality movies thus far. That’s not to say that the movie measures up in quality to Potter or the Lord of the Rings films but it isn’t a total loss either. Let’s just say that those who love fantasy won’t be disappointed; those who loved the books from their childhood might be.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fine battle and special effects sequences. Creature effects are pretty nifty. Peter Dinklage – need I say more?

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Pevensies are still wooden and bland. The movie is a little more talky and why are the Telmarines Spaniards?

FAMILY VALUES:  Fantasy violence and a few somewhat scary creatures.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to playing the White Witch, Tilda Swinton also makes a cameo as a centaur.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a fascinating featurette on how this big production affected the tiny village of Bovec in Slovenia, where the bridge scene was filmed. The Blu-Ray edition contains something called Circle Vision Interactive which allows the viewer to watch the castle raid sequence with commentary and features all shot with a 360 degree field with HD resolution. It’s pretty nifty.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $419.7M on a $225M production budget; the movie didn’t quite make its production and marketing budget back..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inkheart

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Final Destination


Final Destination

They fall down when plane goes boom.

(2000) Horror (New Line) Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, Kerr Smith, Kristen Cloke, Daniel Roebuck, Roger Guenveur Smith, Chad E. Donella, Seann William Scott, Tony Todd, Amanda Detmer, Brendan Fehr, Lisa Marie Caruk, Christine Chatelain, Barbara Tyson. Directed by James Wong

 

Longtime “X-Files” producers Glen Morgan and James Wong are responsible for what may seem — at first glance — a typical “bump-off-the-teens” horror/thriller. But if you know anything about their pedigree, you’ll realize you’re in for a wild ride.

Heartthrob Devon Sawa stars as Alex Browning, a nervous teen who is getting ready to go to Paris on a field trip with his high school class (now, why oh why didn’t my school go places like that?). After experiencing a series of unsettling premonitions which make him a bit more nervous, whatever power is trying to communicate with him finally hits him over the head with a particularly vivid vision of the plane’s destruction. Unnerved, he freaks out on the plane, sending several of his classmates and himself off the plane, which takes off without them and is promptly blown from the sky. No survivors.

Alex is treated as a bit of a nutcase by those who survive, including the jockish bully (Smith), his exasperated girlfriend (Detmer), his sympathetic buddy (Donella), a badly shaken teacher (Cloke), a somewhat tightly-wound cyclist (Scott) and an artistic orphan who is somewhat sweet on him (Larter). He is also pursued by a pair of milquetoast FBI agents, who are suspicious about his vision.

However, things get sinister in a hurry as, one by one, the survivors are bumped off in grisly, mysterious ways. Turns out they were meant to be on that plane and that somehow, they’ve cheated death. Death is mighty cheesed off about it, too.

The rest of the picture is spent with the survivors trying to avoid the Grim Reaper. One of the movie’s best features is that horror clichés are used to its advantage. The audience is set up to look one way when all of a sudden it is stunned by something coming from left field. It’s a good roller-coaster ride, with lots of good surprises. Morgan and Wong excel at putting a different spin on things.

The trouble is, this is a movie designed to appeal to teens, which is great if you are one. But for the rest of us, it’s a pain to have to endure the posturing and posing of young actors for whom looking cool is more important than looking believable. Some of the performances are a bit, shall we say, over the top.

Still, there is a lot of little things that make “Final Destination” worthwhile. All of the character names, for example, are based on the names of great horror directors and writers (see if you can figure out who is who). The effects, while grisly, are used effectively for some good scares and some “eww gross” moments. In fact, the scares are more than good – there are some terrific scares here, which makes this a good movie for men to take their dates to for some serious hold-me protection (wink). It sure worked on Da Queen.

When you have a genuinely creepy premise, sometimes you can get by with less-than-stellar performances. This could have been a better flick with better characters and better acting, but what movie couldn’t be? It was certainly good enough to initiate a franchise which is still going strong with a sixth installment in the works, albeit at a different studio than where the films originated. The first one is still pretty much among the best of the lot. Invite a friend….and see it in the dark. Your electric bill and your guest will both thank you.

WHY RENT THIS: A clever premise. Some satisfying left-field scares and some nifty special effects. Todd is chilling in his role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit too much posing and posturing. A lot of teens acting like dumb teens.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is plenty of violence as you might expect and a bit of gore.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The news footage of the plane crash was taken from the crash of TWA Flight 800 which crashed on July 17, 1996.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is some footage from the test screenings and a featurette that talks about their importance. There is also a featurette on a real-life woman who has had several premonitions about disasters that have come to pass.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.9M on a $23M production budget; the movie was a surprise blockbuster that wound up kicking off a franchise.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Casino Royale (2006)


Casino Royale

"All right, damn it, I'll say it - I'm Bond, James Bond. Now someone get me my freakin' martini!"

(2006) Action Adventure (MGM) Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Akbarian, Caterina Murino, Jesper Christensen, Ivana Milicevic, Isaach de Bankole, Tobias Menzies, Claudio Santamaria, Sebastien Foucan.  Directed by Martin Campbell.

There is a kind of comfort in certain things that don’t change. French waiters will always be rude, politics as usual will always be depressing and James Bond will always ride in to save the day. Of course, the franchise itself has been full of change. Circa 2006, there have been six men who have played Bond in the “official” series (more on that later). The newest one is making his debut in this, the last original Ian Fleming novel to have its title on a film from Eon Productions, who have been making the Bond movies since 1962, first under producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, and later under his daughter Barbara Broccoli, who went to college at Loyola Marymount University, where yours truly took several classes together as we both majored in Communication Arts (and no, I didn’t know who she was until much later). But how did Daniel Craig do in his first outing in the role? 

The filmmakers go a little radical here, choosing to create something of a Bond origin story. MI-6 agent James Bond (Craig) is promoted to Double O status after killing a double agent in the ranks of the British diplomatic corps and his contact. Afterwards, he is chasing a bomb maker (Foucan) to try and get closer to the terrorists that hired him (some amazing free running stunts here) when he is captured on camera apparently murdering unarmed diplomats in an embassy. This infuriates MI-6 chief M (Dench) no end and embarrasses the agency.

Bond being Bond, he doesn’t back off. He continues following the money and manages to determine that the next target is going to be a prototype airplane. He manages to avert the destruction of the prototype, unknowingly thwarting the plans to manipulate the stock of the airplane’s manufacturer by Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen), a kind of investment banker for terrorists. Now in the hock to a bunch of guys who like to kill innocent people (just imagine what they’ll do to someone who isn’t so innocent), he has to recoup his losses. Being an extraordinary poker player, he organizes a card tournament at the prestigious Casino Royale in Montenegro. MI-6, sensing a major opportunity to break Le Chiffre’s bank (which would effectively put him at their mercy, and perhaps in exchange for protection they could find out detailed information on most of the world’s terrorist organizations), know they need to beat him at his own game. And who do you send in to do it? The best card player in MI-6 – namely, Bond, James Bond. M is reluctant to do it – “I promoted you much too early” she snarls at him when he breaks into her home to hack her encrypted computer. Still, it is their best chance for success.

To keep an eye on the double “o’ bad boy, they send Vesper Lynd (Green) from the Ministry of Finance to keep an eye on the ten million pounds they are floating Bond to enter the tournament. Bond, having an eye for figures (ahem) manages to charm the frosty Lynd even though they don’t hit it off right away. Le Chiffre is desperate to win the tournament by any means necessary. Bond will have to use more than his card-playing skills to survive this Texas Hold’em tournament.

The filmmakers are returning to the style of James Bond that Ian Fleming originally envisioned when he first wrote the books more than 50 years ago. This is a gritty, rough around the edges Bond who can be urbane and elegant when he has to be. You see the cold, efficient killer in Bond more than the charming one-liner machine we saw in later incarnations of the character. Bond gets beat up something awful during the course of the movie, but he dishes out far more than he takes.

Director Martin Campbell, who got the Pierce Brosnan era off with a bang with GoldenEye does much the same here, although he is completely kickstarting the series. This is more real world Bond, relying less on gadgets (although there are some here, they aren’t the supercool spy gadgets of yore; these are things that you’d probably be able to find at your local Sharper Image) than on the skills of the world’s best spy. 

I was surprised to find that Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) was one of the writers on this movie. It didn’t seem to be his style, at least so I thought, but he, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have put together one of the more complex screenplays of the series. There are many twists and turns to the story, some of which you don’t see coming (some of which you do) and it’s nice to be kept guessing while watching a Bond movie. Bond movies have always tended to stick to a formula – a very successful formula, but a formula nonetheless – and the producers have served notice here that they intend to shake things up and they have, in a good way. 

The Bond girls, led by Green, are less Barbie Doll goddess gorgeous than past Bond girls; in fact, it could be said they are more conventionally pretty, the sort of girls you’d find in a shopping mall or at the beach rather than in an ultra-expensive spa or casino. Unfortunately, most of them are written pretty colorlessly, although that’s fairly standard practice for Bond girls of the last 20 years, Die Another Day excepted. This installment could have used another Jinx-like girl to liven things up.

Craig makes a pretty decent Bond, although nobody can replace Sean Connery. Even if someone was the perfect Bond(and I don’t think Connery was), he couldn’t compete with the memory of Connery who established the category and was as close to perfect as you could get in playing him. Craig may well have moved to number two on the list. He is ruthless, tough and brilliant. He doesn’t toss out facts like the know-it-all Bond would occasionally become; instead, he just knows the things he needs to. Craig may not fit the tall, dark and handsome stereotype of Bond but he captures the essence of the character. That goes a long way in my book. 

There were a few bugs in the movie – the poker sequences go on far too long, and the movie’s momentum is screwed up as a result. There is no Q Division or Moneypenny in the movie and both are missed, even though I do understand their absence. The early free running stunt sequence is SO spectacular that the climactic sequence in Venice pales next to it. These are not minor things exactly, but they are truly fixable. What’s important is that the producers have a Bond who they can count on for at least the next couple of films. Keep this kind of momentum up and who knows, they may be doing Bond movies when Barbara Broccoli’s grandchildren are producing. I’ll take mine shaken, not stirred.

WHY RENT THIS: Craig makes a terrific Bond, perhaps the best since Sean Connery. Tremendous action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bond girls are colorless; no Moneypenny or Q. Poker sequences shut down the movie’s momentum dead.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some violence, a little torture, some sexuality and even a little nudity. A little more extreme than the average Bond but still Bond.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  “You Know My Name” is the first Bond theme song since 1983’s Octopussy to have a different name than the film itself.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are featurettes on the Bond Girls, as well as the selection process for the new James Bond. There’s a music video for the theme song as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $594.2M on  $150M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Paul