New Year’s Eve


New Year's Eve

Josh Duhamel prepares to raise a toast to handsome men

(2011) Romantic Comedy (New Line) Hilary Swank, Robert De Niro, Josh Duhamel, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Katherine Heigl, Zac Efron, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Abigail Breslin, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher, Halle Berry, Cary Elwes, Seth Meyers, Til Schweiger, Carla Gugino, Sarah Paulson, Lea Michelle, Common, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Larry Miller, Penny Marshall, Matthew Broderick, Alyssa Milano, Hector Elizondo, Jack McGee, Yeardley Smith, James Belushi, Ryan Seacrest, John Lithgow. Directed by Garry Marshall

 

Garry Marshall is perhaps the pre-eminent director of romantic comedies working today with such classics as Pretty Woman to his credit. Recently he directed the holiday-themed ensemble piece Valentine’s Day which had considerable box office success. Could he match that with a second holiday?

Ingrid (Pfeiffer) is an assistant working for a completely oblivious executive (Lithgow) at a major record label in New York. She is sad, depressed and lonely and tired of being taken for granted, quits her job, taking with her four tickets to the company’s coveted New Year’s Eve bash at a local art gallery. She has a whole list of unfulfilled new year’s resolutions from the previous year. She enlists Paul (Efron), a courier, to help her fulfill them before midnight. If he does, the tickets to the party are his.

That party is being catered by Laura (Heigl), who until a year ago was the girlfriend of rock superstar Jensen (Bon Jovi, cast against type). It was on New Year’s Eve last year that Jensen bolted on Laura after proposing to her. He’s regretting his decision and wants to get back with her but she’s having none of it. Waiting in the wings is Ava (Vergara), Laura’s hot-blooded sexy Latin sous chef.

Sam (Duhamel) is attending a wedding in Connecticut but on the way back to New York to give a speech at a New Year’s party his car skids into a tree. He hitches a ride back to town with the parson who officiated the wedding, his wife (Smith) and grandfather (McGee). As they crawl through traffic back to the city, he recounts how he met a fascinating woman at the same party last year and is hoping he’ll run into her again.

Randy (Kutcher) is a bit of a cynic who hates New Year’s eve. He gets stuck in an elevator with his comely neighbor Elise (Michelle) who hopes her gig as a back-up singer for Jensen at his Times Square appearance might lead to a big break for her. The two are however stuck and it appears that it is going to be a pretty sad last day of 2011 for the both of them.

Kim (Parker) is a single mom who wants nothing more than to spend New Year’s eve with her daughter Hailey (Breslin). Hailey however wants to head to Times Square where a boy is waiting to bestow her first kiss on her. Kim doesn’t want her to go so in time-honored tradition Hailey runs off anyway and Kim frantically looks for her.

Expectant couples the Schwabs (Schweiger, Paulson) and the Byrnes (Biel, Meyers) bid to be the couple with the first baby of the New Year, which carries with it a $25,000 prize. It’s on as the highly competitive fathers look to figure out ways to hurry along their wives’ delivery, much to the disgust of the Byrnes’ New Age doctor (Gugino).

In the same hospital, Stan (De Niro) waits quietly to die, having refused treatment. The end is near and while the doctor (Elwes) can only make him comfortable, Stan is hoping to see the ball drop in Times Square from the rooftop, which the doctor says is against hospital policy. Nurse Aimee (Berry) stays by his side, not wanting the old man to die alone as he fights to make it to midnight.

However, the ball is in danger of not dropping. Claire (Swank) is in charge and feels the entire weight of the world on her shoulders. An electronic snafu has the ball stuck halfway up the pole. With her police officer friend Brendan (Ludacris) calming her down, she sends for super electrician Kominsky (Elizondo) to save the day and indeed, New Year’s Eve. Can there be a new year if the ball doesn’t drop?

As you can tell, there are a whole lot of plot threads to keep track of here. Marshall however keeps them all relatively easy to follow. This is very much an “old fashioned’ kind of romantic comedy and that’s meant in a good way; it doesn’t necessarily follow the same tired formula nearly every romantic comedy employs these days. There are big points for this.

Those who like star watching will be in hog heaven here. There are tons of cameos (as you can tell from the impressive list above), several of whom have no more than one or two lines of dialogue. Some of it is stunt casting but for the most part, all of the performers are pros and go about their business competently. There are even some Oscar winners who get a chance to slum a little bit.

As in any ensemble piece, there are some bits that work and others not so much. De Niro does some good work (as you knew he would) and paired up with Berry the two make a winning combination. Pfeiffer and Efron are surprisingly pleasant together, and Duhamel is as appealing a romantic lead as there is in Hollywood at the moment. There are plenty of moments that stretch disbelief to its limits (as when Breslin bares her bra in a crowded subway station, exclaiming “This isn’t a training bra” at which Parker rushes to cover her daughter up, squealing “This isn’t Girls Gone Wild” in a smarmy sit com-y voice. Does anybody do that?), in fact too many.

However, that’s really moot, honestly. This is meant to be fluff entertainment, cotton candy for the soul. It has no aspirations other than to entertain and even that it does gently. Not every movie, as I’ve often said, has to be a transformative experience. Sometimes it’s enough merely to sit back and forget your troubles for an hour and a half or two. That’s ambition enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Star watching always fun. Some of the stories are heart-warming and tender.

REASONS TO STAY: Vignettes vary in originality and quality.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hector Elizondo has appeared in every movie Garry Marshall has ever made.

HOME OR THEATER: This many stars should be seen in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Young Goethe in Love

Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

British rioters make it to San Francisco.

(2011) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlett, Ty Olsson, Madison Bell, Karin Konoval. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Most of us have seen Planet of the Apes in one form or another, from the classic 1968 original to the less classic 2001 remake. But how did it get from humans ruling the planet with apes and chimps mute and unreasoning to them becoming the dominant species on the planet?

Dr. Will Rodman (Franco) works for one of the main players in Big Pharma. He’s working on a viral component to gene therapy that if successful will cure Alzheimer’s Disease. He has a stake in this because his own father (Lithgow) suffers from that dreadful disease.

Steven Jacobs (Oyelowo), the CEO of the firm is more interested in the bucks than the cure. He wants something that will improve the corporate bottom line which a cure for Alzheimer’s will certainly do. Rodman has brought his most promising formula, ALZ-112, to testing on chimps – PETA protesters take note. Everything looks pretty copacetic until the chimp goes on the rampage at the worst possible moment – during a board meeting to decide whether or not to fund further tests on human subjects. The project is then shelved and the chimps are put to sleep.

However, one of the chimps left a little present – a baby. The corporate chimp handler (Labine) can’t bring himself to put another animal down and so Will is left with the prospect of putting up the baby chimp for a few days until another home can be found for him. That’s not the only thing Will takes home with him from work – a few vials of the ALZ-112 also make their way into his pocket and then into Will’s dad.

The serum works on Will’s dad and before long it becomes evident that Caesar (the baby chimp that Will “adopted”) is much smarter than the average chimps. Apparently the ALZ-112 was passed on from mama chimp to baby. Caesar’s accelerated learning curve allows him to become fairly fluent in sign language. All in all it’s a pretty idyllic home life for Will; dad is doing fine, Caesar is a loving addition to the family and Will has found a girlfriend in Caroline (Pinto), a primatologist who helped treat some injuries that Caesar incurred as a young ‘un.

As Caesar (Serkis) grows into young adulthood, he becomes more and more aggressive as chimps are wont to do. An incident with an overbearing neighbor leads to Caesar being taken from his happy home and left in a primate care center run by the diffident John Landon (Cox) and tended to by his sadistic son Dodge (Felton). There the apes – and Caesar – are brutalized by Dodge despite the objections of Rodney (Harris), the other caretaker in the primate center.

To make matters worse Dad is turning for the worse; his own antibodies are wiping out the ALZ-112 in his system which is allowing the disease to return with a vengeance. Will is running out of time; he needs a new delivery system that will overcome our own immune system. In the meantime, Caesar is turning out to be much smarter than anyone – even Will – ever suspected and the brutality and betrayal are going to bring things to a head and the fate of humans as the dominant species on this planet hangs in the balance.

This is a nicely done story that explains how the apes came to be intelligent and able to speak; in that sense the movie is realistic. Where it falls flat, surprisingly, is in the CGI. Not the motion capture performances so much (we’ll get to that in a minute) but some of the movements of the apes looks like they were captured on an old silent-era movie camera; they’re downright choppy.

That’s basically the reason that the movie didn’t get one of the higher scores of the summer from me because everything else about it from the acting to the script is outstanding. Serkis in particular does a magnificent job of capturing Caesar as a character and giving him personality and allowing the audience to sympathize, leaving us in the odd position of rooting for our own extinction.

Franco, recently Oscar nominated, remains one of those actors who doesn’t do things the way other actors do and that makes him memorable in most of his roles. Here he has a character that is essentially second banana (pun intended) to Caesar and is terribly underwritten as an impulsive mad scientist type (see Bruce Banner and Victor von Frankenstein) but has a good heart. I would have wished to see his relationship with Caroline fleshed out a bit more but that’s a minor quibble.

The movie is particularly well-written in the sense that it is logically drawn and while there isn’t much in the way of surprises, it is at least tautly written. It is certainly well-acted with Serkis getting kudos for one of the best motion capture performances ever. Franco and Pinto do fine jobs and Lithgow does his best not to make a caricature of a role that could easily become one. Was this great summer entertainment? You bet. Was it better than I thought it might be? Yes, I’d say that was true. Was it all it could have been?  No, it definitely could have been better but for my money, it’s more than good enough to head on down to the multiplex for.

REASONS TO GO: Serkis is phenomenal as Caesar. Nice backstory to explain how the Apes took a giant leap forward on the evolutionary ladder.

REASONS TO STAY: The CG movements of the apes didn’t seem natural in a lot of places. The story was rather predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, with some scenes that might be disturbing to more sensitive viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dodge Landon is named for the two fellow astronauts of Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes while Maurice is named for Maurice Evans who played Dr. Zaius in the original. Dodge also snarls “Take your stinking paws off of me you damned dirty ape!!” arguably the most iconic line from the original.

HOME OR THEATER: Hmmm. Tough call on this one. I think that the final battle scene on the Golden Gate Bridge might be better on the big screen but much of the rest of it would probably be just as effective at home. You make the choice.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Jack Goes Boating

New Releases for the Week of August 5, 2011


August 5, 2011

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

(20th Century Fox) James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Andy Serkis, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlett. Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Research into curing Alzheimer’s disease is tested on a chimpanzee who as a side effect gains incredible intelligence. However the chimp is treated like an animal by the researchers (save one) which leads the now very smart chimp to use the formula on his fellow chimps, leading to a change in the food chain and the reboot of a franchise.

See the trailer, promos, featurettes, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense and frightening sequences of action and violence)

The Change-Up

(Universal) Jason Bateman, Ryan Reynolds, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde. A married father and his friend, a single ladies man switch bodies and switch lives. Yes we’ve seen it before but never in an R rated sex comedy so gentlemen…have at it.

See the trailers, interviews, clips, featurettes and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sex Comedy

Rating: R (for pervasive strong sexual content and language, some graphic nudity and drug use)

The Trip

(IFC) Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Margo Stilley. Playing loose versions of themselves, Coogan and Brydon re-unite from their Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story magnum opus. Here, they set out in the English countryside doing restaurant reviews, trying to outdo each other’s celebrity impressions and along the way try to figure out what friendship means to them and what they are not willing to give up for fame.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: NR

Leap Year


Leap Year

Amy Adams is absolutely flummoxed that Matthew Goode has never seen a brass bed before.

(Universal) Amy Adams, Matthew Goode, John Lithgow, Adam Scott, Kaitlin Olson, Noel O’Donovan, Tony Rohr, Pat Laffan, Alan Devlin, Ian McElhinney, Dominique McElligott, Mark O’Regan, Maggie McCarthy. Directed by Anand Tucker

In life we sometimes find ourselves on a journey from point A to point B. There are times when the destination isn’t the main thing; the trip itself is what defines us.

Anna Brady (Adams) is a driven, focused woman with a firm grasp of what she wants out of life. She has a marvelous eye for detail which serves her well in her profession as an apartment presenter – someone who is hired by realtors to take empty apartments and dress them with furniture and things to give the space as appealing a look as possible.

She has been going with her boyfriend Jeremy (Scott) for four years. He’s a cardiologist who, like Anna, is married to his job and lives with his nose in his Blackberry. The two have decided to try to get an apartment in Boston’s most prestigious building, the spots for which are like gold and guarded with zealous self-righteousness by the building’s board. After their interview with the board, Jeremy tells Anna that he has something he needs to give her at dinner; Anna’s friend Libby (Olson) had spied him coming out of a posh Boston jewelry store. Is this, at last, the night that Jeremy pops the question?

Of course not. She is instead, presented with diamond earrings, marking one of the few times in history a woman is depressed about receiving diamond earrings from her handsome, cardiologist boyfriend. After that, he’s off to a convention in Dublin – or is that a symposium? Convention seems like a rather gauche term for a gathering of cardiologists.

Anna’s drunken ne’er-do-well dad Jack (Lithgow) offhandedly lets drop that in Ireland it is permissible for women to propose to men on Leap Day (February 29) which, as it just so happens, is just a few days hence. Anna boards a plane meant to take her to Dublin. Will she, at last, make it to the Irish capital and propose to her feet-dragging boyfriend?

Of course not. Bad weather diverts the plane to Cardiff, where the same bad weather shuts down the ferry service as well. The closest Anna can get to Dublin is a small village called Dingle, which has a single pub owned by Declan (Goode) who, as Anna finds out when she makes a call, is also the village taxi service. He is at first not willing to drive her to Dublin which he seems to bear some resentment towards, but when a local reminds Declan his kitchen is about to be repossessed and he needs to raise 1,000 Euros within a week, he relents since Anna is offering 500 for the ride. At last, is Anna on her way to Dublin?

Of course not. Stubborn cows, early trains, and bad breaks (or is that bad brakes?) conspire against Anna as the 29th creeps closer and closer. Declan and Anna initially get along about as well as the IRA and the British Army, but soon enough they begin to warm up to each other. Will Anna make it to Dublin in time to propose to her boyfriend…and is he the one she ought to be proposing to?

Writers Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont are well-known “script fixers” in Hollywood and this is their first original script. I say original and yet there is nothing particularly original about it. This is standard romantic comedy fare following typical Hollywood romantic comedy formula; boy meets girl, boy and girl can’t stand each other, boy and girl fall for each other, boy and girl are separated by circumstance or misunderstanding, boy and girl finally realize they need each other and wind up together in the final reel.

The problem here is that there are no surprises. Everything follows the formula down to the letter, never deviating an inch. While Adams is one of the most charming and likable actresses working today, she is given a script which doesn’t utilize her natural abilities much. She comes off as fussy and prissy; it is a tribute to her abilities as an actress that she remains likable in a role which essentially isn’t. Goode is given the standard Irish rogue’s role and does what he can with it, but comes off bland. It isn’t his best work ever, and the movie might well have used it.

The cinematography is simply gorgeous. The movie’s producers wisely chose to shoot in locations not traditionally used in Hollywood, which prove a gorgeous backdrop to the romance. The movie is worth seeing just for the scenery alone. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t measure up to the backdrop.

There are few genuine laughs here and plenty of stock Irish and romantic comedy characters, enough that you have to wonder if the script was not so much written as assembled. There is some charm here, enough that you won’t feel like you have completely wasted your time but this is a movie suffering from a sore excess of Hollywood cliché. The state of romantic comedies in Hollywood is pretty sad; most of them, like Leap Year, follow the stock formula religiously and on those rare occasions where there is some deviation, it is cause for celebration. These days, romantic comedies rely on the likability, charm and chemistry of the leads and if that isn’t there, it’s pretty disastrous. This isn’t quite a catastrophe, but it isn’t a triumph either.

REASONS TO GO: Amy Adams is such a charmer that even with sub-par material she still shines. The area the filmmakers used to film is rarely seen on movie screens and is simply breathtaking.

REASONS TO STAY: Another romantic comedy with a stale, cliché script. There are no real surprises and not a lot of laughs.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of mild sensuality and a bit of foul language, but suitable for teens and mature tweens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the village of Dingle is ostensibly on the Eastern shore of Ireland, the Aran Islands where those segments were shot are actually off of the Emerald Isle’s West Coast.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the Irish vistas look best on a big screen but overall if this isn’t the kind of film that appeals to you there is no reason not to wait til the DVD or cable release.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: What Just Happened

2010


2010

Jupiter should have used SPF-50.

(MGM) Roy Scheider, Helen Mirren, John Lithgow, Bob Balaban, Keir Dullea, Douglas Rain (voice), Madolyn Smith, Dana Elcar, James McEachin, Elya Baskin, Taliesin Jaffe, Mary Jo Deschanel, Natasha Shneider. Directed by Peter Hyams

2001: A Space Odyssey is considered by many to be one of the pre-eminent science fiction movies of all time – in fact, many see it as one of the best movies of all time period. In 1984, director Peter Hyams (Outland) took on the ambitious and daunting task of filming the sequel, which author Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1982. While Hyams added his own elements and changed many of Clarke’s, nonetheless the framework was unchanged and the message remained the same.

Dr. Heywood Floyd (Scheider), former head of the NCA, was the catalyst behind the ill-fated voyage of the U.S.S. Discovery to Jupiter following the discovery of a black featureless rectangular monolith buried in a lunar crater back in 2001. During that trip, the HAL 9000 computer (voiced by Rain), the most advanced artificial intelligence ever designed, went psychotic causing the deaths of Astronaut Frank Poole and the scientific team in hibernation onboard. After Astronaut David Bowman (Dullea) disconnected the computer, he encountered a gigantic monolith – with the exact same features and dimensions of the lunar monolith – floating in space between Jupiter and its moon Io. After going out to investigate, Bowman disappeared but not before leaving behind a puzzling final transmission: “My God, it’s full of stars!”

This has haunted Floyd in the nine years since the Discovery incident. He has left the NCA for an academic position. One afternoon, he is visited by a Russian scientist (Elcar) who chats cryptically about the Discovery and informs Floyd that the Russians are planning a mission to the Discovery that will arrive a full year ahead of the American one. He proposes that the Americans tag along on the Russian vessel. Floyd is skeptical, but then the Russian points him in the direction of a shocking new development; the Discovery has changed its position and has moved towards Io and is in danger of crashing to its surface. There is no explanation as to why it had done that.

A joint Soviet-American mission is a lot more of a difficult sell than you can imagine. Tensions between the two countries are at an all-time high due to an unspecified ongoing crisis in the Honduras. The leaders seem ill-disposed towards acting sensibly and nuclear war is a very real possibility. Most of the people on the planet are in fear for their lives. Still, after Floyd goes to the new head of the NCA (McEachin) with the information, he manages to convince his replacement to go to bat with the president for the idea – with Floyd one of the astronauts to be sent to Jupiter to discover just what went wrong aboard the Discovery.

Accompanying Floyd will be Dr. Chandra (Balaban), the brilliant designer of HAL 9000 and its successor SAL 9000, and engineer Walter Curnow (Lithgow) who designed many of the systems aboard the Discovery. Commanding the Leonov is Commander Kirbuk (Mirren), a hard-as-nails by-the-book military commander (notice that Kirbuk is Kubrick spelled backwards – sorta) who butts heads with Floyd from the beginning. Suspicious of the Americans, she and her crew are not the most co-operative of sorts. However, they do grudgingly confirm that they have discovered the presence of chlorophyll on the surface of Europa – an icy moon of Jupiter where no signs of life previously existed. The Leonov sends a probe to investigate but this ends in the destruction of the probe before any meaningful data can be discovered.

At last, the Leonov reaches the Discovery and at last the mystery of the monoliths and the madness of the computer might be explained. However, you know what they say about curiosity – and finding the answers to these mysteries may cost the crew of the Leonov their lives.

The tendency is to compare 2010 with its predecessor and in many ways that’s quite unfair. 2001: A Space Odyssey is, as I mentioned, one of the most honored films of all time. It’s a lot like comparing Gods and Generals to Gone with the Wind; the former is a solid film on its own merits but doesn’t really compare to the classic latter. Hyams is a competent filmmaker in his own right, but he is no Stanley Kubrick, as Hyams I’m sure would be the first to confess. His storytelling technique is more straightforward, which makes 2010 a more accessible movie in a lot of ways.

By our standards, the special effects are primitive, although they were cutting edge for 1984 when the film came out. Still, taking that into account, it’s still a very watchable film, even if the computers look clunky when compared to, for example, iPhones. One has to look past that and try to concentrate on the story and the performances.

While the Soviet-American tensions seem hopelessly dated (the Berlin Wall would fall a mere seven years after the movie came out but while it was being made, the ideological conflict was in full bloom), some of the other aspects of the movie are prescient; for example, widespread use of portable computers and voice activated controls. We are finding out more about Europa and its potential for harboring life.

Scheider was one of Hollywood’s most dependable leads, having done such films as Jaws and Hyams’ own Blue Thunder. He is in his element here as the irreverent and maverick scientist Floyd. He plays nicely off of Mirren, who hadn’t yet reached the stature as an actress that she has today. Her character is essentially one-dimensional, but Mirren gives her at least as much depth as the script will allow. Fluent in Russian (Mirren’s father was Russian-born – her birth name is Mironov – and Russian and English were both spoken in her home), Mirren lends authenticity to her character and while she is something of a cliché (the Americans are always right, the Russians are always mulish), she remains someone you want to root for even if the writers didn’t always allow you to.

Its eerie seeing Keir Dullea as Bowman, the role he originated 2001. De-aged by make-up artist Michael Westmore, he looks uncannily ageless. When I first saw the film in theaters, I actually got shivers up my spine.

I will admit to being somewhat overly lenient towards science fiction films, so do take that into account when reading this. There’s something to be said for watching two enormous spacecraft orbiting near Jupiter. While some of the movie seems dated (which seems odd for science fiction which is intended to be forward-looking), certainly it remains a very watchable, mostly enjoyable science fiction movie. Some of the intelligence of Clarke’s original work remains, but this is meant to be more entertaining than illuminating. For what it is meant to be, it succeeds. Just don’t expect to see psychedelic visuals at the first strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid performances by most of the cast. The de-aging of Dullea as Astronaut David Bowman is astonishing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the special effects, while cutting-edge for their time, are laughably primitive. Those who measure this by Kubrick’s movie are going to find this sorely lacking.

FAMILY VALUES: By 2010 standards, there’s nothing in this movie that a good parent would object to.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the SAL 9000 computer during the University of Chicago Computer Lab scene is voiced by Candice Bergen, operating under a pseudonym. She is credited, somewhat cheekily, as Olga Mallsnerd, combining the names of her then-husband (director Louis Malle) and one of her father, Edgar Bergen’s, most beloved characters Mortimer Snerd.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Did You Hear About the Morgans?