Accepted


Accepted
Lewis Black explains to Justin Long…well, he’s forgotten what he’s trying to explain.

(2006) Comedy (Universal) Justin Long, Jonah Hill, Blake Lively, Lewis Black, Adam Herschmann, Columbus Short, Maria Thayer, Mark Derwin, Ann Cusack, Hanna Marks, Robin Lord Taylor, Anthony Heald. Directed by Neil Burger.

Our country is entering a phase in which young people are being put in a Catch-22 situation. On the one hand, employers are increasingly valuing college degrees when time comes to hire. On the other hand, we’re doing less and less to prepare our young students for college. What is starting to happen is that young people with ambitions for an institution of higher learning are being put under increasing stress to perform from an early age, which goes against the natural teenaged tendency to goof off.

Bartleby Gaines (Long) does just that throughout most of his high school career. A slacker by nature and a con artist by preference, he spends his time talking his way out of situations and creating new ones by running some scam or another. Like many kids his age, his parents are putting intense pressure for him to get into a college. The problem is, Bartleby spent more time creating fake IDs than he did using his actual one in the school library. As a result, his college applications are being met with rejection after rejection. 

After his last hope, Harmon College, turns to ash, Bartleby gets inspiration; as a stopgap measure he can create a fake college – the South Harmon Institute of Technology (check out those initials for a clue to the kind of humor you’ll be getting) – complete with letterhead acceptance letter and a professional-looking website. His friends Hands (Short), who lost a football scholarship after an injury, Rory (Thayer) who pinned all her hopes on getting to Yale to the point where she applied nowhere else and Glen (Herschmann) got a zero on his SATs because he forgot to sign his test, all either assist or ask to be “admitted” to the non-existant institute of higher learning.

His best friend Sherman Schrader (Hill) did get into Harmon, largely because the three generations of Schraders preceding him attended there. Bartleby’s dream girl, Monica (Lively) is also attending Harmon, having already hooked up with a frat boy Nazi. 

This being a comedy, obstacles begin to crop up to threaten the wild scheme. Bartleby’s parents (Derwin and Cusack) want to drop him off at school, so the conspirators convert an abandoned mental hospital into the semblance of an academic institution. Dad wants to meet with the dean, so Bartleby recruits Schrader’s Uncle Ben (Black). 

Unfortunately, they’ve done their job a little too well. Other students who’d learned the sting of rejection somehow found the South Harmon website and had applied, complete with submitting $10,000 checks for the first semester. Unwilling to crush their dreams the way his had been crushed, Bartleby decides to make an unusual institution of higher learning – one in which the students determine their own curriculum, learn on their own and teach each other the skills they already bring to the table. Against all odds, the students nobody wanted begin to learn. They also begin to party big time, since that’s also what college is all about. 

The presence of a competitor doesn’t sit too well with the supercilious Dean Van Horne (Heald) of Harmon, which covets the land South Harmon sits on for expansion. Of course, the established school resorts to underhanded tactics to get what they want. When it all unravels as surely it must, Bartleby finds that he will have to be smarter than he’s ever been in order to save the cause he has now adopted, and incidentally to get the girl. 

Da Queen and I differed wildly in our opinions on this one. She found it to be so formulaic that it became boring. While I certainly agree this follows established Hollywood comedic procedures as established in such movies as Revenge of the Nerds, Back to School and Old School, it works well enough to feel safe and comfortable for me. I didn’t necessarily go into this looking for groundbreaking comedy, nor should you. 

She also saw it thematically as an attack on higher education, while I looked at it as a suggestion for alternatives to current university structure which admittedly can be rigid and hidebound. Her most grievous complaint, however, was that she just didn’t find it all that funny because it was so predictable. I understand her dilemma; most of the best parts of the movie could be found in the trailer, and while our son (who saw it earlier with friends) found it very quotable, it just isn’t all that mature in the humor department.

Still, I found it to be fairly harmless. Justin Long, an actor I wasn’t fond of in his signature role in Ed does a pretty good job here. Jonah Hill, as Schrader, is even better; nearly every line he delivers is perfectly timed. He has since become a star in his own right. 

This isn’t the best comedy you’ll find out there. However, it isn’t all that bad either. If you are looking for light comedy, you could do worse than this. I can recommend it, but not without reservations; there are plenty of great comedies out there that are worth your attention before this one is.

WHY RENT THIS: Sweet and charming. Long does some of his best work here whereas Hill shows some of his potential in his role.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Could use  a few more laughs and the premise is awfully formulaic.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a little bit of sex, a lot more bad words and still more drug use and alcohol abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Most of the computers used in the movie were Apples. Star Justin Long had just become a spokesman for Apple prior to filming.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a “mockumentary” about the making of the movie shot by actor Adam Herschmann, as well as a couple of music videos and an easter egg leading to an extended version of the hazing scene with Jonah Hill.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $38.5M on a $23M production budget; the film lost money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: No One Knows About Persian Cats

New Releases for the Week of November 5, 2010


November 5, 2010

The good, the bad and the...ummm...okay...

MEGAMIND

(DreamWorks) Featuring the voices of Brad Pitt, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, David Cross, J.K. Simmons, Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller, Tom McGrath. Directed by Tom McGrath

Two rival babies escape a dying alien planet to become rivals here on Earth – the heroic Metro Man and the villainous Megamind. When Megamind finally defeats his hated rival, he becomes the de facto ruler of Metro City. What every supervillain dreams of, no? Unfortunately now that he owns Metro City, he’s got to keep it and when a rival supervillain moves in, all of a sudden he finds himself in a totally unfamiliar position – the good guy.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Superhero/Animated Feature

Rating: PG (for action and some language)

Due Date

(Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Zach Galifianakis, Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan. A man trying to make it home in time for the birth of his first child encounters obstacle after obstacle, finally agreeing to share a rental car with an aspiring actor who will test him with the trials of Job. From Todd Phillips, the mind behind The Hangover.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Road Comedy

Rating: R (for language, drug use and sexual content)

For Colored Girls

 (Lionsgate) Janet Jackson, Kerry Washington, Anika Noni Rose, Whoopi Goldberg. Director and urban brand name Tyler Perry brings this Obie-award winning play – one of the most honored Off-Broadway productions of all time – to the big screen for the first time. A distinguished and impressive cast explores what it means to be a woman of African descent in the 21st century.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Dramedy

Rating: R (for disturbing violence including a rape, sexual content and language)

Waking Sleeping Beauty

 (Disney) Michael Eisner, Roy Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Peter Schneider. With the juggernaut that is Disney churning out hit Oscar-winning animated features one after another, it’s hard to believe that their animation department was once on life-support and the studio was actually thinking of shutting it down. It took the dedication and talent of a group of wonderfully passionate people to turn the failing animation studio around and produce such classics as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. We saw this marvelous documentary at the Florida Film Festival; our review for it is here.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: PG (for some thematic elements and brief mild language)

Funny People


Funny People

Jason Schwartzmann, Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill are all funny people.

(Universal) Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Eric Bana, Leslie Mann, Jason Schwartzmann, RZA, Aubrey Plaza, Aziz Ansari. Directed by Judd Apatow

We love to laugh. Those who can make us laugh with amazing regularity own a special place in our hearts. However, the cost of that laughter can often be unbearable.

George Simmons (Sandler) is one of the planet’s top comedians. His movies have grossed hundreds of millions, and his stand-up act is legendary. He is also undeniably alone; his ex-girlfriend Laura (Mann) left him because George cheated on her. Now, George has just received some devastating news – he has a rare and fatal blood disease. His doctors want to try an experimental treatment, but the prognosis is grim.

Ira Wright (Rogen) is an aspiring stand-up who, as his co-worker Chuck (RZA) at the deli he works at opines, isn’t very funny. Ira sleeps on the couch in an apartment shared by Ira’s friend Leo (Hill) who is also a stand-up comedian (only much better and more successful) and Mark (Schwartzmann) who has hit the jackpot – he’s the lead on an NBC sitcom that, while not very good, at least pays Mark exceedingly well.

George decides to excise his demons through standup and goes to an open-mike competition at his old stomping grounds where Ira and Leo are also performing, along with Randy (Ansari), a rival comic with a biting sense of humor. George is somewhat impressed with Ira and Leo and offers them jobs as writers but Ira, in an uncharacteristic move, cuts Leo out of the equation.

The two form an odd relationship as George hires Ira to be his assistant but there’s definitely a bond between them. Ira is one of the few people…okay the only person…that George can confide in. Otherwise, George is somewhat insufferable, often treating Ira like dirt, so isolated by his own celebrity that he can’t reach out in his hour of need.

Despite the title, this isn’t a movie about comedy or even really about comedians, and despite the plot it’s not a movie about dealing with mortality either. That’s more or less a side issue. What the movie is about is isolation and what it does to us. This is a movie about human beings who happen to work as comedians, but it isn’t about being a comedian.

If this all sounds confusing, don’t be. It works as a matter of fact, particularly the first two-thirds of the movie. Where it falls flat is in the last third wherein George tries to win Laura back from her obnoxiously macho Aussie husband (Bana). Even though Mann gives a thoroughly satisfying performance in her role as George’s muse, the sad fact of the matter is that the situation here is painful in many ways and when Ira pleads “Can’t we just go now” I can empathize.

On the plus side, Sandler and Rogen both give their best performances ever. Sandler shows the kind of depth he displayed in Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me and takes it to new levels. This is far from the lovable kinds of characters he’s played in movies like Happy Gilmore or Bedtime Stories; in fact, George Simmons is a bit of a prick. It takes some courage to go as far out of his comfort zone as Sandler appears to here.

Rogen has mostly played lovable stoners throughout his career. Here, he is a bit more driven, a bit more ambitious and a little less lovable. He’s basically a decent guy and yet he screws over a friend. He is kind of sweet on fellow comedian Daisy (Plaza) but can’t bring himself to ask her out on a date and gets furious with her when she sleeps with Mark. Yes, he’s a bit of a loser but one senses he isn’t going to remain that way for long.

I liked the movie enough to overlook that final reel which doesn’t work as well. The crux of the movie seems to belong more in the relationship between George and Ira than it does to George and Laura; certainly that whole sequence could and should have been cut down significantly.

What works here works really well. The standup sequences are incredible in places, and I did laugh a lot throughout. While there is a good deal of emphasis on penis humor, it isn’t enough to be off-putting. Sadly, the movie was mis-marketed by Universal who portrayed the movie as a straight comedy and it really isn’t that, so the film didn’t do the box office it probably deserved. However, it is worth taking a peek, particularly if you like your movies to run the gamut of emotions.

WHY RENT THIS: Some genuinely funny moments as well as some genuine pathos. Sandler and Rogen are at the top of their games.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The whole winning back of his wife thing is often awkward and uncomfortable.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a tremendous amount of blue language and some crude sexual references; it’s R-rated stand-up comedy for sure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George and Ira are named after the brothers George and Ira Gershwin, the famous composer and lyricist who among other things, composed Rhapsody in Blue.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a lot going on, both on the 2-disc Collectors DVD edition and the Blu-Ray.  There is a video diary from Apatow that gives extensive insight into the making of the movie. Archival footage shows Sandler and Apatow appearances on Letterman, Dennis Miller’s talk show and “The Midnight Hour with Bill Maher.” There’s also a faux documentary on Randy, the Ansari character who will be getting a feature film of his own shortly and a “highlight reel” of George’s film career. There are also the full versions of the songs James Taylor performs at the MySpace Party, as well as full jams between Sandler and Jon Brion, and some rapping by RZA. The Blu-Ray version also contains an appearance on the Charlie Rose Show by Sandler and Apatow promoting the film. All in all one of the more impressive packages for any recent release.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Eat, Pray, Love

Cyrus


Cyrus

Even Marisa Tomei finds the concept of falling for John C. Reilly amusing.

(Fox Searchlight) John C. Reilly, Marisa Tomei, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener, Matt Walsh, Katie Aselton, Tim Guinee, Steve Zissis, Jamie Donnelly, Diane Mizota, Kathy Ann Wittes, Charlie Brewer. Directed by the Duplass Brothers

In a simpler age, it was said a boy’s best friend was his mother. These days, that statement has creepy connotations, which is no doubt what inspired the making of this movie.

John (Reilly) is not a very happy guy. It’s been seven years since his wife divorced him (not his idea, as he very firmly points out) and ever since, he’s been in a shell. He rarely goes out, has few friends and as for a romantic life? Obviously not. Mostly, his only social contact is his ex-wife for whom he still carries a torch. She walks in on him masturbating to tell him the news that she’s getting re-married, which gives you an idea of what kind of movie this is going to be.

She badgers him to go to a party she’s throwing and at first, John isn’t keen on going. She has invited a lot of beautiful single girls and insists he goes so he can get on with his life (and by inference get out of hers). Finally he gives in and shows up, and it’s clear that he has no game whatsoever. As the night goes on, he continues to drink vodka and Red Bulls, getting progressively more sloshed and makes horrible attempts at small talk with disinterested, even to the point where he opens up to a woman (Wittes) about how desperate and lonely he is, sending her fleeing as far away from him as she can get.

He is overheard by Molly (Tomei), who can relate being also desperate and lonely. The two meet each other while John is urinating in the bushes (oh, the romance!) and she deflects the awkwardness of the situation by saying the only thing a woman can say that won’t cause the man to wish he were a thousand miles away – “Nice penis.”

From such things great romances are born, and Molly and John spend the night together. Soon, they are seeing each other seriously despite John’s misgivings about his looks (“I’m, like, Shrek!”) but John is a little concerned that she always leaves his bed in the middle of the night. One night, he follows her and finds out where she lives. He discovers she has a grown son named Cyrus (Hill) who lives at home and is working on a New Age music career.

Cyrus is welcoming enough at first but it becomes clear that he has another agenda in mind. For one thing, Cyrus is extremely possessive of his mom and doesn’t want to compete for her affection. In fact, the two are so close it’s kind of creepy; apparently Cyrus was still being breastfed when he was about, I think, eight. Years, that is – not months.

The Duplass Brothers are noted as leading artists in the “mumblecore” filmmaking movement, which is more evident in their previous features Puffy Chair and Baghead. This movie isn’t mumblecore per se, but it has some of the elements of it – like the jerky camera movements and the sudden zoom ins and zoom outs that become really annoying after awhile. It’s all part of the “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome that often affects filmmakers who have been too much on the indie circuit.

This has romantic comedy elements too, and unfortunately they are the same ones that have made American romantic comedies mostly forgettable and lame. The movie’s ending is very predictable, to the point of making me want to pound my head against the wall.

What saves the movie is the premise and the execution, as well as the acting of the three leads. Reilly and Tomei are two very likable actors and even though they’re playing very flawed characters here, they make you root for them despite those flaws. Reilly is so rumpled and beaten down you wonder what a hottie like Tomei would see in him until you find out how beaten down she is. They’re kindred spirits, which makes the romance all the more acceptable.

Jonah Hill has played some oddball characters in his time, and this is one of the oddest. Cyrus is at once pathetic and shrewd, able to play his mother like a Stradivarius. In many ways their relationship symbolizes a lot of the problems with modern parenting, the permissiveness and clinginess that many parents feel towards their children. If that was the intent of the Duplass brothers, then a big ol’ Bravo to them.

The movie is definitely creepy in places and awkward in others. Watching it is not unlike walking in on a married couple having a big fight; the longer you stay, the more awkward it feels. In some ways, I like being thrown off-balance that way – it makes for a more memorable cinematic experience. However, those who feel uncomfortable at the expression of raw emotions should stand warned that they might find it too awkward.

REASONS TO GO: Some really funny moments. The three key leads all turn in solid work.

REASONS TO STAY: Self-consciously indie combined with rom-com clichés make it an uphill climb at times to like this movie. The forced focus and montage sequences became tiresome.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of bad language and a little bit of sexuality. Some of the situations are decidedly uncomfortable concerning the mother-son relationship.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmmakers Ridley and Tony Scott served as producers on the movie, through their production company Scott Free.

HOME OR THEATER: While worth seeing in the theater, this certainly will work at home if you’d so prefer.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: G-Force

New Releases for the Week of July 9, 2010


July 9, 2010

The more minions, the merrier!

DESPICABLE ME

(Universal) Starring the voices of Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Danny McBride, Julie Andrews, Miranda Cosgrove. Directed by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin

Deep beneath a quiet suburban neighborhood lies the unexpected – the vast underground lair of the world’s greatest supervillain, Gru. He and his vast army of minions plot dastardly deeds, some of which they actually pull off. His latest scheme – to steal the moon. However, before he can do that, he must ward off his chief rival for supervillainy, Vector and something even more insidious; three heart-stealing little girls. With vocal talents from members of Judd Apatow’s crew and SNL, this looks to be a big hit.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: PG (for rude humor and mild action)

Cyrus

(Fox Searchlight) John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marisa Tomei, Catherine Keener. John has given up on romance after the dissolution of his marriage; that is, until he meets Molly. The chemistry is obvious and immediate between them, but for some reason she’s reluctant to bring him to her own home. One day he follows her home and meets the other man in her life – her son Cyrus, a 21-year-old musician who has no desire whatsoever to share her with anyone, particularly a boyfriend. Even more particularly, he doesn’t want to share her with John and thus a war of wits is undertaken that will leave only one man standing alongside Molly. Oh yes, it’s a comedy.

See the trailer, clips, featurettes and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for language and some sexual material)

I Am Love

(Magnolia) Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Gabrielle Ferzetti, Pippo Delbono. The Recchi family of Milan has long been masters of an industrial empire. The patriarch is married to Emma, a Russian émigré. Cracks in the façade of the family’s domination are beginning to show, however; Edo, the grandson, has no desire to inherit the family legacy and instead opens a restaurant with his friend Antonio. Further complicating matters is that Antonio and Emma fall in love and begin a torrid affair that threatens to bring the powerful family to its knees.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for sexuality and nudity)

Predators

(20th Century Fox) Adrian Brody, Alice Braga, Topher Grace, Laurence Fishburne. Producer Robert Rodriguez takes this sci-fi franchise to a whole new level as he takes some of the most vicious killers on Planet Earth and deposits them on an alien game preserve, there to be hunted down by the most vicious hunter in the universe – the predators. How will they survive and even if they do, how will they get back home?

See the trailer, featurettes and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for strong creature violence and gore, and pervasive language)

Get Him to the Greek


Get Him to the Greek

Fear the Diddy.

(Universal)  Jonah Hill, Russell Brand, Sean Combs, Rose Byrne, Elisabeth Moss, Colm Meaney, Aziz Ansari, Dinah Stabb, Carla Gallo, Kristin Bell, Meredith Vieira, Rick Schroeder, Stephanie Faracy, Lino Facioli, Kurt Loder. Directed by Nicholas Stoller

At one time or another we all dream of being a rock star. Who wouldn’t want to live a life of excess, adored by millions and rich enough that we can afford to indulge our every whim?

Aldous Snow (Brand) has been living that dream for 20 years, but like the rest of the music business, his career is in jeopardy. A spectacular fall from sobriety after an ill-advised album painted the very white British rock star as an “African Child” (don’t ask) has left him on shaky ground, his professional and personal life in tatters. That’s because his girlfriend and baby momma Jackie Q (Byrne) has flown the coop and has taken up with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich.

Pinnacle Records chief Sergio Roma (Combs) doesn’t care about any of that. He just knows his six kids need new Nikes and the record label is hemorrhaging money. He needs a great idea and fast. Surprisingly, that idea comes from Aaron Green (Hill), a lowly underling on the label publicity staff. It seems that it is the 20th anniversary of Snow’s epic Greek Theater concert that would lead to one of the biggest selling live albums in history. If the present isn’t yielding a lot of great artists, why not mine the past?

Sergio tasks Aaron with bringing Aldous from London to a Today show appearance in New York and then across the country to Los Angeles for the concert itself. Aaron, a bona fide music nerd (I can totally relate), is overjoyed. Infant Sorrow (Aldous’ band) is one of his all-time favorites. The only cloud on the horizon is that Daphne (Moss), his medical intern girlfriend, is thinking seriously of taking a job in Seattle, far from Aaron’s record label dreams.

Snow proves to be quite the handful. Evidently his fall from grace has become a spectacular drop into sheer debauchery. Aldous is more interested in banging every bird he lays eyes on, indulging in every drug that he can get his hands on and drinking every bar in London dry. Aaron, not especially a straight arrow but certainly not used to partying on the epic scale that Aldous does, panics as the time for the flight to New York comes and goes, as it does for each succeeding airline booking that he makes.

They finally get to the Today show studios, a scant 15 minutes before Aldous is supposed to be there. By now Aaron has been sucked into the rock star’s world and it is chewing him up and spitting him out. It doesn’t help matters that Aaron’s cell phone is constantly ringing with an enraged Sergio on the line demanding that Aaron take control of a situation that simply cannot be controlled by anyone. How’s that rock star fantasy looking now?

This is a spin-off from the hit comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Stoller also directed that movie and the titular character makes a cameo appearance here). Brand nearly stole it as the sober yet completely bullcrap-engorged rock star that he plays here as a drunken yet complete bullcrap-engorged rock star. Hill was also in that movie in a different role but one that had one thing in common with Aaron Green – they both worship Aldous Snow.

This isn’t nearly as funny as FSM although it has its moments. Hill and Brand, both of whom have been second bananas in lots of movies, both show they can carry one on their own. Combs, the artist formerly known as P. Diddy, Puff Daddy and quite possibly Prince, is outstanding as the Type A mogul with impulse control issues. The role reminds me a little bit of Tom Cruise’s part as studio boss Les Grossman in that both are over-the-top portrayals that work really well.

The music is pretty good here too; the songs written for Aldous Snow have a bit of an Oasis quality to them and indeed Brand’s vocals are not unlike Noel Gallagher’s, particularly on “Furry Walls” (sung during the movie’s conclusion).

The movie is meant to take the rock star lifestyle to excess, which is hard to do in and of itself. There are a buttload of female breasts (and male butts too), an enormous load of drinking staggering amounts of alcohol, a terrifying intake of drugs and more vomiting from Jonah Hill than I ever want to see again.

This isn’t a movie that is breaking any new ground. It’s funny enough to be entertaining, but certainly not the ride that The Hangover or Superbad are. It’s just a decently funny movie with a surprising heart of gold at its center that you will find easy to get at once you clean off all the vomit.

REASONS TO GO: Hill is a great straight man and Brand is zany enough to be watchable for the whole movie. The soundtrack is surprisingly good.

REASONS TO STAY: Not in the laugh-a-minute category. Most of the plot action is pretty much outrageous for its own sake.

FAMILY VALUES: Sex and drugs and rock and roll. What more do I need to say?

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The band Bob and the Yeoman on the Greek Theater marquee is a reference to Director of Photography Robert Yeoman.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing epic here. Unless you really have to see it right away, it’s perfectly fine to wait for the home video release.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Lakeview Terrace

How to Train Your Dragon


How to Train Your Dragon

Hiccup and Toothless take flight.

(DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kirsten Wiig, T.J. Miller, Robin Atkin Downes, Phillip McGrade, Kieron Elliott, Ashley Jansen. Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean deBlois

Most of us have a preconceived notion of things. We live our lives in a kind of ordered routine, never questioning whether our ideas of how the world works are actually correct.

The village of Berk sits on a mountainous island in the North. It is, we are told, a very old village – but the houses are all new. That is because the village has a pest problem. Not spiders, termites or mosquitoes but dragons. Lots and lots of dragons of every shape and size. Dragons that breathe fire and swoop from the sky. Some have many eyes, others have many heads. Some are long and slender, others short and fat. They come in every color of the rainbow, and some are as black as night.

Those are the dreaded Night Furies, nearly invisible and lightning-fast. Rather than breathing fire, they emit a kind of pulse wave that flattens everything in its path. They are the most feared of all dragons and no Viking has ever seen one, much less killed one.

You see, the village of Berk has another pest, but those are the ones who actually live there. They’re Vikings and not just any Vikings, they’re Scottish Vikings. I know, I’m confused too; I had understood most Vikings to be Scandinavian but apparently I was mistaken. They’re Scots. All they’re missing are kilts. They do have, however, odd names meant to show how fearsome they are.

The most fearsome of the Scots…err, Vikings…is Stoick (Butler), a massive bull of a man with massive red hair and an equally massive red beard who is the most brave, most fearless and most ferocious of the Vikings. His son however, is not what you’d call a chip off the old block. His name is Hiccup (Baruchel) and he is as scrawny as his dad is beefy. He dreams of being a true Viking, a noble slayer of dragons but he doesn’t have the brawn and when the village is attacked, is banished to the armory to sharpen swords and spears with the one-armed, one-legged Cobber (Ferguson), who was once a fearsome warrior himself but now must content himself with training them and arming them.

One thing Hiccup is good at is engineering machines, and he creates a cannon that can launch a bolo a great distance. Despite the misgivings of Cobber and Stoick, he pulls out the cannon to a hillside but it is so dark he can’t see the dragons flying around in the night sky. Aiming and firing at what he hopes is a dragon, he is surprised when he actually hits something. However, he has a hard time being able to tell what it was and where it fell to.

Stoick knows that the Vikings are losing the war against the dragons. Their only hope to end this war once and for all is to find the dragons’ nest and destroy it. He intends to lead an expedition to do just that but before he goes Cobber advises him to put Hiccup into dragon fighter training, which Stoick knows will probably be another humiliation for his son, but he has really hit bottom.

Hiccup is in a class with the aggressive and pretty Astrid (Ferrara) as well as the cocky Snotlout (Hill), the overly intellectual Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse) and the warring twins Ruffnut (Wiig) and Tuffnut (Miller). Cobber leads the class and as expected, Hiccup is an absolute failure. Cobber gives the class a book that contains all the information about the different types of dragons that the Vikings know about with orders to read it which the others almost disdainfully turn down. Hiccup takes the book to study it. Know thy enemy, after all.

In the meantime, he goes searching for the dragon he might have taken down and comes upon it in a quarry-like valley. It is all-black and nothing like what Hiccup expected. Here, at last, is his chance to kill a dragon, his chance to be a Viking, respected and admired.

Except the dragon is just as frightened as he is and Hiccup can’t bring himself to kill it. He resolves instead to get to know it, especially when he discovers that the dragon was wounded in the attack and is unable to fly out of the quarry or hunt. Hiccup helps to feed the dragon whom he names Toothless for its retractable teeth. Eventually Hiccup learns how to disable dragons with a single touch, and how to frighten them with eels and so becomes an unlikely success in his class. For his part, he designs a mechanical solution to help Toothless fly again and becomes Toothless’ pilot. The two become reliant on one another.

In the meantime, Stoick returns from an unsuccessful venture but is pleased and proud to hear that his son is finally doing well at something. Hiccup’s success in class has reaped the reward of the honor of being the first in his class to be allowed to kill a dragon. However, Hiccup has discovered that dragons are not the evil creatures the Vikings believe them to be and has learned the secret of their lair, the key to destroying the dragons altogether but within the lair is another secret that changes the dynamic altogether. Can he convince his father, who has never listened to a word he’s said his entire life, that he must change his viewpoint or will both dragon and men perish together at the hands of something far worse?

The latest from DreamWorks Animation may very well be among their best. It certainly ranks up there with Kung Fu Panda and Shrek. Directors Sanders and deBlois, who collaborated on Lilo and Stitch for Disney (deBlois also directed the excellent Sigur Ros concert film Heima), have made a film that soars, literally. The scenes in which Toothless and Hiccup fly together are some of the best animated sequences you’re likely to see this year. We saw the movie in IMAX 3D, and that lent a great deal of immersion to the proceedings. It comes as no surprise that the directors previously were responsible for Stitch; Toothless has a great deal of visual similarity to the alien creature of that movie.

The story, based on the book by Cressida Cowell, is very much Animated Feature 101 and doesn’t hold very many surprises. Still, the dialogue is witty in places and Baruchel is superb as the acerbic Hiccup. This is a movie that is certainly intended for much younger audiences (think single digits) and while adults might get a kick out of certain sequences (particularly the flying ones), for the most part it might bore older children and teens and some of the dragons might terrify the easily frightened.

Still, I found the movie has a certain lopsided charm that I can’t ignore. It’s one of those cases where the sum of the parts doesn’t equal to the whole, and the whole is greater than the sum of those parts. That’s a good thing, incidentally; even if I can’t necessarily explain that charm, I can nonetheless report that it’s there and worth experiencing for yourself.

REASONS TO GO: One of the best-looking non-Pixar animated features yet. Awesome dragon flight sequences will take your breath away. Seriously funny in places.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat formulaic as far as family films go.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some cartoon violence but nothing you don’t see on the Cartoon Network day after day. Perfectly fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A Night Fury dragon can be seen occluding the stars during the DreamWorks opening banner if you look carefully.

HOME OR THEATER: The flying sequences alone are worth seeing in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Go-Getter

New Releases for the Week of March 26, 2010


March 26, 2010

Hiccup finds surfing the net is a whole 'nother ballgame when you're a Viking.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON

(DreamWorks) Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kirsten Wiig. Directed by Chris Sanders and Dean deBlois

Hiccup is a Viking…or rather, he lives in a Viking village and aspires to Viking-ness. However, these Vikings are all about killing the dragons that plague their village and steal their livestock. It has been a war without winner for generations until Hiccup actually meets a dragon and finds that they aren’t the monsters he was raised to believe they were. With the two sides locked in a death match, Hiccup has to find a way to get both sides to learn to see the world differently than they have been bred to in order to avoid the extermination of one or both of them.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, 3D IMAX

Rating: PG (for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language)

Chloe

(Sony Classics) Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Max Theriot. A married woman, suspecting her husband is cheating on her, hires a prostitute to test the loyalty of her man. But when the prostitute is untruthful about the nature of his fidelity, the family is embroiled in a situation that puts them all at risk. Acclaimed Canadian director Atom Egoyan has remade this from the French thriller Nathalie.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue, nudity and language)

Greenberg

(Focus) Ben Stiller, Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Greenberg is a forty-ish L.A. resident who finds himself adrift at a crossroads in his life. Single, unemployed and house-sitting for his more successful brother, he has nothing to show for his existence on this Earth. Trying to reconnect with old friends in an effort to find the qualities he valued in himself that are lost, he finds instead something unexpected. From director Noah Baumbach of The Squid and The Whale fame.

See the trailer, clips and featurettes here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Rating: R (for some strong sexuality, drug use, and language)

Hot Tub Time Machine

(MGM) John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Chevy Chase. A group of four guys who have been friends for 25 years get together at a ski lodge to drink and muse about how dissatisfied they are with how their lives turned out. The four of them get into the hot tub and pass out there; when they wake up, its 1986 and they have the opportunity of a lifetime – to change their lives for the better. Trouble is, they can also change them for the much worse.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

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

10 Items or Less


10 Items or Less

Morgan Freeman discovers that people will do all sorts of things when told to over a loudspeaker.

(First Look) Morgan Freeman, Paz Vega, Anne Dudek, Jonah Hill, Alexandra Berardi, Bobby Cannavale, Kumar Pallana, Jim Parsons, Danny de Vito, Rhea Perlman. Directed by Brad Silberling

As we move through life, our lives intersect briefly with other lives, and then we move on. Sometimes even the briefest of interactions can affect us profoundly, having an impact on the remainder of our lifetime.

An actor – nay, a movie star – known here only as Him (Freeman), is considering a new project (not a film – things aren’t to that stage yet). He hasn’t committed to it yet, which is somewhat surprising, since he (or is it He?) hasn’t done a movie for four years and is coming dangerously close to being “Say, weren’t you that guy who…”

Because the role is as a grocery store manager, the production company sets up an opportunity for Him to research the role at an actual grocery store in the godforsaken wasteland that is Carson, California. He is driven there by an overeager Kid (Hill) who is not so much starstruck as he is hyperactive. The Kid promises to be back in an hour, but we never see him again, which isn’t very surprising to anybody, not even Him.

He finds himself drawn to Scarlet (Vega), an acerbic check-out clerk in the Express Checkout Lane – the one where you can have no more than ten items or less in your cart. She foils customers who would skirt the rules, terrifies an assistant manager (Pallana) who is deaf as a post and slower than that molasses spill on aisle four, and has a running war with the only other checkout clerk (Dudek) in the market who despite the dearth of help seems content to sit on her behind while Scarlet does most of the work.

Scarlet, who emigrated to America from Spain, has found life incredibly hard in the Land of Milk and Honey. She’d gotten married to a man in what turned out to be a major mistake, has had most of her hopes and dreams crushed by the realities of Los Angeles and has been burned so often that she doesn’t distinguish between friend and foe – often they are one and the same in her experience. Despite all this, she finds a common bond with Him.

In turn, he is fascinated by her and her ethics. When he discovers she is going on a job interview later that day, he is keen to go with her, but insists on taking her shopping at Target for new clothes. As an actor, he understands that first impressions are everything during an audition, and when playing a role, one must look the part. The two couldn’t be any more worlds apart than they are, but still they develop a surprisingly intense friendship.

Silberling, director of such blockbusters as Lemony Snicket and City of Angels, picked this indie project for the challenge of completing shooting in 15 days.  It’s a quiet little movie, offering no great emotional resolution nor any particular insight that you can’t find elsewhere. Still, it is refreshing to watch a movie content to remain within its own framework.

Freeman does a bang-up job of essentially playing himself. Although there are some differences between Freeman and Him, there are enough similarities that it becomes eerie at times. For me, however, the opportunity to watch Vega (previously incendiary in Spanglish) is well worth it. Not only is she one of the most beautiful women in the world, she is a tremendous actress who truly wears her heart on her sleeve. I was riveted every time she made an appearance.

This is a shamelessly independent movie; the production values are next to nothing and at times, it seemed like the pace of the movie was hurried a bit, as if they had some sort of deadline to meet even after the movie had been shot. I liked it and found it charming at times (enough to give it a recommendation), but I can see where that charm would wear thin on people. Think of it as “Seinfeld” without the laughs.

WHY RENT THIS: Paz Vega. Charming without being overbearing. Paz Vega.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground broken here.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is a bit too coarse for young ‘uns.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first movie to be available legally on the Internet while it was still playing in theaters.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: This has one of the most light-hearted set of features that aren’t out-and-out parodies. A Q&A session with the two main stars and director Silberling in the middle of a Target store, as well as a making-of feature that is notable in that it is longer than the actual film.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Leap Year

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian


Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Ben Stiller and Amy Adams learn that seven bobbleheads are better than one.

(20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Hank Azaria, Owen Wilson, Robin Williams, Steve Coogan, Christopher Guest, Bill Hader, Alain Chabat, Jonah Hill, Ricky Gervais, Jon Bernthal, Mizuo Peck, Jake Cherry, Rami Malek, Jay Baruchel. Directed by Shawn Levy.

Anyone can tell you that there is a little bit of magic in a museum. Not only are they repositories of human knowledge and culture, they are also objects of awe and inspiration. There’s quite a lot of juju in those things.

It is two years after the events of Night at the Museum in which an Egyptian tablet brings the statues and inhabitants of the New York Museum of Natural History to life once the sun goes down. Night security guard Larry Daley (Stiller) has moved on from his gig as a night watchman at the museum, becoming the CEO of his own company which markets his own inventions including the latest, the glow-in-the-dark flashlight. He has become a busy man, meeting with Wal-Mart executives and filming infomercials with George Foreman. However, he tries to make time to see his friends in the museum, including Teddy Roosevelt (Williams), Jedediah (Wilson) and Octavius (Coogan).

This night he is informed by unctuous museum director Dr. McPhee (Gervais) that the board of trustees has elected to go a more high-tech route, with holographic exhibits that are much more cost-effective. The mannequins, stuffed animals and statuary have been donated to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington and will reside in their archives as American treasures. Only a few items – the canine T-Rex skeleton, the Easter Island statues and Roosevelt – will remain in New York.

Unfortunately Dexter, the high-strung Capuchin monkey that tormented Larry in the first movie has managed to snag that magic tablet. The night after the move takes place, Larry gets an alarming phone call from Jedediah (how he got access to a phone is anybody’s guess) indicating there is a pharaoh who is after the tablet and the outnumbered refugees from New York are under siege.

Larry gets on a plane immediately and heads to the nation’s capital. From there he heads into the bowels of the Smithsonian using a pilfered card from Brendan (Hill) – pronounced “Brun-dun” – a somewhat inexperienced Smithsonian guard, and meets up with Amelia Earhart (Adams), who becomes an instant ally.

The pharaoh in question, Kahmunrah (Azaria), is the brother of Ahkmenrah (Malek) from the first movie, and he has a chip on his shoulder. He also plans on using the tablet to summon an army of demons to initiate his rule on earth. There is nobody but Larry, Amelia and his friends from the New York museum who stand in the way of Kahmunrah and his nefarious plan.

Those who loved the first movie won’t be disappointed here. Generally, the things that made the movie delightful are here, only amplified. Unfortunately, the first movie’s flaws are also here, only amplified. Let’s start with the good stuff. Stiller’s Larry, to the credit of the filmmakers, is no longer the milquetoast that made him so annoying in the first movie. He’s matured, grown some self-confidence and found success. He makes a better hero in this movie and is given a great foil in Adams. She’s probably my favorite actress working today – I can’t think of another actress besides Julia Roberts whose mere presence in a movie is reason enough for me to see it. Ever since she first attracted notice in Junebug she hasn’t given a poor performance yet, and has proven she can carry a movie in Enchanted. While she’s not required to do that here, she essentially does it anyway. She’s the focus of every scene she’s in, at least from my point of view.

The supporting cast is pretty awesome as well. Azaria makes a superb comic villain, whose lisping delivery is a bit of homage to Boris Karloff in The Mummy. He’s completely believable and menacing enough without being too over-the-top, comic enough without being a buffoon. Coogan and Wilson make a good team and Hill’s uncredited cameo is one of the movie’s highlights. Williams is far less visible in the movie, but makes an impact whenever he’s around.

One of my big peeves with the movie is that it isn’t true to its own canon. In the first film, items brought to life that were left outside the museum after dawn turned to dust but that doesn’t happen here. Also, while the Smithsonian is crawling with security guards and riddled with surveillance cameras during the day, it seems devoid of any kind of security once darkness falls. Considering the value of the artifacts stored in their museums, you’d think that there’d be a guard or two on duty once the doors close.

Still, gripes aside, this is a fairly good family adventure movie. There’s the comedy you’d expect given the cast as well as action a-plenty. The young ‘uns in our audience seemed well-pleased with the movie and I have no reason to suspect that most family audiences won’t find it otherwise.

WHY RENT THIS: A likable cast and premise make this movie all kinds of fun. The things that made the first movie work are still here, only amplified. Amy Adams is always worth seeing no matter what the role; she nearly steals the film here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some lazy script choices give the movie a few unnecessary plot holes which admittedly the movie’s target audience will be young enough to overlook.

FAMILY VALUES: Kahmunrah’s demon army might be a bit frightening for the younger set but they aren’t really all that menacing. Otherwise, this is suitable for most family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lemmon make cameos as the Wright Brothers.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are several featurettes and a DVD game centered around the Capuchin monkeys.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Blind Side