Mystery Men


Skull bowling has never really taken off as a recreational sport.

Skull bowling has never really taken off as a recreational sport.

(1999) Superhero (Universal) Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Geoffrey Rush, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens, Kel Mitchell, Greg Kinnear, Wes Studi, Lena Olin, Eddie Izzard, Artie Lange, Prakazrel Michel, Claire Forlani, Tom Waits, Emmy Laybourne . Directed by Kinka Usher

If you have had enough of brooding Dark Knights, angsty-but-noble Spider-Men or of Too-Good-To-Be-True Men of Steel, here are the other guys, the kinds of heroes that would probably show up to save OUR day.

Mr. Furious (Stiller), known for his legendary rages, leads a trio of what local cops contemptuously call wannabes, rounded out by the Shoveller (Macy), the straight man who says modestly “we just fight crime…call it what you will” and the obtuse Blue Raja (Azaria), who speaks in a phony British accent and has not a speck of the color blue in his costume. He throws silverware with uncanny accuracy, although he has trouble flinging knives which is one the things that makes Mr. Furious so hopped-up mad.

When this trio of do-gooders attempt to save an old-folks home from robbery, they wind up having the crap kicked out of them only to be rescued by Captain Amazing (Kinnear), Champion City’s legitimate superhero. It seems Amazing has done his work too well, and there are no real battles left for him to fight. So when his arch-nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (Rush) is released from the asylum, Amazing hopes for the kind of apocalyptic battle that will bring the Captain’s sinking stock back to the fore. So when Amazing is captured by his mortal enemy, there’s nobody left to save the day except…you guessed it.

Realizing they are woefully overmatched, they try to recruit some additional firepower (which leads to the Superhero Audition, one of the best scenes in the movie). They wind up with the Spleen (Reubens), whose incapacitating gasses are best left undescribed, the Invisible Kid (Kel Mitchell) who can only turn invisible when nobody’s watching, the Sphinx (Studi) who utters semi-mystical phrases of meaningless babble (sample; “If you do not master your rage, your rage will master you”) and the Bowler (Garofalo), who keeps her father’s skull in her bowling ball and carries on conversations with her departed dad that blur the line between neurotic and psychotic but settle into a kind of Jewish angst.

The odds are against them as they find themselves some weapons (which mainly don’t work) and get themselves some snazzy new costumes which do. However, with their backs to the wall they still refuse to walk away, knowing that this fight could very well be their last.

Usher tries way too hard to turn this into a roller coaster ride of comedy and action, winding up with something that tain’t one thing nor t’other. There are car chases and fight scenes, but mostly played with a wink. The set design is memorable, sort of a cross between Gotham City and the overlooked sci-fi flick Dark City. There are a lot of terrific running jokes; only Mr. Furious seems to notice the remarkable resemblance between Captain Amazing and his alter ego, for example. Note the corporate sponsorships on the uniform of Captain Amazing, for another – sort of like a European soccer uniform or a NASCAR suit.

This is definite eye candy, highly entertaining eye candy at that. The action sequences aren’t half bad although they are played with a definite wink.  The cast is formidable, with some of the most underrated talents in Hollywood. Superhero parodies have not traditionally sold well in the comic book store, and this one certain didn’t bust down the box office bank. Still, if you want to get away from the usual suspects of Marvel and DC superheroes, here is the kind of movie that will keep the parents entertained without having their kids squirming in their seats.

WHY RENT THIS: Magnificent eye candy. An alternative from the usual superhero fare. Some fine performances, particularly from Macy, Stiller, Kinnear, Studi and Garofalo.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Comedy and action sequences sometimes clash. A little neurotic in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some rather crude jokes and a bit of comic book violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The comic book from which this originated was began as a spin-off from the Flaming Carrot comic books but only Mr. Furious, the Spleen and the Shoveller made it from the book to the film (the Bowler, Invisible Kid and Blue Raja are all new characters developed for the film). The Sphynx is a Golden Age character in the public domain and Captain Amazing is a substitute for the Flaming Carrot whom producers thought was too bizarre a character for a mainstream Hollywood film.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the origin of the comic book series and a couple of music videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.5M on a $68M production budget; the movie was an unqualified flop.

STATION WAGON LOVERS: The Shoveller’s car is an early AMC Rebel.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: This is 40

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Casanova (2005)


Casanova

Casanova doing what he does best.

(2005) Romantic Comedy (Touchstone) Heath Ledger, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Oliver Platt, Lena Olin, Omid Djalili, Stephen Greif, Ken Stott, Helen McCrory, Leigh Lawson, Tim McInnerny, Charlie Cox, Natalie Dormer, Robert Levine, Lauren Cohan. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

 

All men dream of being Casanova. Not the actual man but having the same characteristics; being irresistible to women, bold, self-confident and protected by powerful friends when the chips are down. In some ways, his image has become a parody; the real man was notorious self-promoter and his memoirs are fairly unreliable, but he told a good story.

Casanova (Ledger) has been bedeviling the women of Venice to the point where the Doge (McInnerny) has been warned by the Inquisition that a Cardinal Pucci (Irons) has been sent for the sole purpose of arresting the lover. Casanova is warned to either leave the city or wed someone, this someone being Victoria (Dormer), who is loved in turn by Giovanni (Cox) and whose sister Francesca Bruni (Miller) has bewitched Casanova.

Francesca is kind of a Renaissance Gloria Steinem and espouses equality for the sexes. She despises everything Casanova stands for, therefore in keeping with Hollywood convention you know she is going to fall in love with him, although Casanova will have to impersonate her own fiancée, Papprizio (Platt) – Genoa’s own King of Lard – to win her hand.

The problem here is that Hallstrom and the writers aren’t sure whether they’re making a bedroom farce or a screwball comedy and the difference between the two is pretty significant. It’s set up to be a comedy but there are swordfights and rooftop chases. Casanova comes off like  a cut-rate Douglas Fairbanks, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those aspects are some of the movie’s highlights.

The late Heath Ledger made this the same year he made Brokeback Mountain and it was clear he was just coming into his own as an actor. He is self-assured and handsome, not relying on his looks nearly as much and beginning to show signs that his raw talent is beginning to gel, talent that would culminate in his Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight just three short years later. It makes his untimely passing all the more poignant.

The comedy here is mostly supplied by Djalili as Casanova’s long-suffering valet and by Platt. If you’re going to cast Platt as the King of Lard, you’d better have some scenes to back it up and Platt, one of the most underrated character actors in the past decade in my opinion, has some great moments where he gets to swashbuckle as well, and holds his own doing it. Reminds me of his work as Porthos in the 1993 version of The Three Musketeers.

It’s a shame that the script went in the modern rom-com conventional direction of boy meets girl, girl hates boy, boy wins girl, girl breaks up with boy and while I don’t want to give away the ending, Helen Keller could see it coming. Okay, maybe that wasn’t the most sensitive way of putting it.

If you take the attitude that this is going to be some fun entertainment with a little titillation, not a whole lot of originality and very little historical accuracy you’re going to like this just fine. I just wonder why they didn’t use the “real” exploits of Casanova from his memoirs – some of those were far more interesting and outrageous than what we got here.

WHY RENT THIS: Ledger is superb. There is a swashbuckling feel that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Errol Flynn movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls back on Romance 101 clichés too often. Lacks genuine wit.

FAMILY VALUES:  This is a film about one of the world’s most legendary lovers; no surprise there is a whole lot of sexuality in it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the opening sequence, Casanova is trying to evade the Inquisition by leaping through a window into the University of Venice. There is in fact no such institution; the building he is leaping into is the Teatro Olympia, one of the first Renaissance-era theaters and located 140 km away from Venice.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a pretty solid featurette on the costume design and those costumes are rather lavish.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.7M on an unknown production budget; I don’t think this movie cost an enormous amount to film so I think it recouped it’s costs and maybe made a few bucks but not more than that.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Finding Nemo

Awake


Awake

Hayden Christensen gets wheeled in for a charisma transplant.

(MGM/Weinstein) Hayden Christenson, Jessica Alba, Terrence Howard, Lena Olin, Fisher Stevens, Georgina Chapman, Sam Robards, Arliss Howard, Christopher McDonald. Directed by Joby Harold

Consciousness can be a funny thing. We can sleepwalk through life, unaware of the things going on right in front of our faces. Conversely, sometimes we are never more aware of what is going on around us than when we are asleep.

Clay Beresford (Christenson) has everything to live for. He’s a billionaire, having inherited his father’s business and making his own mark upon it. He has a beautiful girlfriend named Samantha Lockwood (Alba) and he hangs out with his friend and physician Dr. Jack Harper (Terrence Howard).

But all isn’t 100% rosy for Clay as indeed it is not for anyone. Clay has a congenital heart defect that has led to a massive heart attack; as a matter of fact, the only reason he is still slapping shoe leather upon this Earth is the intervention of Dr. Harper, who saved his life on the operating table – a pretty compelling basis for a close friendship, wouldn’t you say?

Clay is on the waiting list for a heart transplant, and while he waits he ponders. His girlfriend is the personal assistant of his mother (Olin), and the relationship between them has been kept carefully hidden from la madre who has Clay firmly under her thumb; in fact, he still lives at home. Clay also has definite daddy issues, having to do with his father’s untimely death but also from Clay’s latent self-doubts that as a man he will never measure up to dear old dad.

Mom, for her part, wants the family physician (Arliss Howard), a brilliant cardiovascular surgeon who is on the short list for the next surgeon general’s opening, to perform the procedure but Clay is adamant and loyal to his friend.

At Dr. Harper’s urging and Samantha’s own nudging, Clay decides to marry her impulsively and soon after the ceremony, a heart becomes available. Straight from the ceremony, Clay and Dr. Harper (his best man) run to the hospital. Clay is prepped and made ready for the surgery which is a risky one, so after a touching “see you later” to his new wife, Clay is wheeled into the surgery where they find out that the anesthesiologist originally assigned to the team isn’t available; there is a spare one (McDonald) around however and so the surgery is set to take place as Clay is put under.

Or is he? Clay realizes soon enough that he is wide-awake and paralyzed; he can see, hear and feel every single thing happening to him. This phenomenon apparently does happen in real life, albeit rarely. As Clay suffers through the life-saving surgery, he becomes aware that his awareness isn’t the only thing that is going wrong with the surgery.

This movie got a very cursory release and was pretty much ignored during the slew of holiday releases in 2008. It also got appalling reviews, and quite frankly the marketing of the movie was utterly mismanaged.

That’s a shame because this is quite a good little film. The surgery sequence begins about halfway through the movie and takes place in real time thereafter. Director Harold deftly handles the suspenseful elements and wisely chooses not to make this a horror movie but a suspense thriller instead; on that level it succeeds solidly.

Christensen has yet to prove himself as a leading man in my eyes but his work here is a slight improvement. Unfortunately, I don’t think that he works as the benevolent corporate moneylender; he’s a little on the young side for a role like this. Of course, then the “young romance” that with Samantha doesn’t work if the character is older. It’s a bit of a catch-22.

Alba is a beautiful enough actress and she has shown that she is a capable actress in certain roles, but from time to time she also performs unevenly and this unfortunately is one of the latter occasions. The character needs to have a lot of depth to it but there’s no connection, no organic flow so she comes off as schizophrenic. That makes it tough to have a whole lot of empathy for her.

Lena Olin has always been an actress that I’ve felt hasn’t received the props she has deserved in a career that is now twenty years-plus. She gives a very nuanced performance here as the mom and in many ways I think she might have been better in the role of the wife.

This is a taut, professionally made movie that comes at you unexpectedly. I found I liked it better 20 minutes after I finished watching it.  While some of the operating room theatrics were a bit unbelievable, the movie still works on many levels and is an unexpected pleasure. If you’re in the mood for a little suspense, you could certainly do much worse than this underappreciated film.

WHY RENT THIS: A squirm-inducing premise that happens in real life more often than you’d think. Howard is a consistently good performer who doesn’t disappoint here and Olin is a much underrated talent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Christenson and Alba aren’t as convincing in their roles as I might have liked. Some of the plot points are a little too unrealistic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the surgical scenes may be a bit too graphic for the tastes of the sensitive; there are some minor language, drug and sexuality concerns as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Clay Beresford was originally cast for Jared Leto..

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Last House on the Left (2009)