The Watch


 

The Watch

Ben Stiller finds another teen who thought Night at the Museum sucked.

(2012) Comedy (20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Rosemarie DeWitt, Will Forte, Mel Rodriguez, Doug Jones, Erin Moriarty, Nicholas Braun, R. Lee Ermey, Joe Nunez, Liz Cackowski, Johnny Pemberton, Billy Crudup, Sharon Gee. Directed by Akiva Schaffer

 

There are things that define a neighborhood that we seem to have lost sight of for the most part in the 21st century. Neighborhoods were once places where neighbors looked out for one another; where we shared lives with those who lived around us. Those kinds of neighborhoods are becoming increasingly rare.

Not in Glenview, Ohio though and that’s why Evan (Stiller) loves it so much there. He and his wife Abby (DeWitt) emigrated from New York to escape the cold, impersonal big city life and find a place where they could raise their children the right way – not that they have any children quite yet but they’re working on it.

When a security guard (Nunez) is gruesomely murdered in the Costco that Evan is managing, that galvanizes Evan. He has already founded a running club and a Spanish club in his neighborhood; now it’s time for something a little more useful – a neighborhood watch. The police, in the person of Sgt. Bressman (Forte), are doing little to find the killer and in fact Bressman thinks Evan is a strong suspect.

However, his neighborhood is less enthusiastic – only three other guys show up to the meeting that he calls. Bob (Vaughn) is a contractor with an epic man-cave who sees the Watch as an opportunity to hang out with the guys and drink plenty of beer. Franklin (Hill) is a bit of a nutcase who failed the psychological tests in order to join the Glenview Police Department; he lives with his mom and longs for police-like action. Then there’s Jamarcus (Ayoade) who sees the Neighborhood Watch as a means to meet women. Not exactly the battalion of crime fighters Evan was looking for.

Still, they are at least willing to play along for the most part, although much of their crime work has beer involved, and much talk of male penises. Bob and Evan start to bond in an odd way; Evan confesses that the reason he and Abby haven’t been able to conceive a child is because he’s sterile; Bob expresses his frustration over his teenage daughter Chelsea’s (Moriarty) increasing infatuation for Jason (Braun), a super-arrogant teen with designs on just one thing – the thing most teenage boys have designs on.

In the meantime, their investigation is leading them to the killer – and that killer isn’t local. And by not local, I mean not of this earth. When their beloved Glenview looks to be ground zero for an alien invasion, can these four screw-ups suck it up and become earth’s last line of defense?

Veteran SNL director Schaffer has a script co-written by Seth Rogen to work from but this isn’t one of his better efforts. Mostly what the problem is here is the unevenness. The movie has some genuinely funny moments, but not of the sort that will leave you sore from laughter as the better comedies will. The sci-fi aspects are for the most part pretty cheesy; why does every alien have to have lime green goo dripping from them? Just saying.

In any case, the two don’t mix well. At times we have some pretty odd moments of a joke in the middle of a serious scene that cheapens the drama; at others, a more dramatic episode in the middle of some of the more really funny moments. The effect is to keep the audience off-balance and not in a good way.

Stiller, Hill, Ayoade and particularly Vaughn are some of the most talented comic actors on the planet and they actually perform pretty well here. Vaughn is memorable even though his shtick is pretty much the same one he usually uses – the loud and aggressive manly sort with a heart of gold – we see the latter most clearly in his relationship with his daughter which is, as most dad-teenage daughter relationships are is a bit on the love-hate side. However, the relationship is depicted here a bit simplistically.

And what’s the deal with all the phallic references? There are so many references to the male sex organ that you have to wonder if there’s some sort of fetish being played out here. Hey, I’m as proud of my equipment as the next guy but sheez, I don’t feel the need to mention it quite so often.

So what we have here is a sci-fi comedy with some talented people in it (and lest we forget, the very sexy DeWitt who has some nice moments here) and simply not living up to its own potential. As much as I like Vaughn, Stiller and company, I think that talent like theirs deserves more than just an onslaught of dick jokes to deliver. So do we.

REASONS TO GO: There are some funny moments. Vaughn is one of my favorite comic actors at the moment.  

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the humor feels forced. Serious and funny stuff don’t flow well, leading to some jarring moments.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of sexual content and a bit of sci-fi violence. The language is universally foul.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Neighborhood Watch but the title was changed due to sensitivity over the Trayvon Martin shooting.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100. The reviews are uniformly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Night at the Museum

COSTCO LOVERS: Evan is the manager at the Costco and the climax takes place there; as you might expect there are several jokes about bulk buying throughout the film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Sympathy for Delicious

I Am Number Four


I Am Number Four

Timothy Olyphant and Alex Pettyfer discover that catering has run out of bran muffins.

(2011) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer, Dianna Agron, Callan McAuliffe, Kevin Durand, Jake Abel, Jeff Hochendoner, Patrick Sebes, Cooper Thornton, Judith Hoag, Emily Wickersham, Jack Walz. Directed by D.J. Caruso

Growing up is hard enough without moving from place to place, never being able to set down roots or forge deep connections with friends. How much worse is it when you’re being chased by alien killers bent on your destruction before you develop powers over which you have no control and no idea what those powers are going to be?

Ask John Smith (Pettyfer) all about it. That’s not really his name; he’s not even human. He is Number Four, one of nine young teenagers who are the last of their kind, bred to be protectors of their race, the Loriens, but a cruel, homicidal race called the Mogadorians wiped them out before the teens could develop their powers. They were then brought to Earth, each with a warrior-guardian to protect them until their powers manifested.

Unfortunately, the Mogadorians followed them to Earth and have started to kill the teens, one at a time in order. Each teen is wearing a pendant with a symbol on it; the Mogadorians are taking them with each murder. The first three are dead; John is next on the hit list. After John makes an unwanted YouTube appearance, he and his guardian Henri (Olyphant) are forced to relocate to the lovely Rust Belt town of Paradise, Ohio.

Despite Henri’s warning for John to stay home and skip school, he gets stir crazy and enrolls in the local high school. There he meets Sam (McAuliffe), the resident geek whose dad disappeared a few years back and who was something of a UFO nut. He also falls for Sarah (Agron), the town shutterbug which leads him to run afoul of Mark (Abel), the quarterback of the football team and something of a jock jerk (ah, the timelessness of stereotypes).

However, the Mogadorians are hot on his trail and so is a hot young blonde named Jane Doe (Palmer) who turns out to be Number Six. Together, the four young people will take on the Mogadorians and their monstrous creatures, a sort of combination between a rhino, a bat, a dog and a crab – only about twenty feet long and ten feet tall.

This is based on a book that was co-written by James Frey, who you may recall caused a stir some years back when Oprah ordained his alleged biography as a book about courage until it came out that he had fudged a number of the facts in it. He has since founded a writing collective called Full Fathom Five and this book, the first in a series, was credited to Pittacus Lore which is Frey and Jobie Hughes. There is actually quite a backstory to the writing and publishing of the book which in some ways is more fascinating than the actual book itself.

I had fairly high hopes for the movie not so much for who was onscreen but for who was behind it. Caruso is a highly talented director whose works include Suburbia and Eagle Eye. There is also writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar of “Smallville” and Marti Noxon of  “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,”  as well as Michael Bay in the producer’s chair and of course Steven Spielberg lurking in the background as the head honcho of DreamWorks.

Certainly of all the young adult fantasy novels that have come our way in recent years trying to create a franchise for themselves, this isn’t the worst of them. It isn’t the best either; certainly not along the lines of a Harry Potter or a Narnia (or some would argue, the Twilight series). Still it has a good deal going for it.

First and foremost is Pettyfer, a young British up and comer whose angular good looks and smoldering screen presence is certain to set a lot of young pre-teen and teenaged hearts a-flutter; certainly Hollywood has noticed, casting Pettyfer in a number of high profile projects in the coming months. Here, he is ideally suited to the role of John carrying off both the brooding angst as well as the yearning for normalcy that is present in most teenagers – needing to fit in and stand out all at once.

Olyphant is one of those actors who elevate most of the projects he’s involved in. Best known for his work in “Deadwood,” he is circling around a breakout role that will elevate him into stardom. He hasn’t gotten there yet but it’s only a matter of time. The two females, Agron from “Glee” and Palmer, who is set to appear in the new Mad Max: Fury Road, are gorgeous but while Agron is fairly disposable, Palmer has the makings of a solid female action star.

The problem here is that the movie spends a whole lot of time dwelling on the teen interrelationships that make it a lot like “One Tree Hill” and the like. I’m wondering if the filmmakers are consciously trying to appeal to the teen soap crowd as well as the action/sci-fi crowd; it’s only in the last 30 minutes that the movie really takes off and when it does, it’s a solid, fun movie with some nifty special effects and CGI beasties.

Unfortunately it takes awhile to get there. The set-up of the movie takes a bit too long, and too much time is spent with Henri acting like a mother hen to John and John brooding over Sarah, or raging at Mark and his goon squad. I haven’t read the book but from the synopsis I’ve read of its plot, the movie seems to follow it pretty basically and quite frankly, that element of the book doesn’t work well cinematically speaking.

Still, the last 30 minutes are quite a ride and if you’re willing to sit through the first 60 minutes, it’s worth the wait. Pettyfer is to my mind a future star – he has everything going for him, especially the screen presence which is an intangible you can’t teach. Caruso helped make Shia LaBeouf a star and despite the pretty much universally negative reviews of this one, I can’t help but think that what’s going to emerge the most from this film is not necessarily a new franchise for DreamWorks but a new star who is going to have a really good career ahead of him.

REASONS TO GO: The last 30 minutes are a great ride. Pettyfer has big star written all over him.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much exposition to begin with. Goes the teen soap route and really torpedoes the sci-fi action vibe.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense sequences of violence and sci-fi action. There are a few bad words, but not really in a pervasive manner.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shalto Copley was originally cast as Henri but had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict.

HOME OR THEATER: The last 30 minutes should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Collector

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio


The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

Julianne Moore and Laura Dern have varying degrees of '50s enjoyment.

(2005) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Trevor Morgan, Ellary Porterfield, Simon Reynolds, Monte Gagne, Robert Clark. Directed by Jane Anderson

Raising a family is never an easy proposition, even under the most ideal of circumstances. Raising a family of ten children when the father is an alcoholic who spends most of what little he brings home from the machine shop on booze is nigh near impossible.

Somehow, however, Evelyn Ryan (Moore) does just that. A promising journalist, she left her career to wed aspiring crooner Kelly Ryan (Harrelson) and like a good Irish Catholic, proceeds to pump out a wagonload of kids while putting her own career on hold. Unfortunately for Kelly, a tragic traffic accident ends his singing career and sticks him in the Ford machine shop in Defiance, Ohio. Always partial to liquor to begin with, he begins to really get cozy with the bottle.

With bills due, the mortgage past due and the kids needing one thing or another, Evelyn puts her writing skills to use by entering the tremendously popular (and profitable) jingle contests that were a staple of the ‘50s, when this movie is set. She’s good enough to win appliances, shopping sprees, cars, bikes, vacations, plants, toys and yes, cash. She also manages to keep a positive outlook despite Kelly’s need to lash out and her own children’s need to find themselves. She yearns for things beyond the city limits of Defiance and makes a connection with other contesters, as she calls them, led by the affable Dortha (Dern). Denied even the comfort of friends, she becomes the rock of the Ryan household, and her older kids know it, even as their father continues to make horrible mistakes one after another.

Based on a true story (written by Evelyn’s real-life daughter Terry, who appears briefly as herself at the end of the movie), this is a nice portrait not only of a time and place, but a look a poverty in America, a subject that we rarely turn our attention to. It is also a peep into the role of women in the household, and while it is certainly more a view of the place of women in the 1950s, it resonates to the modern woman (and the modern man as well).

Told with a spiffy voice over by Moore and some nicely done asides that advance the story from one trauma to the next, Anderson made her feature debut with this after years in television. She uses her skills from the small screen nicely here, further giving this a kind of ‘50s “All’s well in America as long as the TV is working” gloss. In fact, if there is a problem with her work, it is that sometimes it seems a bit too small screen for the silver screen, if you get my drift.

Moore, who has four Oscar nominations to her credit, does a very nice job with this. Having to play a saint who is forced to turn a blind eye to the injustice of her situation while nonetheless aware of its inequities, she manages to convey her frustration that she hid carefully from her children and even from her husband. Harrelson tones down some of the acting excesses that took him from A-lister ten years ago to the B-list where he is now. He does some of his best work since The People vs. Larry Flynt, playing Kelly as a guy helpless to his own inadequacies, wanting to do the right thing but always, tragically, doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

While this was sadly overlooked during its late-2005 run, there is a lot to like here. The attitudes of the 50s male towards women, particularly when the woman you love is turning out to be a better breadwinner than yourself, are the kinds of feelings men grapple with today a half-century later. While most of the Ryan offspring wound up as faceless, being too numerous to keep track of as they aged during the course of the film, nonetheless I found this exceedingly entertaining. You may not remember the Ryan children when all is said and done, but you will certainly remember their parents.

REASONS TO RENT: Nice evocation of the ‘50s. Strong performances by Moore and Harrelson. Storytelling is quirky and fun.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many kids who tend to all blend together. Some of the vignettes seemed to be “same stuff different day” without offering much more than the vignette before it.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and some mild language concerns.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the dresses worn by Julianne Moore dresses that actually belonged to Evelyn Ryan, whose daughter Betty saved them and offered to the film for use.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PRFORMANCE: $689,028 on a $12M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Paris

Fanboys


Fanboys

Fanboys on the outside looking in.

(2008) Comedy (Weinstein) Sam Huntington, Chris Marquette, Dan Fogler, Jay Baruchel, Kristen Bell, Carrie Fisher, Danny Trejo, Billy Dee Williams, Seth Rogen, Allie Grant, William Shatner. Directed by Kyle Newman

Fans have a kind of sweet madness. I’m not talking about the people who follow something on a casual basis; I mean the full-out, balls-to-the-wall, obsessive, dangerously knowledgeable super-fans; the kind that show up at conventions and name their kids after characters in the movies.

This specific fandom that Fanboys is examining is the Star Wars fans. The movie is set in 1998, just prior to the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and arguably the best time to be a fan of the series – when anticipation had fans jumping out of their skins waiting for the new movie, the first in more than 15 years.

Four school friends who hadn’t been together since graduation meet up at a party; Eric (Huntington), the lone respectable one who was working for his dad’s car dealership which he was expected to take over some day; Hutch (Fogler) who lives in his mom’s “carriage house” (read: garage), Windows (Baruchel) a computer nerd who has a thing for a chat room geek he’s never met and Linus (Marquette), who is somewhat angry about the way things turned out.

It turns out he has plenty of reason to be angry; he has cancer and won’t live to see the next movie in the franchise released. Eric, who was once his best friend, resumes that role and decides that his friend WILL see the movie before anyone else does. The four of them – and Zoe (Bell), a very cool friend that frequents the comic book store Hutch and Windows work at and quite possibly the only girl that could hang with these guys – will drive from Ohio to Marin County, California where Skywalker Ranch is located, break in and watch the movie. Windows’ online crush even claims she can get them the plans to the Ranch which is legendary for its security.

They take off in Hutch’s tricked out van, a kind of rolling convention on wheels, and head vaguely West. On the way they will encounter evil Star Trek fans, the all-knowing Harry Knowles (of Ain’t It Cool News fame) and William Shatner himself as they race the clock to get their dying friend to the ranch. Will it be worth the trip?

Of course, we all know at this point in time that The Phantom Menace was a disappointment but back then the possibilities were endless. The world of fans was anticipating what they thought would be an epic movie and nearly every fan website was in a dither. It was a kinder world.

However, the story of this movie might have made a good movie of its own. The movie was completed back in 2007 but was shelved by studio head Harvey Weinstein who felt the cancer subplot was too grim for the comedy he wanted; he also felt it appealed to a niche audience and not a general one. Both are legitimate points.

Director Newman fought the changes and Weinstein eventually assigned director Steven Brill to reshoot some scenes and re-edit it. Fans went ballistic, launching a campaign to stop the changes, opening MySpace pages (“Stop Darth Weinstein”) and threatening to boycott Superhero Movie en masse. I’m not so sure that was a threat so much as a relief.

Eventually Weinstein relented and allowed Newman to re-cut the movie a third time…only he gave him only 36 hours to do the work. The movie bounced from release date to release date over the course of three years until it finally got an extremely limited release in February 2009 and, as you can see from the box office performance below, died like the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi.

It’s kind of a shame because the movie isn’t too bad. It got a critical shellacking which, frankly, illustrates why critics are out of touch with the audience that comes to the movies. People do get involved with their favorite franchises. Laugh and make fun if you want to, but it fulfills something in people, be it Trekkers, Star Wars fan or Twilighters. Those who judge the lifestyles of these people are the ones who really need to get a life.

For the most part, the performances here are okay although there’s nothing here that’s going to supercharge any careers. Baruchel is sweet as Windows and Marquette has some nice scenes as Linus. Mostly, the star power is in the cameos and there are plenty of those, from Star Wars vets Fisher and Williams to Shatner and Rogen (who is amusing as an overbearing Trek fan).

There are a lot of asides that will have knowing fans nodding in satisfaction; I can see how audiences not super-familiar with the Star Wars saga might feel left out a little. However, the movie really isn’t for them anyway. The DVD extras on several occasions call this a love letter to Star Wars but I don’t think it actually ends up that way. It’s more a love letter to the fans, and not just of Star Wars but of all things that excite the imagination and promote obsession. It’s sweet-natured and while not everything works, I am positive that the love is sincere. I’d much rather see a movie like this one than a thousand big budget big star comedies whose sole reason for being is to fatten the bank accounts of those involved. Sincerity trumps budget every time.

WHY RENT THIS: A very sweet homage to fandom, particularly that of Star Wars. Some of the cameos are actually well thought-out.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit gratuitous in places and the humor – well heck the whole dang movie – is going to appeal to a very limited audience; some of the references will go right over the heads of ordinary folk.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of crude humor, much of it sexual (as you might expect from a bunch of guys who don’t get laid much). There’s also some drug use in the movie, as well as a heaping helping of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The guards at Skywalker Ranch wear uniforms from THX-1138, one of Lucas’ early films (and one he references regularly in subsequent films). The head guard is played in a cameo appearance by Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some webisodes that were available before the movie’s release, as well as a character study but really, most of the extras are relatively mundane as these things go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $960,828 on an unreported production budget; the film was undoubtedly a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Answer Man