Cinema Psycho

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Archive for July, 2006

Summer Catch-Up #2: Hollywood Goes Bananas

Posted by CinemaPsycho on July 21, 2006

Oh, those wacky Weinsteins! Yes, they’ve moved Pulse (starring the lovely and talented Kristen Bell, and by the way, Emmy voters, you suck) back to the crowded summer season, specifically Aug. 11. This would normally be OK with me, since August has proved to be a decent time to release this kind of PG-13 horror flick (The Sixth Sense, The Others). But now it’s going to have to compete with no less than 4 other major films that weekend, including Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, which any intelligent moviegoer is going to feel guilt-tripped into seeing. Then again, in all fairness, there’s virtually no weekend left this year where there aren’t already 3 or 4 other movies opening wide. So I guess K-Bell is just going to have to duke it out with the big boys, something she should be used to by now as the star of the hugely underappreciated Veronica Mars (yes, I will keep mentioning it until you start watching. Yes, you). Oh well, why am I so worried? It’s not like I have money invested in her career or anything (just HSX money). She’ll be fine. Talent will win out. I’ll find something else to obsess over eventually. I promise.

Anyway, we’re now past summer’s halfway mark, and things are finally looking up at the local cineplexes. This tends to happen every year – once the super-mega-gigantic blockbusters have blown over (or just blown), the really interesting stuff starts to come out. It’s always around July or so that I actually start enjoying going to the movies again, instead of the early-summer experience of general malaise and despair. Seriously, does anyone even remember Mission-Impossible 3 at this point? I barely do myself, and I kinda liked the damn thing. Yet it seems about as far away now as the last Francis Ford Coppola film. I’m surprised it isn’t already out on DVD with an Extended Director’s Cut and a special hidden easter egg about the benefits of Scientology.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I’m looking forward to the late-July and August releases much more than most of what’s already come out. I mean, sitting through The DaVinci Code, X-Men: The Last Stand or The Omen will make anybody gaze longingly at a new Michael Mann or M. Night Shyamalan or Kevin Smith or even Snakes on a Plane. Even if all of those movies are total train wrecks, at least they’ll be interesting, for god’s sake. Hell, How to Eat Fried Worms is actually looking pretty good right now, and it’s a movie about kids eating worms. Until this summer, I didn’t think one could actually literally starve for entertainment. I was mistaken.

The past month or so hasn’t been so bad, however. Assuming one was smart enough to avoid the likes of Little Man and Garfield 2 (and thank Christ for that modicum of intelligence), that is. You can check out my full-length review of the new Monster House above, but let’s play catch-up on a few noteworthy movies I haven’t had time to review.

Nacho Libre – OK, I can’t figure out why so many people hate this movie. They saw a movie about a Mexican wrestler, but apparently they didn’t want it to feel like a movie about a Mexican wrestler. Something’s wrong with that scenario. Coming from the director of low-key cult sensation Napoleon Dynamite, there’s no way this was going to appeal to the Farrelly Brothers crowd. It’s not a belly-laughs, rubber-chicken-up-a-guy’s-ass type of comedy. And I say, thank Christ for that. This is a sweet, goofy little movie with its own peculiar charm and a wonderfully subdued performance by Jack Black. The biggest laughs come from Black’s idiosyncratic speech patterns and modern dialogue that you wouldn’t expect from a monk (“so…anyways…”) rather than the wrestling scenes. I have a feeling the fart noises were added later in post though, possibly to keep the kids awake. And those half-hearted cries of racism over Black’s casting? Give me a break. They explain during the movie that Nacho is half-Mexican, so get over it already. No, it’s not a great comedy or an instant classic like School of Rock, but it’s a quirky little treat in a summer full of generic clones. ***

Superman Returns – wow, I really wanted to like this movie much more than I did. I can understand why some people love it, and I can understand why some people hate it. I’m kind of in the middle. Parts of it work really well, and other parts make you scratch your head and wonder what they were thinking.

I can understand Singer’s wanting to make a legitimate sequel to Superman I & II, considering how badly the last two sequels dropped the ball (I actually watched parts of III recently – good god, what an abomination). But the timeline just doesn’t work in any logical way (is it 25 years later or not? If so, why is everyone younger?), and they pick and choose what parts of the story they want to use and throw away others, based on what fits in their convoluted plotline. Not to mention the fact that Singer’s movie bears so many parallels to the original, it’s a wonder Richard Donner didn’t get story credit. Superman comes/returns to Earth in the pod. He enters/reenters public life by rescuing Lois from a helicopter/airplane crash. He meets/returns to Lois on her balcony. Lex’s big plan involves “real estate” and altering land masses for financial gain. Lex uses his female sidekick, Miss Tessmacher/Kitty as a distraction to put his plan in motion. And so on. There’s so many of these similarities that they can’t possibly be a coincidence. It’s like Singer and crew are trying to make a remake, a sequel and an original film all at the same time. Since they obviously had to recast the entire film out of necessity, why not just start over (like Batman Begins) with a new storyline, while keeping the visual style and iconography of the Donner films? Why bend over backwards when it simply isn’t necessary?

What’s worse is that the basic idea (Superman returns after leaving Earth for five years) simply makes no sense. Let me get this straight – scientists thought they had found Krypton, and Supes just had to go check it out? Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Krypton blown to smithereens in the original film? Even if they had found parts of it, there wouldn’t be anything living left on it anyway. What’s the point? And why does he travel in the pod again? We know he can breathe in outer space. He’s not a baby anymore, he doesn’t need Jor-El’s pod to guide him there and back again. Why aren’t people more pissed off at him for leaving? “Gee Superman, great to have you back even though the world has gone straight to Hell since you’ve been gone?” Is this the same Superman who gave up his powers in II, then got them back because he couldn’t let people suffer without doing something about it? Why would that Superman basically abandon the entire planet for five years? None of it makes any sense at all, and it certainly doesn’t line up ideologically with the original films.

But what I really don’t get is why Singer and his writers went with such an awkward, contrived story when it doesn’t pay off in any way. What’s the purpose in taking out Lois Lane as a potential romantic interest for Superman, and basically turning him into Super-Stalker? Yes, it provides conflict – which is never resolved. Giving him an illegitimate son is a bit of a soap-opera move, but it doesn’t really give the character anywhere to go. He’s become a Superman who can’t do anything about the circumstances he’s in – can’t make a move on Lois, can’t claim the kid as his own (other than visiting him in the middle of the night while he’s sleeping, another slightly creepy stalker move), can’t go back in time and fix everything that happened while he was gone. What exactly is he supposed to accomplish in this movie (other than foiling Luthor’s evil plan)? He doesn’t really have any options for possible course of action. They’ve essentially written him into a corner here, for no apparent reason other than to “try something new”. How is that any different from the proposed Jon Peters version, where he’d have a different costume and fight polar bears? Oh, and Superman kills in this version too. Is that the Superman we remember? He might have the same costume (pretty much), but it’s a reinvention of the character all the same, and not for the better.

Yet there are things to like about Returns. I enjoyed the style of the film (even though much of it is cribbed from Donner), laughed at some of the jokes, and admired some of the action scenes (though I was ready to doze off towards the end). I mostly liked the cast – Brandon Routh is a more than passable Man of Steel, even if he looks more like Jason Schwartzman to me than Chris Reeve. I’m one of the few who didn’t hate Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane (watch her in Wonderland and then try to dismiss her as “lightweight”) and especially found James Marsden to be a revelation (where was this guy during the making of the X-Men films? Where was that Cyclops?). But overall, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the movie was just an unrepentant downer, for no apparent reason that I could fathom. Roger Ebert complained that Superman “wasn’t having any fun”, to which my response is – screw him, what about the audience? This is Superman, not Shakespeare, for cryin’ out loud. Superman is supposed to give us hope, lift us up and deliver us from tragedy, not wallow in it. Singer had an opportunity here – to give us a Superman that transcends the bleakness and despair of our era to provide a feeling (however temporary) of triumph and even, possibly, hope for mankind. He blew it. As much as he desperately wants his film to be just like Donner’s, it’s missing something crucial at its core. The tagline should’ve been “You will believe a man can cry”. **1/2

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest – leave it to Jerry Bruckheimer to pull off the first truly fun blockbuster of the summer. Finally, a piece of old-fashioned summer escapism that feels like exactly what it’s meant to be. Love it or hate it, this is a movie that delivers exactly what it promises, and that’s a rarity these days. Screw the highbrow critics – this is pure action-adventure cinema for its own glorious sake, and it’s too much of a kick to be dismissed.

You want to know why Pirates is doing so well? It’s easy – audiences love pure escapism. Always have, always will. There’s absolutely nothing “real” about this movie, any more than there was in the old swashbucklers of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s. It’s not political. It’s not hip. It’s not “about” anything. It’s simply a rip-roaring adventure for the sake of adventure. That’s the kind of pure pleasure that Hollywood used to deliver on a regular basis, and which has been sorely missed for the past couple of decades. Movie audiences have become so splintered that it’s rare that something aims for everyone and actually hits the mark. Kids, adults, grandparents, farm animals – people of all races, creeds and persuasions can go to these movies and be entertained by them. That’s no small accomplishment. In fact, it’s what summer movies used to be all about. How is it that we’ve forgotten that?

Look, I don’t know if I’ll even remember this movie 6 months from now. I may never watch it again (I haven’t watched the original Pirates since it first came out), and I probably won’t buy it on DVD. But I do know I had a great time watching it, and that’s all that counts. I could probably go into more detail about its merits, but really, you all pretty much know what these movies are like. Johnny Depp acting like a fey drunk and whooping it up like a madman. Orlando Bloom playing the stoic, upright hero type. Keira Knightley acting spunky and looking hot. Lots of expertly staged action. Cool monster effects (I particularly liked the guy with a starfish on his face). Some funny scenes and a few funny lines. The thing just works, and there’s no arguing with that. If you want deep, meaningful stuff, go see the Al Gore movie. If you want a kick-ass adventure movie, this is your ticket. It’s a rollicking good time. What more can I say?

Sadly, there are some people out there who just don’t know when they’ve got it good. When the movie ended, I heard this woman talking about how disappointed she was by it, saying she preferred the original because this one was “too fantastical”. Say what? Isn’t that the whole point? Let’s see, the original had ghost pirates with skeleton-like bodies, but this is too much for you to buy into? Give me a break. Then she went into the “it’s too long” argument, which I’m frankly really, really sick of by now. If you don’t like watching movies over two hours long, don’t fucking go already. Honestly, how difficult is it to look up a movie’s running time on the Net? Not difficult at all. So please, honestly, give the rest of us a break with that stupid, whiny argument. It was lame when you used it on King Kong, and it’s even lamer now. You know, some of us actually like getting something for our ticket price. You’d prefer to be less entertained for the same amount of money? That’s ridiculous. Are you the same people who go to a concert and leave before the encore? There’s nothing set in stone that a movie has to be less than 120 minutes long. If your big fat asses can’t handle sitting in the chair for that long, by all means, stay home. Honestly, some people are just so fucking ungrateful. ***1/2

So that covers the middle of summer. Hopefully there will be some interesting surprises in the weeks ahead. I’ll be checking back in soon with more reviews and (no doubt) rants. Talk to you later!

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Monster House

Posted by CinemaPsycho on July 18, 2006

Directed by Gil Kenan/screenplay by Dan Harmon & Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler, story by Harmon & Schrab/featuring the voices of Steve Buscemi, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Lee, Mitchel Musso, Sam Lerner, Spencer Locke/Columbia Pictures – ImageMovers – Amblin Entertainment

Three kids discover that the home of a scary old man who constantly warns them to “stay off his lawn” is actually alive. It’s not a house full of monsters – it’s literally a Monster House!

As Ebert and Roeper like to say (and I so rarely get to), “This…is an early review”. It’s not often that I go to nationwide sneaks anymore – it seems like a hassle to pay full price to see something that will open wide six days later, then hang around for an hour to watch something I’ve probably seen already, or don’t particularly want to see. I believe the last one I went to was Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, if that gives you any idea. But my nephew really wanted to see this, and there was nothing coming out this weekend that I was really interested in, so it seemed like a good opportunity to introduce the kid to the wonderful world of early screenings. Who needs to download movies on your computer when you can see them early on the big screen (we didn’t stick around the extra hour and a half to see Click, for which I was grateful)?

Needless to say, my nephew really enjoyed Monster House. He’s 9 years old. This movie hit him right in the sweet spot. While I enjoyed it for the most part, I couldn’t help but wish I could see it through his eyes. Because while pretty much every Internet critic is raving about this thing like it’s the Second Coming, I just found it to be “pretty good”. I’m very far away from 9 years old.

The plot is relatively simple – three kids discover that a house…oh, just read the plot description above. DJ (Musso) is our lead, the slightly awkward but intelligent kid who will probably grow up to be the next Bill Gates (at least, that’s what movies like this would have you believe). Chowder (Lerner) is, let’s face it, the fat, boisterous kid who doesn’t quite seem all there. Chowder wears a cape. All the time. That should tell you all you need to know. And then there’s Jenny (Locke), the newcomer who’s sharp, witty and resourceful, and has attracted the interest of both DJ and Chowder because, you know, she’s a girl. What more do you need? All three are at that strange age where they’re almost teenagers, but aren’t quite ready to leave childhood behind. I know some adults who are still in that phase. But I digress.

Anyway, DJ’s parents (voiced by Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard) take off somewhere (didn’t quite pick up where they were going or why) and leave the kid with teenage babysitter Zee (Gyllenhaal) for Halloween. Zee’s boyfriend Bones (Lee) likes to tease and torture DJ mercilessly, which delights Zee to no end. She’s that kinda girl. Who dates a guy named Bones anyway? When DJ and Chowder have an encounter with DJ’s across-the-street neighbor Nebbercracker (Buscemi), the stereotypical old man who seems to enjoy tormenting kids who walk across his lawn, and said encounter ends badly, the kids discover the truth about “Old Man Nebbercracker” and his spooky old house.

Of course, none of the adults or teens believe them, which is a perennial staple of such movies. I don’t know, I kind of have to side with the adults on this one. If some kid came up to me and told me that a house down the street was alive, and eats people, I’d think the kid was a good candidate for Ritalin. But just once, I’d like to see a movie where a kid tells an adult something and the adult just goes along with it without question. This movie comes close to that with a character named Skull (voiced by Jon Heder), who’s a video-game champion and comic-book freak. When they tell him the story, he kinda believes them, but he’s too busy playing his video game to help or even give advice. What was the point to his character again? Not really sure.

Naturally, the story comes down to the kids exploring the house and then fighting it themselves, thus proving that they’re capable and prepared for adulthood. Or something. Why exactly they would want to grow up, when all of the adults and teens in the movie are portrayed as clueless idiots, I’m not really sure. I have to question why nobody in the neighborhood ever thought to do anything about Nebbercracker’s old, shoddy, run-down house in the first place. I mean, that thing’s got to be driving property values down. This place is smack in the middle of a suburban yuppie neighborhood, and it looks like an abandoned shack that a serial killer would live in. At the very least, you’d think the parents would warn their kids to stay away from there as much as possible. But apparently they’re too busy with their fondue and key parties to give it much thought. These are the kind of things you think about when you watch movies like this and you’re not 9 years old.

There are a lot of things to like about Monster House, particularly if you’re a child of the ‘80’s. First-time director Kenan almost perfectly captures that kiddie-thrill-ride feel of those Spielberg – Zemeckis type movies (not coincidentally, they’re the executive producers) that helped define many childhoods. It seems like Hollywood has pretty much forgotten how to make movies like that – movies that aren’t just for kids, but about kids, and entertain adults as well. Kenan and the writers are smart enough not to directly reference any of the movies that inspired them (at least, not that I noticed), as well as set the film in an indeterminate era to give it a timeless quality (when’s the last time you heard Olivia Newton-John on the radio? I expected them to break out the John Denver at some point). I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sick of all the “talking animals voiced by celebrities” type movies, so seeing an animated film where the main characters are human beings was a breath of fresh air.

But movies like this are kind of like amusement parks – we love ‘em to death when we’re kids, but you go back to one 20 years later and you just get tired and bored and cranky and you want to go home. As hard as Monster House tries to recapture that kids-on-an-adventure spirit of movies like The Goonies, it’s difficult not to feel that they’re straining for laughs and thrills at times. The concept itself is a little too silly to actually be scary – a house that eats people? Come on. And because it’s a PG-rated “family film”, there’s never any real sense of danger, even when the filmmakers seem to want to think there is. Anyone who’s seen enough of these movies knows exactly where the house’s “victims” will turn up at the end. It’s not that hard to guess. OK, so this isn’t meant to be Last House on the Left, but I would’ve had more respect for the movie’s creators if they’d stuck to their guns a little more and not pussed out on its basic idea. A house that eats people is supposed to, you know, eat people.

Several of the movie’s characters don’t really go anywhere, and just seem introduced to provide an adult counterpoint to the kids’ unyielding belief. There’s the aforementioned Skull, whose limited screen time doesn’t serve any purpose, and plays like a missed opportunity to give the audience a geeky adult antihero to root for (imagine a video-game nut/comic-book nerd going up against the evil house, Ash-style, and pulling it off – the geeks in the crowd would go apeshit). O’Hara and Willard seem wasted here as DJ’s perpetually square parents – they’re hugely talented comic performances whose presence is always welcome, but the movie does very little with them. Most egregious are the two stereotypical, donut-eating bumbling cops (voiced by Kevin James and Nick Cannon) who are never the least bit funny, and in fact are just annoying every single second they’re on screen. I seriously wished the house would eat them just so I wouldn’t have to watch them anymore. It might have helped if they weren’t such nondescript, generic characters who seem to have no distinct personalities other than being “stupid cops” who enjoy abusing their authority by hassling little kids. The idea that they’re the only policemen in that town is actually a little scary – I wouldn’t want to live anywhere that I only had those two idiots to count on in an emergency. They make Barney Fife look like RoboCop.

What makes Monster House work as well as it does is, quite simply, the kids. The filmmakers were smart enough to use the voices of child actors (rather than, say, Howie Mandel or some other comedian trying to sound young) and I have to say that Musso, Lerner and Locke do a great job of carrying the movie. Each of the three kids is distinct, recognizable and likable, and we care about them a great deal more than one would expect. I thought it was important to include their names in my cast rundown above, more so than the more famous actors who are given top billing, because they are the lead characters after all, and they pretty much are the movie for all intents and purposes. If they don’t work, the movie doesn’t work, and these kids hit every note perfectly.

I also liked Buscemi’s work as the old man with a terrible secret, and Gyllenhaal pretty much nails the obnoxious yet intriguing babysitter. Lee is decent as the surly jerk Bones (though I initially thought it was Luke Wilson –I’ve never noticed before how much they sound alike), although his character is drawn in such a way that he looks almost as much like an old man as Nebbercracker. Weird. I thought the big flashback reveal of the house’s origins was really well done as well, with a Tim Burton feel and a surprising poignancy that comes completely unexpected in a kids’ movie.

When all is said and done though, I couldn’t help but wonder how much cooler this movie might have been in live-action. I know, how do you do a living, breathing house in live-action? Well, with Spielberg and Zemeckis behind him, I’m sure Kenan could have found a way. And I still think a house full of monsters is way more interesting than a house that is a monster. Maybe that’s just me. Still, Monster House manages to be reasonably entertaining for most of its 90-minute running time, and it never gets treacly or tries to “teach us a lesson”. That’s something. I have to think that this might have been better served by being released around Halloween, but if enough adults drag the kids to see it, this could easily be a summer sleeper hit. It’s not a flawless film, and it’s certainly not the Second Coming of 80’s Cinema. But if you’re 9 years old, this might be the movie of the year.

*** 7/18/06

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