Thursday, June 19, 2008


Review: The Love Guru
1 star (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

In "The Love Guru," writer/producer/actor Mike Myers' pitiful attempt at a career comeback, the Guru Pitka (Myers) preaches a life affirming, 5-step philosophy known as D.R.A.M.A.: Distraction, Regression, Adjustment, Maturity and Action. In an attempt to reaffirm my own life after sitting through this offensive trifle, I'm going to base this review around those very criteria. Perhaps then the feature length experience of Myers' newest (and certainly most ridiculous) character will not have been entirely useless.

In a flashback, we see Pitka (an American who was raised by Indian gurus and is now seeking self-help success back in the States, a la Deepak Chopra) learn the concept of success-through-distraction by way of a vomit-inducing exercise dreamed up by his twisted elder, Guru Tugginmypudha (you heard right, and get this: he's played by Ben Kingsley). In it, apprentices fight one another with mops that have been soaked in urine and other foul things. I can't recall exactly why this scene was shown, other than to add to the film's roster of gross gags, but it has something to do with the power of mind over matter. Pitka teaches a similar tactic to Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), the star player of the Toronto Maple Leafs whom the guru is hired to pull out of a post-breakup slump so that the team can win the Stanley Cup. This leads to some fairly well filmed excitement on the ice, which I was thankful for simply as a distraction from how bad the rest of this movie is.

Mike Myers is 45 years old. Through his twenties and thirties, he created iconic characters like rocking slacker Wayne Campbell and swinging man of mystery Austin Powers. Now, with Guru Pitka, the once-hip funny man is attempting to recycle the same formula he used to popularize his previous personalities in an age in which newer, fresher comedic voices have emerged – with a much better punchline. Myers' recurring, infantile routine of toilet humor, pop culture rip-offs and sly, obscenity laced dialogue is worse than ever here, and the saddest thing to watch is the aging comedian's pure, aloof joy in delivering it. We see Pitka dine on meat pastries that are made to look like scrota, cover his bearded face with popcorn and cotton candy, pick on a midget hockey coach (played by Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer, back for more self-parody) and stage a series of musical breaks that are meant to be homages to Bollywood, but play more like colorful insults. There's not an ounce of maturity left in Myers' work, and with talents like Judd Apatow breathing down his neck, he might want to think about sticking to voicing green ogres.

This part I dedicate to poor Jessica Alba, a bronze-skinned beauty who looks stunning in pictures, but has quickly become a red flag in heels when it comes to lousy movies. With the exception of Robert Rodriguez's groundbreaking comic noir “Sin City,” every film that has bore this woman's name has been an utter disaster. From the “Fantastic Four” series, to “Good Luck Chuck,” to “The Eye,” her resume is starting to read like the obituary of a former promising star. In “The Love Guru,” she seems to know this sad fact. As Jane, the much maligned owner of the bottom-ranked Maple Leafs, Alba is not a good enough actress to hide her discomfort in her role. And in moments that lead to an impossible yet inevitable love affair between Jane and Pitka, Alba looks so lost and awkward next to Myers' grotesque creation that it made me think of that famous scene from James Whale's “Bride of Frankenstein.” This girl needs a career adjustment. She's not a skilled dramatic performer, but like Marlene Dietrich and dozens of screen goddesses since, she has a face that was made to be photographed. Get a new agent Ms. Alba, or take up modeling.

This is too easy. See “Regression.”

Hopefully, the action that will be taken by the readers of this critique is to find a suitable alternative for their night out at the multiplex. Word is already cruising the web of this being the worst movie 2008 has offered so far, and that alone speaks for itself. I haven't even touched on the idiotic inclusion of Justin Timberlake as Roanoke's well-endowed French opponent, Jacques “Le Coq” Grande, or a scene involving two elephants that will certainly have jaws dropping to the floor. The absurdities here are too many to number, and the question of why Hollywood agrees to make this kind of drivel brews steadily in my mind.

Ironically, “drama” is the last thing you'll find in the “The Love Guru,” a perverted mess that may just be the end of the line for Myers. On the movie's website, a cast bio boasts that Myers is the only actor in history to see six of his films gross over $200 million, consecutively. That may be true, but the “Shrek” franchise is a kiddie cash cow with a built-in audience, and in my book, that doesn't really count. If there's justice in the world, and even a trace of integrity left in the American moviegoing public, “The Love Guru” will not continue that trend, but instead pass swiftly from memory.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Review: The Happening
3 stars
(out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

M. Night Shyamalan, that India-born, Philadelphia-raised filmmaker who was compared to Alfred Hitchcock when he came on the scene with 1999's brilliant ghost story “The Sixth Sense,” has since become more analogous to Britney Spears. As is the case with the pop starlet (or a devastating car wreck), we know we shouldn't watch, yet we cannot look away. Given Shyamalan's ever-descending track record of duds (like 2004's bad “The Village” and 2006's worse “Lady in the Water”), moviegoers should be avoiding his latest offering like a supernatural plague. But like bees to honey, they will come out in swarms, thanks to the mystique of the director's perpetual promise of delivering scary thrills and twist endings. “The Happening,” while better than the titles listed above (save “The Sixth Sense,” of course), proves once again that Shyamalan no longer possesses the imagination to keep that promise.

Having tackled apparitions, aliens, superhumans and storybook monsters, Shyamalan looks to relevant themes as the inspiration for the menace in his new apocalyptic yarn. In what appears to be a pandemic, people across the northeast of the U.S. begin exhibiting strange behavior, then inexplicably committing suicide. As the death toll rises at an alarming rate (specifically in major metropolises like New York and Philadelphia), the nation is thrown into a state of panic and the cities are evacuated. First, terrorists are blamed for releasing a deadly neurotoxin into the air. When that seems to be less and less likely, theorists like inquisitive Philadelphia science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) start wondering if nature may be the cause. When the train that was taking them out of town stops unexpectedly in rural Pennsylvania and all contact is lost, Moore, his emotionally ambiguous wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel), his colleague and best friend Julian (John Lequizamo), Julian's young daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) and a handful of strangers must figure out for themselves what exactly is “happening” while evading an invisible killer.

The movie opens on a chilling note, showing the eerie effects of the “event,” as it is called, on a sampling of New Yorkers. In Central Park, people freeze in place and start uttering nonsense. A girl stabs herself in the throat with her hairpin. At a nearby construction site, workers voluntarily hurl themselves from rooftops. The suicides – many of which are far more gruesome, involving firearms and even lawnmowers – are what have earned “The Happening” it's R rating, a much-publicized first for a Shyamalan film. However, contrary to what the movie's promotional spots suggest, the envelope-pushing gore doesn't contribute much to the creep factor. The deaths here are often more comedic than terrifying, drawing comparisons to the work of George A. Romero. Had I not read prior to my screening that it was the director's intention to construct a “B” picture, the preposterousness of the material would have reached irredeemable levels. It's saved by Shyamalan's ability to successfully build suspense and to attractively stage some “jump-out-of-your-seat” moments.

Although M. Night's reputation as an inventive storyteller continues to wane, his talent as a visual craftsman is undeniable. Compositionally and stylistically, “The Happening” continues what has become a hallmark aesthetic for the mysterious auteur. Everything from characters' clothing, to locations (which are almost always in and around Philadelphia), to interior décor has a noticeably generic look, composed of muted tones and unremarkable designs that help to lock these stories into some fictional, cinematic place where the only style that exists is Americana. This backdrop is perfect for the meaningful use of vibrant color, such as the way red was implemented during scenes of heightened drama in “The Sixth Sense.” And as he did with 2002's “Signs,” Shyamalan depicts the landscape of his native state as a type of untouched, Mayberry nirvana, complete with welcome signs that could have been borrowed from “Back to the Future”'s Hill Valley. Neither the color nor the location techniques are used as effectively in “The Happening,” but both still bear the director's signature. And although this film is no shocker, his proficiency in framing and editing elicits that sinking feeling at least a few times.

While it's one of the more entertaining, “The Happening” is probably the least imaginative of Shyamalan's thrillers. Like them or not, his previous efforts boasted an inventiveness that made them stand out. His latest would likely slip through the cracks with dozens of other forgettable scary flicks if it didn't have his controversial name on it. It may make you jump, it may even make you scream once or twice, but “The Happening” ultimately registers as being empty and flat. Its story feels too easy, and its attempt to meld the clashing elements of contemporary, global stressors and ironic violence is not so much clever, but uncomfortable. As I said when I reviewed “The Village” in 2004, Shyamalan seems to have milked his trademark spooks dry. In the subsequent four years, he's created two more films of a similar, shall I say, “nature,” and my opinion remains the same. Usually, when artists hit a dry spell, they try their best to reinvent themselves. If this director doesn't do so soon, viewers who can't help but watch his habitual wrecks may finally listen to their consciences and keep on driving.

Friday, June 13, 2008


Review: Kung Fu Panda
4 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

I am not a Jack Black fan. With his repetitive, hyperactive acting and literally large presence, I find the in-demand comic overbearing and abrasive. So you can imagine my state of perplexity when I emerged from not one, but two of his most recent films with a great, big smile on my face. The first was February's wonderfully whimsical Be Kind Rewind, in which Black plays the bumbling half of a pair of do-it-yourself video makers. The second is now DreamWorks Animation's action-packed Kung Fu Panda, which stars Black as the voice of, well, a panda who practices kung fu. After some careful analysis, I've found the answer to the conundrum: Jack Black's movies are best served with a Jack Black filter.

The filter in Rewind is not only the imagination of fanciful director Michel Gondry, but also co-star Mos Def, whose silky-smooth performance style is in such stark contrast to Black's, it's like listening to Pure Moods after head-banging to Metallica. In Panda, there's the more obvious buffer of animation; for although Black is certainly credited as the lead, his usual, full-on assault has been reduced to voice-only.

Or so, one would think. As Po the Panda, Black plays a portly, wise-cracking creature who refuses to let his detractors get him down. Surprisingly, it's not the actor in a fuzzy, black and white costume. It's the latest CG creation from the studio behind Shrek and Shark Tale (which also featured Black as the voice of a reluctant Great White born to a family of gilled gangsters). Po is not reluctant, but determined, held back only by the debilitating effects of his tremendous appetite. A devout fan of martial arts, he longs to meet his heroes, the Furious Five, who train under the wise Master Shifu in a palace high above the Valley of Peace where Po lives in his father's noodle shop. The Five (who, as the Crane, the Mantis, the Monkey, the Cobra and the Tiger, are the animal embodiments of ancient Chinese fighting styles) are awaiting the announcement of one of their group as the legendary Dragon Warrior, who is supposedly destined to help the valley live up to its name. When Po unexpectedly “lands” the position, he becomes the bouncy, hungry, new kid on the block, who eventually must learn the ways of his paladins in order to protect his homeland from the dreaded, reprobate leopard Tai Lung.

There are no human characters in Kung Fu Panda, no handsome prince who happens to talk to the animals. In pure, unadulterated, kid movie fashion, everyone is an animal. Pigs make up most of the valley's rabble, Po's father is a duck (a component that is teased with, but never given an age-of-adoption explanation), and Shifu (voiced with a stern charm by Dustin Hoffman) is some hybrid of a raccoon and a rat with Fu Manchu whiskers. Angelina Jolie (another Shark Tale alum) lends her smoky, sophisticated vocals to the Tiger, or, Tigress, which may speak for the bracket of karate-chopping girls, but did we really need another cartoon character backed by her sexy pipes? More suitable is “Arrested Development”'s David Cross as the ironically schleppy Crane, Lucy Liu as the sweet and sinewy Cobra (whoa, typecasting!), and a pitch-perfect Ian McShane as the villainous Tai Lung. Ferocious yet articulate, McShane breathes fire through his role, and shows what a fine actor can do with meaty voice work. I suppose the same could be argued for Black, who really was born to be Po, if playing oafy, animated panda bears is indeed something to which actors aspire.

The Asian influence found in Panda's design serves its atmosphere and environments well, giving them natural beauty and graphic flair in equal amounts. Petals flutter off of peach blossoms like windswept confetti, against a star-speckled sky with a moon that at one point illuminates the Furious Five in silhouette like a Zen Bat-Signal. The influence comes through in the movie's surprisingly high octane action sequences as well, as does that of previous martial arts-inspired flicks like The Matrix, Star Wars, Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yet Panda's quirky plot is original enough to bypass any rip-off accusations. Had anyone told me that the scraps on display here would incorporate the Wachowski Brothers' exhaustively parodied “bullet time” technique, I may have been inclined to bring a brown paper bag to the screening. But from gorgeous wide angles and with children's fantasy characters, the slow-mo shooting style is amusing (watch for a nifty chop stick duel and a pulse-quickening prison escape) and more acceptable than, say, the tacky fights in The Matrix Reloaded that appear to have been lifted from a Play Station console.

It's the humor in Panda that's lacking, which for a comedy, is not good news. Writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger do create a fun, dry, believable exchange between the unrefined Po and the erudite Shifu (who, on the topic of influences, could easily be the lovechild of Yoda and Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and the kids will love it nonetheless. But after the thirtieth fat joke, the shallowness of the screenwriting duo's bag of tricks becomes evident. And therein lies the issue of the movie's mixed messages. While Po's unlikely rise to heroism promotes perseverance and self-acceptance, it's a little too ardent in saying that it's okay to be unhealthily overweight. The last thing America's obesity-stricken youth needs is a green light to order another Happy Meal. Here's hoping they leave Kung Fu Panda ready to sign up for karate, and not to high-tail it to McDonald's.


Review: Sex and the City: The Movie
3.5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

Pour the Cosmos and get out the Manolo Blahniks, because the ladies of Sex and the City are back, finally making their long-awaited leap to the big screen after four years of rumored cast catfights and development standstills. Just like the hugely successful HBO series on which it's based, this surefire hit is filled with friendships, fashion, and fun. And while some of the chic panache that kept the show running for six seasons (from 1998 to 2004) has been lost in translation, the millions of adoring fans who will - and should - flock to the fabulous summer confection will be happy to find that SATC's sassy spirit has remained intact.

Written and directed by longtime SATC writer/producer/director Michael Patrick King, the movie also picks up four years after the series finale, which saw Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) finally end up in the arms of the enigmatic Mr. Big (Chris Noth, the original “McDreamy”), Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) beat breast cancer and settle in with her considerably younger boyfriend Smith (Jason Lewis), Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) realize her dream of motherhood by adopting a baby from China with husband Harry (Evan Handler), and Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) embrace family life in Brooklyn with son Brady and husband Steve (David Eigenberg). Viewers are given all that, and more, via a Cliff Notes-style opening credit sequence in which Carrie's trademark narration gets everyone up to speed. The writer/shoe aficionado's witty play-by-play also reveals that she's published two more books in the interim, and that a third is in the works. Charlotte and Miranda are both still enjoying domestic bliss, while continuing to meet their beloved girlfriend for lunches, cocktails, and shopping trips. Samantha has moved to L.A., where she's now using her PR skills to manage Smith's modeling/acting career, but still makes frequent visits to her home in the Big Apple.

Soon, it looks like wedding bells for Carrie and Big, the only logical next step and unanswered question in the story of SATC. But a premarital catastrophe throws the plot into a tailspin, which gives way to so many other plot lines that the film needs a running time of 148 minutes just to fit them all in. All is not well on the Hobbes home front, as Miranda finds herself possibly facing the single life once again. Charlotte announces that she'll finally be giving birth to a child of her own. Samantha is unhappy with monogamy, and has the food-as-sex-substitute pounds to show for it. The girls even head off to Mexico for a short while, and there's enough apartment-swapping to keep even the savviest New York real estate agent busy for weeks. Some may argue that a movie like this should “go big, or go home,” but to quote Carrie, it's often “bigger than Big,” and as they say in fashion, sometimes less is more.

One narrative thread - one that could use a little more development - introduces a new character in the form of Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, who plays Carrie's personal assistant, Louise. Bright-eyed and hopeful, Louise represents not only the black female demographic, but also the next generation of the modern American woman, which Sex and the City singlehandedly redefined.

Not to mention the fashion of the modern American woman, which this film takes no shame in giving top billing among its four leads. In the opening, Carrie concedes that “young women come to New York in search of the two L's: labels and love.” Such are the two most prominent themes of SATC, but here, the labels are so abundant and gratuitous that the love just barely sneaks through. Costume designer extraordinaire Patricia Field - fresh from her Oscar nomination for 2006's The Devil Wears Prada - is back to outfit the fab four, placing Carrie and company in some of the finest garments from across the world. It's great to look at, but big names like Vivienne Westwood, Louis Vuitton, and Christian Dior seem to have more screen time than Steve, Harry, Smith, and even Big himself, who's absent for most of the story. The result is an unnecessarily lightweight and overly materialistic tone; and the movie too often depicts Carrie as more of a mindless fashion junkie than a passionate thinker, a level to which the show never stooped. While seeing her shell out obscene amounts of money on designer shoes never ceased to thrill, the iconic character's ponderings, not her purchases, were what kept loyal, intelligent devotees coming back for more.

As always, the strongest moments are the ones that take place within the well-dressed quartet of friends, be them intimate or uproarious. Ever the authority on the importance of gal pals, SATC has long been as much about female camaraderie as it has about romance columns and couture. A hilarious sequence involving Charlotte and Mexico's undrinkable water supply will have audiences giddy with laughter, while another concerning a dispute between Carrie and Miranda may just bring them to tears. Much of that sisterhood's realism comes from the fact that Parker, Cattrall, Davis and Nixon seem to have these characters pumping through their bloodstreams. On-set quarrel rumors be damned: these four actresses appear so comfortable in the skin of their counterparts and among one another that it's hard to imagine any of them not thoroughly enjoying themselves. And if it is all an act, then all the more reason to applaud their talents. Together (again), they make Sex and the City: The Movie a delectable cherry on top of Sex and the City: The Series's smart and stylish sundae, despite its shortcomings.


Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
3 stars
(out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

When word broke that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were planning on reviving their wildly popular Indiana Jones franchise, the first thought that came to my mind was no doubt buzzing through the brains of fans everywhere: can 67-year-old Harrison Ford still hack it as the iconic hero? Rather than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, titles like Hall of the Golden Walker seemed unsettlingly more appropriate. Thankfully, Ford fits very nicely back into that famous fedora. It's the rest of this new installment that feels like it's been around the block one too many times.

Crystal Skull delivers just what one would expect from an Indiana Jones movie, which is precisely the problem. The formula that worked so well for Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 - and, arguably, for its sequels, The Temple of Doom (1984) and The Last Crusade (1989) – doesn't hold up so well in 2008, after so many other film successors have beaten the formula to death. Dr. Jones may be one of the originators of the cinematic outdoor adventure, but like all things that strive to sustain longevity, he has to be able to acclimate his trademark to changing times. Obvious plot elements and stock characters run through nearly every frame of Crystal Skull, moving it from comfortably familiar territory to tiresome, been-there-done-that land faster than the crack of a whip.

Set in 1957 - nearly twenty years after the events in Last Crusade - this new chapter unfolds during the height of the Cold War, pinning Indy against Soviets instead of Nazis. The film opens in a Southwest desert, where Jones and new partner Mac (Ray Winstone) have fallen into the hands of a Soviet army led by the evil Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett in “Natasha” mode). Spalko and her cohorts are in search of the Crystal Skull, a legendary object shrouded in mystery, which they hope to use to - duh - take over the world. Jones escapes their clutches, but returns to Marshall College (where he's still teaching – for now), to find more characters in pursuit of the Skull, like young greaser Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf). Mutt pitches to Indy his plan to find the idol, thus saving his kidnapped mother and honoring the professor who turned him on to the legend. From there, the two embark on a perilous journey that involves the usual creepy crawlies, cobweb-covered caves, and, oh yes, snakes!

Director Spielberg wisely stages the action to accommodate what can only be described as Ford's “age limitations.” Indy can still kick some serious butt, and the movie certainly isn't short on fight sequences, but many of them are shot so that Ford's naturally diminished physicality goes virtually unnoticed. As the new blood, LaBeouf's Mutt gets almost equal screen time, helping to carry the weight of the heroism and stepping up as a possible heir to the tomb-raiding throne. Karen Allen (who doesn't seem to have aged a day) reprises her role as Ark's Marion Ravenwood, only this time she's doubling as Mutt's mom under the name of Marion Williams (which eventually provides the answer to an only-too-obvious question). These are good characters, but David Koepp's script renders many of them cartoonish. In his first scene, Indiana is revealed the way any beloved character would be: a slow tilt, the rise of familiar music, a triumphant close-up. But once he begins to speak, he sounds more like a caricature of the action star than the man himself. And Blanchett's Spalko may as well have Boris standing alongside of her. It's understood that these movies are meant to be adventure comics come to life, but there are parts of Skull that feel as though some of that life has been sucked out.

The new elements that do pop up here are intended to refresh the series, but instead, feel oddly out of place. One of the foundational characteristics of the Indiana Jones films has been an earthly, archaeological theme, often tied with biblical and/or mythological legend. Not to give away any of its surprises (because there are very few), but Crystal Skull's narrative and the origins of its titular object are more Close Encounters than Raiders. Scientologists will likely rejoice, but devout fans of the franchise may feel like fish out of water.

Without recanting any criticisms, as a summer blockbuster, Indy 4 is a fun ride. It's family friendly, it's never boring, and it's bound to make a killing at the box-office. However, one can only enjoy the same ride so many times before it starts to feel stale. It's no secret that moviegoers are welcoming back Indiana Jones with open arms. Whether or not The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the way they had hoped to receive him is another matter.


Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
2 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

During one of the battles in Prince Caspian, the young King Peter (William Moseley) cries out “for Narnia!” just before charging into the fray with his army of forest friends and mythological monsters. My question is, “Who really cares?” The same thing that plagued 2005's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - the first installment of this childishly conceived franchise based on C.S. Lewis' books – is what damages its sequel: I don't believe for a second that this place exists, even as a fantasy world. Nor do I believe the characters who live in it, the leads of whom are played by the same batch of annoying kids from the first round (Moseley, Georgie Henley, Anna Popplewell, and Skandar Keynes). The Chronicles of Narnia put these British child stars on the map. Unfortunately, neither they nor returning writer/director Andrew Adamson have the chops to return the favor.

Prince Caspian opens with the Pevensie siblings (Peter, Lucy, Susan, and Edmund) back in England, where they've been living for a year after defeating the White Witch in their first Narnian adventure. They're called back to the magical land when the royal of the title (Ben Barnes) finds himself in trouble and sounds a charmed horn that's meant to summon Narnia's kings and queens of old (that's right – those darn kids). When they arrive, they discover that a thousand years have gone by, and Narnia has been left in ruins and nearly extinct (gone are those fuzzy beavers, the faun Mr. Tumnus, and – for the most part - even the regal lion Aslan, voiced by Liam Neeson). Meanwhile, a nearby kingdom of men with Spanish accents known as Talmarines are searching for Caspian, the heir to their throne who's run off in fear of his uncle, the evil King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto). Turns out the prince is destined to be Narnia's new leader, but before he can, the Pevensie's must help to take their cherished paradise back from the Talmarines and restore it to its former glory.

There's nothing wrong with Lewis' story. Like Wardrobe, it's a classic, beloved tale that's been enchanting readers for ages. The films draw crowds and sell tickets (lots of them – Caspian is already number one in worldwide box office sales after less than a week in release), but they don't possess the same magic as the books. One of the great things about Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was the director's obsessive attention to detail, which made J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth feel more historical than fantastical. The Narnia in Caspian doesn't seem as though it's endured centuries of age and neglect, but rather a two-month shooting schedule. Artifacts and ruins look more like props than ancient relics, and interiors of castles and caverns are more set than setting. Both Jackson and Adamson's films were shot in majestic New Zealand, which is probably about as close as one could get to Far, Far, Away on Earth. But Jackson's Middle Earth feels as if it were born from the country's soil, while Adamson's Narnia was simply brought in by forklift. Perhaps the director should stick to fare like Shrek, from which he got his start. That way, when his movies come off as cartoonish, at least it will have been intentional.

Much more action is on display in Caspian than was seen in Wardrobe, but getting there is an arduous journey. Crucial plot points are disclosed by actors as though they were reading from Lewis' yarn for the first time. How am I supposed to believe in this incredible story if I don't even feel that those telling it do? If you're going to speak to an audience about centaurs, talking badgers, and dancing trees, you'd better sell it, and sell it well. The only natural performers in the picture are Barnes (who should give on-set acting lessons to the aforementioned British foursome) and a rambunctious mouse (who's merely a voiced digital creation). Even seasoned, vertically-challenged actors like Peter Dinklage and Warwick Davis get lost behind their makeup as a pair of dwarves and fall flat. Wardrobe had the gift of Tilda Swinton in its corner as the titular witch (who also makes a very brief cameo here). Caspian wastes nearly every one of its assets.

Neeson's Aslan does appear for a short while, and once again, it's clear on what the art department was most closely focused. While the man-made locations in the film only look amazing from afar, cameras can get within point-blank range of this CG lion and still achieve the viewer sensation of being cage-side at a zoo. The golden-haired beast is a masterpiece of computer-based artistry, and one of the few things that makes these films special. Not much positive can be said of the other inhabitants of Narnia, such as minotaurs who look like stunt men in elaborate Halloween costumes. There is, at long last, an epic final battle sequence that features some feisty tree roots with alarming elasticity, a Poseidon-like water creature, and a nifty subterranean surprise. It makes up for the backyard skirmish that concluded the first chapter, but it doesn't change the fact that Caspian feels more like part of a Hallmark miniseries than a $100 million franchise.

Is the movie better than the first? Sure, I guess, but there was a lot to improve upon, a sad fact that hasn't changed much after volume two. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is already in pre-production, with a target release year of 2010. But when movies with this much potential can't even get their visuals right, who wants to come back for thirds?


Review: The Fall
4 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

Classic storytelling and dazzling contemporary visuals come together in The Fall, a new children's fantasy for adults from imaginative filmmaker Tarsem Singh (The Cell). The movie is being touted as having the support of directors David Fincher (Zodiac) and Spike Jonze (Adaptation.), both of whom got their start in music videos alongside their friend Tarsem (as he is preferably called). It could have just as easily been presented by Guillermo Del Toro, because at this point, the slightly dark fairy tale feels like it might just be this year's Pan's Labyrinth.

Set amidst the dawn of motion pictures in 1920's Los Angeles, The Fall stars Lee Pace (TV's “Pushing Daisies”) as Roy Walker, a movie stunt man who's hospitalized after a fall from a horse in an action sequence cost him the use of his legs. Literally adding insult to injury, Roy is also battling addiction and heartbreak (his sweetheart left him for the the film's lead star). Bed-ridden and depressed, he's got little to live for when he meets Alexandria (debut Romanian talent Catinca Untaru), a little girl who also suffered a fall, resulting in a broken arm. Seeing an opportunity in the impressionable child, Roy begins entrancing her with a fantastical adventure tale, in the hopes that she'll unknowingly assist in his suicide by stealing him morphine pills. He gets all Wizard of Oz as he incorporates hospital staff, fellow patients, Alexandria and even himself into his pirate/vigilante story of five bandits who collectively seek revenge on the aptly named Governor Odious, an evil dictator who wronged each of them in the past. Drawing from his own misfortunes (he makes his ex's new lover the villain) and information Alexandria discloses about her family, Roy's fable quickly becomes an allegory of the pair's lives, which, as the two continue to bond, grow increasingly dependent on one another.

Like the twisted fantasies of Vincent D'Onofrio's serial killer in The Cell, the real awe of The Fall comes from the images born from Roy's mind. They're taken to a much brighter place in this film, but Tarsem has not lost his touch in manipulating locations and colors to create set pieces that look like pristine installation art. He shot the film in 18 countries (including South Africa and India), subsequently making the setting of Roy's story a kaleidoscope of landscapes. There's a butterfly-shaped island surrounded by a sapphire-blue sea, open deserts of white and red sands (reminiscent of those inhabited by Jennifer Lopez in The Cell), palaces of gold and stone that feature towering staircases and a labyrinthine pit, and an approximately 80 ft., blood-red memorial tapestry that echoes the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

And Tarsem doesn't stop there. Everything from the costuming to the fight choreography in this picture is heightened to a visually arresting level and shot with a grace that's on par with the work of China's Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). One of the bandits, identified as Charles Darwin and played by the same actor who plays the hospital's orderly, is outfitted in a vivid fur coat that looks like it was stolen from Cruella DeVil after PETA members doused her in red paint. The story's princess, played by Justine Waddell (Dracula 2000) who doubles as the duty nurse, wears gowns and headdresses in designs that seem to have leaped from the subconscious (the costumes are by Oscar-winner Eiko Ishioka, who also dressed Lopez in The Cell). No expense is spared in putting the fancifully-suited characters into action, either. In one macabre yet ravishing scene, a warrior is neatly supported by the dozens of arrows by which he was slain. In another, hundreds of Odious' black-clad guards close in on the heroes like ants to a crumb. It's the kind of eye candy that makes one feel sorrowful pity for the blind.

Though it lags in its midsection, and the intermittent whiny-ness of Untaru's acting verges on irritating, the only real problem with the The Fall is its undefined target audience. It may be tailor-made for the buzzing imaginations of youngsters, but its hefty amount of bloodshed makes it very adults-only. With the inclusion of multiple impalements, a character's martyrdom via explosives, and enough plasma that it's even used as paint, Tarsem may have shot himself in the foot. For what will no doubt excite the senses of serious film buffs could also fuel the nightmares of unsuspecting children. Still, regardless of what different viewers take away from it, The Fall is an aesthetic feast told in a fail-safe, old-fashioned style that may as well have pinned the lead characters around a campfire. If it marks the second installment of some Tarsem franchise of exciting, stylistic films that start with “The” and end in “ll”, you can bet I'll be in line for the third.


Review: What Happens in Vegas
3.5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

I didn't have high hopes for What Happens in Vegas, a seemingly formulaic romantic comedy with a dreadfully cliched title to boot. At first glance, it's the kind of weak-minded movie that can usually be predicted end-to-end by simply watching the trailer. At second still is; but with the winning combination of Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher in the mix, this formula is surprisingly worth the gamble. Sexy, often laugh-out-loud funny, and completely irresistible, (heaven help me) this is some of the most fun I've had at the movies so far this year.

Not much of What Happens in Vegas actually happens in Vegas, but the gambling capital does play setting to the story's very - like it or not - American inciting incident. After Joy McNally (Diaz) is dumped by her fiance and Jack Fuller (Kutcher) is fired from his dad's woodworking business by the big man himself, both of the native New Yorkers get the idea to nurse their grudges by living it up in Sin City. A hotel mix-up accidentally puts the two strangers in the same room, a chance encounter that leads to an evening of bar-hopping, table dancing, and of course, matrimony. The morning after sees the newlyweds both regretting their inebriated vows, and soon the insults start flying even quicker than the booze-induced sparks. That poses a problem when Jack hits a $3 million jackpot on a slot machine with Joy's quarter, and she pulls the “what's mine is yours” card faster than you can say “prenuptial agreement.” Back in the Big Apple, the two bring their case before an only-in-the-movies, old-fashioned judge (Dennis Miller), who, jaded by couples' lax attitudes toward tying (and untying) the knot, freezes the winnings and sentences Jack and Joy to six months of monitored, “hard marriage,” during which they must try to make it work.

From there, the movie reveals itself to be made of 100% recycled celluloid, turning into The War of the Roses in The Money Pit. To appease the judge (and since her former lover gave her the boot), Joy moves into Jack's dirty bachelor-pad of an apartment, and the pair begin attending weekly, court-ordered couples counseling (with a psychologist played by the uber-reliable Queen Latifah, who phones it in). As advertised, Jack and Joy's rivalry is the main course of this familiar meal, but unlike Kutcher's similarly structured Just Married from 2003 (which proved disastrous), this one is easy to swallow. The antics don't really present anything new as far as cinematic battles of the sexes go (expect the usual traps, double-crosses, mixed emotions and slammed doors), but it's a blast watching these two starlets go at it. From the first night of debauchery (which, for a few frantic minutes, is a party not to be missed), to a hilarious crosstown race that takes place in cabs, buses, on skateboard and on foot, it's nearly impossible not to crack a smile or let out a belly laugh.

Much credit goes to Diaz, who proves once again why she's one of America's most cherished sweethearts. With each movie, the goofy, bubbly blonde emits such a contagious, fun-loving spirit, it's no wonder she's racked up nearly fifty various award nominations in less than ten years. Whether the project is prestigious (Being John Malkovich, Gangs of New York), ridiculous (the Charlie's Angels films) or even animated (the Shrek franchise), Diaz seems to thoroughly enjoy what she does more than anyone else in the business. She confirmed as much when she won Favorite Leading Lady at the 2007 People's Choice Awards, proclaiming: “I. Love. Making. Movies. I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it! It's the best job in the entire world.” She finds a kindred spirit in Kutcher, who may not possess her unyieldingly high level of enthusiasm, but definitely gives her a run for her poker chips.

TV alums Rob Corddry ("The Daily Show") and Lake Bell ("Boston Legal") give solid, comedic support as best friend characters, but this is Cameron and Ashton's show, made evident by the film's commercial model-esque poster which cements the actors' A-List status by dropping last names altogether. By most accounts, What Happens in Vegas is a mediocre movie at best. The direction by Tom Vaughan (Starter for 10) is nothing to write home about and the script is about as cookie-cutter as they come. Most critics will no doubt be bashing it in unison (and already have – it currently has a score of 29% on, but I say they're just hating on something that takes what little it has and wisely puts it into the hands of two camera-loving, crowd-pleasing movie stars. For that, What Happens in Vegas hits the jackpot.


Review: Mister Lonely
3.5 stars
(out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

I tend to shy away from films that could be defined as “art for the sake of art.” Too often, semi-talented filmmakers who strive for eccentricity presume that whatever is caught by their camera's lens becomes art in the recording process. Not so, in my opinion. Cinema is a medium of storytelling, meant to operate in conjunction with its imagery. That said, I'm also a sucker for gorgeous photography. Put that same camera into the hands of a true artist - with similar intentions but a singular vision - and the result can be something exceptional and transfixing to watch. Despite its unique subject matter, writer/director Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely doesn't have a whole lot to say thematically that hasn't been said before (and with greater effect). But it's so beautiful in its presentation that I couldn't help falling under its spell.

The movie opens with the iconic Bobby Vinton song of the title. It plays as a man is riding a mini-motorcycle around a track, dragging a plush monkey with wings behind him (is it the monkey on his back, or the angel on his shoulder?). The man is Michael Jackson, but not the one you and I know. He's a celebrity impersonator, played by Diego Luna (the Mexican Robert Mitchum of Y Tu Mama Tambien and Criminal). Michael is a lost soul living paycheck to paycheck performing in Paris, until a gig at an old folks' home leads him to meet a Marilyn Monroe look-alike played by two-time Oscar nominee Samantha Morton (In America, Sweet and Lowdown). Marilyn invites Michael to her seaside castle in the Scottish Highlands, where impersonators like themselves congregate whatever impersonators do.

Michael accepts the proposal, and when they arrive at the majestic, fog-swathed location (via rowboat), he meets an entire commune of people living as famous figures. There's the Pope, the Three Stooges, Madonna, the Queen of England, James Dean, Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn's husband Charlie Chaplin (French actor Denis Lavant), her daughter Shirley Temple (newcomer Esme Creed-Miles), and more. All of the characters go by and are called the names of their celebrity counterparts in the film, so there's no sense in saying that each is playing a role. They've all gathered to build a stage and put on spectacular, collaborative shows for an audience that may not even exist. The setting and events seem otherworldly and absurd, made all the more perplexing because they're inhabited by individuals pulled from popular culture. It's like a hippie acid trip populated by well-known faces of the twentieth century.

Running parallel to that narrative is a story about a convent of nuns deep in the jungles of Latin America who renew their faith in God when they discover that they can leap out of airplanes - sans parachutes - and land unscathed. Renowned auteur Werner Herzog makes a brilliantly hilarious appearance as the sisters' priest/pilot, who discovers their impossible abilities when one of them accidentally falls out of his private jet during a routine food drop over a needy nearby village and lives. The meaning and/or connection of the nun plot line to the rest of the movie is left entirely up to interpretation, but that should be expected from a film about a cult of impersonators living on a mountain top. Viewers will either be infuriated by the film's lack of cohesion, or embrace it as a legitimate artistic choice.

The highly controversial Korine (who also helmed Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, and wrote the scripts for Larry Clark's Kids and Ken Park) said in an interview that the side story was inspired by one of his dreams. His movie is dreamlike, alright. The random haphazardness of its jigsaw structure and its disturbing beauty are Lynchian in nature, reminiscent of the director's Mulholland Drive (right down to a scene with a red curtain and a flickering spotlight). Yet unlike David Lynch, and unlike Korine's previous work, Mister Lonely is neither dark nor foreboding. None of its characters appear to have any malicious intentions beyond the occasional selfish act. It's whimsical, funny, and happy and any discomfort arises only from the unfamiliarity of its many oddities. I'd describe it as Tim Burton's Big Fish for the even more art-house crowd.

The cinematography by Marcel Zyskind (who also shot Michael Winterbottom's Angelina Jolie vehicle A Might Heart from last year) is nothing less than breathtaking, and it steers the whole picture. There is little to take away from Mister Lonely as a text aside from it being a hallucinatory meditation on finding ones self, sprinkled with miraculous goings-on. It is understood that these people – Michael, in particular - cannot find peace with their own identities, so they take on those of others (most even display their subject's distinctive behaviors). There are also biblical references, from the nuns to the slaughtering of a herd of sheep, but none of it is so poignant as to cause any deep emotional response. It's the look of the film that achieves that, through vibrant color, handsome scenery, and exquisite composition. About halfway through, I gave up trying to decide what Mister Lonely was attempting to tell me, and reveled in what it was showing me. I submitted, drank the Kool-Aid, and joined the cult.


Review: Iron Man
4.5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

When casting the title role of Iron Man, director Jon Favreau surely had a handful of hot, leading males of the moment to choose from. It's a part that has the blockbuster potential of making or advancing any actor's career. Basically, it has the likes of Christian Bale or Hugh Jackman written all over it. It's a good thing those two stars were busy playing Batman and Wolverine, respectively, and Favreau opted to go with 43-year-old Robert Downey Jr. instead. The formerly controversial golden boy is dynamite here, as is the rest of this sleek and mature superhero flick.

Billionaire genius Tony Stark lives a fabulous life, indeed. He's the face and CEO of military weapons manufacturer Stark Industries, whose deadly products are ensuring that the U.S.A. remains the world's foremost superpower. He's got a hilltop resort of a home in Malibu that has state-of-the-art computer screens built into its beach front windows. He's slept with all twelve of last year's Maxim cover girls (well, eleven, if you're interested in technicalities), and the flight attendants on his private jet don't just serve cocktails, they dance on poles. Stark's fear-funded, posh existence takes a - dare I say - stark turn when Afghani terrorists kidnap him during the testing of a new missile in one of the country's deserts. In order to save his life (and to avoid the request of creating one of his killing machines for the enemy), Stark uses his technical wizardry to construct a bio-mechanical, bulletproof, metal suit, powered by an electromagnetic core that is also pumping his heart at a superhuman rate and keeping his shrapnel wounds at bay. He uses it to bust out of his spider hole prison, torch his enemies and the weapons they confiscated, and even rocket himself into the sky. Upon returning to the states, he streamlines his invention; and with his newfound state of mind, he attempts to redirect his aspirations into waging peace rather than fueling war.

Iron Man is an origin film, as are most of the best superhero pictures. Like Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, it humanizes its lead character by presenting him as an ordinary man capable of extraordinary things. What makes Tony Stark stand apart from Peter Parker and even Bruce Wayne, to a degree, is that he's a filthy rich, press-craving, hard-living prick. Sound familiar? It should. Downey Jr. is an actor who's overcome quite a bit, both personally and professionally, tackling substance abuse, jail time, and career slumps – all under an ever-watchful public eye. Now, he seems to be channeling all of his chemically dependent, skirt-chasing characteristics into his work. He recently played an alcoholic in both Zodiac and Charlie Bartlett, and his performance as Stark/Iron Man could even be viewed as a metaphor of his own life. Tragedy showed him the error of his ways, and he responded by using his talents for good rather than destruction. Thinking about it in that respect, it may be the best role of Downey Jr.'s career.

And he's got backup. One of the things that has plagued some of the entries in the recent onslaught of comic character movies is the casting of bright young things rather than seasoned artists (think Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth in Bryan Singer's good but lightweight Superman Returns). Favreau wisely took the road that is too often less traveled. All of his four leads are either Academy Award winners or nominees, boasting one win and seven nominations among them. There's Downey Jr., who received a nod for his lead role in Chaplin in 1992. There's also four-time nominee Jeff Bridges, who plays Stark's colleague-turned-enemy Obadiah Stane, and Terrence Howard, a 2005 Best Actor nominee for Hustle & Flow who shows up as Stark's confidant and government insider Jim Rhodes. Finally, 1998 Best Actress winner Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love) plays Pepper Potts, Starks loyal and well-paid assistant who, naturally, veers closer and closer into love interest territory.

The caliber of performers in Iron Man raises its quality level significantly, and those filmmakers interested in adapting the next superhero franchise should take note. The script - which according to iMDb, was penned by eight (!) people, including Mark Fergus, Hawk Otsby, and Marvel king Stan Lee – is also a cut above, shaping a fluid narrative that's as fantastic as it is believable. The visuals are truly awesome, giving Iron Man's suit-up processes and flights to multi-thousand-foot altitudes a visual pow that's unmatched by anything currently showing in theaters. If a day ever comes when Hollywood has run out of comic book films to bring to the screen, Iron Man may just stand tall as one of the best.


Review: Harold and Kumar: Escape from Guantanamo Bay
0 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

Harold and Kumar go to White Castle - that 2004 screwball comedy that sees two ethnic buddies seek out the elusive fast food joint to cure their munchies – was so absurd and off-the-wall that it actually worked. Lightning doesn't strike twice with this pointless sequel, a film that's so mind-stingingly awful, anyone who isn't as stoned as the lead characters will be furious before it even reaches the halfway point.

To delve into the plot doesn't even seem worth the keystrokes, but here'goes: the movie picks up right where the first one left off, after Harold (the Korean one, played by John Cho) and Kumar (the Indian one, played by Kal Penn) finally got their mini burgers, and returned home safely to New Jersey. This time, they're headed to Amsterdam for a truly uplifting vacation when Kumar's race and carry-on paraphernalia get them mistaken for terrorists and sent to Cuba's Guantanamo Bay prison. They escape, of course, but not undetected, and the senseless plot chronicles their mishaps as national security threats on the run.

To identify the two leads as “the Korean one” and “the Indian one” may sound like some serious racial profiling, but this movie is so rife with stereotypes that I felt the need to be blunt. The first time Kumar makes a post-9/11 joke about his Muslim heritage and appearance, it's funny. But when the bigot detective on the duo's tail repeatedly taunts black witnesses with grape soda and Jewish ones with bags of pennies, the joke gets real old real fast. As does the rest of the humor in this film, which ranges from misogynistic, to homophobic, to racist, to idiotic – sometimes all at once. Unlike the first installment, Harold and Kumar: Escape from Guantanamo Bay has no quirky element like the all-but-extinct White Castle restaurants working in its favor. It makes the foolish assumption that Harold and Kumar are revered enough to warrant a sequel in which they basically bumble around the country looking for their next hit, lay, or both. That may be the definition of quality entertainment for a roomful of drunk college dropouts, but not for the general public.

By the time a six foot bag of pot is personified as a sexual being, the embarrassment of simply being an audience member in this movie will have long set in. A number of people at the screening I attended got up and walked out, and had I actually paid for such tasteless garbage, not only would I have done the same, I would've demanded a refund. A complimentary bag of promotional junk was gifted to the viewers who were still around by the end of the premiere. I gladly took it, having felt entitled to a reward after sitting through all 102 minutes. Ideally, I would have preferred a sack of throwing tomatoes before the movie began.


Review: Forgetting Sarah Marshall
4 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

By now, word of actor Jason Segel's sporadic, spontaneous nudity in Forgetting Sarah Marshall has grown from whispers to headlines, showing up within or alongside practically every review of the romantic comedy, which raked in $17 million in its opening weekend alone. Since American audiences tend to be as prude as they are crude, Segel's full frontal fearlessness probably sold more than a few of those tickets. However, there are plenty of reasons to get out to see this box-office smash that have nothing to do with a few goofy – and ultimately, inconsequential - “shocker” moments.

Peter Bretter (Segel) is devastated when his girlfriend, renowned television actress Sarah Marshall (played by renowned television actress Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars), dumps him for another man after six long years of devotion. Desperate to end his post-break-up depression and quell the endless reminders of his ex, Peter decides to take a much-needed vacation to Hawaii. Disaster strikes upon his arrival, when he discovers Sarah staying at his very same resort – with her new lover. For the next four days, Peter faces the ultimate test of getting over his former sweetheart while her replacement romance is unavoidably dangled in his face. Along the way, one riotously uncomfortable situation after another presents itself, and if Peter can survive them all, he might just be able to find some new romance of his own and finally forget Sarah Marshall.

That's one heck of a blueprint for a five-star comedy, and Sarah Marshall is almost constructed to perfection. Written by Segel and produced by king of funny Judd Apatow, it's a fine addition to Apatow Productions' growing resume of hits, which already includes The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, and Knocked Up, in which Segel had a small, but scene-stealing role. Writing himself in as the star, Segel doesn't quite reach leading-man status, but then that's never been the aim of the Apatow gang's flicks anyway. Each features a schlubby, somewhat pitiful everyman, who must overcome the constraints of his ordinariness in order to steal the heart of an impossibly beautiful girl. Sarah Marshall spins that same formula in a fairly new direction by making the desirable female someone to get over rather than win over.

The irony is that in all of these movies (which are obviously targeted to the big-hearted-but-still-horny Regular Joe's of the world), the luster and talent of the women involved end up stealing the spotlight from the relatable lead character. In Virgin, Catherine Keener's seemingly effortless acting skills couldn't match the blaring volume of Steve Carrell's chest-waxing sexual novice, but they certainly raised the film's integrity level. In Knocked Up, Seth Rogen's lovably immature slacker got top billing, but the real star of the pregnancy comedy was Grey's Anatomy's Katherine Heigl. The gig turned the blonde bombshell into an A-lister, and launched her career well beyond the confines of Seattle Grace Hospital's OR.

Sarah Marshall is spiced up by two vibrant women, both of whom are more interesting and entertaining than Segel's comparatively boring – albeit sweet – Peter. There's Ms. Marshall herself, a role that will no doubt do the same for Bell as Knocked Up did for Heigl (she shows a smart maturity that's a long way's away from the Nancy Drew-ish antics of Ms. Mars). Then there's Rachel, the dark haired, caramel-skinned hotel manager played by another TV alum, That '70's Show's Mila Kunis. Kunis is even more of a standout, presenting a splendid naturalness that has “the next girl-next-door” written all over it. Her and Peter's adorable courtship is the picture's beating heart, but she's so gorgeous and magnetic that you almost begin to forget he's even there. There's one scene in which Sarah and Rachel size up one another and compliment one another's beauty. It should be in the trailer.

That about 90 percent of Forgetting Sarah Marshall takes place in Hawaii's picturesque tropical landscape shows just how vital a film's setting can be for its success. The sunny and sandy vistas do wonders for the picture, always feeding the viewer eye candy even when the intermittently stupefying humor starts to get stale. Whether it's Peter's surfing lesson with a stoner played by Paul Rudd, dinner at a beachside restaurant with a pathetic waiter played by Apatow favorite Jonah Hill, or cliff jumping into a crystal blue lagoon, director Nicholas Stoller does a terrific job of making the audience feel as though we too are on an island getaway. He doesn't always guide Segel's script and/or performance to such impressive destinations, and the movie too often narrows its demographic to the same lumpish ne'er-do-wells these comedies insist on profiling. When it gets out of its own way though, Forgetting Sarah Marshall scores big laughs, even if it's not quite the sum of its “parts”.


Review: Smart People
5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

Following my just-in-time arrival to a screening of Smart People, I had every intention of taking a much-needed restroom break at some point during the movie. It goes without saying that films are meant to be enjoyed in their entirety, but my accustomedness to this year's recent crop of mediocre fare tricked me into thinking I'd find an appropriate spot for an intermission. That opportunity never came, because scene by scene, this aptly titled joy of a comedy is wicked good – certainly too good to be interrupted by some pesky call of nature.

Written and directed by two first-timers (Mark Poirier and Noam Murro, respectively), Smart People is the story of a quartet of witty, well-spoken characters, set in and around Carnegie Mellon University. Lawrence Weatherhold (Dennis Quaid) is a CMU Lit. professor who, in the wake of his wife's death, has built up such contempt for his students and colleagues that he sets the clock ahead when a needy pupil shows up near the end of his office hours. Vanessa (Ellen Page) is Lawrence's overachieving 17-year-old daughter, a bitter, academic recluse who's inherited her father's intelligence and cynicism in equal amounts. Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) is Lawrence's freeloading adopted brother, who – in exchange for room and board – shows up to be Lawrence's chauffeur after a mild seizure deems him ineligible to operate a vehicle for six months. Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker) is the benevolent doctor who treats Lawrence for his head trauma, and just happens to be one of his former students (which resulted in her dropping an English major to pursue medicine). As Lawrence and Janet rekindle what began as an unconsummated teacher-student crush, Vanessa prepares for college and acts out against the world, and Chuck comfortably and aimlessly floats through mid-life, the film catches what can only be described as the very best moments.

This is a movie that is about, starring, and for its title. The sharpness of the wit within Poirier's hilarious script is matched only by its warmth of heart. His characters are crafted in a way that makes them both intimidating and accessible, which in effect renders them quite human. Lawrence is bitter and socially withdrawn, a not-so-attractive quality that leads to some truly funny scenarios when he must depend on those he's wronged in the past. Vanessa has no friends because she's too busy learning Spanish, attending Young Republicans meetings, and critiquing everything around her; and in a great third-act line exchange, her response to her father's inquiry about her unhappiness is: “Well, you're my role model.” The arrivals (or re-emergences, rather) of Janet and Chuck serve as these two rigid individuals' salvations from themselves. Janet helps Lawrence find the road back to love, yet knowing what's best for both of them, she leaves it to him to make the choice to walk down it. Chuck makes repeated attempts to coax Vanessa into loosening up, but once she does (with the aid of a little too much booze), he backs off and allows her to realize she needs to learn how to do so on her own. All four of these characters are highly intelligent in their own ways. What splits them in half is that Lawrence and Vanessa use facts and impressive vocabularies to define their lives, while Janet and Chuck simply use them to compliment theirs. The tagline for the film is “sometimes the smartest people have the most to learn,” and it's as appropriate as its name.

One of the very best things about Smart People is its perfect casting. The four characters are tailor-made for the actors who play them. Dennis Quaid's adequacy as a middle-aged thespian is often put to good use with father figure-type roles (see In Good Company), but rarely do they possess this much quirky color. Lawrence is a scruffy, downtrodden jerk, and Quaid's steely presence is an ideal fit. As Janet, Sarah Jessica Parker throws that terrible title of “World's Un-Sexiest Woman” back into the faces of the foolish editors of Maxim magazine by showing them what a smart and beautiful actress really looks like. She's as leggy as she is brainy, and she brings the same awkward intensity to this woman as she did to Carrie Bradshaw for years (and will again in theaters this May). Thomas Haden Church proves that a wise doofus truly can exist, making Chuck both a voice of reason and comic relief. And Ellen Page, fresh from her Oscar nomination, takes that same angsty energy she channeled into Juno MacGuff and redirects it to create the kind of person her former character would loathe. I'm not sure if Poirier penned his script with these specific stars in mind, but it would come as no surprise.

Smart People delivers a hefty amount of side-splitting one-liners, even though some of them are catered to the sharper crayons in the audience (let's just say one could could pick out the real smart people in my audience because of which jokes made them giggle). Still, regardless of your I.Q., it's hard to imagine anyone not enjoying the pleasure of these People's company. I enjoyed it so much that I nearly forgot my body's cry for help. When the lights came up in the theater, I left my seat and headed for the men's room – with a great, big smile.


Review: Planet B-Boy
5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

While an absurdist comedy like last year's Jamie Kennedy flop Kickin' it Old Skool may suggest that breakdancing died in the late '80's, director Benson Lee's rousing documentary Planet B-Boy confirms that the widely overlooked art form is alive and well. Spanning numerous countries around the world and presented in over six different languages, the film is like a UN conference with a turntable.

It opens with a history of the dance, along with the culture of hip-hop from which it was born. Going back as far as the late '60's, participants like original B-Boy (aka Beat Boy) Ken Swift recount the culture's formative years, and clear up its common misconceptions. According to Swift and co., hip-hop is very different from rap, composed of DJ's, MC's, graffiti artists, and of course, B-Boy's. It's revealed that the influences of breakdancing - the legitimacy of which is repeatedly stressed – included Kung Fu, gymnastics, and the unique moves of James Brown; and that the late '70's marked its official, widespread arrival. More than one guest makes mention of 1983's Flashdance, to which these guys flocked, not to see Jennifer Beals in off-the-shoulder sweats, but then-underground-legends like Swift and “Freeze” in curbside cameos. That movie's success ushered in what was a apparently a decade-long bout of breakdance exploitation, remedied in 1990 with the formation of a worldwide competition that would rightfully bring the head-spinning, windmill-ing form of expression back to its feet.

Battle of the Year (which appropriately, and perhaps unintentionally, bears the acronym B.O.Y.), an annual competition based out of Hanover, Germany, was that remedy, and it serves as a platform for the action of Lee's film. Founded by Germany's Thomas Hergenrother (who, as proof of the phenomenon's cultural diversity, is markedly white), the tournament attracts teams from over 18 countries each year. Lee introduces us to a handful of those teams during the strenuous months leading up to Battle of the Year '05, including '04 champions The Gamblerz from Korea, France's Phase-T, and USA's Knucklehead Zoo from Las Vegas. Clever transitions made up of moving maps and an animated subway let us follow these teams around the world, like an international monorail tagged with colorful graffiti. We learn not only the various dancing styles of these vastly different groups, but also the motivations of their members, back stories about family and friends, and the passion for the “sport” that unites them all. Lee obviously cannot show all of Battle of the Year's hopefuls, and like any non-fiction entertainment, individuals with the most charisma (like team Ichigeki's “Prince” of Japan) get the most play, but the representative sample gets a loud, clear point across.

A contagious energy spills out of the screen once these B-Boy's get moving. Whether it's the daring showmanship of Phase-T (which even has a young boy in their crew), the technical wizardry of The Gamblerz and Last for One (also from Korea), or the transcendent style of Ichigeki, one can't help but get caught up in the graceful insanity of these dancers. Their inspired, rhythmic movements succeed in showing what the founders were so intent on telling in the movie's earlier scenes: breakdancing is far from illegitimate. The finale in Germany unfolds the way most movies of this type usually do, be them documentary or narrative features. The teams we've come to know put all of their best efforts on the line, and square-off against one another in one last fight for the gold (which here, is primarily notoriety and future opportunities, as the miniscule prize money is distributed among the victors). But as someone observantly pointed out to me, one of the more impressive differences about Planet B-Boy is the lack of any and all coaching. These artist/athletes choreograph all of their own moves and shows, and invest their own time into it because they're doing what they love. Tie-breaking “battles” highlight the improvisational side of the competition, but the six-minute “performances” from each country truly showcase each crews' talents.

Planet B-Boy puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that breakdancing is a lot like fighting, although no opponent ever strikes another. The intensity is there, but the violence is not. This aspect remained with me long after the film ended. It opened up the possibility that Lee's work could not only educate and entertain, but perhaps inspire an urban youth to productively channel his or her energy into something artistic; something that has as much street cred. as gang violence, without any of the repercussions. If it achieves that inspiration (which it could), than it's not only a fine piece of entertainment, but a priceless one. Even if it didn't, it would still be one of this Spring's best movies.


Review: The Ruins
3 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

Chills aren't the only things that get under the skin in The Ruins, the screamy, squirmy adaptation of Scott Smith's hit 2006 novel of the same name. Smith penned the adventure-thriller's screenplay as well, his first since 1998's A Simple Plan - also based on one of his books - which earned him an Oscar nomination. His sophomore effort certainly won't do the same, but it will keep most viewers tangled up in its gruesome story, perhaps even making them a bit wary of their shrubbery when they return home.

Amy, Jeff, Stacy and Eric are four twenty-somethings vacationing in Mexico, who've seen little more than the poolside bar since they arrived. When a handsome stranger named Mathias clues the group in on a rumored archaeological dig site not far from their resort, the jaded tourists proceed to make one of the most fatal mistakes of this genre: they trust and follow the stranger. Turns out Mathias is the least of their problems, but he does lead them to a place that will present a great many more: an ancient Mayan temple hidden in the jungle (the path to which is riddled with the usual warning signs of cautious villagers and creepy children). As the palm trees part, and the vine-covered structure is revealed in a sandy clearing, the group is immediately surrounded by dozens of angry, armed natives who inexplicably refuse to let them retrace their steps. When one of the companions is gunned down as a warning, it's pretty clear that no one is going back to the pool anytime soon.

Mathias and the two young couples - not that it's too important, but that would be Amy (Donnie Darko's Jena Malone) and Jeff (The Deep End's Jonathan Tucker, all grown up), and Stacy (Lords of Dogtown's Laura Ramsey) and Eric (X-Men's Shawn Ashmore) – have no choice but to climb to the top of the ruins, which is where most of the film's gradually descending plot takes place. Amidst arguments about hope for rescue and means to escape, Mathias and co. soon realize that they're not the only animate objects on the pyramid. The twisted mass of thousands of vines reveals a sinister, carnivorous life, that creeps into people's wounds and mimics screams and cellphone rings via eerie floral vibrations. The audience discovers at the same pace as the characters that the men with guns below are quarantining the deadly plants and anyone/thing that comes in contact with them.

The Ruins doesn't really break any new ground as far as scary flicks starring pretty young things go, but it does do something interesting in the way it unfurls its narrative. There is no real “wow!” moment in this movie; no dramatic, inciting incident of insanity upon which all hell breaks loose. As soon as the group steps onto that temple's sand-covered lot, they're basically doomed, and the events that follow are just piled on top of one another as things get progressively worse. There is a scene in which Amy and Stacy learn the full, deadly reach of the vines' grasp in the temple's interior (thanks to some very unimpressive CG), but the moment is no surprise to the viewer at that point. A little more surprising may be the daring level of gore depicted. Characters lose limbs, see brains splatter, and when one's flesh and brain are literally infiltrated by the nasty plant life, let's just say she doesn't use will power to expel it.

Despite its overall mediocrity, The Ruins kept me tight in its grip right to the end. The acting is good, the tensions run high, and the desperation cuts as deep as the film's infectious vegetation. I have little doubt that the movie is a serious step down from the book, but it exceeds the expectations of what a Gen-X, by-the-numbers thriller generally delivers.


Review: Stop-Loss
1.5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

One of the many ways in which the war in Iraq has been compared to Vietnam is that (if and) when it finally does end, our nation is going to be inhabited by an entire legion of shell-shocked young people. Even now, thousands of men and women who have served on the front lines and watched friends die in a war they don’t necessarily believe in have returned home, never to be the same. Rather than respecting this fact, director/co-writer Kimberly Pierce’s sophomore feature Stop-Loss almost makes a parody of it by presenting flat, stereotypical characters who fail to convince us that they believe in much of anything.

Decorated sergeant Brandon King (Ryan Phillipe) returns to his generic Texas hometown after a particularly devastating tour of duty in Iraq claimed the lives of more than a few of the soldiers that served under him. Joining him in the homecoming are lifelong friends Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), both of whom conveniently fought in the same outfit. Although he’s viewed as a hero by the citizens of his Bible Belt stomping grounds, the incident overseas has left King with a heavy conscience. Things go even further south (no pun intended) when King is informed by his superiors that he’s been "stop-lossed," meaning an order came down from the President himself for King to return to battle against his will. Having decidedly seen enough of the hell of war, King (after roughing up some fellow soldiers, steeling a Jeep, and proclaiming “F*** the President” – a statement that no longer carries the ironic weight it may have a few years back), goes on the run and becomes a fugitive in the very nation for which he risked his life.

The rest of the movie consists of King and Steve’s fiancée Michelle (Charlize Theron clone Abbie Cornish) trekking from Texas to Washington, D.C. to call on the aid of a U.S. Senator who was present for King’s homecoming and whom King foolishly believes will sympathize with his cause. The pair encounters a fellow stop-loss-ee (?) who warns King of the hardships of going AWOL, a slain friend’s shattered family, and a group of thugs that push just the right buttons for King to release his post-war rage, but few obstacles that would make their run from the law feel even lawless, let alone suspenseful. What it does give them ample time for is the nourishment of a possible affair that is constantly on the edge of a “will they? or won’t they?” knife, King’s confession of the murder of an Iraqi child in an attempt to disarm his grenade-toting father (just in case seeing friends killed by IED’s and murdering dozens didn’t seem like enough to make one war-weary), and the consumption of enough tequila to knock out Courtney Love. When the ultimate decision (of whether King will obediently serve his country once more or stick to his newfound rebellious guns) finally comes, the power-punch moment is tarnished by the poorly drawn scenarios and character archetypes that paved its way.

Stop-Loss opens with brute strength. Pierce (who previously led Hilary Swank to her first Best Actress Oscar win with 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry) introduces her characters smack in the middle of combat in an intense first sequence that epitomizes the “show, don’t tell” credo of great cinema. Granted, it’s needlessly scrawled upon by hand-drawn graphics meant to commemorate the fallen, obnoxiously scored by a bombastic rap soundtrack, and distractingly intercut with homemade videos designed to look like those created by so many serving today (all of which are used so that this MTV Films production can hit its MTV-generation target). But the message still comes through with clarity. While it lacks the gritty authenticity of, say, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, Pierce’s depiction of these men at war clearly illustrates the horrors to which no one should ever want to return. Too bad that segment only lasts through the film’s credits.

Once these boys get home (which is where the majority of the plot unfolds), they become little more than cartoonish rednecks, who’d be better suited as material for Jeff Foxworthy’s "Blue Collar Comedy Tour" than as the subjects of a film with such hot-button issues as its focus. Unless someone forgot to inform me that all residents of Texas are uneducated, profanity-spouting simpletons, Pierce has painted them in an offensively clichéd light, right down to the speech about ribs and beer. While I have no doubt that she (and co-writer Mark Richard) had the best intentions in making this film, their execution is about as off the mark as George W. Bush’s exit strategy.

I had a lot of reservations prior to writing this review. Although I’m certainly not insensitive to the plight of those serving in the Middle East, I have little to no personal and/or emotional connection to it apart from a single friend who’s been there and a relative in the Air Force who doesn’t see much “action.” Initially, I felt as though this left me with a limited perspective, and that the soldiers who may identify with some of the film’s characters deserved to have the final word on its potency. However, the more I thought about it, if the movie is meant to educate the public about that very plight from which I feel disconnected, then I’m certainly a valid candidate to critique its success. And if it failed me, then it no doubt failed the soldiers in effect. Stop-Loss ends with some disturbing statistics of just how many men and women in the U.S. military have been dealt the title’s unfortunate hand, which a character in the movie refers to as a “draft after the fact.” Those few words on the screen had more of an effect on me than any of the blundering elements that preceded them.


Review: Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!
4 stars
(out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

That is my favorite popular quotation, and it was written by Dr. Seuss. Another Seuss saying, “A person is a person, no matter how small,” figures prominently into Horton Hears a Who!, one of the author’s most beloved books and the latest to be committed to film. Distributed by Pixar competitor Blue Sky Studios (whose claim to fame is the Oscar-nominated Ice Age franchise), the movie version is a great family entertainment that further solidifies the immortality of Seuss’ simple philosophies.

Unlike most people, I was not familiar with the story of Horton prior to seeing the film (the Seuss exposure of my childhood went no further than The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish – perhaps I was deprived). But to refresh the memories of the rest of the world, it takes place in the Jungle of Nool, an Eden-esque land where rotund elephant Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey) lives out his hedonistic existence. Horton’s carefree days of swan-diving off of palms into crystal pools and teaching his colorful friends about Nool’s many species of insects are interrupted when a minute “speck” is blown past his ear, emitting far more sound than just the whistle of the wind. With the aid of his acute, elephantine senses, Horton discovers the existence of an entire universe (“Whoville”) on the particle, via some very Seuss-ian acoustics. The realization charges Horton with the most important responsibility of his life: he must protect the inhabitants of Whoville (“Who’s”) from eradication at the hands of Nool’s closed-minded non-believers, led by the dictatorial Kangaroo (voiced by Carol Burnett).

The setting of the action in Horton is evenly split between the vibrant rainforest of Nool and the bustling microcosm of Whoville, a cloud-cloaked metropolis where The Mayor (voiced by Steve Carrell) presides over a legion of happy-go-lucky Who’s. The Mayor has the same dilemma as Horton: just as one cannot convince his forest friends that he’s in possession of an entire world of people on a dot, the other is unable to suade his townspeople (including his wife, son, and 96 daughters) into believing that a giant elephant in the sky holds the key to their salvation. The two are left to rely solely on one another, and venture down a road replete with potholes in the form of hired vulture assassins, treacherous ravine crossings, inclement weather, and some serious Who-quakes. Though they never meet, Horton and The Mayor form a trustful bond of friendship in the face of adversity, both social and environmental.

The environments in the movie appear as though they were lifted from the pages of the book and streamlined to accommodate our pixel-crisp, modern age. The characters within them look even better, as Blue Sky and directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino have finally taken the right approach in visualizing a Seuss world for the screen. Gone are the humans in head-to-toe fur costumes and mouse whiskers, a la Ron Howard’s hugely successful yet needlessly prolonged Grinch adaptation from 2000 and Mike Myers’ highly offensive embodiment of The Cat in the Hat from 2003. In their place are gorgeously detailed digital creations - watch out for the authenticity of Horton’s leathery skin, and the incredibly lifelike wingspan of Vlad the Vulture, in particular - voiced by some of the greatest comedic talents of our time. Along with Carrey, Carrell, and Burnett, Seth Rogen, Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, Jonah Hill, Isla Fisher and Jaime Pressly also lend their vocal skills to the project, giving each character a life that actually feels lived-in. If Seuss were alive to create the film versions of his books himself, they’d probably look something like this (save one, unnecessary anime/Pokemon sequence that achieves laughs, but little else).

Timeless human themes abound in all of Seuss’ work, yet it would seem none are as existential as the ones found in Horton Hears a Who!. Grown-up ideas of “how big is big?”, “what’s it all mean?”, and “why are we here?” are ingeniously infused into a story about an elephant and a bunch of little people, not unlike how the spirit of giving was sent home by way of the mishaps of a green, greedy sourpuss. While they may whiz by children’s heads like a dust particle in the wind, Seuss’ profound textual messages will make for fine, relevant material for generations to come.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Review: In Bruges
5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund

For every dozen or so perfunctory Rush Hour sequels that come down the pike, there are one or two savvy gems like In Bruges that turn the buddy movie on its head. Alexander Payne achieved it beautifully with his ripe road trip Sideways in 2004. Writer/director Shane Black (whose Lethal Weapon franchise is proud father to the Rush Hour films) did it in 2005 with his consistently fresh Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Now comes this brazenly irreverent Irish comedy, which despite all of its hard words and bullet holes, has a surprisingly warm, beating heart.

Written and directed by London native Martin McDonagh (who won an Oscar in 2006 for his short film Six Shooter), In Bruges (pronounced “broozh”) follows two Irish hit men (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) as they hole up in the Belgian tourist trap after a London hit gets botched. Ray (Farrell) is a beer-guzzling philistine with nothing but contempt for the medieval city, while Ken (Gleeson) is the experienced veteran who sees its history and architecture as ways to sharpen his cultural palette. You may think you know where this film is headed (a pair of unlikely pals come together under unfortunate circumstances, bond, and emerge as best buds and better people as a result), but In Bruges manages to trample nearly every convention laid in its path, and in effect steps up as something true and fiercely funny.

As they await phoned-in instructions from their hilariously profane boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Ray and Ken bide their time. Their itinerary consists of sightseeing, popping in the occasional pub, stumbling onto a movie set featuring a gorgeous local blonde and a testy American midget, having one riotous encounter after another, and in between, reflecting on both their friendship and their “profession.” It is in these moments that the film catches the viewer off-guard most pleasantly. The London job was rookie Ray’s first real assignment, and in the midst of the assassination, he inadvertently shot a child in the head. The incident has left him a suicide case with heavy sins to atone, while still trying desperately to retain the youthful, womanizing ways to which he’s accustomed. Ken is the shoulder on which he cries (often literally), and when Harry gives the order to make Ray the next target, Ken is forced to choose between loyalty and duty.

While I’ve never seen 2000’s military drama Tigerland, which reportedly put Colin Farrell on the map, I think it’s safe to say that In Bruges features the actor’s finest performance to date. If Oliver Stone’s poorly realized Alexander proved anything, it’s that Farrell is not a chameleonic performer. He’s a smoldering leading man, served best with a side of heart-rending emotional distress. In 2002’s Phone Booth (which, like Tigerland, was directed by the hit-or-miss Joel Schumacher) he singlehandedly elevated an average-at-best movie by expertly embodying a deeply flawed character. Here, the stakes are significantly higher, and Farrell ups his game significantly in response. And as Penelope Cruz showed with her Oscar nominated turn in 2006’s Volver, some foreign actors are just naturally more effective when working in their native tongue. As Irishman Ray, the blood-in, blood-out Irish Farrell displays more comfort and honesty than he has in any of his previous roles. He creates a character both likable and pitiful, and in tearful scenes, the desperation in his expressive eyes is painfully human.

McDonagh is graciously aware of the fact that if you have interesting characters playing out an interesting story in a truly interesting place, most of your work is already done for you. That his direction is air-tight, his actors are top-notch, and his scenarios are both entertaining and profound, become added flair to the ensemble. Though it serves as the punch line for probably 60 percent of the film’s jokes, Bruges is an undeniably beautiful place that looks magical on screen. To echo an observation made by the maliciously romantic Harry, “it’s like a fairy tale land.” Ancient structures, winding canals, and cobblestone streets highlight its picturesque appeal, and the ways in which it’s constantly referenced and mocked in the script afford the film a delightful, reflexive irony. And as most great vacations reveal of most great destinations, the colorful, often seedy inhabitants of the city are half the fun.

In Bruges is great stuff, frame by frame. It takes hardly a single false step, is often alarmingly and welcomingly intimate, and still doesn’t skimp on action and grit. It succeeds in making you admire every character, all of whom are, fundamentally, very bad people. It’s smart enough to be recognized as a European film, while engaging enough to attract audiences in the States. Unfortunately, it will likely be forgotten by year’s end, but it’s the best movie I’ve seen so far in 2008.