Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Shrek (2001) started a new trend in movies. It operated in the same world as classic animation such as Cindarella (1950), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) with beautiful princesses who are sweet and caring, with handsome, brave princes seeking to slay ogres and dragons in order to rescue the princess to be their one true love, and so forth. It just switched things up to where the ogre was the hero and the prince was the villain, the princess was physically beautiful but inwardly an ogre, and ogres were not exactly as presented.

Shrek 2 (2004), being a sequel, expanded on the trend but within the same franchise. Meanwhile, the purveyors of the abominably bad Happily N'Ever After (2007) took it one step further. They advertised their flick as "what if the villains actually won", made the heroine ugly, her beau into an ugly, unlikable castle servant, and the women into the rescuers. Great concept, horrible execution. Oh, and...the bad guys end up losing.

Then Shrek the Third (2007) followed up with a stinker that was closer to the Happily N'Ever After franchise than to the Shrek franchise. The first two Shrek adventures certainly mocked classic Disney flicks but it did it in a way that was funny, charming, and clearly felt a certain affinity for them. The last adventure and Happily never managed to skewer the fable conventions while still being charming.

But with all the "make the bad guys good" stuff going on, it is certainly no shock that Disney would take a shot at it. The result is Enchanted (2007), a twisted Disney flick that has many nods to its own history, the history of cinema in general, and yes, even to recent critiques.

It opened in a manner reminiscent of Shrek with a voice over as a beautifully decorated fable book was opened and turned. Then it went into an over the top, extra-cheesy opening scene of the (soon to be) princess Giselle (Amy Adams) singing a song as the animals surrounded her and contributed. They just amped up the number and kind of animals.

The early animation and rather rapid story have Prince Edward (James Marsden) defeating an evil troll (Fred Tatasciore) who was egged on by Nathaniel (Timothy Spall) who was set to keep Prince Edward from ever encountering Giselle by his evil step-mother Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon). As a result, he and Giselle are to be wed the next day.

Queen Narissa takes a hand, turning into a clone of the evil hag from Sleeping Beauty (1959) and offering the apple from that flick. It is a nice nod to their movies of yore. The result is Giselle arriving in the real world of New York. Things are not smooth for her there as she encounters people who are "not nice" such as the bum who steals her crown. Eventually she encounters divorce lawyer Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) and his daughter Morgan Philip (Rachel Covey).

Robert is a cynical, cold, logical, unemotional man with a warm spot for his daughter. He also has a spot for people in trouble. He is currently planning to propose to his girlfriend, the ugly, unlikable Nancy Tremaine (Idina Menzel). One suspects the ugly, hawk nose, harsh facial lines, and icy demeanor are deliberate since later her appearance is softened and, while never beautiful, she is at least presented as attractive. Thus we are shown that in the real world logic trumps emotion. You don't have to be a handsome prince, a beautiful princess, or even have any emotional attachment to have a match.

There are then 2 movie-stealing scenes. In the first Giselle summons her animal friends to clean the apartment. The Mary Poppins (1964) -like cleaning scene as she sings and the animals clean is hilarious...and made more so by the cleaners being crotch licking rats, cockroaches, and a pigeon that keeps lousing things up.

The other is when Giselle tries to show Robert that to have instantaneous love you just need a love duet. The live action production number would have brought tears of joy to the eyes of the great choreographer Busby Berkeley. It was charming, intelligent, funny, and well choreographed. It was brilliant. That scene alone made the movie for me.

So did the cameo by Edgar Bergen and Mortimer Snerd who, in a blatant foreshadowing of Nathaniel going good, as Nathaniel goes out the door says, "I like happy endings, Mr. Bergen".

Good thing because after a brilliant start and middle to the movie, the end gets stupid. Disappointed with Nathaniels' repeated failures in trying to poison Giselle, Queen Narissa arrives on the scene.

She turns into a dragon, they reference King Kong (1933) as the flying dragon inexplicably climbs to the top of the Empire State Building, this time with Robert in hand. Dragon plunges to death, Robet & Giselle marry and stay in New York, Nancy and Edward marry and live in Andalasia, typical happy ending.

Along the way there was a lot of great stuff. The Prince is hilarious as he leaps around in classic rescue type actions, manages to rent hotel rooms without money, slays a bus, and, in the greatest line in movies this year, tells Robert and Morgan, "Thanks for keeping her safe, peasants." I will be stealing that line.

The movie also has a very positive message. In an era where a spate of recent movies (The Break-up (2006), The Heart Break Kid (2007), etc. have celebrated relationships ending or even outright adultery (remember that line in The Heart Break Kid where Eddie (Ben Stiller) says something along the lines of "Since I met her I have never cheated on her with my wife"?), Enchanted goes the other way.

The divorcing couple, Phoebe (Tonya Pinkins) and Ethan (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) Banks not only reconcile, they point out "Everyone has problems. But there is no point to throwing out the good because of some bad" or something along that line. They reconcile and work on building a marriage instead of letting trouble turn it into a throw-away.

Overall, this movie was upbeat, entertaining, and managed to pull it all together, albeit perhaps a bit cheesy at points. And, though it might be a bit embarrassing to admit this, it is worth seeing just for the music and dance scene with the song about How to Tell Her You Love Her or something similar.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

On foreign films

I enjoy a good film as much as the next person and have been known to take in an independent film or two as well. Sometimes they are good...other times they are not. Yet over and over you here an elitist crowd decry the entertainment factor of Hollywood pictures...and the closer it is to a blockbuster, the worse they think the film was. Yeah, I deliberately used the word film just to irritate them.

You see, to these elitists, a film is a brilliant, deep movie with superior dialogue, acting, directing, plot, and whatever else goes into making a moving picture. A movie is merely some poor dialogue, bad acting, and (hear the sneer in my voice as I say this word) commercialized bit of celluloid trash.

The worst of these are blockbusters. To hear these elitists speak of a blockbuster, one calls to mind a picture so bad that even Mystery Science Theatre 3K wouldn't bother to mock it. To hear them discuss it, the dialogue barely exceeds the banal level of three year olds, the plot is thinner than Kate Moss on a diet, and the directing is barely competent at best. Meanwhile, millions upon millions of people who fail to see the entertainment value in an obtuse bit of celluloid such as alleged master Fellini's 8-1/2 (1963) flock to see something like Spiderman 3 (2007) in record breaking numbers.

It is not that I object to people enjoying unusual fare. There was clearly an audience for Pan's Labyrinth (2006), even if it was not as large as the blockbusters. But the sheer audacity of a small percent of people insisting they have better taste than the masses has always irked me and I have long struggled to figure out why.

Fortunately, Joe Queenan of Movieline Magazine wrote an essay in which he did a great job of verbalizing it. In his essay A Foreign Affair (in the book Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler, New York, 2000) he has the following things to say about foreign films which I have found, with a few exceptions, also apply to most independent films.

"At several points in this stilted, incoherent, pretentious film..." (p. 243)

"I'd completely forgotten that for foreign-film buffs, attending these screenings was a nigh-on religious experience, where everyone sat transfixed, exhibiting no visible reaction to what was transpiring on the screen, even when the dialogue was completely ridiculous." (p. 244)

"They were, for the most part, mediocre-to-bad, low-budget movies that happened to have been made in a foreign country. There was nothing special about them. There was nothing awe-inspiring about them. They were dull. They were predictable. They sucked." (p. 246)

To be sure, from time to time there is a good independent or foreign film that stands out from the crowd, that entertains and amazes. But far more often, you get something that is slower (not necessarily a bad thing) paced, with characters who seem deeper because they run different thought processes than our standard characters, but once you have seen them a few times they are no deeper or more intellectual than the fare already available.

It is well past time to continue insisting films with no audience are better because most people find no entertainment in them and admit sometimes it is just fun to watch a big-budget, big-thrill flick.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fred Claus

Vince Vaughn has developed a laid back, smart-aleck character that is self-indulgent, yet with a caring side that always shines through. He seldom expends much effort, occasionally mis-treats other people, but always has that little something in him that draws people to him despite...or perhaps because of...his flaws. He played this character in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004), The Break-up (2006), Old School (2003), and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005). Now you can add Fred Claus (2007) to that list.

Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn) is the oldest son of Papa Claus (Trevor Peacock) and Mama Claus (Kathy Bates). He first loves, then becomes jealous of his "saintly" brother Nick "Santa" Claus (Paul Giamatti) as everything he does is topped by his younger brother.

They grow apart and several years later Fred makes apparently a nice living by repossessing things from people...at times unlikely things such as a 56" plasma television from a young girl's room in a poor suburb of Chicago while planning to place a casino across the street from the mercantile exchange. Yet he shows his tender, good-guy side by caring for orphan boy Slam (Bobb'e J. Thompson) even as he stands up his girlfriend Wanda (Rachel Weisz), forgetting her birthday, breaking promises, and just generally treating her as a second class citizen.

He gets in trouble when he creates a fake charity to fund his casino location purchase and is chased down by multiple Salvation Army Santa's. To get out of trouble he calls on his brother Nick who, in return for bailing him out and loaning him the needed money insists that Fred work for Nick until a few days before Christmas.

Of course, there has to be a villain of the piece which is efficiency expert Clyde (Kevin Spacey). He hates Christmas and is there to shut it down by filing a bad report with the nameless, faceless Board.

The battle between the churlish Fred and his kindly, helpful brother Nick gives him 2 of the three strikes Clyde needs (Clyde himself provides the third) to shut down the Santa operation.

Of course, this is a Christmas movie so (spoiler ?!? alert) Fred has a change of heart, Nick convinces Clyde to help, and heroic measures save the day, giving everyone the best Christmas ever while rescuing the relationships of Fred & Nick, Fred & his parents, and Fred & Wanda.

The set is eerily reminiscent of The Santa Clause II. I would be very surprised if the North Pole scenes were not filmed on the same set as it certainly seemed blatantly cribbed from that franchise. With that said, it is beautifully imagined and delivered. The camera work is nice.

The story is okay...nothing particularly innovative or original but certainly enjoyable. It has several feel-good elements and a humorous scene where Frank Stallone, Roger Clinton, and Stephen Baldwin riff on their roles as the older, less successful brothers of Sylvester Stallone, Bill Clinton, and Alec Baldwin and unintentionally convince Fred to change his ways, but it is no It's A Wonderful Life (1946)...or, for that matter, even Elf (2003).

The acting is serviceable, nothing special. Kevin Kline channels the great Jack Benny for his look as Clyde but never brings the warmth to it that underlay the Jack Benny character. Giamatti does a decent job of bringing life to a slightly different take on Santa but Miranda Richardson is cold and a little bit mean as Annette Claus, Santa's wife.

The special effects that turn average height people into a bunch of elves is a nice touch but not enough to make this a classic.

Overall, it is a mildly sweet movie with a few charming moments, but no laugh out loud classic scenes.

Monday, November 12, 2007

American Gangster by Ironman Al

American Gangster
The weasel needs to write his reviews closer to the time he sees the
movie so they are actually correct. I'll try to fix the problems with
his review in my review.

So I went into the movie expecting a little more action than I got. The
movie was a typical drama length at 2:40ish. Denzel kills a unknown man
ruthlessly by setting him on fire and shooting him. Crowe's cop
character bashes into an apartment and beats the crap out of guy on what
appears to be a routine summons. I'm thinking to myself we're on the
way to a classic Scarface like movie. All of sudden it slows way down.
Denzel's mentor and head gangster of Harlem dies as he's preaching about
corporations. I guess it was trying to tell us how Denzel's new
approach to drugs was set into his mind. Denzel ends up going straight
to Thailand to retrieve pure heroin which turns a nice blue when a
reagent is applied hence his product's name Blue Magic. He starts his
drug operation just as Crowe is set to head up a new drug enforcement
agency in New Jersey.

There's tons of plot that happens and very little action over the next
part of the movie. We don't see any good action until Denzel shows his
brothers how he deals with his problems by shooting a rival gangster
point blank in the head in the middle of the day on the street. He gets
all of his younger brothers to help with distribution of his product.
He conducts himself as a CEO business man and tries to tell his brothers
not to be flashy and draw attention to himself. In a weakness for his
finance, he goes to see the Ali/Fraizer fight in a full fur coat and
hat. This is where he draws the attention of Crowe as his seats are
better than the head of the mob family. This one mistake is the start
of his undoing. He finds out that cops good and corrupt know who he is
and immediately burns his fur coat and hat.

Again, the movie moves slowly with the only violence being key to the
story. In other words, there is really no unnecessary violence in the
movie. It's all key pieces to the story. He gets pissed about the his
brother's driver shooting someone in the leg during a party with all
kinds of politicians and celebrities. He ends up beating the guy
intensely and telling everyone to leave. He tells his brother to fire
this driver but his brother doesn't listen. The driver is turned by the
Crowe and ends up being Lucas's undoing.

On Thanksgiving, he has to inform one of the key drug dealers about his
policy not to allow anyone to mess with his product. On the way back as
his brother is driving, the main crooked cop in the story pulls him
over. His brother is carrying a bunch of the product in the trunk which
subsequently gets taken by the cop. Denzel immediately beats the crap
out of his brother to show his displeasure.

At least at the end, we get a nice shootout as Crowe takes down a big
distribution center for Lucas's last drug shipment. This was pretty
much the highlight of violence. I thought the end of the movie with
Lucas's describing to Crowe the entire crooked cop hierarchy as a real
letdown. At least we got some real facts as the movie closed with Lucas
getting out of jail after 15 years in 1991.

All in all it was good movie but it could've been great.

by Ironman Al

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Bee Movie

One wonders how something titled The Bee Movie (2007) could receive any grade other than a B. In fact, that is one of the jokes in the movie. But I will resist it.

The Bee Movie first got my attention about a year ago when I saw quite possible the worst preview in the history of cinema...and I saw previews for Vanilla Sky (2001) which, coincidentally, is perhaps the worst movie in the last 50 years. And that includes a raft of Kevin Costner and Keanu Reeves vehicles, for the cinema snobs...

In the preview Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock put on ridiculous insect costumes and did some slapstick material on a windshield. It was not funny, it was not entertaining...it was actually so stupid that on the preview rating system of both the Goose and I it received a "No interest whatsoever".

The second preview was almost as bad.

The third preview saved it and we ended up seeing it, though there is an open question whether we saw it because we thought it might be good or because my back hurt too much to want to see cards, Tuesday is free popcorn day, and we could dodge major traffic. I put my money on the popcorn/traffic avoidance motivation, personally.

It started out promisingly with a few good jokes such as three days of high school being awkward.

Then there is the pretty funny dream sequence where Barry B. Benson (Jerry Seinfeld), while drowning in honey, fantasizes about a picnic with Vanessa Bloome (Renée Zellweger).

There is great potential in the movie and some is realized during the courtroom scenes where Barry comes up against Layton T. Montgomery (John Goodman), a blowhard attorney set on defending the honey companies.

The movie was clearly made by people with an agenda and the courtroom scenes make this abundantly clear. Heaven help the person who does not think animals are at the least equal to human beings on the importance scale because writers Jerry Seinfeld, Spike Feresten, Barry Marder, and Andy Robin and directors Steve Hickner and Simon J. Smith will not.

In the end, and I assume this spoils nothing, the "natural order" is returned, albeit with improved roles for the worker bees and everyone ends up happy...except Vanessa's clueless blowhard ex-boyfriend Ken (Patrick Warburton).

The animation is beautifully done. There are some amazing shadows and reflections that show just how far animated pictures have come since Steamboat Willie (1928)....or even since the gorgeously done The Lion King (1994).

The plot is nice with a couple of interesting twists, but nothing too surprising.

The dialogue is okay. Several clever fourth wall asides are probably the best jokes...for example, on their way to work Barry and Adam Flayman (Mathew Broderick) take a loop that shoots them airborne, after which they comment, "It is nice of them to incorporate a thrill ride on our way to work" in a none-too-subtle jab at rides based on movies, which are plentiful. And Seinfeld has worked in a couple of one-liners that call back his observational humor.

But in the end, everything doesn't work as well as you would think it would. It is not as funny as you would expect...though the Larry King sequence stole the show and almost moved my rating up an entire notch...and tries to do too many things so never does any of them well.

It is a diverting hour and change, but nothing you should pay full price to see.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

American Gangster

American Gangster (2007) is one of the infamous "Based on a True Story" line of movies. You always have to be careful when you watch something "based" on a true story. They range from fairly highly accurate...say, Gridiron Gang (2006) to the positively ludicrous...for example, JFK (1991). Even with the highly accurate there are certain liberties taken to make the movie more entertaining.

In this case, cops such as Ed Jones complain they were more to credit for bringing down Lucas than Richie Roberts. But it makes a better story the way it was portrayed.

Gangster starts out by letting you know that Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is no angel. In the opening scene he has a Hispanic rival tied to a chair. He douses him with gasoline, lights him on fire, then shoots him in the head as he burns.

Juxtaposed against this are the questionable legal tactics of Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) and his partner as they strong-arm their way into a flophouse, get information, perform a search and seizure that is illegal due to the lack of warrant in hand...and then turn in the money.

This sets them apart from the other cops. Only Roberts is willing to turn in money...the corruption throughout the New York Police Department is rampant and other cops hate him for it.

Meanwhile, Bumpy Johnson (reportedly an uncredited Clarence Williams III) teaches him how to run a successful crime business.

After Bumpy dies Lucas finds he is shut out of all Bumpy's businesses. He quietly watches and studies what to do while Roberts loses his partner and is moved to a Federal drug prevention team.

Inexorably event move Lucas to find he can import high-grade heroin from Vietnam under cover of the Vietnam War. To help his organization, he brings in his family members out of the Carolinas.

Meanwhile, Robert's life is falling apart. He is losing custody of his son due to his bad companions and habit of sleeping with...well, every girl he comes across, apparently. Yet through it all he doggedly pursues whoever is importing the Blue Magic (the name Lucas gave his high-grade, low-price heroin).

He also runs into trouble with crooked cops who are protecting the drug trade in return for hefty cash payments and appropriations.

During this period, Roberts makes an interesting statement in which he alleges the drug trade could be stopped but there is no interest in stopping it because A) it employs too many people....judges, cops, prison guards, medical personnel, politicians....and B) because too many crooked cops are getting rich from the trade.

This is backed up when crooked cop Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) comes into Roberts' office and tells him they need to protect the cash cow that is Lucas.

Lucas, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly volatile and brutal. At one point a rival who demanded 20% is shot in the head in the middle of the street. Later, in a party at the Lucas domicile, a drugged out accomplice is shot in the leg. In revenge for the shooting, Lucas smashes the shooter's head in with the piano lid.

When he is shook down by Trupo and there are drugs in the car, he responds by beating his driver...who subsequently disappears...to a pulp. He is a vicious man.

This viciousness is somewhat redeemed by his habit of giving out Thanksgiving turkeys. His largess is clearly intended by director Ridley Scott to instill a certain amount of empathy for Lucas, as are the stories of police abuse in his youth and the large number of corrupt police he encounters.

It is enhanced by the juxtaposition of images from the Vietnam War that reflect the changing nature of the battle between Lucas and Roberts.

Slowly but surely Roberts begins realizing it is Lucas, not some mystery crime family, bringing in the heroin. Through a fortuitous set of circumstances, he turns a family member who gives up Lucas. They catch the dope and have their case built.

In return for a reduced sentence, Lucas then rolls over on everybody...including the cops. In one of the largest corruption cases in U.S. history, dozens of cops we convicted as a result of Lucas and his testimony and the work of Roberts and his crew.

The movie is darkly lit throughout. The characters are likable, you can feel some compassion both for Lucas and for Roberts...yet the not infrequent showings of junkies also shows the horrible price people pay for using heroin, thus counterfeiting the positive portrayals. At the end, you realize Lucas deserves prison time and are quite happy to see the corrupt cops being led away as well.

The acting is, as would be expected from Washington and Crowe, excellent. You never feel like you are watching actors, you feel like you are watching "real people" behave as they probably did.

It is a story that has all the elements of a great movie. But it somehow just...misses. It is an entertaining movie but nothing you will feel like you need to see again and again.