Saturday, January 15, 2011

At The Movies (VII)

movie reviews

The action comedy genre fails to deliver, while Pixar continues to excel

Date Night
Starring: Steve Carell, Tina Fey, James Franco, Taraji P. Henson, Mila Kunis, Common, Mark Wahlberg, Leighton Meester, and Kristen Wiig
Director: Shawn Levy
Two of television’s most loved comedians, Steve Carell and Tina Fey, unite for Date Night, the story of a bored married couple whose date night leads them to an unexpected adventure due to a case of mistaken identity. The action comedy sphere has churned out a number of flicks during the last few months with releases varying from atrocious (see Killers) to mediocre (see Knight and Day), and despite the presence of a highly talented cast, Date Night is no different. There just isn’t much the actors can do when the plot is so flimsy and the characters so damn dull, and despite their best efforts this dullness takes over the whole film. Date Night does not do justice to its cast; not just the leads, but also the very impressive supporting cast could have been better utilized. And while it isn’t exactly awful, it isn’t the hilarious caper that you’d expect it to be, which makes it quite disappointing.

Despicable Me
Voice cast: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, and Elsie Fisher
Director: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Overflowing with cuteness and forced sentiments, Despicable Me chronicles the tale of Gru (Steve Carell) who wants to be the world’s greatest villain but faces competition from his young nemesis Vector (Jason Segel); aided by his scientist sidekick (Russell Brand) and a swarm of adorable little yellow minions, Gru comes up with a scheme to steal the moon, for which he needs the help of three little orphan girls. Tired jokes and unoriginal wisecracks ensue, as the film’s limited concept is stretched to a full-length feature, despite the fact that there isn’t nearly enough material (borrowed or otherwise) to sustain a 95-minute film; the pace does pick up at the end, but only just. The film tries desperately to be cutesy and likable, but it lacks the passion and creative spark that make a movie exciting and memorable. Kids (and adults with low expectations) will enjoy it, but ultimately, it just isn’t as funny (or fun) as it would like to be, and compared to the other recent animated releases, Despicable Me is a letdown.

Easy A
Starring: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Cam Gigandet, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm McDowell, Alyson Michalka, and Stanley Tucci
Director: Will Gluck
After a little white lie turns into a smearing rumour, high school student Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) decides to tell her side of the story in Easy A, a movie inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. In the downward spiralling genre of teen comedies, Easy A comes off as a refreshing wit-driven tale which despite suffering from some of the same trivialities that you’re likely to expect from such films still manages to be fresh and entertaining. The movie’s biggest strength is the charming Emma Stone, who brilliantly carries the movie with remarkable energy and flair; her performance keeps the viewer from questioning the otherwise obvious character incongruities and somewhat contrived wit. The supporting cast is brilliant but seems underused. The movie is funny, engaging, and even offers the best use that anyone will ever make of a Natasha Bedingfield song. Overall, Easy A is a great showcase of Emma Stone’s talent, and is way better than most of the other teen movies that are currently sinking the vessel; fans of the genre will certainly enjoy it.

Iron Man 2
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, and Jon Favreau
Director: Jon Favreau
In the sequel to the surprisingly awesome Iron Man (2008), the narrative picks up where the last one left off with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) revealing that he is Iron Man. Now the government wants Stark to turn over the Iron Man technology, as an industrial rival (Sam Rockwell) tries to catch up, while a nemesis (Mickey Rourke) surfaces to seek revenge. This time around, there is an increase in the number of characters, but a drop in the quality of the script, which, compared to last time’s action-laden quip-fest, is somewhat lacklustre. As a result, the movie isn’t as exciting as the previous one and fails to deliver the laughs and tension that were offered by Iron Man. Fortunately Robert Downey Jr. is still awesome, and he makes the story work even when elements of the movie are degenerating into developments that are ridiculous even by sci-fi standards. Despite its flaws, the movie is fun to watch, and even though it is not as good as its predecessor, it is still quite entertaining.

Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, Tom Selleck, and Catherine O’Hara
Director: Robert Luketic
For those who know where to look, the cinematosphere starts to offer little hints about just how badly a movie will suck weeks (even months) prior to its release. Take Killers as an example: it stars Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher – that should be your first clue; it’s an action comedy about a couple, where the husband is secretly an assassin – that’s clue number two; and it was not screened for critics prior to its release – that should be clue number three. If you can put this evidence together, you’ll not only be spared 96 minutes of mind-numbingly dull cinema, but you will also save the money you would’ve otherwise spent on the movie ticket, because as all the signs indicate, Killers is quite atrociously bad. The very flimsy plot unfolds as such: while on vacation, heartbroken Jen (Katherine Heigl) meets Spencer (Ashton Kutcher) who secretly works for the CIA; they get married; three years later, the secrets start to spill out. The ensuing proceedings turn out to be all kinds of dull. In fact, to say that Killers takes dullness to a whole new level would be an understatement. The things this movie lacks include originality, humour, thrills, chemistry, a decent script, and good acting. Ashton Kutcher is not believable as a hitman; Katherine Heigl is not believeable as a human being; and the two of them are not believable as a couple. Yes, it’s an action romantic comedy that fails at delivering action, romance, and comedy. I suppose it could have been worse, though I’m not quite sure how.

Knight and Day
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Maggie Grace, Paul Dano, Marc Blucas, Viola Davis, and Jordi MollĂ 
Director: James Mangold
Knight and Day is yet another action comedy (sigh!) revolving around a couple (sigh!) one of whom is a spy (sigh!). Following a premise that is both corny and preposterous, a spy (Tom Cruise) on the run meets a car restorer (Cameron Diaz) who thereafter functions as the damsel is distress. Over the top action proceeds, dabbed with blackouts by way of overused fadeout sequences, as the high-energy romp speeds through its 110-minute runtime in an inoffensive, harmless ride. Had it been either more satirical or a little darker in tone, the film would have managed to stand out in this worn-out genre. However, unlike Killers, which features some of the worst acting ever, the cast of Knight and Day at least try to make it work, and compared to the former, this one is practically a masterpiece. On the whole, it’s an unoriginal but somewhat enjoyable popcorn flick. It doesn’t offer much to get excited about, but it isn’t likely to bore you either if you’re looking for an average action comedy movie to while away an idle evening.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Starring: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Ellen Wong, Alison Pill, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Erik Knudsen, Aubrey Plaza, Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Shota Saito, Keita Saito, and Jason Schwartzman
Director: Edgar Wright
Based on Bryan Lee O'Malley’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series, the fantasy comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World follows the story of a young man, Scott (Michael Cera), who must defeat his girlfriend Ramona’s (Winstead) seven evil exes to win her love. Each ex shows up and a fight ensues in a comic book/video-game hybrid mode, although the movie never quite gets around to answering the question of why any of this is happening. Stylistically, it’s a win. Plot-wise, it falls flat. The filmmaker failed to develop the plot into a coherent, interesting storyline that would take advantage of its visual styling. It’s a self-indulgent display of style over substance, and at no point does the movie engage the viewer enough to make them care if Scott actually winds up with Ramona or not. Michael Cera plays the same character for the umpteenth time, and the movie feels extremely repetitive. Scott Pilgrim gets points for its style, but with a more solid plot, it could have potentially been a whimsical masterpiece.

The Social Network
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Brenda Song, Rooney Mara, Armie Hammer, and Max Minghella
Director: David Fincher
Based on Ben Mezrich’s contentious book The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network depicts the tale of the inception of the world’s biggest social networking website Facebook, and the legal issues faced by its creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) following its success. There are two ways to look at The Social Network: as a docudrama and as a movie. As a drama supposedly based on real people and events, the film suffers from massive issues because of its cursory relationship with accuracy; everything is amplified for dramatic effect, and a faithful depiction of reality it certainly is not. Throwing moralistic concerns out and looking at it as a movie, The Social Network tells an interesting (albeit not entirely factual) tale that benefits from good acting performances, with enough snarky comments thrown in to keep the viewer amused. While it is a tad too long (at 121 minutes), it employs a talented cast (with the exception of Justin Timberlake, who is in desperate need of an acting coach) that makes the most of their staid characters. It is a good movie, not – as the critical ravings and Oscar buzz will have you believe – a great one. And if you look deep enough, you will realize that it is a successful, albeit manipulative, attempt at cashing in on the Facebook phenomenon. You can watch it for entertainment, but don’t let it influence your opinion of the events and people it supposedly depicts.

Toy Story 3
Voice cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris, John Morris, Jodi Benson, Laurie Metcalf, Blake Clark, and Whoopi Goldberg
Director: Lee Unkrich
In a largely lacklustre cinematic landscape, Pixar has managed to establish itself as a powerhouse that faces no shortage of creativity and imagination. So it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Toy Story 3 is absolutely brilliant! Keeping a story’s momentum going over three releases often presents problems; sequels can be a tricky business, second sequels doubly so. But Toy Story 3 manages to excel in Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), and the rest of the toy gang’s third outing. Andy’s (John Morris) toys face an uncertain future as he leaves for college, and end up on a journey that is in equal parts amusing, exciting, and touching; get ready to blame mysterious allergies for you teary eyes as the movies nears its finale. Toy Story 3 is the first animated film in history to make over $1 billion, and it manages to delve into the meaning of friendship and love and reflects on the feeling of loss while being a showcase for Pixar’s continuing awesomeness (although I will admit that WALL-E still remains my favourite). It is also the highest-grossing film of 2010 (so far), and it absolutely and thoroughly deserves this; it is, hands down, the best animated movie of 2010, and certainly one of the best films of the year overall.


Marley & Me (2008)
Starring: Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Alan Arkin, and Eric Dane
Director: David Frankel
Newlyweds John (Owen Wilson) and Jenny Grogan (Jennifer Aniston) relocate to southern Florida, get jobs as reporters for competing newspapers, and eventually adopt a dog to see if they’re ready to raise a family. Turns out, the new addition to the Grogan household, a Labrador retriever they name Marley, may very likely be “the world's worst dog”. Amusing incidents of canine bad behaviour ensue, as the Grogan’s juggle married life, their careers, and parenthood. A movie based on a book based on a true story, Marley & Me doesn’t manage to equal its paper-and-ink counterpart, because while the book tries to draw life lessons from the amusing/frustrating/exasperating episodes of living with a neurotic untrainable dog, the movie makes few (if any) such efforts. At times it almost feels like the film is manipulating the audience, and by the end, it is on a mission to make you cry even if that’s the last thing it does, and well, that quite literally is the last thing it does; you’d have to be Cruella de Vil to not tear up at the ending. Of course no criticism is likely to deter pet lovers from watching this film, and yes, at times it really is sweet and sentimental, but on the whole, Marley & Me is a little too long and almost disappointingly charmless, at least for someone who has read the novel this film is based on and feels that the sentiments of the book did not transfer to the movie; John and Jenny just seem plain dull, and poor Marley comes off as nothing more than a nuisance, one that you can’t really understand why the Grogan’s are putting up with. But those unfamiliar with the novel will probably take it for what it is – the story of a family who happens to have a dog – and are likely to enjoy it more.

- By Sameen Amer

Ink Magazine - Jan-Mar, 2011

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