Friday, October 19, 2012

Across the Universe (2007) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for

One could never argue that Across the Universe isn't ambitious. However, like many ambitious movies, this one fails spectacularly. Glenn Kenny of Premiere magazine called it the perfect disaster and, while I think that's a little harsh, I understand where he's coming from. Elements of Across the Universe are shockingly awful and the film lasts at least 30 minutes past the bearable stage. But if you like the Beatles, and the idea of hearing about 20 covers of their work fills you with a perverse joy, this may be the movie for you.

The film has had a troubled production history. It was reportedly taken away from director Julie Taymor after advance preview screenings resulted in jeers and catcalls. The producers re-cut the movie and it was received with more warmth, but Taymor went public with her gripe and this stirred up controversy. Apparently, the 133-minute theatrical cut is Taymor's version. If it's not, I shudder to think how much worse a longer edition could be.

The lack of anything resembling a compelling narrative is part of the problem. It's the 1960s and Liverpool native Jude (Jim Sturgess) has traveled across the Atlantic in search of the dad he never knew. He is befriended by Princeton drop-out Max (Joe Anderson) and falls in love with his sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Soon, these three are doing road trips, fighting against the War in Vietnam (or, in Max's case, fighting in Vietnam), and experiencing everything the era has to offer. They are joined on their odyssey by an Asian lesbian cheerleader (T.V. Carpio), a Janis Joplin clone (Dana Fuchs), and a Jimi Hendrix wannabe (Martin Luther).

Taymor has always been best known for the imaginative visual aspects of her films and stage productions (see Titus for her best screen work), and there's no shortage of tricks in her bag this time: animation, puppets, underwater sequences, psychedelic imagery, and more. Somehow, however, it all seems gratuitous - a way to distract the viewer from how pointless the story is. Like the shot of Wood's left breast (more nipple than one normally sees in a PG-13 production), it's all a bit of a tease. And none of these elements shows much in the way of technical achievement - they're the kinds of things any reasonably adept graphic designer can accomplish on a properly equipped home PC.

The songs are a bigger distraction than the visuals. With only a few exceptions, most of them are out-of-place. They are shoehorned in simply to increase the film's Beatles music content. The expected approach in a musical is for the songs to advance the story. In Across the Universe, the narrative pauses roughly every seven minutes so the characters can break into song, then resumes when they're done. This approach makes it impossible to identify with the characters or be interested in their circumstances. And, while the singing is of variable quality, most of the dance numbers are amateurish.

Jim Sturgess and Joe Anderson were obviously chosen more for their singing ability than their talent as actors. To their credit, they make a credible Lennon/McCartney pair. Evan Rachel Wood has a surprisingly strong set of pipes. The vocal styling of the supporting performers is variable, and includes a torturous version of I Wanna Hold Your Hand by T.V. Carpio which may destroy your ability to ever again hear that song cleanly. Eddie Izzard, Joe Cocker, and Bono have cameos. Oddly, Cocker does not contribute With a Little Help From My Friends, even though his recorded cover is arguably more recognizable than the original (thanks in large part to the TV series The Wonder Years).

I have heard Across the Universe being referred to as this generation's Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I can't refute the argument. There are also times when the film evokes memories of Xanadu. Neither of those stinkers is the kind of company any self-respecting musical wants to keep. It's hard to argue that the idea behind Across the Universe is a bad one - after all, Baz Luhrmann did something similar with Moulin Rouge and the Beatles music is incredibly versatile. The problem, therefore, must be in the execution, and it's a big problem. With a shorter running length, it might have been possible to appreciate Across the Universe as an entertaining failed spectacle. But, at 2:15, the word entertaining no longer applies in any context. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** out of 4]

Labels: drama, fantasy, musical, romance

Celine Dion: A New Day (2007) [UR] ***

Celine Dion is beautiful and statuesque; she has prodigious talent, and her voice has amazing power, presence and range. Her show is a wonderful example of the kind of polished, glamorous entertainment spectacle you expect to see in Las Vegas, with an expansive stage built especially for Celine, innovative song arrangements played by a full orchestra, Celine's pleasing figure draped in attractive and sensuous gowns and dresses, and dozens of dancers in intriguing costumes displaying intricate dance choreography - a bit like Celine Dion meets Cirque de Soleil.

Once you get beyond the show's spectacular performance value, however, it's a rather cold, emotionless experience. Celine is a consummate performer but she doesn't connect with her audience; in fact, she uses the dancers to shield herself from contact with her audience - during one number, for instance, she surrounded herself with over twenty, closely-packed male dancers. The only time the shield comes down is at the end of the performance when she regally descends from the stage, in diva fashion, to bestow a single red rose on a middle-aged female fan standing in the front row, a fan who is obviously more overcome with emotion than is Celine.

Her glowing reviews clearly indicate that many viewers like this kind of entertainment. Personally I much prefer a simpler, more heartfelt, more natural, more intimate performance in which the performing artist makes a stronger connection with her audience. 

Labels: family, music    
Internet Movie Database    

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Bucket List (2007) [PG-13] ***

Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) is a billionaire CEO. He's made his fortune buying profitless hospitals and turning them into understaffed money-making machines. But now he has cancer, and he's forced to share a room - since his hospitals have no private rooms. His roommate is Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) an auto mechanic with lung cancer. Carter has had some disappointments in his life; he also has a wife of forty-five years from whom he has grown distant.

After their surgeries and chemotherapy, Carter remembers an assignment given by his old college philosophy professor, and he starts to create a bucket list - a list of things to do before he kicks the bucket. Edward loves the idea, and since he has the financial resources, and they both have only a few months to live, the two slip out of the hospital cancer ward. They embark on an epic adventure of skydiving, race car driving, African safaris, and pyramid climbing - during which Carter asks Edward the two questions deceased Egyptians must answer correctly in order to enter the afterlife - Have you experienced joy in your life? And have you brought joy into the lives of others?

At the Taj Mahal in Agra, India they debate the issue of cremation vs. burial vs. crypt. And when they get to Chomolungma (Mount Everest, Goddess Mother of the World) they find that the climbing season is over, and they won't be able to see the peak until the following spring, by which time they'll be gone. Carter thinks that perhaps this is a sign that it's time to go home to his wife and family, whom he misses. In the final analysis, since we are all mortal, Carter and Edward's experience is relevant to each one of us, although the film speaks most clearly to those of us closer to life's end than its beginning. If you enjoyed Jack Nicholson in Something's Gotta Give, and Morgan Freeman in Feast of Love, you might really enjoy The Bucket List

Labels: adventure, comedy, drama    
Internet Movie Database     
Metacritic 42/100     
Tomatometer (critics=40, viewers=81)     

Wild Hogs (2007) [PG-13] *

City Slickers was one of the best road-trip buddy films ever made, and Wild Hogs tried, without success, to copy that film's formula. If you recall City Slickers, you can find its characters and plot in Wild Hogs. Billy Crystal's role as Mitch the family man who needs a time-out - that's Tim Allen. Patricia Wettig's role as his supportive wife - that's Jill Hennessy. Bruno Kirby's role as the tough guy with the lingerie model wife - that's John Travolta. Daniel Stern's role as the henpecked husband with the domineering wife - that's been split between Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy. Stern's love interest Bonnie, played by Helen Slater - that's Marisa Tomei. And Noble Willingham's role as cattle rancher Clay Stone - that's local sheriff Stephen Tobolowsky.

The cattle drive to Colorado in City Slickers, featuring loco trail hands, thunderstorm, stampede, flash flood and calf rescue - that's a menacing motorcycle gang that threatens to tear up a picturesque town. And the tough-on-the-outside but good-hearted trail boss, the role that earned the great Jack Palance a Supporting Actor Oscar - that's motorcycle gang leader Ray Liotta.

Uniquely, for the generation that remembers the classic motorcycle road film Easy Rider, one of the small pleasures of Wild Hogs is the cameo by Peter Fonda, as Ray Liotta's character's father, an aging biker trying to keep biker traditions alive.

Wild Hogs has plenty of acting talent. Its biggest problems are screenwriting and directing. Writer Brad Copeland's main writing credits are three TV comedy series: Grounded for Life, Arrested Development and My Name is Earl. Director Walt Becker has only two previous credits: Van Wilder and Buying the Cow. Both are teen movies featuring crude humor and male nudity. In short, if your taste runs to entertainment like My Name is Earl and Van Wilder, you will enjoy Wild Hogs. Otherwise I would pass. 

Labels: action, adventure, comedy   
Internet Movie Database    
Metacritic 27/100    
Tomatometer (critics=15, viewers=72)    

Reign Over Me (2007) [R] ****

For most of us the tragic events of 9/11 have a certain vagueness or abstraction. If we were not flying, and we weren’t within a hundred miles of New York City, Washington, D.C. or the rural crash site of the United Flight 93, we probably were not personally affected by the tragedy. If we were distant enough we might not even know anyone who was personally affected. Because this was a human tragedy, though, we can feel it acutely by sharing in another person’s tragedy. Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) is one such person. He lost his wife and three daughters in one moment when their flight from Boston to L.A. crashed into the World Trade Center. Now, several years later, Charlie has learned to cope. He lives alone in his apartment, endlessly remodeling his kitchen, building a record collection, playing an addictive videogame, avoiding all contact with his dead wife’s parents, a victim of post traumatic stress syndrome.

Then one day Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) Charlie’s old friend and roommate from dental school sees Charlie shuffling along the street. Alan is approaching a mid-life passage, is living beside his wife and daughters, rather than with them, and sees in Charlie an opportunity, almost like a hobby. The story of how Alan and Charlie reconnect, and how Charlie emerges slowly and painfully from his cocoon into the real world of New York City, is a remarkable one, and it gives us all a painfully real and intimate feeling of what every 9/11 survivor must have felt and must still feel. Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle give incredible performances. 

Label: drama

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 61/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=63, viewers=74)

Then She Found Me (2007) [R] ***

April (Helen Hunt) is almost forty, and a primary school teacher. She would love to have a child, but so far she and her husband Ben (Matthew Broderick) haven't been successful in getting her pregnant. Her elderly mother suggests adoption, but April, who was an adopted child herself, wants her own baby. Then Ben confesses to her, like an immature juvenile, that this isn't the life he wanted; he exits, moving back in with his mother. A day later April's mother passes away, and only days after that, Frank (Colin Firth), a single parent of two young children, one of whom is a student of April's, confesses his attraction to her. And if that weren't enough, April receives a message from her birth mother Bernice (Bette Midler), that she wants a relationship with April. April and Frank's relationship begins to blossom, and then Ben reappears in her life.

None of these people are ideal; they're not people we would choose to know. They're all damaged in some way, carrying emotional baggage, telling lies, betraying a trust, pretending to be something that they are not. But, like all of us, they're desperately searching for the human connection that gives meaning to their lives - that makes living worthwhile. And for April, Frank and Bernice the story does have a warm, comforting, life-affirming ending. Hunt, Firth and Midler shine in their roles, and while there's little memorable dialog, the characters are very real. If you like low-key, conversation-laden, character-driven, comedy-dramas, films like As Good as It Gets, Smart People or The Upside of Anger, you will probably enjoy this film. 

Labels: comedy, drama, romance

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 56/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=55, viewers=62)

Flawless (2007) [PG-13] ***+

It’s 1960, and American businesswoman and Oxford graduate Laura Quinn (Demi Moore) has worked for the London Diamond Corporation (LON DI) for a decade. Just when she thought her brilliance and hard work would be recognized, and she would be the first woman promoted to managing director, she’s once again passed over. She also discovers that her employment contract will not be renewed, and worse, she’s not employable anywhere in the banking industry due to a conflict of interest clause in her contract. Although angry and frustrated, Laura is outraged when she’s approached by Mr. Hobbs (Michael Caine), night janitor at LON DI, with a plan to steal a small quantity of diamonds to secure his comfortable retirement, and her independence. However, the plan seems simple and foolproof, so she agrees to be his partner, and obtain the vault codes. Of course, Hobbs has not shared with Laura his true (and very complicated) motive for the theft. And so, the following morning, when Laura believes that Hobbs has successfully pulled off the diamond theft, the vault is opened and it is discovered that the entire two tons of diamond inventory is missing.

While a story about two heartless and reviled institutions (diamond brokering and insurance underwriting) getting their comeuppance from two very different and apparent powerless individuals, would seem to be a winner, sadly Flawless is flawed. There are no thrills, anxiety or tension around the execution of the plan, and virtually the entire film takes place inside the LON DI offices. There are endless meetings of old men in black suits. In addition, the film is deceiving as well as boring; the theft of the large, blue-white, flawless South African Star diamond depicted on the movie posters and DVD covers is an accidental afterthought of the main theft. If you expect a heist-action-thriller with the entertainment value of Ocean’s Eleven or The Italian Job you will be very disappointed. On the other hand, if you enjoyed The Bank Job or Inside Man, you may be satisfied with Flawless

Labels: crime, drama, thriller

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 57/100
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=57, viewers=66)

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007) [G] ***

It's hard to know what the purpose of this film is, beyond being a vanity piece for Dustin Hoffman. Over the past forty years Hoffman has given us a number of memorable film performances, including Best Actor Oscar-winning performances in Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man, and Best Actor Oscar-nominated performances in The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Tootsie and Wag the Dog. However, as Mr. Magorium, the 243-year-old proprietor of a century-old children's magic toy store called the Wonder Emporium, Hoffman simply channels Gene Wilder from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, while the toy store is reminiscent of Santa's workshop fromThe Santa Clause.

The film features a poorly-written script with no story arc, no character development and no tension to be resolved, overacted performances from Natalie Portman and Jason Bateman, garishly colored costumes and sets with no inventiveness or subtlety, and boringly unimaginative special effects. The only redeeming part of the film is a charming supporting performance by preteen Zach Mills, for which he was nominated for a Young Artist Award. Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium will be best appreciated by children under the age of eight; most of the older viewers will be bored beyond belief. This film is not The Last Mimzy

Labels: comedy, fantasy, family    

Wedding Daze (2007) [R] ***

Anderson (Jason Biggs) had been in love with Vanessa (Audra Blaser) for the six months he'd known her, but he had no idea that proposing marriage to her in a crowded restaurant while he's wearing a revealing Cupid costume, would cause her death from heart failure, although his friend Ted (Michael Weston) tried to warn him. A year later Anderson is still grieving, and Ted is still encouraging him to start dating again. So, while they are sitting together in a local diner, Anderson impulsively proposes marriage to their waitress, Katie (Isla Fisher), and just as impulsively she accepts.

The next day Katie moves into Anderson's apartment, and they begin to get to know one another, as well as both sets of parents. Anderson's dad is a sex addict, and his mom is a psychopath. Katie's dad is in prison, her stepdad makes Jewish toys, and her mom seems normal, but who really knows. Also, Katie has a possible fiance, who may be gay, and her closest friends are circus performers who are into swords and knives.

This is a low-budget independent production, filled with surprisingly quirky characters. The film asks the fundamental question: would we be as likely to enjoy marital happiness if we were to marry a total stranger? And given that the current divorce rate is around 50%, perhaps the answer is yes. Despite Jason Biggs' warmhearted cluelessness it's Isla Fisher, with her radiant energy, charm and beauty, who holds the film together, and provides the best reason (some would argue the only reason) to spend ninety minutes with Wedding Daze. And if you enjoy Ms. Fisher, I can highly recommend Definitely, Maybe, and, with some hesitation, Wedding Crashers and Confessions of a Shopaholic

Label: comedy     
Internet Movie Database     
RottenTomatoes Averages (critics=42, viewers=60)