4 May 2009

The Reel Deal: "Calm Before The... Sun?"

This review-filled update centres largely around April's films, aka the last raft of films before the summer season of 2009 really kicks off down at the cinema. And so here you'll find my verdict on...
17 Again
The Boat That Rocked
Crank: High Voltage
Observe and Report
Race to Witch Mountain

As ever, reviews may contain mild spoilers. Without further ado then...


Who's in it? Zac Efron (High School Musical), Matthew Perry (The Whole Ten Yards), and Leslie Mann (Knocked Up)

What's it all about? In yet another only slightly-reverse-engineered version of Big, Mike (Perry) is having a pretty rubbish time of it, as far as life goes. He's 37, about to get divorced and in a job that's going nowhere. Naturally, he meets up with a caretaker who looks like Santa Claus and is regressed 20 years to his 17-year-old self (Efron), in order to put right what's been going wrong, like a teenybopper Sam Beckett. Le sigh.

Any good? It's been a good two weeks since I saw this film and now I'm mad all over again because I'm obliged to post a picture of Zac Efron to illustrate this review. Generally railing against this smug little bastard (see, I think of him as little even though we're approximately the same age) would make me look like a jealous, crotchety old man to his target audience, so I'm going to avoid that so as not to debase the whole damn review. But I can certainly say that he stinks in this film. In fairness, this is just a vanity vehicle for him, so its hardly his fault that it's a remarkably unfunny script for a purported comedy, regardless of the giggling hordes of the aforementioned target audience that filled the cinema auditorium when I saw this. That includes the two usually sensible ladies who dragged me there.

Bitterness about that aside, there's not much to say for 17 Again whatsoever. As in all slightly suspect romantic comedies, it has a moral that's not too worthy of teaching- if you're in marital distress, you need only turn into Zac Efron to fix your problems. Especially seeing how all Efron does is imitate Matthew Perry, which people have been doing since Friends started (see all the "Could I be any more [insert mood]" stuff) and which didn't really convince me he's older than he seems. Perry himself has the thankless role of bookending the film as the older Mike, and when you see a film where you're thinking he can do better you know it's bad. You read right- Matthew Perry can do better than this. More reasonably, the same can be said for Leslie Mann and Thomas Lennon, both of whom have been making a splash in much funnier comedies lately. Lennon is shoehorned into the role of Mike's life-long friend and a hideously stereotypical nerd whose massive wealth is merely the means to a rather bizarre scene midway through when Efron gets to go shopping. Isn't it usually women who get excited about shopping in high school movies? As older Mike might say, could he be any more feminine? But of course I say this holding the firm belief that the gay character in High School Musical is there simply to make Efron look straighter.

Prior to seeing 17 Again, a comedy devoid of any real laughs and full of predictable plot lines and saccharine messages, the worst film I've seen this year was Knowing. We have a new loser- at least Knowing made me laugh more.


Who's in it? Bill Nighy (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt), and Rhys Ifans (Elizabeth: The Golden Age)

What's it all about? It's the 1960s, and popular music is beginning to... well, become popular. With the BBC radio services refusing to play it, pirate radio was born. One such station, Radio Rock, is based on a boat in the North Sea, broadcasting rock and roll 24/7 across Britain. The station manager (Nighy) welcomes his young nephew aboard the boat to straighten him out, just as the government begins cracking down on pirates.

Any good? There's a scene in the inestimably brilliant Black Books where Bill Bailey's Manny tries to justify his flutter on the Grand National to his boss. He calls it the coming together of an entire nation in one activity, like "the beginning of a Richard Curtis movie or the hunt for a serial killer." As Curtis is clearly one of the most celebrated writers in British film these last two decades or so, it's a reasonable observation. After feeling sickened by the overly-sweet Love Actually, whose very title induces some nausea, I was surprised to find this film actually looked quite good from the trailers et al. As ever, I'm obliged to point out that I don't hate romantic comedy as a genre- I just hate how lazy most of its output is, and the same applies to horror. And as far as The Boat That Rocked goes, 'lazy' is not really a term you can apply to it.

Of course, that's not to say I can tell you a thing about pirate radio now. While Curtis' film celebrates the period and the music, you'd be flummoxed if you were then asked to tell people about it. Instead, this comes across as a film with a great soundtrack but with a story that's not too related to the history of pirate radio. And that actually works out well. While it's not laugh-out-loud funny, it does acquit itself perfectly well as a comedy and it is, as they say, un film de Richard Curtis. The cast appear to be having a ball, but none of them are really stretching themselves. Though I normally abhor films to which the only real compliment you can attach is "You can tell the cast had a ball making it" (read: I normally abhor Mamma Mia), I have to report that I did enjoy watching it too.

One thing I do have to comment upon is the length. Richard Curtis might be a good writer when he's on his game, but he needs to be more ruthless as a director. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it could stand to be at least 45 minutes shorter. Given the multitude of plot lines and the fact that an extra hour of footage was apparently shot, I got the sense that The Boat that Rocked could have been much better served as a six-part sitcom. Even despite the big name actors and the budget required to film on a ship the size of Radio Rock's ship, there's something distinctly uncinematic about the whole thing. Perhaps its reuse of one of Curtis' more successful jokes from Blackadder Goes Forth with an amusingly named government aide or the general homely feel of the film in general, but I think I would've enjoyed it more as a series, if it were at all possible to film this story on a TV budget.

The Boat That Rocked isn't going to change your life, but the general lack of cringe compared to some of Richard Curtis' other films makes it enjoyable and entertaining. It's another of those "add a star if you're a fan" films- this time I mean it positively, as opposed to Max Payne for example. If you're not a fan, maybe wait for the DVD and watch it at home, because I found it a little out of place in the cinema.


Who's in it? Jason Statham (Transporter 3), Amy Smart (Mirrors), and Dwight Yoakam (Crank)

What's it all about? Chev Chelios (Statham) lives to shoot the hell out of LA for another day after appearing to die from helicopter-jumping related injuries at the end of the first film. He's been resurrected by Chinese gangsters, who have replaced his own indestructible heart with an artificial one. As he sets out to retrieve his own heart, he must keep the artificial one electrically charged by any means possible.

Any good? If the first Crank film eased its audience into the video-game style that the directors had in mind, then this one is an endurance test in over-the-top visuals. From the opening ten minutes, the audience has their WTF Threshold (trademark of Mark Harrison, 2009) pushed to breaking point. This is a film where Jason Statham is at one point electrocuted with such high voltage that he hallucinates a Gojira-style fight between a giant version of himself and one of the film's antagonists, complete with both of them wearing giant caricatured masks of their own heads. Even people who've been prepared for such madness by the first film will find themselves wide-eyed and open-mouthed at how much this one steps it up. Unfortunately, sometimes this does go too far.

Other reviews have called Crank: High Voltage offensive and morally bankrupt, and when you're watching some of it, you feel it's lost something. Perhaps because the first one, 18-certificate aside, wasn't looking for controversy, and was certainly without the levels of misogyny and racism that appear in this one. As much as these films are love letters to brainlessly violent video games, there are points where this sequel just makes you feel uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I largely feel obliged to applaud the directors for making it even more OTT than the original, because the action in this film is utterly fearless. It's also filled with various callbacks to that original film that are occasionally hilarious and, in one case, utterly amazing. I can only surmise that the directors were on some kind of hallucinogenic when they came up with that particular idea.

To digress for a moment from the review, it's only after recently seeing Wolverine and how they messed up Deadpool that made me realise something about this film in retrospect. This is what a Deadpool film should be. After the opening fight, Chelios whistles along with the film's score as he strolls towards one of his many victims, in an incredibly subtle moment of breaking the fourth wall in a film that is essentially the antithesis of subtlety. So personally, I want to see Neveldine/Taylor's take on Deadpool, more than I want to see another Crank film, which is rumoured to be a 3D endeavour. On the whole though, Crank: High Voltage has grander, more exaggerated set-pieces than its predecessor, but falls behind due to some of the more needlessly offensive material.


Who's in it? Seth Rogen (Zach and Miri Make A Porno), Anna Faris (The House Bunny), and Ray Liotta (Crossing Over)

What's it all about? Ronnie Barnhardt (Rogen) is the head of security at his local mall, and takes his job incredibly seriously. When a flasher strikes the object of his lust and affection in the parking lot, he commits to bringing him justice, in spite of the intervention of Det. Harrison (Liotta) and his own debilitating bi-polar disorder.

Any good? Read that little plot outline back. The only real clues that this film is a comedy would be the inclusion of Seth Rogen and the bit about bi-polar disorder. You might also be wondering why someone has remade Paul Blart: Mall Cop for adults. The fact is that Observe and Report is an odd beast. Director Jody Hill seems to intend it to be a comedy, and indeed, a parody of Taxi Driver, but the subject matter is just too dark at times. In Bruges is a film that epitomised the idea of a dark comedy, whereas this film seems to fall short of the mark by a long stretch. And the film really wasn't helped by Paul Blart: Mall Cop having come out just a couple of months ago- it's unfortunate that both films went into production at the same time. The jokes aren't quite funny enough to rescue the plot, and though I laughed a couple of times, it generally left me indifferent. The film just falls into the realm of too many old tropes to distinguish it as a worthy effort from Seth Rogen. I can believe Rogen gives it his all as an actor here because the whole bi-polar aspect does require some commitment, but Liotta and Faris are on autopilot because the script doesn't really give them anything special to do.

Observe and Report
is a film that tries to pastiche Taxi Driver, but falls short. Though it leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth, it's not totally without laughs. Call it eating stale cake as opposed to eating shit (see 17 Again for the latter).


Who's in it? Dwayne Johnson (Get Smart), AnnaSophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia), and Alexander Ludwig (The Dark Is Rising)

What's it all about? This reboot of the Witch Mountain films from the 70s brings the story to contemporary Las Vegas, where Jack Bruno (Johnson), an ex-con taxi driver, meets with Seth (Ludwig), and Sarah (Robb), two children who claim to come from a distant planet. Jack comes to believe their story as they race against the government and an alien super-soldier to save both our world and theirs.

Any good? Although my feelings towards reboots lately have been mixed- Batman and Bond both worked, but some of the currently planned ones inspired by their success just sound silly- the idea of a Witch Mountain reboot did provoke some curiosity when I first heard about it. The first of the two films, Escape to Witch Mountain, was hardly ever shown on TV, but Return from Witch Mountain seemed to be on every six months for some reason, and so I saw it many times during my childhood. And the end result of Disney's latest effort is a rather enjoyable family film. Like reboots, Dwayne Johnson poses a somewhat suspect proposition as an actor- it's programmed into me to be wary of wrestlers-turned-actors or singers-turned actors and the like. And despite shaky starts with The Mummy Returns and the subsequent spin-off for his character, he's become a bankable star with the success of Get Smart and with this film. He'll probably never win an Oscar, but maybe soon I'll even manage to stop habitually calling him The Rock.

So it's a proven formula with a bankable star at the head- the film could still have gone wrong at this point, but I'm pleased to say it works. It's well-scripted and better than a lot of Disney's live-action output these days. There are the requisite lampoons of alien conspiracy theorists, but there's enough well-paced action and story to make an entertaining film on balance. AnnaSophia Robb continues to make her mark as a capable young actress, but Alexander Ludwig concerns me, because he works well as his monotonous alien character here, but he acted exactly the same in The Dark Is Rising. Perhaps that's how he is in real life, but it doesn't detract from the film. Carla Gugino and Ciaran Hinds also provide sterling support.

Race to Witch Mountain is an action-packed and enjoyable effort from the House of Mouse, and with the scenes during the credits setting up for a sequel, I can safely say I'd rather see a sequel to this than see the mooted third National Treasure film with Nicholas Cage. Make it so, Disney!


Yes, I really did liken 17 Again to eating shit. Too mean? Oh well.
As I said, summer is coming, so just to give you an idea of which films will be getting big separate posts for my reviews, here are the five films I'm most looking forward to in the next couple of months.

1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
2. Star Trek
3. Drag Me To Hell
4. Terminator: Salvation
5. Angels and Demons

And I'm still stung by the fact that Up doesn't come out in Blighty until October. Curse you, Hollywood distributors.

Right, since Star Trek is out first, that'll most likely be the next review. Seeing that on Thursday morning, so might squeeze in my long-planned vampire blog in the meantime. After that, I imagine the next Reel Deal plethora of reviews will feature State of Play and Coraline.

Until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch!

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