Archive for February, 2008

WE’LL AVOID THE OBVIOUS JOKE HERE: Will Ferrell in a scene from Semi-Pro. (Photo: Alliance Films)Will Ferrell is back and this time he is trying to conquer the world of 1970s professional sports with another over-the-top character.

Unfortunately, Semi-Pro is not as clever as most of Ferrell’s past endeavours.

Between 1967 and 1976, the renegade American Basketball Association tried to make its space next to the National Basketball Association. It was the birthplace of future NBA star Dr. J a.k.a. Julius Irving and the three-point shot. The league was less traditional, but it was also less popular than its counterpart. In 1976, the league was dissolved and only four teams were absorbed into the NBA (the Nets, Nuggets, Pacers and Spurs) while the others faded into the abyss. The Flint, Michigan Tropics were none of these teams.

Jackie Moon (Ferrell) is the owner, coach, power forward and promoter for the fictional Tropics team. In last place, their attendance barely reaches 100 despite Moon’s outlandish, and often impractical, promotions. When word comes down regarding the league’s disbandment, the Tropics decide it’s really time to “get tropical.” To lessen their reliance on the genuinely talented star player Clarence ‘Coffee Black’ Withers (Andre Benjamin), Moon trades an appliance for washed-up former-NBA player and championship ring holder Ed Monix (Woody Harrelson). The team of misfits’ only goal is to gain fourth place and a possible NBA berth.

As if not to be outdone by John C. Reilly who recently displayed his vocal talents in Walk Hard, the film opens with Ferrell’s raspy, whisper over a disco soundtrack. The song is Moon’s #1 hit single, “Love Me Sexy.” Of course, the lyrics are ridiculous and the invitation from Ferrell just as unappealing.

What makes this film less amusing than previous projects is instead of witty dialogue and well thought out skits, the filmmaker relies heavily on adolescent humour; many of the gags do not go beyond gas and vomit jokes. An extended close-up of Ferrell’s crotch as he squats in tight shorts is not really funny after 10 seconds. These tactics would seem unnecessary in a film already about underdog basketball players in an anything-goes league.

Case in point, one of the scenes that really work is an absurd fight that breaks out on the court during a timeout. At least the Tropics were good at something. Team announcer Lou Redwood (Will Arnett) says it best: “Nothing like a good old fashioned brawl during a commercial break.”

It would have been great to see Semi-Pro stay on track with the really sharp humour that carried Ferrell’s other films but regrettably this one will not be ranked with the rest.

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HOW YOU DOIN’?: Natalie Portman and Eric Bana in a scene from The Other Boleyn Girl (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures).The Other Boleyn Girl somehow manages to keep the sexiness out of one of the juiciest scandals in history.

While the story of Ann Boleyn is widely known, this narrative focuses more on the rivalry she developed with her sister over the affections of King Henry VIII than Ann’s relationship with the king himself.

Ann (Natalie Portman) grew up in the country with her younger siblings George (Jim Sturgess) and Mary (Scarlett Johansson) but even as children her father (Mark Rylance) hoped she could be used to further his own ambitions. Opportunity presents itself when the king of England (Eric Bana), dissatisfied with his marriage, visits the Boleyn estate; only he is taken by the already married Mary, not Ann.

Her father and uncle (David Morrissey) thrust Mary into the position of mistress, but Ann grows increasingly jealous and thirsty for revenge. When Mary is bedridden by a difficult pregnancy, Ann is commissioned to keep Henry’s attention. Their mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) voices concerns that her children are being “traded like cattle for the advancement and amusement of men.” However, Ann seizes the opportunity to set her own plans into motion. She steals the king’s affections, banishes her sister, and displaces the queen. However, Ann’s ambition is her downfall and leads to the eventual ruin of her family and her own beheading.

While this sounds like an intriguing tale, the film plays very subdued. It is lacking the fire such a story evokes and needs to play well on screen. Yes, it is beautiful to look at but where is the passion?

Based on real-life reputations, one would have expected the roles to be cast in reverse; but then again, even girl-next-door Jessica Alba played a stripper in Sin City. Nonetheless, Johansson is convincing as the underestimated, understated beauty even though it looks like she is trying hard to keep it in check. Portman, on the other hand, narrows her eyes a lot and always smiles as if she is hiding something (because she usually is). Bana’s part is limited and requires he look disappointedly into the distance more often than he speaks, which appears to suit him.

For a film led by three very attractive actors and a story that centres on lust, sex, betrayal and beheading, the result is very chaste. This is yet another case of the book, by Philippa Gregory, being better than the movie.

“The fight is over. So tonight, welcome to the makeup sex,” quipped host Jon Stewart at the glamorous post-strike event.

Although, with the number of montages aired throughout the broadcast, it was easy to see organizers were still using part of a strike game plan to fill in for the lack of preparation time.

Last night’s 80th annual Academy Awards brought some early surprises with Tilda Swinton winning Best Supporting Actress for her role as a ruthless lawyer in Michael Clayton, beating out favourites Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) and Cate Blanchett (I’m Not There).

Then Marion Cotillard (La vie en rose) edged out Julie Christie (Away from Her) and Canadian sweetheart Ellen Page (Juno) for Best Leading Actress for her portrayal of chanteuse Edith Piaf. Overjoyed, she exclaimed, “Thank you life, thank you love, and it is true, there is some angels in this city!”

Non-traditional women and girls everywhere can applaud Diablo Cody for her stand-out leopard print dress that in no way attempted to conceal her large shoulder tattoo. There was no hiding the former exotic dancer when she took the stage to accept the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for her witty teen pregnancy comedy, Juno. However, the gifted eccentric was at a loss for words, thanking her fellow writers, her family (including Jason Reitman) and star Ellen Page before bursting into tears.

In the end, No Country for Old Men was the big winner of the night taking home four awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Joel and Ether Coen), Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Coen brothers).

Bardem gave one of the more memorable speeches thanking the Coens “for being crazy enough to think that I could do that and put one of the most horrible haircuts in history over my head,” and then addressing his mother in Spanish, bringing her to tears. Ethan Coen would be presented with the award for simplest acceptance of the night just saying “thank you.”

The most unusual reference to the Oscar statue in an acceptance speech came from Best Leading Actor Daniel Day-Lewis who said, “My deepest thanks to the members of the Academy for whacking me with the handsomest bludgeon in town.” He was honoured for his portrayal of a determined oilman in There Will Be Blood.

Canada had 13 nominations in a dozen categories this year, including what looked to be two great chances for Best Animated Short Film: I Met the Walrus, a tale of a John Lennon meeting directed by Toronto’s Josh Raskin, and the NFB’s Madame Tutli-Putli by Montreal’s Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski. But alas, no gold-plated hardware is flying north of the border this year. Peter and the Wolf took the Animated Short category.

Unfortunately, it was no surprise that this year’s ceremony took a dive in the ratings compared to last year’s telecast. Preliminary Nielson ratings estimated an average 32 million viewers tuned in to the most important event in Hollywood. That is a 20% drop from last year’s broadcast and only a third of the viewership of this year’s Super Bowl.

For a full list of winners, visit the official Academy Awards winners list by clicking here.

DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?: Forest Whitaker, Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox in a scene from Vantage Point (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)Vantage Point is a 90-minute puzzle and each person’s point of view represents a piece towards its solution. But like any good mystery, you have to see it to the end to know the whole story.

An international summit on terrorism, which includes Arab nations, is being held in Salamanca, Spain. However, upon his arrival, the president of the United States is shot. (Probably a good thing they have been using doubles since Reagan… but that also means there’s another Bush running around.)

The remainder of the film is told from different characters’ points of view before and after the assassination attempt. Perspectives include journalist Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver), returning secret service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), tourist Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker), President Ashton (William Hurt), the host mayor’s bodyguard (Eduardo Noriega), and the terrorist conspirators.

What makes this film so engaging is each point of view reveals just a little more information and each story breaks at a cliffhanger. The audience rendered groans as each restart of the narrative interrupted a climactic moment; nonetheless, the need to know what happens next keeps you on the edge of your seat.

There is a terrorist bombing within the square in which the imaginary historic event was taking place. The first three renditions of this explosion are very intense as the first is a shock and the latter two survey the carnage in the blast’s wake; conversely, the subsequent images are glanced over and emotionally unattached. It may be because newscasts are always shown after the fact but particularly the first images of the explosion are quite affecting.

There is an interesting point being put forth in this film about the state of the world and the role of war in its existence. This is underlined when a dying terrorist boasts, “You can’t stop us. You’ll never stop us. This war will never end.” It makes one wonder: is the world, or humanity, reliant on conflict and bloodshed?

Unfortunately, the end of the film takes a turn toward sentimental cheese as Barnes rescues Ashton, places his hand on his chest and whispers “Mr. President, I’ve got you.” With Quaid resembling Kevin Costner (but with hair), you half expect Hurt to break into appreciative song Bodyguard-style.

If the ending were not so unintentionally funny and ill-fitting, this would be an easily recommendable assassination thriller with a twist; instead, it is only recommendable with an asterisk.

FOIL POWER ACTIVATED: Jack Black (left) and Mos Def in a scene from Be Kind Rewind (Photo courtesy of Alliance Films)When the reel started to roll, I thought I had walked into the wrong movie.

Be Kind Rewind begins with a short history of jazz in Harlem, leading up to the story of local legend Fats Waller. Finally, when you see Jack Black, Mos Def and Danny Glover are relating the story, you know you are in the right place.

Music-video-artist-turned-feature-filmmaker Michel Gondry has finally given audiences a follow-up to the very original and widely successful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Be Kind Rewind is similarly unique and as imaginatively humorous.

Mike (Def) and Jerry (Black) are childhood friends, having grown up in the low-rent neighbourhood of Passaic, New Jersey. Mike works at and lives above the neighbourhood video store with Mr. Fletcher (Glover). Unfortunately, business is slow and a development corporation is going to takeover the building complex and tear it down.

When Mr. Fletcher leaves Mike in charge while he attends a memorial for Waller, his only instruction to Mike is “Keep Jerry Out.” Mike fails to follow the rules and every videotape in the store is mysteriously erased. To keep Mr. Fletcher from discovering the disaster, the boys offer hilarious remakes of all the films they carry. To justify the additional cost and longer wait periods, Jerry suggests the films are imported from Sweden and, therefore, “Sweded.” The term, coined by Gondry, is actually defined as “the practice of re-creating something from scratch using commonly available, everyday materials and technology.”

The first act of the film is somewhat bland and some scenes may leave you wondering if Mike is a little slow. But Academy Award winning writer/director Gondry’s innovative genius really shines through once Mike and Jerry begin filming. The techniques utilized to recreate certain scenes are amusingly inventive, such as a toy cars’ road mat below the characters to imply great distance from ground level. Films that are Sweded include Ghostbusters (with Jerry’s version of the theme music), Rush Hour 2, The Lion King, Robocop, Driving Miss Daisy, and Boyz n the Hood; with the help of the neighbourhood, they also create a period piece chronicling the life of Fats Waller.

Underneath it all, Be Kind Rewind is an exploration of the movie watching experience. The Sweded films are not meant to be exact recreations; we tend not to remember scenes exactly as they were. So instead, they capture the movie moments and feelings as they remember it – hence, a 90-minute film can be summed up in 20 minutes or less.

This film is not likely to become as popular or acclaimed as Eternal Sunshine but it is still a very clever and enjoyable comedy.

HEY, THIS IS WAY BETTER THAN THE MOVIE: Freddie Highmore in a scene from The Spiderwick Chronicles (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)The Spiderwick Chronicles is this generation’s Neverending Story.

Many recent films aimed at kids and tweens have been book adaptations but this is not the reason for the above comparison. Rather, like the 80s classic, the children’s’ adventure begins with the warned-against reading of a book – a past time many kids no longer make time for between television and video games. Conversely, two significant differences between them are this story’s grounding in the real world and the impossibility of it ever being similarly viewed as a classic.

The Grace family, sans dad, has left New York for a large house out in the woods. As eldest Mallory (Sarah Bolger) continues the role of mini-mom and Simon (Freddie Highmore) accepts the changes with his typical passivity, his twin brother Jared (Highmore again) makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the situation, particularly around mom (Mary-Louise Parker). However, as strange things begin to occur around the house, Jared is instantly blamed. In an attempt to clear his name, he conducts his own investigation and discovers great, great uncle Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You.

The film then becomes a string of successive encounters with mythical creatures: Thimbletack (Martin Short), a house brownie that turns into a boggart when angered and protector of the book; numerous goblins that resemble large toads; Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen), a pig-like hobgoblin on a mission of revenge and lunch; and Molgarath (Nick Nolte), a large shape-shifting ogre that wants the book so he can destroy all the rest of the fairy-tale creatures.

Post meet-and-greet, Jared convinces his siblings of the reality of the unseen world and together they set out to uncover the book’s secrets and stop Molgarath. On the way, a sibling is injured, crazy Aunt Lucinda and Arthur Spiderwick are consulted, and good defeats evil. For those unfamiliar with the reading series, that’s the sum of all five volumes.

It is curious filmmakers would not try to turn this into a multi-film franchise like so many before it; but maybe they too recognized it did not have the sustainability of Harry Potter or Narnia. Spiderwick is cute, but at only 97 minutes it does not go much beyond that – from an adult perspective anyway; kids will find it exciting and, maybe, even a little frightening at times.

And as if it is a Nickelodeon contract clause, there is plenty of slime and green goo.

Highmore embarks on his most challenging role in a short yet widely successful career by taking on the parts of both twins. He successfully conveys each character’s distinct personality (with the help of wardrobe) even though his accent is still discernible under its American mask. Nonetheless, Rogen’s cowardly yet funny Hogsqueal is the highlight amongst the film’s characters.

The divorcing parents issue is always weighing in from under the surface if it is not already the focus of the scene; this is valuable but also a little tedious. Family and parental bonding are heralded in the film making it a good family pick but this is not going to be one of the fantasy films that appeal to all ages equally.

THIS AIN'T SO BAD: Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in a scene from In Bruges (Photo courtesy of Alliance Films)Despite the marketing campaign and gun toting, blood spattered poster, In Bruges is not a Tarantino-inspired series of shootouts separated by pop culture-referencing dialogue. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

The 2008 Sundance Film Festival opener is written and directed by London playwright Martin McDonagh. Having wet his feet with the Academy Award winning live-action short, Six Shooter, McDonagh applies his stage experience and actor-friendly style to his feature debut.

A fatal mistake on a job results in Ray (Colin Farrell) being sent to Bruges just before Christmas; and to keep him out of trouble, Harry, the boss (Ralph Fiennes), has sent Ken (Brendan Gleeson) to baby-sit. Bruges is the most well preserved medieval city in Belgium, so there is plenty to see. Unfortunately for the hit men, Ray is unimpressed by the gothic scenery in spite of Ken’s wholehearted efforts. When word does finally come from Harry, the pair are lurched into a life-and-death struggle with climactic results.

The film is somewhat of a travelogue, as Ken becomes the well-informed tourist, sharing his newfound cultural facts with Ray as they take in the sites. On the other hand, Ray’s attempts at a good time in the fairy-tale city include insulting Americans, punching Canadians, copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, and indulging his fascination with midgets. Ray’s relationship with the city is further warped by his encounter with a Hieronymus Bosch-esque movie set, its American dwarf actor (Jordan Prentice) and his drug dealer, a Dutch prostitute (Clémence Poésy).

Ray is coarse and unpredictable, which Farrell does naturally well; however, he also has moments of sincere vulnerability and remorse, which Farrell does well enough. Conversely, Ken is a fatherly figure, watching over Ray; Gleeson appears to genuinely exude his character’s qualities, portraying the part flawlessly. Then there is Harry, who is simply intimidating. Audiences’ first encounter with him is a curse-filled, narrated letter, followed by an unnerving phone call. Once revealed physically, Fiennes delivers on all fronts.

Those pining for another Guy Ritchie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with a little David Lynch thrown in will welcome McDonagh to the fold. This could be the beginning of a promising film career.