November 26, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

One of my favorite (and most underrated) shows on TV is How I Met Your Mother. It has the distinction of being, aside from The Office, the only live-action sitcom in my TiVo’s Season Pass.

One of the stars of HIMYM (as we fans sometimes call it) is Jason Segel, aka “Marshall” – which is a nice segue into my review of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, written by and starring Segel himself.

Segel plays Peter Bretter, a frustrated musician who works as the composer for a cop show – starring his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) – while trying to finish his dream project: a vampire puppet musical (you read that right).
• After Sarah breaks up with Peter (in a much-ballyhooed scene where Segel is nude), he escapes to Hawaii to be alone, since he had planned to go there anyway before he and Sarah broke up. But guess who else decides to go to Hawaii, and stay at the same hotel – bringing along the man she cheated on Peter with: rock star Aldous Snow (an often hilarious, over-the-top Russell Brand).
• While at the hotel, Peter gets sympathy from (and falls for) hotel employee Rachel, played by That ‘70s Show’s Mila Kunis.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall did offer me several chuckle-out-loud jokes, but overall, I didn’t laugh as much as I had hoped. Still, I found myself invested in the story and Peter’s adventures. Segel does what anyone should do with a character: he makes you feel for Peter, you squirm with his pain, and you actually feel happy for him when things go his way or people treat him nicely.

One pleasant surprise was watching Mila Kunis. She shows nearly none of the traits of her screechy, annoying ‘70s Show character Jackie, and several times I forgot it was Kunis I was watching. It was enjoyable to see her maturing as an actress.

Cameos in the film include Saturday Night Live’s Kristin Wiig as a passive-aggressive yoga instructor, Knocked Up’s Paul Rudd as a spacey surfing instructor, and Superbad’s Jonah Hill as a hotel employee who idolizes Russell Brand’s rock-star character. And SNL’s Bill Hader turns in a hilarious supporting role as Peter’s stepbrother.

I do have one larger gripe, and it’s not with the film itself, but with the way it was marketed...

In all the TV and online trailers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall was promoted as a knee-slapping, potentially gross-out comedy – when in reality, it plays more like a dramedy. I accuse last summer’s Knocked Up of the same crime; that too was more slice-of-life with occasional riotous humor. When you expect one thing and are given another, it can be a letdown – even if what you’re shown is good. (An observation: Judd Apatow directed Knocked Up and produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I wonder if he oversaw their trailers, too.)

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
If you have teens or pre-teens, I can see why they might think Forgetting Sarah Marshall is cut from the same cloth as Superbad, just with older stars. However, be forewarned that in addition to some rather explicit adult language, the film has A LOT of graphic sexual situations (naked and clothed), plus non-sexual nudity by Segel that reveals his, uh, “little Jason.”

Will your FilmMother like it?
Probably, since it’s a relationship movie that – despite ingredients that include Hawaii, a rock star boyfriend, and a vampire puppet show – is ultimately relatable. And you don’t have to tell her this, but it does provide a sweet ending – though it could have reached it a bit sooner, in my opinion (the film clocks in at 2 full hours).

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
* Director: Nicolas Stoller
* Screenwriter: Jason Segel
* Stars: Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand, Bill Hader
* MPAA Rating: R (sexual content, language and some graphic nudity)

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November 11, 2008

Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster (2004)

In the words of our president-elect, let me be clear: There is, and will only ever be, one true incarnation of Scooby-Doo – and that is the original flagship TV series, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? All future iterations of Scooby, Shaggy, and the gang – spinoff series, revival series, live-action movies – are chaff to the original series’ wheat. (And the less said about Scrappy-Doo, the better.)

So I set myself up for a heroic dose of self-injected cynicism when I sat down with my 5-year-old son to watch Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster, a direct-to-DVD movie I TiVo’d off Cartoon Network. But for the sake of movie-bonding with my son, and my childhood fascination with the Loch Ness Monster back in Nessie’s heyday of the ’70s, I made the popcorn, served the drinks, and started the show.

Plot: Scooby and the gang go to Scotland to visit Daphne's cousin, Shannon. But when the mythological Loch Ness Monster appears and wreaks havoc at the site for the annual Highlander Games, it's up to the gang to solve the mystery and answer the question that’s baffled mankind for years: Is the Loch Ness Monster real?

There’s always a risk when stretching a 30-minute show to a full-length feature film. But by and large, Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster pulls it off. The plot and action keep moving at a decent clip, there are plenty of shenanigans to keep the kids entertained, and quite a few times I found myself chuckling aloud (mostly at Shaggy’s quips; Mr. “Zoinks!” had quite a few good zingers).

In addition, the film’s Loch Ness Monster stands out in more ways than just its size. It’s impressively ominous, and there seems to have been an added level of attention given to its design and animation.

For the adult viewer, the film makes several nods (and in-jokes) to the original series, including jabs at splitting up and searching for clues, and Fred’s famous plans that never work. The movie also includes a staple of the original series: chase scenes complete with “chase songs,” written for the movie by the appropriately named Thomas Chase. (There are also visual and verbal homages to several classic films and TV shows, including Jaws, Titanic, Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, and The Six Million Dollar Man.)

So yes, regarding my belief that there is no Scooby-Doo anywhere near as good as the original TV series, Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster has silenced the cynic in me. Sort of. For now.

• The voice of Fred was done by Frank Welker, the same (and only) Fred since the original TV series debuted in 1969. That includes this year’s Scooby-Doo and the Goblin King. Nice work if you can get it.
Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster was nominated for a 2004 Annie Award for Best Home Entertainment Production. (It lost to The Lion King 1½.)
• The Wikipedia page for Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster says the monster bears a striking resemblance to the Giant Behemoth, a creature from the 1959 movie of the same name. Decide for yourself…

The Giant Behemoth trailer:

A scene from Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster:

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
My son got a big kick out of Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster. Still – and I have no data to back this up – don’t boys and girls both like Scooby-Doo and the gang? If so, I think this movie would appeal to both genders. The fact there’s a giant monster that looks like a dragon/dinosaur hybrid may sway the appeal slightly to the boys’ side, is all I’m sayin’.

Will your FilmMother like it?
I think she’ll appreciate the fact that the filmmakers put enough effort into the story and script to keep both kids and parents entertained…and entertained she shall be.

“When they invent a game that tests eating and sleeping, let us know!”
– Shaggy on the theme of the Highlander Games

Scooby-Doo and the Loch Ness Monster
* Directors: Scott Jeralds, Joe Sichta
* Screenwriters: George Doty IV, Ed Scharlach, Mark Turosz
* Stars: Frank Welker, Casey Kasem, Mindy Cohn, Grey DeLisle, Michael Bell, Jeff Bennett, Sheena Easton
* MPAA Rating: G

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November 5, 2008

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (2006)

I hold a special place in my heart for Superman II. It was the first great superhero movie, with a solid storyline, the advancement of the relationship between Clark Kent/Superman (Christopher Reeve) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), a moral (and mortal) dilemma for Superman, and formidable villains in the shape of three criminals from the planet Krypton.

So when I saw there was a cut of Superman II by director Richard Donner, I got excited. Donner directed the original Superman and shot most of Superman II before he left the project after clashing with producers (he was replaced by Richard Lester).

I figured that if I loved Superman II the way it had been released, it’s got to be even better if acclaimed director Donner (The Omen, Lethal Weapon) is releasing Superman II the way he intended.

It’s one thing that I was wrong. It’s another that I was this wrong.

From the opening scene of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, it’s different – a roving aerial shot of Krypton, where it settles on the planet’s council of elders (led by Marlon Brando’s Jor-El) judging and sentencing the rebel group of General Zod (the great Terence Stamp), his female sidekick Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and the mute brute Non (Jack O’Halloran) for planning to overthrow the council.

Okay, I’ll admit – that added scene was cool. But beyond that, the new or altered scenes of Donner’s cut add nothing. The biggest violator is the absurd way Donner has Lois discover Superman’s true identity. It’s almost like a nuisance to Superman that she uncovers him – not the emotional, impactful revelation it should be (and was in the original 1981 release).

Other added, deleted, or altered scenes:
• An early added scene of Lois trying to make Clark save her as Superman (by leaping out of a skyscraper) disrupts her tone in dealing with Clark/Superman for the rest of the film
• Donner cut the “Houston” gag from the astronaut when Zod and company land on the moon, so later mentions by Zod and Ursa of the planet “Hooston” lose their impact
• A new, lengthy, and pointless sequence of Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) discovering the Fortress of Solitude at the North Pole
• The great sequence where Zod, Ursa, and Non intimidate some small-town locals (including Ursa arm-wrestling a man) is gone
• The villains now deface the Washington Monument (simply knocking it over) instead of Mount Rushmore (replacing the presidents’ faces with their own)

Throw in a new, overdone, unnecessary musical score and presto: instant tarnishing of a cherished childhood memory.

To be blunt, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut seems like nothing but an exercise in spite. Donner got tossed from the project, and this feels like his “so there” to the film studio that booted him. It’s like he switched or replaced highly effective scenes from the original cut for no purpose other than to put his mark on the film.

In Donner's defense, the added scenes of Brando’s Jor-El do help the picture, and an extended sequence of Zod, Ursa, and Non attacking the White House was cool. But beyond that, nothing added or switched from the original was necessary, and mostly it worsened the film.

If you cherish the original Superman II like I do, fear not: It was recently released on a two-disc special edition DVD, which features a neat little time-capsule special, “The Making of Superman II.”

In closing, all you know to know is…

Watch this:

DO NOT watch this:

Rating: 1 star (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
I love Superman II so much that I’d make it required viewing for any kids who like superheroes; I’d say kids 8 years old or older, with some parental guidance, would be appropriate. But dear Zod, make sure you show them the original cut, not Donner’s.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Avoid Richard Donner’s cut like Superman avoids Kryptonite skivvies, then convince your FilmMother to watch the original cut if she hasn’t seen it already. I think the Superman/Lois romance, combined with a good balance of humor and action, would make it worth her while. (And your chance for an extra viewing wouldn’t hurt either.)

Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
* Director: Richard Donner
* Screenwriters: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman
* Stars: Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Terence Stamp
* MPAA Rating: PG (action violence, adult situations, mild adult language)

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