December 27, 2008

Tropic Thunder (2008)

There’s a blurry yet distinct line between comedy and satire, and Tropic Thunder tries to have it both ways for most of its 107 minutes…with neither approach clearly winning out.

The movie starts off strong, with dead-on fake trailers that mock (in three separate spots) the blow-everything-up action flick, the self-importance of Hollywood “prestige” films, and the belief that we mouth-breathing masses will go see anything if the trailer hits the right notes (i.e., lots of fart jokes).

On to the plot…
Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a once-bankable action star whose box office numbers have been shrinking. Desperate and hopeful for a comeback – and to be take seriously as an actor – he signs on to star in Tropic Thunder, a war film based on a novel by a supposed Vietnam War hero. His costars are the Chris Farley-esque Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) – star of The Fatties film franchise (think Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor movies, but even more crass) – and oh-so-serious Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), who actually undergoes skin pigment alteration to play a black soldier.
• After several prima donna moments by the three lead actors, plus a mistimed multimillion-dollar explosion, the novice director (Steve Coogan) conspires with the author of the book (Nick Nolte) to toughen up the actors – adding unscripted explosions, bombings, and gunfire to the actors’ war scenes. Guerrilla-style filmmaking, as it were.
• But then, something terrible (yet morbidly hilarious) happens to the director, and the stars get lost trying to find their way back to base camp – only to stumble across a real crime syndicate of drug-runners deep in the jungle. The actors think these baddies are part of the script.
• Wacky misunderstandings begin; cue ensuing hilarity.

Satire is what can make a film pleasurable, even clever; comedy is what makes it fun. And I get the feeling that most moviegoers, after seeing the trailers and posters for Tropic Thunder, expected big, blow-out, hilarious fun. Frankly, I was expecting more of it myself.

Once again, Stiller (who directed, produced, and co-wrote Tropic Thunder) gets first billing in a film where he’s not the best thing in it. That honor belongs to Downey who, in his character’s words, is “the dude playin' the dude, disguised as another dude.” There was some public concern about Downey going the blackface route, but he portrays a gruff, macho, ass-kicking black man just this side of not turning it into a racist stereotype.
In the last act of Tropic Thunder, the characters get all deep and self-reflective, while the film ultimately mutates into a blow-em-up action movie – exactly the type of film they’ve been trying to satirize for the first hour. Look, if I want a testosterone-injected rescue mission set in Vietnam, I’ll watch Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action, or Rambo. What I want here is a comedy; make me laugh. Or even a good satire; I’ll settle for a smirk.

There was a small, forgettable debate when Tropic Thunder was released – whether the jokes were too “inside” for people outside the film industry to appreciate or understand. I think it’s a non-issue: Thanks to the Internet and countless entertainment TV shows and magazines, most viewers will probably get many of the jokes and send-ups. But getting them is one thing; laughing at them is another.

I didn’t care for Tropic Thunder in much the same way I didn’t care for Team America: World Police; each film delves so deep to lampoon its target that it fails in the larger goal of being consistently funny.

Closing thoughts:
• I counted on one hand (maybe two) the laugh-out-loud moments – and they were fleeting, not extended.
Tom Cruise’s heavily disguised cameo as a foul-mouthed, ruthless studio exec screams “stunt casting” loud enough for Marlee Matlin to hear.
• I did smile a few times at Stiller’s slick yet ridiculous agent, played by Matthew McConaughey – and I definitely related to him when he equated TiVo with food, shelter, clean water and clean sheets.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Will your kids want to see it?
I can see where your kids might have interest in Tropic Thunder based on the kid- and tween-friendly films made by Stiller (Night at the Museum), Black (School of Rock, Kung Fu Panda), and Downey (Iron Man). But the film is rated R for strong, coarse language, drug use and references, and some graphic (though comedic) violence, so I'd recommend checking it out before allowing your offspring to watch.

Will your FilmMother like it?
If she's a die-hard Ben Stiller fan, maybe she'll enjoy Tropic Thunder more than I did. But if she's expecting a consistently funny, laugh-out-loud comedy (the way the film promoted itself), I think she'll be disappointed.

Tropic Thunder
* Director: Ben Stiller
* Screenwriters: Ben Stiller & Justin Thoreaux
* Stars: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Danny McBride, Steven Coogan, Nick Nolte, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel
* MPAA Rating: R (pervasive language including sexual references, violent content, drug material, panda cruelty)

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December 18, 2008

Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977)

As many parents know, kids can get on “kicks” of things they like or discover. These kicks come fast and hard, and leave just as abruptly. For example: playing nothing but one game, eating only one food, watching only one TV show or movie, or focusing on a favorite character.

Dash has been on a Charlie Brown kick lately – renting multiple Peanuts books from the library, playing the song “Snoopy’s Christmas” on infinite repeat, and absorbing the “big 3” Charlie Brown specials (Great Pumpkin, Thanksgiving, Christmas).

So to fuel his interest in all things “Chuck,” I rented one of my favorite movies as a kid: 1977’s Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown. I remember bonding with my 3rd-grade teacher over this movie (she was a big Peanuts fan), and I watched it countless times on HBO.

Plot: The Peanuts gang heads to summer camp, where Charlie Brown and his friends get harassed by a group of bullies who declare themselves the team to beat at the camp games. They trounce Charlie Brown’s team in events such as potato sack racing and tug-o-war – but when it comes to the final event, a river raft race, can Charlie Brown lead his friends to victory?

There’s always a risk revisiting things you loved as a kid, only to be disappointed and have cherished childhood memories tarnished. But in revisiting Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown, my memories were only enhanced by how much fun this movie is to watch.

It’s fun to pull for the Peanuts gang in their camp competitions (especially the big river raft race)…to watch the friendship of Snoopy and Woodstock (you’re not human if you don’t feel warm and fuzzy when they reunite after being separated by a thunderstorm)…to watch Charlie Brown try to step up and take charge when his nay-saying “friends” doubt his intestinal fortitude…it’s all FUN, dang it!

How’s this for a final endorsement? For several moments while watching Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown, I felt like I was 8 again.

A couple of minor critiques:
• For better or worse, it provides some early lessons on why to hate (and how to fight off) bullies.
• Peppermint Patty’s constant use of secret ballots, for every obvious or minute team decision, wears thin quickly (I deduct one star for that alone).

‘70s Alert!
• The alternately funky and folksy tunes of the soundtrack.
• Dig the psychedelic closing credits, man…

Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown
is not available on DVD; I rented our copy on VHS from our local library. [UPDATE 4/6/15: It's finally available on DVD! Click the ad below for details.]

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).

What did Dash think?
He told me he enjoyed it, and he offered frequent commentary during the film. A sampling…
• On the bullies and their odds of winning the river raft race: “They’re not gonna win…they’re gonna sink, I know it.”
• On Linus chasing away the bullies by snapping his blanket at them: “He knows how to do it.”
• His favorite part? “I liked when Snoopy gave Charlie Brown a ride [on his motorcycle].”

Will your kids like it?
If Dash’s approval is any indication, I would say yes. Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown is one of those rarities: an older animated film that holds up over time. Things move at a pretty steady clip, and the 76-minute running time is perfect for the attention span of younger viewers.

Will your FilmMother like it?
I’d say so. It’ll be fun for her to catch up with (and reminisce about) the Peanuts gang.

Did the voiceover guy suck on a helium balloon or something?

Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown
* Directors: Bill Melendez, Phil Roman
* Screenwriter: Charles M. Schulz
* Stars (voices): Duncan Watson, Stuart Brotman, Melanie Kohn, Liam Martin, Gail Davis
* MPAA Rating: G

December 12, 2008

Superdad (1973)

I’ve always been fascinated by the life, career, and death of actor Bob Crane. He became a household name in the late ‘60s with his TV show Hogan’s Heroes, followed by largely forgettable film and TV work.

He also led a secret life as godfather of the celebrity sex tape – recording countless hours of he and a crony engaging in “activities” with various lady folk. And when Crane was bludgeoned to death in his sleep (ironically, with his own camera tripod) in an Arizona motel in 1978, this crony was the key suspect (but never arrested).

Speaking of Crane’s forgettable film work…since a trip to Disney World in 2001, I’ve been obsessed with Crane’s 1973 Disney film, Superdad. I saw the groovy poster (above) in a ratty gift shop near the park entrance and, while I heard the film was unwatchable, I wanted to find out how unwatchable.

Plus, as curator of a blog focusing on fathers and film, I felt a movie called Superdad sounded perfect for a review.

You know that saying, “be careful what you wish for?”

• Charlie McCready (Crane) feels like he’s losing touch with his daughter, Wendy (Cathleen Cody), who will be attending college in the fall with her crowd of high school friends. He also feels these friends have no ambition, especially Wendy’s boyfriend, Bart (Kurt Russell).
• After watching a family relations expert on TV, Charlie decides to get more involved in his daughter’s activities (just what every teenager wants). At one particular intrusion of his daughter and her friends at the beach, he gets pummeled in games of volleyball and football, then eats it big time while water skiing.
• Later, Charlie hatches a plan for Wendy to receive a scholarship to a different college, his alma mater. Wendy attends the other college and sees less of her old crowd, but soon Charlie's plan backfires, causing father/daughter friction – and of course, zany antics on Charlie’s part to try and make things right.

Insipid. Humorless. Boring. Just a few words from my mental thesaurus to describe Superdad. It was so excruciating to watch that I had to break it up over three evenings, even though I had time each night to watch it in its entirety. The pain was just too much to bear in one sitting.

To list all the reasons for this film’s awfulness would take longer than if I watched it a second time (shudder). Some of the larger offenders at work:
• Disney’s saccharine perception of post-hippie high school kids in the early ‘70s.
• The fact that this Disney family “comedy” plays more like a made-for-TV dramedy -- that is, there are a lot of dramatic and confrontational scenes mixed in with the lame high jinks.
• The near-complete absence of a musical score. Not that I enjoy the overabundance of upbeat, horn-heavy scores in older live-action Disney films, but the lack of them in Superdad creates an odd, sterile atmosphere.

The “best” parts of Superdad?
• Catching the early work of future movie stars Kurt Russell, Bruno Kirby (a year before he made The Godfather Part II!), and Ed Begley, Jr.
• During Charlie’s ill-fated water-skiing adventure, Kirby is filming Crane from the boat with a home movie camera. Then all the teenagers watch the footage of Crane’s wipeout back at Wendy's house. The footage Kirby “shot” is the same exact footage you just watched in the movie – complete with long shots, close-ups, and multiple angles. Wow! Kirby coulda been the next Spielberg!

Rating: 1 star (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
I can’t imagine any kid, then or now, sitting through this film. It makes me curious to find out how they marketed this film, or whom they marketed it to. (I couldn’t find the trailer online.)

Will your FilmMother like it?
You'll never know, because you’ll never tell her of Superdad’s existence. Ever.

* Director: Vincent McEveety
* Screenwriter: Joseph L. McEveety
* Stars: Bob Crane, Kurt Russell, Barbara Rush, Joe Flynn, Kathleen Cody, Dick Van Patten, Bruno Kirby
* MPAA Rating: G

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December 5, 2008

The Sword in the Stone (1963)

In my review for The Jungle Book, I bemoaned the fact that most older Disney films (like Jungle Book) don’t have brisk enough pacing to keep today’s kids interested.

Then a colleague of mine commented on my review, saying that there was one older Disney flick that his kids’ “still tolerate:” 1963’s The Sword in the Stone. So decided to put it to the test with my 5-year-old.

Plot: Sword follows the adventures of a young not-yet-king Arthur, serving as a squire to the dim, brutish knight Kay. On a hunting trip with Kay, Arthur falls in on Merlin, a powerful but absent-minded wizard, and Archimedes, Merlin’s curmudgeonly owl sidekick. Merlin winds up teaching and training Arthur in the ways of the world, and has plans for him beyond mere squiredom.

While The Sword in the Stone is well-made, entertaining, has more action than Jungle Book, and is worthy of being called a Disney “classic” (unlike, say, Oliver & Company), it takes a while for the core elements of the story (Arthur and the titular sword) to make their appearances. It’s probably 30 minutes until we see Arthur on-screen, and then his training lasts until the 73-minute mark. It’s a 79-minute film.

No exaggeration: The actual interaction of Arthur with the sword in the stone is literally the last sequence of the film. I guess I expected more time in the movie for Arthur to actually deal with being king. Maybe gathering his Knights of the Round Table and slaying a dragon or two…?

Still, this is just my expectations being different than the actual product. Bottom line, The Sword in the Stone is fun for kids and grown-ups alike. (Standout scene: a wizards’ duel between Merlin and the wicked, goofy Madam Mim.)

One gripe…Arthur is voiced by three young actors, two of which are director Wolfgang Reitherman’s sons. This change is vocals is rather obvious between certain scenes.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
My colleague’s recommendation paid off – my 5-year-old was more engaged with Sword in the Stone than he was with Jungle Book, making comments and asking questions several times during the film. And while I think it would appeal to both boys and girls, the film’s wizardry and swordplay probably provide more of a built-in appeal for boys.

Will your FilmMother like it?
I think she’d find it enjoyable, and a great reason to curl up on the couch with the offspring and some popcorn.

The Sword in the Stone
* Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
* Screenwriter: Bill Peet
* Stars: Sebastian Cabot, Karl Swenson, Rickie Sorensen, Richard Reitherman, Robert Reitherman, Junius Matthews, Martha Wentworth
* MPAA Rating: G

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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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October 28, 2008

Spookley the Square Pumpkin (2004)

Okay, I’ve been pretty heavy on grown-up horror films for my last few reviews – see exhibits A, B, C, and D – so here’s a Halloween tale you can enjoy with the kids: Spookley the Square Pumpkin. (Actually, your kids might enjoy it more than you, if my children are any indication.)

Based on the book by Joe Troiano, the film tells the story of Spookley, the only square pumpkin in his patch. Tormented and ostracized by the other pumpkins – especially the jerk-tastic duo of Big Tom and Little Tom – Spookley begins to doubt he belongs in the patch at all.

But then, his chance to prove himself comes with the Jackalympics – a series of pumpkin-centric events (sadly, no Punkin Chunkin) where the winner will be crowned “pick of the patch” for Halloween, and Farmer Hill will place the winner on his front porch.

Pros/Cons (depending on if you’re an adult or child):
• For what seems like a direct-to-DVD or made-for-TV movie, Spookley’s animation is pretty well done, featuring good use of depth, textures, and color.
The dialogue’s a bit over-delivered, probably for the sake of its target audience – which I would peg as first-graders and younger.
Kids will enjoy the songs, but adults will find them merely tolerable, sub-Disney fare (with one notable exception – see comments).
The film does throw a few bones to the grown-ups watching, with in-jokes such as brother-and-sister bats named Boris and Bella, and a trio of spiders named Edgar, Allan, and Poe who specialize in “web design.”

Spookley’s message is ultimately a positive one of acceptance and believing in yourself. It’s been done before (a certain red-nosed reindeer, anyone?), but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce these positive feelings in kids one more time.

I’m adding an extra star to my rating, based on my kids’ experience (and constant requests for repeat viewing), but grown-ups will probably zone out after a couple of showings (and by that I mean literally two).

Funny P.S.: When Little Tom tells the other pumpkins that Spookley is “a freak of nature,” my wife thought he said that he’s “a freakin’ a-hole.”

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids like it?
My kids (ages 5 and 2) were glued to it, not uttering one word the whole time. Hope that helps answer the question.

Will your FilmMother like it?
As much as kids may like it, I think mothers and fathers alike will fall victim to my two-and-out viewing rule described above.

Spookley the Square Pumpkin
* Director: Bernie Denk
* Screenwriter: Tom Hughes
* MPAA Rating: G

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October 23, 2008

Infection (2004)

During Bravo’s special The 100 Scariest Movie Moments, director Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) said that all good horror films these days were coming from Asian cinema. And while the creepy Japanese import Infection does have some head-scratching moments, its overall ability to get under your skin makes it worthwhile viewing — and gives Roth’s statement some serious merit.

Infection opens with the distressed call of an ambulance looking for a hospital where they can bring their patient — a man who has an inexplicable virus spreading quickly throughout his skin and internal organs.

We’re then introduced to a nearby, rundown hospital where doctors Uozumi (Masanobu Takashima) and Akiba (Koichi Sato) oversee a small night-shift staff. When an inexperienced nurse hands a doctor the wrong medicine to help a burn victim come out of shock, the patient dies — prompting the medical team involved to cover up the mistake for fear of legal action and loss of their livelihoods.

Meanwhile, the ambulance drops off the sickly patient, leaving the hospital to deal with him. While Uozumi and Akiba want to quarantine the patient, their ghoulish, robotic chief surgeon Akai (Shiro Sano) wants to dissect and analyze him, all in the name of becoming “pioneers.”

Before too long, the patient subdues the head nurse and escapes through the air vent into the remainder of the hospital, forcing the staff to track him down. The doctors and nurses who covered up the burn victim’s death are soon “infected” one by one by whatever made the ambulance patient its host.

Writer-director Masayuki Ochiai uses Infection’s rundown hospital as a metaphor for a haunted house — and for the most part, it works. There are scenes that are (to use a favorite phrase of mine) the stuff of nightmares: unknown figures in the shadows, bodies rising from under white sheets, etc. Ochiai also maintains Infection’s eerie atmosphere with long shots of empty, drearily lit hallways and rooms that are shrouded in a single color of dim light. Occasional shots from above and around corners give viewers an almost voyeuristic feel — and, in turn, make them feel closer to the terror. Lending additional spookiness is the piercing and ominous soundtrack, with staccato violin picks that reminded me of the score of the original Evil Dead.

Near the end of Infection, the film gets a bit muddled — the terror jumps from biological to psychological, and it trips on its own attempt at Something Deeper. However, this shift won’t override the earlier scary scenes you’ll have in your head for days to come.
Japanese, with subtitles.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to see it?
Highly unlikely that your kids have heard of Infection, unless they’re teens and/or follow Asian horror. In both instances, they’d probably enjoy most of the film (again, the ending’s an ambiguous, confusing letdown). Keep Infection away from pre-teens and younger; there’s a lot here that could traumatize young minds.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If she likes to be scared and can deal with subtitles, this might be a good one to huddle up closely with her. Otherwise, you’re on your own, dear reader.

* Director: Masayuki Ochiai
* Writers: Ryoichi Kimizuka (story), Masayuki Ochiai (screenplay)
* Stars: Masanobu Takashima, Koichi Sato, Shiro Sano
* MPAA Rating: R (horror-related images and gore)

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