Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Warrior (2008)

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the third film in the once popular Mummy franchise, is facing an uphill battle. It’s been a long seven years in between films and some, like myself, would argue that the franchise is already creatively exhausted. This stuff is the brainchild of writer/director Stephen Sommers (Van Helsing), who decided he would rather make a movie based upon an action hero than rehash mummies (see you this summer, G.I. Joe: The Movie). In comes director Rob Cohen who has given the world such cinematic abominations like XXX, Stealth, and The Fast and the Furious. Surely this was the proper artist to re-energize a semi-dormant franchise. The results are about as unexceptional as you’d expect.

In 1947, Rich O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evie (Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz) are in retirement from adventure seeking. They live at a palatial estate. Their son Alex (Luke Ford) is in college except they do not know that Alex is really surveying ancient tombs in China. The lad has stumbled across the massive tomb of Han (Jet Li), China’s first united emperor. Han was a ruthless warlord that conquered all. He punished Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) for falling in love with one of his generals and not the mighty emperor. Zi Juan managed to cast a spell on the evil emperor that trapped him in metal. And he sat undisturbed in his tomb for 2,000 years until Alex came along. Eventually the spirit of Han is released and some Chinese military officials wish to serve their departed emperor. Han is seeking the location to Shangri-La to bathe in the pool of immortality, and then he will awaken his army and continue his quest for world domination. The Far Eastern exploits bring the O’Connell family unit together to save the world yet again.

The first film was a cheesy, campy tongue-in-cheek adventure that managed to be consistently entertaining. The second film retained the same fun and humorous atmosphere, though it subscribed to the “bigger is better” theory of sequels and ramped up all the action to a cartoonish degree. Seven years later, the third Mummy movie is a complete bore. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feels like two movies sewn together; ancient Chinese warlords and treasure-hunting archeologists do not come across as a good fit. The terracotta warriors are a great source for an imaginative tale, but this is not it. So Emperor Han has mastered the elements of fire, water, earth, metal and wood (when did wood become an element? I don’t see that one on the periodic table) and the guy can also turn into giant monsters like a three-headed dragon. The writers of this Mummy entry have goofed by making the villain too powerful. Yeah he can be slain by a magic sword (there’s always something magic-y) but this is a foe that can control oceans, water vapor, clouds, rain and snowstorms, ice shards, and that’s just with one element. I must confess that I cannot fathom Han getting too much use from the wood element. On top of that, he can transform at will into ferocious creatures, so what is the point of turning back into a tiny human? Why would anyone fight hand-to-hand when you could fight as a 30-foot monster of your own design? The problem with making the villain too powerful is that when they do not take advantage of their clear advantage, then the villains just look stupid. “The Dragon Emperor” looks stupid for fighting as a 5′ 6″-sized man instead of a killer dragon. Which would you fight as? At least the Mummy from the other films had limitations.

Even worse than being incomprehensible and dumb, none of the action sequences are thrilling or exciting. The action sequences are fairly sub par, resorting to shootouts and the occasional car chase. At least a car chase through the streets of Shanghai during Chinese New Year takes advantage of the location, allowing Rick and Evie to use firecrackers like missiles. The martial arts work is poorly choreographed and poorly presented thanks to some butchered editing. This is one of the worst edited big-budget films of recent memory. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor seems to be making it up as it goes. There are moments where characters will state where they need to travel to and then in the next second they’re preposterously there. Someone talks about the path to the hidden land of Shangri-La and then the next moment, hey, there they are. How did these places remain hidden for centuries? Very little makes sense in this movie. I’m not asking for complete believability in a film involving immortal bad guys and ancient spells, but at least let me able to follow along. I felt like I could tag along with the first two Mummy films and I had fun to a certain degree, but this time I felt like I was being dragged. I won’t even go into great depth about the appearance of yetis except to reveal that there is a moment where one yeti dropkicks a Chinese soldier over a gated wall and another yeti raises his arms straight in the air, signaling in football terms that it is indeed “good.”

Rachel Weisv not pictured.

Once again it all comes down to an all-out CGI battle between Han’s CGI army and the CGI zombie opponents buried under the Great Wall of China. The second Mummy movie ended in a similar fashion, and frankly I’ve become bored with the CGI armies clashing en masse unless I’m emotionally invested in the story. The effects work isn’t too fancy either. Most of the CGI creatures look flimsy and there’s nary a sense of wonder for a movie dealing with awesome supernatural forces.

The cleverest moment in the entire film involves the departure of Rachel Weisz. The Oscar-winning actress decided that she had had enough rumbles with the undead and bowed out of reprising her character of Evie. Smart move, lady. The film opens with Evie reading to an audience from her adventure novel based upon her encounters with a certain mummy. A woman asks her if the book’s female heroine is based upon the real-life Evie. She closes the book, smiles, and says in Bello’s first close-up that, “No. I can honestly say that she is a completely different person.” It’s all downhill from there for Bello, whose terrible British accent veers wildly to the point that she sounds like eight different kinds of Brits inhabiting one mouth.

The Mummy franchise is not where I go looking for parental drama. I understand that the 2001 Mummy sequel introduced Rick’s son, but why did this movie need to be set so far ahead in the future? The only reason this movie is set in 1947 is so that Alex can be like a twenty-something adventurer. The Mummy Returns was set in 1933 and Alex was eight years old, so by use of basic math he is now 22. There is no other prominent plot point, character revelation, or action set piece that relies on the date being 1947. Okay, so we’ve arbitrarily aged the kid, so surely the film will present some parental dilemma. Nope. The closest the movie gets to capitalize on Alex’s advanced age is pushing Rick to acknowledge his son’s accomplishments. The film’s idea of exploring family dynamics is a passing statement about making sure to express your love. Nothing is really gained by inserting the familial connection between Rick and Alex, who just as easily could have been a non-blood related character.

The inherent issue with an older Alex is that Fraser and his son look about the same age. Fraser has remarkably aged very little over the course of nine years since the first Mummy movie; sure there’s a few facial lines and a hardness that wasn’t there, but this man clearly looks like he is in his late 30s. Alex looks like he’s in his mid-twenties and the actor, Ford, is actually only 13 years younger than Fraser. It just doesn’t work at all. It looks like Rick and his younger kid brother, not his son. But lo, I think I have figured out the true reason behind position Alex as a younger, dashing version of Rick O’Connell, dispatcher of mummies. Fraser’s three-picture deal was fulfilled by this mediocre movie. If the producers want to have further mummy and non-mummy escapades, they have targeted Alex as their leading man of derring-do.

I like Fraser, I like him in these kinds of movies, but even he feels like he’s running out of gas with Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The location switch from Egypt to China fails to give the franchise a new kick. The Chinese martial arts material bookends the movie and seems out of place, let alone poorly designed. Jet Li must have had a great time cashing his check because the kung-fu master appears for like 15 total minutes as himself. The lackluster action, questionable plotting, cardboard characters, and dearth of enjoyment make this a sequel a potential franchise killer. The tongue-in-cheek energy and cheesy fun of the other movies is completely absent. You can forgive stupid when it’s fun, but stupid and boring is a deadly combination for a huge effects-laden action movie. Hopefully The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor will serve as proof that bad jokes, bad visuals, bad editing, bad plotting, and bad accents do not somehow go vanish because of lingering goodwill from previous films. This is one movie that should have stayed buried.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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Taken (2009)

From La Femme Nikita to District B13, the French know how to make a rollicking action movie, and Taken is no different. Liam Neeson plays a former covert government agent who has his daughter (Maggie Grace) kidnapped by the Parisian sex trade. He tells his daughters abductors to let his daughter go, and if they don’t he will find them and he will kill them. “Good luck,” says the abductor. And we’re off! At this point, the movie completely had me and I was ready to watch Oscar Schindler kick all kinds of ass. Having an actor of Neeson’s caliber involved in the rigorous derring-do helps ground the fantastic coincidences and leaps of logic inherent with an action movie. The action is briskly paced (the movie barely clocks in at 91 minutes) and fairly consistent, though I admit that the movie never felt like it was building in intensity, only changing locations. There’s some lip-service paid to topical issues like sex trafficking, but really Taken is all about watching Neeson karate chop dudes in the neck, which he does a lot. I started fearing for the safety of my own neck, like Neeson would jump out of the shadows and give my neck a good punch. You may need to shut your brain off at parts, but Taken is an undeniably fun experience and I look forward to the inevitable sequels (Neeson: “What, something else has been taken… from me!”). Taken is a rock-solid action movie with plenty of terrific and thrilling set pieces that pack more punch than plenty of expensive Hollywood summer capers.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Reader (2008)

Every now and then, the assorted members that make up the Motion Picture Academy make, shall we say, quizzical selections. There are snubs and undeserving winners, but then there’s the crazy nomination where you see the movie and say to yourself, “What the hell were they thinking?” In recent years I’ve usually found at least one Best Picture nominee that left me scratching my head. In 2007 it was Atonement, in 2004 it was Finding Neverland. But I could at least fathom a guess as to why each of those movies appealed to the Academy and garnered a Best Picture nominee. I’m stumped when it comes to 2008 Best Picture nominee, The Reader. Based upon an award-winning novel, I can only surmise that Academy voters saw the words “Kate Winslet” and “Holocaust” and thought the movie had to be far worthier than the likes of WALL-E or The Dark Knight.

In post-World War II Germany, teenager Michael Berg (David Kross) begins a torrid affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). He’s 15 years old; she’s easily twice his age. She instructs her young lover to read to her before they engage in sexual activity, which turns reading into an act of foreplay. The summer affair ends abruptly when Hanna runs off after her employer has given her a promotion. Michael is heartbroken that his lover has flown the coop. Flash forward several years and Michael is attending law school in Berlin. He and his fellow students visit an ongoing trial that features a group of former female concentration camp guards. To Michael’s shock, Hanna is on trial as one of the murderous Nazi guards. The young boy is beset by his feelings of love for a person who has committed despicable deeds. Hanna is keeping a deeper secret and will go to her grave to keep it. Eventually an adult Michael (Ralph Fiennes, wasted) finds his life returning to an imprisoned, older Hanna, possibly his life’s greatest love.

The Reader contains interesting story elements: sex, guilt, romantic affairs with former Nazi prison guards. But rarely do any of these interesting elements actually transform into an interesting story. The movie just kind of lies there, basking in some phony reflective pause when the movie manages to be so distant and uninvolved. At times the movies seems to have little interest in its own self. This movie feels like it was made to be Oscar-bait because it deals with Big Themes and Important Topics, or at least the film wants to appear like it deals with said items. The Reader is mostly shallow. It pretends to present a moral quandary but director Stephen Daldry (The Hours) doesn’t bother to analyze the contradictions of his characters. The film alternates between characters shouting obvious declarations and just stumbling around in contemplation, bumping into the furniture. It’s simultaneously annoying and boring. The movie wants to put a human face on monstrous deeds, which can be a noble pursuit. The Reader fails to be a “challenging” movie when it can’t be bothered to challenge its characters to do something.

The message of quasi redemption at the center of this specific film is either laughably naïve or downright insulting. Hanna keeps a personal secret shame at all costs, and she would rather go to prison for life as a Nazi murderer than let people know she cannot read. I’m sorry, but that’s dumb. The fact that it seems like The Reader presents the theory that Hanna’s illiteracy mitigates her guilt is offensive. I’m sure the 300 people that were locked in a burning church to die would be sympathetic that their killer couldn’t read See Spot Run. In what world is illiteracy more shameful than genocide? If you’re going to float ridiculous notions at least commit to exploring their very ridiculousness, and therefore acknowledge that there is something amiss. The Reader instead seems to flutter from idea to idea without ever truly delving deeper. If you’re going to craft a character that’s more afraid of a library than a book burning, at least try and explore this enigma. There’s drama in the disconnect. But the movie never feels like this should be an issue. Can’t you see, silly movie goers, that Hanna is but a symbol for the German people who couldn’t read the signs to come and were ignorant to the extent of Hitler’s horrors. She would rather stick to her duty than claim moral responsibility. That’s fine, but there are a great number of movies, and countless more books, that have examined the psychological culpability that can turn a populace into silently willing participants in mass murder. The Reader would rather spend its closing moments exploring the magical healing power of literature. The fact that the film eliminates the novels’ section where Hanna reads news articles and novels about the Holocaust (thus gaining moral clarity) is dumb. Instead of gaining insight into her actions she reads Chekhov. The movie ends up transforming into a weird and wrongheaded episode of Reading Rainbow.

Winslet’s acting is fine. She’s such a gifted actress that I doubt you’ll see her give a bad performance even if the movie doesn’t live up to her talent. She isn’t doing anything showy to make Hanna a sympathetic character, which works out well, but the film’s distant perspective means that Hanna seems more like an aloof cipher. She’s this formless blob of a character that expresses a mixture of human emotions but doesn’t resemble a recognizable human. This is the fault of the director and screenwriter who chose to replace subtext with ponderous silent stares (note to all “deep” filmmakers: THEY ARE NOT THE SAME). Winslet slips into the character with the same ease she has slipping out of her clothes. The Reader is another nudity-filled performance for Winslet, her eighth movie featuring her nude (also her fourth Oscar nomination for a nude performance, there must be some connection). As readers can attest, I am no prude when it comes to the female form, but even I thought things were getting a little gratuitous. In the first 45 minutes, Winslet is naked in almost every scene she shares with Kross. It’s almost as if the nudity is supposed to disarm the audience and make Hanna a more intimate. Winslet is one of her generation’s finest actresses, which is reason enough that she shouldn’t be handed a Best Actress Oscar for substandard material.

The Reader may not be a traditional Holocaust film and in fact it’s really not so much about the Holocaust. Sure, that colossal event casts a shadow over Germany, but the movie is mostly about a cold and daft woman and the callow boy who loves her. It’s about two characters, but it the movie is too reserved and then some. Everybody just seems numb, which makes for a boring movie after a while. I repeat: a boring movie about underage sexual affairs with freaking’ Nazis! Winslet’s fine performance is not enough to redeem the whole movie. I think much was lost in translation from page to screen. The Reader actually was more effective when it was just a cradle-robbing unorthodox love story. But then, those flicks don’t typically get nominated for Best Picture Oscars.

Nate’s Grade: C

Milk (2008)

The biopic of America’s first openly gay elected official is stirring, thoughtful, and occasionally limited. Sean Penn gives a wonderful performance as the captivating and tragic Harvey Milk, assassinated in 1978 by fellow San Francisco councilman Dan White (Josh Brolin). He changes his look, his voice, how he carries his shoulders and moves his arms; it’s a terrific and transformative performance that only sometimes hits a few fey stereotypes. The movie mostly follows Milk’s path as a community organizer who successfully mobilized the gay rights movement. You’ll witness local politics in depth, and that’s my one reservation with this fine film – it focuses too heavily on the political formation of a movement and less on the man that kick-started it. You get little glimpses of Milk the man, and most of those glimpses happen to be his romantic relationships with annoying men. That said, director Gus Van Sant orchestrates real archival footage from the time including protestors and homophobic spokespeople, and it gives the movie an authentic relevancy. The deadly confrontation between Milk and White is played in a painful, very un-Hollywood approach that made me wince hard. It’s amazing to watch Milk and realize how far the American public has come since the 1970s and how much further we, as a nation, have to go.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Love Guru (2008)

While never approaching the realm of good, I’ll admit that Mike Myers’ latest is not the cinematic abomination is has been hailed. I laughed a few times, though rare. Myers’ brand of comedy mixes puns, juvenile bathroom humor, slapstick, celebrity cameos (Ben Kingsley, why?!) and a certain level of self-aware absurdity (I don’t think Myers has found a penis joke that he didn’t enjoy). I feel that the comedy world has moved beyond Myers’ once popular brand of yuks. Thanks to Judd Apatow, we’ve transitioned to smart and tender character-based comedies. The threadbare plot relies takes too many self-indulgent and lazy detours. Why do we have to endure Guru Pitka (Myers) sing “More Than Words”? It’s not funny and just wastes time. Here’s an example of the lack of thought: Pitka wears a chastity belt but he can still get injured being hit in the groin. It’s a movie that doesn’t even remember its own gags. I’m always wary when a movie resorts to extended scenes of the characters cracking up and adding lines like, “I haven’t laughed this hard in a long time.” I have no qualms over crude comedy but it needs to be done with some planning to context and character. Watching someone get hit in the face with urine is not funny. Having pint-sized Verne Troyer get hit in the head is not funny the 80th time it happens. The movie never even satirizes the self-help industry. The Love Guru is too indulgent, too forced, too pun-heavy, too ill conceived, and far too stupid to succeed. I never thought I’d say this in a comedy that includes Myers, Stephen Colbert, Jim Gaffigan, John Oliver, Daniel Tosh, and Romany Malco, but Justin Timberlake is the funniest man on the screen as a daffy French-Canadian goalie, and that probably says enough.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

In a dystopian future, organ failure has become an epidemic. Fortunately, the GeneCo Corporation and its CEO Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) have devised a solution. They will loan out new organs to those in need. However, if the customer happens to be late on a payment then GeneCo sends out the Repo Man. This hooded figure will track you down and surgically remove GeneCo’s property, and perhaps they’ll harvest the rest of you too. People become obsessed with surgery upgrades (just think what wonders a third kidney could do for you). Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman) is a famous opera singer that signed a contract for new corneas. She’s now reconsidering retiring from the stage, no matter what that means. There’s also a powerful pain killer known as Zydrate that can be extracted from fresh corpses. Anyone caught robbing graves will be shot on sight.

One repo man, Nathan Wallace (Anthony Stewart Head), is working to keep his daughter safe. Shilo (Alexa Vega) has a rare blood disease she inherited from her mother, who died in childbirth. Nathan must keep her locked away in order for her to survive. His daughter must never know his true identity as a repo man. Rotti is informed that he is dying from inoperable cancer. His trio of bratty, homicidally crazy children (Paris Hilton, Bill Moseley, Nivek Ogre) are all fighting over who will get to run GeneCo once dad’s dead. Rotti plans a big bloody finale for everyone at the Genetic Opera’s final curtain call.

To answer the most burning question, yes it is an opera. There are perhaps five spoken lines and the rest of the movie is completely sung; you will get a solid 85 minutes of people singing while they engage in plenty of questionable acts. To say that Repo is unique is a disservice to the flick. I cannot imagine watching another movie that combines opera, vivisection, surgery addiction, Gothic costuming, and Paris Hilton actually doing a credible performance. Knowing that it is indeed a full-fledged opera, it mostly eliminates the snickers that arise from watching actors break into song at curious moments; when they’re singing all the time you’re more aware when they stop. It’s a futuristic rock opera that exists in the realm of a horror movie. There are several dispirited elements that can be occasionally awkward but that isn’t necessarily the flick’s fault. I just haven’t witnessed too many folks singing while arm-deep inside an exposed chest cavity. The movie isn’t as bloody or gory as repulsed film critics have lead you to believe. There are about four sequences of horror gore, though the film does resort to casual violence that can be off-putting, like stabbing extras. Repo possesses a wickedly entertaining and gleeful spirit.

But how is the music for such an avant guard enterprise? It’s pretty solid, actually. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, naturally with some vulgar lyrics, but the music is certainly well crafted, with strong melodies, catchy hooks, squealing guitars, and some rather impressive singing. The music is reminiscent of industrial rock acts but it also has some pretty flavorful pop styling (the pounding hard rock beats reminded me of the underrated band, kidneythieves). These are tunes that will stick in your grey matter. Some of the highlights include “Infected,” where Shilo laments her condition and says, “I’m infected/By your genetics!/Mother can you hear me?/Thanks for the disease!” The tune is likely the catchiest of them all and has a fun pop-punk melody that becomes a leitmotif. Vega also proves immediately that she can sing. “Zydrate Anatomy” is led by the charming vocals of the Graverobber (Terrance Zdunich, who co-wrote the music and lyrics) as he exposits to the audience the ins and outs of the drug market. The guitars careen and the backup junkie chorus (“A little black vial? A little black vial!”) add some depth to the tune. But least you think it’s all Goth rock, Repo mixes in traditional arrangements as well, including plenty of harried violins, cellos, and some classical opera music. There are also subdued ballads like “I Didn’t Know I’d Love You So Much” and “Genetic Emancipation” that conclude the film on a high note. It all blends together into a unique soundscape that’s well worth singing along to.

Unlike the big screen version of Mamma Mia, the cast of Repo can actually sing, and they sing quite well. Vega (Spy Kids) sounds like a better Avril Lavigne than Avril Lavigne. She’s an ingénue that actually gets some good songs. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer will recall that Head gave a standout performance on the TV show’s musical episode, and here he shows his amazing lung capacity. Head has a rich tenor voice that is lovely to hear. He howls with soulful anguish and holds onto notes for long duration. It’s tricky to present a performance only through song and Head has the most complex role (in one song he laments that “I’m the monster!/I’m the villain!”). Head also switches over into a gravely demonic voice, like his maniacal “I’m on the job” voice to frighten his victims. The personality shift is a credit to Head’s vocal range. The rest of the cast includes singers with actual opera experience (Sorvino, Brightman) and musicians (Skinny Puppy’s Ogre), and then there’s Hilton. She’s already proven with one flop album that the hotel heiress is not the surest singer in the world. However, she works with the material as a spoiled rich kid consumed by her vanity (at one point her face literally falls off).

Repo! The Genetic Opera plays better as a soundtrack than as a movie. The story is mostly simple but still manages to be confusing at points because of unresolved subplots. The characters are given glimmers of outgrowing their stock roles, but most of them just accept their underwritten fates. Repo seems like it’s on the verge of making social commentary on vanity, man’s compulsion to destroy himself to live outside one’s means, the disposable nature of beauty, destiny versus free will, but it never really delves deeper. The surface is barely skimmed and then the movie kind of chugs along at a super brisk pace. The movie has a trashy, campy atmosphere that can wear thin at times, especially under director Darren Lynn Bousman’s lackluster lens. I know this is low budget but Bousman doesn’t conceal the budget limitations too well and his shot selections can seem rather redundant and mundane for a music video, let alone a feature length film. With that said, this is still worlds more ambitious than Bousman punishing audiences with another Saw sequel (he directed Saw 2-4 and took time off from 5 for this flick). Some of the songs, while fun, seem out of place given the narrative, like the punkish “Seventeen” where Vega declares her womanhood and pretends to be a rock star and pounces around her bedroom, complete with dancing stuffed animals. It’s almost like a Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana moment of strange daydreaming. The finale at the opera is a tad overwrought and yet it seems appropriate given the operatic backdrop.

I’m dumbfounded that some critics would cite Repo! The Genetic Opera as the worst film of 2008. How could something this ambitious, with such a killer soundtrack, be worse than 88 Minutes, The Hottie and the Nottie, and the atrociously harmful Meet the Spartans? The movie is far from perfect and is bizarre, messy, and somewhat shambling, but I have a healthy appreciation for a film that tries something different, whether or not it succeeds. A bloody rock opera seems like it’s begging to be considered midnight movie material, but it’s better than that. This curious experiment works better as a soundtrack than a movie, but it’s well worth seeing because, really, when are you going to catch another freaking movie like this? If you ever venture inside a Gothic-themed club, you can expect to see this movie playing on a TV somewhere until the end of time. My advice: buy the soundtrack and get ready to have the songs take root in your brain.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Bride Wars (2009)

In early 2007, it seemed like Eddie Murphy was destined to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Dreamgirls. The funnyman was racking up honors for his fiery portrayal of a fallen Motown singer. Then came ads for the atrocious Norbit where Murphy played three roles, including a grotesquely overweight woman and a racist portrayal of an old Asian man. Was it much of a surprise then when Murphy lost out to Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) whose character died halfway into the film? I suppose Academy voters took long looks at those appalling Norbit ads and said, “Academy Award-winning star of Norbit? I don’t think so.” Earlier in 2008, Anne Hathaway starred in Rachel Getting Married and became a surefire Oscar contender with her bitterly funny portrayal of an ex-druggie released for her big sis’ wedding. Hopefully the Academy will ignore the awful comedy Bride Wars or Hathaway will be doomed to follow Murphy’s lead (personally I think this is Kate Winslet’s year).

Liv (Kate Hudson) and Emma (Hathaway) have been dreaming of getting married since they were little girls. Both girls were at New York City’s Plaza Hotel and witnessed a wedding reception. They both swore that day to get hitched at the luxurious hotel. The girls grow up and Liv works as a hotshot attorney and Emma is a schoolteacher. Both get proposed at the same time and the high-pitched squealing ensues. Emma wants Liv to be her maid of honor and vice versa. The ladies seek the services of Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergen), the greatest wedding planner in the city. She delights the duo by booking them for two June wedding dates at the illustrious Plaza Hotel. Then comes the bad news. The booking dates got mixed up and the weddings are booked on the same day. The next open date at the Plaza is in three years time. Both women refuse to budge. Then a bridal arms race begins. Each would-be bride tries to sabotage the other’s wedding preparations.

Bride Wars is indulgent and tiring and occasionally obnoxious, much like the main characters. These characters are one-note and the movie drills that one note repeatedly; Liv is domineering and Emma is a pushover. I don’t care about these characters, and when the movie ramps up the sentiment in the final 20 minutes it doesn’t work because I feel no emotional attachment, and waning interest, in these people. Hudson’s Liv serves as the real antagonist for like half the movie’s running time. She comes across as brash, pushy, unlikable, narcissistic, and overbearing, and her unflagging desire to win is what pushes the conflict. Emma and Liv view their husbands-to-be more as accessories to their collective Big Days, and the movie seems to treat them the same way. The three bland male leads (Bryan Greenberg, Chris Pratt, Steve Howey) even look vaguely the same, and Bride Wars just allows them to slowly fade away. Like the Sex and the City movie, the women come across as deeply shallow and petty, people more worried about ceremony than every day after that fairy tale wedding. The film’s comedic focus is on uninspired slapstick and the pranks that the ladies play. Bride Wars practically excuses the bridezilla bedlam because it eventually makes Emma a stronger person who can stand up for her self after long last.

The initial conflict seems trite and readily negotiable. So the girls have their weddings scheduled on the same day, and they can’t work this out? Why such drama if they’re both lifelong best friends? They couldn’t just have a double wedding? Here’s what I don’t understand. Marion tells our ladies that the Plaza has three June openings, two on the 6th and one at the end of the month. Liv gets one date and Emma gets the other date, and then a third woman (co-writer and Saturday Night Live actress Casey Wilson) grabs the final June 6th slot. So when Marion announces that her assistant switched the dates, why wouldn’t the third woman want to swap back? She’s been planning for her wedding to be on June 6, so why wouldn’t she want to keep the date she already agreed upon? Likely this woman has begun to plan around the specific date and it would make much more sense to maintain continuity. And it is this contrived conflict that sets Bride Wars loose.

The script is lazy and the PG-rating all but neuters the bitch fest. This setup was begging for the claws to be unleashed but the filmmakers play it safe. It can’t get too messy because everything must be made nice and tidy by the conclusion. The acts of sabotage never get too out of hand. This is less a war and more of a scuffle. Bride Wars trades in nothing but stereotypes and stock characters (including the late addition of Liv’s brother who obviously has a decade-long crush on Emma), and I expect that from chick flick fluff, but the movie just misses so many obvious comedic opportunities. The girls have a group of friends that offer no commentary on the situation. One of their friends is unhappily newly married and could offer plenty of sarcastic quips. Liv has her hair dyed blue at a salon and nobody in the movie makes a single joke about the wedding staple of wearing something blue? How is this even possible for a movie about weddings? That’s just a glaring oversight.

Hudson and Hathaway are far better than this material, though Hudson is credited as a producer. Perhaps she can explain why she chose a haircut that makes her head look humongous. Seriously, her head looks gigantic, especially when she stands beside the coltish Hathaway who has quite a cylindrical noggin. Hathaway comes across the better of the two. Hudson has proven adept at goofy comedy but she just comes across as a bully. Kristen Johnston (TV’s Third Rock from the Sun) looks alarmingly thin. Somebody should check up on her.

To dismiss Bride Wars as a chick flick is to miss the point. Women deserve better than this mediocre comedy that showcases women as harpies worshiping marital materialism. The characters are annoying and vapid, the conflict is boneheaded and contrived, the comedy is watered down, and the lead actresses are wasted. Because something is a chick flick does not excuse it for being poorly manufactured. Bride Wars does not reflect well upon anyone involved, from the actors, to the director, to the writers, to the people that got people coffee. The movie isn’t monstrously bad but it is a banal piece of entertainment. Women, men, and all people deserve better no matter the genre classification.

Nate’s Grade: C

Doubt (2008)

You know you’re in for some intellectual and moral ambiguity when the opening sermon covers the nature of doubt. Doubt follows a New York head nun (Meryl Streep) in 1964 that suspects one of the new parish priests (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of having an inappropriate relationship with a young male student. The acting by the four principal actors is phenomenal. This is a showcase of stellar acting. Streep is ferocious and unwavering, a one-woman wrecking ball, and yet she still manages to make an antagonistic character empathetic: she’s doing what she feels is right to protect her students. Are unethical deeds acceptable in a righteous pursuit? Does she truly believe her convictions, or is Streep striking back against an entrenched hierarchy that diminishes her value? There is a clear resentment between some of the nuns and the array of priests with all the power and all the say. Naturally, in a he-said she-said molestation case, the audience is more likely to side with the funny, caring, progressive priest than the scary nun who detests ballpoint pens and Frosty the Snowman. In the end, the accusations aren’t cleared up and the film lets the audience debate the results. Director/writer John Patrick Shanley adapts from his acclaimed stage play and does a mostly fine job bringing it alive on screen, though he has a penchant for relying on really simplistic visual metaphors. The supporting cast rises up to Streep’s level, notably Viola Davis as the mother of the boy accused of being mishandled. Note to future students of acting: study Davis’ 10 minutes of screen time to see how a truly talented thespian displays a range of conflicted emotions, none of them feeling inauthentic or cheap. Doubt isn’t just one of the best-acted films of the year but also one of the best, period, and I have little doubt to that.

Nate’s Grade: A

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