Monthly Archives: April 2009

Disney Nature’s Earth (2009)

The kind folks at the newly established Disney Nature division want to make sure those who missed out on the stunning 2006 Discovery Channel/BBC miniseries Planet Earth get another chance. Earth is a re-edited, recycled version of the globe-trotting miniseries, cutting down 8 hours to a bladder-friendly 95 minutes. Disney has given the film a family-friendly narrative, following the exploits of three families; a mamma polar bear and her cubs, a whale and offspring, and an elephant and its little thundering toddlers (note to parents: the film doesn’t shy away from death but you won’t watch any onscreen kills). The footage is jaw-dropping and to witness it on the big screen is a must-see. The mini-series, and by extension the new movie, is a powerful advertisement for conservation without having to get on-message or preachy. The gorgeous images speak volumes. The filmmakers spent over 5 years compiling mass amounts of footage, and some cameramen sat in isolated and harsh conditions for a year in order to snap rare moments on film. While the film cannot rival the mini-series, it’s still a highly watchable experience with eye-popping visuals and, really, little else. It serves as a tasty appetizer for the larger main course, the immersive and riveting Planet Earth mini-series. But hey, there is something God-like about listening to James Earl Jones detail the particulars of life on this spinning blue orb. Earth is mostly spectacle but ho boy, is it first-rate spectacle.

Nate’s Grade: A-

17 Again (2009)

My introduction to tween sensation Zac Efron came last fall. After hearing about the dominance of the High School Musical franchise I decided to finally watch the first made-for-Disney Channel film and see why exactly tween girls were screaming themselves hoarse. And after watching the musical I felt, well, how can I put this diplomatically? It sucked. Hard. First off, the plot only covered auditioning for a musical, not the actual show. What the heck is up with that? How does a movie musical climax around callbacks? Amidst the bland vanilla pop tunes, goofy hoofing, and painfully simplistic life lessons about class-consciousness, there was the overall dreadful acting by the cast. Efron wasn’t the worst actor of the lot but he seemed to go on autopilot, beaming dreamily and leaving his mouth agape long enough to stockpile flies for a long winter. I could not understand why young girls and the media were making such a fuss over Efron. I am clearly not in Efron’s core flock of fawning fans, but after catching his fairly nimble work in 17 Again I think perhaps this guy might be able to break out from the clutches of Disney and grow into his own, unlike Miss Miley Cyrus, who I believe has an ankle bracelet that will detonate if she travels further than 100 feet from the Disney execs. They don’t want another Hilary Duff getting away and sticking a scorpion down her shorts (see: War, Inc.).

Mike O’Donnell (Matthew Perry) hates his life. He’s 37, just been passed over for a promotion at his job, is getting divorced from his wife Scarlett (Leslie Mann), and his two teenage children (Sterling Knight, Michelle Trachtenberg) think dear old dad is a doofus. Apparently, everything was better 20 years ago, in 1989 when Mike was a 17-year-old basketball phenom who had his whole life ahead of him, until he walked out on a climactic game to tend to Scarlett, who just revealed that she was pregnant. Mike wishes he had one last shot to be 17 and have his whole life ahead of him again. Thanks to a magic janitor (I believe it’s really the magic hobo from The Polar Express, except now he’s gone through a work program and become a respectable community custodian), Mike transforms into the visage of his 17-year-old self (Efron). Mike seeks help from his childhood pal Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon), who poses as Mike’s father and enrolls him in the same high school his children attend. This leads to many awkward family encounters.

The body swap genre can be counted on for some decent fish-out-of-water laughs and some earned wisdom. Usually transporting young people into older bodies allows for more comedy because it leads to more socially awkward moments and the exaggerations of trying to be old before your time. 17 Again is consistently amusing enough and I was pleased that it found fun plot developments to explore from its body swap angle. So Mike is young once more but that doesn’t stop him from having, on the surface, inappropriate feelings for Scarlett. On top of that, teen Mike must beware the romantic advances of his own teenage daughter. Yes, the movie simultaneously explores robbing-the-cradle romance while dodging incestuous pratfalls al la Back to the Future. There is uncomfortable father-daughter sexual tension without getting too perverse. These two wrinkles nicely take advantage of the older person body swap premise and add some spice to an otherwise safe and sunny movie. Besides that, if you’ve seen any body swap movie from the past (and the 1980s were littered with body swap movies) then you’ll know exactly how everything will turn out with 17 Again. The movie is mostly silly, mostly the fun kind, but it doesn’t dip into being outrightly dumb. It’s derivative but it’s not fluff. I mean the essential premise revolves around a man regretting supporting his pregnant teen girlfriend/eventual wife. You won’t find that in the Hannah Montana Movie no matter how hard you try, perverts.

17 Again isn’t great art but it works as a showcase for its appealing star, the dewy-eyed, shaggy-coifed Efron. The filmmakers clearly know their target audience because Efron is shirtless and sweaty by minute one, displaying killer abs. By minute four, he’s dancing before his big basketball game (does this kid have a clause in his contract that he must play basketball in all his movies?). 17 Again asks little of Efron and he easily delivers on that mandate with a convincing performance that easily charms. He’s also adept at comic timing, particularly when he’s sparring with Lennon. Efron has a fabulous toothy grin and he’s a good-looking pup, but the jury’s still out on whether or not this kid can go the distance. He’s improved considerably since the first High School Musical launched his mug onto thousands of household products. He probably doesn’t have an Oscar in his future but he certainly will be headlining movies for years to come. He’s more movie star than actor, but let’s not mince words, the kid is a star (fun fact: Efron’s first acting credit is for an episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly).

The supporting cast surrounding Efron greatly add to the film’s surprise enjoyment. The subplot involving adult dweeb Ned romancing the principal (Melora Hardin) is an amusing diversion that manages to make me like all of the characters more. Lennon (Reno 911!) steals every moment he’s onscreen and develops a kooky chemistry with Hardin (TV’s The Office). The more these two actors interacted the more I wanted the movie to ditch everyone else. Mann gets the thankless job as “upset wife” but brings a spark to the character without coming across as grating. Trachtenberg (Euro Trip, TV’s Gossip Girl) is actually 23 years old but her youthful looks seem to lock her into teenage girl roles. Look out for cameos by comedians like Jim Gaffigan and Margaret Cho. Perry must have enjoyed working for about a week and cashing his check. Also, Perry looks absolutely nothing like Efron and appears to be over a foot taller than his younger, more genetically blessed doppelganger.

I feel sympathy for the editor of 17 Again, because clearly script supervisor Steve Gehrke must have been asleep for the entire film shoot. There are continuity gaps galore in this movie. Now, normally I don’t care so much about mild continuity errors in a movie because that’s just part of moviemaking. So if a character sits up in bed and the sheets are a few inches lower, or in a different ruffled state, well who cares? But when errors compile wildly and become flagrant distractions, then the movie has a problem and the script supervisor, the person in charge of catching those errors in progress, failed miserably. When teen Mike eats a hamburger in the school cafeteria it goes from being in his hands, out of his hands, having a bite out of it, and then magically reformed. Even worse is a moment when teen Mike is nursing a battle wound and his wedding ring keeps changing hands. Why would anyone even bother switching hands for a ring to begin with? That sounds like an easily avoidable hassle. To be fair, there are several factual errors that are not Gehrke’s total fault, though I’m dumfounded why no one else caught these. In 1989, the coach yells at Mike to quite dancing and refers to him as “Vanilla Ice,” but Vanilla Ice didn’t release his debut album until 1990 (apparently the coach knows his underground white hip-hop). What’s even more puzzling is that this pop culture reference is destined to sail over the heads of Efron’s target tween audience. All of this is easily verifiable. I won’t even get into Mike referring to “hippogriffs” 10 years before Harry Potter was published.

17 Again is a pleasant enough confection that is undemanding and yields some laughs and enough heart. The movie manages to be more mature than expected thanks to some kinky-for-PG-13 sexual tension and yet the movie is a harmless good time at the movies. Efron carries the movie ably but he’s got a great supporting cast to help carry the comedy load. Body swap movies are all invariably the same, and truly 17 Again must have been born with the sentence, “It’s reverse-Big.” It’s playful and light and cheery and pretty much an adept project for its star. It’s a small step in the right direction for Efron, and perhaps his fan base will start including more than squealing teenager girls primed to swoon at a moment’s notice. Swooning: it’s not just for the youngsters any more.

Nate’s Grade: B

Tunnel Rats (2009)

Uwe Boll does a Vietnam War film? It certainly sounds like a recipe for profound disaster. In 1968, as the intrusive prefix to the title tells us, the U.S. military had a unit of soldiers with the special mission to discover and infiltrate the miles-long underground tunnels by the Viet Cong. These “tunnel rats” were tasked with clearing out these deadly and cavernous mazes, where the Viet Cong ate, slept, and even walled up their dead within. Sergeant Vic Hollowborn (Michael Pare, who else?) heads the unit and has to shape up the new recruits into formidable fighters. Hollowborn lectures his young men on the dangers of “Charlie” and even orders them to execute an enemy prisoner. “Charlie’s gonna kill you just for being here,” he warns. “He doesn’t care if you’re a nice guy.” This nugget of wisdom is proven true over the 90-minutes of the film. The Tunnel Rats unit finds a new tunnel and this discovery eventually leads to the camp being decimated over the course of one hellish night in Vietnam.

When the action goes underground is when the movie gets, remarkably, pretty good. The labyrinthine tunnels dug out by the Viet Cong is an incredibly interesting subject that no Vietnam film has yet to cover with any substantial attention. Did you know that the Viet Cong could smell the smoke or aftershave of a man in those tunnels? They can even tell the brand of cigarette supposedly. Boll’s movie fails to take full advantage of its intriguing wartime setting. I wanted to know more about the particulars of the duties entrusted to the Tunnel Rats, a real unit of the armed forces with a high mortality rate. I wanted to know about the incredible construction of these tunnels and the dangers they posed to the U.S. armed forces. I wanted to know about the day-to-day lives of men who specialize in the tunnels, and I really wanted to learn about the unique minutia of hand-to-hand combat within such confined space. Fighting for your life in such limited space, now that’s interesting stuff.

While Boll’s war movie fails to explore the tunnel setting in detail, Tunnel Rats has its fair share of quality suspense, mostly thanks to the claustrophobic quarters. It’s hard to make such limited space exciting for so long, but Boll manages to crank up the tension by pressing in on his actors. Watching the soldiers crawl on their hands and knees, possibly for miles, never knowing what trap might be in wait, well it makes for some intense feeling of dread. There are two standout scenes involved in the tunnels. The first involves a soldier that discovers a tautly wound tripwire leading to a grenade. Boll carefully follows the soldier steadily try to diffuse the booby trap and it almost reaches a nerve-wracking sense of unease. The second standout scene involves a solider that killed a Viet Cong member in the tunnel. The U.S. soldier has to use a simple knife to pulverize the corpse of the Viet Cong member just so he has enough room to pass by inside the tunnel. The scene is shot in tight close-ups as we watch the sickening repetitive motions of the soldier doing his best and bloodiest work just to move on by. It’s harrowing and empathetic. The above ground stuff has all the requisite chaotic explosions and soldiers being gunned down, but it’s the action underground that is surprisingly steady and consistently well designed.

The cinematography by Boll regular Mathias Neumann is a great strength. It takes a page out of Janusz Kaminski’s playbook, Spielberg’s long-time cinematographer, by layering in streams of milky light. The colors are muted and the camerawork is mostly handheld. Sure the visual aesthetic is a tad derivative (it made me wonder if Boll rented Tigerland before filming) but it’s a fairly good copy. The South African location shoot makes for a pleasing facsimile of Vietnam. Neumann also finds new and interesting ways to film the tunnels so that the setting doesn’t lose any of its unsettling power. Watching soldiers crawl along the inky blackness with but a flimsy flashlight provides for some spooky imagery that doesn’t even have to resort to cheap scare tactics. However, there are far too many spinning low-angle shots that do little more than stare at the tree canopies above. It’s like the cameraman is in the constant process of nearly passing out.

The war as hell metaphor is familiar and potent, but Tunnel Rats lacks a deeper message. The film wallows in war clichés, particularly in its opening 20 minutes. The bland stock soldiers are interchangeable. They wax philosophically about the nature of God and war, talk about their hopes and dreams back home, and recount stories about laying under the stars and enjoying mom’s home cookin’. They bond, they share pictures of their respective sweethearts, and then they naturally meet a grisly end. One newbie even asks, in all seriousness, “You ever get scared out there?” The dialogue is pretty lousy and rife with clichés. The movie isn’t too subtle with some of its metaphors either, like when a Viet Cong woman literally tries washing the blood off her hands after executing a U.S. soldier. While the film is clearly told from the perspective of American soldiers, and the Viet Cong are antagonists, Boll takes time to show fairness to the enemy. One female warrior (Jane Le) fights to protect her young children. Another Viet Cong soldier fights to avenge the honor of a woman who was raped by American troops. The only message that appears to emerge from the movie occurs in the final minutes, when Boll seems to cram in a heavy-handed attempt at moralizing, a “we’re in this together, folks” kind of message that involves nearly four minutes of uninterrupted digging. But then Boll subverts that message and kills it, ending the film with the same sense of hopelessness. Tunnel Rats doesn’t bother to explore human insights and the nature of war and feels decidedly minor, following one all-out skirmish on one day of the Vietnam War. I wish Boll realized the potential his narrative had, which is not something you’ll likely often see me write. Tunnel Rats seems to be too content to be an effective horror movie dressed up as a war flick.

What is it about war movies that seem to excuse exploitation? It seems that a filmmaker can showcase tremendous gore and horrific bloody violence when they can cloak the material under the illusion of being true to life. Somehow filmmakers believe that wallowing in blood and guts is honoring the valor of those who served. This can be true, like the opening onslaught of Saving Private Ryan. But this can also be rubbish. War films can be just as exploitative as any other genre of film. Tunnel Rats has just as gruesome violence as Boll’s other horror movies, but because it has a war setting does not automatically give the violence and gore more integrity or meaning.

Tunnel Rats is a resounding achievement for the talents of Uwe Boll. It cannot even be passive-aggressively complimented as being “competent.” No, this is actually a halfway good movie that has some unsettling moments amid the suspense and chaos. The underground tunnel sequences manage to find an eerie intensity and are the best part about the movie. Thankfully Boll seems to realize this, which is why a majority of the movie alternates between various soldiers finding their way amongst the underground maze. The acting is actually some of the strongest yet in a Boll movie. Tunnel Rats would have greatly benefited from more attention being spent on the details of the life of a tunnel rat (it seems like a suicide mission).  The movie never really feels fully realistic but at the same time it eschews being campy. It’s not as nearly as serious and artistically daring as the pinnacle Vietnam War flicks, but then again the movie is also better than plenty of other recent war films that have the tendency to either be jingoistic or fetishize the brutality of war.

In a twist of fate, Boll is actually developing a first-person shooter video game based upon his Tunnel Rats movie. The man who takes video game properties and makes crummy movies out of them has now made a decent-to-somewhat-good movie and developed a video game from it. Now it’s only a matter of time before Boll adapts the game into another crummy movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Gomorrah (2008)

In the Bible, God promised not to obliterate the town of Gomorrah if Abraham could find a righteous man. That didn’t work out so well. This stirring Italian crime drama explores the long-reach of the Camorra crime syndicate stationed in Naples. The oldest Italian criminal organization is larger than the mafia, and the film’s four overlapping narrative threads showcase how the Camorra has a grip on every industry. The usual criminal enterprises are there, from drug trafficking to hired murders, but the organization is also deeply involved in the fashion industry as well as toxic dumping; in a perfect metaphor for the entire film, the Camorra is profiting by burying toxic death just below the surface. The objective docu-drama style lends disturbing reality to the ordeal, though the screenwriting too often feels like a pumped-up “true crime” novel – there’s far more emphasis on the minute details than the people. The movie makes empathy nearly impossible, not that this is necessarily a stinging detriment. The movie steers away from the excitement of violence and instead the death is merciless and swift and unexpected. Gomorrah strips away all the romantic notions involved with the gangster lifestyle; the two teenage gangster wannabes who quote Tony Montana are in for a rude awakening by the established toughs. The movie can be punishing and bleak but it’s always fascinating and told with factual backing that makes it spooky. It may not be as powerful or intense as 2002’s City of God but this is certainly one movie that can be punishing and bleak but it’s always fascinating.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Duplicity (2009)

This is the kind of slick, breezy fun that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make, or at least forgotten to make well. Writer/director Tony Gilroy has concocted an entertaining movie headlined by movie stars clearly having a blast. Gilroy’s narrative routinely folds back on itself with plot reversals, supplying new perspectives to the ongoing con/heist involving Clive Owen and Julia Roberts as ex-spies and current lovers. The movie itself is one long, pleasing con that manages to stay a step ahead of the audience without coming across as too confusing or dull. The tricky, twisty plot means that the audience must constantly reevaluate the movie, meaning that watching Duplicity can be described as less involving and more like an assignment. Gilroy is a sophisticated wordsmith and he has been knocking out crafty, intelligent adult movies, from the Bourne franchise to 2007’s Michael Clayton. The man probably spent too much effort trying to keep an audience on its toes. The audience becomes keenly aware of the plot structure, and we know it’s only a matter of time (usually 10-15 minutes) before another flashback reveals something else that will change the rules of the game. Still, the movie benefits from fantastic character interplay between Owen and Roberts and a superb supporting cast lead by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti as scheming corporate scoundrels (the opening credits slow-mo fight between the two men is delightful). Duplicity is an enjoyable romp with snappy dialogue, sizzling stars, and little re-watchability once all the plot machinations play out.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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