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Dumbo (2019)

Director Tim Burton has always been attracted to the weirdos, the outsiders, the freaks, so it seems fitting that he attached his name to a big-budget, live-action remake of Disney’s 1941 animated film of the flying pachyderm, Dumbo.

Shortly after World War I, Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is returning home and reuniting with his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). They’re rebuilding in the wake of their mother’s loss and Holt’s war amputation. He and his horse-wrangling wife used to be the star attraction for their traveling circus run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito). The circus is on hard times until Max purchases a pregnant elephant that gives birth to a big-eared baby with a special ability to fly. Suddenly the crowds come pouring back and a bigwig like V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) sees a big opportunity. He offers the circus to move to his state-of-the-art theme park, Dreamland, and for Dumbo to perform with his famed trapeze artist, Colette (Eva Green, seeming to take the mantle of Burton’s Raven-Haired Muse, after Helena Bonham Carter, and before her Lisa Marie, and before her Wynona Rider — seriously, look it up, there are only four movies in his whole career that don’t feature these actresses). The big new stage only serves as a reminder of how lonely Dumbo is and the family plots to reunite him with his mother.

As we enter a precipitous new age of Disney live-action over saturation, each new remake must be asked the question, why does this film need to exist? I feel like we can classify the glut of live-action remakes into two categories, namely the older, less revered films and the newer, more revered. Take for instance two 2016 remakes, The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, as both films felt enough distance from their sources’ release that they had the comfort to be different. In the case of both movies, especially the beautifully lyrical Pete’s Dragon, I’d say they are improvements. But those movies are old and the nostalgia for them is minimal. That’s the not the case for films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and The Lion King, where the originals are beloved by an audience that still remembers them fondly and vividly, now slightly older, and looking for fidelity rather than artistic invention. When the live-action 2017 Beauty and the Beast, an otherwise dreary and pointless remake of a new classic, makes a billion dollars, Disney has a pretty clear indication of what the wider audience wants with their remakes. Dumbo is a movie that actually has some room for new artistic life, especially with a talent like Burton adding his own signature dash of razzle-dazzle. There are some things from the source material that could use further examination, like animal abuse, and some things from the 1941 original that could deservedly be eliminated, like the racist “Jim Crows.” It may be early but I think Dumbo will be my favorite of the 2019 Disney remakes.

There’s an enjoyable sense of whimsy and wonder to the film that also belies a darker underbelly, something that Burton has featured since Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Early on, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Ghost in the Shell, The Ring) establish the world by returning dear old dad back but with one less arm. It undercuts the reunion and also leads to a crossroads of mounting questions about his viability as a performer and adaptability. The children and the father are the real stars of the film, a family trying to reconfigure their new identity in the absence of their mother and the readjustment of their father after he can no longer be a headliner. It’s enough to ground the movie emotionally and provide a sense of stakes. The motley crew of circus performers and sideshow acts serves as a non-traditional family unit, a found family, and one fighting for their own slice of dignity. I’m likely reading more into this than intended but the fact that I can shows that Burton and company at least put in solid efforts to stake a foundation. The wonderfully macabre, askew Burton elements are present as well, especially in the production design for Dreamland, which looks like another fantasy neighborhood straight out of Halloweentown in Nightmare Before Christmas. The presence of Eva Green is another enjoyable highlight as a French acrobat that becomes close to Dumbo and the Farrier family as a whole. It’s sweet with a little touch of the eccentric, which is another fine way of describing Max Medici and DeVito’s affectionate performance. There is an offbeat sense of humor to and visual whimsy to the film that works with the standard heartwarming family elements rather than against it. It’s a movie that can hit you in the gut and then make you smile the next minute.

Dumbo is less a character than he is a symbol, but it works for the most part even if it hampers the larger storytelling prowess of the film. He’s a symbol for every person to import their own feelings, an outsider who feels like they do not belong. He’s also a symbol of innocence as a gentle animal, something to tug at the heartstrings when he’s mistreated or separated from his mother. It’s hard not to feel something when the camera gets the special close-up for his big, soulful eyes. He’s even more sad looking in garish clown makeup. The animal rights angle isn’t heavy-handed but enough to get you feeling sympathy for poor creature. It sets up a big escape to reunite mother and son and free them from captivity that reminded me of a 90s kids movies, but not necessarily in a negative way. I think that’s one of the achievements of Burton’s movie is that he has reshaped an older children’s movie model with his unique touches. It’s a far more successful alchemy than 2010’s dull Alice in Wonderland.

I also have to call special attention to Michael Keaton’s villainous character specifically because it is an obvious stand-in for Walt Disney. Not only does he own a theme park, where the customers come to him rather than the other way around, but also he’s a showman who’s underhanded, greedy, and backbiting, ready to cut anyone loose. There’s even a scene that shows him comically inept when it comes to actually performing any actual practical skill, like controlling an electrical panel (Keaton’s exaggerated movements made me think of a child pretending to be an adult at work). Keaton is also wonderfully daft as the blowhard. He feels like he’s in a very different movie that only he knows about, and while it didn’t exactly fit it made every one of his scenes more entertaining. Burton and his team were biting the hand that feeds them, calling into question the intentions and actions of the man that gave birth to the empire, and Disney miraculously approved of this. Maybe they felt they had gotten so big (sayonara, 20th Century Fox) that criticism didn’t matter, or maybe it somehow slipped under their collective radar, I cannot say, but its inclusion is both welcome and fascinatingly bizarre for a 2019 Disney release.

At its core, Dumbo is an enjoyable if limited remake, a movie that sets its ambitions low but sets out to try a few different things with modest success. There are some scenes that go too far, whether it’s the extended reaction shots of crowds vocally heckling… an elephant, or a pretty lazy message that we can all be special because of what we have inside, that reminded me what the finished film could have been, namely far worse. It doesn’t quite soar but it does rise above my expectations and kept me pleasantly entertained.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Going in Style (2017)

If seeing Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin pal around and bicker for 90 minutes is enough reason to see a movie, then Going in Style offers that and precious little else. This is a movie that offers little more than three great old codgers doing their schtick as they plan to rob the bank that is cheating them out of their hard-earned pensions. The old-guys-acting-up routines vary from mildly amusing to sad and desperate, like a sequence where the trio inexplicably decide to practice their criminal impulses by robbing a convenience store. It’s all so broad and obvious and lackluster. There’s a scene where they get high and the mere utterance of the word “munchies” seems like it’s intended to be a comedic payoff. Going in Style is a remake of a 1979 movie where George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg take to a life of crime to animate them from a forgotten existence. It was strangely serious and had pockets of depth about the kind of care the elderly were receiving and how invisible their needs became to our country. This update loses any seriousness for exasperated and hollow hijinks. One-time indie darling Zach Braff (Garden State) takes his turn as a hired gun directing for the studio system. I don’t know if he was easily cowed by the acting veterans or the studio, but his comedy instincts honed over several seasons from Scrubs feel muted here. My theater was packed with people old enough to get their social security checks and they were barely chuckling politely. It’s predictable every step of the way and ginned up with contrived conflicts. Still, if all you want to see is a group of octogenarians crack wise and act foolish and you have no other pressing demands, Going in Style may be just enough to get by.

Nate’s Grade: C

Argo (2012)

The reinvention of Ben Affleck as movie director took a big step forward with the critical and commercial success of the 2010 Boston cops-and-robbers thriller, The Town. While I’d argue Affleck’s first outing as a director, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, is still his best, The Town won over plenty of doubters. Here was an actor-turned-director who could deliver smart drama, intense suspense, and coax Oscar-caliber performances from his brilliantly assembled casts. Have you seen Blake Lively half as good in anything as she was as a tragic junkie single mom in The Town? She’ll be able to get work for years just from the demo reels of that performance. But with two sturdy, complex, taut genre movies under his belt, Affleck still had doubters. The political thriller Argo takes Affleck far out of his Bostonian comfort zone. The creative stretching proves fruitful because Argo is a stirring, fascinating, and engrossing true-life story that should at last silence the remainng doubters concerning Affleck’s talents behind the camera.

In 1979, The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overtaken by a storm of Iranian protestors. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for an exasperating 444 days. During the takeover, six Americans escapes through a back alley and found asylum with the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). There they waited for months, trying to work out a plan to escape. If caught by the mob, it’s very likely they would be deemed spies and executed. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his scheme. His idea is to pretend the six American hostages are part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for their sci-fi movie. His superiors seem dubious but Mendez gets the green light. He heads to Hollywood and puts together his team, a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman) and an established producer (Alan Arkin) on the outs with the industry. They settle on the screenplay “Argo” and have to build a credible cover story. From there, Mendez travels into Iran to meet with the hidden hostages to sell them his scheme. They were all coming out together or nobody was getting back home.

Argo is a fascinating story that seems like it could only exist in the movies, and yet it’s a true story and one hell of a story. It’s a mission movie, so we know the familiar flow of the film even as the details seem fresh (unless you’re Canadian). The very idea is one of those “so crazy it might work” plans; one State department official asks, “You don’t have any better bad ideas than this?” Even though we know it was a success, that doesn’t stop the movie from being engrossing. Argo flies by like a caper film as the CIA gathers the resources and experts to try and put together a ramshackle rescue mission. There’s feeling out the Hollywood angle, gathering the pieces to create the illusion of an actual film production, and the urgency of the façade. Even though it’s a bit outlandish, the fake movie plot seems worlds better than the other possible plans being pitched by the government agencies (smuggling in bicycles and maps?). I thought it was genuinely interesting just to be granted access to a room where people where debating rescue options and picking them apart. The film is consistently intriguing watching smart people come up with smart solutions to challenging problems.

Argo really is three movies expertly rolled together into one; a Middle East thriller, a Hollywood satire, and a D.C. procedural. It’s a bonus that every one of these segments works but it’s even more surprising, and rewarding, that the different segments all snap together without breaking tone. Credit Affleck the director for making sure his movie parts don’t overpower one another. We can go from a tense Middle East sequence where the hostages might have just risked exposure, and then we’ll cut to Hollywood and laugh at the cantankerous Lester. It’s a delicate balancing act that Affleck superbly handles. The humor of Hollywood doesn’t detract or minimize the seriousness of the Middle East chapters; it allows room to breathe, to let off steam. The D.C. segments are the biggest expository moments but they give scope and meaning to the danger. Each of these segments is compelling and each one could have been a captivating movie all its own. We’re fortunate that Argo gives us all three.

Audience ignorance aside, we may know how this story ends but that doesn’t stop the film from being completely nerve-wracking. Affleck showed remarkable skill in The Town when it came to building exciting sequences that felt like they would explode with tension. When it came to Argo, there were moments that literally kept me on the edge of my seat, a rarity with action films. The beginning sequence of the American embassy is rapt with suspense, as the security system deteriorates and the people inside realize the inevitable. They start destroying classified state evidence but really they just have to sit and wait, hearing the footsteps, knowing what is near. The sharp screenplay from Chris Terrio (Heights) does a tremendous job of developing clear suspense sequences. There’s the tension of the precarious subterfuge, of the hostages hiding behind enemy lines, so to speak. If one wrong person were to discover their identity, it could quickly unravel. There’s a whole team of children being paid to piece together shredded documents and photos like they were jigsaw puzzles. Knowing this, it makes the scenes where the group ventures out of the embassy thrilling. The group has to visit a marketplace as part of their cover and it’s terrifying.  We know the steps of escape, and each one could easily blow up and get everyone killed. Just when you think you can breathe a sigh of relief we’ve moved onto the next challenge and the tension washes over you again. The climax is so tense that your audience will likely erupt in applause when the hostages eventually escape, relieved and proud of the accomplishment.

The maturation of Affleck as a bonafide directing talent continues. There’s a growing confidence in his direction. The man doesn’t have to rely on flashy visual artifice nor does he seem to be hewing to one notable style. He’s directing each movie as its own beast, be it crime thrillers or true-life suspense story. The man knows where to put his camera in the thick of the action. Affleck also eschews the popular shakycam docu-drama approach that too many filmmakers automatically does all the work of establishing realism. Docu-drama visuals can work when properly utilized, but too often I find it to be self-consciously arty and an annoying distraction. Affleck’s camera remains steady but holds on his actors, giving them space to emote. Three movies into his directing career, Affleck has established himself as one of the best men to direct actors. He’s already lead two actors to Oscar nominations and might just earn a third for Arkin. Plus there’s the fact that Argo, top to bottom, is cast with great character actors. You have people the likes of Michael Parks (Red State) who are there for one line. It also helps Affleck the actor to have Affleck the director.

The only nagging problem with Argo is that it’s rather light when it comes to character development. The caper is the star of the movie and sucks up most of the screen time. The film does an excellent job of recreating the anxiety that the hostages felt. I can’t say we get to know any of them well as people. I can’t say we get to know much about Tony Mendez either, beside the de rigueur parts of being a CIA agent like divorce, child custody, and long nights of loneliness. The best-developed character in the movie is Lester Siegel, and while he’s terrifically entertaining, it’s something of a misstep for the cranky Hollywood producer to win that title. He’s a man who knows his value in the ever-changing currency of Hollywood; bitter, crabby, but hopeful of making a difference. Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) is a natural fit for the character and brings more dimensions to the role. I wish the same care were given for the other people in the story, particularly those in harm’s way. The nuanced approach to character with Gone Baby Gone and The Town is just absent. Thankfully, the story is so engrossing that it’s not a mortal wound, but you do wish there was a greater emotional involvement in the film rather than a generic empathy of rescuing those in danger. Also, the Canadian involvement seems curiously downplayed even though their ambassador was the one hiding them for months. His role in the movie plays like he’s Guy #8. I know we tackle the CIA’s involvement but Canada could use more recognition for their integral contributions.

Argo establishes Ben Affleck as a dependable, versatile, actor’s director; someone along the likes of a Sidney Lumet or Sydney Pollack (I swear I don’t have a “Sydney” key lock in my brain). Affleck has proven to be a director who immerses himself into his stories, and his fingerprints are on every frame, every performance. He just nails it. The pacing is tight, the suspense builds to near unsustainable levels, and the tones are expertly juggled to prove complimentary rather than distractions. Best of all, Affleck lets Terrio’s terrific script take center stage. The incredible true-story of Argo is the biggest selling point for the movie, and Affleck doesn’t try to gussy up a whopper of a tale. The film has even more unexpected resonance given the recent spur of violent protests in the Middle East, notably the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Argo doesn’t sensationalize the hostage crises for cheap popcorn entertainment. Nor does it glorify or denigrate the Iranian’s outrage over the U.S. giving sanctuary to the deposed Shah. For a very political subject, the movie takes a very muted political stance, relying on the facts of the situation. The movie finds a rare poignancy in its appeal to the power of international cooperation. By the end of the movie, you might even tear up when you hear the actual hostages and government officials recount their struggle and ultimate triumph. Argo is that rare breed of a movie that seems to have everything. While it’s not perfect, it’s clear that Affleck is here to stay as a top-level director.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Sunshine Cleaning (2009)

This mordant family drama has an intriguing premise, sisters who start a business cleaning up after messy crime scenes, but the film suffers from a crippling passivity. It’s nicely acted all around, especially Emily Blunt as the more troubled, wild child sister. The dysfunctional characters are established with momentary glimpses to back-stories, mostly tragic, but the narrative just sort of nudges them along. Sunshine Cleaning is a little too removed and clinical for its own good. The working-class characters are rundown but that doesn’t mean the movie has to feel the same way. Subplots and characters will be abandoned or left with no resolution. Alan Arkin’s scheming grandfather character never seems related to the plot, and he feels like he was lifted from another movie with a wackier veneer. It also makes time for cute sentimental elements that don’t jibe with the film’s tone, like using a CB radio to talk to loved ones in heaven. Sunshine Cleaning is sweet and sincere drama with some dark humor mixed in and it comes across as affable entertainment. Still, this movie had much more promise, if only it was less reserved and afraid to get its hands dirty.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Marley & Me (2008)

The dog dies. There. You’ve been warned. I feel that everyone walking into this movie needs to know exactly what they will endure. It’s not just that the cute, rambunctious yellow Labrador of the title dies, it’s how. The cause of death is fairly ordinary for an aged pooch, but it’s how the film Marley & Me goes about wringing every possible tear that should be known (so spoilers already, folks). The whole process is drawn out to maximum drama. We get the parents, John and Jennifer (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Anniston), discussing the sad realities of what must be done. We see each of their three children say goodbye to their beloved dog before he goes off one last time to the vet. We see the oldest child, who knows fully well what will happen, tear up and hug the dog’s face. But putting the dog to sleep in between scenes is not an option for this movie, and so we witness the slow process with John caressing his beloved dog as the life slowly ebbs away. And, to hammer home the sentiment ever harder, the movie cuts back and forth between the dog dying at the vet’s office and to John’s children watching a home movie montage of Marley through the years. John, who has been dubbing his canine “the worst dog in the world,” then whispers into Marley’s ears that he was, in fact, a “great dog.” Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. Then we have the kids return one more time for a doggie funeral. Each kid buries a message they wrote for their dearly departed dog including one that hopes that there is lots of things to chew on in heaven (the kid also drew a picture of the dog with angel wings and a halo). My friends, I am a grown man but even I was no match for this emotional onslaught. I felt like a battered prizefighter, thinking I had enough willpower to collect myself and then the movie hit me again with another blow. If you can sit stone-faced then I envy you and, at the same time, I pity you.

So there it is. I feel that every interested party in Marley & Me needs to know what will devastate them in the end. The film follows the marriage of John and Jennifer, who both work as reporters in Florida. She’s got the better gig, and he’s running around town tying to report on methane leaks and writing obits. John envies his friend Sebastian (Eric Dane) and the fame and credibility he has as a serious journalist who travels the globe. Sebastian suggests that John get his wife a puppy to delay her biological clock. And so one fateful day, John blindfolds his wife and takes her to a puppy farm. She picks the cheapest puppy out of a pack of Labradors (Note to self: there is always a reason a puppy is cheaper than its peers). They name the new addition Marley. John’s cantankerous editor (played by the cantankerous Alan Arkin) orders him to start writing a column. He’s absent column ideas until he starts writing about the comic misadventures of owning a dog. The column becomes a hit and Marley becomes a boon of inspiration, when he isn’t eating everything in sight, edible and non-edible alike.

Marley & Me is a curious creature. Much of the plot follows a repetitious formula of Marley being destructive. He eats pillows. He chews on clothes. He eats drywall. He bursts through a screen door. He chases after people. He eats plants. He eats jewelry. He eats anything and everything. Probably half of this movie is watching Marley destroy something while John and Jennifer run around. For a decent portion, Marley & Me will play out as a cautionary tale to parents about dog ownership. Now, for pet owners, the movie will be seen as amusing and truthful, and I can attest to this. My two-year-old mutt Atticus will routinely chew on things he is not supposed to, notably my wife’s shoes and underwear (we still love him). However, I’m not about to turn this quirk of pet ownership into the majority of a screenplay. If you eliminated Marley from the story all you wouldn’t be left with much to warrant watching.

The rest of the film really focuses on the nuts and bolts of holding together a marriage. John and Jennifer have three children and their marriage experiences some strained times, but they bounce back. They’re both fairly nice people. The non-dog moments of the film play out in equal amounts of mundane and fantasy. The mundane moments are mostly the marital glimpses between john and Jennifer, where we see them engage in realistic arguments and conflicts and reach believable resolutions. The fantasy angle occurs whenever we flash back to John’s writing career. John is ordered to take a column, and then when he’s offered it full-time he wavers. His editor then quickly says he’ll double his salary. The movie is also filled with little moments where everyone tells the main character how great they are, how special what they’re doing is, and this always feels too hackneyed for me when the main character is also the author. It’s ego stroking (look out for the main character of Nate Zoebl to be dubbed way too awesome by every other character in the upcoming film, “The Life and Times of Nate Zoebl — Man of Humble Awesomeness”). Most of the time spent at John’s work is boring, probably because most storylines would be boring when compared to the wacky antics of a dog.

Director David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) shepherds the comedy along nicely. The pacing is swift for a two-hour dog movie. Frankel includes a peculiar sequence shortly after John is assigned his column. John rapidly narrates the next few months of his life with Marley, and the movie cranks up the speed on the visuals. It strongly reminded me of a similar experience in 2002’s Rules of Attraction, where Victor (Kip Pardue) quickly narrates his months of debauchery spent in Europe. It’s a strange connection to be made with a family film.

Marley & Me is definitely going to hit people in different ways. As a loyal dog owner, it made me want to rush home and hug my 45-pound fuzzy baby. The movie presents the chaos of life as something to be cherished, much like Marley. It channels Wilson’s lackadaisical charm and the movie comes across as amusing, chipper, and then downright wrenching once the old dog’s time has come. I’ve been reading about angry parents and grandparents that took their young ones to this movie and then left with crying, shell-shocked little tykes. These people feel that it is wholly inappropriate for young ones to be subjected to the trauma of losing a loved one. Apparently they didn’t read a review where the author’s first sentence was, “The dog dies.” I don’t think Marley & Me will be responsible for therapy bills but this flick examines the enjoyment and heartache of pet ownership like few others. And yeah, the ending is laid on really, really thick, but it shows how a creature could destroy many of your personal possessions and still be considered man’s best friend.

Nate’s Grade: B

Get Smart (2008)

Get Smart was a beloved spy satire that aired on television from 1965 to 1970. Don Adams starred as Agent 86 and he bungled his way through scene after scene, oblivious to his shortcomings. The show was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry and maintained a genial, goofball appeal as it satirized James Bond style spy movies and tweaked Cold War paranoia. And as is written in stone by Hollywood, anything that was ever once on television must eventually become a big screen theatrical version. Get Smart already produced one unfortunate movie, 1980’s The Nude Bomb (which doesn’t sound too different from the U.S. Air Force’s plan to create a Gay Bomb — true story). I’m pleased to report that the big-budget modern Get Smart retains enough of the show’s flavor even while producing something with little resemblance to the source.

The updated Get Smart exists in a world not too different from our own (the president is still a boob). CONTROL is still in operation but secretly underground. Agent Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) is an expert analyst who specializes in knowing the enemy and compiling 400-page reports. He’s failed the field agent test several times and desperately wants to get out from behind a desk. The Chief (Alan Arkin) says that he needs more men like Max. He gets his chance when CONTROL is attacked by KAOS. Many of the Agents identities have been compromised. The only agents remaining are the dashing and hulky Agent 23 (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), the svelte and beautiful Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), a group of science techs (including Heroes‘ Masi Oka), the Chief, and newly appointed Agent 86, Maxwell Smart. KAOS, perhaps thanks to the end of the Cold War, has become a group of shadowy men making ties to terrorist groups worldwide. Siegfried (Terence Stamp) and his henchmen are aiming to sell nuclear devices to terrorists. Agent 99 and Max must travel across the globe to ensure that KAOS does not fulfill its villainous schemes.

The plot is fairly workmanlike and it doesn’t really establish much in the way of an ongoing threat. As a result, the movie feels like it lives in the moment, going from gag to gag, but it just so happens that a decent number of those gags are funny. Get Smart is mostly a chuckler of a movie, sure to bring smiles and giggles but rarely hard, gut-busting laughter. I never found myself laughing too hard but I did find myself enjoying the time. Get Smart is a very amiable experience that manages to maintain a healthy level of silliness without ever falling victim to stupidity. It’s pleasantly goofy without becoming farce. Sure there is crude slapstick but the film, and Carell in general, manage to give them a slight edge that elevates them beyond your typical juvenile behavior. There may be a pee joke or a quasi-homophobic joke but Carell manages to make it worth your time.

The relationship between Carell and Hathaway provides significantly more interest than the ho-hum plot. The filmmakers find a clever way around the potentially unsettling reality of the age difference between Carell and Hathaway, who is nearly 20 years younger. The two have a spunky chemistry and their combative interaction elicits some of the most amusing laughs. Hathaway, with her doe eyes and dewy features, is just as eager and up to the task as Carell, so watching them spar and tease gives the movie a bit more juice. Kudos to the casting director because the cast is packed with capable comic actors that know when to seize the moment, and Arkin seizes every one of them (it seems that with every new film, my man crush on The Rock only grows greater).

The film is a hybrid of comedy and ramped-up action set pieces, and surprisingly they aren’t that bad. Director Peter Segal, who has directed three Adam Sandler vehicles, stages some fairly exciting action sequences with a decent degree of visual flair but the film overindulges on action. The movie should focus more on its cast of characters instead of loud, brash action sequences. It’s a little weird watching Maxwell Smart expertly shoot people like he went to a John Woo camp. The tones never fully match up, and Get Smart begins to feel like a comedy that thinks it?s a James Bond movie or an action film that thinks its overly absurd. The tonal struggle means that the comedy is handicapped by all the action interrupting and stalling the pace of jokes. There are times when Carell and Hathaway are firing one-liners at one another and then -WHAM!- they have to dodge bullets and kick bad guys. The stunts are impressive but I kept feeling a sense of disappointment when the action would cut short the momentum of the comedy. The spurts of action shortchange the humor. Segal’s direction is also blunt at times, so whenever a character thinks reflectively we have to witness a mash-up of past clips to visualize what the character is reflecting upon, in case our memories of a two-hour movie fail us while it’s still ongoing.

Get Smart is greatly benefited by the considerable comic charms of Carrell. His Agent 86 isn’t so much incompetent as he is bumbling, but best of all the man keeps a gloriously self-deprecating and deadpan sense of humor from beginning to end. He doesn’t lack self-awareness, and is not ignorant of the feminine charms of his partner, and as a result this new version of Maxwell Smart ends up being, well, kind of smart. Carrell shoulders the film and is able to save lackluster gags by his sheer comic ability and immense likeability. The film doesn’t push the envelope in any regard but it also doesn’t condescend or try and flirt with being too clever for its own good. Thanks to Carell, Get Smart manages to be much more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Fans of the Get Smart TV show, such as myself, will find it hard to recognize the source material inside the big screen transformation. The filmmakers have turned a goofy satire of Cold War paranoia into a full-fledged summer popcorn action cartoon. The movie moves at a brisk pace, despite pushing toward the two-hour mark, and its screenplay is packed with enough enjoyably silly and smartly stupid jokes to guarantee a string of smiles. Like Carell’s 2007 entry Dan in Real Life, the movie presents such a jovial, good-natured spirit that becomes mildly infectious. You may roll your eyes a few times but you forgive and forget. Carell proves he is fast becoming one of the most capable and leading comics, and he proves yet again that his force of personality can elevate material that doesn’t meet his same qualities. I just wish that Get Smart had focused more on the yuks and less on gunplay and explosions. I guess, to quote a certain agent, you could say they missed it by that much.

Nate’s Grade: B

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Slowly but surely, Little Miss Sunshine is gaining momentum as the breakout comedy of the summer. It’s gotten some of the most glowing reviews of the year and is poised to capture the hearts of not just fans of indie cinema but also patrons of the big suburban multiplexes, your red state soccer moms and NASCAR dads. After having seen Little Miss Sunshine, I feel like I must have missed the bandwagon.

Little Olive (Abigail Breslin) is bursting with shriek-worthy excitement. She just found out she’s a regional contestant in the national Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant. Her family crams into a beaten down, canary yellow Volkswagen bus and heads off on a cross-state journey for Olive. Along for the ride are Olive’s fractured family — older brother (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he becomes a fighter pilot, stressed-out but supportive mom (Toni Collette), ambitious self-help failure dad (Greg Kinnear), a potty-mouthed, heroin-snorting grandpa (Alan Arkin), and a suicidal gay uncle (Steve Carell). It’s a long road to the pageant, especially with such an eclectic group of people whose only thing in common are their chromosomes.

I just couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling that Little Miss Sunshine should be more. It’s not really much of a comedy. There are some funny moments, and pushing the bus is a running gag with better legs than I would have guessed, but the film has a lot of stretches where the laughs are low to nonexistent. It’s not really much of a character piece either. None of the characters are that well defined or allowed to stretch out. The family members are all archetypes of indie film weirdness: the gay intellectual, the verbally inappropriate grandparent, the self-deluded father, the frazzled mother, the loner brother, and the precocious tyke. Little Miss Sunshine does a fine job of setting up its family of cracked characters but then seems to twiddle its thumbs when it comes to development. The only character insights come in a scattered few small moments with Olive. Dad is essentially poisoning his family with his self-help claptrap, casting the world into “winners” and “losers.” There’s a heartfelt moment brilliantly played Breslin where she confesses to grandpa that she doesn’t want to be a loser because her dad would stop loving her. Aside from that, Little Miss Sunshine seems to wind its characters up and then leave them be. I wanted more of just about everything but the movie wouldn’t budge.

The movie spends quite arguably too much time at the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. Child beauty pageants are a well deserved, albeit easy, satirical punching bag, and they creep the hell out of me. Seriously, turning little girls into highly sexualized Barbie dolls seems cruel, unnatural, and very very creepy to me. There was a stupendous documentary that aired on HBO years ago called Living Dolls that traced the life of a six-year-old girl and her stage mother. It was a harrowing film, and the obsessive mother is one of the most disturbing villains I’ve ever seen in a movie, scripted or otherwise. In the film you see how people transform little girls into flirty, overly made-up little adults. It’s sickening.

The reason I bring this up is because Little Miss Sunshine because they lift a direct metaphor. In Living Dolls the main girl is playing one of those tiny slide puzzles where the finished result is an honest to God yellow smiley face. It’s a perfect metaphor of this child attempting to find happiness when no one seems to want her to live as a child. And then I saw the exact same moment in Little Miss Sunshine. Rip-off or accidental homage, you decide. In the same vein, every time Kinnear invokes the name of his literary agent, Stan Grossman, I kept thinking of Fargo.

In Sunshine, the family is aghast at the pageant scene but support Olive anyway. Then things get way too easy. The film concludes with the 5,785th rendition of the weirdos celebrating what makes them who they are, their weirdness, and sticking it to the thumb-nosing naysayers. Then the movie abruptly ends. That’s all, folks. Little Miss Sunshine was already built on the aching backs of two very familiar indie staples, dysfunctional families and road trips, and offers little else to justify its existence.

It’s hard to really drag this film through the mud. It was proficiently made by the music video directing team of Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris (Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight Tonight). The acting is generally good. The better actors rise to the top despite their limited character depth. Carell is a big name in comedy right now, and he gives a rather subdued, sarcastic performance that will resonate best with audiences. Kinnear is better at playing smug types than pathetic types. His character really is the villain of the piece, so it’s nice to see his transformation even if it is awfully spontaneous. Collette always looks to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Breslin (Signs) is pretty cute and will pierce your heart during the aforementioned talk with grandpa.

There are some amusing moments and fun pieces of dialogue, and the film has its heart in the right place. The screenplay needed to go through a few more drafts to strengthen character and story. I can honestly say my favorite part of Little Miss Sunshine was listening to its very Sufjan Stevens-like soundtrack full of meloncholic horns, cellos, violins, squeezebox and electronic whispers. I would recommend the soundtrack ahead of the movie.

I feel some shades of guilt as I gather my opinion, however I cannot deny the overwhelming urge that Little Miss Sunshine should have been more. It needed more comedy, more character depth, more attention to story, and more opportunity for its ensemble of actors to sink their teeth into the material. This appointed indie darling is intermittingly amusing, has some laughs, and may be worth a free afternoon or as a rental. To me, it’s also a big example of wasted potential. Little Miss Sunshine is a beauty that needs more work before it can shine on a greater stage.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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