Mini Reviews (January 2009)
Bride Wars, Last Chance Harvey, Inkheart, Get Smart, The Spirit
Bride Wars (January 8/09)
Though one could certainly do far worse in terms of early January releases, Bride Wars nevertheless comes off as a hopelessly predictable comedy whose positive attributes are ultimately outweighed by its negatives. The storyline follows best friends Liv (Kate Hudson) and Emma (Anne Hathaway) as they viciously turn on one another after their respective weddings are scheduled for the same day at the Plaza, while Emma finds herself forced to confront the possibility that the man she's due to marry (Chris Pratt's Fletcher) might just be all wrong for her. It's a pretty tedious premise that's initially elevated by funny (yet entirely sitcom-like) bursts of comedy (ie Emma, well aware of Liv's penchant for nervously packing on the pounds, gifts her friend with a membership to the International Butter Club), with the central characters' increasingly mean-spirited antics effectively allaying the more overtly hackneyed elements within Greg DePaul, Casey Wilson, and June Diane Raphael's script. There inevitably does reach a point, however, at which the cruel pranks and one-liners (ie Liv to Emma: "Your wedding will be huge -- just like your ass at prom!") are forgotten in favor of melodramatic plot twists and confrontations, as the almost painfully sentimental third act panders to the viewer in a manner that's nothing short of shameless. Hudson and Hathaway's enthusiastic work is subsequently rendered moot, and Bride Wars cements its place as low-brow entertainment that's been geared exclusively towards indiscriminating chick-flick aficionados.
Last Chance Harvey (January 9/09)
Though saddled with virtually every single romantic-comedy convention one could possibly imagine, Last Chance Harvey nevertheless manages to break through its admittedly hackneyed structure to become a surprisingly charming piece of work - with Dustin Hoffman's thoroughly compelling turn as the central character certainly standing as the film's most overtly positive attribute. The actor stars as Harvey Shine, a musician whose pathetic existence is alleviated after he meets a lonely airline employee (Emma Thompson's Kate Walker) while in England for his daughter's wedding. Filmmaker Joel Hopkins has infused Last Chance Harvey with an unapologetically manipulative sensibility that's at its most egregious in the opening half hour, as Harvey is portrayed as an almost epically morose figure who essentially comes off as the living embodiment of Murphy's Law (ie he loses his job, his flight is cancelled, his daughter wants her stepfather to walk her down the aisle, etc). It's only as Harvey encounters Kate that the movie first starts to genuinely engage the viewer, and there's ultimately little doubt that Last Chance Harvey fares best during the tentative couple's early getting-to-know-one-another conversations (which are, admittedly, more than a little reminiscent of Before Sunrise and its sequel). By the time the inevitable fake break-up rolls around - one that is, even by the genre's standards, particularly needless - it's become awfully easy to overlook the film's various deficiencies thanks to the engaging (and downright palpable) chemistry between the two stars. The movie's place as a well-crafted example of feel-good storytelling is subsequently impossible to deny, and it's certainly refreshing to encounter a romance revolving around a pair of older characters.
Inkheart (January 22/09)
Though saddled with as uneven a sensibility as one could possibly imagine, Inkheart nevertheless comes off as an agreeable fantasy epic that's generally elevated by the strength of the various performances - with Brendan Fraser's solid work backed up by an eclectic supporting cast that features, among others, Paul Bettany, Helen Mirren, and Jim Broadbent. The film follows Fraser's Mo Folchart as he and his young daughter (Eliza Bennett's Meggie) attempt to free Resa (Sienna Guillory) - his wife and her mother - from the confines of a novel entitled Inkheart, as Mo's ability to bring fictional characters and situations to life simply by reading aloud trapped Resa within the book and brought to life several less-than-reputable characters (including Andy Serkis' arch-villain Capricorn). There's little doubt that Inkheart is generally at its best in its more overtly light-hearted and adventurous moments, with the irresistible premise initially carrying the proceedings through a few admittedly dull spots (ie Mo and his cohorts wind up imprisoned alongside several familiar characters from literature). Inkheart's relentlessly erratic narrative results in a lack of momentum that only worsens as the story unfolds, and it ultimately does go without saying that the action-packed (yet hopelessly chaotic) finale ensures that the movie ends on a regrettably anti-climactic note. The end result is an endeavor that's often more effective in bits and pieces than as a fully-realized, consistently engaging whole, although - as far as January releases go - one could certainly do far worse.
Get Smart (January 27/09)
Based on the 1960s Don Adams series, Get Smart casts Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart - an intelligence analyst whose dreams of working in the field are finally realized after several agents are either exposed or killed at the hands of a megalomaniacal super-villain (Terence Stamp's Siegfried). Director Peter Segal has infused Get Smart with a bland, hopelessly hackneyed sensibility that's reflected in the majority of its undeniably tedious action set-pieces, as the filmmaker - working from Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember's screenplay - places a consistent emphasis on interludes of an exceedingly familiar and downright tired nature (ie Smart must make his way through a perilous laser grid). The decision to shoot on digital equipment only exacerbates the movie's decidedly low-rent feel, with the absence of film especially apparent during the myriad of underwhelming action sequences - thus draining such moments of the excitement they've clearly been designed to generate. Far more problematic, however, is Carell's surprisingly ineffective turn as the central character; in his efforts at aping Adams' distinctive take on Maxwell Smart, Carell offers up a stiff, oddly unnatural performance that becomes increasingly difficult to overlook as the movie progresses (a miscast Anne Hathaway fares just as poorly as Smart's tough-as-nails partner). And while there are a few admittedly humorous segues sprinkled here and there - ie Smart's queasy trip aboard a jet - Get Smart primarily comes off as a manufactured piece of work that's been geared towards the lowest common denominator.
The Spirit (January 29/09)
The Spirit, Frank Miller's solo attempt at replicating the success of Sin City, comes off as an unmitigated disaster virtually from its opening frames, as the movie's unpleasant visual sensibilities are exacerbated by Miller's relentless reliance on some of the hoariest cliches that the crime genre has to offer (ie there's even an angry captain, for crying out loud). The filmmaker's inability to engage the viewer on any level at any time proves instrumental in The Spirit's downfall, with the ceaseless tough-guy dialogue - as well as the mind-numbing, downright laughable narration (ie "My city, I cannot deny her. My city screams. She is my mother. She is my lover.") - lending the proceedings the feel of a third-rate film noir knockoff. The movie - which follows enigmatic superhero The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) as he battles a nefarious villain known as The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) - has been infused with paper-thin characters whose blandness is compounded by the almost uniformly ineffective performances, with the shamelessly over-the-top work of supporting actors Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, and Eva Mendes counterbalanced by Macht's flat, hopelessly uncharismatic turn as the mysterious title figure. There's little doubt, however, that The Spirit's most ostentatious failing lies in its garish visuals, as Miller's inability to tell an interesting story effectively heightens the inherently unappealing nature of the movie's look - thus proving that Robert Rodriguez surely deserves the bulk of kudos for Sin City's undeniable success (although, to be fair, Rodriguez himself would've been hard-pressed to breathe life into Miller's extraordinarily hackneyed screenplay). The end result is a cinematic experiment that's about as enthralling as a poorly-conceived student film, and it's subsequently impossible not to imagine (and wish) that it marks the end of Miller's directorial career.