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Mini Reviews (April 2008)

The Foursome, Bee Movie, The Invasion, Take the Plunge!, [REC], The Ruins, Fierce Creatures, Best Laid Plans, The Prince & Me, Sweet Home Alabama, War, Inc., Made of Honor

The Foursome (April 1/08)

Though its premise is certainly sound - four college buddies spend a weekend chatting about their lives over one or two rounds of golf - The Foursome has been infused with an egregiously broad sensibility that ultimately negates its few positive attributes. Director William Dear's inability/unwillingness to employ even a hint of subtlety proves disastrous, as there's very little within the film that rings true (ie this is sitcom-level stuff, for the most part). It's subsequently not surprising to note that Jackson Davies' screenplay has been jam-packed with precisely the sort of plot points and character revelations that one might've expected, although this reliance on exceedingly familiar tropes proves to be the least of the film's problems. Rather, it's the inclusion of several overtly comedic interludes that cements The Foursome's downfall - as Davies peppers the proceedings with such eye-rollingly silly elements as a poorly-choreographed golf-cart chase and a nude romp through some outdoor sprinklers (this is to say nothing of the stereotypically flamboyant gay character who pops up from time to time). Of course, it's impossible to discuss the ineptness of Davies' script without mentioning the inclusion of Bryan Adams' "18 'till I Die" - which the central characters managed to perform during their college days despite the fact that the song wasn't released until the mid-'90s. The passable yet distinctly over-the-top performances periodically breathe some life into an otherwise interminable affair, and one can't help but wonder how such a hopelessly inauthentic screenplay managed to receive the feature-film treatment.

out of

Bee Movie (April 1/08)

Relentlessly uneven yet basically entertaining, Bee Movie revolves around Barry B. Benson (voiced by Jerry Seinfeld) - a plucky young bee who is horrified to learn that humans are selling honey during his first trip away from home. The film, written by Seinfeld, Spike Feresten, Barry Marder, and Andy Robin, generally comes off as an amiable effort that benefits substantially from the almost uniformly stellar voice work, with Seinfeld, Matthew Broderick, and especially Patrick Warburton effectively breathing life into their thinly-drawn characters (Renee Zellweger, who offers up a shrill and egregiously broad turn as a sympathetic human, proves to be the one weak spot within the cast). And while there are a number of genuinely funny interludes peppered throughout the proceedings, the distinctly erratic structure employed by Seinfeld and company does become increasingly difficult to overlook as the movie progresses - with the mind-numbingly frenetic third act essentially ensuring that the film peters out long before the end credits start to roll. The bright and vibrant animation - which is also surprisingly jerky, admittedly - tends to smooth over Bee Movie's more prominent deficiencies, however, and it ultimately seems fairly obvious that younger viewers will find plenty here worth embracing (ie a Pixar flick this is not).

out of

The Invasion (April 4/08)

The fourth big-screen adaptation of Jack Finney's seminal sci-fi novel, The Invasion casts Nicole Kidman as Carol Bennell - a Washington psychiatrist who comes to the creeping realization that something's not quite right with several people in her life. The most noticeable difference between this version of Finney's story and its predecessors (as well as the novel) is the complete absence of the alien duplicates that inevitably take over the lives of their doppelgangers, with the spread of the otherworldly menace instead perpetuated by a virus that one must consume via saliva. It's an intriguing change that actually works a whole lot better than one might've initially suspected, as there's subsequently an added element of suspense within the film's second half stemming from Carol's life-or-death fight to stay awake (the virus can only take hold once its victim has fallen asleep). The incredibly erratic structure - undoubtedly a result of the notorious reshoots - ultimately dulls the impact of the movie's overtly effective attributes, however, and one can't help but goggle at the pronounced (and entirely needless) emphasis on action set-pieces within the increasingly frenetic third act. And although it'd be nice to someday see what director Oliver Hirschbiegel's original vision looked like, The Invasion nevertheless remains an awfully effective piece of work that boasts a number of unexpectedly tense interludes (ie Carol and her son engage in an emotionless staring contest out of fear that the other has been infected).

out of

Take the Plunge! (April 5/08)

Though riddled with a whole host of teen-movie cliches, Take the Plunge! is an affable effort that wins the viewer over with its sporadically authentic atmosphere and unexpectedly well-drawn central characters. Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin stars as Gaby, a social outcast whose friendship with the new kid at school (Mariloup Wolfe's Sandrine) slowly-but-surely brings her out of her self-imposed isolation. There's little doubt that Take the Plunge! improves substantially as it progresses, with director Frédéric D'Amours' almost egregiously poppy sensibilities initially infusing the proceedings with all the depth of a network television teen drama. But as the characters and their various problems are slowly-but-surely fleshed out, there does reach a point at which one can't help but fall for their antics hook, line and sinker (and it subsequently becomes easy enough to overlook the more superficial elements within Caroline Héroux and Martine Pagé's screenplay). That said, the movie's undeniably overlong running time is exacerbated by the inclusion of several needless subplots - most of which involve the multitude of obstacles that Gaby must overcome prior to the prom-night finale. Despite such deficiencies, however, Take the Plunge! is ultimately a far more effective effort than one might've anticipated - with Désormeaux-Poulin's stellar work undoubtedly proving instrumental in the film's admittedly mild success.

out of

[REC] (April 6/08)

Though it admittedly takes a while to get going, [REC] ultimately establishes itself as the most effective first-person horror effort since The Blair Witch Project - as the film boasts a number of brutal and unexpectedly creepy interludes that instantly set it apart from its stylistically-similar yet thoroughly inferior brethren (ie Diary of the Dead, Cloverfield, etc). Manuela Velasco stars as Angela, a perky television reporter who finds herself embroiled in an increasingly horrific situation after accompanying several firefighters to a seemingly routine call within an urban apartment building. As anticipated, [REC]'s rough-and-tumble visuals take an awfully long time to get used to - with many of the film's early scenes rendered almost unintelligible thanks to the relentlessly unsteady modus operandi. Yet there's little doubt that such concerns become moot after a certain point, as filmmakers Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza infuse the movie's second half with an exhilaratingly fast-paced sensibility that's as compelling and flat-out immersive as one might've hoped. The progressively ominous vibe is heightened by the propulsive nature of Balagueró, Plaza, and Luis Berdejo's screenplay, which packs in one impressively brutal set-piece after another - leading up to, of course, an incredibly effective finale that persists within the viewer's psyche long after the end credits have rolled (ie that creature that pops up towards the conclusion is the stuff nightmares are made of). The intriguing mystery surrounding the cause of the chaos only cements the film's place as a distinctly engaging creeper, and one can only hope that the upcoming English-language remake will be able to retain even a fraction of [REC]'s more overtly positive attributes.

out of

The Ruins (April 7/08)

Based on Scott Smith's spellbinding book, The Ruins follows several hapless tourists (including Jena Malone's Amy and Joe Anderson's Mathias) as they find themselves trapped atop an ancient Mayan temple - where their very survival is threatened by the presence of an entirely inexplicable force. Though infused with many of the same beats and plot twists as its fictional forebearer, The Ruins is ultimately unable to replicate the novel's distinct atmosphere of pervading dread - with the uniformly underdeveloped characters only exacerbating this feeling. There's consequently little doubt that one's interest tends to flag in between the appreciatively gruesome set-pieces, as the relentless squabbling amongst the dwindling heroes does become increasingly tedious as the movie progresses (something that's certainly no fault of the uniformly superb actors). The film's problems are compounded by the inclusion of a needlessly open-ended finale, which effectively quashes the vibe of hopelessness so brilliantly offered up by the book. Still, The Ruins sporadically remains one of mainstream Hollywood's more memorable horror efforts as of late - particularly in this era of watered-down, teen-driven genre fare (there's an unexpectedly cringeworthy sequence involving an amputation that probably justifies the film's entire existence).

out of

Fierce Creatures (April 8/08)

Chock full of wacky misunderstandings and bawdy innuendo, Fierce Creatures is certainly a fitting follow-up to 1988's A Fish Called Wanda - though there's no denying that the film is inevitably a far more uneven piece of work than its celebrated predecessor. The story revolves around the goings-on at a British zoo, where Rollo Lee (John Cleese) has been sent to increase revenue - which he attempts to achieve by ridding the premises of all its peaceful animals (he tells the horrified animal tenders that he wants "a lethal weapon in every cage"). Rollo's efforts are inevitably thwarted by the arrival of executives Willa Weston (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Vince McCain (Kevin Kline), while the various zookeepers (including Michael Palin's Bugsy) simultaneously start to plot their revenge. The film's hit-and-miss modus operandi doesn't become entirely problematic until the third act, wherein the widely-reported reshoots become all-too-apparent and ultimately lend the proceedings a distinctly anti-climactic sort of vibe. Prior to that point, however, Fierce Creatures generally comes off as an agreeable, sporadically hilarious farce that benefits substantially from Cleese, Curtis, and Kline's incredibly strong work (the latter, playing two roles, is particularly effective here).

out of

Best Laid Plans (April 10/08)

Best Laid Plans is an above-average neo-noir revolving around a young couple's (Alessandro Nivola's Nick and Reese Witherspoon's Lissa) increasingly desperate efforts to pay off a $15,000 debt, with Nick's old college friend Bryce (Josh Brolin) inevitably employed as the pair's unwitting cash connection. Director Mike Barker effectively infuses Best Laid Plans with a stylish, distinctly off-kilter sensibility that proves an ideal complement to Ted Griffin's expectedly convoluted screenplay, although - admittedly - there's little doubt that the movie is ultimately a far more straight-forward affair than its set-up might have indicated. The inclusion of an impossible-to-anticipate third-act twist notwithstanding, the film's noirish beginnings eventually give way to a more traditional thriller that's undoubtedly anchored by the superb performances (Nivola is especially good as the harried hero). And while Griffin's dialogue does occasionally lean towards the stagy side, the screenwriter proves adept at offering up a number of little touches that adeptly hold the viewer's interest (ie that seemingly inconsequential forest fire). The conclusion is probably a tad sappier than some viewers will feel comfortable with, yet there's otherwise no denying Best Laid Plans' overall effectiveness.

out of

The Prince & Me (April 12/08)

Very predictable yet very pleasant, The Prince & Me casts Julia Stiles as Paige Morgan - a hard-working college student whose rigid lifestyle is thrown for a loop after she falls for a charismatic exchange student named Eddie (Luke Mably). Of course, Eddie's true identity - that of Danish Crown Prince Edvard - is eventually revealed and the pair inevitably find themselves faced with the intense scrutiny of the international press. There's nothing particularly ground-breaking about The Prince & Me and it's ultimately clear that the film has been primarily geared towards teenagers, and yet it's impossible to deny the effectiveness of the increasingly compelling storyline - which has been infused with sporadic bursts of unexpectedly romantic overtones. The distinctly charismatic work of the two leads only cements the movie's better-than-anticipated atmosphere, although - admittedly - the pace is perhaps a little more laid back than one might've liked. This is especially reflected in the last half hour of the proceedings, which ultimately feels as though it'd be more at home within the confines of an entirely separate endeavor (ie it's like the filmmakers took what could have been a sequel and crammed it into the movie's third act). Still, The Prince & Me generally remains a cut above the majority of its contemporary romcom brethren - with the dreaded fake break-up handled particularly well (the second fake break-up is kind of pushing it, though).

out of

Sweet Home Alabama (April 12/08)

With its overlong running time and egregiously sluggish pace, Sweet Home Alabama comes off as a sporadically amusing yet entirely ineffective romantic comedy that ultimately squanders an expectedly charismatic turn from star Reese Witherspoon. The actress plays Melanie Smooter, an up-and-coming fashion designer who's beside herself with excitement after her powerful boyfriend (Patrick Dempsey's Andrew) proposes marriage. The euphoria is short lived, however, as Melanie is forced to return to her hometown of Pigeon Creek, Alabama, where she must confront the various faces of her past - including childhood sweetheart (and long-lost husband) Jake Perry (Josh Lucas). There's little doubt that even the most forgiving viewer will find themselves rolling their eyes at Sweet Home Alabama's almost offensively simplistic modus operandi, as screenwriter C. Jay Cox offers up a storyline that couldn't possibly be more contrived and hackneyed. As such, the film has been populated with a whole host of stereotypically colorful Southern characters that slowly-but-surely draw Witherspoon's Melanie back into her roots - which, of course, paves the way for Melanie's reconciliation with good ol' boy Jake (admittedly, this particularly plot point might've worked better had Andrew been infused with at least one obnoxious personality trait). It consequently becomes increasingly difficult to care about Melanie's self-invented plight, while the filmmakers' unwillingness to offer up any other elements to hold the viewer's interest assuredly sounds the movie's death knell.

out of

War, Inc. (April 26/08)

A disastrously heavy-handed satire, War, Inc. follows quirky assassin Brand Hauser (John Cusack) as he heads to the war-torn Middle Eastern country of Turaqistan - where a monolithic corporation run by America's former Vice President (Dan Aykroyd) is currently waging war against local insurgents. Though assigned the relatively simple task of taking out a meddling Oil Minister (Lyubomir Neikov's Omar Sharif), Brand soon finds himself caught up in the problems of a whole host of egregiously off-kilter figures - including a famous pop star (Hilary Duff's Yonica), a left-wing reporter (Marisa Tomei's Natalie), and an exasperated assistant (Joan Cusack's Marsha). There's little doubt that War, Inc. strikes all the wrong notes virtually from the word go, as director Joshua Seftel - working from Cusack, Mark Leyner, and Jeremy Pikser's downright desperate screenplay - has infused the proceedings with a headache-inducing atmosphere of silliness that's ultimately catastrophic. The hit-you-over-the-head sensibilities of Seftel and his incompetent cohorts proves instrumental in ensuring that one is consistently left at arm's length from the material, and it's subsequently not surprising to note that even the most open-minded viewer will find themselves fruitlessly searching for something (anything) of substance to latch onto. The end result is an effort that feels like a subpar Monty Python sketch unnaturally stretched out to an astonishingly interminable 107 minute running time, with the increasingly obvious nature of the filmmakers' modus operandi nothing short of infuriating.

no stars out of

Made of Honor (April 30/08)

Made of Honor casts Patrick Dempsey as Tom, a wealthy playboy who eventually comes to realize that he possesses more than just platonic feelings for his best friend Hannah (Michelle Monaghan). Trouble ensues after Hannah returns from a business trip engaged to a handsome Scot (Kevin McKidd's Colin), which essentially forces Tom to step up his efforts at telling Hannah how he really feels. The familiarity of Made of Honor's premise proves to be the least of its problems, as screenwriters Adam Sztykiel, Deborah Kaplan, and Harry Elfont have infused the proceedings with several increasingly uninteresting and flat-out superfluous sequences that'll test the patience of even the most ardent romcom aficionado. The almost disastrously off-kilter structure results in a pace that tends to move in fits and starts, and there eventually reaches a point at which moments of a less-than-enthralling nature start to heavily outweigh anything of interest - with the film's surprisingly sluggish third-act jaunt to Scotland (and subsequent emphasis on royal encounters and traditional feats of strength) bringing the proceedings to a virtual stop. This is despite the effortlessly charismatic work of the various leads and an opening half hour that seems to promise an easy-going, light-hearted romp, as the absurdly overlong running time ultimately transforms Made of Honor into an unexpectedly oppressive piece of work.

out of

© David Nusair