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Mini Reviews (July 2009)

The Graduates, Howard the Duck, Fanboys, Baby on Board, Hotel for Dogs, I Love You, Beth Cooper, Horsemen, Shrink

The Graduates (July 9/09)

A micro-budgeted coming-of-age comedy, The Graduates follows amiable teenager Ben (Rob Bradford) as he and three buddies (Blake Merriman's Andy, Nick Vergara's Mattie, and Mike Pennacchio's Nickie) head to Ocean City, Maryland to celebrate the end of their high school careers - with the movie subsequently revolving around their individual attempts at overcoming a series of long-gestating issues (ie Ben hopes to finally bed Stephanie Lynn's Annie, Nickie must deal with his anger-control problems, etc). It's a familiar set-up that's generally employed to less-than-enthralling effect by filmmaker Ryan Gielen, as the writer/director places a consistent emphasis on elements of an almost egregiously clichéd nature (ie Ben doggedly pursues the vacuous Annie despite his obvious connection with a lifelong female friend). There's consequently little doubt that the movie's plotless atmosphere grows increasingly problematic as time passes, with the inclusion of several momentum-killing party sequences only exacerbating the narrative's meandering sensibilities. Having said that, The Graduates never quite becomes the flat-out unwatchable endeavor one might've expected - as Gielen effectively peppers the proceedings with a few undeniably compelling interludes (ie Andy forces Nickie to confront a group of intimidating locals). And while many of the actors offer up solid performances that belie the movie's low-budget origins, Bradford proves unable to transform Ben into the affable everyman that Gielen clearly wants him to be - which ultimately ensures that one's efforts at rooting for the character's success fall entirely flat (and even dulls the impact of the third act's emotional revelations). The final result is an uneven piece of work that's simply not able to distinguish itself from its myriad of similarly-themed shot-on-the-cheap brethren, although - to be fair - Gielen does possess some promise as a filmmaker and it seems likely that his next effort will fare a whole lot better.

out of

Howard the Duck (July 12/09)

Though hardly as awful as one might've expected, Howard the Duck nevertheless comes off as a hopelessly uneven and needlessly frenetic piece of work that's unlikely to hold much appeal for viewers over a certain age (ie I can recall enjoying this as a child). The film, based on a Marvel comic book series, follows the walking, talking duck of the title as he's yanked from his planet to Earth after a science experiment goes awry, with his arrival eventually triggering the appearance of a monstrous alien bent on world domination - thus forcing the anthropomorphic animal to team up with a punk rocker (Lea Thompson's Beverly Switzler) and a scrappy researcher (Tim Robbins' Phil Blumburtt) to stop the vicious creature (which has assumed the guise of Jeffrey Jones' kindly scientist). Director Willard Huyck's attempts at initially capturing the viewer's interest fall completely flat, as the early part of Howard the Duck seems to transpire almost exclusively within exceedingly unpleasant environs - including seedy bars, grungy back alleys, etc, etc. It's certainly an odd choice for an effort that's presumably meant to come off as a fast-paced, family-friendly adventure movie, with the less-than-appealing visual style exacerbated by the plotless nature of Huyck and Gloria Katz's screenplay. The personable work of the various performers - as well as the mere presence of Howard himself - goes a long way towards cultivating (and sustaining) a relatively congenial atmosphere, yet it's just as clear that the increasingly erratic sensibilities of the script ensure that the movie grows increasingly tiresome as it progresses (with the oppressively action-oriented third act particularly problematic). It's consequently far from surprising to note that Howard the Duck is, in the final analysis, an entirely misbegotten endeavor that does possess some kitsch value, admittedly, as the movie remains very much a product of its time and might just satisfy those viewers hungry for a taste of '80s excess.

out of

Fanboys (July 13/09)

Featuring cameo appearances by Seth Rogen, William Shatner, and Billy Dee Williams, Fanboys follows four friends (Sam Huntington's Eric, Dan Fogler's Hutch, Jay Baruchel's Windows, and Kristen Bell's Zoe) as they attempt to illicitly gain access to a pre-release print of The Phantom Menace after learning that one of their own (Chris Marquette's Linus) is dying of cancer - with the journey that ensues ultimately bringing the quintet face-to-face with a myriad of exceedingly quirky figures. Director Kyle Newman has infused Fanboys with a low-rent atmosphere that's exacerbated by the episodic sensibilities of Ernest Cline and Adam F. Goldberg's screenplay, with the film's admittedly promising opening half hour eventually giving way to a hopelessly familiar (and decidedly less-than-hilarious) road-trip movie. The inclusion of several questionable interludes within the narrative - ie the gang inadvertently visits a gay biker bar - ensures that the film really only succeeds in fits and starts, as it becomes increasingly difficult to work up any enthusiasm for the central characters' ongoing efforts. It's consequently not surprising to note that the whole thing runs out of steam long before our heroes arrive at the Skywalker Ranch, with the pervadingly affable atmosphere and the palpable chemistry between the stars only able to carry the proceedings up to a certain point. The end result is a woefully uneven piece of work that does have its moments, to be sure, yet the various deficiencies within the final product effectively negate its few overtly positive elements.

out of

Baby on Board (July 17/09)

Though armed with a surprisingly personable cast, Baby on Board quickly establishes itself as a seriously underwhelming comedic endeavor that suffers from an almost total lack of genuine laughs - as scripters Michael Hamilton-Wright and Russell Scalise place a consistent emphasis on jokes and gags of an eye-rollingly lame nature (ie a character farts repeatedly during an important board meeting). The movie follows well-to-do couple Angela (Heather Graham) and Curtis (Jerry O'Connell) as they learn that they're going to have a baby, with problems ensuing as - thanks to a series of wacky misunderstandings - Curtis becomes convinced that he's not the father and Angela becomes convinced that Curtis is having an affair. The movie subsequently follows the pair as they spend the next nine months giving one another the silent treatment, thus forcing Angela and Curtis to individually cope with their problems in as hopelessly broad a manner as one could envision (ie Angela covers for her pregnancy by telling her boss that she's suffering from a glandular problem). Director Brian Herzlinger has infused Baby on Board with a low-rent atmosphere that's exacerbated by the screenplay's frustratingly plotless sensibilities, although there's little doubt that it's the movie's absence of authentic attributes that effectively cements its downfall. Hamilton-Wright and Scalise pepper the proceedings with a whole mess of hackneyed elements that become increasingly tough to stomach, with the woefully stereotypical supporting characters - ie Angela's sassy gay assistant (Brian Sills' Raphy), Curtis' lecherous best friend (John Corbett's Danny), etc, etc - emblematic of the filmmakers' relentlessly paint-by-numbers approach. Graham and O'Connell's respective efforts at infusing the beyond-stale material with even brief instances of spontaneity fall completely flat, and it ultimately goes without saying that Baby on Board is unlikely to pass muster with even the most forgiving romcom aficionado.

out of

Hotel for Dogs (July 26/09)

Based on a 1971 book by Lois Duncan, Hotel for Dogs follows orphaned siblings Andi (Emma Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin) as they surreptitiously establish a safe haven for their community's unwanted dogs inside an abandoned hotel - with trouble ensuing as various authority figures inevitably become aware of the pair's illicit extracurricular activities. It's clear right from the get-go that Hotel for Dogs has been unapologetically geared towards younger viewers, with the film's continuing emphasis on elements of a decidedly less-than-subtle nature sure to leave most adults checking their watches every few minutes. The charismatic work of the movie's two stars is inevitably rendered moot by the almost total absence of character development within Jeff Lowell, Robert Schooley, and Mark McCorkle's screenplay, and it subsequently becomes increasingly impossible to work up any enthusiasm for Andi and Bruce's well-meaning exploits. The lack of compelling (or even interesting) protagonists is hardly as problematic as the pervasively juvenile atmosphere that's been hard-wired into the proceedings, however, with the hopelessly melodramatic plot twists and ongoing instances of physical comedy certainly cementing the movie's place as a kids-only affair. Don Cheadle's all-too-brief role as a concerned social worker stands as one of the movie's few overtly positive attributes, although - to be fair - the shamelessly manipulative (yet admittedly stirring) finale does ensure that Hotel for Dogs ends on a relatively agreeable note (which certainly isn't enough to compensate for the relentlessly inconsequential nature of virtually everything that precedes it).

out of

I Love You, Beth Cooper (July 29/09)

Though rarely as engaging or captivating as its above-average literary predecessor, I Love You, Beth Cooper nevertheless establishes itself as an amiable piece of work that benefits substantially from the uniformly compelling performances and the presence of a few unexpectedly poignant interludes. The movie, based on Larry Doyle's superb novel, follows dorky teen Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) as he proclaims his love for the school's hottest girl (Hayden Panettiere's Beth Cooper) during his valedictory speech, with the storyline subsequently revolving around the hectic night that ensues after Beth and two friends (Lauren London's Cammy and Lauren Storm's Treece) arrive on Denis' doorstep looking for a wild party. There's little doubt that filmmaker Chris Columbus' almost sitcom-like approach to the material takes some getting used to, as the movie boasts (or suffers from) a brazenly frenetic vibe that results in an opening half hour that's simply not all that compelling. There's little doubt, however, that the film does improve substantially once it passes the half hour mark, with the inclusion of several low-key character-building sequences proving an effective counterbalance to the story's overtly madcap moments. Rust's down-to-earth turn as the protagonist plays a pivotal role in the movie's ultimate success, as the actor effectively makes certain that Denis never quite comes off as the stereotypical nerd one might've anticipated (although the 28-year-old Rust is admittedly less-than-successful in convincingly stepping into the shoes of a teenager). Panettiere's equally impressive work ensures that I Love You, Beth Cooper is at its best when focused on the increasingly heartfelt conversations between the pair, and it's thus worth noting that the film's third act possesses a number of genuinely moving segments that cement its place as a better-than-average contemporary teen flick (albeit one that's hardly in the same league of Columbus mentor John Hughes' output).

out of

Horsemen (July 29/09)

There's little doubt that Dennis Quaid's expectedly enthralling performance ultimately allows the viewer to overlook Horsemen's various problems, as the actor effectively compensates for the film's less-then-fresh storyline and progressively absurd plot twists. The movie casts Quaid as Aidan Breslin, a grizzled detective who must overcome some personal issues to solve a series of murders designed to evoke the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It's a pretty standard serial-killer-movie premise that's generally employed to better-than-expected effect by director Jonas Akerlund, as the filmmaker drops the experimental visuals for which he's become known and instead infuses the proceedings with an appropriately sinister atmosphere that's perpetuated by several genuinely creepy interludes (including one that's as cringe-worthy as anything within the Saw series). Quaid's stirring work is certainly matched by the majority of the film's periphery performers (ie Clifton Collins Jr., Patrick Fugit, Lou Taylor Pucci, etc), with Zhang Ziyi's frustratingly incompetent turn as an eccentric witness standing as Horsemen's most overtly negative attribute. Though her screen time is thankfully kept to a minimum, the actress' inability to convincingly step into the shoes of an admittedly complex character threatens to derail the production on an all-too-frequent basis - as does the almost laughably absurd reveal of the criminal mastermind behind the increasingly sinister plot (ie it's impossible to swallow that this particular person would've possessed the know-how and temperament to pull off such an intricate and downright evil scheme). Such deficiencies - coupled with the relentlessly routine nature of Dave Callaham's screenplay - ensure that Horsemen inevitably comes off as a watchable yet entirely underwhelming piece of work, with Quaid's mere presence generally sustaining the viewer's interest even through the movie's more overtly questionable sequences.

out of

Shrink (July 30/09)

Featuring Kevin Spacey's strongest performance in years, Shrink follows several characters over the course of a few particularly tumultuous days - with a particular emphasis placed on the impact a grieving psychiatrist's (Spacey's Henry Carter) downward spiral has on his various patients (including Keke Palmer's anguished student, Saffron Burrows' beleaguered superstar, and Dallas Roberts' obsessive-compulsive agent). Director Jonas Pate has infused the proceedings with a relentlessly somber atmosphere that admittedly proves an effective complement to Thomas Moffett's almost funereal screenplay, as it's clear virtually from the get-go that the filmmakers are striving for a Magnolia-esque examination of several seriously unhappy characters. And while it goes without saying that the movie is rarely as compelling as Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 masterpiece, Shrink remains a cut above its contemporary multi-character brethren thanks primarily to the uniformly impressive performances and the inclusion of a few surprisingly poignant interludes. As is generally the case with movies of this ilk, however, there's little doubt that some of these characters and subplots are inherently more engaging than others - with Palmer's enthralling turn as the depressive Jemma standing in sharp contrast to the relatively uneventful nature of Mark Webber's ongoing antics as struggling screenwriter Jeremy. The palpable emotional payoff for the various stories ensures that Shrink concludes on a heartfelt (if almost egregiously neat and tidy) note, and it's subsequently clear that the film is ultimately less successful as a fully-realized drama than as a showcase for its myriad of talented actors.

out of

© David Nusair