Don’t get me wrong--Gervais’ acerbic socially reclusive dentist Bertram Pincus isn’t really the catch of the century. On the contrary. He’d rather drink battery acid then have to speak to anyone directly including his attractive new neighbor Gwen (Tea Leoni). But Bertram gets a severe attitude adjustment when he accidentally dies--for seven minutes--during a routine colonoscopy. When he comes back from the dead so to speak he can suddenly SEE the dead--ghosts with unfinished business who follow Bertram around and try to get him to help them. This includes Frank (Greg Kinnear) who wants Bertram to break up the impending marriage of his widow the very same lovely Gwen. At first Bertram tries to very hard to ignore the request--until he gets a good look at Gwen and decides it might be worth it after all. Now Bertram just has to convince her he isn’t really the total twit he seems to be. Good luck with that. When Gervais won the Golden Globe in 2001for his achingly funny BBC series The Office most of us Yanks were like “Who is that?” Then he came up and gave one of the more hilarious acceptance speeches--and well a star was born. He certainly hasn’t disappointed since turning in another hit comedy show Extras for HBO--and now movies. Whether he’d admit it or not Gervais has leading man qualities in that very offbeat British way master of the miscommunication and half-finished sentences. And playing off veteran comic actors such as Kinnear and Leoni in Ghost Town only make Gervais look even better. Leoni is especially fetching in her breezy role as Gwen an Egyptologist who could be a total nerd if not for her charm and sense of humor. The chemistry with Gervais is odd at best but they make it work AND seem believable. There are a few scenes she does with Gervais where you just know it took a lot of takes because she couldn’t quit laughing. I know I certainly wouldn’t have been able to. Ghost Town’s head honcho David Koepp is definitely known more for his writing than directing having penned such scripts as Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull War of the Worlds and Spider-Man thus the reason Ghost Town shines as it does. The premise isn’t anything groundbreaking but the dialogue is spot-on. Co-writing with John Kamps Koepp manages to mix both screwball comedy with poignancy without it seeming too silly or too syrupy while the plot moves along at a nice pace. And Ghost Town has one of those feel-good endings (a rom-com must have) you don’t really expect to feel as good about as you do. Koepp’s other directorial efforts included Secret Window and Stir of Echoes but it seems romantic comedies are now and should always be his forte.
Woody Allen’s neurotic-speak works wonders coming from a New Yorker but coming from a Brit? Not so much. The British could very well be just as phobic as anyone else but they are also repressed and trying to force the neurosis out just doesn’t ring as true. Nevertheless Allen is bound and determined to film abroad these days and thus once again sets Cassandra's Dream in contemporary London where we meet two brothers struggling to better their lives financially. The more blue-collar Terry (Colin Farrell) has a gambling problem and is in debt up to his eyeballs while enterprising Ian (Ewan McGregor) dreams of leaving his family’s restaurant and moving to California with his newfound love Angela (Hayley Atwell) an ambitious actress. Their only hope is their wealthy uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) but the boys quickly find out you can’t get something for nothing. You see Uncle Howard is also in a bit of trouble and he asks his nephews to help him out of his jam--with sinister consequences. First of all Farrell and McGregor look about as related as a dog and cat. Secondly they don't seem at ease in the film partly because their characters are anxious but also partly because they don’t mesh as well with Woody Allen’s sensibilities. Farrell fares a bit better since his natural Irish tendencies towards emotional outbursts fit the character well. His Terry is the one with the conscience and murdering someone just doesn’t sit well with him. McGregor on the other hand plays Ian almost robotically saying the words with as little emotion as possible which doesn’t do Allen’s dialogue any justice. Wilkinson falls under the same category as McGregor but his character is the one most morally challenged so playing it cold sort of works. The women in Cassandra's Dream are fairly wasted including newcomer Atwell as the manipulative actress and Sally Hawkins as Terry’s sweet and concerned girlfriend. Even the boys’ mother played by veteran stage actress Clare Higgins (The Golden Compass) comes off screechy. The cast must have all been thrilled to be in a Woody Allen movie to be sure but it just seems like Allen didn’t get them. Cassandra's Dream suffers from some of the same hang-ups as Match Point. Even though many heralded that 2005 movie as Woody Allen’s return the film had the same problems namely the ill-fitting British cast. At least Match Point had an American Scarlett Johansson whom Allen could pour all his tried-and-true fixations into--the paranoia the obsessiveness and the ultimatums. But Cassandra's Dream really proves that as a filmmaker Allen has become a stick-in-the-mud. He really hasn’t changed his tune in 25 years exploring the same themes over and over again and it’s finally getting old. When his films turn dark it’s usually about how murder can corrupt the soul. Natch. Sometimes the murderers however bothered they are by their deeds get away with it; sometimes they don’t. But rarely does Allen veer from this path making Cassandra's Dream a now very stale rehash of Crimes and Misdemeanors without the benefit of having at the very least some good old-fashioned Allen-styled American-acted neurosis to back it up.
Part Mean Girls part Heathers—hell there’s even a little bit of Hilary Duff’s ridiculously stupid The Perfect Man thrown in there—John Tucker Must Die fits the genre nicely. But the word “die” is a little harsh. Actually when three high school girls—wannabe journalist Carrie (Arielle Kebbel) head cheerleader Heather (Ashanti) and vegan activist Beth (Sophia Bush)—find out they are all dating the delectable John Tucker (Jesse Metcalfe) the school’s basketball star they decide to get even. After several embarrassing tactics backfire the girls come up with the perfect idea. They’ll recruit pretty but anonymous new kid Kate (Brittany Snow) doll her up and get Tuck to fall in love with her so she can ceremoniously dump him. Wow I can’t see anything going wrong with that plan. Not at all. Talk about some pretty people John Tucker has got them in spades starting off with the insanely handsome Metcalfe who literally had women weak in the knees as the hot gardener who woos Desperate Housewives’ Eva Longoria. It’s not a big stretch to see him as the sexy Tuck the most popular er player in school. Then there’s the trio of revengeful hotties: tall lean and blonde Kebbel (Aquamarine) as the “smart” girl; curvy singer/actress Ashanti (Coach Carter) as the bring-it-on “cheerleader”; and luscious and exotic Bush (TV’s One Tree Hill) as the “experienced” one. But really its the perky Snow’s (The Pacifier) show effectively playing the “invisible” girl no one knows or even cares to know who moves around a lot whenever her mother (Jenny McCarthy in a nice bit part) breaks up with a “John Tucker” herself. What’s wrong with these single moms dragging their daughters all over the place after their hearts get broken? Betty Thomas best known for her turn as Sgt. Lucy Bates on Hill Street Blues doesn’t have the best track record in town as a director (I Spy is hers for example). But she’s helmed enough passable comedies (The Brady Bunch Movie Dr. Dolittle) to grant her admittance into the club. Problem here is Thomas isn’t teamed up with a sharp writer like Saturday Night Live alum Tina Fey whose Mean Girls script simply zings. John Tucker is pretty standard fare taking bits and pieces from the already established high-school formula. Still the coveted teen market will more than likely enjoy all the antics in the film—especially the whole “thong” bit in which Tuck caught wearing a thong in one of the girls’ schemes makes it cool for guys everywhere to wear thongs. Yeah you get the picture.
Everything appears to be status quo between humans and mutants. There’s a president who is sympathetic towards mutants Prof. Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) school is thriving and Magneto (Ian McKellen) is quiet--for the moment. But when a “cure” for mutancy is discovered which would give those with the mutant gene the choice to give up their powers and become human Magneto sees red. Cure mutants? Dem’s fightin’ words. With a few more allies on his side--including the resurrected Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) who now calls herself the Phoenix and has unlimited powers--Magneto prepares to trigger the war to end all wars while the X-Men--lead by the stalwart Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and milquetoasty Storm (Halle Berry)--try to stop him. I seriously doubt this is really their Last Stand. All the usual suspects are back. Stewart is once again sufficiently wise as Xavier while McKellen’s Magneto continues to be one of the cooler comic-book villains. It’s amusing to watch him calmly mangle cars or dislodge the Golden Gate bridge with a gleam in his eye. Janssen also seems to relish playing dual roles--the tormented Grey and her evil alter ego Phoenix who is one scary broad. Unfortunately Jackman doesn’t have as much to chew on in Last Stand as he did in X2 and Berry is once again only good for drumming up fog. But the new mutants are kind of fun: Ellen Page (so deadly in Hard Candy) plays sweet this time as Kitty Pryde who can “phase” through solid material; Vinnie Jones (Snatch) is boisterous as the aptly named Juggernaut; Kelsey Grammer is diplomatic as the highly intelligent--and very blue--Dr. Hank McCoy aka Beast; and Dania Ramirez (Fat Albert) as the blink-of-an-eye quick Callisto gets to kick Storm’s ass. Cool cat fight. How dare director Bryan Singer leave his X-Men to go direct another superhero movie even if it is Superman Returns. If Wolverine had anything to say about he might have ripped Singer a new one. You really do feel Singer’s absence in The Last Stand. All of the director’s tormented pathos towards his mutant comrades and their struggles to live in the human world are not as prevalent in this third installment. Instead we’ve got happy-go-lucky director Brett Ratner of Rush Hour fame who turns The Last Stand into one giant id--big explosive and campy. Of course to his credit Ratner is pretty good at delivering a rousing albeit superficial action movie. It’s just not as gripping as X2. But listen the spirit of the comic is already built in from the previous installments so in essence we already know these characters pretty well. Do we really need more angst?
Val Waxman (Woody Allen) is an award-winning director who has jumped the shark and is now in Canada shooting deodorant commercials for nickels and dimes and well animal pelts. So when his ex-wife Ellie (Téa Leoni) and her new husband slick Hollywood studio exec Hal Yeager (Treat Williams) ask him to helm Galaxy Pictures' next big-budget movie he reluctantly signs the deal. Unfortunately the script for The City That Never Sleeps reminds Val of his own failed relationship with his son and causes him to go psychosomatically blind. Poor Val doesn't want to lose this much-needed gig and allows his agent Al (Mark Rydell) to persuade him to direct the film anyway which means keeping his blindness a secret. To make matters worse the publicity department has given a reporter from Esquire magazine the green light to cover the daily happenings on the set. Needless to say no one can do a better job than Allen of talking and gesticulating to the air walking into large objects and falling off sets.
Nervous and jittery like most of his characters Woody Allen is hilarious as Val and he makes the character's blindness completely believable. Allen's performance is priceless especially in the scenes where he is out with Ellie; he tries his best to have a professional discussion with her but constantly blurts out these Turrets-like comments about their breakup. Téa Leoni (Jurassic Park III) is superb and very natural in the role of Ellie--she has come such a long way since her short-lived 1995 television series The Naked Truth. Treat Williams (Venomous) and George Hamilton (Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles) are perfectly cast as glossy Hollywood tycoons while Mark Rydell (Intersection) personifies perfectly the loyal entertainment agent. Will & Grace's Debra Messing struts her big screen skills with her portrayal of Lori the ditzy aspiring actress and Val's live-in girlfriend but much like sultry Tiffani Thiessen's (The Ladies Man) part her role is rather small.
Allen has written a clever satire of Hollywood films and what goes on behind the scenes. When his character Val loses his vision and exclaims that he will not be able to direct the film his agent Al responds "Have you seen some of the pictures out there?" The rest of the film never lets up down to the film's crowd-pleasing "Hollywood Ending." There are quick-witted jabs at everyone and everything especially West Coast culture. The film even pokes fun at itself sometimes: Messing's character Lori leaves for an extended stay at a fitness spa early on in the film and when she finally returns Ellie comments "I forgot about her." Well so had we all. Allen also drops a lot of little references that will leave you wondering. For example his character mentions that when his first wife left him she changed their son's name. (Wasn't Seamus Allen's real life son with Mia Farrow once called Satchel?) Although there are some preachy moments including a dinner party scene where the characters discuss their favorite Hitchcock film the film is witty and entertaining.
It's 2065. The earth has been taken over by phantom-like aliens against whom the dwindling human population is powerless save for a super-weapon that could destroy the entire planet. But Dr. Aki Ross (voiced by Ming-Na) and her mentor Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) are working fast to prove that "Gaia " or the spirit of the earth could be harnessed to wipe out the invaders by creating a spiritual "wave" using eight rare organic life forms. (Yeah we didn't really get it either.) Aki has found six of the eight but time is running out--so together they join ex-beau Captain Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his squad to find the remaining two life forms and complete the wave before a nefarious military official (James Woods) fires his super-weapon and damages Earth beyond repair.
All the amazing visual effects of this film couldn't save it from lame dialogue recited more stiffly than any other animated film in recent memory (couldn't they get the characters' mouths to move just a little?). With the most formlessly drawn face of the characters (she looks like she's 12) Aki demands a vivid personality--not supplied by a monotone Ming-Na who couldn't break a smile in her voice if her life depended on it. Grey (who looks weirdly like Ben Affleck on steroids) Woods and Ving Rhames Peri Gilpin and Steve Buscemi (as the requisite Black joker and chick squad members) are just as wooden but you hope to chalk it up to the stilted and cliché-sodden discourse. Sutherland is the standout as is Dr. Sid--his is the most fleshed-out character in concept delivery and appearance.
Director Hironobu Sakaguchi the video game's creator spent years on the much-touted photorealistic ("hyperReal") visuals which truly are jaw-dropping particularly in Aki's dream sequences and the attack scenes. (Ethereal and strangely beautiful the aliens are a sight to behold.) Some characters look so real you almost forget they aren't. But on the way to creating this masterpiece somebody forgot about the dialogue which is laughably insipid (did Sakaguchi think audiences would be so busy watching they'd forget to listen?). The film's pace is much slower than you'd expect with too little action too much storyline (which unfortunately requires more conversation). It's more inventive than say Tomb Raider but pay close attention or the blather of Mother Earth life forces and other New Age-y gobbledygook will waft past like so much phantasmagoria.