It is really hard to care about a movie when it seems like everyone involved doesn't seem to particularly care about it either. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days is the bottom of the barrel when it comes to kids' movies relying on peeing-in-the-pool jokes and exaggerated facial expressions to try and coax a chuckle out of its audience.
The third movie based on the popular books by Jeff Kinney is a series of vaguely related vignettes that chronicle the misadventures of Greg Heffley (Zach Gordon) the eponymous wimpy kid. Whether or not the disjointed nature of the script is because it is based on two of Kinney's books — The Last Straw and Dog Days according to his website — is beside the point; the fact remains that it's a mess and perhaps one last cash grab at the series before its stars age out of their roles.
Greg's main problems are that his crush Holly (Peyton List) didn't get a chance to leave her entire number in his yearbook before she was whisked away and that his dad Frank (Steve Zahn) wants him to do something other than play video games all day. His solution is to tag along with his friend Rowley (Robert Capron) to the fancy country club where Holly teaches tennis lessons to kids. As a bonus Greg tells his dad he's got a job there too. However he's kind of a putz so his problems are really his fault and caused by him lying and generally acting like a jerk to people like Rowley. Rowley is of course dorky and chubby and feels terrible when he lies and is generally a good kid; he's supposed to be a comic foil or a sidekick but it's really hard to rustle up any sympathy for such a poorly written and acted character. The role itself is thankless; the round-faced nerd with the bowl cut who really loves his parents (albeit to an uncomfortable degree) and is a loyal friend is never going to be the real hero of the story.
The most pressing issue is that Greg is not a very compelling character. He's not really "wimpy" or unpopular or anything that would show he's as put-upon by the world as the title indicates; that would have at least opened up the opportunity for a discussion about bullying or something of that nature. He's not beleaguered he's exasperating. In fact pretty much all of the characters are. This is not drama that will lend itself to some grand epiphany but the father/son arc is so weak it's difficult to believe that they're having significant problems or that it means anything when they finally see eye to eye.
There is a small but insidious mean streak in the movie as well. An early scene shows Greg hunting for his little brother in the men's locker room at the local pool and his discomfort at the scenes around him — Men with hairy backs! Men clipping their gross yellowed toenails! — illustrates a squeamishness that sets off a few alarm bells. Yes it's scary and weird to see the bodies of naked strangers especially when your own body is about to be going all crazy growing hair and zits and weird stuff but the way it's played for laughs is downright icky. Later Greg's brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) pretends to be drowning to get the attention of his crush and ends up getting CPR from an older man a gesture that leaves Rodrick practically gagging. The idea that it's weak and therefore unmanly to have love for one's parents and value honesty (as per Rowley) or engage in selflessness (as per the CPR-giver) isn't really disproved by the end. Greg makes amends with Rowley and Greg realizes that his dad isn't perfect either and that it really is better to be honest and loving towards your friends and family but it's all as hollow as a Hallmark movie that wraps everything up in time for the commercial break.
The acting is about as good as you'd expect. Gordon reacts to almost everything with a sort of wizened/constipated look that may call to mind Woody Allen or some other menschy type but it doesn't fly. Zahn has an occasionally funny moment that some adults will pick up on but that's about it. Bostick reprises his role as Greg's older brother Rodrick who is a sort of mall punk desperate to impress Holly's horrible older sister Heather (Melissa Roxburgh). Bostick is sort of funny although this seems like the role that will probably embarrass him in years to come especially his performance in one of the very few entertaining scenes in the whole movie. (It involves pyrotechnics prissy sixteen-year-olds and a bug-eyed version of "Baby.") The talented Rachael Harris is saddled with the thankless job of playing the matriarch of this brood; she spends her scant time onscreen with a toddler on her hip imploring her husband and/or son to communicate and so forth.
It's hard to not be cynical about kids' movies and studios looking to make a quick summer buck and Dog Days is a great example why. There are plenty of other interesting things for you and your family to enjoy in theaters this summer; really you would actually be better off staying home and playing video games with your kids than seeing Dog Days.
A comedy featuring Steve Martin Jack Black and Owen Wilson creates certain expectations not the least of which is well laughter. But David Frankel’s (Marley & Me The Devil Wears Prada) anodyne feather-light film The Big Year in which the three actors star is less concerned with eliciting big laughs than offering earnest insights on the meaning of success and the value of friendship.
Delving into the subculture of hard-core birders (don’t call them bird-watchers) the film follows three men semi-retired industrialist Stu (Martin) schlubby corporate drone Brad (Black) and suburban contractor Kenny (Wilson) as they vie in a year-long competition known as the Big Year. The goal of the competition is simple: to spot as many different bird species in North America as possible. As current Big Year record-holder Kenny is something of a rock star in the birding world. His cocky carefree manner masks a stark determination to defend his hard-won celebrity – and his fragile ego – against the likes of upstarts Stu and Brad both of whom are Big Year rookies. None of the three leads stray far from type but they do offer slight tweaks to their usual screen personas: Wilson is sly and Machiavellian; Black tones down the buffoonery limiting himself to two (by my rough count) pratfalls; Martin’s sardonicism is tempered with humility.
There’s no prize for winning a Big Year; the sole reward is the adulation of fellow members of the birding community. Competition is surprisingly fierce. The three men frantically criss-cross the continent darting from one remote location to another in search of the next rare find. At first wary of each other Stu and Brad eventually unite over a mutual desire to defeat Kenny whose crafty gamesmanship has frustrated them both. Their strategic pact gradually evolves into a genuine friendship leading both men to discover that there are more important things in life than winning an amateur birding competition.
Shot on location in British Columbia the Canadian Yukon Upstate New York Joshua Tree and the Florida Everglades The Big Year is a visually striking film showcasing one breathtaking panorama after another. At times director Frankel appears more interested in the scenery than his characters who despite the script's copious exposition aren't particularly well-developed. The story at times seem aimless and unfocused and its relaxed pace may prove vexing for some. Indeed it did for me at first. But once I adjusted to its easygoing rhythm the film’s modest charms began to reveal themselves.
Paul (Greg Kinnear) and Jessie Duncan (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) are a sweet couple dedicated to being good parents to their young son Adam (Cameron Bright). But the day after his eighth birthday Adam is killed when a car hits him. At the funeral Paul and Jessie are approached by Dr. Richard Wells (Robert De Niro) an old college professor of Jessie's who claims he may have the solution to their sorrow: He offers them a chance to clone Adam. Whatever they decide Paul and Jessie must decide quickly since Dr. Wells informs them that Adam's cells will only be viable for another 72 hours. Their judgment clouded by grief the couple takes Dr. Wells up on his offer and agrees to break off all ties with friends and family and move to a secluded town in Vermont where the Godsend Institute is located. The procedure works and Paul Jessie and their son are a perfect family again--until Adam passes the age that the original Adam died. The cloned boy becomes plagued with visions of a boy named Zachery committing horrendous crimes and eventually begins to act them out. Paul and Jessie suspect Dr. Wells is keeping something from them about Adam--and what they discover turns their world upside down.
Kinnear (Stuck on You) is well cast as the unassuming dad and husband Paul whose main motivation for going along with the procedure is to see his wife happy again. But although his character has the most substance Kinnear really isn't given much else to do here besides demand answers from everyone. As his wife Jessie Romijn-Stamos (The Punisher) gets to cry a lot and look really distressed throughout most of the film but the scope of her character pretty much stops there. The problem is that while the characters are well defined on paper--Jessie for example is a professional photographer and Paul is a high school teacher--the only side the audience gets to see of them is that of the tormented doting parents. The veteran De Niro (Analyze That) however adds some oomph to a lineup of otherwise unremarkable performances. His portrayal of Dr. Wells is perfectly balanced: A brilliant yet jittery doctor struggling with his own amorality. But Wells takes a turn in the end that is too hard to swallow going from respected researcher to candelabra-toting madman. Young Cameron Bright (The Butterfly Effect) wonderfully portrays the two Adams giving the character(s) just enough continuity without losing their individuality.
Director Nick Hamm's visuals are very overt in Godsend: Scenes before Adam's death are bathed in a soft warm palette while the years afterward in the Vermont countryside are brighter and cooler. Adam's skewed visions meanwhile are infused with contrast and graininess. But it's a pity Hamm couldn't permeate Mark Bomback's script with the same level of intensity. The story touches on the ethical moral and legal issues of cloning and does it in a simple way--through Paul and Jessie's grief--so the audience is able to relate to the subject. But what happens to the cloned boy once he passes the lifespan of the original Adam is the film's most terrifying aspect and rather than deal with it intelligently the filmmaker opted to make Dr. Wells into a genius-gone-mad and the boy a less threatening and unexciting prototype of Damien from the 1976 Omen. It would have been far more interesting to explore the consequences of the cloned Adam finding out about his true identity for example or take it a step further and explore whether the couple would be willing to go through the procedure again if the first one had failed after several years. Now this would have made Godsend more frightening at a Raelian-type level.