Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
There is a certain level of enjoyment you are guaranteed when signing on for a movie that boasts a cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray. And that's the precise level of enjoyment you'll get from The Monuments Men — that bare minimum smirk factor inherent the idea that your favorite stars are getting to play together. In FDR-era army helmets, no less. But what we also get from the film is an aura of smug self-confidence from project captain Clooney, who seems all too ready to take for granted that we're perfectly satisfied peering into his backyard clubhouse.
So assured is the director/co-writer that we're happy to be in on the game that there doesn't seem to be any effort taken to refine the product for the benefit of a viewing audience. An introductory speech from art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) sets up the premise straight away: the Nazis are stealing and destroying all of Europe's paintings and sculptures, and by gum we need to stop them! The concept doesn't complicate from there, save for a batting back and forth of the throughline question about whether the preservation of these pieces is "really worth it." Stokes rallies his own Ocean's Seven on a fine arts rescue mission, instigating an old fashioned go-get-'em-boys montage where we learn everything we need to know about the band mates in question: Damon has a wife, Goodman has gumption, Murray doesn't smile, Bob Balaban is uppity, and Jean Dujardin is French.
The closest thing to a character in The Monuments Men comes in the form of Hugh Bonneville, a recovering alcoholic whose motivation to take on the dangerous mission is planted in a festering desire to absolve himself of a lifetime of f**king up. When we're away from Bonneville, the weight disspears, as does most of the joy. Without identifiable characters, even master funnymen like Goodman, Murray, and Balaban don't have much to offer... especially since the movie's jokes feel like first draft placeholders born on a tired night.
Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
But wait a minute, is this even supposed to be a comedy? After all, it's about World War II. And no matter what Alexandre Desplat's impossibly merry score would have you believe (coupled with The Lego Movie, this opening weekend might be responsible for more musical jubilance than any other since the days of "Make 'Em Laugh!"), warfare, genocide, and desecration of international culture all make for some pretty heavy material. But The Monuments Men's drama is just as fatigued as its humor, clumsily piecing together a collection of mini missions wherein the stakes, somehow, never seem to jump. We're dragged through military bases, battered towns, and salt mines by Clooney and the gang — occasionally jumping over to France to watch Damon work his least effective magic in years on an uptight Cate Blanchett, who holds the key to the scruffy American's mission but doesn't quite trust him... until, for no apparent reason, she suddenly does. We never feel like any of these people matter, not even to each other, so we never really feel like their adventures do.
The Monuments Men doesn't have much of a challenge ahead of it. Its heroes are movie stars, its bad guys are Nazis, and its message is one that nobody's going to refute: art is important — a maxim it pounds home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, through countless scenes of men staring in awe at the works of Michelangelo and Rembrandt. And in this easy endeavor, Clooney decides to coast. How could it possibly go wrong? Just grab hold of the fellas, toss 'em in the trenches, and let the laughs and danger write themselves. "This is what they came to see," Monuments Men insists. "Just us guys havin' a ball." But we never feel in on the game, and it isn't one that looks like that much fun anyhow.
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It's an impressive feat for a movie to be strange and forgettable, subversive yet littered with crass product placement. Escape from Planet Earth manages to be all of these things and more. In this world, aliens are abducted by government officials, Roswell is an intergalactic work camp, an Army general is conducting an online affair with a sexy alien lady, and the stoners who work or hang out or whatever at 7-11 ply their new little blue friend with a matching blue Slurpee. Sounds promising, right?
Not entirely. For the most part, the plodding plot is driven by a lackluster sibling rivalry between Gary Supernova (Rob Corddry) and his lantern-jawed brother Scorch (Brendan Fraser). These little blue dudes live on the planet Baab and work at BASA, which is (obviously) Baab's version of NASA. Gary's the nerdy mission control guy who saves his brother's butt when Scorch is off being a bad ass astronaut. A plodding series of events lands them both on Earth, a planet full of violent, devolved creatures where aliens from across the galaxy routinely go missing. There, they find the devious General Shanker (William Shatner) is snatching otherwise peaceful aliens and putting them to work on building a giant weapon that will destroy the universe. The other aliens Gary and Scorch run into are way more interesting and fun than the folks they left behind on Baab — a cafeteria food fight between Roswell employees and the aliens is more entertaining than 90% of the interactions between Gary and Scorch — which is a bummer since Gary's wife Kira (Sarah Jessica Parker) is hot on their heels to rescue them. Lena, the head of BASA, is a lovelorn villainess (Jessica Alba) who would be willing to blow up the world for a hot human with an Elvis pompadour that she met online. She and Kira used to be coworkers but now Lena's like, whatever, now you're a stay-at-home mom! And Kira's like, I will kick your butt. And so on. The female characters in the movie are pretty decent, all things considered.
Still, Escape from Planet Earth is a bit of a mess. Are we rooting for family values? Or railing against how silly humans are? Or constantly, odiously plugging 7-11? There is also auto-tuned music on the soundtrack, although it's not clear if this was yet another invention of the aliens (like the iPhone, Facebook, the Internet, and Pixar, according to one montage) or yet another example of how humans have devolved. Adding to the confusion: a sexy news reporter alien voiced by Sofía Vergara.
Escape from Plant Earth seems like its plot was originally cooked up by some sorta cool goofy dudes — I mean, Steve Zahn and Chris Parnell as stoners who work at 7-11? Pretty funny! — that was then wrangled into something a little more family-friendly. (Vis the website, which is littered with seals of approval from the Parents Television Council and the Dove Foundation.) It's not that it's particularly bad, it's just not something that sticks with you in any meaningful way. The rest of the voice cast is pretty good, like Craig Robinson as a cool talk radio "therapist" alien and Jane Lynch as a one-eyed librarian from the sun with anger management problems. It's just that there's so much other stuff happening that isn't particularly gripping. Like the crux of the entire story. Who cares if Gary and Scorch ever make up? Who cares that Kip thinks his dad is a pantywaist? You really don't. In a world where film-lovers of all ages can be challenged, entertained, and moved by animated film, it's entirely fair to expect more of family films.
(Escape from Planet Earth is available in 3D, but for expediency's sake, I saw the 2D version.)
[Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company]
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Filmmaker Tony Leech and producer Brian Inerfeld are suing the Weinstein Company over claims their animated movie Escape From Planet Earth was "sabotaged... through a potent combination of hubris, incompetence, profligate spending, and contempt for contractual obligations".
In the lawsuit, which was filed on Wednesday (02Mar11), the duo is also accused of paying the plaintiffs $500,000 (£333,000) to wait until after the Oscars on Sunday (28Feb11) to take legal action.
The King's Speech, which was distributed by the Weinsteins' firm, ruled the ceremony after scooping four Oscars, including Best Picture.
According to the suit, the Weinsteins allege the $500,000 payment was extorted, which Leech and Inerfeld deny.
Lawyers for the Weinsteins have dismissed the case as "frivolous" and "slanderous", claiming the filmmakers were "let go after they refused to make the picture which TWC wanted" and were paid more than $2 million (£1.3 million) in accordance with their contract.
A perfect husband a devoted father a loyal friend a successful architect—yes Steven Burke (David Duchovny) is the kind of flawless family man we only encounter in hankie-soaking Hollywood melodramas. He exists solely to be killed off just so his friends and family can become better people through their loss. So it comes as no surprise that Steven dies a Good Samaritan's death while on his way home—of course—from buying ice cream for his two kids. If that won’t get you crying nothing will. Steven’s death leaves his wife Audrey (Halle Berry) a mess. She can’t look after herself let alone her daughter Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and son Dory (Micah Berry). Instead Audrey turns to Steven’s best friend Jerry (Benicio Del Toro) for help. Not really the smartest choice—Audrey despises Jerry for squandering his life and career on drugs. But Audrey’s desperate for a shoulder to cry on so she inexplicably invites Jerry to stay at her home while he tries to clean up his act. Quicker than you can say “rest in peace ” Jerry’s dispensing words of wisdom to Steven’s kids and in a moment of unintentional hilarity spooning with the lonely Audrey in her bed. Audrey naturally comes to believe that Jerry isn’t the strung-out leech she’s considered him all these years. Still we can’t help but count down the minutes until Jerry slips back into his old habits. Or wonder how long it will take for Audrey to kick Jerry out of her house when the inevitable happens. Things We Lost in the Fire serves an important purpose: to make clear that Halle Berry’s performance in Monster's Ball wasn’t a happy accident. As a widow unable to function without her soul mate Berry shakes up the otherwise maudlin proceedings with a rage and intensity that’s honest and fearless. Never afraid to present Audrey as occasionally cold and unsympathetic especially in regards to her treatment of Jerry and her children Berry nevertheless always makes us feel Audrey’s burning love for Steven without resorting to Joan Crawford-like histrionics. Too bad Audrey is defined only by her role as a wife and mother—Berry never receives the chance to show that Audrey has a life outside her family. She does share a good rapport with the typically brooding Benicio Del Toro whose ravaged face reveals more about Jerry’s lifetime of self-inflicted pain and suffering than words ever could. But there is a slight spark to be found in Del Toro’s sleepy eyes which gives us the impression that Jerry has what it takes to live one day at time with the support of his new friends. David Duchovny doesn’t do much beyond smiling like he’s just been named Father of the Year for the 10th time. Not that Duchovny needs to exert himself to make Steven charming and likeable—Steven is as happy and uncomplicated as Duchovny’s Californication philanderer is as sad and screwed up. Alexis Llewellyn and Micah Berry (no relation to his onscreen mother) nail the anguish confusion and profound sense of loss that comes with grieving for a dead parent without being annoyingly precocious. How disappointing it is to discover that not even the usually calm and collected Susanne Bier can turn Things... into something more than the standard Lifetime TV weepy of the week. The Danish director’s Hollywood debut is very much like her earlier character-driven dramas in that it is preoccupied with how established family dynamics shift in the wake of a life-altering event. After the Wedding and Brothers managed to be poignant without getting too gushy but Bier cannot keep Things... from drowning in its own sentimentality. The problem clearly lies with screenwriter Allan Loeb’s emotionally manipulative script which fails from the start to convince us Audrey would open her house to her late husband’s drug buddy. Ignoring Loeb’s hard-to-swallow premise Bier does an excellent job of establishing the relationship between Audrey and Jerry. Theirs is a well-presented study in co-dependency which results in an insightful—though occasionally obvious—exploration of drug addiction the grieving process and the pursuit of personal redemption. Things... smartly avoids making much of its interracial marriage—it would only overcomplicate matters—or taking Audrey and Jerry down a path that would led to an ill-advised romance. If only Bier and Loeb showed some guts in the way they portray Steven. Surely he had at least one skeleton in his closet to make him seem more human. Everything we learn about Steven—especially about the fire referenced in the seemingly cryptic title—merely reinforces the notion that he was too good for this world. Or at least the world Hollywood thinks we live in.
Adapted from a King short story 1408 centers on renowned author Mike Enslin (John Cusack) who writes books about haunted places—houses hotels graveyards etc. He doesn’t believe in any of the mumbo jumbo since he hasn’t ever seen anything paranormal but he is happy to cash the checks anyway. When Enslin finds out about a haunted suite number 1408 at the notorious Dolphin Hotel in New York he does some research and discovers it indeed has had a grisly past. He decides he just has to stay there much to the chagrin of the hotel’s manager (Samuel L. Jackson) who hasn’t let anyone near the room in years. Anyone whose been in the room for more than an hour kills themselves you see. The manager tells Mike it isn’t necessarily because he cares about him he just doesn’t want to clean up the mess afterwards. But Mike is undeterred—and so sets out on the longest journey of what could be his short life. Save for the tense exposition scene between him and the always-good Jackson it’s mostly Cusack’s show—and he nails it. He displays that certain affability we’ve loved in films such as Serendipity but then demonstrates some real chops when it gets down to the nitty gritty adeptly alternating between jaded cynicism bewilderment bereavement and finally full-blown terror. See the room isn’t just a place where ghosts materialize and de-materialize. Its pure evil and manifests itself into whatever personal turmoil the occupant is going through at the time. For Mike this means reliving the death of his young daughter (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) and his further estrangement from his wife played convincingly by Mary McCormack (The West Wing). In Cusack’s capable hands Mike is one tortured soul but can he be strong enough to survive the odds? It’s not an easy thing to turn a Stephen King story into a movie. John Cusack aptly puts it in the production notes “I don’t know how he knows how to scare people so intensely or where those impulses come from but King is definitely channeling some spirits and demons.” Boy does he ever but as his loyal readers know his horror doesn’t necessarily mean gore (although his books do have that stuff in spades). In fact much of the terror King’s characters experience happen right inside their own heads which is frightening to read but really hard to translate to film—and many filmmakers have failed at it with exception to Rob Reiner who got it right with Misery. Now along with Reiner there’s Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) who understands how to take King’s internalizations in 1408 and bring them chillingly to the forefront with little to no CG effects or gimmicks. Rather the director plays with the audience making them guess whether they are watching real ghosts or just what’s happening inside Mike’s psyche. Hafstrom says he hopes viewers will wonder “What would happen to me in 1408?” I wouldn’t want to find out that’s for sure.
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?