Meet Roger (Jon Heder) a beleaguered New York City meter maid who can’t even get a kid to like him in the Big Brother program he’s that much of a loser. In a desperate attempt to change Roger joins a top-secret confidence-building class taught by the suavely underhanded Dr. P. (Billy Bob Thornton). The doc guarantees that if you employ his unorthodox and often dangerous techniques you WILL unleash your inner lion. The class turns out to be just the incentive Roger needs and he takes to it like a duck to water. He even finally gets up the courage to ask out his pretty neighbor Amanda (Jacinda Barrett). But here’s the catch: Because Roger is such a star student it catapults Dr. P. into ultra-competitive mode and he makes it his mission to infiltrate and destroy Roger's life including going after Amanda. Well that’s not very fair. Can Roger use his newfound king of the jungle-ness to beat the master at his own game? Hmmm. It’s mostly because of the two leads that Scoundrels feels like you’ve been there and done that. First of all Heder best known as THE Napoleon Dynamite is playing a nerd...again. And although he’s far more lovable this time around—with the full lips and shaggy hair—and you instantly cheer him on the actor doesn’t really evolve by movie’s end. With his limited comic abilities he may not be the right choice to carry an entire film. Thornton who has been known to carry a film is just doing his same Bad Santa shtick he’s done in about the last four films he’s made. Wonder if he’ll ever go out on a limb again like he did with Sling Blade. As for the other band of misfit classmates—Walsh (Old School’s Matt Walsh) who's dying to move out of mother's basement; Diego (SNL’s Horatio Sanz) a punching bag for his hen-pecker of a wife; and Eli (Jerry Maguire’s Todd Louiso) a shy guy just looking for female companionship—they are hilarious. Barrett (The Last Kiss) too works fine as the ingénue. And there is a well-placed cameo by Ben Stiller as a former student of Dr. P who also got in his way. Based on the 1960 British film of the same title Scoundrels reunites director/writer Todd Phillips with his writing partner Scot Armstrong—the guys who brought us Old School Starsky and Hutch and Road Trip. It’s obvious these guys know comedy and they turn an uppity British laffer into a cross between Anger Management and Rushmore. Not a bad combination actually. They set up the big comedic payoffs such as the class’ painful attempt at engaging in a paint ball fight in the woods or the one-upmanship competition between Roger and Dr. P and let the chortles roll in. But overall Scoundrels seems almost too paint by the numbers and tad superficial. It could have definitely benefited from either a little more star power (as with Anger Management’s Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson) or more off-beat humor (as between Rushmore’s Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray). Oh well better luck next time.
Based on Chris Van Allsburg's enchanting award winning children's book the story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve where a doubting young boy lies in his bed waiting to hear the sound he doesn't know if he believes in anymore: the tinkle of Santa's sleigh bells. What he hears instead however is the thunderous roar of an approaching train where no train should be: it's the Polar Express. Rushing outside in only a robe and slippers the incredulous boy meets the train's conductor who urges him to come onboard. Suddenly the boy finds himself embarking on an extraordinary journey to the North Pole with a number of other children--including a girl who has the tools to be a good leader but lacks confidence; a know-it-all boy who lacks humility; and a lonely boy who just needs to have a little faith in other people to make his dreams come true. Together the children discover that the wonder of Christmas never fades for those who believe. As the conductor wisely advises "It doesn't matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on." Gives ya goose bumps doesn't it?
Talk about a vanity project for Tom Hanks. He portrays several of the characters in the film--the conductor the hobo who mysteriously appears and disappears on the Polar Express the boy's father. Wait isn't that Hanks playing Santa Claus as well? But if anyone can pull off some cheesy dialogue about the spirit of Christmas this Oscar-winning actor can. Interestingly the film also incorporates adults to play the children (none of the characters have names actually) with Hanks as the Hero Boy; Hanks' Bosom Buddies pal Peter Scolari as the Lonely Boy; The Matrix Revolutions Nona Gaye as the Hero Girl; and veteran voice actor Eddie Deezen as the Know-It-All Boy. Everyone does a good job but trying to make CGI-created people seem real is a difficult undertaking. With
The Polar Express director Robert Zemeckis has created an entirely new way to do computer animation called "performance capture." "[It's a process that] offers a vivid rendering of the Van Allsburg world while infusing a sense of heightened realism into the performances. It's like putting the soul of a live person into a virtual character " visual effects wizard and longtime Zemeckis collaborator Ken Ralston explains. Oh is that all? Problem is no matter how hard they try it doesn't work--not completely. Similar to flaws in the 2001 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within virtual characters just can't convey human emotion as well as real-life actors plain and simple. And with a touching story like Polar Express that real-life connection is missed at times.
Of course like the images in the book it's still an exceptionally beautiful film to watch. Zemeckis enjoys being a filmmaking innovator. He charmed audiences with a lively blend of live action and manic animation in the 1988 classic action comedy Who Framed
Roger Rabbit? and then wowed them with the 1994 Oscar-winning Forrest Gump blending authentic archival footage of historic figures with the actors. Now with The Polar Express it's this performance capture which gives Zemeckis unlimited freedom in creating the world he wants. And boy does he make use of it. True the story is a classic but the director knows he has to make The Polar Express exciting for the tykes-- simply riding around in a train to North Pole without any thrills certainly wouldn't be enough for the ADD world we live in. To accomplish this the film is padded with exhilarating scenes such as the train going on a giant roller coaster ride through the mountains and across frozen lakes (too bad Warner Bros. doesn't have a theme park) and the boy's race across the top of the snowy Polar Express. Even the North Pole is a booming magical Mecca filled with some pretty boisterous (and weird looking) elves who like to send Santa off in style Christmas Eve--watch out for Aerosmith's Steven Tyler making a cameo as a jammin' elf. Ho-ho-ho!
Supermom Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her geneticist husband Norman (Harrison Ford) are adapting to their only daughter's departure to college when Claire begins sensing an unearthly presence in the couple's lakeside Vermont dream home. Is she losing her marbles or is that the spirit of a beautiful young woman she keeps glimpsing? To say any more (as the too-explicit ad campaign does) would spoil some delicious twists.
The toplining Ford is his usual solid self in a role that plays cleverly on his familiar persona but the picture is Pfeiffer's from beginning to end. She delivers one of her most pleasing performances nicely disarming audience doubts about the story's supernatural elements with some judicious eye-rolling and embarrassed frowning -- her character is so painfully aware that what she's saying sounds crazy how can we possibly doubt her? Among the low-key supporting cast Joe Morton ("Terminator 2") stands out as an amiably down-to-earth psychiatrist.
Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump") takes Clark Gregg's highly derivative haunted house script and pours on the Hitchcockian visual flourishes unapologetically pilfering from the Master's "Rear Window" and "Psycho " among others. His extended homage results in scene after scene of almost unbearable tension as the audience waits for the next shock. There's some clunky storytelling in the first section but the all-suspense second half more than makes up for it with some classic work including what seems destined to go down in movie history as "the bathtub scene."