Max Payne started life as a popular 2001 videogame and now the dark dreary material has morphed into feature film that tries to give a back story for the tortured title character. Payne’s (Mark Wahlberg) wife and newborn baby are tragically killed and now Max a DEA agent is involved in the investigation of a series of murders that could provide a link to solving the mystery of his family’s demise. Demons in the form of a winged serpents haunt Max -- but nothing real or imagined will stand in the way of his quest. He teams with a beautiful Russian mobster and assassin Mona Sax (Mila Kunis) whose sister Natasha (Olga Kurylenko) is also killed giving equal reason to seek revenge. Complicating matters is Max’s mentor B.B. (Beau Bridges) an ex-cop who now does security for a large pharmaceutical company which may hold the key to the mystery. Forces -- both real and hidden -- are hard at work to keep Max who is clearly fighting his inner demons from reaching his goal. Wahlberg is earnest and knows how to kickass but the murders of his young wife and baby which is meant to give emotional heft to the character is really not enough to connect us to this guy. Still he does quite nicely in the numerous action scenes and is at home playing a DEA agent. Mila Kunis so appealing in Forgetting Sarah Marshall shows a saucier side here and has great potential as an action mama perhaps the kind of ball-buster Aeon Flux should have been. Olga Kurylenko who is also in the new James Bond film Quantum of Solace is well-used in the few scenes she has and Prison Break’s Amaury Nolasco is convincing as a tough ex-vet who now has drifted into the drug underworld. Beau Bridges has a tricky role he pulls off without tipping the story over while the other Bridges in the film -- rapper-turned-actor Chris “Ludicris” Bridges -- is an Internal Affairs detective who seems to sense something serious going on with Max. John Moore has been clearly influenced by the Matrix and new Batman movies creating a dark and ominous New York City with winged creatures reminiscent of the mythological Valkyrie roaming the grey skies. These creatures are apparently meant to physically represent the tortured thoughts in the mind of Max Payne. This creature feature aspect does not exist in the videogame and it’s an interesting if not entirely plausible addition from the mind of writer Beau Thorne. Moore invests his visuals with equal doses of reality and fantasy in an uneasy mix that has you wondering what’s real and what’s Memorex. Subjective POV camerawork and slow-motion shots sometimes give us the feeling we are watching Matrix but the stylistic touches do seem to be in line with the character’s journey. Moore has laid on the visual effects effortlessly particularly in the creation of the creatures who haunt Payne’s subconscious life.
Writer and star Jason Segel concocted this romantic comedy from an experience in his own life. It is a moment recreated right at the top of the film when TV and frustrated puppet theatre composer Peter Bretter (Segel) stands naked physically and emotionally as his TV-series star girlfriend Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell) dumps him for another guy. Not being able to deal with the sudden rejection and unable to perform properly at his job he decides to take the Hawaiian vacation he and his now-ex never got around to. Unfortunately she coincidentally has the same idea and with her English rocker new boyfriend (Russell Brand) in tow and winds up in the exact same resort with poor pitiful Peter. In a tactic designed to prove Sarah made a huge mistake he manages to hook up with the hotel’s pretty and sympathetic concierge (Mila Kunis)--signing up for “activities” she is unlikely to suggest to any other guest. With the Hawaiian paradise as the perfect backdrop the film turns into a classic battle of the sexes as Peter attempts to put the pieces of his shattered heart back together. One of the original regulars of producer Judd Apatow’s short-lived NBC series Freeks and Geeks and now co-star of How I Met Your Mother Jason Segel smartly breaks out of the supporting TV mode and proves his worth as a fine comic movie lead in his sharply observed script inspired by an incident that happened in his own life. Sure to be much discussed and dissected the hilarious opening scenes in which he boldly goes for laughs displaying his full frontal manhood signals him as a screen actor unafraid to let it all hang out there. That’s just perfect for a character who pretty much wears his vulnerability on his sleeve (when he has one on). As a screenwriter he has also given his co-stars choice roles to run with as well. Bell as the vapid TV actress takes what could have been a one-dimensional role and shapes her Sarah Marshall into a believable human being who finally hits a wall in her longtime relationship. Kunis (TV's That '70s Show) is an enormously appealing and warm screen presence and Brand as the loopy rocker steals every scene he’s in with one of the year’s most indelible comic creations. As usual some of Apatow’s stable of regulars turn up here as well with standout bits from Knocked Up and 40 Year-Old Virgin’s Paul Rudd as a loony surf instructor and Superbad’s Jonah Hill as the fanboy restaurant host. Debuting feature director Nicholas Stoller got some early experience on Apatow’s underappreciated series Undeclared and does a nice job here bringing Segel’s creation to the screen. A mark of a good director is good performances and there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. Not too shabby for a first timer. His achievement however is clearly overwhelmed by the imposing shadow of producer Apatow and his star/writer. It’s their show but Stoller goes light on stylistic touches and doesn’t screw it up seamlessly letting the actors the terrific script and the scenery do all the heavy lifting making this Sarah Marshall hard to forget indeed.
Dennis Quaid plays Professor Lawrence Wetherhold a brilliant bored and completely self-absorbed widower who may be super-intelligent but still can’t figure out how to deal with a family that includes an independent-minded son (Ashton Holmes) and his eager over-achieving daughter (Ellen Page). As he meanders thru his seemingly miserable life his freeloading adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church) shows up for an unwanted visit making matters even worse. Despite these obstacles in his personal life his only goal seems to be getting his pretentious un-publishable book published and becoming head of the University’s English department. When his own stubborn stupidity brings on a sudden seizure that lands him in the hospital he encounters a pretty doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker) who just happened to be one of his former students. Despite a couple of awkward dinners he suddenly finds himself in love and moving into a new unexpected phase of his life--one with lots of unforeseen complications. It’s nice to see Quaid attempt more character-driven roles as he gets older and for a while his take on this dour professor is quite amusing. But the hopeless arrogance of the guy makes it hard for the audience to have any empathy despite the fact that he obviously loved his wife and still has the capacity to give it another whirl with former student Parker. Perhaps that’s the problem. It’s hard to buy these two as a couple in any way shape or form. Their mutual attraction seems unfathomable and Parker’s underwritten moody doctor is just as difficult to snuggle up to as Quaid’s weary professor. She’s one of those “movie characters” whose motivations constantly change only to keep the plot moving. The best acting belongs to supporting players Church and Page who have some choice scenes together. Church proved in Sideways he is a natural comic talent and his goofy take on the n’er-do-well brother plus pitch-perfect line readings make him the best reason to plunk down 10 bucks for this thing. Page actually shot this picture pre-Juno and there are similarities to her character in both--but as the daughter much older than her years she again proves she’s a prodigious talent the ‘it’ girl of the moment. Christine Lahti a fine actress is completely underused here as a colleague of Quaid’s. Most of her part probably lays somewhere on a cutting room floor. She deserves better. Perhaps in more experienced hands--say Sideways’ Alexander Payne--this material could have worked but under the guidance of first-time feature director Noam Murro it does not snap crackle OR pop. The successful commercials director looks like he hasn’t mastered the language of the big screen shooting his actors particularly Parker in unattractively lit close-ups. Although early scenes setting up Quaid’s character have some life the overall film is uneven in tone and dreary to watch. Setting the film in a drab environment like Pittsburgh doesn’t help but the murky cinematography is unimaginative. It’s easy to see the potential a savvy Oscar-nominated producer like Michael London (Sideways House of Sand and Fog The Visitor) may have seen in acclaimed novelist Mark Poirier’s screenplay about a bunch of smart people making dumb choices. But he’s been let down by a debuting director who just doesn’t have a handle on the situation.