In Norway Iowa (pop. 586) baseball is what you do by default—there apparently aren’t too many options. It is either baseball or gas-station get-togethers according to the (true) story in The Final Season. Set in 1991 the town’s high school baseball team the Tigers has amassed 19 State Championships in 22 years and it is the community’s heart and soul. So when a move is put in place to merge the team with another school’s for budgetary reasons the townsfolk are understandably outraged. As a nail in the coffin the team’s longtime coach Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe) is to be replaced by his much-younger and -less-experienced assistant Kent Stock (Sean Astin) for the final season. Suddenly everyone sours on their team and its chances of notching that 20th title. But what they don't know is that there is a diamond-in-the-rough catcher (Michael Angarano) who has just moved into town—as a punishment by his dad (Tom Arnold)—and that Stock is every bit as determined as Coach Van Scoyoc to continue Norway’s winning tradition. It initially takes some time for the players to warm up to their new coach but after a while… Oh you know the drill. The updated score in Sean Astin’s sports-movie career: football 1 baseball 0. The well-traveled actor can’t quite do for Season what he did for Rudy partly because this movie is cheesy beyond repair. But Astin who also executive-produced is by far the film’s biggest asset both on and off screen. He soldiers on as Coach Stock brimming with realistic enthusiasm and fortitude perhaps to spite the woeful script. Fellow veteran actor Boothe (Sin City) rounds out Season’s two bright spots as the pitch-perfect embodiment of a baseball sage who doesn’t waste words. But he and Astin don’t fit in this movie for reasons of authenticity or lack thereof on the others’ part. That includes onetime Next Big Thing Rachael Leigh Cook who plays Astin’s much-too-cutesy love interest; Tom Arnold striking out in a role that is (mercifully!) a near cameo; and Angarano (Sky High) who gives a performance that is heavy on cliché and light on realism. Like the movie itself. It’s hard to imagine even the youngest of viewers being able to resist sarcastic laughter throughout The Final Season—that’s just the degree of its corn. Almost everything is wrong here and the result is a nearly two-hour cliché whose transparency knows no age boundaries. Both director David M. Evans (The Sandlot of course) and writers Art D'Alessandro and James Grayford seem to only be concerned with concocting unnecessary melodrama. Most of the movie’s story for example is a highly fictionalized addendum to the less-cinematic true story on which it is based. And one scene early on serves as a microcosm of the director’s contrived efforts and forced cheese: After Angarano’s Mitch plunks his classmate/teammate with a Wiffle ball Evans cues music so heavy you’d think you were watching the climax of Mystic River. It’s utterly laughable and indicative of Evans’ many missteps. As for the baseball scenes they look sufficient when shown but Final Season is so much less a sports movie than it is the feel-good stuff of Disney TV movies—nay Disney cartoons.
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.
Breaking and Entering is sometimes contrived as films of this sort tend to be but is executed smoothly enough by screenwriter/director Anthony Minghella to succeed on some levels. Will (Jude Law) is an architect whose office in the seedier King’s Cross area of London is ransacked by thieves. He tracks one of them down and encounters Amira (Juliette Binoche) a Bosnian immigrant single mother with whom he becomes infatuated. Their illicit relationship ultimately has unforeseen consequences for all concerned including Will’s girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn) and Amira’s son Miro (Rafi Gavron). There aren’t many laughs but the film does try to offer an insight into what drives – and impedes – its characters’ emotional impulses Law is good Binoche is better than good and Wright Penn is better than usual. If there’s one element that elevates Breaking and Entering to a higher level it’s the performances. Vera Farmiga who played the only female role of any consequence in The Departed delivers a scene-stealing turn as a resilient Bosnian streetwalker while the always-welcome Ray Winstone turns up (all too briefly) as a canny cop. Given the success of Paul Haggis’ Crash and the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu it’s no surprise that other filmmakers are adopting the same attempting to cure (or at least address) various social issues by having disparate characters whose seemingly random interactions have consequences (both good and bad) for all concerned. Minghella an Oscar winner for The English Patient does have a knack for bringing out the best – or at least the good – in his actors even those in smaller roles. At least Breaking and Entering is more comfortably paced than Minghella’s last film the picturesque but lugubrious adaptation of Cold Mountain.
With college behind them East Great Falls High School alums Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) decide the time is ripe for marriage. After an embarrassing restaurant proposal that involves under-the-table fellatio and a missing ring Michelle accepts and sets her sights on the perfect wedding ceremony. Jim and his best buds Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) decide to leave Stifler (Seann William Scott) in the dark about the upcoming nuptials to avoid any possible calamities but it doesn't take long for the Stifmeister to figure things out. Stifler the only one of the gang who has not matured since high school lays on the charm--and the Lacoste sweaters--and quickly gains acceptance from Michelle's stuffy parents and her attractive sister Cadence (January Jones). The film basically revolves around Jim trying to turn Michelle's dream wedding into a reality while Stifler unintentionally foils his friend's every effort. American Wedding follows the same formula as its two predecessors and while there are some really funny gags here you can spot their setup from a mile away. When Stifler for example accidentally feeds Michelle's wedding band to a dog waits on it to pooh it out then scoops up the jewelry with a paper doily we are hardly flabbergasted when it is later mistaken for a truffle. And that just about sums up the movie: funny but formulaic.
In the first two American Pie movies Biggs's character Jim was always a key comedic player. For instance who could forget his Internet snafu with Nadia the foreign exchange student or the Crazy Glue incident at the beach house? But while American Wedding is all about Jim and Michelle's wedding Biggs and Hannigan take a back seat to the laughs here: they're the stressed-out grown-ups. Also turning in a more muted performance is Nicholas as pal Kevin who doesn't appear to have a purpose at all in this installment--although he does provide a bit of comic (albeit non-speaking) relief during Stifler's botched attempt at a bachelor party. Contrary to Jim Michelle and Kevin who have blossomed into somewhat dependable adults Scott's character Stifler has degenerated. Stifler is more crass and obnoxious than ever perhaps even a little too over-the-top. The actor whose performance stands out the most in this comedy is Thomas in the role of Finch. Thomas has taken the character's haughtiness and peculiarity to a new level fine tuning Finch's attributes and stylishly transforming him from a high school geek to a cool brainy college graduate. Eugene Levy who is back in the role of Jim's overly involved father but his shtick has become redundant. His only purpose in the films is to walk in on his son at every inopportune moment.
All three films in the American Pie series were penned by screenwriter Adam Herz and produced by Paul and Chris Weitz--who also served as directors on the original--but they have all gone through different directors; the J B Rogers-directed American Pie 2 and now American Wedding helmed by Jesse Dylan (How High). Like the second installment American Wedding has its moments and there are a handful of truly funny ones including a scene in which Jim shaves his pubic area and dumps the hair out the window where it blows towards a group of unsuspecting guests (and the cake). But unlike this particular instance most of the jokes suffer from overkill; the cameras keep rolling long after the yarn stops being funny. Others are stereotypical like Stifler's dance-off with a patron in a gay club while others including a midnight rendezvous in a dark hallway closet are predictable. But even though the film revolves around the now all-too-familiar characters Herz has matured them in a way that still makes them both amusing and endearing. Don't however look for Oz (Chris Klein) Heather (Mena Suvari) Vickie (Tara Reid) or Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth). The filmmakers believe these characters weren't needed since the story wasn't about them anymore but it would have been nice to mention them and what they were up to.