WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.
According to Anger Management's resident anger expert Dr. Buddy Rydell (Jack Nicholson) there are two kinds of temperamental personalities: explosive and implosive. An explosive personality is the guy who yells at the cashier when his coupons aren't accepted. An implosive personality is the cashier who takes the abuse day in and day out then snaps suddenly and shoots everyone in the store. Apparently this second type aptly describes our hero Dave Buznik (Adam Sandler) a nice enough fellow with a cute girlfriend (Marisa Tomei) who believes in him--and he needs that since he has a problem standing up for himself especially when his boss abuses him or the airline stewardess won't give him his headset. When he's sentenced to join Rydell's anger management program over some wildly concocted misunderstanding the abrasive and confrontational doctor quickly decides that the problem is obvious: Dave is a walking time bomb. He diagnoses him with TAS (Toxic Anger Syndrome) and vows to help him come to terms with his demons. At first Dave plays along but when Buddy moves in with him for some intensive therapy--and systematically turns his life upside down--Dave reaches his breaking point. It's time to make a stand and be the man he knows he can be--without killing the good doctor in the process.
Sandler and Nicholson fans have to be wondering: Can two stars known for their highly volatile characterizations blend their unique personalities to create a lasting chemistry? Happily yes. Sandler and Nicholson most assuredly click and more importantly look like they had a ball making the film. Nicholson plays the wacko Rydell at full tilt almost going over the top but reining it in when it's required while Sandler handles his straight-man character as carefully as he can. You let out a little sigh of relief however when the comedian finally does let loose because a Sandler movie without one or two great meltdowns just isn't a Sandler movie. Management is also full of actors who've played angry people once or twice in their careers including John Turturro (Do the Right Thing) and Luis Guzman (Traffic) who along with sports fanatic Nate (Jonathan Loughran) and two adult film stars Gina (January Jones) and Stacy (Krista Allen) are members of Rydell's therapy group the "Fury Fighters." Of course no movie about anger would be complete without bringing in some of the real world's most famous bad tempers so Anger Management features cameos by college basketball coach Bobby Knight tennis pro John McEnroe and New York Yankee Roger Clemens. In fact the film is just riddled with cameos--see how many you can spot.
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when screenwriter David Dorfman pitched the idea to Sony Pictures: "OK it's about two guys who have problems with anger. One who doesn't know he has a problem ends up being treated by the other who dealt with his anger issues by becoming a therapist. But here's the kicker! We'll get Sandler to play the hapless patient and Nicholson to be his doctor!" The studio exec's eyes light up money is exchanged and boom! You've got Anger Management. Yes this combination seems like it should flow like honey from a hive but the story relies too much on its two stars and too little on the overall concept. Like the studio exec we expect a side-splitting comedy; what director Peter Segal (Nutty Professor II: The Klumps) delivers are some hysterical moments for Sandler and Nicholson--the duo sing West Side Story's "I Feel Pretty" while holding up traffic and kick the bejeezus out of a monk who used to be Dave's childhood tormentor (played by John C. Reilly)--coupled with a barely credible premise and stereotypical characters.