Jules Verne’s classic 1864 novel has inspired many film and TV versions. None has matched the success of the penultimate 1959 Journey which starred James Mason and Pat Boone and remains a baby-boomer favorite and classic of the sci-fi genre. That could change with this clever remake--ingeniously filmed in 3D--which goes directly back to the source material of the book and comes off like an endless thrill ride. This updated tale begins with the daily travails of American professor Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) who has never gotten over the mysterious disappearance of his brother Max several years earlier. When Max’s son Sean (Josh Hutcherson) pays a visit bearing a box of Dad’s papers the Trevor discovers hand-written notes in a copy of an original Jules Verne book suggesting his brother may have found a way to confirm Verne’s theories about a direct volcanic entrance into the center of the earth. With nephew in tow and the book in hand the twosome set out for Iceland on their own perilous journey to test Max’s thesis and trace his steps. There they are joined by Hannah (Anita Briem) a skeptical mountain guide who agrees to show them the way--though she highly doubts they find anything resembling Verne’s imagined lost world of natural wonders and roaming dinosaurs. But stranger things have happened right?
Anchoring the proceedings with enough derring-do to suggest he would be ideally cast as the next Indiana Jones if Harrison Ford ever wants to hang up his hat Fraser has just the right amount of authority cynicism and dry wit to make us connect to a down and out professor whose “crazy” geological beliefs have torched his reputation. Key to liking this guy is clearly the fun Fraser has in playing him. Hutcherson is thankfully a little looser in this flick than the spiritually-driven boy he played in Bridge To Terabithia even though the two films share odd similarities especially with their descent from mundane real life into fantasy adventures any kid would salivate over. Briem nicely rounds out the threesome as the reluctant guide trying to deny the beliefs of her own late father a Verne disciple who as it turns out shared the same dreams of the two nascent adventurers she now finds herself shepherding to parts unknown. In a relatively minor role SNL’s Seth Meyers also turns up early on as a disbelieving colleague of Andersons. Oscar-winning visual effects veteran Eric Brevig (Total Recall) makes his directorial debut and turns out to be perfectly chosen for what is after all an effects- driven summer ride. Leaving a lot of the talkiness and exposition of Verne’s book (and previous film versions) on the cutting room floor Brevig cuts right to the chase in this breezy 90-minute guilty pleasure. He clearly knows today’s moviegoers have the attention span of a mosquito so he piles on the action but still manages to keep the sense of wonder crucial to the story alive. Best of all the 3D technology which has been part of Hollywood for over half a century is still remarkable to behold even in the CGI era. Rather than just selected sequences the entire film has been shot with 3D in mind so expect to have lots of objects hurled directly at you--none more effectively than a scene in which our explorers encounter flying fish. And even without the glasses prepare to hold your breath and hang on for a great time at the movies.
To say that Meet the Spartans is a spoof of 300 is to suggest that there is some semblance of a storyline mocking that the 2007 blockbuster epic; I refuse to give it that much credit. Rather this movie is a lame-ass excuse to randomly throw jabs at pop culture and in extreme emergencies “advance” the “plot”--which only really makes fun of 300’s subtexts not its story. It all starts in ancient Sparta where a young Leonidas (Sean Maguire) is groomed to defeat the evil Xerxes (Ken Davitian “the fat guy from Borat ” which is essentially how the movie introduces him) and the invading Persians (led by Method Man). But really Spartans is all about the atrociously unfunny parodies that litter its not-brief-enough 80 minutes: Transformers Stomp the Yard Happy Feet American Idol Dancing with the Stars Ugly Betty Anna Nicole Britney Paris homosexuality bodily functions--they’re all spoofed here! A truly groundbreaking concept indeed. Formerly up-and-coming British actor Maguire (England's EastEnders) must’ve thought a lead role no matter how bad the movie would beget bigger jobs in the near future. Oops! Didn’t he ever hear of Adam Campbell the like-minded bloke whose biggest role since headlining Date Movie was last year’s Epic Movie? In short actors looking to break out should not be tempted by crap like this. It’s the same story: Maguire can obviously act but he makes a complete fool of himself in the process and now must give his career time to recover. He only bears a slight physical resemblance to the actor he’s parodying Gerard Butler (when heavily bearded) and otherwise spends the movie uttering the worst possible lines when not subjecting himself to scenes so mortifying that they’re like some kind of Fear Factor for Actors. Elsewhere the usual D-listers pop up for a shot at regaining quasi-relevance. Carmen Electra now a veteran of this franchise--lucky her!--plays Leonidas' wife and is leaned on for nothing more than her hotness. Which is more than can be said about everyone else from a clearly desperate-for-work Kevin Sorbo (Andromeda) as one of Leonidas’ ‘yes’ men to Method Man whose heretofore-horrible film résumé just got worse. Whereas Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer’s Scary/Epic/Date Movie spoofs might’ve bore the “this probably wasn’t as easy to come up with as it seems” tag Spartans looks like something from a script they found in the garbage can at a middle school: Not only is it pure trash unworthy of being released but the “jokes ” if you will were seemingly written by and for 13- to-14-year-olds. Not one second of the movie is even implicitly deserving of a snicker; instead it’s actually antagonizing to watch as Friedberg and Seltzer bombard us with scene after scene of the shallowest material ever committed to celluloid. This is the absolute dreg of cinema the lowest of the low not to be confused with “lowbrow ” which would be an unfair compliment in this case. Spartans even fails miserably in trying to make fun of the few pop-culturisms that deserve it and the least the writer-directors could’ve done was hire actors who physically resemble the celebs they’re spoofing! Friedberg and Seltzer are just utterly allergic to originality: Obviously you don’t expect the story to be original since it’s all a rip-off to begin with but they can’t even spin any of it into a single original gag. And they're so lost during the few non-spoof scenes that they resort to the dreaded pratfalls. Seriously these dudes make Uwe Boll look like Orson Welles.
Despite what the trailer might have you believe In the Land of Women isn't exactly a sweet sigh-inducing romance. Yes main character Carter Webb (Adam Brody)--a slightly snarky screenwriter who makes his living writing soft-core porn--leaves Hollywood for Michigan to get over a hard break-up by taking care of his aging tart-tongued grandmother (Olympia Dukakis). And yes he subsequently ends up getting entangled with angsty blond teenager Lucy Hardwicke (Kristen Stewart) and her lonely mom Sarah (Meg Ryan). But the trio's tenuous relationships are complicated by confusion resentment illness and misunderstanding all of which add up to a situation that's hardly straightforward--and frankly not all that romantic either. Brody is no stranger to playing sarcastic pop culture-savvy Southern Californians: After four seasons on The O.C. as Seth Cohen he's got the type down pat. As Carter he balances wry quips with a nice dose of empathy--you can tell that he truly cares about both Lucy and Sarah (not to mention his grandma as crusty as she is). But to be honest it's a little hard to see why. Stewart plays Lucy with a shy sullenness that's not very endearing--she gets a little more animated toward the end but it's too little too late--and Ryan's trademark perkiness has worn thin. She gives Sarah's dramatic scenes her best shot but the character's confusion and pain don't seem at home on her unnaturally tight face. Dukakis gets in a few zingers as Grandma Phyllis but the character is essentially one-note--as is Lucy's sister Paige (Makenzie Vega) who swiftly goes from "cutely precocious" to "awkward yapping." In many ways Paige seems like a character lifted out of the John Hughes playbook which isn't that surprising given Carter's fascination with the '80s director's oeuvre--and the movie's Hughes-ian high school subplot. Unfortunately the "classic" high school movie scenes (the party Lucy takes Carter to their movie outing at the mall her dawning realization at the end etc.) while fun for folks who grew up watching the movies they're obviously inspired by have a light tone that's jarring compared to the rest of the film's drama. When it comes down to it Carter--who's looking for a reason to stop drifting through life--has a lot more in common with Garden State's Andrew Largeman than Hughes heroes like Ferris Bueller and John Bender. Trying to squeeze him into a teen-centric story rather than focusing on helping him grow up doesn't do him--or the movie--any favors.
The original Seuss story is a wonderful--albeit simple
--children's tale about two bored kids left alone in their house on a cold wet day. They're visited by a six-foot-tall talking adventure-seeking feline who's looking for a little fun (OK maybe a lot of fun). Against the warnings of the children's seriously repressed pet goldfish the Cat (with the help of a couple of troll doll look-a-likes called Thing One and Thing Two) turns the house upside down then puts it all right-side-up again before the kids' mother gets home. The question for Hollywood is how to turn a story like this one that's left an indelible impression on millions of readers young and old since 1957 into a major motion picture? While the film thankfully keeps to this original's plot talking fish and all it obviously tries to flesh things out adding some new characters and tacking on a few life lessons. The kids now have very distinct personalities: Wild older brother Conrad (Spencer Breslin) plays fast and loose with the rules while sister Sally (Dakota Fanning) an uptight control freak has driven all her friends away with her rigidity. Their mother Joan (Kelly Preston) works at the town's real estate office run by the anal retentive Mr. Humberfloob (Sean Hayes) and she's dating the guy next door Quinn (Alec Baldwin) a superficial scumbag who wants to send Conrad to military school. On the particular cold wet day in question Joan leaves instructions not to mess up the house since she's having an important business meet-and-greet there later that night. When the Cat (Mike Myers) arrives he quickly assures Sally and Conrad they can have all the fun they want and nothing bad will happen. Ignoring vocal opposition from the Fish (voiced by Hayes) the Cat quickly puts into motion a series of events that will a) prove his point b) destroy the house and c) teach the kids a sugary-sweet but valuable lesson about being responsible while living life to the fullest.
Just as Jim Carrey immortalized the Grinch Mike Myers seems born to play the Cat in the oversized red-and-white striped hat--he has the sly slightly sarcastic wholly anarchistic thing down cold. Myers' impersonations of a redneck Cat mechanic (with requisite visible butt crack) an infomercial Cat host and a zany British Cat chef are outrageous as are the hilarious little asides he spouts although they'll probably go over kids' heads: "Well sure [the Fish] can talk but is he really saying anything? No not really." But even though Myers has some fun moments he just isn't the Barney type and when he turns on the come-on-kids-let's-have-fun charm and adopts a dopey laugh he seems uncomfortable. As for the kids Fanning and Breslin (Disney's The Kid) do a fine job reacting to the wackiness the Cat surrounds them with although Fanning basically plays the same uptight character she created in the recent Uptown Girls. Of the supporting players Baldwin has the most fun as the villainous Quinn a bad-guy role that while a little superfluous gives Baldwin plenty of opportunities to chew the scenery. Hayes is also good in his dual role; he stamps Humberfloob indelibly on our brains then kicks butt as the voice of the beleaguered Fish.
It must have been a no-brainer for producer Brian Grazer to do another Dr. Seuss adaptation after all the fun magic and profits the 2000 hit How the Grinch Stole Christmas generated. With Cat in the Hat however he didn't collaborate with his usual directing partner the Grinch's Ron Howard. Instead Grazer took a chance on first-time director Bo Welch who previously served as production designer on Tim Burton's Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and has three Oscar nods to his credit for production design on other films. Welch certainly takes his quirky cue from Burton when it comes to the look of Cat in the Hat especially Sally and Conrad's suburban Southern California neighborhood with its lilac frames and blue roofs. The gadgets are cool too from the Cat's Super Luxurious Omnidirectional Whatchamajigger or S.L.O.W vehicle to the Dynamic Industrial Renovating Tractormajigger or D.I.R.T. mobile for cleaning up the house. When we enter the Cat's bizarre world though the film's Seussian look starts to have problems possibly because there's nothing of this place in the original book. Hidden within the feline's magical crate the Cat's world can produce "the mother of all messes " and in keeping with that purpose there's some effort at making it look like a fragmented Cubist painting. But it's more plastic than Picasso and in the end it's about as interesting as a Universal Theme Park ride (a fact the movie actually mentions).
Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) never aspires to become one of the youngest people ever to make the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List--it just kind of turns out that way. His adventures begin in 1967 when he runs away from home at 16 just as his parents are divorcing. He finds himself alone in the Big Apple unsuccessfully trying to cash fake $20 checks. One day Frank notices how much respect is given to two airline pilots and he decides impersonating a Pan Am co-pilot might be just the ticket so to speak. Thus begins his brilliant three-year run as a master of deception. After infiltrating Pan Am he changes careers--he's a pediatrician then a lawyer--all the while perfecting his forgery skills. Cashing fake checks all over the country Abagnale amasses millions and quite literally becomes a kid in a candy store buying sports cars and fancy suits losing his virginity and pretending he is James Bond. Still the fact remains Frank is just a kid. Even after all these adult experiences his main objective is to get his father Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) a down-on-his-luck store owner hounded by the IRS back together with his now-remarried mother (Nathalie Baye). Frank's nefarious activities eventually catch the authorities' attention and Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) a no-nonsense FBI agent in charge of the bank fraud division is soon hot on Frank's tail. But Frank doesn't mind. Part of him wants to get caught and he baits Hanratty to never give up the chase. Hanratty never does and finally brings his man to justice.
Catch Me's acting ensemble shines. Given the fact DiCaprio is in two high-profile movies this holiday season--this one and Gangs of New York--puts the actor back on the radar after a hiatus (perhaps he was licking his wounds after starring in the disastrous 2001 The Beach). Yet if you were to match the performances DiCaprio's stellar turn as Abagnale definitely stands out as the better of the two (the Golden Globes feel the same recently giving DiCaprio a nod for best actor in a drama). He fits the part like a glove--all at once charismatic childish vulnerable and deadly intelligent. DiCaprio easily shows how Frank isn't necessarily a sociopath but more a needy kid looking for acceptance. Say what you will about DiCaprio's movie star qualities he still has the acting chops to make it work. Walken as Frank Sr. also gives one of the better performances of his career playing a sad man who knows the apple doesn't fall from the tree but who is too proud to admit his mistakes--even to his son. Hanks is superb as well (is there anything this man can't do?) playing the by-the-book Hanratty completely devoid of emotion--but making us laugh anyway every time he comes on the screen. He doesn't mean to of course but to see Hanks play something so obviously straight somehow brings out the humor in the situation even more. Just don't ask Hanratty to tell you a joke. TV's Alias honey Jennifer Garner also makes a nice cameo as a prostitute--watch out folks she's heading for the big screen.
Based on the real-life memoirs of Frank W. Abagnale Jr. Catch Me If You Can is a fascinating study of a brilliant mind which isn't by nature criminal--just slightly misguided (ironically the real Abagnale now in his 50s is a legitimate businessman who also acts as an consultant for the FBI's bank fraud division). Under the skillful hands of director Steven Spielberg Catch Me has a great deal of fun going for a very '60s tongue-in-cheek Pink Panther feel from the opening credits to the ease at which Frank goes about his merry way conning everyone including himself. The motto of the film has to be "never deny." Frank accepts everything and things just fall into his lap. Even when Frank tries to tell the truth to the father (played by Martin Sheen) of a woman he wants to marry it works to his advantage. Yet the meat of the film is Frank's inner turmoil at the breakup of his parents of wanting his family back together again and of his need to come clean. Frank secretly wants to be disciplined told what to do and that's why Hanratty becomes so important almost a fatherly figure to him. The film probably plays about a half hour too long especially in explaining what happens to Abagnale after he gets caught but otherwise it totally engages you.