I could probably come up with a better pan for Mr. Popper’s Penguins than “flightless and foul ” but that would entail expending more creative energy on the film than its makers did. Directed by Mark Waters (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past The Spiderwick Chronicles) and based on a 1938 children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater it is so empty and artificial and formulaic that if I didn’t know better I would have pegged it as a very cynical parody or perhaps a film within a film about some desperate mafioso’s questionable money-laundering scheme.
Jim Carrey looking tired and perhaps a little embarrassed plays the title role of an arrogant self-absorbed businessman who is taught a variety of valuable life lessons by a sextet of penguins. The penguins bequeathed to Mr. Popper in his neglectful father’s last will and testament each exhibit a single personality trait which immediately makes them more emotionally complex than the film in which they appear.
They’re assigned names accordingly: there’s Captain the leader Loudy the screamer Lovey the hugger Bitey the biter Stinkey the farter and Nimrod the stumbler. I only wish this functional naming scheme were extended to the rest of the characters in the film – i.e. Clark Gregg is Nemesis Carla Gugino is Motivation Angela Lansbury is Conscience and so on. If anything it would have allowed the filmmakers to excise a healthy chunk of dialogue which in the case of Mr. Popper’s Penguins only exists to punish the brain.
The film boasts three credited screenwriters among its crew. Though I’m not privy to each writer’s specific contributions I imagine their duties were divided in roughly this fashion: 1) scrub the story of all imagination or wit; 2) remove any deviations from pat Hollywood formula; and 3) cram it with as much toilet humor as the MPAA will allow in a PG film. You’d think that a single writer could have mangled a beloved
children's book just as convincingly but you’d be wrong: This kind of
debacle requires a team effort.
September 07, 2004 12:11pm EST
In Paparazzi celebrity photographers are an affliction that torment tens if not dozens of residents of Brentwood the Hollywood Hills and Malibu. Bo Laramie (Cole Hauser) is one such denizen. As Hollywood's brightest new action star Laramie along with his wife Abby (Robin Tunney) is set to enjoy the sweet ride of success until paparazzo Rex Harper (Tom Sizemore) and his marauding band of slimy shutterbugs turn his life into a living hell. Or at least a fairly large inconvenience. With a blatant nod to Princess Di the pesky paparazzi cause a high-speed car wreck which sends Bo's son Zach (Blake Bryan) into a coma of convenient duration and results in the loss of Abby's spleen. Which is fitting as the movie has no discernible spleen of its own. And so our hero who has obviously not received the standard studio briefing on the joys of contract killers takes matters (and a baseball bat) into his own hands. The model for Paparazzi is the vigilante movie: Death Wish Billy Jack Walking Tall and the like. But whereas Bronson's Paul Kersey devolved from architect to cold-blooded killer only when faced with impossibly high stakes (the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter) Laramie by contrast turns into a serial killer and a sloppy one at that over a little retinal glare. And doing it all by himself? One imagines the Anthony Pellicanos of the world dispatching guys like Harper during a Pilates break.
It's problematic asking non-movie stars to play huge movie stars for obvious reasons. Bo Laramie is supposed to be the biggest thing since Ah-nuld held his day job but as Hauser plays him he comes off more like Michael Dudikoff. Even as he's beating paparazzi to death with his own hands there is no sense of a human being or even a movie star being pushed to his limits. Tunney who was terrific in Niagara Niagara has nothing to do and neither does Dennis Farina as the cop conflicted by the A-list avenger. Sizemore of course steals every scene he's in effortlessly and ruthlessly. In spite of his recent legal troubles (or perhaps because of them) he brings just the right dosage of dangerous persona and edgy charisma to his growing roster of manic miscreants. Ultimately though even his involvement is disappointing: When he's on screen he fools you into thinking a real movie is about to start.
First-time director Paul Abascal is but a pawn in Mel Gibson's dogmatic production slate. Screenwriter Forrest Smith had a small role with Gibson in We Were Soldiers and reportedly leveraged the moment to pitch Paparazzi to the actor/producer/Catholic poster boy. Gibson has had issues with his privacy before and has already proved himself shameless in using the movies to promote an agenda. So as with The Passion of the Christ a movie that wouldn't have gotten so much as a sniff at any other studio found itself with a green light. And Bo Laramie became family man/action hero Gibson's violent alter ego. Or maybe just ego. (Gibson also has a brief cameo and the one sheet for Laramie's "movie" Adrenaline Force 2 is a dead ringer for the poster art for Lethal Weapon 2). With Gibson's personal profits alone surpassing the $400 million mark with this week's Passion DVD sales and Paparazzi's budget listed at $20 million Gibson could make 20 sequels to Paparazzi. Or he could use the producer's pulpit to speak out against other vexations in his life. Somewhere at Icon world headquarters Leaf Blower: The Movie just went into pre-production.
Told from the perspective of one innocent maid Mary Macearchran (Kelly MacDonald) the story starts as she arrives at the magnificent country estate of Gosford Park. On this particular weekend host Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) have invited an eclectic group to the house for a shooting party. The guests include Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville Natasha Wightman) their respective loser husbands (Charles Dance Tom Hollander) her cantankerous aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) for whom Mary works British matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) and his American friend Morris Weisman (Bob Balaban) a film producer who makes Charlie Chan movies. As the upper-crust guests bicker about money and power the ranks of house servants personal maids and valets below make sure their charges are well taken care of under the guidance of the head butler Jennings (Alan Bates) head housekeeper Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) and head cook Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins). Through Mary's eyes we see that the glamour of the upstairs patrons and the seeming precision downstairs are not all they seem. The two worlds are destined to collide and when they do it leads to only one thing--murder.
One of the joys of an Altman movie is his uncanny ability to take a huge ensemble cast of really good actors and carve out a film from their personal stories. This style can also work to the film's detriment however and in Gosford Park the mostly British cast melds together almost too well. Often you can't even tell who's who. Still with all the talent involved there are at least a few bright moments: Smith as the wisecracking Constance an old lady who's very used to being waited on hand and foot gets all the best lines and delivers them flawlessly and veteran actress Mirren is also brilliant as the staunch Mrs. Wilson. She turns in one of the film's only heartbreaking scenes as her character grieves for the son she gave away long ago in the name of servitude. Also good are MacDonald as the young Mary Clive Owen as the valet Robert Parks who carries more than just a chip on his shoulder and Emily Watson as the headstrong chief housemaid Elsie. Northam too shows off his musical abilities as the suave piano-playing singing Novello. The rest all blend together except unfortunately the two American actors--Balaban comes off as annoying and Ryan Phillippe playing an actor pretending to be Morris' valet is in way over his head.
Interestingly the film is taken from a story idea dreamt up by Altman and Balaban. One wonders if perhaps the two were inspired to create Park after watching an episode of the classic '70s British television drama Upstairs Downstairs which was about a wealthy British household whose servant class had just as many dramas as the people they served (hmm sounds familiar). Sure it's conceivable that two Americans sitting around talking about making a distinctly British movie (and a period piece to boot) could pull it off and with a tremendous talent like Altman attached you'd think it would work. But Park misses the mark. The Altman-esque qualities are all there--the way he interweaves his characters' stories and shows real people with real emotions--but maybe just maybe Altman is simply out of his element. You enjoy the ride but it's not a ride through appealing territory and you're definitely watching from the window as the characters live a life you never really become a part of.