Sunday, February 25, 2007

Because I Said So / * (PG-13)

Daphne Wilder: Diane Keaton
Milly: Mandy Moore
Johnny: Gabriel Macht
Jason: Tom Everett Scott
Maggie: Lauren Graham
Mae: Piper Perabo
Joe: Stephen Collins

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Michael Lehmann. Written by Karen Leigh Hopkins & Jessie Nelson. Running time: 102 min. Rated PG-13 (for sexual content including dialogue, some mature thematic elements, and partial nudity).

Why should you avoid the new romantic comedy starring Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore? That’s right… because I said so. Get it? Of course you do. But even that bad joke is better than the lame gags and characters that fill “Because I Said So.” This is a travesty of cinema that every self respecting filmgoer should steer clear of; it could easily drive any sane person to contemplate homicide.

The story’s premise revolves around the relationship between Daphne Wilder (Keaton, “The Family Stone”) and her three daughters. She raised them alone and is one of those controlling mothers. While Daphne successfully sees her eldest two daughters into marriage, her youngest, Milly (Moore, “American Dreamz”), seems destined to repeat a cycle of no good boyfriends into spinsterhood.

Daphne devises a scheme that would allow her to have a hand in choosing Milly’s next boyfriend, and hopefully, future spouse. She places an ad through an online dating service and interviews the candidates herself. We then get a version of that obligatory blind dating scene found in romances since the dawn of time, where Daphne meets all the socially retarded losers who answer her ad. The band of idiots that parade across the screen in this out-of-touch comedy are not only unacceptable, but seem to be aliens from another planet. They’ve elevated this unoriginal cinematic joke to such an extreme that it goes beyond humorous and actually becomes offensive.

Daphne chooses Jason (Tom Everett Scott, “That Thing You Do!”), who obviously is playing her emotions like a harp, although his motivations are never explained. Maybe successful and attractive architects in California really do have a tough time finding a wife. As the age-old romantic comedy formula dictates, she rejects Johnny (Gabriel Macht, “The Good Shepard”), the obviously perfect candidate who doesn’t actually answer the ad but notices Daphne’s plight and takes an interest in this crazy mother trying to set up her daughter. Johnny is a musician and therefore a poor choice for someone looking for stability and purity. Macht has one of the script’s few funny lines when he thanks Daphne for stereotyping him.

Johnny tracks Milly down anyway and, inexplicably, Milly begins dating both men. This action cannot be justified by a character we’re supposed to sympathize with; therefore, it’s simply glossed over. Why Johnny doesn’t run from this psychologically challenged family to begin with is another of the film’s unsolved mysteries.

The filmmakers, who I’m not even going to bother to mention by name here (they should thank me), fail to wring comedy out of the fact that both the mother and daughter seem to unable to perform even the most basic of life’s functions. Milly has trouble just crossing the street and the unnatural static attraction balloons seem to have for her butt creates one of the most oddly unfunny Meet Cutes in film history. Daphne is a baker who can’t seem to carry a cake anywhere without somehow placing her face in it, and she seems to be carrying one in every other scene. It makes you wonder how she ever built a career as a top notch baker.

I think that the relationship between the mother and three daughters is also supposed to be a source of humor. The daughters talk about sex incessantly in front of their mother, mostly through conference calls on cell phones. There seems to be some obsession with modern technology on the filmmakers’ part here and the way in which the mother participates but doesn’t really get how to utilize the modern devices. Yet she is able to function with technology just fine if the scene doesn’t require a joke at her expense.

I would have liked to have seen more of the daughters Maggie and Mae, played by Lauren Graham (WB’s “Gilmore Girls”) and Piper Perabo (“Coyote Ugly”). They, along with Johnny, seem to be the only sane people here. Graham is a psychiatrist who has a couple of funny scenes with a patient who only wants to be noticed. Perabo can at best be described as the other sister, since she has so little screen time and only seems to exist to be another body to participate in sex conversations in her mother’s presence.

“Because I Said So” is a cinematic mess. It may once have resembled a romantic comedy with the potential to look at the unique relationship shared by mothers and daughters in matters involving love. What it’s become is a perfect example of how comedic gags are not funny simply because they exist. Comedy needs characters that function in some sort of sustainable reality and requires choices that are not made merely for their comedic impact, but attempt to fulfill some actual meaning. It is also an example of how an eccentric actor like Diane Keaton cannot merely coast by on those eccentricities; she must have some basis in reality for her quirks to have any sort of effect on an audience. Perhaps the filmmakers should go back to film school to learn about these things. Why? Don’t even make me say it.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ghost Rider/ * (PG-13)

Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider: Nicolas Cage
Roxanne Simpson: Eva Mendes
Blackheart: Wes Bentley
Mack: Donal Logue
Mephistopheles: Peter Fonda
Caretaker: Sam Elliott

Columbia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson. Running time: 114 min. Rated PG-13 (for horror violence and disturbing images).

For the past couple of years, I’ve been going through this phase where every three or four months I pick up an old AC/DC album on CD. Unlike my brother, I was never a superfan of that Australian rock group when we were growing up. (I think he had every album up to “Who Made Who”, which served as the soundtrack to the Stephen King-helmed bomb “Maximum Overdrive”.) Still, for whatever reason, I just love listening to them lately.

The thing about AC/DC is that they really aren’t a very diverse rock band. Their recent albums are pretty much interchangeable with everything they put out in the eighties. But there is some primal nerve they can just naturally tap into. It brings me back to the simpler times of adolescence. A time when I could stand in my room, play some air guitar and feel like I’d accomplished something worthwhile. A time when the most important thing in the world was to be cool. A time when I might have actually enjoyed a film like “Ghost Rider”.

“Ghost Rider” contains a lot of “cool” images. First of all, the character itself is just badass looking, with the leather jacket and chaps, the heavy duty chain wrapped around his torso, the flaming skull for a head. And his bike is the bitchin’est ride on two wheels… two flaming wheels! And those bone-shaped chrome handle bars and that chopper frame. Damn! That guy looks baaaaaaaad! And it is all here to relish on a thirty-foot screen.

And there’s other cool stuff to see. Like the way Peter Fonda, as Mephistopheles, invokes the motorcycle vibe of “Easy Rider” simply with his presence. Or the way he and his on-screen son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley, “American Beauty”), sometimes become transparent with their anger and their deformed vampyric skulls can be seen through their skin. Or the way Blackheart can drain his victims’ essence with a mere touch. Or the way Blackheart’s posse exhibits the properties of the elements they personify; one can barely hold his eyes on his face because he drips so profusely with water, another’s skin is eternally cracked like a water-starved dessert, and the air elemental barely exists as even a head most of the time.

Even Nicolas Cage as Johnny Blaze oozes cool before he discovers his Ghost Rider alter ego. He never locks his door. He listens to the furthest band there could be from AC/DC, The Carpenters, and it still seems cool. And he is a stunt motorcyclist, like Evil Knievel. Damn! I thought Knievel was the coolest guy in the world when I was a kid. There is even that foreshadowing shot of his face turning into a skull during a lightning strike.

While it is possible to just flip through a comic book and drool over the artwork, a motion picture depends upon more than just individual images. And it is in the storytelling and writing that this film becomes decidedly uncool.

Perhaps the biggest mistake in the screenplay comes with writer/director Mark Steven Johnson’s notion that this character requires some sort of romance to make him interesting. Much like his previous comic book adaptation “Daredevil”, the romance here seems to lack adult supervision. Johnny Blaze still has a thing for his teenage sweetheart Roxanne, played by Eva Mendes (“2 Fast 2 Furious”). Although years have passed since Johnny left Roxanne waiting for him in the rain under an oak tree, their romance still operates at a high school level.

The dialogue epitomizes the notion of unintended hilarity. Dipping all too frequently into the superhero cliché bucket, Johnson comes up with such winning lines as, “You should be taking a dirt nap after that ragdoll today,” and “I’m the only one who can walk in both worlds. I’m the… (pause for effect) Ghost Rider!” Actually, there are better (or rather worse) ones in there, but I was too busy rolling my eyes to jot them down.

I can’t imagine Cage’s motives, appearing in this clunker. Frankly, I was amazed he stayed with this long-delayed project, especially after master superhero script scribe David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”) decided to forgo another writing credit to executive produce this one. Surely Cage can’t have much of a desire to appeal to the strictly teen audience this movie is geared toward after such challenging work in a film like “World Trade Center”. There are moments in his performance when he barely even seems to be awake.

But back to my AC/DC obsession. The thing about my infatuation with those Aussies is that one time through an album will do me for quite a few weeks. I generally listen to them when I need to escape all my adult problems and just rock out. There is no substance to my relationship with the band. Like “Ghost Rider”, they exist purely on a juvenile level. And what is truly scary is that “Maximum Overdrive” may actually be a better film than this one. At least it had AC/DC on the soundtrack.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Hannibal Rising / ** (R)

Hannibal Lecter: Gaspard Ulliel
Lady Murasaki Shikibu: Gong Li
Grutas: Rhys Ifans
Inspector Popil: Dominic West
Dortlich: Richard Brake
Kolnas: Kevin McKidd

MGM and The Weinstein Co. present a film directed by Peter Webber. Written by Thomas Harris, based on his novel. Running time: 117 min. Rated R (for strong grisly violent content and some language/sexual references).

At one point during “Hannibal Rising”, I wished that I hadn’t seen any of the other films in the Hannibal Lecter series. Maybe if I had gone into it without any prior knowledge of serial killer “Hannibal the Cannibal”, I might find more fascination in this story telling the birth of a sociopath. But it seems as if the producers have forgotten what made Hannibal such a powerful character to begin with.

Both this new film and the 2001 film “Hannibal” make his character the focus, whereas in “The Silence of the Lambs” and in both versions of “Red Dragon” – the first novel featuring Hannibal was originally filmed in 1986 as “Manhunter” and then remade in 2002 under the book’s original title “Red Dragon” – Dr. Hannibal Lecter was only a supporting character, whose unique relationship with each story’s protagonist allowed him to represent a necessary evil in the process of preventing further evil acts. The fact that Hannibal was even more monstrous than the people the heroes were chasing made those storylines more menacing, knowing that it took the tool of an ultimate evil to effectively hunt evil.

In “Hannibal Rising” it is Hannibal himself who becomes the hunter and some strange grotesque version of a protagonist. The film shows us Hannibal at 8 years old evacuating with his family from their Lithuanian castle to a country cabin, trying to avoid German and Russian soldiers and looters alike during World War II. Both parents are killed in German and Russian crossfire, and Hannibal is left with only his younger sister Misha in the cabin for the cold winter. Soon Lithuanian looters invade the cabin, taking Hannibal and Misha as prisoners. But when the food runs out, we discover Hannibal’s penchant for cannibalism was learned from his captors.

The movie picks up again after Hannibal (Gaspard Ulleil, “A Very Long Engagement”) has become a young man. During his days at a youth camp for orphaned war survivors, he displays a distinct lack of respect for “the pecking order” and a malicious sense of justice for those who abuse their power. But soon he escapes the camp to search out a distant relation in France. The Lady Murasaki Shikibu (Gong Li, “Miami Vice”) is an aunt with money. Although her Asian origins seem to be deliberately unexplained, they are exploited to present convenient and exotic plot points.

The boy still has the audience’s sympathy during these opening passages because of his horrific war experience. And when the French police inspector Popil (Dominic West, HBO’s “The Wire”) – who specializes in war crimes – suspects Hannibal in the brutal death of a local butcher, there is the hope that another unique relationship will form between Hannibal and his pursuer. This never quite pans out.

The direction by Peter Webber (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”) is moody and does a good job capturing both the depression of Europe following WWII and that glossed over grime quality captured by directors Jonathan Demme, Ridley Scott, and Brett Ratner in previous Hannibal films. But for all the opportunities here, with several murders committed by Hannibal and others, there are never any unforgettable images, such as the crucifixion scene marking Hannibal’s escape from captivity in “The Silence of the Lambs”. Even Hannibal’s first kill, while gruesome, has a calculated and choreographed feel to it, as if Hannibal always knew what he would become. I imagined something more sloppy, like out of “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”, for the early days of this menacing monster. Shouldn’t Hannibal have to teach himself the refinement of killing as one might with art or music?

Hannibal sets out to take vengeance on the men who ate his sister. These villains, written by Thomas Harris in a mold typical of countless thrillers, have gone on to post war success. One, Kolnas (Kevin McKidd, HBO’s “Rome”), has taken the reformist route with a family and legitimate business; another, Grutas (Rhys Ifans, “Enduring Love”), has become a Parisian crimelord whose actions are just a vile as they were during the war. The other looters are either lackeys of Grutas or have also tried to atone for their sins like Kolnas.

In the end I realize that it doesn’t matter whether I have had experience with Hannibal before because there really is no hero in this film at all. The antagonists are war criminals who deserve to pay for their crimes; but no one deserves Hannibal’s vengeance, and it is impossible to care for Hannibal’s reasoning by the bloody end of the film. The essentially good characters of Inspector Popil and Lady Shikibu never become a factor in Hannibal’s preordained journey.

A college professor warned me against the praise of “The Silence of the Lambs”, claiming that the final line, “I’m having an old friend for dinner,” desensitized the audience to the criminal Hannibal really was with its use of humor. I thought that was a fairly minor detail on which to condemn the entire film, but it seems to have been a fairly accurate prediction on the direction the character would take. Hopefully audiences won’t be fooled by the false hero Hannibal has become, and only the filmmakers will be proven desensitized to what they have created.