Sunday, March 29, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens / **½ (PG)

Featuring the vocal talents of:
Susan Murphy/Ginormica: Reese Witherspoon
B.O.B.: Seth Rogen
Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D.: Hugh Laurie
The Missing Link: Will Arnett
General W.R. Monger: Kiefer Sutherland
Gallaxhar: Rainn Wilson
Derek Dietl: Paul Rudd
The President: Stephen Colbert

DreamWorks Animation presents a film directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon. Written by Maya Forbes & Wallace Wolodarsky and Letterman and Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger and Vernon. Running time: 94 min. Rated PG (for sci-fi action, some crude humor and mild language).

Isn’t it supposed to go “the government has been covering up the existence of aliens for over fifty years now”? Well, that’s not exactly the story in the new DreamWorks Animation movie “Monsters vs. Aliens”. In this one it’s monsters that have been a top-secret government cover up for years. We learn this when an irradiated meteor strikes poor Susan Murphy on her wedding day and turns her into a giant. This unfortunate incident wins her a one-way ticket to a government holding facility.

That’s how this strange cartoon begins. It’s a peculiar movie that never really seems to find its bearings. That’s oddly reflective of the monster characters we meet and come to sort of care for over the course of this simple hour and a half long movie. It doesn’t really strive for much plot or meaning, so I suppose it achieves the filmmakers’ goals of being fairly basic entertainment. There are funny moments, and some stunning CGI visuals, so it should make audiences happy. But it left me wanting a little more.

After her abduction by the government, Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon, “Four Christmases”) wakes to find herself in a ridiculously vast facility in which she is captive with four other “monsters”. One is a sort of fish-man known as The Missing Link (Will Arnett, “Arrested Development”). Another is a scientist named Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie, FOX’s “House M.D.”) who conveniently—considering his name---turned himself into a cockroach man in an effort to produce a serum in invincibility. B.O.B. (Seth Rogen, “Pineapple Express”) is a gelatinous blob, who apparently exists without a brain. And, there’s the giant Japanese-inspired monster Insectosaurus. It’s a surprisingly small group of monsters for the government to have collected over so many years.

There is a wonderfully humorous conversation about Susan’s monster name during which Seth Rogen proves with his vocal performance that B.O.B. will be the monster that walks away with all the laughs of the movie. I can imagine an animated film somewhat like “Seinfeld”, where these strange creatures spend all their time talking about the trivialities of life as a monster. The monster’s warden, General W.R. Monger—get it?—brings the discussion to an end by informing Susan her monster name is Ginormica. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland, FOX’s “24”) also informs Susan that she will never be let out of the facility, a fact that changes once the country needs these monsters.

Meanwhile, the alien Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson, “The Rocker”) has traced the same asteroid to Earth that gave Susan her mutation. He needs her power to rebuild his planet, so he sends a giant robot to Earth to capture her. Since aliens only seem to invade the United States, The President is on hand to offer a peaceful contact. “I’m a brave president!” is what he cries out as he scrambles onto Air Force One after the robot attacks. Political comedian Stephen Colbert (“The Colbert Report”) finds his dream role in The President and infuses him with the appropriate amount of idiocy.

Now, in a movie called “Monsters vs. Aliens” I would expect a whole lot more aliens, but considering the equally small cast of monsters, simplicity seems to be the main objective here. Gallaxhar is really kind of like a talking octopus, which makes him not much different than the monsters. Aren’t movie aliens really monsters anyway? So that makes a total of six monsters in “Monsters vs. Aliens”. And of course the monsters here are treated kind of like aliens from the human race. Is the showdown of the title really a philosophical debate? It certainly seems to be a battle of semantics. I guess it isn’t as simple as it first seems.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Knowing / **** (PG-13)

John Koestler: Nicolas Cage
Caleb Koestler: Chandler Canterbury
Diana Wayland: Rose Byrne
Lucinda Embry/Abby Wayland: Lara Robinson
Grace Koestler: Nadia Townsend
The Stranger: D. G. Maloney

Summit Entertainment presents a film directed by Alex Proyas. Written by Ryne Douglas Pearson and Juliet Snowden & Stiles White and Stuart Hazeldine. Running time: 130 min. Rated PG-13 (for disaster sequences, disturbing images, and brief strong language).

Whatever you have read about the new science fiction thriller “Knowing”, forget it. Most of what has been written about this wonderful film by critics is off the mark. This is an excellent movie—perhaps the best science fiction movie made in recent memory. And if any of those critics have mentioned how the movie ends, well they probably shouldn’t write about film anymore.

“Knowing” takes its time getting to its story. Some may perceive the opening passages as slow; but it all builds to one of the more powerful genre films to be made in a long time. The story begins in 1959 at a new school where a girl named Lucinda Embry comes up with the idea of planting a time capsule for the school’s dedication ceremony. Her class is selected to draw pictures of what they think the future will look like for the future generation of students. Just before the project, Lucinda sees a stranger in the forest and hears what sounds like many voices whispering. She seems to go into a trance; and instead of drawing a picture, she scribbles down a series of seemingly random numbers.

Skip ahead to 2009. We meet MIT professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage, “National Treasure”). He is a single father whose boy Caleb (Chandler Canterbury, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) is extremely intelligent and sensitive to the world around him. Caleb wears a hearing aid, not because he’s deaf, but because sometimes “he hears things all jumbled up.” The hearing aid helps. Caleb watches nature documentaries and quizzes his own genius father on the probability of life on other planets. Meanwhile, John continues to mourn the loss of his wife. Once a man who didn’t believe in coincidence, now he finds little purpose in anything that happens beyond the health and happiness of his boy.

It’s of little surprise or coincidence that Caleb should be the recipient of Lucinda’s strange numbers when the time capsule is opened at his school for its 50th Anniversary celebration. Caleb immediately begins to hear the whispering voices and see the stranger. John, however, sees a pattern in the numbers. He realizes the numbers coincide with dates of tragic events and the number of people that have died in each of them. There are some unaccounted for numbers, but John is certain what the numbers he’s identified mean and that the few remaining numbers on the list predict further tragedies that are going to happen. If he is right, his theory will be proven in the days to come.

Alex Proyas has staked a reputation for himself as a visionary science fiction director. In his late 90s effort “Dark City”, he presented a future where sentinel beings kept watch over a mechanized world that seemed designed to test its inhabitants. The strangers in “Knowing” owe much to the dark men in that earlier work. They carry the same sinister connotations as those dark figures from the earlier film, however this time they seem displaced in our own reality. What are they doing here? What is their purpose? How are they connected to the numbers?

Proyas also presents us with a series of disasters that are awesome in their realism and seeming inevitability. John finds himself in the possession of incredibly important knowledge about events that have yet to occur. Can he prevent them from happening? Can it even be true that a little girl predicted all these disasters over fifty years ago? And why would she pass that knowledge on in the way she did?

There is a plane crash—one of the predictions of the numbers. It takes place on a highway near Logan International Airport. It’s an eerie and dreamlike sequence that is frighteningly similar to a recurring nightmare I had as a child about the same event. Does the fact that Proyas so accurately depict one of my own personal nightmares make this movie good? No, but in this scene and the other disasters he depicts, he merges this dreamlike quality with a recognizable reality in a way that adds gravity to his story, making it more than just some cinematic CGI wizardry.

The screenwriting team doesn’t make the typical mistake with their hero here by having all of his family and colleagues decide that he has just gone off his rocker. They caution him not to see what he wants to see in the numbers, but instead of turning him into some sort of pariah they treat him with the respect his position and relationship with them deserve. Surprisingly, they come to the same conclusions and so John is allowed to follow his investigation into the numbers without the false drama of trying to convince those closest to him that he isn’t crazy.

John eventually looks up the daughter of Lucinda, Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne, “28 Weeks Later”). Diana’s own daughter is seeing and hearing the same strangers and whispers. Their drive to find the truth of the numbers is fueled primarily by their concern for the well being of their children. The conclusions they come to are profound, frightening, and unforgiving. The filmmakers don’t pull any punches.

The final moments of “Knowing” undoubtedly are the cause of so much disdain for the film in the critical community. I won’t hint at what happens here, but it concerns notions of which many people are skeptical. But whether or not you believe what the filmmakers present here, the machinations of the plot are implacable. Everything we are shown here is supported by everything that came before it. There are no cop-outs, no cheats, and no pious posturing by the characters or the filmmakers. What we are given as an audience in “Knowing” is a definitive vision and position from the filmmakers. It’s a movie that goes beyond the notion of standard entertainment and gives you something to ponder on your car ride home from the theater. This is the best movie of the year so far.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Uninvited / * (PG-13)

Anna: Emily Browning
Alex: Arielle Kebbel
Rachael: Elizabeth Banks
Steven: David Strathairn

DreamWorks SKG presents a film directed by The Guard Brothers. Written by Craig Rosenberg and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard. Based on the screenplay “Janghwa, Hongryeon” by Ji-woon Kim. Running time: 87 min. Rated PG-13 (for violent and disturbing images, thematic material, sexual content, language and teen drinking).

“The Uninvited” is a dull, tarnished, and muddled example of how sometimes Hollywood just doesn’t get it. It’s one thing to make an original horror movie and think you need to drag an audience along with mugs and suspicious behavior, all flashing like some neon sign that announces “Now is the time to be scared”; but to take a shining example of the Asian horror phenomenon and misread everything that makes it work and replace those elements with unnecessary schlock is utterly inexcusable.

My vehemence toward this movie is possibly exaggerated by the fact that the Korean film that inspired it, “A Tale of Two Sisters”, is one of my favorite films to come out of the Asian ghost story market of movies that drove J-Horror to become one of the most popular genres to find new life in Hollywood remakes. Looking at “The Uninvited” is like taking a course on what not to do in telling a horror ghost story.

Just for the Guard Brothers, the directors of this mess of a movie, and their screenwriters, I’ve prepared this list of “don’ts” so they might avoid this sort of unfortunate outcome again.

1. Don’t give your horror movie a title that announces the movie as a “scary movie.” While this may be something the studio wants in order to sell the movie more easily to a mindless audience, this particular story actually works better if you have no idea it is a horror movie to begin with. I have no idea what the original Korean film’s title “Janghwa, Hongryeon” translates to in English, but that movie’s U.S. title “A Tale of Two Sisters” is a nearly perfect title. The story follows two sisters, and until about the midway point in the movie there are no strong indications it is an outright horror film, just hints that something isn’t quite right. Putting the girls’ relationship in the title is also effective because it plays such an important role in the plot.

2. Since that sibling relationship is so important to the story, don’t focus the set up and so much of the plot so single-mindedly on only one of the sisters. I will not spoil the importance of their relationship here, although the Guard Brother’s have done their best to do just that by making their relationship so peculiar. Anna (Emily Browning, “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”) is clearly the protagonist of this story, which runs more than ten minutes before we even know she has a sister. Her sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel, “The Grudge 2”) is so poorly drawn, she seems to have no reason for even existing in most of the scenes she’s in. While there is a reason for that, it shouldn’t be obvious that she could be removed from a scene at any point without any further mention of her whereabouts—a phenomenon that actually occurs in many of her scenes.

3. Don’t give the audience reason to question the heroine’s credibility before the story even begins. I’ve seen many movies end about ten minutes after they should’ve. This movie begins about ten minutes before it should. The movie opens with Anna talking about her dreams to a psychiatrist. Soon she is released from an institution to her father’s care. This knowledge that she has suffered a mental breakdown puts her perceptions in question from the start of the film. It would be much more effective had the filmmakers introduced the knowledge of her institutionalization after the audience had already begun to relate to her.

She’s returning home after the tragedy of losing her mother in a boathouse explosion, and she’s returning to find her mother is being replaced by her mother’s nursemaid. Isn’t the replacement of Anna’s mother a big enough point of tension between her and her father’s new squeeze? Wouldn’t that situation explain why they’re treating her with kid gloves? But then, after we’ve sided with her in the matter, it would be a shock to learn of her breakdown; changing everything we’ve seen up to that point.

4. If you must turn the nursemaid, Rachel, into a villain, don’t make her actions so reprehensible that we can’t understand just what Anna’s and Alex’s father sees in her. Elizabeth Banks (“Zack and Miri Make a Porno”) is a talented actress, and I find it hard to believe she chose to mug and behave like such an obvious witch. David Strathairn (“The Spiderwick Chronicles”) as the father is the perfect reasonable man, so how could he not understand why his daughter is so resentful of this erratic woman. I can’t blame these accomplished actors, so the director’s must have been foolhardy enough to suggest this less than subtle inconsiderate behavior toward the sisters.

5. Don’t change the age of children in a horror remake from younger children to teenagers. There is nothing more frightening to an adult than subjecting small children to the horrors of adult behavior. But teenagers are just getting what they deserve with their “I’m a grown up too” attitudes.

This list of don’ts could go on for quite a while, but what it boils down to is the question, “Why did they remake this movie?” In some cases, movies are remade because technologies have improved and they can now be made better. In the case of an Asian horror flick that’s only a few year old to begin with, it’s usually because the filmmakers felt the original was good and there is a need to share its ideas and techniques with a new audience. If this was the case with “The Uninvited”, then how come so much of the original “A Tale of Two Sisters” has become lost in the Hollywood shuffle? Didn’t the filmmaker’s like what they had seen in the original? Didn’t they want to achieve much of the same response from their audience that they had gotten from their experience with it? Or more to the point, did they even watch the original? Considering how “The Uninvited” turned out, it’s hard to imagine they did.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Wrestler / **** (R)

Randy “The Ram” Robinson: Mickey Rourke
Cassidy: Marisa Tomei
Stephanie Robinson: Evan Rachel Wood

Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a film directed by Darren Aronofsky. Written by Robert D. Siegel. Running time: 111 min. Rated R (for violence, sexuality/nudity, language, and some drug use).

Have you ever seen a one trick pony
In the field so happy and free?
If you’ve ever seen a one trick pony,
Then you’ve seen me.

—Bruce Springsteen, “The Wrestler”

Many wiser men than myself have made claims about the certainty of death and taxes. I’ll leave the evidence of the later to the political pundits. The former, however, while true, leaves much more to be considered than it suggests. Death might be the end, but the journey to it for most of us is hard and filled with revelations and truths we’d rather not face. “The Wrestler” captures the reality of growing old on that long journey better than any picture of recent memory.

Mickey Rourke (“Sin City”) plays the titular wrestler in a performance that is as much career exposing as it is career defining. He is Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler who had his grand moment in the spotlight some 20 years ago and is still plugging away at it despite the fact that the glory seems to be gone. His body is falling apart and his personal life is empty after a lifetime of neglecting those he should have held closest.

Director Darren Aronofsky (“The Fountain”) runs the opening credits over a collage of clippings from The Ram’s early successes. He never turns the cameras back on those glory days. Instead we meet the aging Ram wrestling in a run down American Legion hall. There isn’t much glory to be found here.

We see the routines of the wrestlers. As a sport, it is common knowledge that professional wrestling is a “staged” event. Aronofsky grants us a revealing backstage pass into their world. An event organizer announces the order of the bouts. All the athletes already seem to know who will win which match, but they talk briefly with one another to form a vague outline of how the match will go. Little is said about choreography, so much of what is done in the ring is improvised. It is obvious a great deal of athleticism is necessary for these “stage fights.”

Outside of the ring The Ram’s life is one of poverty, teetering on homelessness. He visits a strip club on a regular basis. He’s not there for the show so much as for the company of one stripper in particular. Cassidy is getting older herself, considering her profession, although she’s kept her looks better than The Ram. She insists on referring to him as a client as a defense against any emotional connection, but it is obvious that connection has already been made between them.

Rourke and Marisa Tomei (“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”) provide the most raw work of their careers here as the aging wrestler and stripper. They’ve each come to the end of their passions in life and they realize they need new paths if they’re to survive. The Ram is naked before Cassidy emotionally, and although she holds up her client/service façade between them, she sees a similar soul and wants to reach out and grab him.

Eventually Cassidy allows Randy in—however briefly—and encourages him to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Stephanie. Stephanie is not welcoming to a father who was never there during her childhood. Evan Rachel Wood (“Across the Universe”) plays Stephanie with the strong-willed dignity of a young adult who has had to create herself without the guidance of elders. Although she doesn’t want to give her father a chance, her self-respect forces her to be reasonable with him in his newfound effort.

Rourke’s and Wood’s scenes together are the most emotionally compelling of a film filled with heartache and joy. The rainy afternoon the two of them spend on Coney Island had a profound effect on me. I felt such joy for these characters as they discovered each other after years of needing each other. Like their characters, I wanted those moments to last forever. I don’t know how Aronofsky achieved this emotional effect, but their joy was undeniable to me.

But people don’t change so easily and The Ram’s emotions have been driven by anger for much of his life. When we try to climb higher, there is always the possibility a fall will come, and so it does for this hero. As with most of us, when adversity comes, The Ram returns to the patterns and comforts with which he is most familiar.

Aronofsky’s previous films “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain” have explored their character’s emotions with an observation that is keen and detailed. But those films have also required a bit of cinematic spectacle to achieve their emotional summits. Here Aronofsky is much more secure in his faith in the words and dialogue of the screenplay by Robert D. Siegel (“The Onion Movie”). It contains his most straightforward direction and packs a greater punch for it. The Ram may be a one trick pony, but “The Wrestler” proves that Darren Aronofsky is not.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Watchmen / ***½ (R)

Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II: Malin Akerman
Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II: Patrick Wilson
Rorschach: Jackie Earle Haley
Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman: Billy Crudup
Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias: Matthew Goode
Edward Blake/The Comedian: Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre: Carla Gugino

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Zack Snyder. Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse. Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Running time: 163 min. Rated R (for graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language.)

It seems the superhero genre has been trying to legitimize itself for the past 30 years or so, ever since Richard Donner decided to take Superman seriously in a Hollywood that only saw superheroes in an exploitational context. Despite his efforts Hollywood continued to see comic book-inspired heroes as vehicles for action and spectacle until very recently. Along with “Spider-Man 2” and “The Dark Knight”, “Watchmen” proves the legitimacy of the superhero story as a genre in its own right.

Like the horror, sci-fi and western genres before it, superheroes exist in most people’s eyes for the thrills they provide, but with these three films the superhero genre follows in those others footsteps by transcending its basic structure to offer something beyond the spandex and explosions. Superheroes can also explore ideas. “Spider-Man 2” contemplated the problems of personal responsibility versus moral obligation. “The Dark Knight” pondered the politics of fear and terrorism. “Watchmen” takes on the human predilection towards violence against one another.

The “Watchmen” comic book, upon which this movie is based, also transcended the boundaries of its genre when DC Comics first published it in the mid 80s. The story takes place in a universe where Richard Nixon led the United States to victory in the Vietnam War. It is 1985 and Nixon remains president, working on his fifth term in office. The Cold War has escalated far beyond the nuclear warhead count we achieved before ours came to a peaceful end, and it is looking like it will end in the worst way for this alternative universe.

The Watchmen are a group of superheroes that are a failed enterprise before the events of this film even start to take place. Congress has long since banned the practice of masked heroism, but the world needs something to hinder its inevitable nuclear annihilation. The problem is that this Cold War threat is much bigger than the heroes who are willing to do something about it. But this description makes the events of this story seem much more deliberate than they actually are. The Watchmen aren’t really about saving the world, although at some point in time that became their job, and that is a job from which they have since been laid off.

The movie starts with what seems to be a simple murder mystery, and although the mystery of why The Comedian was murdered drives the story through to its closing moments, the journey to that conclusion and the answers open up a great many questions about the violent nature of man, the fragility of the human condition and the complexity of justice. As humans we will always believe the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and that may very well be why we can never find peace.

The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, “Grey’s Anatomy”) was the only member of both incarnations of the Watchmen. He was with the original Watchmen when they formed in the 1940s. They were well liked by the public, but soon their personal flaws started to become public knowledge and their stars faded. Then as social unrest began to grip the country after Nixon’s victory in Vietnam, a new group of superheroes formed. They included The Comedian; Nite Owl, the second man to hold the moniker and figurehead of the group, Silk Spectre, daughter of the original group’s Silk Spectre; Dr. Manhattan, a scientist who was altered by a government experiment to have glowing blue skin and the ability to manipulate pretty much anything; Ozymandais, the smartest and richest man in the world; and Rorschach, a savage rouge element whose true identity is not known even to his partners.

It is Rorschach who insists on investigating the murder of The Comedian, while the other heroes languish in retirement. His theory is that someone is knocking of former Watchmen, but he has no idea about the massive implications of the plot his tenacity will uncover. Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandais seem to have become detached from the very humanity they once protected, while Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are all too aware of their human desires.

With a nearly three-hour running time, the filmmakers don’t allow the dense plot of the movie get in the way of conveying its overall purpose. The tempo is more deliberate than your average action picture. While the fights and action sequences effectively give the costumes and heroics active importance, the film’s true emphasis is on its philosophy. What drives these people to be heroes? How did they get to where they are today? And how has the world gotten to such a desperate place that there is actually a Doomsday clock displayed by the government, like some twisted terror threat level scale, telling people how close they all are to The End?

One scene does a particularly good job of summarizing the beliefs of the story. In flashback we see Nite Owl and The Comedian trying to calm a riotous crowd. As the violence escalates The Comedian starts shooting into the crowd. After the crowd has dissipated an astonished Nite Owl asks, “What happened to the American Dream?” A crazed-faced Comedian says, “This is it.” Even when everything goes the way it should have—i.e. we won the Vietnam War—everything is still messed up.

Zack Snyder’s direction sets the mood of the piece as being both comic book inspired and a lesson in American history. The opening credits of the movie operate as a brief history of the Watchmen and America by providing a series of vignettes showing points in their mutual history, with many famous moments of our reality recreated in this alternate universe with a Watchmen influence. There is a famous photograph taken in Times Square of a sailor kissing a nurse when the end of World War II was announced. Here it’s recreated with the controversy of having a female Watchmen teammate kissing that nurse. There’re many other moments recreated, including the revelation that the man on the grassy knoll at Kennedy’s assassination was none other than The Comedian.

I was surprised to find Snyder’s soundtrack didn’t include a series of songs solicited from modern pop artists depicting the grunge and hip attitude of superheroes in crisis. This is good as it would have been wrong for the film. Instead the soundtrack is like a nostalgic ride through American pop history with original recordings by Nat King Cole, Nina Simone, Simon and Garfunkle, and Bob Dylan. This serves the nostalgic quality of the film very well. Much of the story involves the heroes looking back fondly on their days as heroes and in despair of where they are today.

Snyder also recreates many of the stills from the comic book itself. The initial fight between The Comedian and his murderer comes to mind. It is not depicted in a realistic way as both combatants survive a number of blows that would easily have killed even the strongest of men, but he slows the fight down so the audience can form snapshot images in their minds that stay with them just as a comic book would. Many of those snapshots are exact replicas of the comic book panels. Snyder also recreates the iconic War Room set from Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” as Nixon’s War Room.

The casting, for the most part, is spot on. As a fan of the comic, it was hard for me to imagine any actors in these roles. Snyder and his casting director have eschewed a star-studded cast for ones who embody the characters of the book. Jackie Earle Haley (“Little Children”) is amazingly brutal as Rorschach, making up for his diminished size with an attitude that would make Dirty Harry shake in his boots. Billy Crudup (“The Good Shepard”) has the right amount of detachment as the almost alien Dr. Manhattan. Matthew Goode (“Match Point”) brings the perfect amount of pomposity to Ozymandais. Morgan is perfect in The Comedian’s role. And perhaps the easiest to overlook is Patrick Wilson (“Lakeview Terrace”) as Nite Owl. His ability to revel in his superhero role while otherwise looking pensive and frumpy makes me think he should have been cast as Superman. Only Malin Akerman’s (“27 Dresses”) shoulders seem overly burdened by the heaviness of the material, although Carla Gugino (“Righteous Kill”) is another stroke of perfection as her mother.

I had feared that the graphic novel’s Cold War themes wouldn’t translate into the 21st century. Instead the passage of time since the story’s original publication serves to enhance the nostalgic feel of the piece. The twin towers still stand in the Watchmen’s universe and there is the feeling that they might still stand in that universe today. It is important to remember that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Although this story is now a period piece, its inquiries are still relevant to our world. Even though the Cold War ended peacefully in our reality, war is still all too real; and there’s nothing to say the Cold War won’t find itself a sequel, certainly nothing in history anyway.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic / **½ (PG)

Rebecca Bloomwood: Isla Fisher
Luke Brandon: Hugh Dancy
Suze: Krysten Ritter
Alicia Billington: Leslie Bibb
Jane Bloomwood: Joan Cusack
Graham Bloomwood: John Goodman
Edgar West: John Lithgow
Alette Naylor: Kristin Scott Thomas

Touchstone Pictures presents a film directed by P.J. Hogan. Written by Tracey Jackson and Tim Firth and Kayla Alpert. Based on the books “Confessions of a Shopaholic” and “Shopaholic Takes Manhattan” by Sophie Kinsella. Running time: 104 min. Rated PG (for some mild language and thematic elements).

Ah, the romantic comedy. It’s always nice to see a movie that you know is going to make you feel good in the end. In the current economic crisis there are few things that movies are better for than escapism. But, to have that escapism come in the form of a story about a girl who just loves to shop? Well, what good would escapism be, if we let little things like money get in the way of an enjoyable night at the movies?

In “Confessions of a Shopaholic” we meet Rebecca Bloomwood, a perky little journalist who has a small credit problem. Her problem is that she just can’t keep her credit card in her purse. Becky isn’t totally without ambition, however. She dreams of writing for the fashion magazine, Alette, run by fashion maven Alette Maylor (Kristin Scott Thomas playing French again after last year’s “I’ve Loved You So Long”). When a shopping spree makes Becky late for an interview at Alette, she decides to apply for a job at a sister financial magazine under the same publisher.

The financial magazine’s new editor-in-chief, Luke Brandon, decides to take a chance on Becky as part of his plan to try to reach everyday people. He assigns her a column giving financial advice of all things. Of course, he is as handsome and charming as she is cute, pretty and spunky; and the two are destined to fall in love. Isla Fisher (“Definitely, Maybe”) in the lead proves she has the ability to carry a romantic comedy and wear unconventional fashion well. Hugh Dancy (“Savage Grace”) is suitably understanding and British for his role as Luke.

Becky’s column becomes a sensation inside and outside the financial world, and she becomes an overnight success. But, she still can’t keep up with her credit card bills. Her roommate and best friend Suze (Krysten Ritter, “What Happens in Vegas”) observes the irony behind Becky handing out financial advice. This all leads to the unfortunate development of a debt collector tracking Becky down. The debt collector introduces the ugliest cliché of the romantic comedy—the secret that the newfound love interest can’t find out about because it will change his whole perception of the girl he thinks he loves. This is a false crisis. Once he finds out this secret information, he will break off the relationship and she must find a way to win him back or let him go, which is usually what it takes to get him back anyway.

Now, I think the romantic comedy is really a fun genre. I’m a guy who actually likes a chick flick. But what I don’t like is a paint-by-numbers screenplay, especially if the conflict is contrived and unnecessary to tell the story. I don’t know if the debt collector is a creation of the screenwriters or if he existed in the “Shopaholic” novels by Sophie Kinsella, but there is plenty of conflict and comedy already explored in the story’s satirizing of shoppers and sales, the fashion industry, and even the financial world. There are enough differences between Becky and Luke to make their relationship interesting and conflicted without succumbing to typical plot machinations.

“Confessions of a Shopaholic” will please most people just looking for a way to escape their everyday lives and provides a good romantic story with interesting characters and actors. If you don’t try to think too much about where the plot is going, you can just sit back and enjoy. The obviousness of the plot clichés utilized by the filmmakers makes that easier said than done. I liked this movie, but I would’ve liked it better with the Hollywood fat trimmed off it.