Playing for Keeps

December 7, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Dennis Quaid
Directed by: Gabriele Muccino (“The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Seven Pounds”)
Written by: Robbie Fox (“So I Married an Axe Murderer”)

When all of the tepid romantic comedy crap bobbing along aimlessly on the surface of “Playing For Keeps” finally boils away, the movie is left asking one question: are you, the viewer, okay with an innocent man being screwed over and heartbroken for the sake of the film’s hero? Are you fine with a decent guy having his entire life upended for no reason other than the fact he happened to fall in love and enter into a mutually committed relationship with a woman (and her young child he appears to love and care for) who happens to have an ex that the rom-com gods have determined is worthy of inexplicably winning her back? Is awful human behavior like this actually romantic to you?

“Playing For Keeps” stars Gerard Butler as George Dryer, a retired international soccer star who has fallen on hard times both personally and financially. George moves to Virginia in order to be closer to his young son Lewis (Noah Lomax) and his ex-wife Stacie (Jessica Biel), hoping to be a better father and rekindle the relationship he ruined years ago by actions unclear.

As luck would have it, Lewis is on a pee-wee soccer team in need of a real coach, a job George is perfectly suited for. Along the way George attracts the attention of a bevy of eager soccer moms (including Judy Greer, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Uma Thurman) who want to get into his Scottish knickers and a lecherous loudmouth soccer dad (Dennis Quaid, amazingly both hamming it up and phoning it in at the same time) who wants…well, someone to loan his Ferrari to, I guess? That relationship is hard to figure out. And all the while Stacie and her fiancé (James Tupper) express disappointment in George’s parenting at every opportunity.

Director Gabriele Muccino (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) turns in a real hack-job, filled with choppy editing, abandoned plot points, and cringe-worthy performances. While Butler and Biel end up acquitting themselves with passably inert takes on boring characters, the supporting players fare much, much worse. Greer, Zeta-Jones, and Thurman all play horrible cartoons instead of real women, throwing themselves sexually at a puzzlingly chaste Butler during scenes where the music is working overtime to tell us all of it is supposed to be funny. None of them come close to the awfulness of Quaid, though, who seriously looks to be reading cue cards over Butler’s shoulder in some scenes.

And that brings us back to where this review started: in order for the film to end as telegraphed from the first frame, with Butler and Biel reuniting, an unsuspecting man (Tupper’s Matt, weeks out from his wedding!) will have to have his life shattered. Sure, stories of true love being rekindled after time apart have been around for centuries, but littering the story with characters subject to collateral damage caused by our heroes with absolutely no consequence is irresponsible bullshit masquerading as romance.

Total Recall

August 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel
Directed by: Len Wiseman (“Underworld,” “Live Free or Die Hard”)
Written by: Kurt Wimmer (“Salt”) and Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”)

Remakes of movies people remember fondly are a tough sell from the start. Not only do you have to engage the audience with the story you’re telling, but you’ve got to do so in a way that doesn’t have the audience mentally checking off plot points from the DVD they have sitting on the shelf at home. Recently, the filmmakers behind the updates of “Footloose,” “The Karate Kid,” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” have tried, with varying degrees of success, to strike the right balance between satisfying the fans of the original who are drawn to the name recognition a remake brings and the need to put a unique spin on the story to justify the existence of the new version.

The latest modern classic to receive the remake treatment is “Total Recall.” This new spin on the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi/action film stars Colin Farrell as Doug Quaid, a post-apocalyptic factory worker suffering from vivid nightmares. In an effort to change his life, Quaid pays a visit to Rekall, a company specializing in implanting fake memories into the minds of their clients such as dream vacations or wild sexual fantasies. Quaid’s procedure is aborted, however, when the staff realizes that his memory has already been erased and a commando team blasts its way in, guns blazing. Upon escaping, Quaid returns home to find his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) is out to kill him and that their marriage is a lie that has been implanted in his head. Escaping for the second time, Quaid encounters Melina (Jessica Biel), a resistance fighter he shares a past with bent on bringing down the evil Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston).

This version of “Total Recall” suffers from a fatal flaw: not getting its ass to Mars. Director Len Wiseman (“Underworld”) has crafted a slick, lens-flared world torn in two by chemical warfare, but keeping the action Earth-bound turns the film into a dull, anonymous sci-fi slog. The futuristic cityscapes populated with flying cars zipping through canyons of neon signs are never as effective as the papiermâché Martian caves from the original and feel like they could have been lifted wholesale from “Blade Runner” or “The Fifth Element” or even “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.”  Outside of the clearly-enjoying-himself Cranston, the cast doesn’t fare any better. Farrell’s Quaid is a bland, less tormented Jason Bourne, Beckinsale is merely playing an evil version of her acrobatic hero from the “Underworld” movies, and Jessica Biel is just a pretty actress wearing frumpy military-style clothing and shooting guns.  Implant a positive memory and watch the original version on DVD instead.

New Year’s Eve

December 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Sarah Jessica Parker, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher
Directed by: Gary Marshall (“Valentine’s Day”)
Written by: Katherine Fugate (“Valentine’s Day”)

Forget about eating healthier or going to the gym more often. Don’t worry about watching less TV or cutting back on coffee in the morning. If you really want to make a New Year’s resolution that will benefit your well-being, promise yourself not to feed the holiday cinematic beast called “New Year’s Eve,” the second purposeless celebrity mishmash rom-com brought to you by Hollywood nice-guy director Gary Marshall (“Pretty Woman”).

It’s been quite a while since Marshall has given audiences anything with substance. Unless you liked the torturously unfunny “Valentine’s Day” of last year, there’s no need to subject yourself to the same humdrum narrative pattern screenwriter Katherine Fugate has tried once again to pass off as something resembling a logical script. As if “Valentine’s Day” never happened, Fugate fails to realize that squeezing a sizeable series of storylines into one movie is like force feeding a full person. There is literally no room to expand on anything and – more than likely – things are bound to get messy.

Even more curious than the shameful script is the fact that so many high-profile stars decided to add their name to the swelling cast. Sure, money (and what was probably a short production schedule) talks, but actors like Robert De Niro, Halle Berry and Hilary Swank can’t be that hard up for work to take on a project as thinly-written as this. They should’ve known something was wrong when the New York City they inhabit in this movie is one where comedian Seth Meyers has a chance to make babies with Jessica Biel.

Valentine’s Day

February 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Jennifer Garner, Jamie Foxx
Directed by: Garry Marshall (“Georgia Rule”)
Written by: Katherine Fugate (“The Prince and Me”)

Doing a shameless impersonation of director/writer Richard Curtis’ 2003 witty and warm romantic comedy “Love Actually,” the Hollywood-star-laden “Valentine’s Day” is a movie that’s all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Flashing an attractive cast of audience favorites including Julia Roberts (“Duplicity”), Bradley Cooper (“The Hangover”), and Taylor Lautner (“New Moon”) – among a laundry list of others – director Garry Marshall (“Georgia Rule”) takes a poorly-written multi-narrative penned by Katherine Fugate (“The Prince and Me”) and hauls it through the same cliché and predictable plot points usually reserved for this type of cinematic fluff. It’s no wonder sensitive women everywhere have to drag their significant others to the movies for date night. When a feature is as contrived as “Valentine’s Day,” not even a pajama party with Jessica Alba, Jennifer Garner, and Jessica Biel is reason enough for anyone to endure over two hours (and yes, it feels like it) of unbearable schmaltz.

Without going into too much detail with the storylines – which all somehow connect in the most absurd ways – “Valentine’s Day” spends much of its runtime with Ashton Kutcher on screen as Reed Bennett, the owner of a popular flower shop in L.A. who has just proposed to his girlfriend Morley (Alba) and is ready to settle down and start a family. But like all these sad-sack characters, love is not in the air for Reed and he is left all alone with only his employee (George Lopez) to help mend his broken heart.

More lovesick vignettes follow that are just as sparse on romance and narrative appeal. Jamie Foxx plays a sportscaster who hates V-Day, but is assigned to produce a story by his boss (Kathy Bates); Biel plays a publicist whose client (Eric Dane) is contemplating retirement from pro-football; Patrick Dempsey flexes his acting range to play a cheating cardiologist having an affair with Garner; Cooper and Roberts play strangers who meet on an airplane and make small talk; Bryce Robinson plays a kid in love; Emma Roberts and Carter Jenkins play teens in love; Topher Grace and Anne Hathaway play young adults in love; Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine play old people in love; and Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift dole out so much cuteness, you don’t know how the word “cute” even existed before this movie.

The “aww” moments are aplenty for moviegoers who don’t necessarily care about story, character or genuine heartfelt moments that don’t feel like they were mass produced like overstuffed Build-A-Bears. Like an open box of Walgreen’s chocolates in an office break room, gluttons for this type of cheap, faux-holiday filler will eat it up without much thought. For those who want their rom coms to have a bit more taste, it’s easy to pass on the flavorless eye candy.

Planet 51

November 20, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Justin Long, Jessica Biel
Directed by: Jorge Blanco (debut), Javier Abad (debut), Marcos Martinez (debut)
Written by: Joe Stillman (“Shrek”)

There’s literally been an alien invasion this year at the movies. From the entertaining extraterrestrials of “Star Trek” and “District 9” to the less than stellar offerings of the animated “Aliens in the Attic” and the thriller “The Fourth Kind,” life forms from galaxies beyond have taken over the cinema.

With the new animated film “Planet 51,” audiences are bound to go into alien overload. The excess of little green people isn’t the problem, however. Instead, it’s Oscar-nominated screenwriter Joe Stillman (“Shrek”) who doesn’t know when to let up on other sci-fi references. It makes another alien encounter feel like a worn-out welcome.

Humans and aliens trade roles in “Planet 51” when astronaut Chuck Baker (Dwayne Johnson) lands on a planet inhabited by anatomically incorrect creatures living in what is reminiscent of small-town America in the 1950s. As much as Chuck is scared of them, he is actually the one that has “invaded” their planet. With a much-anticipated movie about alien invasions about to hit theaters, the aliens go into full panic mode when they find out something from another world has made contact with them.

Desperate to get back to his abandoned spacecraft, which he parks in the middle of a suburban alien neighborhood, Chuck puts all his trust in Lem (Justin Long), a typical high school dweeb and aspiring astronomer who can never muster up enough courage to ask the alien of his dreams Neera (Jessica Biel) out on a date. Lem takes on the responsibility of getting Chuck safely back to his ship before General Grawl (Gary Oldman) and his army captures him. There’s also a mad scientist, Professor Kipple (John Cleese), who wants to dissect his brain.

While most of the slapstick humor will sit well with younger kids, “Planet 51” is far too imitative to give it a pass. Sure, it’s always fun to see a couple of really nifty movie references sprinkled into the story at just the right times, but when Stillman delivers them in droves, it’s hard to tell where his admiration for the sci-fi genre ends and unoriginality begins. From “E.T.” to “Alien” to “Star Wars,” no sci-fi film of the last 30 years is left unturned. Even a joke about the 1983 Oscar-winning film “The Right Stuff” gets overused so much, it becomes trite and obvious.

In a year where animated films are just as abundant as alien ones, “Planet 51” floats aimlessly in the cinematic solar system. It might be harmless enough for the most nonjudgmental of tikes, but everyone else will only be reminded of movies that have pushed the genre to the outer limits instead of simply rehashing the past.

Easy Virtue

June 19, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Kristin Scott Thomas
Directed by: Stephan Elliott (“Eye of the Beholder”)
Written by: Stephan Elliott (“Eye of the Beholder”) and Sheridan Jobbins

On paper, an era piece starring Jessica Biel just doesn’t look right. It’s like Cameron Diaz in “Gangs of New York” or Angelina Jolie in “The Good Shepherd.” It gets the job done, but seems incompatible and obscure.

Biel, however, proves that she can break past her well-known status as a Hollywood sex symbol to play an independent 1920’s American woman in “Easy Virtue,” an adaption of Noel Coward’s play of the same name. Here she flips a British aristocracy’s world upside down when she marries into their family.

Not only is Larita Whittaker (Biel) American, she also smokes, races cars, and speaks her mind no matter who’s around. Although somewhat endearing at first to a few members of the family (with the exception of the uppity matriarch – played by the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas – who is offended even by her bleached-blonde bob), Larita slowly gets under everyone’s skin with her bubbly personality, vulgar opinions, and floozy-like reputation when her new hubby John (Ben Barnes from “Prince Caspian”) brings her to the family estate.

Larita, however, isn’t going to bend for anyone, including her spouse who has never worked a day in his life and is comfortable being catered to hand and foot while at home. What is supposed to be a three or four-day stay for the newlyweds turns into weeks. Soon, Larita realizes there really is no exit strategy from what she refers to as the “petrified circus” unless she plans it herself.

As a comedy of manners, “Easy Virtue” is mostly chippy and light on its feet especially when peppered with a very interesting soundtrack (a jazz version of Rose Royce’s 70’s hit “Car Wash” is one of the more ambitious song choices). There are few gags that run too long and other than Thomas, Biel, and Colin Firth, who plays the man of the mansion, everyone one else in the family blends well into the British countryside like all the other set pieces.

In the final act, debut screenwriter Sheridan Jobbins and director/writer Stephan Elliott (“Eye of the Beholder”) decide to turn playful sarcasm between characters into all-around revulsion. From here, “Easy Virtue” is no longer an energetic collection of zingers and quickly changes tone. It’s the darker turn where “Virtue” stops being a farce and makes a mad dash into melodramatic mediocrity. How very unbecoming.