August 21, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jimmy Bennett, Jake Short, Trevor Gagnon
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez (“Spy Kids”)
Written by: Robert Rodriguez (“Spy Kids”)

There’s no denying filmmaker Robert Rodriguez is a kid at heart. Whether he’s firebombing dusty Mexican villages or journeying into virtual worlds with pint-sized superheroes, Rodriguez is a very likeable director. He’s like that popular little boy in elementary school everyone wanted to be friends with because of his impressive toy collection.

The problem with Rodriguez is that he still hasn’t found a way to make his toys for tikes as much fun as the ones for the big boys. While there was minimal success with the original “Spy Kids” in 2001, its two sequels and the ridiculous “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D” that followed failed to show the same unique voice Rodriguez had at the start of his career. (YouTube “Bedhead,” his first family-friendly short he made back in 1991).

Almost 20 years later, Rodriguez continues to run into the same familiar dilemma with his newest age-appropriate adventure. In “Shorts,” the auteur from Austin, Texas has kicked over his toy chest to reveal all the playthings he has collected over the years. The overabundance of imagination and silliness, however, is just too much for one tiny movie to handle.

Putting his head together with one of his real-life sons (he did the same with “Sharkboy”), Rodriguez siphons as much childhood fantasy as he possibly can before writing an overly-ambitious story about a small, tight-knit suburb that goes topsy-turvy when a rainbow-colored, wish-granting rock falls from the sky and lands in the community.

Jimmy Bennett (“Orphan”) is Toby Thompson, a bullied kid who gets his hands on the rock right before Rodriguez starts to play his cinematic version of hot potato and tosses the main computer-generated prop around to everyone. This includes brothers Loogie (Trevor Gagnon), Lug (Rebel Rodriguez), and Laser (Leo Howard), who can’t seem to get a grasp on their wishing technique.

Leslie Mann (“Funny People”), Jon Cryer (TV’s “Two and a Half Men”), and Kat Dennings (“The House Bunny”) round out the rest of the Thompson family – Mom, Dad, and sister Stacey – who don’t have much luck with the rock either. When Stacey tells her immature older boyfriend that she wishes he’d “grow up,” he literally becomes 40 feet tall. When Toby tells his parents he wishes they “were closer,” their bodies mesh into a two-headed-mom-dad hybrid.

In addition to the main cast and all the CGI already crowding the screen, Rodriguez has more characters up his sleeve, including germaphobic scientist Dr. Noseworthy (William H. Macy) and his son Nose (Jake Short), who unleashes a booger monster with the help of his father’s laboratory experiments. The slimy green gunk isn’t the only villain running amok. Mr. Black (James Spader) and his two gothic kids Helvetica (Jolie Vanier) and Cole (Devon Gearhart) instill fear into the rest of the community while pursuing the rock for its endless power.

Even with Rodriguez breaking “Shorts” into more controllable vignettes, he decides to make the process even more chaotic than it has to be by editing the entire film out of sequence and trusting kids under the age of 12 haven’t seen “Pulp Fiction.” It’s a risky attempt that unfortunately doesn’t work as well as he would have hoped.

While a handful of the child actors are cast well, Rodriguez focuses more on special effects and overuses slapstick to reach the film’s demographic. There are only so many times someone can bump their head before the joke just isn’t funny anymore. In “Shorts,” Rodriguez never knows when to say when.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

September 15, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings, Alexis Dziena
Directed by: Peter Sollett (“Raising Victor Vargas”)
Written by: Lorene Scafaria (debut)

There’s a point in “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” when Michael Cera and Kat Dennings are walking through the streets of New York City where I was hoping screenwriter Lorene Scafaria would use some creative license and make the film break rank and venture into a teenage version of “Once.” Instead of thoughtful humor and tangible relationships, however, “Playlist” parties hard enough to become just another expected teenage adventure.

Tending to his broken heart after getting dumped on his birthday by his girlfriend Tris (Dziena), Nick O’Leary (Cera) is coerced by his bandmates to go into the city to play a scheduled show and start moving on with his life. His fun-filled night starts when he meets Norah (Dennings), a friend of Tris’ who asks Nick to be her boyfriend for five minutes so she can prove to her naysayers that she hasn’t come to the club alone.

Soon, the subtle encounter leads to Nick and Norah running around New York looking for their favorite band’s secret show. A subplot comes by way of Norah’s other friend Caroline (Ari Graynor), who is supposed to be driven home by Nick’s gay bandmates but is so drunk and confused she wakes up in their van and thinks she has been kidnapped. Along with searching for the secret show, Nick and Norah now have to look for Caroline, too.

As always, Cera makes dweeby look so effortless and matches well with Dennings and her poised character. The dynamic works fine for the most part, but “Playlist,” adapted from the novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, simply gets too comfortable within its narrative. It’s an easy-going gig having to watch these kids talk about music and listen to music, but there’s not much more they offer.

It’s not a total miss for director Peter Sollett, whose 2002 debut film “Raising Victor Vargas” was one of the year’s pleasant surprises. He doesn’t match the strong characters of his first film, but he’s still able to sail smoothly on the natural likeability of Cera and Dennings.

Other than being an emo kid’s dream soundtrack, “Playlist” could be the little brother (or at least the third cousin twice removed) of “High Fidelity” if it was able to match its sharp wit and sarcasm. It tries, but the script can only go as far as Cohn and Lavithan’s creation will take it. A couple extra bar-hopping scenes at 4 a.m., and I was petered out by the same ol’ shenanigans.

Michael Cera and Kat Dennings – Nick and Norah’s Infinate Playlist

June 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Interviews

If you believe in “musical soulmates,” look no further than the teenage adventure flick “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” The film stars Michael Cera (“Superbad”) and Kat Dennings (“Charlie Bartlett”) as the young title characters who jump from club to club all night in New York City searching for a secret show by their favorite band.

While in Dallas promoting their film, Cera, 20, and Dennings, 22, talked about staying up all night to make a movie and their own musical preferences and talents.

I read there was a pretty crazy shooting schedule for this film.

Kat Dennings: We shot from around 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. probably.

Michael Cera: Yeah, whenever the sun went down.

Had either of you ever shot in the middle of the night like that?

MC: I really liked doing it, actually.

KD: I had only done a little night shooting, but this was all-night shooting.

MC: I’m nodding.

Had you ever experienced New York City at 4 a.m. before?

KD: My friend Maria and I used to walk to restaurants in the middle of the night when we were hungry. I thought someone was going to kill me, so I would always have like scissors or hairspray in my pocket just in case. For protection, or to cut someone’s hair and style it.

MC: I’ve been up all night before, but I’ve never chased a band around.

Had either of you made a mix tape before like Nick?

KD: I’ve made mix tapes just for the intention of introducing friends to music that they’ve never heard.

What about for a significant other?

KD: I’ve done that, yeah, but it didn’t work out, so it must’ve not been very good.

So, is someone’s taste in music a make-or-break factor for you in a relationship?

MC: Not for me. Who’s to say who has bad taste in music?

KD: No, unless it’s like some crazy, white supremacist rock, I don’t think I would have a problem with it.

So, if someone pulled out a Michael Bolton CD on a date, you’d be okay with that?

MC: Totally. There’s no need to be a snob.

Michael, I know you’ve proven your musical prowess with your guitar-playing in Juno, but what about you, Kat? Do you have any musical talent?

KD: I don’t have any talent, but I really like to play instruments. I don’t know if I’m any good. (Laughs) I’ve played every instrument for like 10 minutes and enjoyed them all. I really liked playing the saxophone and the drums. Those were great.

MC: I want to take trumpet lessons one day.

During your travels making movies, what city’s music scenes have impressed you the most?

MC: Austin’s got a good one. It’s really active. People seem to be really enthusiastic about it. I think Toronto has a good one.

KD: Yeah, I was gonna say Toronto. I went to one of my first concerts in Toronto. Toronto has a lot of great bands.

Since this film is the first time both of you are working from a script that is actually adapted from a book, did you get to talk to the authors about the characters and how you would play them in comparison to how they originally imagined them?

KD: They were on set a bit and we talked to them. I think they felt good about us being in the roles and had faith in [director] Peter [Sollett]. I’ve talked to them since. They were at the premiere in Toronto, and they were really ecstatic about the movie.

Kat, is there more pressure on you having two films out at theaters at the same time, “Nick & Norah” and “The House Bunny?”

KD: Not at all. It’s nice for my family. I know they get a kick out of it. But it’s just back to my life [after shooting].

Back to doing more video blogs [subscribe to katdennings on]?

KD: Oh, yeah. I have to get back on that. I’ve been working on other video projects for the “Nick & Norah” DVD but I haven’t been doing the others.

Michael, are you comfortable being this quasi sex symbol for hipster girls worldwide?

MC: Yeah, I’m comfortable with it. Enjoy the show, ladies.

KD: (Laughs)

OK, so you walk into a club on a Saturday night. What do you want the DJ playing for you as your theme song when you make your entrance?

KD: Um, the theme song to “The Golden Girls.” Or maybe “Night Prowler” from AC/DC.

MC: Or what about “You’re the Best” from “The Karate Kid?”

KD: Or maybe the “Rocky” theme song. If they played it when I was going into a club, it would be awesome. If they played it when I was going into a library, it would be double awesome.

Kat, you’ve had the chance to play college-age characters in a couple of movies, but Michael, you seem to be stuck in high school mode. How long can your boyish looks get you by?

MC: I’ll probably do a couple more movies as a high-school kid. Then I’ll be ready for college.

So you don’t want to end up like Ralph Macchio, almost 30 and playing Daniel Larusso in “The Karate Kid III?”

MC: I’d rather be Ralph Macchio in “My Cousin Vinny.”

Charlie Bartlett

February 16, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Anton Yelchin, Robert Downey Jr., Hope Davis
Directed by: Jon Poll (debut)
Written by: Gustin Nash (debut)

If anyone is trying to remember where they’ve seen actor Anton Yelchin, chances are you first spotted him in the 2006 teenage crime drama “Alpha Dog” as a kid who is kidnapped for a debt owned by his older brother. Although the film unsuccessfully tries to balance itself between hard-hitting biopic and care-free street speech, much of the well-acted true-life story comes in part from the young actors who give the movie its spotty emotional spark. If anyone does it the best, it’s Yelchin.

Here, the kid plays the titular character in “Charlie Bartlett.”  Yelchin is a classic-looking talent reminiscent of Anthony Michael Hall in “The Breakfast Club” and Matthew Broderick in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which is why he works so well as the extremely likable lead character. Problem is that “Barlett’ isn’t a John Hughes film and it’s evident Yelchin is starring in a first-time film for both the director (Jon Poll) and writer (Gustin Nash).

It’s not to say that “Bartlett” isn’t a worthy attempt. The story revolves around a prep high school student who finds his true calling in life when he appoints himself as a psychiatrist and prescription drug dealer at his new school.

When Charlie is expelled from his “nth” private institution for selling fake IDs to his classmates, his mother, Marilyn (Davis), who has some issues of her own, decides public education is her son’s final chance to clean up his act. Charlie isn’t a troublesome kid at all. Actually, he is respectful, friendly and an overall nice guy. But with some concerns in his home life (his father is incarcerated), he has no other choice than to express himself and draw attention in any way he can.

Peddling pills, which he has received from his shrink, from the boys bathroom quickly makes Charlie a popular person to know at his suburbia high school. Where he once was the dweeby new guy who wore a crested sports coat and was picked on by the rebellious bully, Charlie reaches iconic status on campus and has everyone’s head turning, especially alcoholic Principal Gardner (Downey Jr.), whose daughter Susan (Kat Dennings) he has started to date.

Although it manages to stay away from more of the obvious and shallow stereotypes that plague teenage comedies today, “Bartlett” really can’t decide what type of film it wants to be. As a quirky indie flick, it’s no “Rushmore.” As a laborious drama, the script doesn’t support its full intentions and leaves its characters scraping to project their personalities in the waning moments. Sadly, it doesn’t occur soon enough.

Who is Charlie Bartnett anyway? Yelchin might have his Natalie-Portman-by-way-of-“Garden State” moments, but there’s only so much a few eccentricities can uncover about our leading man.