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May 25, 2007

‘Shrek the Third’

A badass posse of princesses breathes life into the frequently flat “Shrek the Third.”

By Shawn French

It’s become customary each summer for film critics to complain about the abundance of sequels and the lack of originality in Hollywood. I’ve tried very hard not to be that critic. But with 15 sequels or remakes opening nationally in the span of 15 weeks, in addition to movie versions of “Nancy Drew,” “The Transformers” and “Underdog,” there seems to be an especially severe shortage of original content heading for theaters this summer.

I’m not anti-sequel as a rule. If the story warrants another installment, bring it on. I’m there. What annoy me are the franchises that have clearly run out of steam, but keep chugging along just to keep the cash register ringing. This summer features plenty of both varieties.

On the good side, “28 Weeks Later” was solid and there are other sequels to look forward to in the coming weeks. The third “Pirates of the Caribbean” looks promising; “Day Watch” should be great; we get another “Harry Potter” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

But then there’s “Spider-Man 3,” by far the worst movie in that series -- an overly lengthy soap opera with more padding than Sharon Stone at the end of “Alpha Dog.” And I love Steve Carell, but “Evan Almighty” looks just awful. Then there’s John Travolta in a female fat suit in “Hairspray,” and a sequel so bad even Eddie Murphy wouldn’t do it -- “Daddy Day Camp.” (Cuba Gooding Jr. did it.)

The latest sequel to run head-on (apply directly to the forehead) into the law of diminishing returns is “Shrek the Third.” The original “Shrek” was groundbreaking and uncovered a wealth of previously untapped comedy material -- fairy tales. The first two installments had a JSI (jokes per square inch) ratio audiences haven’t seen since the heyday of the Zucker Brothers (“Airplane” and such).

In “Shrek the Third,” the lovable ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) faces the disastrous prospect of being named king after his father-in-law, the Frog Prince, well, croaks. Fearing an oppressive regal existence, Shrek wants nothing more than to return to a simple life in the bog with wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz). But first, he’ll need to track down the only other living heir, Artie (Justin Timberlake), and convince him to wear the crown. Complicating matters, the evil Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) tries to unite the castoff villains to lead an assault on the land of Far, Far Away.

It’s a good concept, the movie is absolutely gorgeous and the acting is solid throughout. Antonio Banderas, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Ian McShane, Regis, Amy Sedaris and “SNL” alum Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Eddie Murphy all lend their voices. But the story runs on fumes.

The first two installments were filled with rapid-fire punchlines so densely packed that it was nearly impossible to catch them all in the first viewing. But “Shrek the Third” is a much more pedestrian animated flick. It was enjoyable enough, but fell far short of my lofty expectations.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

May 18, 2007

‘28 Weeks Later’

Robert Carlyle flees the infected horde in a great opening sequence.

By Shawn French

In 2002, director Danny Boyle left his mark on the zombie genre with the frenetically over-the-top “28 Days Later.” The story was solid, telling the tale of the rage virus, which turns infected humans into flesh-eating abominations. Well acted, well written and an adrenaline rush start to finish.

But what made the film such a jolt was a new vision of zombies. (Technically, they aren’t called zombies, but they basically are). The traditional George Romero-style zombies are slow-moving, brainless and pretty easy to avoid unless you barricade yourself in a farmhouse. If bitten by a zombie, you rise as a zombie after dying. These were the rules and they were, by and large, undisputed.

Boyle ignored all that. If his “infected” bite you, or even get their blood in your mouth or eyes, you have five seconds, then you turn. Also, the zombies can run as fast as you can. Ready, go!

The result was terrifying. I love the classic Romero zombies, but Boyle’s infected critters are much scarier on a visceral level. A single attacker is now a legitimate threat. And there are hundreds, thousands of them.

The sequel (directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) picks up six months after the original outbreak and now that the infected have all died of starvation, parts of London are ready for repopulation. Don (Robert Carlyle), the survivor of a fantastic opening sequence, reunites with his children (played by Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton -- seriously, those are their names) in the quarantined city. Meanwhile, American-led NATO forces closely monitor the situation with a finger on the trigger, waiting for the first sign of another outbreak.

When the inevitable happens, Don and his kids team up with a renegade sniper (Jeremy Renner) and a medical officer (Rose Byrne) who believes the children may hold the genetic key to a cure. In their path is a rapidly growing horde of infected, the Army firing on anything or anyone that moves and incoming air strikes. What could go wrong?

As in the previous film, the director paints a compelling vision of a collapsing world and visually reinforces that with every frame. The use of handheld cameras for action scenes really annoys me in some films. But used correctly, as they were here (Fresnadillo actually strapped cameras to actors for some chases), it can really help create a sense of immediacy and bring viewers into the action. Like with “300” earlier this year, I stopped taking notes midway through because I was so wrapped up in it. I love movies that do that to me.

Another thing I like about this series is that it takes the subject matter seriously. There’s none of that tongue-in-cheek goofiness present in many horror flicks. The characters also face complicated moral choices and all of them, even the military commander giving the order to mass exterminate, are treated as actual people, not snarling archetypes.

I’d definitely recommend this to any horror fan. It may be a bit too graphically violent to have much mainstream appeal, but it’s the best horror flick I’ve seen this year. Even my wife dug it, and she rarely likes this sort of movie. There are some serious jolts and there’s enough gray area in the story that you’ll have plenty to talk about on your way out of the theater.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

May 7, 2007

Jessica Biel’s gravity-defying bed sheet is one of many reasons to dislike “Next."

By Shawn French

Dear Nicolas Cage,

Are you quite all right? After sitting through your last three films -- “Wickerman,” “Ghost Rider” and most recently “Next” (none of which were screened for critics) -- I’m starting to wonder if you’ll ever make a good movie again. I’ve defended you as an actor over the years, but “Raising Arizona” was 20 years ago. What have you done for me lately?

I know you can act. I’ve seen you act. “Lord of War” and “Adaptation” were both good, but that was in your two-movies-per-year phase. You have five in 2007 and five more due out in 2008. Are you even reading scripts anymore or just signing on with anyone who cuts you a check? When Eva Mendes went public complaining that you just made up lines as you went in “Ghost Rider,” I thought she was trying to make excuses for how awful she was. Now, I’m not so sure.

It’s OK to turn down movie offers sometimes. It’s important to turn them down. I would much rather see you in two good movies a year than have to sit through the latest installment of “Nick Cage Gets Paid” every two months. Instead of always being on a set filming something, maybe spend some time reading through scripts and filtering out the bad ones? Hire someone to read them for you. If you already have someone, fire that person and hire someone else. You’re famous. You can afford to be picky. And yet, as I type this you’re on the set of the “National Treasure” sequel. I’m sure that’ll be one for the time capsule.

Your latest, “Next,” had potential, with you playing a Vegas stage magician who can see two minutes into the future. It’s based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, so bonus points there. But again, did you actually read the script? They should have called this movie “For No Apparent Reason.”

Let me see if I have this right. Your character uses his future-seeing ability to scam casinos. An FBI agent (Julianne Moore) decides, for no apparent reason, that the stage magician she’s watching at the blackjack table isn’t using a magician’s trick to win. Instead, she somehow correctly guesses your ability, down to how far in advance you can see, and everyone just believes her. Um, OK.

The FBI has learned about an imminent nuclear attack on the United States and, for no apparent reason, decides that the agency’s resources are best spent trying to catch you instead of finding the bomb. I guess they want a two-minute warning before the world ends. Or something. Meanwhile, the villains, who have no apparent reason for wanting to detonate a nuke, also know about your powers (for no apparent reason) and, for no apparent reason, they want you dead.

Along the way you meet the loveliest woman in the world (Jessica Biel), who for no apparent reason, offers a crazy 40-something drifter (you) a ride and later that night has sex with him. For no apparent reason, the two-minute-into-the-future power works differently around her. The loosely defined magic rules, which change scene to scene anyway, are basically tossed out the window at this point. You can pretty much just bend time however you want and if someone kills you, you can essentially rewind time indefinitely and keep trying until you succeed. Do you see how this doesn’t particularly lend itself to a suspenseful story?

So to save the world, you have to venture through a cargo ship that is, for no apparent reason, rigged throughout with explosive traps that you can easily avoid by rewinding time when you set one off. And why is it that you didn’t rewind time after that FBI agent got shot and killed? That seemed a little rude.

“Next” is fun at times, but the rampant inconsistencies get old by the hour mark. And the resolution -- just awful. Awful.

You’re still a relatively young guy, Nick. There is time to save your legacy as an actor. Once you get through the seven movies you’re already signed on for over the next 19 months, take a stack of scripts and go on vacation. Pick one or two you like and please, please make something decent in 2009. That’s not so much to ask.

Your once and hopefully future fan,

Shawn French

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

April 24, 2007


Shia LaBeouf and Sarah Roemer get acquainted with a creepy neighbor in “Disturbia.”

By Shawn French

It’s great to see a PG-13 movie that seems comfortable in its own skin. So many of the PG-13 offerings these days seem to be filmed with an R-rated sensibility and then the violence and sex are butchered in the editing room to sneak under the PG-13 wire. The result is often a disjointed film with annoying quick cuts and the nagging feeling that we, the audience, aren’t getting the whole story -- like watching “The Sopranos” on A&E.

Director D.J. Caruso (“Taking Lives”) delivers the best PG-13 thriller I’ve seen in years. And the script by Carl Ellsworth (who wrote the classic “Buffy” Halloween episode where everyone turned into whatever they were dressed as) and Christopher B. Landon is solid. Good pacing, funny dialogue, an engaging story.

Shia LaBeouf heads a great young cast as Kale, a boy placed under house arrest for three months after decking a teacher who sorely deserved it. When his mom (Carrie-Anne Moss) strips him of his X-Box privileges, he and his pal Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) turn to spying on the neighbors to entertain themselves. They quickly come to suspect that the man next door (David Morse) is a serial killer and launch their own investigation.

Sure, it’s similar enough to “Rear Window” that many folks mistakenly think it’s a remake. It was actually shot on the same Paramount sound stage. But it really stands on its own and, purely in terms of a plot device, I actually prefer the ankle alarm Kale wears to the leg injury that sidelined Jimmy Stewart in the Hitchcock classic. Stewart physically couldn’t leave the house to snoop. Kale can leave the house, but doing so will set off an alarm and the police will come running. So when Ronnie is later trapped in the suspected killer’s house, Kale still has the freedom to try to help his friend. It just comes at a steep cost.

LaBeouf is just a great young actor (and was a good “Saturday Night Live” host last week). He reminds me a whole lot of John Cusack at that age. Plus, his dad was the official joint roller for the Doobie Brothers. That’s gotta count for something. And Sarah Roemer delivers a breakout performance as a young neighbor of Kale’s, who catches him spying on her and invites herself into the boys’ snooping game.

But it’s the chemistry between the young cast members that really sold me on this film. Take away the serial killer angle and it still could have held up as an entertaining teen comedy. I suspect these three actors will see a whole lot of work in the coming years. LaBeouf has already signed on for the upcoming “Indiana Jones and the Prostate of Doom” or whatever they decide to call it.

All in all, “Disturbia” provides a fun couple of hours at the movies. You probably wouldn’t lose much waiting for it to come out on DVD, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

April 13, 2007


Action is king in the old-school double feature “Grindhouse.”

By Shawn French

As someone who spends hours and hours every week at the movies, it’s always refreshing when filmmakers break out of the mold and give the audience something new -- or something old in this case. For their latest offering, uber-directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez team up for some ’70s-style fun with the double feature “Grindhouse.”

The directors’ stated goal was to recreate the experience of the old grindhouse cinema and it’s a runaway success in that regard. With a pair of feature-length movies for one admission price, fake trailers from directors Eli Roth, Rob Zombie and Edgar Wright (as well as one by Rodriguez) and film that was aged to simulate a weathered look, “Grindhouse” provides three-plus hours of campy, escapist fun.

Robert Rodriguez kicks off the double feature with “Planet Terror” -- a gory, raucous zombie flick. Freddy Rodriguez is great as the impossibly cool El Wray, a marksman who never misses. But it’s Rose McGowan who steals the show as go-go dancer Cherry Darling. When she loses a leg to the bio-infected horde, El Wray fashions a machine gun/rocket launcher to fit into her stump and the result is some fantastic over-the-top action.

Both films are loaded with cameos and Planet Terror finds screen time for Bruce Willis as a corrupt military commander, Naveen Andrews (“Lost”) as a scientist, Josh Brolin as an infected doctor, Quentin Tarantino as a would-be rapist and the incomparable Michael Parks, whose Texas Ranger Earl McGraw character from “Kill Bill Vol. 1” and “From Dusk Till Dawn” appears in both halves of the double feature.

“Planet Terror” delivers exactly what it promised. The action is bloody, cartoonish and completely surreal. I have to think anyone who knew what they were walking into would be happy with the “Planet Terror” experience.

The second feature, “Death Proof,” is another matter. I’m a huge Tarantino fan. Huge. I love his writing, the overlapping characters and story elements that flow through his work, and the way he unfolds a story. Simply put, he’s one of the top two or three storytellers working today.

With that said, “Death Proof” is his worst film to date by a large margin. It’s not bad, but it just doesn’t click the way Tarantino films are supposed to. As a result, the dialogue-heavy story just seems to sit there on the screen at times without accomplishing anything. It was the first time I’ve ever felt bored during one of his movies.

Kurt Russell is Stuntman Mike, a nutjob in a virtually indestructible old Chevy Nova that he uses to terrorize young girls on the open road. I once crumpled a Volvo on the front grill of my old ’78 Nova head-on and drove away without a scratch, so it was kind of fun seeing one of these old beasts in action on the big screen.

After a lackluster opening two acts, things really get moving in the final 30 minutes, when Mike picks on a group of young women (two of them stuntwomen) who decide to fight back. The result is a great old-school car chase. None of the quick cut, speed-up-the-footage crap that dominates Hollywood chase scenes. I can’t recall the last time I saw cars ramming each other multiple times in the same shot. The final act goes a long way toward redeeming “Death Proof” and the ending is absolutely classic.

But what made these two films into a memorable event was the overall packaging. A double feature with trailers between, lines sometimes repeating at reel changes and a couple of manufactured technical errors where the film would “melt” or a reel would be “missing” and suddenly we’d jump forward in the story, sometimes missing key plot points in the process.

It’s a brilliant idea that’s well executed, but it may be a little over the head of the American movie-going public. A bunch of people obliviously left the screening I was at after the first movie ended, and “Grindhouse” opened to a staggeringly low $11.6 million weekend. Even considering the lost showings due to a combined running time of over three hours, we’re still talking about Tarantino, Rodriguez and an amazing cast. Maybe it’s a lack of attention span or a miscalculation about how many people look back on the grindhouse days as a good thing. Whatever, it's depressing that this was out-earned by the Ice Cube comedy (I use the term loosely) “Are We Done Yet?”

While I have minor quibbles with each of the films and I wasn’t as blown away as I hoped, the overall vibe was a total blast. I’d highly recommend this double-feature to any fan of ’70s exploitation films. It’s a true cinematic experience.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

April 9, 2007

‘Blades of Glory'

Will Ferrell and Jon Heder heat up the ice in “Blades of Glory.”

By Shawn French

Since breaking through with 2004’s “Napoleon Dynamite,” Jon Heder has, for better or worse, been identified with the character he played in that film. His two highest-profile movies since then, “School for Scoundrels” and “The Benchwarmers,” were both mediocre at best and he was essentially playing the same character. Finally, as a prissy figure-skater in “Blades of Glory,” he’s starting to offer proof that he’s not a one-trick pony.

Heder is Jimmy MacElroy, a child prodigy skater snatched from an orphanage by a ruthless businessman (William Fichtner), whose team of scientists transforms the boy into a champion. But a brawl on the victory stand between he and rival Chazz Michael Michaels (Will Ferrell) gets both men suspended from singles skating for life.

Three and a half years later, the bitter enemies have both bottomed out. Jimmy sells skates for a department store and Chazz skates for a children’s show, wearing a giant wizard mascot head. They learn that by exploiting a loophole in the rules, they could return to competition by joining forces as figure skating’s first male-male couple.

It’s very much Ferrell’s movie and he steals scene after scene as the hard-drinking, sex-addicted bad boy of skating. But the pleasant surprise was that Heder held his own with Ferrell and the two are extremely funny together.

Like most frat pack films, “Blades of Glory” is loaded with cameos. I think every figure skater I know of is in the movie, although that’s an admittedly small number. Real-life husband and wife Will Arnett and Amy Poehler are the villainous Van Waldenbergs, a sibling skating pair trying to sabotage Chazz and Jimmy. Jenna Fischer (Pam from “The Office”) plays the youngest Van Waldenberg child, who has a crush on Jimmy but is recruited by her siblings to seduce Chazz and break up the duo. Then you have Jim Lampley as an announcer, Andy Richter as a Canadian Mountie, Luke Wilson as a sex addict counselor, Craig T. Nelson as their coach, the list goes on and on.

The skating scenes, particularly the two complete routines that Ferrell and Heder skate together, are painfully funny. There are definite soda-out-the-nose moments and a slew of quotable punchlines -- a must for any frat pack film.

But the movie lacks the incessant goofiness that made “Anchorman” such fun. I’d rank it comparable to “Dodgeball.” Will Ferrell plays his Chazz character like end-stage Jim Morrison, which leads to several funny scenes, but pushes the boundaries a bit to do it. (He hurls inside the mascot head he’s wearing at one point. Yikes.)

Bottom line, if you think you would like this movie, you probably will. It delivers some great physical humor, as advertised, and is at the very least a good renter. Next up for Ferrell is “Semi-Pro,” where he’s the owner/coach/player of a minor league basketball team, the Flint Michigan Tropics. And then the film I’ve been anxiously tracking since it was announced, “Step Brothers.” Ferrell is co-writing this one with director Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights”) and he reunites with John C. Reilly as two spoiled deadbeats who are forced to share a basement when their single parents marry each other. I am so very much there.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.

April 2, 2007


Marky Mark shines in the mediocre “Shooter.”

By Shawn French

Movies are often criticized for being overly formulaic, but sometimes if you’re in the right mood, a formula action flick can be a fun ride. Mark Wahlberg carries the film as Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger and “Shooter” is, for the most part, an entertaining by-the-numbers action thriller. It’s when the film breaks from action-movie convention that it struggles.

The setup of the story is straight out of “Commando.” A badass former military guy walks away from that life and moves to the mountains to live out his days in peace. Then a colonel (Danny Glover) pays him a visit and talks him into “one last mission.” It seems someone is plotting to kill the president by shooting from a mile away and Swagger is one of the few men on the planet capable of making such a shot. He agrees to head to D.C., study the setup of the president’s upcoming public appearance and plan a mock assassination, helping to foil the real killer in the process.

But when he’s double-crossed, shot and framed for the killing, the wounded Marine needs every trick in his arsenal to elude a citywide dragnet. Once escaping the city, he launches his quest to find out who set him up and exact his punishment upon them. The movie is really at its best in the early going, with solid action, an engaging story and a strong lead performance from Wahlberg. Tarantino should use this guy.

By the 30-minute mark, I was psyched not only because the first act was entertaining, but also due to Swagger not having a love interest or daughter for the typical “We have your girl” moment that happens in every action movie. But then, he immediately heads to his dead partner’s wife (Kate Mara), a former nurse, to be stitched up. The second she appeared onscreen, you just knew she’d have a gun to her head in Act III.

The plot, based on the novel “Point of Impact” by Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter, is a good fit for an action film. And I suspect the final act would have been satisfying in a novel, but it just doesn’t work onscreen. Director Anthoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) and screenwriter Jonathan Lekmin (“Lethal Weapon 4”) really should have understood that at some point in the movie, an action hero needs to square off against a worthy adversary.

All the other action-flick staples are in place. We have the reluctant hero lured out of retirement. We have the obligatory visit to a crazy old guy for info -- Levon Helm (the drummer from The Band) steals the movie as a nutty gun expert. We have the rogue agent (Michael Pena) who grows to trust the hero while the rest of the country is trying to kill him. We have the damsel being dangled as bait.

But the average age of the three lead villains (Glover, Ned Beatty and Rade Serbedzija) is 63 and the baby of the group, at age 59, is in a wheelchair. Plus, Glover has braces or was wearing a retainer, so he’s acquired a lisp, which makes him even less intimidating. These are the three guys whom we’re supposed to be excited about seeing the hero battle? A buff Marine sniper in his prime against three senior citizens? Gee, I wonder who wins.

Action movies hinge on the big conflict at the end. It would have been perfectly reasonable for at least one of those three (Beatty plays a senator) to have a monstrous bodyguard who could give Swagger a fight. Instead, the big showdown at the end feels more like euthanasia.

Despite a slew of plot holes and a wobbly ending, “Shooter” is still a decent flick. The action is solid, the performances (aside from Beatty’s and Glover’s) are good and it’s a fun ride. Definitely a worthwhile renter.

Shawn French can be reached at Chaosstrm@aol.com.


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