Sunday, October 30, 2005

Movie Review: "Kicking & Screaming"

Starring Will Ferrell, Robert Duvall, Kate Walsh and Mike Ditka
Directed by Jesse Dylan

Anyone that has seen the trailer to Will Ferrell's comedy "Kicking & Screaming" can probably figure out not only the entire storyline, but the way the movie plays out. Unfortunately, the trailer also reveals most of the funny parts of the movie, which are ultimately too few and far between.
That's not to say that the movie is inherently a failure. It's certainly watchable and Ferrell throws himself into his role – albeit maybe too much. But like a poor soccer player, it kind of runs aimlessly around the field, occasionally getting off shots on the goal that are infrequently on target.
Ferrell stars as Phil Weston, who takes over his son's soccer team after his dad Buck (Robert Duvall) trades the boy from the team he coaches. Phil has long repressed issues with his dad, feeling that nothing he has done in his life has ever been good enough for him. In general, Buck would agree with that assessment, and feels that Phil is just in for more disappointment and failure by coaching soccer – something he has no knowledge of.
In the same vein as "The Bad News Bears," Phil's team is painted as a ragtag group of losers, but little is done to develop any of the children's characters beyond the simplest of brushstrokes. Although to be fair, the film doesn't really seem to take much of an interest in the children in the first place, as the relationship between Phil and Buck is the central focus. All other characters, including Phil's wife (Kate Walsh) and son (Dylan McLaughlin) are thrown into the background.
The only other character who makes any kind of an impact is not really a character at all, but rather an actual person. Well, kind of. NFL Hall of Fame player/coach Mike Ditka shows up in the film playing himself, and agrees to help Phil as an assistant coach. His reasons are completely selfish, as he is a neighbor of Buck's and makes it a point to get under his skin at every opportunity.
Clearly, Ditka is not a polished actor by any stretch of the imagination. But his exchanges with Ferrell are more interesting than most of the action in the movie. The movie actually could have used a bit more of these scenes to break up the plot as it headed towards its predictable and pat conclusion.
If anything, I think there's a better and maybe less family-friendly movie struggling to get out here. There's a hint of it here and there, with Ferrell becoming a coffee junkie who becomes obsessed with winning no matter whose feelings he hurts. That even includes Ditka, who he begins to boss around, calling him "the juice box guy." Anyone who's ever attended children's sporting events knows there are some people, be it coaches, parents, or just other crowd members who have some definite anger management issues. These are the types of people who deserved to be humorously skewered in a movie.
Some laughs are to be had in "Kicking & Screaming," but much like the sport of soccer itself, it's a low-scoring affair.
Grade: C
(Rated PG for thematic elements, language and some crude humor.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Horror! The Horror!

In recognition of Halloween, I thought I'd throw my two cents in for some of the best horror movies of all time. Before piping in on what films aren't on this list, I'll mention up front that I've never been an avid horror movie fan. That's not to say I haven't seen my fair share over the years. I'm just far from what you could call an afficionado. For example, I'm still yet to see John Carpenter's original "Halloween," which from what I've heard, is one that would surely be on the following list.
Some of these movies may venture between horror/thriller/sci-fi, but are generally what I would classify as horror movies. With that out of the way, here are some of my picks for best horror movies (scares are optional, but preferred).
In alphabetical order ...
"Alien" (1979) - Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto.
It's a rather simple premise for a movie and one that's been done many times before. A killer is on the loose, picking off victims one by one, as they're trapped in a single location with no way to call for help. But this one involves an alien creature on board a spaceship, with the characters (and subsequently, the audience) having no real idea of what they're dealing with. Stylishly directed by Scott, with a solid ensemble cast on board, the film takes its time racheting up the suspense to great effect. The scene with John Hurt at the dinner table remains one of the most memorable moments in horror movie history.

"Aliens" (1986) - Directed by James Cameron. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn and Bill Paxton.
The follow-up to "Alien" is the rare example of a sequel being superior to the original, with a fearless performance from Weaver as Ripley, the lone survivor from the first film. She returns to the alien planet with a group of Marines to try and eradicate the vile species. Naturally, things don't go as planned, with Cameron turning the sequel into one of the most action-packed horror movies ever. It's an intense movie that can make you physically exhausted simply by just watching it.

"Dawn of the Dead" (1978) - Directed by George A. Romero. Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Gaylen Ross.
Despite an effective remake of it in 2004, this is still the superior version of a small group of survivors taking refuge in a shopping mall, as the living dead walk the earth. While the cast is hardly notable, the real stars are the zombies, brought to life, if you will, by Romero and make-up artist Tom Savini. Played for both scares and laughs, these zombies are nothing if not persistent. Some of the violence seems a bit tame compared to what movies are allowed to get away with now, but the film still packs a solid satirical punch.

"The Exorcist" (1973) - Directed by William Friedken. Starring Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair and Max Von Sydow.
Based on the book by William Peter Blatty, this movie still has the ability to shock more than 30 years later. The demon possession of young Regan (Blair) and subsequent attempts to rid her of the evil spirit have been copied and spoofed to death, with none coming close to the creepy impact of this film.

"The Fly" (1986) - Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz.
A remake of the 1950's film starring Vincent Price, Cronenberg amps up the violence and gross out factor, but also invests more emotion into the story, thanks to good performances from Goldblum and Davis. Establishing a blossoming love story between the two (who were in love for real during filming) only intensifies the tragic string of events to follow. Won the Academy Award for best makeup.

"Misery"(1990) - Directed by Rob Reiner. Starring James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth.
As far as big screen adaptations of Stephen King novels go, this one ranks right up with "Stand By Me" as easily the best of the bunch. Kathy Bates' Oscar-winning performance as the deranged "fan" of romance author Paul Sheldon (Caan) drives this movie to another level. The scene with the block of wood and sledgehammer will still make most people cringe today – even if they haven't seen the movie for years.

"Poltergeist" (1982) - Directed by Tobe Hooper. Starring Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O'Rourke.
Proof that you can make a truly scary PG movie (although I'm not sure it would still be able to garner that rating today), the story of the Freeling family and their experiences with the supernatural delivers thrills and chills in pretty equal measure. While the role of director Hooper's role in the making of the movie has been disputed over the years, there's no denying a familiar style and influence on the picture from co-writer and co-producer Steven Spielberg.

"Psycho" (1960) - Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Martin Balsam.
Basically, every aspect of this movie works together to deliver some genuine scares for the uninitiated. For those who have seen it, the movie still delivers the goods, even though you know what's coming. That's thanks in large part to the flawless direction from Hitchcock, a memorably creepy performance from Perkins and a fantastic music score from Bernard Herrmann. This one's generally credited with creating the horror movie genre.

"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) - Directed by Tobe Hooper. Starring Marilyn Burns, Allen Danzinger, Paul A. Partain.
Filmed by a then-unknown Hooper with a cast of no-name actors, this low-budget movie is based on actual events. Because no one is recognizable in the film and it makes next to no use of music, there's a feeling that you're watching a documentary more than a movie. This works to its advantage, as Hooper doesn't really tip his hand on what will happen next, leaving you with a strong sense of unease. This film spawned several sequels of lesser regard (including one with Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey!) as well as an unnecessary 2003 remake.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Movie Review: "Flightplan"

Starring Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Erika Christensen and Sean Bean
Directed by Robert Schwentke

More often than not, big-budget thrillers tend to play it dumb and predictable, undermining the very thrills they're supposed to provide audiences. Then again, most thrillers don't have the pleasure of a two-time Oscar winner at its disposal.
But that's exactly the genre that Jodie Foster has chosen for her last two starring roles, in 2002 for director David Fincher in "Panic Room" and now "Flightplan," helmed by Robert Schwentke, making his major film debut. In both, she plays a protective mother who finds herself in nerve-wracking situations involving her daughter, with most of the action taking place in one location.
In "Flightplan," Foster portrays Kyle Pratt, a jet propulsion engineer who boards a huge double decker plane (one that she helped design) on flight from Germany to New York. She's newly widowed, following the death of her husband and is almost numb with grief, while still trying to maintain a calm exterior for her young daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston). On the flight, the two decide to take a nap, but when Kyle wakes up, Julia is gone.
Concerned about her daughter's well being from the get go, Kyle quickly enlists the aid of the plane's crew to help find her. However, after initial attempts fail to produce results, Kyle demands that the captain (Sean Bean) order a more thorough search of the plane. The main problem he sees with the idea is that no one remembers seeing the girl in the first place, nor was she counted among the passenger list.
This is clearly not welcome news for Kyle, who becomes increasingly frustrated and anxious to understand how someone can simply disappear from a plane at 37,000 feet. Meanwhile, some of the crew harbors skepticism of her mental state, enlisting the aid of an onboard air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard) to keep her under control.
Going into "Flightplan" knowing as little as possible can only enhance the enjoyment of the remainder of the film, so I'll say no more about the story. Just be aware that there are at least two main paths the film could travel down, and while it's disappointing it chooses the more well traveled one, the film is still fairly effective.
Much of the credit has to go to Foster, who has made a career of playing women with steely resolve that is in stark contrast to her relatively petite physical appearance. She brings an intense presence to her role that likely exceeds what the script by Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray calls for, but the film is better for it, as it helps better ground the story in realism. Well, at least until the third act, which doesn't really provide the payoff it had been laying the foundation for up until then. While "Flightplan" is a solid heavily Hitchcock-influenced thriller that makes very good use of its seemingly limited space, don't ask too many questions about it afterwards. Otherwise, you might come upon plot holes big enough to fly a plane through.
Grade: B
(Rated PG-13 for violence and some intense plot material.)