Friday, March 28, 2008

A 'job' well done

As the saying, goes never judge a book by its cover or, in this case, a movie by its name. The generically titled “The Bank Job” is indeed about a bank robbery, but those hoping for a light romp may get more than they bargained for.

Based on the true story of 1971’s unsolved walkie-talkie robbery in London, the film theorizes why coverage of the bank robbery disappeared from newspapers after only a few days. Did the government issue a D-Notice — a request to stop coverage — to the media? If so does that mean the government was somehow linked to the theft?

That’s what director Roger Dickerson (“No Way Out”) and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (“Across the Universe”) would lead you to believe, and it is this angle of government conspiracy that adds a different spin to the heist film formula.

The scheme of the robbery has a motley crew of small-time con artists led by Terry (Jason Statham, “The Transporter”) digging a tunnel from a couple store fronts down the street to the bottom of a bank vault of safety deposit boxes. Thanks to a tip-off from Martine (Saffron Burrows, “Reign Over Me”) they know that the alarms will be off for a brief window of time.

Things get more complex from there with the robbery being a mere setup to get a hold of incrementing photos of a royal that are being used as black mail by the black power leader Michael X. This is where the truth of the “based on a true story” comes into question, but whether it holds water matters not as it compels within the context of the film.

Clement and La Frenais’ script drops the audience in the middle of things and doesn’t take long to set up the robbery. We are introduced to characters quickly, and the script is sly about how it slowly reveals information about its characters.

The cast is largely full of faces unfamiliar to American audiences, and most of the characters are just standard personas. Of the secondary robbers, Stephen Campbell Moore as Kevin and Daniel Mays as Dave stand out most. Statham is the star and he carries the film with his rugged charisma. He is a good — if limited actor — well suited for this sort of material.

Heist movies are usually about one of two things, the thrill of watching an elaborate plot executed or the aftermath of the robbery where things go wrong for various reasons. “The Bank Job” falls into the latter category with an assortment of government officials, crooked cops and seedy criminals coming after Terry and his gang.

Recent heist movies like “The Italian Job” and the “Ocean’s” movies have been breezy and relatively lighthearted. Audiences expecting more of the same with “The Bank Job” will be surprised at how hard-edged the film is.

“The Bank Job” is a throwback to gritty British crime films like 1971’s “Get Carter” and 1980’s “The Long Good Friday” and it looks and feels the part. It doesn’t pull away from violence or try to cover it up with tongue-in-cheek humor.

The presence of Statham will inevitably bring comparison to Guy Ritchie’s “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” Ritchie brings an irony and self-awareness to his material that makes his films on British crime play more like comedies than straight thrillers. Although “The Bank Job” has moments of humor, as when one of the robbers orders takeout while digging the tunnel, the film is mostly a taut thriller.

Dickerson generates a good deal of suspense during the robbery with a plot development too delicious to reveal here. He keeps that suspense going once Terry has to try to find a way to keep ahead of all the various people after him.

As the film draws to it conclusion, the number of players involved is numerous, but the way the screenplay juggles it all is quite clever and satisfying. It is a dark, hard road to a happy ending, but stick with it because you will get one.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Hollywood's 'Horton' captures most of Dr. Seuss' magic

After the uneven “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and the disastrous “The Cat in the Hat,” the idea of Hollywood taking on another Dr. Seuss classic was hardly appealing, but with “Horton Hears a Who” the good doctor has finally been given the treatment he deserves.

Although “Horton” is a computer-animated film, the filmmakers wisely didn’t go for the motion capture realism that made “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf’ a bit creepy. Directors Jimmy Hayward (a veteran from Pixar) and Steve Martino get the look right. It helps that the film is animated instead of live action. Animation allows for all of Dr. Seuss’ wild imagination and all his Rube Goldberg-esque machines to be fully realized.

The innate problem with adapting Dr. Seuss to a feature length film is that you have to inevitably pad the story. There really is only about a half hour of material in a Dr. Seuss book, so it is no surprise that many of his books were successful animated into a 30-minute format in the 1960s through to the 1980s.

The previous two attempts at expanding his material to 90 minutes failed because they missed the essence of what continues to draw children to Dr. Seuss. It is his whimsy, invention and sweetness that has allowed him to endure. But the “Grinch” and especially “The Cat in the Hat” were mean-spirited, ugly films that were little more than vehicles for Jim Carrey and Mike Myers to do their comic shtick.

The additional material added to the story of Horton — a gentle elephant who vows to protect the world he rightly believes lives on a speck of dust — for the most part is in tone with the source material. Carrey is back for his second crack at Dr. Seuss as Horton, but thankfully he is relatively restrained. There are only isolated moments where Carrey goes off on random comedic tangents that break away from the spirit of Dr. Seuss.

Only one scene — a dream sequence parodying Japanese anime — is a completely unnecessary departure from the story. It is a mildly amusing bit, but has no business being in the final cut of the film. It would’ve been a fun deleted scene, but in the context of the film it is a head-scratcher.

Other scenes, though, are great fun and are perfectly worthy padding. A scene in which Horton has to cross a precarious bridge while the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell, “The Office”) is at the dentist is hilarious with every little bump for Horton causing an earthquake for Whoville.

There are also small moments of inspiration that would do Seuss proud. The malleability of Horton’s ears is a reoccurring bit throughout the film that is quite amusing. Horton uses them as a diving cap, a hat and a blanket.

Carrey and Carell as the main characters give solid vocal performances and are well supported by a cast of familiar voices. Seth Rogan as Morton, a hyperactive mouse who is the only animal in the jungle that stands by Horton, delivers another strong voice-over performance following his work in “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”

Carol Burnett is perfectly snooty as Kangaroo, who doesn’t like the free thinking Horton bringing disorder to the jungle. Will Arnett (“Arrested Development”) gives a great comedic performance as Vlad, a vulture for hire sent to destroy the flower on which Whoville is perched.

“Horton Hears a Who” has been taken up by some in political debate. You know it is an election year when even a Dr. Seuss story becomes a political talking point. Some are claiming the film is pro-life (or anti-abortion, if you prefer) because of its reoccurring theme “a person is a person no matter how small.”

Others have read into the story as a parable about the importance of faith with both Horton and Mayor of Whoville being persecuted for believing in something no one else can hear. One review by Gina Carbone from Seacoast Newspapers went as far as to say: “‘Horton Hears a Who’ could do for intelligent design what ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ did for global warming.”

Written in 1954, “Horton Hears a Who” was meant to have a political undercurrent as an attack on McCarthyism. Kangaroo, who riles the jungle up into an angry mob and insists Horton admit that Whoville doesn’t exist, is an obvious stand-in for McCarthy.

“Horton Hears a Who” is about standing up for the little guy and letting every voice be heard, even the ones you don’t necessarily agree with. It is a simple moral of tolerance, a good message for children and adults alike, and the film incarnation delivers that message with humor and surprising pathos. It took Hollywood three tries, but at least they finally got Dr. Seuss right.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

'Miss Pettigrew' is an old fashioned screwball gem

“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” a light and frothy throwback to the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s is a wholly enjoyable experience that shouldn't be ignored as just a bit of trifle.

Set in London on the eve of World War II, the film stars Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew, a middle-aged governess who has been unfairly fired from her last position. When the employment agency refuses to help her, she swipes the address of Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), an American actress and singer looking for a new social director. Suddenly, Miss Pettigrew is taken up in the whirlwind lifestyle of the young starlet.

The film starts out frantic and madcap with Pettigrew helping Delysia juggle the three men she is currently involved with: Nick (Mark Strong, “Stardust”) a club owner, Phil (Tom Payne) the son of a theater producer and Michael (Lee Pace, “Pushing Daisies”) a piano player. The film eventually settles into a more leisured, but no less enjoyable, pace.

It is no surprise who Delysia will wind up with, but what is surprising is how affecting this love square is. Sometimes predictable is OK when the story is told and acted so well. In this case, even with the outcome known there’s still a sense of tension. Credit for this goes to the strong cast and a sharp script by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”) and David Magee (“Finding Neverland.”)

McDormand, who is still probably best known for her Academy Award winning performance in “Fargo,” is one of the most underused and best actresses in her generation. She is a versatile comic actor who grounds her performances in a certain degree of reality. She thrives in quirky, oddball or offbeat characters, but plays them with a sincerity that keeps them recognizably human.

All of this holds true in “Miss Pettigrew” with McDormand getting laughs from nothing more than facial expressions. There’s a great running gag in which Pettigrew always just misses getting to eat. But McDormand’s performance also hints at an underlining sadness. She has regrets and she wants to prevent Delysia from having the same sense of a life lost.

McDormand shines in her own romantic subplot involving a lingerie designer named Joe (Ciaran Hinds). This older pairing acts as juxtaposition to the youthful abandon of Delysia and her love interests. Joe and Pettigrew remember World War I and quietly dread the prospect of a new one. McDormand’s scenes with Hinds add a weight that you don’t necessarily expect in a piece this fluffy. It doesn’t kill the light tone of the film, but just adds a bit of depth to a film that could otherwise be called superficial.

Adams, who was so effervescent in last year’s “Enchanted” is equally bubbly here, so much so you almost expect her to float right off the screen. And yet, like McDormand, she adds an underlining pain to her performance.

In many respects, this is a film about the fronts we put on to survive life. Delysia smiles her way through life because she can’t afford not to. Adams plays this beautifully. She is a performer with such an open face that when she smiles it is hard not to feel her joy and when she frowns it is hard not to feel her sorrow. This holds especially true during a heart-wrenching duet with Pace on “If I Didn’t Care.”

Given the two female leads, many will probably be quick to dismiss this as just a chick flick, but it would be a shame to cut the audience of such a charming film in half. This is an old fashion, feel-good heart warmer that some would claim they don’t make anymore. Well, they do — and here it is. Savor it.

'The Spiderwick Chronicles' are a diverting journey

The last couple of months have been oddly lacking in family-friendly fare, so it is no surprise that “The Spiderwick Chronicles” has become a hit. When you’re starved for nourishment even the blandest dish can seem like a rare delicacy.

“The Spiderwick Chronicles” is the latest book-to-screen fantasy adaptation to fill the gap while audiences wait for the next “Harry Potter” or “Narnia” film, and it is a well produced but unremarkable film. It has all the elements in place, but is held back by a sense of déjà vu.

It may seem as if I detested “Spiderwick,” but I am more disappointed that this material isn’t more inventive. The film starts with an intriguing premise, but doesn't take it far enough. There is an invisible world of fantastical creatures that exists parallel to ours. Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn, “Good Night, and Good Luck”) has researched and extensively documented this world and placed it all in one book. This proves dangerous because if an ogre named Mulgarath gets a hold of the book he could rule both realms. Spiderwick seals the book and puts a protective spell on it and his home. Eighty years later one of his relatives breaks the spell and brings on the wrath of Mulgarath and his army of toad-like trolls.

The film’s protagonists, a trio of adolescent siblings, are archetypes given a couple traits to play rather than fully formed people. Jared (Freddie Highmore, “Finding Neverland,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) is the sullen, rebellious one, who ultimately becomes the leader of the pack. His twin brother Simon (Highmore again) is a timid walking encyclopedia, and Mallory (Sarah Bolger) is the bossy older sister who likes to fence. The dynamic is established early on and never develops.

There are plot developments that any discerning film-goer will be able to see coming. Instead of eliciting surprise or creating a touching moment, all they do is induce groans. Younger viewers who don’t have a lifetime of movies under their belt won’t know the wiser, but for adults it may be frustrating that screenwriters David Berenbaum (“Elf”) and Karey Kirkpatrick (“Chicken Run”) relied on the obvious instead of putting a different spin on the tried and true. Berenbaum and Kirkpatrick have shown in the past that they know how to make formulas seem fresh, which makes "Spiderwick" all the more disappointing.

For all my complaining, there is a lot to like about “Spiderwick.” The movie has some good visuals and isolated moments of magic and wonderment, as when a flower bed transforms into a group of fairies. Director Mark Waters (“Mean Girls”) creates a nice atmosphere and keeps the film well paced. The final confrontation with the trolls, though rushed, recalls the dark tongue-in-cheek humor of “Gremlins.”

There is some nice comic relief supplied by a couple creatures named Timbletack (voiced by Martin Short) and Hogsequel (voiced by Seth Rogen of “Knocked Up” and “Superbad”). Timbletack is sweet and helpful unless he’s angered, and then he turns into a little green demon. Luckily, he’s easily appeased by honey. Hogsequel is a pig-like creature who wants to help but is easily distracted by his favorite food: birds.

These characters are well voice by Short and Rogen and are given dialogue that is funny and has some spark. It is with these characters that the film finds some life of its own and hints at a greater film that lies just below the surface.

The cast is strong and makes the material seem weightier than it is. Strathairn makes Arthur Spiderwick a dignified, good-hearted figure and, although, he has limited screen time he makes a lasting impression. Joan Plowright (“Dennis the Menace”), as the aunt of the film’s young heroes, also has little screen time but is a warm, welcomed figure late in the film. This is probably Highmore's last “cute-kid” part, but he plays his duel role well.

Nick Nolte gets one scene to play as Mulgarath, and he plays it for all it is worth. He is more frightening in a few minutes than all the film’s computer-generated ghoulies combined. Unfortunately, Mulgarath spends the rest of the film as just another special effect.

As far as family entertainment goes, you can do far worse than “Spiderwick.” There are some very solid laughs and the overall experience is a pleasant, if overly familiar, one. It makes for a distracting enough afternoon for adults and should keep kids at bay for 90 minutes.