Flickerings: INDEX OF MOVIE REVIEWS movie camera

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Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

The effects may be fantastic, but the rest the movie isn’t even close

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

That Marvel Comics quartet of superheroes returns to the big screen, and this time they have to — surprise, surprise — save the world in the special-effects heavy and ineffective action flick Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Director Tim Story (Fantastic Four, Barbershop) delivers a product that feels less like a real movie and more like a movie preview extended to an hour and a half.

Since the last film, the Four have become big celebrities. The upcoming wedding of Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic (the guys who stretches like Plastic Man), and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), a.k.a. the Invisible Woman (the woman who can turn you-know-what), is billed as the wedding of the century. Meanwhile, Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), a.k.a. the Human Torch (he turns to fire and flies), is a celebrated single man about town, and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), a.k.a. the Thing (super-strength), can’t avoid the spotlight anymore than he can escape his hulking rocklike visage.

Before Reed and Sue can say I do, the Four need to stop some speeding comet-like contraption in the sky from altering earth’s climatology. Turns out it’s a creature from outer space that looks like a silver surfer (voice of Laurence Fishburne) and has come to destroy the planet. Also getting in on the fun is the American military complex and the Four’s arch-nemesis Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon). Can the Four save the day?

The answer to that question is: Who cares? There is not enough story here to care about the story. Instead, it’s all a special effects show. Each of the Four not only has unique superpowers; they also have superpowers that special effects wizards can go crazy with. See Mr. Fantastic stretch, see Sue Storm turn invisible, see the Silver Surfer be silver and surf, and so forth. The effects are certainly expertly done and no doubt cost a pretty penny.

The producers should have spent a little bit of that effects budget on a quality screenwriter (somehow six people were involved). It feels like the film has no script. Sure the characters say lines, and a narrative happens on the screen. But it’s just what you’d imagine from an elongated Hollywood pitch: familiar characters will do funny things, new characters will appear with amazing effects, there will be lots of wisecracking one-liners. And action, there will be lots of action.

Not really. The effects may be fantastic, but the rest the movie isn’t even close.

Poor action-adventure • PG • 92 mins.

(500) Days of Summer

Fox Searchlight

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer.

The parts add up to a sum that’s smart, terrific and entertaining on many levels.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall for each other, girl dumps boy in the pitch-perfect romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer. Young director Marc Webb (Seascape) gives us one of those smart plenty-of-fish-in-the-sea romances that doesn’t dazzle us, but delightfully makes us wonder why there aren’t more terrific movies like this.

The storyline is wonderfully simple. Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 20-something greeting card designer in Los Angeles, who falls for the boss’s new assistant Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). For 500 days, he pursues, they date, they fall hard, they break up. He has quirky friends (Geoffrey Arend, Matthew Gray Gubler) who provide plenty of comic relief. That’s about it.

The trick from a plot standpoint is that none of this is presented to us in this particular order. Indeed, the movie starts at Tom and Summer’s break-up on a specified day (somewhere in the high 200’s, as I recall). For the rest of the film, we leap forward and backward, seeing the relationship grow, break and mend — often to heartbreaking or hilarious effect. 

Better than the flashbacks and flash-forwards is the believable and interesting relationship itself. The simple romantic formula is certainly well worn territory, and the movie makes no bones about the fact that it is a straightforward romance. It’s all the little ins and outs that make it so rich and enjoyable. From Tom and Summer’s keen interest in music to their similar senses of humor to the goofy friends who don’t seem to know what they’re talking about … except for when they do. This is easy to relate to and funny stuff.

There is not a lot here that will wow. It’s that the parts add up to a terrific sum: smart romantic comedy that is entertaining on many levels. This movie is proof that movies of this sort shouldn’t be that hard to make. Give us two believable characters — both Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are great — relating to each other in believable ways, then give it some smarts. The only off note is a superfluous — but not often used — voiceover narration that feels like the result of notes from a meddling producer. Otherwise, everything is spot on. Right down to a killer final line and a closing nod to Fellini.

Great romantic comedy • PG-13 • 96 mins.

Fool’s Gold

You’ll have more luck finding treasure in the ocean than you will finding laughs in this movie.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A beach bum of a treasure hunter and his former exploring partner of an ex-wife get tangled and entangled looking for their big Caribbean claim in the lame adventure-comedy Fool’s Gold. Director Andy Tennant (Hitch, Sweet Home Alabama) gives us a romantic comedy trying to cash in on the Da Vinci Code/National Treasure movie craze. It fails on all counts.

Matthew McConaughey plays Finn, a fool of a treasure hunter with little of value but the clothes on his back (and his shirt is usually off, so I’m not sure we can even count that). Kate Hudson plays Tess, who was once his much better and smarter half, but has recently divorced him so she can get away from the beach-bumming life and get back to her scholarly reality (smart girl). Before they can officially be rid of each other, their paths cross again. This time the treasure they have spent their lives searching for is practically under the sand beneath their toes.

Director Tennant has one mind to try and give us an Elmore Leonard–esque comedy of assorted odd characters. Finn and Tess get aid from an English tycoon (Donald Sutherland), his socialite tabloid-fodder daughter (Alexis Dziena) and their gay cooks. Trying to stop them are a wealthy gangster rapper (Kevin Hart) and his various island and not-so-island henchman (including Malcolm-Jamal Warner). There’s also a crusty old island treasure hunter (Ray Winstone), Finn’s Ukrainian sidekick (Ewen Bremner) and plenty more. These oddballs provide the pretext for much of the adventure — when Finn isn’t flying through the air in a huff of his own swashbuckling and knuckleheaded hi-jinx.

This movie is indeed romantic comedy meets action comedy of the kind we don’t see much of anymore. The problem is McConaughey; he doesn’t know the first thing about comedic acting. His mugging and gape-mouthed foolishness hardly pass for humor, and he is no more funny when getting punched in the face or conked over the head. On the other hand, Hudson is certainly up to the task at hand; she knows her way around this type of B-list material. Meanwhile, the other actors, especially Bremner, add some spice, but it’s all for naught. You’ll have more luck finding treasure in the ocean than you will finding laughs in this movie.

Poor action-comedy • PG-13 • 112 mins.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Comedy runs the gamut from tender to lewd in one of the more nuanced and less crass progeny of Freaks and Geeks alumni

reviewed by Mark Burns

Peter (Jason Segel: Knocked Up) is an unremarkable L.A. everydude who’s settled into the gig of scoring episodes for a CSI Miami-like series. The homebody’s also managed to score an improbable long-term relationship with the show’s star, Sarah (Kristen Bell: Veronica Mars). His happy doldrums turn stormy, though, when Sarah sweeps in out of the blue to dump him. Peter vacations to Hawaii to ease his crisis, but he finds himself at the same resort as Sarah and her new squeeze, rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand: Penelope). Thus Peter begins a tormented quest to move on, helped along by resort hostess Rachel (Mila Kunis: That ’70s Show), his new crush.

Comedy runs the gamut from tender to lewd. Awkwardly realistic yet exaggerated uncomfortable situations a la The Office represent the former. See Peter as the hypersensitive male, lapsing into doubt, obsession and girlish weep as he tries to adjust. As for the lewd, sexual humor — including a strangely explicit crash-course in lovemaking — it imparts a funny edge. Fun tweaks include a few ridiculous lampoons of pop culture plus one oddly creative late element.

Star Jason Segel follows the lead of fellow Freaks and Geeks alum Seth Rogen in penning his own script here. Freaks auteur Judd Apatow increasingly resembles a comedic Fagin. His creative progeny continue to fan out across the Hollywood scene to spread his aesthetic of explicit humor nuanced with healthy drama and story.

The script is smart. Humor proceeds as ebb and flow, building up to the ridiculous before retreating to subtler fare that gives the drama room to breathe. The two lives of this movie mesh nicely through consistent interplay. As contrast, while Wedding Crashers did both, it loaded all the best fun at the front, then flipped a switch and labored through a heavier finish. Here, transitions are smooth and frequent, and the drama is substantial yet light enough to prevent it from becoming a downer.

Among its filmic cousinry, Forgetting Sarah Marshall seems friendliest for those who’ve thus far shied from Apatow and his ilk. This is one of the more nuanced and less crass of such options to come down the pike. (More surprisingly for its pedigree, there’s no toking.) Plot proves solid, and the story unfolds neatly, if a touch predictably. Flashbacks flesh out the history between Peter and Sarah, and performances benefit from well-developed characters. Surprisingly, heartbreaker Sarah is allowed a dose of humanity rather than relegated to simple villain. Caricature does run a bit thin in Aldous’ dim, libidinous rocker — averaging two-and-a-half dimensions — but the twit proves fun and is even afforded a smarter moment or two.

First-time director Nicholas Stoller does a fine job of capturing the tale, generally evidencing a good sense of comic timing and overall pacing. Certain moments do want for snap, though, and a couple laughs spoiled in previews might lack sufficient additional context to keep them fresh.

Still, such weaknesses are minor strikes. Fans of similar movies will no doubt enjoy, and even doubters may be pleasantly surprised.

Good comedy • R • 112 min.

Four Christmases

This Christmas disappointment is a lump of coal.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A 30-something couple who usually travel to the islands for Christmas get stuck with their parents instead in the unfunny and unappealing Four Christmases. This Christmas disappointment from first time-feature director Seth Gordon is a preachy and clichéd lump of coal. 

Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon are Brad and Kate. They have what appears to be a very happy non-married relationship that has been going for three years. When they’re Christmas Day flight to Fiji is cancelled, the two are pulled into going to each of their parents’ houses for Christmas. Because they have divorced parents, that equals four Christmases. Naturally, each of the four family get-togethers is dysfunctional beyond belief, and unfunny comedic vignettes ensue.

It’s the classic case of a singular cute seedling of an idea on paper not thriving on film. As long as the actors were available (a surprisingly top-flight collection that includes Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen), this movie could’ve been made in a couple days. It’s like a TV Christmas special where everyone reads their lines while doing walk-on cameos. Clearly, director Gordon is hoping that laughs get generated from that familiar Vince Vaughn banter, but for that he needs funnier written situations. Meanwhile, poor Reese Witherspoon doesn’t get one supposed-to-be-funny line.

Beyond the lack of laughs, the film delivers a befuddling and wrong-headed Christmas message. Apparently, we’re to believe that these two only think they are happy and enjoying life, when what they really want and need is to spend more time with family. So how does this work if one’s family is dysfunctional to the point of violence — as seems quite possible at Brad’s dad’s house. And guess what else? It turns out babies are the real gift of joy. Babies have become the latest Hollywood deus ex machina. 

In the end, we are given the gift of no laughs, wrong-headed preaching (at one point from a dad who un-ironically has had multiple divorces) and clichéd storytelling. But even more remarkable is how a movie could take two of the most appealing actors working in Hollywood today and make them so unappealing. Yes, this may be the most amazing Christmas miracle of all.

Poor comedy • PG-13 • 89 mins.


The dramatic encounter keeps us glued to our seats, wondering how it will all come to be.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

TV personality David Frost interviews former President Richard M. Nixon in what becomes an important event in American history in the superb bio-drama Frost/Nixon. Director Ron Howard’s (A Beautiful Mind; Apollo 13) melodramatic Hollywood touches can’t stand in the way of the riveting subject matter and two spellbinding performances.

In 1974, British TV vagabond David Frost (Michael Sheen) is hosting a lightweight variety show in Australia. When struck by the TV ratings of President Nixon’s resignation, Frost gets the idea to revive his career in the states by scoring the first post-presidential TV interview of Nixon. Nixon (Frank Langella) too has a keen interest in such a project: It would be an opportunity to set the record straight as he sees it and to get paid a few hundred grand in the process. What follows is the set up to a 1977 TV interview that almost doesn’t happen, the interview itself — actually a series of interviews — and its profound climactic moment.

Director Howard adds too many storytelling gimmicks to the film, which is based on the critically acclaimed stage play by Peter Morgan, who also wrote this screenplay. Howard’s misguided direction keeps this very good film from being truly great. Most annoying is the use of to-camera interviews of the other players in the story. Not only do the outside players distract from the real drama between Frost and Nixon, but alsothey make remarks of the in case you didn’t understand the historic significance of what you just saw, let me explain it to you as if you were a 12-year-old variety.

We do not need Howard’s cheap plot devices to explain the subject matter to us. Indeed, it is precisely this clearly dramatic subject matter that propels everything forward and keeps us glued to our seats, wondering how it will all come to be. We know Nixon goes down, but how we get there is an unfolding mystery.

Howard’s best decision is to keep on the two non-movie star leads from the play. Sheen as Frost and Langella as Nixon are a joy from the moment we first meet them, and they only get better as the movie rolls forward. When Nixon starts to crack, it’s a fine line for an actor between melodramatic schmaltz and emotional power. Langella pulls it off brilliantly, with every Nixonian face tic and eye glower evoking the destruction of this tragic figure. Awards will be coming.

Very good drama • R • 122 mins.

Funny People

© Universal Pictures

Adam Sandler, Leslie Mann and Seth Rogen in Judd Apatow’s Funny People.

Coarse discourse can be distracting, and the penis jokes never stop.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Adam Sandler plays a dying Hollywood star who befriends a young comedian while coping with life’s worth in the thoughtful and vulgar comedy Funny People. Writer-director Judd Apatow, he of the franchise of smart adolescent films currently dominating the Hollywood comedy landscape, gives us only his third film as director (The 40-Year Old Virgin; Knocked Up). While not quite up to the standard of his previous films, fans will likely still enjoy this one, while others should stay away.

Super-successful comedian George Simmons (Sandler) is a character much in the persona of the real-life Adam Sandler. When Simmons finds out he has a deadly disease with little chance of a cure, he hires aspiring schlub of a comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to be his assistant and write jokes for him — and to be his friend, as he has nobody else. As Simmons sorts though his life, he reconnects with ex-lover Laura (Leslie Mann), “the one who got away.” When Simmons gets a second lease on life, his new and old ways of living begin to collide.

Essentially, this is two movies in one. The first half focuses on Simmons coping with death and his relationship with Ira. Ira has a complicated lifestyle thanks to his comic roommates (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman) who are friends with Ira as well as competitors. Most of the film’s best laughs occur in this first part, thanks to the crude interplay between male buddies. The film’s second part focuses on Simmons’ relationship with Laura, who is now married with two kids. Simmons has confusing — and not as funny — designs on getting her back.

Apatow has acknowledged that this movie is something of the third part of a sex, birth and death trilogy. But it’s a thin thread. The common aspect between the three films is the amount of vulgarity. Funny People’s humor is heavily reliant on penis jokes that never seem to stop. As in Knocked Up, the coarse discourse can be distracting.

The saving grace is Apatow’s ability to tell a smart story. Despite its near two-and-a-half-hour length, we keep wondering what is going to happen next. Plus, it’s always a kick to peak behind the Hollywood curtain at how the other half lives. Ultimately, the film’s most insightful line comes from singer James Taylor, who asks Ira if he ever gets sick of making jokes about that part of the male anatomy. Et tu Judd Apatow?

Good comedy • R • 145 mins.

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