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Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Dubious Legacy of The Family Man

Four Films That Follow the Formula of The Family Man

By Chris Sabga

"The Family Man" is an unbearable movie from 2000 starring Nicolas Cage as fat cat investment broker Jack Campbell and Don Cheadle as a guardian angel of sorts named Cash. Is his name Cash because Jack worships the almighty dollar at the beginning of the film? Intelligent symbolism this is not.

Cash wants to give Jack a "glimpse" of what his life could have been like if he had chosen a different path. That path involves a knockout named Kate, who he left behind. Played by the gorgeous Téa Leoni, she almost seems worth the trade-off.

In the alternate "glimpse," Jack's big bucks and fast Ferrari are gone – replaced by a wife, a couple of kids, a minivan, and a lot less money.

Family and happiness trump money and material gain, right?

It's a message that's easy to agree with. Unfortunately, the movie does absolutely nothing to convince me that Jack's new life is better than his old one. That's ultimately where "The Family Man" fails. As easy on the eyes as Téa Leoni may be, even she's not enough.

The plot summary on refers to "The Family Man" as a "modern-day Frank Capra story." The director of "It's a Wonderful Life" must be rolling in his grave. Both movies are actually quite different anyway – with the biggest difference being that one of them is good.  

Clocking in at over two excruciating hours, "The Family Man's" bloated running time will have you praying for your own guardian angel and alternate life. In my alternate life, I envision myself watching a completely different movie. Here are four other options...

Comfort and Joy (2003): A workaholic, Jane (played by "The Facts of Life's" Nancy McKeon), crashes her car and wakes up with a new family. There's no "guardian angel" in this version of the story, but Jane still remembers her old life and wants to return to it. Can her new hubby and two adorable kids convince her that economic wealth isn't as important as family? TV veterans Dixie Carter and Paul Dooley show up as her parents.

A Family Thanksgiving (2010): Like Cage and McKeon, Daphne Zuniga plays Claudia, a work-first, everything else-later stuffed suit. It takes a "mysterious woman" (Faye Dunaway, light years away from her glory days) to show her what could have been. Suddenly, Claudia is dealing with a husband, two kids, and potty training. She remembers her old life, but no one from her law firm remembers her anymore.

What If... (2010): The title shamelessly comes from one of "The Family Man's" taglines. Kevin Sorbo plays a businessman, Ben, who left his ministry and true love years before to strike it rich. A guardian angel ("Cheers's" John Ratzenberger) shows him the life he could have had. Like "The Family Man," it involves a beautiful woman – Wendy (Kristy Swanson). Some of the early scenes are laugh-out-loud funny. Ben is suddenly transplanted into a preacher role he isn't prepared for. Needless to say, he doesn't act like much of a Christian at first. I assume these scenes are meant to be "shocking" and "outrageous," but I was howling with laughter. Ratzenberger is no Cheadle, but he holds his own very well – and Sorbo is someone I will watch out for based on this performance.

Me Again (2012): The main actors aren't Nic Cage or Don Cheadle. They aren't even Nancy McKeon, John Ratzenberger, or Daphne Zuniga. But this movie's crazy take on the "Family Man" concept more than makes up for it. It involves two versions of the same person walking around and "Quantum Leap"-like body-jumping. Bruce McGill and "Touched by an Angel's" Della Reese appear in small supporting roles.

These films use the formula established by "The Family Man" to varying degrees. They're either TV productions or direct-to-DVD releases. None of them have a-list actors or a big budget. They're not even "great movies" for the most part. But they're all better than "The Family Man" because they actually manage to convince me that their characters' "alternate lives" are indeed the better fork in the road.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: The Conspirator

The Real Lincoln Lawyer

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: April 15, 2011 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama, History
Running Time: 122 minutes
Director: Robert Redford
Writers: James D. Solomon, 
Gregory Bernstein
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, 
Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, 
Tom Wilkinson, Justin Long, 
Danny Huston, James Badge Dale, 
Colm Meaney, Alexis Bledel, 
Johnny Simmons, Toby Kebbell, 
Johnathan Groff, Stephen Root, 
John Cullum, Norman Reedus

We've all been taught that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln. But according to "The Conspirator," there's more to the story. As stated in the film, "one bullet killed the President, but not one man." Apparently, there was a conspiracy to murder Lincoln – with many people involved in its planning, execution, and aftermath. The assassination, and Wilkes Booth's role in it, is covered in the first few minutes of the film. After that, it turns into a full-fledged courtroom drama as a series of key players are introduced.

Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) – a soldier who fought for the North in the Civil War – is prompted to defend one of the alleged conspirators, Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). He's coerced into it by his boss, Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). No matter how guilty Surratt may seem, Johnson argues, even she is entitled to fair legal representation. After all, this is America and it's her constitutional right. At first, Aiken is against the idea and firmly believes that Surratt aided in the assassination of Lincoln. She's under suspicion because she owns a boarding house in town that welcomed Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) and others in the past.

McAvoy, Wright, and Wilkinson are all superb in their respective roles. Wright, in particular, shines as the fierce and fiery Mary Surratt. She radiates and dominates the screen with a powerful, memorable performance. That's no small feat considering the who's who of other great actors involved: Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Stephen Root, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long (cast against type, badly), Colm Meaney, Danny Huston, Norman Reedus (Boondock Saints), and Johnny Simmons all join McAvoy, Wright, and Wilkinson. There's even a cameo by John Cullum, who is better known for his occasional appearances as Barry Moredock on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

Of the supporting cast, Kline, Meaney, and Huston are especially effective. The same, however, can't be said for Justin Long. He's usually one of the highlights of any film he's in, but he seems woefully out of place in the post-Civil War period. It's admirable for an actor to take risks, but this one didn't pay off. The role is small enough, though, that it doesn't really affect the movie.

The one area where "The Conspirator" truly falters is the clunky, heavy-handed way in which it tries tie the events of Lincoln's era to 9/11, George W. Bush, and the War on Iraq. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kline) is even portrayed as a Dick Cheney type. This might have been an effective plot device the first or even second time it was used in a movie, but now it's just annoying and unnecessary. Thankfully, only a minor portion of the film degenerates into a pointless political soapbox. With a story as strong as this one, there is no need for it.

Otherwise, director Robert Redford and writer James Solomon strive for historical accuracy, and Redford believes they achieved it. What ultimately matters is the overall quality of the movie. In that regard, "The Conspirator" is an outstanding effort that shines a new light on the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review: Skyfall

Old Dog. New Tricks.

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: November 9, 2012 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action, Adventure, Spy Thriller
Running Time: 143 minutes
Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, 
John Logan, Ian Fleming (characters)
Cast: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, 
Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, 
Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Albert Finney, 
Ben Whishaw

"Skyfall" is phenomenal in every possible way. It simultaneously acts as a love letter to the past 50 years of James Bond while masterfully catapulting the iconic spy franchise into the future. If "Bourne" took the crown as the king of this genre for a few years, make no mistake, 007 is now back on top. "Skyfall's" dazzling action sequences, stunning cinematography, impactful score, and tight script all come together to create an absolutely mesmerizing experience.

In a world that increasingly values the points and clicks of computerized espionage over good old-fashioned spy work done on the field and in the shadows, Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench) find themselves being phased out.

According to another agent, Q (Ben Whishaw), "I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field."

The head of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), even offers to allow M to "voluntarily" leave her position with dignity. "To hell with dignity," she fires back. "I'll leave when the job's done."

Q does concede that "every now and then, a trigger has to be pulled." That is the dilemma facing M at the beginning of the film. Bond is doing battle with an enemy who has stolen a drive containing the whereabouts of every agent working undercover. Their identities could be compromised if that information remains in the wrong hands. M orders one of her field operatives (Naomie Harris) to take a shot. But against two moving targets, there's no guarantee the bullet will end up where it's supposed to. If the possibility of losing Bond means protecting the other agents, that's a calculated risk M is perfectly willing to take for the greater good.

It's not the first time M has had to make such a difficult life-and-death decision about one of her agents. As attacks continue to mount, both in the real world and online, it quickly becomes apparent that someone inside the agency is responsible.

Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) used to be M's favorite. However, Silva's bad blonde hairstyle makes it immediately obvious that something is amiss. After all, the last time Bardem sported an ugly mop on his head, he portrayed one of the most compelling cinematic villains in recent memory – Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men." For the role of Silva, Bardem channels a completely different kind of psychotic intensity.

What makes Bardem's Silva character so compelling is that he and Bond are two sides of the same coin in many ways. Both men have faced similar situations throughout their careers. The difference is in how they each reacted. Those very decisions are what have shaped their personalities and defined the course of their lives.

The 007 series has been shaken by ups and downs, but "Skyfall" stirs it back to life. It's an incredible ride from beginning to end – and one of the best action movies in years. Just go see it!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Review: Fun Size

Teenage Hangover

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 26, 2012 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Comedy
Running Time: 86 minutes
Director: Josh Schwartz
Writer: Max Werner
Cast: Victoria Justice, Jackson Nicoll, 
Chelsea Handler, Josh Pence, Jane Levy, 
Thomas Mann, Thomas McDonell, 
Osric Chau, Thomas Middleditch, 
Johnny Knoxville

What I initially expected out of "Fun Size" was a teen version of something like "The Hangover." However, upon seeing the childish orange Nickelodeon logo, my hopes were dashed and I had to severely temper my expectations. Well, as it turns out, the Nick branding is completely misleading.

In a movie like this, the plot isn't terribly important, but here goes: Wren (Victoria Justice) is forced take her little brother, Albert (Jackson Nicoll), out for Halloween. Their recently-widowed mother, Joy (Chelsea Handler), is still grieving the loss of her husband and is spending the evening with her much younger boyfriend, 26-year-old Keevin (Josh Pence). That means Wren can't go to the big party. For her, it's a teenage tragedy on par with "Romeo & Juliet" because she was invited by the most popular boy at school, Aaron Riley (Thomas McDonell).

O M G!

But it gets worse! While trick-or-treating, Wren loses Albert. She enlists the help of her best friend, April (Jane Levy), to find him – and it isn't long before a nerdy boy, Roosevelt (Thomas Mann, "Project X"), and his Asian sidekick, Peng (Osric Chau), join the search.

Typical teenage fare so far...

Then a giant chicken humps a car.

A girl allows a boy to feel her breasts.

Various adults "hang out with," kidnap, or make otherwise inappropriate jokes about an 8-year-old.

We're introduced to two lesbian hippie parents who speak in ancient pre-Christian languages.

Not to mention guns, feces, and a deranged cameo by Johnny Knoxville.

Is this really what's being marketed to kids these days?

Don't worry, I'm not about to step on some soapbox. All that really matters to me is whether I personally had a good time watching it.

The script isn't particularly original and the jokes are geared toward the lowest common denominator – nothing here will win any awards, that's for sure – but I did laugh.

Some of the scenes are funny, and a few moments near the end are actually touching too.  

What more could I possibly ask for? Well, many things. But "Fun Size" is a fun movie.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Review: The Producers (1968)

Springtime for Hitler

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: November 10, 1968 – U.S.
Rating: PG
Genre: Comedy
Running Time: 88 minutes
Director: Mel Brooks
Writer: Mel Brooks
Cast: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, 
Dick Shawn, Kenneth Mars, 
Lee Meredith, Christopher Hewett

Max Bialystock is a funny name. Say it out loud a few times. Bialystock. Bialyyyyystock. Bialystoooock. Mel Brooks's wildly inventive and hilarious 1968 film, "The Producers," works so well because it knows that those smaller, subtler laughs are just as important as the big, showy jokes – of which there are plenty.  

Bialystock (Zero Mostel) is a washed-up, down-on-his luck Broadway producer whose best days seem long behind him. His accountant, Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), notices a discrepancy in the books. At first I assumed Wilder's Bloom would be the straight man to Mostel's madcap Bialystock, but it isn't long before Bloom shows off his own zany side. He comes up with a scheme that he is sure will make them both millions.

Bloom's idea is to raise far more money than they actually need to fund a play that is guaranteed to be a massive flop. No one will bother to audit the books on it, he argues, because only the successes are scrutinized.  

As soon as Bloom suggests the idea, he wants to back out; he's afraid something will go wrong and they'll both end up in prison. But Bialystock's eyes flash with dollar signs and he convinces his apprehensive associate to go along with it.

After all, what do they have to lose? Bialystock has been reduced to bedding little old ladies to secure funding (a joke Adam Sandler later borrowed for "You Don't Mess with the Zohan") and Bloom is so timid that he still needs his baby blankie.

Bialystock and Bloom go through every half-baked hack play in their possession, but none of them are quite bad enough. Then they hit the jackpot: "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden" – a play written by an ex-Nazi, Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), that adoringly romanticizes the Fuhrer and his wife.

They hire the most incompetent director they can find, Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett, "Mr. Belvedere") and badly miscast the part of Hitler, choosing a hippie who calls himself L.S.D. (Dick Shawn) for the role.

What could possibly go wrong?

"The Producers" is downright ridiculous and silly, and it works because it maintains that beat for the entire movie (unlike "Identity Thief," for example, which flip-flops between silliness and sincerity). At a thrifty 88 minutes, viewers won't have a chance to get bored or tired as Bialystock and Bloom plot, plan, and propel themselves from one crazy situation to another.

The highlight of the film is naturally the production of "Springtime for Hitler." Those scenes are filled with side-splitting musical numbers, very creative and comical visual gags, entertaining reactions from both the producers and audience, and the worst – and funniest – Hitler ever.    

Thanks to Silver Screen Surprises readers Martha and Lauri for the recommendation. Feel free to suggest movies you want to see reviewed here.    

Friday, March 1, 2013

Review: A Good Day to Die Hard

Yippee Ki-Yay or Yippee Kaput?

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: February 14, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Action
Running Time: 98 minutes
Director: John Moore
Writers: Skip Woods, Roderick Thorp 
(certain original characters)
Cast: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, 
Sebastian Koch, Yuliya Snigir, Rasha Bukvic, 
Cole Hauser, Amaury Nolasco, 
Sergei Kolesnikov, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, 
Mary Elizabeth Winstead

2007's mind-numbingly mediocre "Live Free or Die Hard" managed to drag down Bruce Willis, the usually electrifying Timothy Olyphant, and the entire "Die Hard" series. That fourth movie was one sequel too many. Does the fifth and latest installment – "A Good Day to Die Hard" – restore the blockbuster franchise to its former glory? Not quite, but it deserves points for trying.

One thing it can’t be called is boring.

It has been 25 years since the events of the first film. John McClane (Willis) is older, wiser, and still wisecracking. McClane once again has to rescue a family member. In the original, it was his wife. This time, it's his son – and he's in Russia.

In that small way, "Good Day" takes the series back to its roots – but as the exotic locale indicates, this ain't exactly your daddy's "Die Hard."

There's an early, amusing scene in a cab. McClane attempts to give directions in Russian. The cabdriver (Pasha D. Lychnikoff) responds in English and eventually starts singing American songs.  No, I'm not kidding.

But that's merely the calm before the storm. What follows is one of the most ridiculous and insane car chase sequences ever committed to celluloid. The earlier "Die Hard" films were never exactly known for their realism, but they're downright subdued compared to this.

Eventually, McClane finds his son, Jack (Jai Courtney), who is involved in "spy s***."

It's hard to tell if "Good Day" is trying to be a spoof of "The Transporter," "Bond," or the other "Die Hard" movies.

Jack's secret mission is to protect a Russian named Komarov (Sebastian Koch, looking like Mel Gibson's mugshot) who has access to a very important file. It's "a matter of national security," of course. Isn't it always?

From there, father and son bicker and hurtle from one over-the-top action set-piece to another until they eventually reach – are you ready for this? – Chernobyl. Yes, that Chernobyl.  

"Good Day" goes for broke with goofy exuberance, reveling in a series of breakneck stunts and massive explosions. Just about every scene is wildly implausible – completely defying all logic, not to mention gravity – and yet I found myself smiling, swept away by the sheer scale of it all.

In the midst of all the craziness, I actually missed Willis uttering his famous "Yippee Ki-Yay" catchphrase. (Apparently, I'm not alone. user "davidstreibig" did too.)

Nothing is too outlandish for this movie. Here's an example: one of the villains, Alik (Rasha Bukvic), explains that he turned out that way because he was never allowed to follow his true passion in life. To prove his point, his taps his feet on the floor and expertly performs a dance number.

A tap-dancing villain – that's the type of movie this is.

The reason it works, at least somewhat, is because of the chemistry and banter between Willis and the well-cast Courtney. The younger McClane holds his own. Unlike, say, Mutt from "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," Jack never feels artificially tacked-on.

Is this a good "Die Hard" movie? I'm still not sure. But as absurd as "A Good Day to Die Hard" is, I undeniably had fun watching it.