Tuesday, January 31, 2012

New Napoleon Dynamite is a Dud

I had high hopes for the new animated “Napoleon Dynamite” series. It’s the newest addition to Fox’s “animation domination” on Sunday nights. The original 2004 movie was squeaky clean, quirky and very funny. It was smart in its simplicity. It appeared that it just might be the network’s first cartoon that children could actually watch. It’s even voiced by some of the original cast including Jon Heder, Aaron Ruell, Efran Ramirez, Tina Majorino, Sandy Martin, Jon Gries and Diedrich Bader, so what could go wrong?
While watching the series pilot, it seemed like it would be more of the same type of fun. In the first few minutes it is but soon the story goes off the rails. Even so, hearing the familiar voices of the cast is almost worth it. Almost.
The new “Napoleon” is more silly than funny. Even though the series is created by the same director of the cult film, it seems as if the production team forgot what made the movie funny in the first place. For instance, in the first episode, “Thundercone,” Napoleon gets a bad case of acne and treats it with some product that had just got recalled due to side effects including fits of unbridled rage. He develops super strength and enters a competition at a secret underground fight club called Thundercone. None of this would happen in the movie. Just because the movie wasn’t based in reality, it was still realistic.
“Napoleon Dynamite” could have been a “sweet ride” and actually have some heart but instead, it is nothing more than the silly stuff they show on the Cartoon Network. This show isn’t much different than the silly kid stuff shown on the Cartoon Network. It’s really a disappointment.
One thing the new show does have going for it is that it is a lot cleaner than Fox’s other animated fare including “Family Guy” and “American Dad.” Maybe the creators will get their act together and produce a better product, but I’m afraid this is as good as it gets.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Don't Jump! Man on a Ledge is Not That Bad!

A man is standing on the ledge of a New York hotel building. He is taking short breaths and sweating profusely. He looks down. There is a crowd forming all staring at him. Some are encouraging him to jump. Who is this man? A criminal? A cop? No, he’s a movie reviewer.

Okay, okay – “Man on a Ledge” isn’t that bad. In fact, it’s pretty enjoyable. The cast is very likeable and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. However, it’s all cliché and pretty forgettable after you leave the theater.

Sam Worthington has had his share of working in different surroundings. He was turned into a humanoid to battle creatures on Pandora, battled giant Transformers and now faces a fear of heights. Worthington plays Nick Cassidy, an ex-cop and fugitive, “on a ledge” of a Manhattan Hotel threatening to leap to his death. While we don’t learn exactly why he put himself out on the ledge immediately, we do know that it is more than depression that is motivating him. Once Cassidy asks to talk to a certain police psychologist by name, we know something is up. Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks) is the lucky one who gets to try to talk him down. She’s not excited for the job. She failed her last mission of a similar situation where the guy successfully jumped.

Meanwhile, Nick’s brother Joey (Jamie Bell) and girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez with her cleavage almost upstaging her acting) are busily trying to prove that Nick is innocent of the crime that put him in prison to begin with.

The film is filled with stereotypes. In addition to the above, Ed Harris spends a good deal of angry acting as the antagonist and Kyra Sedgewick plays an annoying, one note television reporter looking for a good story. And wait, is that a spark I see between the cop and ex-cop?

This is one of those movies where the less you know ahead of time, the better your viewing experience will be. But even as you watch the film, they tell you more than you need to know. Within ten minutes, we know why Nick is out in the cold when it would have been more interesting if the filmmakers had left this a mystery until further into the story. each new wrinkle of the story unfolds, the story becomes less believable and more predictable. For a thriller, it’s not that thrilling.

“Man on a Ledge” is sort of a rookie production. This is Asger Leth’s only second film at directing. His first, Ghosts of Cité Soleil, was a documentary. This is also Pablo F. Fenjves first stab at writing a major motion picture. All of his previous work has been made-for-TV movies. It’s odd that while the movie proudly announces that it is “from the team that brought you “Transformers” and “Red,” neither of these two worked on those two films.

Still, the casting is excellent and the story moves at a pretty good clip making it quite enjoyable. There are certainly worse ways you can spend your time, but you might want to save some bucks and watch it when it comes out on DVD.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Faith film makes a Quantum Leap

Movie: Me Again
Cast: David A. R. White, Ali Landry, Logan White, Bruce McGill, Della Reese, Tommy Blaze
Directors: David A. R. White, Jeffrey Peterson
Genre: Comedy
Rating: Unrated but probably PG
“Be careful what you pray for” is the warning given for the new movie Me Again, available on DVD today, January 24, 2012. Fans of the old NBC TV show, Quantum Leap will certainly enjoy this romp that borrow a similar idea. Instead of Dr. Sam Beckett “leaping” into a different body, this time the leaper is Pastor Rich Chaplin.
Rich (David A. R. White) is unhappy with his life. He isn’t crazy about his kids, his wife has kicked him out of the house and he doesn’t care much for his own congregation. “Please God, help me to be anybody except who I am” is his prayer and God answers it in a strange way. Rich begins the process of seeing how others around him live not only through their eyes, but through their bodies as well. He inhabits the bodies of a rich businessman, an elderly maid, a female fashion model and more. With the help of his best friend Tony (Tommy Blaze) the two try to make sense of everything. Each time Rich shows up, he looks like someone else, so he lets Tony know who he is by saying “It’s me again.” He also receives some sage advice from Big Earl (Bruce McGill), a late night television-advertising spokesman. The storyline may seem similar to It’s a Wonderful Life but it is different enough to not be a cliché. The film is uneven in parts and possibly rushed through editing, but the end result is a highly entertaining movie with a good message that doesn’t speak down to the audience.
The acting and writing is better than most Christian films and features some nice special effects for a lower budget movie. White, who also serves as director of the film, has nice comedic timing and carries the film well as the lead. He is joined by a great cast including Della Reese (who isn’t in this movie near enough), Ali Landry (who plays Rich’s wife and ironically got her start acting in a Doritos commercial) and Logan White (playing s self-hating model).
This film will make you laugh and give you something to think about without feeling like you’re being preached at. It speaks a message to both Christians and non-Christians alike about the value of marriage and fatherhood.

Monday, January 23, 2012

“Loud” movie is great storytelling and Oscar worthy

Movie: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Cast: Tom Hanks, Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow and Viola Davis

Director: Stephen Daldry

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13

You would never know by watching Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, that this was Thomas Horn’s first starring role. In fact, it’s the 13 year old’s only role to date and just might be up for an Oscar next month. (Ironically, his character’s name is Oskar. Coincidence?) Horn was spotted by Hollywood after becoming a champion on Jeopardy! during Kids Week.

Despite the fact that Horn is the movie’s main star, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is not a children’s movie and how a movie about 9/11 could be made palatable is an achievement in itself. This is an artsy movie that is similar in tone to last year’s children’s angst film, Where the Wild Things Are.

Horn plays an 11 year old boy who, may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome, is incredibly bright and literally afraid of everything. He is “incredibly close” to his father, (Tom Hanks) who creates games and adventures for his son. His father seems to the only one who “gets” him. He is as close to his father as he is distant to his mother (Sandra Bullock) who is worn out by this kid.

The story takes place a year after the 9/11 attacks, where his father died in the World Trade Center. Oskar is going through some of his father’s things and discovers a key and he is convinced that his father meant for him to find it and find out which lock it opens. He knows in his heart that somehow the answer will keep him close to his deceased dad.

The movie plays out as a mystery and from Oskar’s point of view. The story has many layers revealing one thing at a time that explains why Oskar is the way he is, and why he does odd things. It features some fun and interesting characters too. There is his grandma (Zoe Caldwell), his father’s mother, who lives across the street from Oskar. She keeps a walkie talkie beside her bed just in case Oskar should need her. Then there is “The Renter” (Max von Sydow) who lives with his grandma. He doesn’t speak and only communicates by writing notes or showing his palms that say “yes” and “no.” John Goodman plays Stan the Doorman (who ironically is never standing by the door) in a role that is too small for this man’s talent.

It’s a bit of a struggle to watch this film. Oskar isn’t a very likeable kid and is quite rude to some adults, but you feel for him just the same and just want him to be happy. The strain of his relationship with his mother is tough to watch too, but overall, the film isn’t depressing, it’s interesting. You also have to have the right frame of mind while watching this movie. The story is far-fetched, but if you watch it as if you were Oskar, it will make more sense. The ending makes it all worthwhile. There are no weak spots with this film. Each actor brings a special something to the story. Sydow is especially fun to watch and Bullock shows some of her best acting yet.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is directed by three-time Academy Award nominee Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott, The Reader, The Hours) who just might be able to add a fourth to this list. It is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Gospel According to Beauty and the Beast

The Disney Company found another goldmine in the release of the 3D version of The Lion King. So great was that goldmine, that the company decided to do it again with 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. The 3D effects are quite nice. Instead of a more rounded or realistic look in modern 3D movies, this resembles a 3D ViewMaster reel or a pop up story book with different layers. The most impressive shots are those that include weather like snow and rain. However, as nice as they are, they are hardly necessary.

Beauty is the third film of the famed “Disney Renaissance” period after The Little Mermaid and The Lion King and was the first animated film ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. (And that was when they only allowed 5 pictures to compete for that title.) Even without the 3D hoopla, the film is beautiful as is. It tells a great story with memorable songs and characters. At the very least, this reissue is a good excuse to see the film back on the big screen.

An extra special bonus is the new Tangled short about the wedding of Rapunzel and her prince. However, the story is more about the horse and gecko chases after the bridal parties’ rings. It is hilarious and almost worth the price of admission by itself.
Like many Disney animated pictures, Beauty is a simple story that tackles some pretty deep themes:

Entertaining Angels Unaware
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hebrews 13:2 (KJV)

At the very beginning of the story an old beggar woman offers a young prince a rose in exchange for a night’s stay out of the weather. Disgusted with her appearance, he turns her away unaware that she is actually a beautiful enchantress in disguise. Because of the prince’s selfishness, she casts a spell over him turning him into a hideous beast and his servants into furniture and household items.  This is similar to the verse, Hebrews 13:2. This isn’t to say that your guardian angel is armed and ready to change you into a creature at a moment’s notice, but more  of a challenge for us to act in a way that is honoring to God whether someone is watching us or not.

Christians are Odd
“You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” Matthew 10:22 (NIV)

Belle loves books more than people. She loves to learn, dreams of leaving her small town and wishes she could see the world. Because of this, all the townspeople think she is odd. As Christians, we sometimes get the same treatment. We love God’s book and we long for a better afterlife in heaven.

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13 (NIV)

When Belle’s father, Maurice, is thrown into the Beast’s dungeon due to his trespassing into the castle, Belle offers to take his place. Maurice of course objects to this arrangement but is thrown outside before Belle can change her mind. She would rather sacrifice her life as a slave of the Beast than to have her father face a similar fate.

“Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:4 (NIV)

After a fit of anger the Beast chases Belle away. Soon, she and her horse are attacked by wolves. Surprisingly, they are both rescued by the Beast but he falls due to his injuries. Belle turns to leave but decides to care for the Beast instead. The Beast is touched by Belle’s decision and in return offers to give her his entire library.

Unconditional Love
“But God show his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 (ESV)

At the climax of the story, the Beast lays dying in Belle’s arms. In tears, she whispers that she loves him, the hideous Beast. Suddenly, the Beast is revived and turns back into the handsome prince, but Belle doesn’t recognize him. It’s not until she looks into his eyes and sees that they are the same that she rejoices in his salvation.  Belle was able to accept Beast as he was unconditionally. The fact that he was really a handsome prince was just a bonus.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Joyful Noise is a Delightful Mess

Almost everyone know someone who isn’t all quite together, but you love them anyway because deep inside they are a wonderful person. That is much like Joyful Noise, the new Queen Latifah/Dolly Parton flick about dueling choir directors and their families. Latifah can do no wrong in my book and you can’t help but like Parton. She pretty much plays herself in every role she plays, but she is so dog gone likeable.
Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) is the choir director of Divinity Church in Pacashau, Georgia. Each year his choir enters, and loses, the Joyful Noise Gospel Music Competition. After he passes away from a heart attack, Pastor Dale (Courtney B. Vance) appoints Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) to be the new leader instead of Bernard’s wife, G. G. (Parton). Vi likes the more traditional music while G.G. likes to mix things up. Living practically as a single mother, Vi raises two teenagers on her own; Olivia (Keke Palmer) who is also a member of the choir and Walter (Dexter Darden) who struggles (unconvincingly) with Aspergers syndrome. G. G. Is all alone until her wayward grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) shows up and takes a shine to Olivia which furthers the struggle between the two choir mistresses.

Putting Latifah and Parton in sparring roles is pure genius. Their verbal assaults at one another is hilarious especially a food fight spat that shown in a diner. Like her real life counterpart, G.G. sports razor sharp fingernails, a plastic face incapable of frowning and tightly hemmed choir robe and pokes fun of herself. Her relatively good nature is a great foil against Vi’s uptight personality. Still, with all that spunk, Parton comes off a little fragile and the exchanges are too short.
The music, and there is a lot of it, is great. You already know that Dolly and Queen can sing, but Palmer (Akeelah and the Bee) and Jordan (in his first film role, but well known on Broadway) are a wonderful surprise. Kristofferson sings and appears only briefly. He actually speaks instead of sings much of his duet with Parton, which was disappointing. Other cast members are fellow Broadway stars that fill out the choir well.
Joyful Noise is best when it focuses on its main characters, but instead, it insists on taking on multiple storylines that somehow waters down rather than add to the film. Overall, the plot is rather cheesy but it has heart. Some scenes are genuinely touching and others are surprisingly realistic (don’t EVER tell Queen that she is not pretty!), but the overall it feels hollow. The message of hope and the need for Jesus in our lives is loud and clear, but the message is uneven. For instance, it’s not clear why Randy shows up in the first place. He’s presented as a “bad boy” who never enjoyed “church music” before meeting Olivia. By the end of the movie, we know that he has a good heart, but he doesn’t show any signs of a stronger faith.
Now a warning: Don’t go in thinking you’ll be seeing a good old-fashioned Christian movie. While the music is great, you won’t be hearing any familiar standards and at least half of the songs are versions of popular pop songs that aren’t necessarily spiritual, but they are uplifting. Noise is more liberal than most faith-based movies with mild language and adult situations. It’s not a story for young children.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

NBC takes an ambitious chance with The Firm

Of all of the new shows planned for NBC’s 2011-2012 television season, The Firm’s 22-episode order was the largest. With some new shows only surviving an episode or two due to low ratings, NBC must be pretty sure of itself this time around. This is the same network that tried out new versions of The Bionic Woman and Nightrider with dismal results. One could argue that those two series failed because they strayed too far from the original source. That’s what makes this new project so intriguing.

Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3/NBC
While not based on a former TV series, The Firm is based on a previously published novel by John Grisham and hit movie that starred Tom Cruise back in 1993. The new series is a sequel that is more closely tied to the movie than the book (the movie had a different ending) and John Grisham himself is an executive producer of the show. In fact, he oversaw the first few episodes before he gave the show his blessing.

If you haven’t read the book or movie you will probably be confused with the TV show. It picks up ten years after the end of the movie’s story. Attorney Mitchell McDeere (John Lucas) and his family are just reemerging out of the Federal Witness Protection program after successfully bringing down a prestigious law firm with ties to the Chicago mob. The leader of the mob has died and now the family can begin again starting up their own law firm out in the open. However, money is tight and another law firm wants to bring McDeere under their wings so to speak. McDeere and his family are leery of this idea due to their previously dealings with a firm, but understand that it might be best for the fledgling business. The new firm, Kinross & Clark, have their own agenda for bringing on McDeere and his clients, but won’t discuss those reasons to him and in an opening scene of the new series, McDeere is seen calling his wife on a pay phone telling her that “it’s happening again!”

Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3/NBC
Within the very first moments, The Firm grabs your attention and takes you back to original movie. Complete with strong piano notes featured in the film, the show feels like a natural extension – sans Cruise. But soon, it becomes obvious that The Firm is planned as two shows in one. The show is part legal procedural with a beginning, middle and end with each episode and part ongoing story line with the McDeere’s vs. the Firm itself. This is where the show takes a risky turn. Many will turn in for the thriller aspect of the show, but will be disappointed to see that much of the time is taken up with a separate storyline. Very few TV shows are able to keep the audience’s attention for both. In fact, NBC tried out a similar story idea back in 2003 with The Lion’s Den which started out strong but soon lost its’ audience due to the boring procedural part of the show.

Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3/NBC
Another risky thing is that NBC is already confusing their audience on exactly when the show is on. The two-hour première, titled “Pilot” and “Chapter Two” aired last Sunday, January 8, but the show’s actually starting date is this Thursday, January 12 with “Chapter Three.” Then, to make things even more confusing, the network is planning on showing “encores” of the show on Saturday nights as well, beginning on January 14 with “Pilot/Chapter 2.”

If you’re a fan of the original book or movie and enjoy John Grisham’s work, you will probably enjoy this. Josh Lucas makes a good replacement (if not better) for Tom Cruise. His soft voice goes from soothing to “don’t mess with me” in seconds. He’s a good man guy wanting to take down big business. The other characters, are a little more colorful than realistic, but create a good chemistry for the show. Molly Parker plays Mitch’s smart schoolteacher wife, Callum Keith Rennie is Mitch’s brother with a past and Juliette Lewis adds spice as the company’s secretary. At its central core, this is a show about a family and how they deal with crisis as a family. It’s an old “good guys vs. the bad guys” show where integrity ultimately wins in the end – at least, it looks that way. If the show can maintain its rhythm and smartness, it should do well.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"Work It" Isn't Working

Lee (Ben Koldyke) tells Angel (Amaury Nolasco) about
his new high-paying job as a woman. (ABC/Eric McCandless)

Tonight, January 3 marks the debut of ABC’s latest “Men Are Stupid” comedies – Work It. After wisely dumping the fall season’s flop, Man Up, they are trying out a Bosom Buddies-ish comedy. Buddies helped make Tom Hanks a household name. The stars of Work It can only hope for the same fate. Like its gender bender predecessor, Work It is embarrassing, offensive, not funny and has a bad laugh track. Why ABC thought this show was a good idea is a mystery.

In Work It, Lee and Angel are former employees of Pontiac looking for work. It is suggested that the current recession is more of a “man-cession” and their skills (salesman, head mechanic) are not in high demand. Lee learns that a pharmaceutical company, Coreco, is looking to hire new sales reps, but only female sales reps. Lee responds with raiding his wife’s closet and interviewing for the job as a woman. Surprise! He gets the job. He then tells Angel of his new opportunity and guess what? Angel gets a job as a woman as well!

Lee hides his new secret from his wife and daughter but learns how to be more sensitive to their needs. Angel develops a crush on his boss, who is said to be a lesbian. Let the high jinks begin.

Lee is played by Ben Koldyke, a fairly new actor who has made a few appearances in How I Met Your Mother, Big Love and 24. He is certainly likeable and might go far, if he can find a way out of this sitcom. Amaury Nolasco plays Angel who’s been featured in big screen movies like Transformers and The Rum Diary. From the pilot, it’s hard to tell if two have much chemistry or not due to the wild set up.

In short, Work It is just dumb. It has a one joke set up that can’t carry a series anymore than BB did decades earlier. It’s ironic, that in the now deceased show, Man Up, the wives wanted their husbands to be manlier. In Work It, the men “need to learn how to be better men by having to be better women.”

Work It follows Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing (whose pilot was nothing to shout about either, but has improved greatly) and appears before the première of Celebrity Wife Swap, a show that sounds tacky but is actually quite good. You might want to do a few chores around the house between the two.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Celebrity Wife Swap is Insightful

It is quite possible that many Christian families have never watched an episode of ABC’s Wife Swap due to the name alone. However, the questionable title of the show shouldn’t steer you away. In each episode, two mothers switch lifestyles, children and homes (but not bedrooms as would be the fear) to see what life is like on the other side of the picket fence. I have watched this show many times with my sons and have had healthy discussions with them afterward talking about what values we appreciated and didn’t appreciate with each family.

Previewing January 2, ABC features a spin off of the series with Celebrity Wife Swap. The show is essentially the same except that these are celebrity mom or wives of celebrities. In the first part of the “swap” each mom moves into the other’s home and assumes the role of the other with the “house rules” written by the other mom. In the second half of the week, the “new” mom gets a chance to write out “new” rules for the adopted household. At the end of the episode, the two celebrity couples meet for the first time and discuss their adventures.

I was given the opportunity to preview the first two episode of the series and I think it’s worth watching. Some celebrities have hired help, others do not. Some are neat and tidy, some are not. Some have very strict rules, others do not - and on it goes. As the viewer, you get the unique opportunity to see what life is really like for celebrity families minus a little editing here and there.

Although the short series begins Tuesday, January 3, a preview episode was shown January 2nd. The press materials describe the episode this way: “A self-described control freak, actress and producer Tracey Gold swaps her very organized home with free-spirited singer/actress/TV host Carnie Wilson, a believer that love is more important than rules.” (The episode will probably be re-aired later in the season as well)

These two households couldn’t be different from each other, making this a fascinating episode. Both families have something to offer the other one. Everyone seems onboard with the project, except for Carnie’s husband, Rob, but he eventually plays along.

The series premiere (and regularly day and time) will be Tuesday, January 3 at 9:00 p.m. with what will be possibly the most controversial episode of the series. It features Gary Busey and his fiancee, Steffanie Sampson trading places with Gayle Haggard, the wife of former disgraced evangelical Pastor Ted Haggard. 

The Academy Award nominated actor, Gary Busey, is known in Hollywood for his strange ideas and gave America further insight into his character on last year’s Celebrity Apprentice. He and Sampson believe in reincarnation and are skeptical of others in organized religion

We also get a chance to see how the Haggard’s family live and communicate. Gayle appears to be a saint, but isn’t a pushover either. She’s a strong woman and Ted is lucky to have her. Pastor Haggard looks a little too uncomfortable as he can’t stop smiling. The episode touches on redemption and shows a very realistic look at a family trying to overcome huge obstacles. Overall, it is very uplifting episode.

The following episodes include:
  • Niecy Nash (actress/comedienne) and Tina Yothers (former actress of Family Ties and rock star)
  • Flavor Flav (rapper) and Dee Snicker (rock star)
  • Mick Foley (professional wrestler/writer) and Antonio Sabator Jr. (actor/model)