The biggest title opening this weekend, both in terms of budget and in terms of screen count, is “Monsters Vs. Aliens.” I talked a bit about the experience of going to see the film in IMAX 3D in a piece I ran earlier this week, but I didn’t really review the movie. Let’s kick off this column today with a more formal look at the film itself, even as I crank up this gorgeous “Quantum Of Solace” BluRay loud enough to piss off my neighbors.
“Monsters Vs. Aliens” is closer to the “Kung-Fu Panda” end of the Dreamworks Animation scale than the “Shark’s Tale” end of things, and that’s encouraging. Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman co-direct, and it’s obvious they have a genuine love of both giant monsters and ’50s aliens, as they gently, affectionately roast both sub-genres. There are moments where the film succumbs to the pop culture joke thing that derails so many Dreamworks animated films, but not many, and for the most part, the humor seems to be an organic extension of the characters and the situation. It’s a huge spectacle, especially if you see it in 3D, and features some solid voice work by a star cast, something that isn’t always the case.
There are some mis-steps. I think pretty much every scene involving The President, played by Stephen Colbert, is a bust. In fact, can we declare a moratorium on wacky scenes set in the War Room? Even in films where they’re supposed to be serious, like “Watchmen,” it just feels like someone trying to out-do Kubrick and “Strangelove,” and that ain’t never gonna happen. The War Room scene here is redundant, since it’s mainly designed to introduce the various Monsters in the film, but by that point, they’ve already been well-established. It’s like they decided to build a trailer right into the movie, but when you’re actually sitting in the theater, these scenes sort of stop things cold.
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And that scene where the President performs “Axel F” on the keyboard and dances? Miserable. It’s weird that Paramount chose that scene to show at BNAT this year because, having seen the whole film now, I can safely say it’s the worst thing in the movie. It has very little to do with the actual story, and making a pop culture reference to a film that is 25 years old at this point, older than your key demographic for this movie, is sort of a bonehead move.
But the majority of the film is actually pretty solid. Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon) is an appealing lead, and I like the way the film opens with her transformation from an ordinary bride preparing for her wedding day into Ginormica, a monster who is seized by the US military and transferred to an underground lab. While confined, she meets Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), Bob (Seth Rogen), the Missing Link (Will Arnett), and Insectosaurus. The five of them are prisoners until they are pressed into service fighting off the attack of Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) in exchange for their own freedom. Simple stuff, and what make it work are the monsters themselves, all appealingly designed and expertly voiced, and the set pieces, played at a scale that even Toho has to envy.
In particular, Bob emerges as the break-out character of the film. Rogen’s done some other voice work in films like “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” “Horton Hears A Who,” and “Kung-Fu Panda,” but this is the first role he’s had that fits him perfectly, where that laugh of his and his overall sort of open joy works exactly right for the character. His voice together with that design is pretty iconic, and instantly enjoyable.
Also releasing wide today is the new Lionsgate horror film “The Haunting In Connecticut,” which I reviewed yesterday. The movie, ostensibly based on a true story, is a PG-13 haunted house movie, and should primarily appeal to very young or very mild-mannered fans of the genre.
I’m actually planning to see “12 Rounds,” if only because it looks like the most cynical pitch in film history. As a friend pointed out the other day, you watch that trailer and you can almost hear the writer saying to the executive, “It’s ‘Die Hard’ meets ‘Se7en.'” And considering what a winning streak Renny Harlin’s been on in recent years (/sarcasm), I expect this to be a bad movie lover’s wet dream.
I’m not going to take cheap shots at “The Education of Charlie Banks” just because Fred Durst is the star of it. I figure if guys like Art Linson and David Fincher think Durst’s got the goods, I at least need to walk in open-minded and give it a try. This Jesse Eisenberg coming-of-age story, also starring Jason Ritter and Eva Amurri, has been on the shelf for a while, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s a problem… it may just be that no distributor knew what to do with it. Regardless, I’ll take a look ASAP.
“Shall We Kiss?” is a French comedy starring Virginie Ledoyen, and I’m going because it’s a Music Box Films release here in the States, and their taste in French films has been exquisite lately. “Tell No One” and “OSS 117: Cairo Nest Of Spies” are two of the most commercial and entertaining French films in recent memory, and I’m hoping that track record continues unabated with this story about the consequences of a kiss. It opens in NY and LA only today, but may roll out in the weeks ahead.
Finally, “Goodbye Solo” is opening limited today, and it feels like the critical community has decided that it’s time to annoint Ramin Bahrani, the writer/director of “Chop Shop.” I missed his new film at SXSW, but I like his work in general, and I am not surprised to see people like Roger Ebert name him as one of the most interesting directors working right now.
On The Screen appears here every Thursday. Except when it doesn’t.
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