GET SMART

I wasn’t a big fan of Get Smart when Don Adams starred as Maxwell Smart in the television series. I enjoyed it a lot, but I was more into serious spying, as with James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry enjoyed their take on spydom and the recent big-screen treatment takes a lot from that treatment.

I also have to admit that I’m new to Steve Carell. I haven’t seen any of the episodes of The Office yet, though everyone I know treats me like I just kicked their dog when I mention this. I saw him in Evan Almighty and was really impressed with how he managed several saving graces during a movie that just didn’t come together the way it should have. Carell’s performances and everyday demeanor just really appealed to me.

With the summer upon us, I’ve tried to take my wife and son out to the theater once a week. We’ve got a new Warren Theater in town and I’m trying to patronize it because it is so good. When we saw Get Smart was releasing, we figured we’d go see it, but we weren’t in any hurry to. My wife and I had both seen the television series, and my ten year old has lately developed a love of spy movies.

Director Peter Segal has a history of comedic movie successes and definitely kept the original series in mind when he made the movie. However, the character of Maxwell Smart stands out as capable as well as socially inadequate. I was surprised to see Smart in action, proving himself to be a great shot as well as good in a fight. I didn’t expect that and it made the movie even more enjoyable. The first shooting range exercise with Smart and Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson) caught me off-guard. From then on, I paid more attention because I knew things weren’t going to be exactly as I remembered.

From the beginning of the film, with all the security doors opening and closing ponderously, and with the phone booth waiting at the end, the movie feels incredibly like an episode of the television series. When Smart was revealed to be an analyst, that underscored the pedantic way his character always delivered his lines and the way his mind worked while building subterfuges. It was a refreshing “origin” story in that respect.

Anne Hathaway as Agent 99 is sexy, provocative, and violent, as much a perfect foil for Steve Carell’s Maxwell Smart as Barbara Feldon was to Don Adams. She looked absolutely lovely and was excellent in the role.

Dwayne Johnson stars as smug, self-assured Agent 23, but he’s supportive of Maxwell Smart’s promotion to a field agent. He’s got an ease for bringing larger-than-life characters to movie screens that seems almost innate for him.

Alan Arkin as the Chief was simply inspired. I was laughing constantly whenever he was involved. Arkin’s pitch-perfect delivery of his lines and the way his voice naturally is works well together. I didn’t think anyone would replace Edward Platt as the original Chief from the series, and in truth Arkin hasn’t, but he comes close. His interpretation of the character was great but still different than Platt’s.

The plot, while not terribly original – since it menaces L. A. with yet another nuclear device, serves to hold the story together. Maxwell Smart saving the world in his own inimitable style is what the film is all about, and it delivers everything the trailers promise.

But the goodness doesn’t end there. Bruce and Lloyd, two of the nerdy agents in the movie, also have a direct-to-DVD solo adventure that’s out in stores now. Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control is an adventure actually sandwiched during the same time frame as the movie. Sort of a meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch spin-off that looks great. Masi Oka (Heroes) and Nate Torrence (Capital One commercials) play the title heroes. Patrick Warburton (Rules of Engagement) plays Hymie the Robot.

Get Smart is a must-see summer movie. Take the family because this one has something for everybody.

 

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WALL-E

Wall-E hit theaters today and packed the seats a noon at my local movie house. I’ve enjoyed every Pixar movie that’s come out, and this one is no exception. However, I have to admit that after the deluge of trailers that have haunted the television set later I was expecting to be blown away.

I wasn’t blown away, but don’t misunderstand. The movie was a good romp that kept all the tykes in the audience on the edge of their seats throughout, and there were quite a few giggles for the adults too, but the movie just hit all the expected twists and turns without becoming anything more than an adventurous love story mixed with ecological and physical health issues.

The movie takes place about eight hundred years in the future. Message #1 comes about when all the viewer can see is endless mounds of compacted refuse stand as towering high-rises. Wall-E, our everyman hero, toils alone in the garbage heap that used to be our planet. Well, there’s no denying that axe because everyone in the film grinds that one home. When there was nowhere left to stack refuse, humanity abandoned the world and went out into space.

That’s a sour but realistic take on the world’s current population, but I have to wonder if a spaceship would actually launch into space with no destination. According to the story, the people aboard the Axiom have been in space for 700 years. How was population growth maintained? How about food sources? If the ship was capable of regenerating food and water every day, why wasn’t that done on earth? But I digress. In my defense, Pixar writers and developers generally do a much cleaner job of world-building.

Wall-E is an adorable character. The thought and care that went into his construction is immediately evident. In a way, he reminded me of Johnny Five from the movie Short Circuit, but that was good because Johnny Five was a kid-friendly character and movie as well.

I loved Wall-E’s mannerisms and the motions he was capable of as he went about his daily job of crushing trash. His home was a delight and many of the kids, including mine, laughed and enjoyed everything. Pixar is so good at details in these movies that I’m constantly surprised at the depth to which they think about everything. Having Wall-E visit the graveyard of his fellow robots was a great touch. It introduced the pathos of his loneliness, pointed out his eventual future, and explained how he kept working away after wearing out parts. The bit with him hanging his treads up as he entered his home was terrific.

Eve is a robot of a different sort. She’s sleeker and more powerful, and definitely quicker on the trigger. I didn’t quite warm up to her as much as Wall-E, though she is our heroine and female romantic lead, but the expressions they were able to create with her eyes alone were fantastic.

Wall-E continues showing up for work every day even though the rest of the world has bailed on him or become totally dysfunctional. That was incredibly touching, though no explanation is given for why he developed a personality. Eve’s arrival to search for plant life (though we don’t know that for a long time, and there’s not really any reason given for why the Axiom couldn’t simply have gone on to another planet) changes Wall-E’s existence forever.

The fact that he was able to fall in love with her was great and served the story, but Eve is portrayed as having no personality. I had to let that go because part of me wanted to be an adult and learn how the AIs had progressed that far. See? I struggled with technology versus fantasy throughout the film, but that may have just been men.

When I looked at the movie through a child’s eyes, I was kept happy. The characters are cool. The visual aspects are beautiful. And the pacing is thrilling.

I was impressed by how much could be done with the computer “voices” of the characters. The feeling and emotions I projected on them were as much from the situations they were in as from the tonal quality.

I also especially liked Auto, the robotic second-in-command of the Axiom, because he was so nasty. His design as a ship’s wheel was awesome, and the holes in the ceiling that allowed him to pop out anywhere was exciting and made for tense moments.

The plot is simple and straight-forward, but the Pixar people obviously had a blast putting this one together. It runs like a Swiss watch and hits all the emotional triggers for the audience as plucky Wall-E and Eve take on Auto to bring the earth back to the people lost in space.

Wall-E is definitely going to be another hit masterminded by the Pixar people. One of the best treats is the short cartoon feature before the movie. Don’t get to the theater late and take a chance on missing it. This one left me laughing out loud because it was so inventive and wildly funny. Take the kids out to this one. And if you don’t have any kids, take yourself out and be a kid for a couple of hours. You’ll have great time.

KUNG FU PANDA

My ten year old is currently working on his senior red belt in karate, so when we started seeing trailers for Kung Fu Panda I knew it wouldn’t be long before we’d have to see it. Sure enough, opening weekend arrived and we took our seats.

I’m a big fan of kids’ cartoon movies, really looking forward to Wall E, but I wasn’t too sure of this one. Jack Black can be hit or miss with me, and I really wasn’t aware that Dustin Hoffman, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, and Angeline Jolie were involved with the movie until the end credits rolled. The voices sounded familiar, but that’s not unusual given the quality of voice work these days.

The opening montage of the movie made me sit up and take notice at once, though. That artwork alone was worth the price of admission to me, and if they’d produced the movie in that format it would have been interesting to see what kind of reaction reviewers would give the finished product.

The movie quickly settles into predictability, though, but it’s a pleasant trip and I was satisfied. My son was ecstatic as he watched the events unfold. He wasn’t surprised at the plot’s twists and turns either, but the bright color, rapid pacing, and quick action is mesmerizing for the adult mind as well.

Po, the Kung Fu panda of the title, works in his father’s noodle kitchen. His father is a goose and the explanation for that is never given, though it is a distraction during a more serious moment when Po’s father reveals an important secret to him. Black provides a great vocal characterization of Po and I found myself rooting for him even though I knew he didn’t really have anything to worry about.

The villain sequences were actually chilling. Seeing Tai Lung (Ian McShane) held in prison was impressive when you realized what he had to escape from in order to become the all-encompassing threat deal would have to deal with. The darkness and threat of those scenes might cause some concern for younger children, but I loved the cinematography and the amazing choreography of Tai Lung’s escape.

The unwillingness of the Furious Five to embrace Po as a student is as predictable as his eventual winning them over. But the pacing makes that easy to absorb and enjoy. The relationship between Shifu (Hoffman) and Oogway is warm and moving, and the scene where the great turtle ascends to the Celestial Heavens is powerful.

After everyone learns that Tai Lung has escaped and is once more menacing the countryside, the Furious Five launch into interception mode and go after him. Again, the fight sequences are huge and enjoyable, truly knockout efforts. But it’s no surprise that they’re defeated.

Shifu takes Po off for lesson and the sequence where Po becomes the Dragon Warrior is a lot of fun. Still, after Po is trained and ends up getting the Dragon Scroll (which is gotten with Oogway’s staff in a marvelous little puzzle piece), everything still looks like they’re going to lose anyway.

While helping the villagers abandon town, Po speaks to his father and gains an incredible insight that causes him to stand his ground against Tai Lung. I have to admit that the thinking behind this reveal wasn’t all that deep, but it was effective. And it proved to be the catalyst the brings about the battle between Po and Tai Lung. That fight is a great one, and even though I knew Po would win, I still found myself sitting on the edge of my seat. My son was doing the same thing.

Kung Fu Panda doesn’t break any new ground when it comes to children’s animated entertainment, but it sure serves up a feast that hits the spot. This is one you’ll enjoy on a lazy Sunday afternoon with the kids, then again when it comes out on DVD.

 

YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN

Sometimes you just have to be a fan to appreciate something. I found that to be the case in Adam Sandler’s new movie, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan. I loved Happy Gilmore and have seen it several times, and there’s a soft spot in my heart for Big Daddy. I even got excited over the trailers for this latest release.

But when I arrived at the theater, the laughs just didn’t come as fast or as frequent as I’d hoped. Sandler was his usual charming self, and unafraid to give it all for the movie and the camera, but the subject matter may still have been a little too sensitive. The movie was originally written back in 2000, then allowed to cool after the events of 9-11.

Sandler stars as Zohan, an Israeli counter-terrorist operative who has seemingly unexplained superpowers. That proved confusing for me right off the bat because I was expecting some kind of origin story or at least a reason for all the incredible physical abilities that Zohan had. I mean, he was catching bullets between his forefinger and thumb, and managing leaps and jumps that would have shamed a ninja master.

John Turturro was the Palestinian counterpart named the Phantom who possessed amazing powers as well. The dialogue between the two as they fought and argued is well done, and Turturro was great as usual. But again, I believe the material just got tired in the end.

Zohan’s dream is to get out of the counter-terrorist trade and into hair dressing. He’s got a 1980s Paul Mitchell style book that he’s studied for years (although it’s out of date) and a desire that is all-encompassing. In his final battle against the Phantom, Zohan fakes his own death and smuggles himself into the United States to attempt to achieve his dream.

Once in the US, Zohan hooks up with a guy named Michael, introduces himself as Scrappy Coco, and ends up living with Michael. Unfortunately, he also enters into a sexual relationship with Michael’s mom that leaves Michael totally distressed. These bits are funny and keep the movie rolling along, but they just fail to engage past the superficial level.

Then there’s the romantic twist. While working in Dhalia’s style shop, Zohan gives haircuts to the older women in the neighborhood and ends up taking them for sex in the back room. Nothing explains this bizarre behavior, nor why Zohan felt he had to provide this, but his performances become legendary and fill the shop with clients. Ultimately this saves the shop from the predacious attentions of Walbridge Industries (a blatant stab at Wal-Mart, which is interesting because so many of Sandler’s movies are sold in those department stores).

The movie shifts gears so rapidly that the cameos by Mariah Carey and the subplot involving Rob Schneider as a Palestinian who lost his goat to Zohan only reach the level of props and gags. Even the romance with Dhalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui) gets lost in the mish-mash.

As stated, Sandler fans will be happy, but regular moviegoers lured in by the well-constructed trailer might be somewhat disappointed. This isn’t a comic James Bond movie; it’s a chain of gags that hit and miss with irregularity.

TEETH

When Teeth first started getting shopped around as a possible film project, the premise raised immediate interest…and eyebrows. No one, after hearing the subject matter, could have been totally comfortable with the prospect of the film. I known when I read about it I had my doubts whether the movie could be successfully made in a manner that would allow it the screen time it needed at the box office. However, the potential as a cult hit and a fan favorite nagged at me like a, well, sore tooth.

The idea just wouldn’t go away. As evidenced in the DVD’s special features, the concept of a toothed vagina is spread over several cultures around the world, though there have never been any actual reported cases of it.

Still, I was intrigued and prepared for the worst. I figured the gratuitous violence and potential for maiming scenes would be at an all time high. Instead Director Mitchell Lichtenstein choose to tell a solid story based in a dysfunctional family and with the jaded view of high school as a backdrop. Both of these areas are way too common in our world these days, and they allow Teeth to explore those areas while at the same time shocking the viewer with the diametrical opposition of Dawn’s innocence and capacity for vengeance.

I’m not familiar with Jess Weixler’s other work, but she turns in a great performance as a budding ingénue with a secret that she doesn’t even know about. If she doesn’t get typecast as the Teeth girl, I think she’s going to pull down some serious roles in the near future.

John Hensley stars as bad boy stepbrother Brad. He’s been around several television series (Nip/Tuck) and movies, but just hasn’t broken out. He portrays evil really well in this film. I didn’t like him from the moment he stepped on stage and I waited constantly for him to get his comeuppance.

The movie, for all the imagined gore that comes to mind, is surprisingly less graphic than I thought it would be. The scenes of violence are less bloody than they could have been, and were maybe more jarring because of it.

The pacing is slow at the beginning, but it builds Dawn’s character and shows what she’s up against. All the betrayal she’s going to face is skillfully negotiated up front in the build-up, and most viewers that stick with this one are going to understand where she’s coming from when the end of the movie comes.

However, the “adaptation” that Dawn harbors within her is never – to my satisfaction – adequately explained. It’s supposed to be a jump in evolution, but no one hazards a serious guess as to how this happened. Demonic possession would have been an easy plot hook to hang it all on, but that wasn’t present either. So the biological difference that gives the movie its name and its bite is more a plot convenience than anything serious.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie. As with any good horror movie with a touch of black comedy, there were moments when I didn’t know whether to be appalled or howl with laughter. Sometimes I did both – at once. Teeth is a lot of what viewers will expect to see based on the premise, but the movie has some definite seriousness to it as well as a message about being female in today’s world.

RADIOLAND MURDERS

Radioland Murders is one of my favorite movies to put in when I’ve had a hard week and want to go brain-dead with something familiar. My love of Old Time Radio probably spurs this on because the movie is set there with love by George Lucas and his people.

I’m too young to have been around for OTR (as it’s referred to these days), but I learned to love it all the same. The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, and dozens of other shows that later became movies and television series came out of those years.

I still listen to episodes in my car and get carried away by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Bold Venture. There’s just something magical about radio because you have to create so much of the world and the characters in your mind.

That’s the way it is with this movie. It’s got the rapid-fire dialogue and insane pacing of a radio show. There’s no spare meat on the story, and throw-away lines are used over and over again to tie the events together. Even old jokes that are groaners materialize on the sets and it’s marvelous to see them carried out again.

The conceit of the story is that a series of murders are committed on the opening night of a brand-new radio station, WBN, in 1939. A husband and wife whose relationship is struggling because of a possible infidelity is caught in the crossfire.

Brian Benben plays Roger, the head writer for the studio, and delivers a great performance. His walk, his mannerism, his wild-eyed stares, and even his delivery were rooted in Groucho Marx’s insane, quick-witted characters. I’ve seen him in other things, but I’m still amazed at how well he pulls the role off.

Mary Stuart Masterson play Penny, the girl Friday that the studio desperately needs to keep everything moving smoothly. Not that it does. But watching Penny desperately trying to keep the ship from sinking while dealing with Roger and the murders is a treat.

The other characters run the gamut. Ned Betty plays the studio owner who runs the place like a military commander. Corbin Bernsen plays the smarmy announcer. Christopher Lloyd portrays an intense, over-the-top sound man that’s a sheer joy to watch. Michael Lerner delivers and outstanding hardboiled Hollywood cop. Michael McKean is a hilarious band director.

The film didn’t do all that well at the box office, but I love it because it plays homage to OTR and because I love movies that have dialogue instead of just being pieces glued together with the latest Top 40. Maybe the dialogue isn’t all that original or especially funny to someone not in the mood or who hasn’t developed a taste for it, but for those of use that have, it’s a perfect gem of a film.

Topping off the film, the music is great, running the gamut of the big band era, and sounds fantastic. If you’re in the mood for a no-brainer, something that’s a delightfully thin mix of comedy, mystery, and thriller, Radioland Murders will provide a couple hours’ entertainment.

NANCY DREW

Nancy Drew is one of those iconic heroes kids who read tend to grow up with. I know I shared several of her adventures (read on the sly because I’m a guy) when I was younger. I read the Hardy Boys out in the public eye, along with the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr., Ken Holt, and Rick Brant.

But Nancy’s adventures were always somehow more mysterious and more fun. They concentrated on the twists and the turns of the mystery, and the secrets of the suspects that Nancy had to ferret out. Although created by the Edward Stratemeyer Syndicate (as were the Hardy Boys, the Rover Boys, Tom Swift, Sr. and Jr., and the Dana Girls), most of Nancy’s adventures were penned by Mildred Wirt Benson. Benson wrote some of the best Nancy Drew mysteries ever printed (23 of the first 25).

The first books came out in 1930, and movies swiftly followed due to public familiarity and interest in seeing the character on the big screen. Four Nancy Drew movies appeared in the late 1930s. In the 1970s, a television series starring Pamela Sue Martin as Nancy Drew came out. The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries became a hit and ran from 1977 to 1979. Television tried Nancy Drew as a series again in 1995, and a made-for-tv movie with Nancy in college came out in 2002.

Nancy Drew remains a solid sales force in video games. Based on her book adventures, the video games offer players a chance to point and click clues to solve mysteries. So far, 19 video games have come out from Her Interactive Inc. A new game was also made for the Nintendo DS game system.

Making a new movie about Nancy Drew seems almost a no-brainer. Warner Bros., the original studio that made Nancy Drew movies, returned to bring the new movie to life.

Directed by Andrew Fleming, the film is a delight for family night. Instead of having Nancy in her element in her hometown, she’s thrown into wild and wooly Los Angeles where she’s a fish out of water. She keeps a lot of the old-fashioned sense and sensibility from the original series, which makes her seem like a goof in modern times, and I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely won over by the treatment. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the sheer likeability of young Emma Roberts (father Eric Roberts and aunt Julia), I wouldn’t have bought into the representation of Nancy.

What I ultimately ended up doing is filing away my preconceived imaginings of Nancy Drew and embracing this version. I no longer thought of her as the Nancy Drew I grew up with, but more like a granddaughter of the original series heroine who hasn’t quite come into her own yet.

The Nancy Drew in this film isn’t quite finished, but I loved the pluck and drive of Miss Roberts’s presentation and thought she was fabulous.

There’s actually a lot going on in the film. I think that too much of it actually extends beyond the scope of the mystery and that made the personal plots as well as the crime solving fall apart at times. We see that Nancy is an overachiever and that she doesn’t fit in with the L. A. girls, but that subplot kind of staggers along till it solves itself (with the arrival of Ned Nickerson – Max Thieriot). Likewise, the mystery gets torn up by Nancy’s efforts to be “normal” and make her dad happy.

I would have preferred the movie focus on the mystery and the subplots to have branched out of that. Still, there were comedic moments provided by those subplots that were enjoyable and made the film move quickly.

Since Nancy got to pick the house that she and her father live at while in L. A., she chose one with a mystery. A Hollywood actress went missing for five months and was later, after her return, found dead in her pool while at her party. The murder was never solved, and that draws Nancy’s sleuth senses into overdrive.

I liked the mysterious clues, the secret passageways, and the riddles and clues that eventually lead Nancy to the solution of the murder. The film contains enough narrow escapes, chases, and threatening phone calls to keep every young detective (and mystery-loving parents) interested.

Josh Flitter plays Corky, a pre-adolescent would-be rapper Lothario that absolutely steals the show at times. He was one of the primary ingredients that kept reminding me this was not the Nancy Drew I grew up with, but I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at his antics. His sense of timing and delivery is awesome, and I’ve just found out he’s going to be in the starring role of Ace Ventura, Jr..

Bruce Willis has an uncredited cameo in the film that’s funny to watch. But, again, it’s one of those things that really detracts from the overall mystery. Nancy’s adventures in the novels, especially the early ones, focused tightly on the pursuit of the solution.

My ten year old had seen Nancy Drew books in the school library, but we haven’t read any of them yet. The movie hooked him and he sat with his mom and me to watch the whole film. He had a blast, so I can recommend this film to parents with kids wholeheartedly because he can be a tough audience.

I had a great time with Nancy Drew, and I think Emma Roberts will win over readers familiar with the teen detective in spite of the differences and escalated humor, and make new fans of kids that haven’t ever seen Nancy in action before.

The special features on the disc are skinny, but worth watching. The cast and crew obviously had a good time filming this one.

 

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