Now in Cinemas: Reviews for April 10, 2008

Now in Cinemas: Reviews for April 10, 2008

Reviews by Jason Pirodsky
for Expats.cz

Not five minutes into Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino´s Horton Hears a Who!, we´re treated to frantic pratfalling, animated characters mugging for the camera, monkeys firing banana machine guns, and an Apocalypse Now reference. Trouble was brewing; this isn´t how I remembered Dr. Seuss. But soon, slowly but surely, nightmarish recollections of the live-action adaptations of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat began to dissipate. As the original vision of the Seuss source shone through, I came to love Horton Hears a Who!.



Horton Hears a Who!
Rating:
Directed by Jimmy Hayward, Steve Martino. With the voices of Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Dan Fogler, Isla Fisher, Jonah Hill, Amy Poehler, Jaime Pressly. Written by Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul, from the book by Dr. Seuss.
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Well, maybe not love, but certainly like. This is a charming, even delightful Seuss adaptation that works because it sticks to the heart of its source material, and despite everything else (an iPhone reference? That´s going to date the film by the time it hits DVD). Lovable elephant Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey), aided by his gargantuan ears, discovers the microscopic world of Whoville living on a tiny speck, which he tries to protect as he carries it around on a clover. Other jungle creatures, headed by a kangaroo voiced by Carol Burnett, fail to accept the tiny world and set out to destroy it, seeing Horton´s belief in it as a threat to their society. Meanwhile, the Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carrell) struggles with the constant atmospheric changes brought on by being lugged around by a clumsy elephant while fighting to make the tiny voice of the Whos heard to save his town. By the end, Seuss´ message “people are people, no matter how small” rings loud and clear, despite all the comedic transgressions added to pad the children´s book out to feature-film length. And it´s a message still widely relevant today; pro-life groups have adopted it as their mantra.

The film´s jungle animation is somewhat banal, recalling Fox´s Ice Age movies with minimal improvement; the world of the Whos, however, is wonderfully recreated, Rube Goldberg-like devices and all, bringing back fond memories of the Seuss books and the early ‘70´s TV adaptations. And despite my distaste for most of the irreverent deviations from the source material, some it them got to me; an extended Japanese animation parody was particularly welcome. Voice cast is superb, with Carrey and Carrell a perfect match for the material, and spirited supporting characterizations by Seth Rogen and Isla Fisher, among others. News anchor Charles Osgood is inspired casting as the narrator, who recites (as far as I can recall) much of the original book during the course of the film.

Note: film is playing in a Czech-dubbed version on most Prague screens; catch it in English (with Czech subtitles) at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům and Villages Cinemas Anděl.

***

Doomsday
Rating:
Written and directed by Neil Marshall. Starring Rhona Mitra, Bob Hoskins, Alexander Siddig, David O’Hara, Adrian Lester, Sean Pertwee, Darren Morfitt, Craig Conway, MyAnna Buring, Malcolm McDowell.
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A cheesy, gruesome, loving rehash of an early ‘80´s post-apocalyptic B-movie, Neil Marshall´s Doomsday often feels cobbled together from bits and pieces of other (better) movies, but offers plenty of fun if you´re in the right frame of mind. It´s this year´s answer to Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez´ half of Grindhouse, told with just a little more conviction. Present-day Great Britain: a deadly virus breaks out in Glasgow, killing thousands. The solution? A giant wall that quarantines Scotland (ho, ho). Things seem to work out for thirty years until the virus reemerges in London; a special-ops team headed by Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra) is sent into the danger zone to see if they can find a cure. Glasgow is now overrun by wildlife and inhabited by post-punk cannibals foaming at the mouth (I´m not sure if anything has changed); most of Sinclair´s team is quickly dispatched of, leading up to a bravura mosh-pit sequence where the baddies, led by the deranged, mohawked Sol (Craig Conway), dance around to a Fine Young Cannibals tune while barbequing a member of Sinclair´s team.

Mitra has a certain something – an unassuming modesty, a wink-wink sense of sincerity – that greatly elevates her character above the usual Milla Jovovich-type female Terminators we usually get as heroines in the genre. Acting elsewhere is also above what one might expect, with Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell lending the film a little credibility and David O´Hara and Conway making for menacing villains. The film is an eclectic mixture of all the post-apocalyptic trash that came out in the wake of The Warriors and The Road Warrior; many of them Italian-financed, NYC-set exploitation films that used the punk background for a startling vision of a future stuck in 1981. Not that we really needed to be taken back to the genre; Doomsday is for those who can appreciate the rehash and few others. Three great scenes are worth the price of admission: the aforementioned mosh-pit sequence; a battle with a knight in full armor that recalls Bresson´s Lancelot of the Lake; and a climatic car chase that culminates with a severed head flying toward (and hitting) the camera. It´s a far, far cry from Marshall´s previous film, the finely-crafted, claustrophobic The Descent, but works well enough on its own trashy terms.

Warning: this movie is about as nihilistic as they could get away with in a major release, with no shortage of violence directed against women, children, and animals.

***

Vantage Point
Rating:
Directed by Pete Travis. Starring Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Bruce McGill, Edgar Ramirez, Saďd Taghmaoui, Ayelet Zurer, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, James LeGros, Eduardo Noriega, Richard T. Jones. Written by Barry Levy.
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A so-so thriller with an intriguing premise, Pete Travis´ Vantage Point tells the story of a presidential assassination from 8 different points of view. We start with Sigourney Weaver in a trailer directing news footage of President Ashton (William Hurt) arriving at an anti-terrorism summit in Spain. Soon the president is shot and chaos ensues as bombs begin to go off. Stop. Rewind. The same sequence is told from the point of view of secret service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), and a few more gaps are filled in the story. Repeat with bystander Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker), etc., etc., until we get to the terrorists and things become crystal clear. The film pulls off this gimmick rather well, giving us just enough added information to justify our watching the same sequence repeated, while keeping enough from us to compel us to keep watching. That the plot is one big, preposterous mess when it is all unraveled is unfortunate but somewhat expected.

What we´re left with is a middling episode of 24 told by way of Rashomon, but without the ambiguous themes of truth and perception; no, there´s no discrepancies between the various viewpoints here, as everything is told straightforward and fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. They even abandon the different point-of-view premise during the last half hour, resolving the story as cleanly as possible so as not to confuse Joe Moviegoer. One wonders why they chose the concept at all. The answer, of course: the story told any other way is strictly TV-level material. Ultimately, while the film works on its own terms (it does, at least, make for a decent episode of 24) it´s destined to please no one: too commercial for artsy tastes, too repetitious and gimmicky for action fans.

***

Sleuth
Rating:
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Starring Michael Caine, Jude Law. Written by Harold Pinter, from the play by Anthony Shaffer.
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Reason no. 12,345 against remakes: Kenneth Branagh´s Sleuth, a slick, interesting reworking of Joseph L. Mankiewicz´s 1972 film of the same name (and the original Anthony Schaffer play) that pales so vividly in comparison to the original material that it cannot be deemed anything other than a failure. In what is essentially a two-character play, millionaire author Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine) matches wits with Milo Tindle (Jude Law), a hairdresser of Italian heritage who asks Wyke to grant his wife a divorce so he can marry her. Wyke offers to do it if Tindle will aid him in a little insurance fraud; but that´s just the beginning of the deceit and manipulation played out by each of the characters in this increasingly unpleasant game. Caine played Tindle against Laurence Olivier´s Wyke in the original film, and watching him take on the opposite role here was the sole bright spot in the film; he´s as good as ever in a mannered, nuanced performance. Law is no match for Caine – either as co-star or as Tindle – but he gets the job done. Branagh moves his camera fluidly around the single setting, Wyke´s giant mansion that feels more like a prison; the set is spectacularly designed, but everything is so cold and sinister – and the characters so unpleasant – that you leave the film with a bad taste in your mouth.

The biggest problem with the movie is that it´s a remake of a near-perfect film; nothing here is as good as it was before, and Pinter´s script changes only insult Schaffer´s masterful original, with third act homoeroticism a laughable addition, bordering on self-parody for Pinter. Though the film would very likely work as an independent enterprise – and viewers who haven´t seen the original will, I imagine, still find this version compelling – we can´t help but watch in distress as they seem to get it all wrong here.  I couldn´t believe my eyes when the film ended at less than 90 minutes, completely removing the last act and final twist that made the original so brilliant. You might call that a twist in its own right; I call it a spectacular disappointment.


Jason Pirodsky

Hailing from Syracuse, New York, Jason Pirodsky made his way to Prague via Miami and has stuck around, for better and worse, since 2004. A member of the Online Film Critics Society (www.ofcs.org), some of his favorite movies include O Lucky Man!, El Topo, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Hellzapoppin'. Follow him on Twitter for some (slightly) more concise reviews.

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