I haven't reviewed too many theatrical releases lately, mainly because I've been tied up with covering DVDs and haven't been overly excited by many movies that have come out over the last few weeks.
Finally, over the last few days I've managed to catch up with a couple of films I can recommend, though each for far different reasons.
One thing I've noticed over the last few years is that movies aren't overly likable anymore. Even recent comedies tend to be smirking, sarcastic and overly self-referential: a product, I suppose, of our times. Yet, if you go back to a typical '80s comedy and compare it with a generic product of today, I think you'd find the majority of releases back then were at least honest in their intentions and genuinely enthusiastic.
I say that because the new comedy 13 GOING ON 30 (***) is one of the more charming movies I've seen in a long while. That it resembles an '80s film (and the body-swap/kid- to-adult genre so popular during the decade) is undoubtedly part of the point of the filmmakers, who set to out to make an appealing, warm vehicle for "Alias" star Jennifer Garner and succeeded in enough of the areas that make a piece of escapist fluff like this click.
Less of a variation on the Tom Hanks favorite "Big" than a cross between that movie and (yes) "A Christmas Carol," Garner plays the adult incarnation of a hapless 13-year-old girl in 1987 who wishes she was 30. After attending a disastrous birthday party, Jenna Rink wakes up as the adult Garner -- a NYC magazine editor with a hockey player boyfriend, plenty of money, and seemingly everything she ever wanted. To help her sort out her new surroundings, Garner tracks down her former middle-school guy-pal Mark Ruffalo, who now lives in the Village and makes a modest living as photographer. Ruffalo helps Garner fill in the blanks of the lost 17 years of her life, and Garner finds herself discovering that she's not exactly the person she thought she might be in the process.
One of the things I enjoyed about "13 Going On 30" was how it paid scant attention to the regulation requirements of this genre (launched in the contemporary era by "Freaky Friday," made popular by "Big," then carried on through films like "Vice Versa," reviewed below). Screenwriters Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa don't spend an eternity on Garner first discovering that she's 30 -- nor do they hit you over the head with gags about Garner being out of her element as a 13-year-old living in an adult body.
Instead, the filmmakers have made an appealing story about the consequence of bad choices and trying to make amends for those decisions. Garner is as effervescent as you'd anticipate her being, and she's perfectly matched with Ruffalo, laid back as a heartbroken soul who discovers himself falling for a girl who ultimately tortured him in high school.
Even though the movie doesn't do a good job developing its supporting players ("Rings" veteran Andy Serkis is wasted as Garner's high-strung boss), "13 Going on 30" has a satisfying romance at its center that makes it very difficult to dislike. The ending is especially well-handled, the bouncy soundtrack is filled with the expected '80s pop tunes and a superb, lyrical score by the ever-reliable Theodore Shapiro, and the leads are so downright likable that the film works in spite of its abbreviated running time.
A blast from the past on a handful of levels, "13 Going on 30" is a winning romantic comedy that should satisfy viewers in a wide range of age groups, Garner fans, and anyone seeking the kind of upbeat, fun comedy Hollywood rarely turns out these days.
Made on a modest budget for this kind of film (under $35 million, some of which undoubtedly went to co-star John Travolta's salary), "The Punisher" stars Tom Jane as a retiring FBI agent whose family is savagely killed by a mobster (Travolta) out for revenge. Holing up in a dilapidated apartment building with waitress Rebecca Romijn- Stamos and another pair of outcasts, Jane brands himself "The Punisher" and goes about taking down Travolta's Tampa, Florida criminal enterprise by any means necessary.
Though the subject matter is pretty heavy for a comic book film, "The Punisher" refuses to go the route of treating the material too seriously. It would have been easy for Hensleigh and co-writer Michael France to play up the dark, psychological aspects of the character, but make no mistake, this is a comic movie all the way that works best if you don't take it too seriously.
Hensleigh manages to capture the essence of a fast-moving Marvel comic by utilizing a quick pace, Conrad W. Hall's moody cinematography, and game performances by a fine cast. Jane makes for a brooding yet somehow appealing tortured hero, while Travolta does his usual villainous shenanigans and Will Patton and Laura Herring ably back him up on the bad-guy front. Romijn-Stamos nicely underplays her role, and there's a chemistry between her and Jane that's predictably (and unfortunately) not fulfilled by the time the picture ends.
Speaking of that, there are plenty of killings in "The Punisher," though not a whole lot of elaborate action scenes. Instead, there are some amusing, intimate sequences between Travolta and his posse (especially Patton), Jane and his crazy neighbors, and a well- choreographed fight between The Punisher and a Russian hit man (was it asking too much to cast one-time "Punisher" Dolph Lundgren in the role?). The movie leaps from a few disturbing instances of graphic violence to what appears to be overly campy melodrama and back again, making for an uneven yet decidedly offbeat movie that keeps you watching, provided you swallow its required suspensions of disbelief. (Hell, even Roy Scheider turns up as Jane's father!).
I should also mention that, with the credits relegated to the very end of the picture, I didn't know before I saw the film who had scored it. Listening to the string-heavy, over- the-top score, I figured it must have been someone like Pino Donaggio who wrote the music, since it's overbearing (in a good way) and perfectly fits the mood of the picture. Though it wasn't Donaggio who scored it, I was at least in the ballpark, since it was Pino's fellow Italian composer Carlo Siliotto who penned the score. Like the film, it's different and not exactly what you'd anticipate coming from a modern comic-book movie, but somehow it works.
"The Punisher" may be a bit much for some viewers, but taken in the right spirit, it's a deftly-made, "low tech" action-revenge fantasy that should satisfy the character's faithful fans.
LOVE ACTUALLY (***, 2003). 135 mins., R, Universal. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary, deleted scenes, music featurette, music video; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital.
Cute and thoroughly appealing romantic comedy from Richard Curtis examines the lives and loves of a handful of characters around Christmas time. As with any episodic film, some of the stories are more interesting than others, but the ones at the film's core work extremely well. Among the latter are newly elected British Prime Minister Hugh Grant's attraction to an adorable co-worker (Martine McCutcheon); frustrated author Colin Firth's infatuation with a girl in his Italian villa; aging rocker Bill Nighy's struggle to land the top Christmas single; and Liam Neeson's attempts at tutoring his young son in the ways of the heart.
Grant's scenes in particular are extremely well played, with the star in top form, and McCutcheon has a charming presence on-screen. Except for a heavy-handed commentary on US-British relations (what else would you expect when Billy Bob Thornton shows up as the President?), that section of the film turns out to be the most satisfying, with Curtis's script incorporating equal doses of hilarity and heartbreak. A few of his vignettes fail to work -- Laura Linney's would-be romance with a fellow co-worker never pays off -- but the movie for the most part is breezy and engaging, backed by a soundtrack comprised of familiar tunes and an effective Craig Armstrong score.
Universal's DVD offers all kinds of special features in addition to an excellent 2.35 widescreen transfer with a crisp 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The commentary with Curtis and Grant, Nighy, and Thomas Sangster is thoughtful and amusing, while a lengthy series of deleted scenes are included. Curtis also provides some insights into his musical selections (praising Armstrong's score in particular), and a Kelly Clarkson music video rounds out the package, which ought to be a must for all romantic comedy fans.
Though a box-office disappointment, Richard Donner's exciting adaptation of Michael Crichton's tailor-made-for-the-movies novel makes for an entertaining adventure on DVD.
Billy Connolly plays a modern-day archeologist who becomes missing -- in France during the 14th century! It turns out that Connolly was transported back in time via a New Mexico science experiment that unearthed a wormhole in time. His son (Paul Walker) and co-workers (Gerard Butler, Frances O'Connor) then undertake a rescue mission that entails each of them to travel back to 1357, where the French are fighting off the British for the stronghold of Castlegard during the Hundred Years War.
Though it seems as if Donner cut his film down from something much longer (likely the reason for Jerry Goldsmith's superb unused score being discarded), and the movie's balance is overly tilted towards action instead of character development, there's still much to admire in "Timeline." The battle scenes are well-crafted and Caleb Deschanel's cinematography makes the film's locations come alive. The script by Jeff Maguire and George Nolfi isn't bad, either, though the film's bland leads (Walker and O'Connor) fail to create any sparks. The picture's secondary romance does, in fact, work, between Butler and a fighting French woman (Anna Friel), which adds some twists to the film's ending.
Brian Tyler's frantic, stylish action score is another plus, and it sounds terrific in Paramount's 5.1 Dolby Digital mix on DVD. The 2.35 transfer looks great, and supplements include a solid three-part "Making Of" documentary, trailers, and "The Textures of 'Timeline'" featurette. While I would have liked to have seen a longer cut (or a version that contained Goldsmith's score), "Timeline" is a solid fantasy that should find its audience on disc.
PETER PAN (**1/2, 2003). 114 mins., PG, Universal, available May 4. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of featurettes, deleted scene, alternate ending; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.
Well-mounted but curiously bland re-telling of the J.M. Barrie tale from Australian filmmaker P.J. Hogan ("Muriel's Wedding") failed to take flight in theaters last Christmas.
In this adaptation, Peter Pan is played by a young teenage boy (Jeremy Sumpter), which gives the movie a tiny added bit of "sexual tension" between him and Wendy, who's whisked off to Neverland with her brothers and finds herself in a battle between Pan and the villainous Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs, in a dual role as Hook and Wendy's father).
The trailer for this "Peter Pan" looked amazing and promised a full-blooded adaptation that would avoid the contemporary issues that marred Steven Spielberg's uneven "Hook." Unfortunately, while the movie has some impressive scenes and is entertaining for the most part, it also lacks what can only be summed up as a soul. There's no heart in the movie, no real emotional pull -- it looks pretty and will appeal to kids, yet it's a strangely detached film that always seems to keep you at arm's length. James Newton Howard's pleasant but unremarkable score sums up the problems: it's functional, but rarely feels inspired.
Universal's DVD, out next week, offers a glorious 2.35 widescreen transfer with an excellent, nicely-textured 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The movie's visual effects and colorful production design look beautiful in scope, though Ludivine Sagnier's antics as Tinkerbell may be lost on viewers without larger television sets.
For supplements, the DVD boasts plenty of interviews and solid Making Of featurettes shot during the production. Though the menus and extras seem to be geared towards kids (based on the colorful packaging), the supplements should be of interest to all viewers, with a lengthy deleted scene and a (wisely discarded) alternate ending also included.
Tepid sequel to the mostly over-praised Canadian teen-werewolf thriller brings Emily Perkins back as Brigitte, sister of Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), who turned into a wolf in the original "Ginger Snaps." This time out, poor Brigitte is infected with the same virus that causes a permanent transformation into a fanged beast, and despite her desire to stop the change from overcoming her body, her new temporary home -- in a rehab center, of all places -- puts the kibosh on any attempt at finding a cure.
Writer Megan Martin and director Brett Sullivan have fashioned a well-acted yet extremely cynical and unrelenting movie that's missing a fair amount of the humor that somewhat off-set the heavy-handed aspects of its predecessor. Perkins does her best as the tragic heroine, but she lacks the on-screen charisma that Isabelle (who appears fleetingly as a ghost) brought as a leading lady to the original. It all ends up as a competent but unappealing horror show with an especially off-putting climax adding a sour aftertaste to the story.
Lions Gate's DVD is, at least, a superior presentation than Artisan's weak DVD of the original "Ginger Snaps." The 16:9 enhanced transfer is superb and the 5.1 sound is also good, while special features include a commentary with the principal filmmakers, a handful of deleted scenes, a few storyboards and on-screen "journals" with text so small you'll need a magnifying glass to read them.
One of a handful of body-swapping comedies that emerged at the same time as "Big" during the late '80s, this entertaining vehicle stars Judge Reinhold as a busy '80s dad who doesn't have time for his son, and Fred Savage as his 11-year-old, whom he improbably exchanges bodies with.
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais wrote and produced this satisfying formula fantasy, which basically takes "Freaky Friday" and performs a gender switch on its protagonists. Reinhold is a lot of fun in one of his last leading man roles, and Savage effectively plays off him thanks to a script that develops its characters at the same time it serves up the usual gags and shenanigans you'd expect from the material. David Shire's score is also solid, and Brian Gilbert's direction keeps everything moving along at a nice pace.
Columbia TriStar's DVD, out undoubtedly to coincide with the release of "13 Going On 13," boasts a nice 16:9 transfer with Dolby Surround stereo. For interested viewers, the studio has also issued a DVD of the inferior Dudley Moore-Kirk Cameron team-up "Like Father, Like Son" from the same period.