“Taxi”, an often very funny, loose remake of the 1998 French film directed by Gerard Pires and written by Luc Besson, is a great example of dumb fun, which still involves what you’re looking for when you’re watching a comedy, fun.

I admit it helps tremendously if you like the two leads, Queen Latifah and former Saturday Night Live star Jimmy Fallon (I especially liked his quick put-downs in the company’s computer guy skits). They show very good chemistry and have several funny scenes or lines, but I can see why some people will find the movie moronic and point to some irritating plot shortcuts.

Queen is Belle, a feisty, no-nonsense New Yorker who leaves her pizza delivery job to become a speed limit-busting cab driver as the film begins. One of her former colleagues is Mario (Gregory Qaiyum) who you might remember (or probably not) as the hyperactive buddy of Lance Bass in 2001’s overlooked romantic comedy “On the Line”. He’s the one who basically has “Frat Boy” stamped across the forehead. Anyway, Mario will be helpful towards the end of the film. The plot is about stopping bank robbers who are not your ordinary ski mask-wearing robbers: they’re four supermodel-gorgeous thieves (wait, they actually are models) led by Gisele Bundchen. The inept cop on the case is Washburn (Fallon), first seen sporting a fake mustache and speaking with a hilarious Razor Ramon Cuban accent as he screws up a sting operation. His superior Martha (Jennifer Esposito), whom he used to date, gets progressively impatient with him and with his total absence of driving skills, something that’s effectively and extensively played for laughs.

Suspect coincidences make Belle and Washburn’s paths cross, but they eventually stay together as they realize this will be a mutually beneficial partnership. He wants to prove to Martha he’s not just some bumbling pushover and she wants her taxi back when it’s seized as evidence after a wildly unsuccessful attempt to catch the misbehaving ladies. The rare laughs (more like smiles) in Pires’ film came when cab driver Daniel and girlfriend Lily (Samy Naceri and Marion Cotillard) traded witty comebacks with each other. Here the screenwriters wisely chose to play to the strengths of the leads: Queen is allowed plenty of room to get amusingly angry, and Fallon gets to play the meek underdog who takes matters into his own hands only to make things worse. Without going into detail and spoiling gags, let’s say parking spaces and doors are recurrent problems.

Esposito fits in by not overacting and, I must say, looks as stunning as ever in those flattering white shirts. Tim Story does an honest directing job, keeping things at a brisk pace. His first widely known film was “Barbershop”, which had an energetic, urban vibe that was more focused and more genuine than in this film, though. It will be interesting to see what he does on his next project, the currently filming “Fantastic Four” feature adaptation. My final comment is, if you like your laughs served with a generous helping of action, you could do a lot worse than “Taxi”.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay


I like to look at the celebrity pictures in the first few pages of People magazine, for example, and I know legions are like me. I often find these photos interesting in that they humanize stars and offer us sneak peeks into their lives beyond the movie screen. But at the same time, do we ever stop and wonder why the most mundane and normal moments of individuals who happen to be recognizable faces should somehow be of interest to the masses?

One thing’s for sure, no answers are found in Paul Abascal’s “Paparazzi”, a violent and rather clumsily told revenge fantasy starring Cole Hauser and Tom Sizemore. After supporting roles in films like “Hart’s War” and “Tears of the Sun”, Hauser gets his first lead role as Bo Laramie, a Hollywood actor stepping into the spotlight thanks to an action film called Adrenaline Force.

Hauser is well cast, I’ll give the film that, and I don’t see why he wouldn’t find a good measure of success in upcoming years. He bears the slightest resemblance to Sean Penn, and like Penn’s Jimmy Markum in Mystic River, Bo looks like somebody whose inner mean streak you better not unleash. An extremely sleazy paparazzi, Rex Harper (Sizemore), does just that as he decides to ruin Bo’s life and that of his wife Abby, played by Robin Tunney, and their six year-old son. It culminates in a horrific car accident caused by Harper and his posse of other lowlife shutterbugs: Bo’s son ends up in a coma and his wife is severely injured. When the authorities can’t make a case against the paparazzi, Bo embarks on a one-man mission of vengeance. One of the most credible screen lawmen, veteran actor Dennis Farina, plays a detective who develops strong suspicions about what’s going on but lets Bo off the hook.

A major problem is that we keep getting a sense that the characters know more than we do, and the way Bo goes about his personal mission makes you wonder if he’s an ace investigator or a movie star. Some of the dialogue is laughable (one slimeball says paparazzi are “the last real hunters” ?!?), and the whole film is terribly manipulative as directed by Abascal and written by Forrest Smith, both making their feature debut.

Bo is portrayed as an all-around good guy from Montana who resorts to vigilante justice when someone messes with his apple-pie family. And with such despicable characters as those paparazzi, even the most pacifist souls wouldn’t be blamed for feeling some satisfaction when the bad guys get what’s coming to them. But “Paparazzi” is done with such an absence of subtlety that I suspect we’ll soon see it on video store shelves, where it probably would have gone right away if not for the involvement of one of the producers, Mel Gibson, who covered some of the same moral ground in “Mad Max” and “Payback”.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Open Water

Not quite a horror film even though it sometimes looks, feels and sounds like one, “Open Water” is better described as a fable about man’s limits when faced with the unforgiving vastness of nature. The imprint this tragic, based on real events story leaves on its captive audience is one of helplessness in front of unbeatable odds, yet it’s also a most unusual love story that’s a reminder of the light that shines within ourselves even at the darkest hours.

The movie begins when Susan and Daniel (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) are going on a vacation they say is badly needed. They’re diving enthusiasts, so they’re off to what we can suppose is a Caribbean resort town (although no mention is made of location) and find themselves aboard the Reef Explorer, a small boat taking divers out to sea for their chosen activity.

Now, what happens on the way to the diving site is a story unto itself. The guide takes what seems like 10 seconds to come up with a head count of 20. From what we’re shown, that looks rather generous. But what is truly baffling is that this system wouldn’t cut it for a kindergarten class making a trek to the park across the street. You’d think with that small a boat it’d be easy to actually write down the names and actually check people in and out of the boat, or at least in and out of the water. But a seemingly illiterate crew member badly messes up the updates with a counting method that hasn’t been used since Passe-Partout’s immortal Pruneau learned how to write down telephone numbers.

Anyway, the boat’s methodology for keeping track of what’s going on is a lawsuit waiting to happen, but without it there’d be no movie, for the boat leaves without the couple thinking everybody’s back in, setting the stage for Susan and Daniel’s horrifying predicament, being left stranded in the middle of the ocean.

Written, directed, edited and partially shot by Chris Kentis, “Open Water” is a nifty little piece of work. It takes half of its 80 minutes to set up its man vs. ocean setting, at which point things get implacably serious. When they emerge, the couple thinks the boat is trying to find them, but that hope dies as the minutes and hours pass. They see some ships from afar, but the sheer distance makes swimming towards them unrealistic (there’s one a bit later in the film where I would have tried, but that’s very easy to say). Daniel is initially the one helping Susan stay calm, but the couple starts bickering after he goes into a yelling rage and ends up blaming the trip on her need to get away from her taxing, unspecified job. I guess nothing frays the nerves like circumstances this desperate, but at the same time they’re very much in love. We see that bond quite literally when they’re clutching one another for warmth, support and the deep-rooted need to connect with another human being when confronted by a dwarfing force outside our control.

Fins gliding or tails flapping above the waves jolt you on occasion, but Kentis doesn’t really present the sharks as harbingers of doom, in “Jaws” fashion, as much as he shows them as inescapable realities of the sea. With accelerated cloud shots to signify the passing of time, and tribal chants and island revelry as stylistic touches, Kentis almost tricks you into a false sense of stagnancy until nature unleashes its mighty force with devastating, striking impact in the last minutes.

“Open Water” intelligently uses the contrast of the immensity of the sea and of two individual huddled together to survive in the middle of it. The lovers may be physically drifting in the ocean, but their fate is intertwined, their bond strong and their spirit very much alive. Travis and especially Ryan do a solid job of conveying emotions ranging from faint hope to anger to despair, and there is a painful moment where we vicariously experience the worst kind of sinking feeling the characters must have had when fully realizing what is happening to them. This is a film that hits hard, with a finale of the kind that stays with you for a long time.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Anchorman: The Legend of Rob Burgundy

Jean-François Tremblay:
I thought I laughed hard at “Dodgeball” ’s crazy antics, but I now see it pales in comparison to the uncontrollable and oh so enjoyable bursts of laughter I experienced during “Anchorman”. In this wackiest of tale about a fictitious 1970s newsroom anchor, we have frat boy humor, a delirious animated sequence in a place called Pleasuretown, a touch of female empowerment but, above everything else, wild comedy. I started having a favourable feeling towards this film when I saw the print ads featuring enthusiastic blurbs from main character Ron Burgundy, and when I saw him thanking the nation in TV ads for helping “Anchorman” overtake “Spider-Man 2” at the box office… before his film even opened. Funny and ingenious in both cases.

After his star turn in “Elf”, Will Ferrell, who co-wrote the film with Adam McKay, solidifies his status as a reliable comedic performer on the big screen. He comes across as a hugely likable guy, and some of that quality transfers itself to his characters. It is certainly the case with this movie. The opening voice-over takes us to San Diego at some point in the ’70s, where Channel 4’s evening news anchor Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) is some kind of an institution. We meet his on-air team, a ragtag bunch prone to throwing a football while Ron delivers the day’s news. They are reporter Fantana (Paul Rudd), weatherman Brick (Steve Carrell) and sports guy Champ (David Koechner). I found Fantana’s mannerisms the funniest by far, but this is Ferrell’s showcase. His Burgundy is a quirky creation, a loudmouth whose macho side hides a heart of gold.

Things are shaken up at Channel 4 when the station boss (Fred Willard, a riot as a TV commentator in “Best in Show”) hires a women reporter, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), who has her sights on becoming the world’s first female anchor. This obviously rubs the old boys’ club the wrong way as a group, but Ron falls in love with her, with hilarious consequences. Veronica’s first assignment is to cover a cat fashion show. I will tell you, any movie with a cat fashion show cannot go too wrong in my estimation. Applegate is in fine shape, knowingly overdramatic when it calls for it but also striking a feminist chord with humor and as much determination as can be allowed in a broad comedy.

I also want to bring to your attention the cutest little animal in recent movie history (along with “Two Brothers” ’ tigers as babies), Ron’s dog Baxter. Something happens to the lovable pooch involving a perfectly cast road-raging motorcyclist that is just horrible, but not as much as it is hilarious. There are so many hits in “Anchorman” and so few misses (the bits with the rival news teams come to mind). Another pleasant surprise was that most scenes from the trailer, which I had found mildly annoying, are not included, which makes sense when considering the final product and means the funniest parts weren’t revealed there.

Brilliant use is made of a book ends-type storyline about the pregnancy of a panda at the San Diego Zoo, a location that also reveals Baxter as a master negotiator close to the end. I shall say little more, but I’ll venture to say that the subtitled exchange between Baxter and a bear is perhaps the funniest “dialogue” you’ll see at the movies this year. Capping the scene is the line “It’s instinct” delivered by Ron, which you’ll be able to appreciate in context for how sublimely misinformed it is. If you love absurd comedies with a touch of substance, you’re gonna love “Anchorman”.

Kevin L.:
I thought Will Ferrell was one of the funniest men alive all through his Saturday Night Live run and I liked the bits parts he’s played over the years, but I found Elf shockingly unfunny. Since then, I’ve been wondering if maybe Ferrell’s brand of lunacy worked only in short doses, like a SNL skit or a cameo in someone else’s flick. Not to worry, my friends, it turns out that Will can be consistently hilarious for 90 minutes, he just needs more than tired fish-out-of-water silliness and holiday schmaltz.

With “Anchorman”, Ferrell’s written himself a perfect vehicle for his shameless overacting. There was also obviously much room left for improvisation, and the atmosphere is one of barely controlled insanity. Ferrell’s hard-drinking, ass-grabbing anchorman is surrounded by an equally misogynistic and moronic news team, and Paul Rudd, David Koechner and especially Steve Carrell are almost as game and funny as Ferrell. Then there’s Christina Applegate, who’s stuck with the straight part of the ambitious journalist who threatens Channel 4’s little boys club, but there’s hardly such a thing as “straight” in this movie so she gets to do silly stuff too. The film also features the great Fred Willard, SNL’s Chris Parnell and Fred Armisen, Ferrell’s Old School co-stars Luke Wilson and Vince Vaughn, and a great cameo by Jack Black.

Director and co-writer Adam McKay does a relatively good job at making this into an actual movie instead of a series of funny scenes. The film is set in the ‘70s and it’s not only reflected in the attitudes, bad hair and tacky style, McKay has actually shot his film to look like it was made in the ‘70s. There’s also some truly over the top bits involving gladiator weaponry, jazz flute and grizzly bears, but there’s no point in me running down a list of the countless things that made me laugh. Great Odin’s Raven, just go see the damn movie!

The Clearing

“The Clearing” is cruelly dark in its theme, even though it sort of ends with a whimper. It has moments of heart-pounding intensity, notably in the woods where it partially unfolds, but for the most part it has a deliberately slow pace. Many American filmmakers would have turned up the action factor given the material, but Netherlands-born Pieter Jan Brugge (who has produced several films including “The Insider”) instead crafts a character study that’s helped by an effective, minimalist score by Craig Armstrong.

What Jan Brugge and screenwriter Justin Hayte are trying to do is to balance an observation of the ties that bind with one man’s desperate actions. Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe) lost his job eight years ago. He has a wife of 24 years and two daughters, but he’s deeply dissatisfied with his existence, which involves sharing living quarters with a hard-to-deal-with father-in-law.

Arnie, looking for self-validation any way he can, in that respect brings to mind the unstable video expert played by Dafoe in “Auto Focus”. In that film, Dafoe’s character used his technological know-how to feed Bob Crane’s ego and sex addiction (and partake in the ensuing sexual escapades), pulling him away from his family. Here again, he plays a man who latches onto another out of envy only to spiral out of control. Kidnapping rich self-made entrepreneur Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) and forcefully walking him deep in the woods to a cabin is what Arnie thinks will get him enough ransom money to escape to a better life.

As a family drama, “The Clearing” has a certain grace in how it quietly shows the bonds between Wayne, his two grown-up children (Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller) and his wife Eileen, superbly played by Helen Mirren in a performance combining dignity and vulnerability. There is a scene where the children recall an anecdote about their dad taking them to work that has a bittersweet beauty, as they can’t be sure they’ll see him again.

The minor problem I have with the movie is that, although Dafoe gives a good performance, what we see and learn about Arnie Mack hardly gives us reason to suspect the darkness of what he ends up doing. Arnie cares, in a weird way, about his hostage, providing him with walking shoes and offering cigarettes along the imposed trek. But there’s a least one instance where, if Wayne really wanted to, it seemed as if he could have walked out of the wilderness with little more than a blank stare from the sometimes puzzling Arnie.

There is however a shot late in the film, reflecting its title, that offers a clear view of the omnipresent woods (southern Appalachia) around the two main protagonists. And the image makes you think, yeah, a man could lose a lot of thing in those parts, even his mind if his moral fiber was already damaged enough. Is it the case with Arnie? You’ll judge for yourself.

But the important amount of screen time given to Eileen, and Mirren’s wonderful performance of a wounded yet strong and loving wife makes the film work to a good degree. Jan Brugge uses an incomplete jigsaw puzzle to set up its psychological portraits, but his film remains a noteworthy first directing effort.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

The Chronicles of Riddick

I recently saw 2000’s Pitch Black, in which we were first acquainted with prison escapee- and murderer- Richard B. Riddick, a tough customer played by Vin Diesel. The movie was visually striking, shot with rich shades of blue, copper and gold, and Riddick was a cool anti-hero, but not a memorable one. I thought this was a movie begging for a prequel, where we would learn more about what kind of world this guy came from.

But a sequel was much more likely, and we find Riddick five years later (from a storyline standpoint) in “The Chronicles of Riddick”. Our title character finds himself on another remote planet, where he’s being chased by bounty hunters. He dispatches them, takes their spacecraft and is headed to the planet Helion Prime, where he wants to confront the pious Imam (Keith David), one of two people who survived alongside him in the first film, about how it is anybody was able to trace him. But major trouble is looming in the form of the Necromongers, a cult-like, crusading mega-army intent on converting or killing all of human life, led by Lord Marshal (Colm Feore).

Riddick is thrown into the thick of things after he escapes from their “mind regression” room, only to be captured again by bounty hunters and taken to Crematoria, a planet with quick and deadly variations of temperature. Meanwhile, a Necromonger commander, Lord Vaako (Karl Urban) and his sultry wife (Thandie Newton) plot to overthrow Marshal, sensing his fear of Riddick is a weakness that cannot be accepted. We later learn the source of that fear through the words of the Oracle-like Aereon (Judi Dench), and the stage is set for a tale of obsession, blind faith and betrayal.

Science-fiction and action fans will love these Chronicles, which benefit from the same director and screenwriter as “Pitch Black”, David Twohy, with characters by Jim and Ken Wheat. Riddick is given much more to say and do, the story is solid (including the ending) and there are marvels of production design like the Necromongers’ combination statues-launching pad and Marshall’s three-faced helmet. I also liked the frightening beasts looking like a cross between hyenas and panthers in the Crematoria jail.

Vin Diesel’s performance reminded me of Kurt Russell in both “Escape from New York” and Soldier, and in a movie such as this one that’s a good thing. Riddick has a slow, deadpan delivery that hides unpredictability (after all, as Aereon puts it, he is a lone outlaw), and Diesel is the perfect choice to convey that. And Alexa Davalos does a fine job as tough chick Kyra, whose past with Riddick is given due attention.

There is a strong element of faith in the film. The Necromongers are searching for the mythical Underverse, their ‘promised land”, and Vaako’s motivation for his intentions is to “protect the faith”. But like Aguirre in The Wrath of God or Ahab in “Moby Dick”, you come to suspect the leader’s obsessive and delusional state is more real than any supposed spiritual El Dorado. Look for the scene where the Purifier, played with great subtlety by Linus Roache, finds his own way of redemption.

There’s no deep wisdom to be gained from “Chronicles” (don’t join a cult?), but you have to like a movie with the deliciously cheesy line “Convert now…or fall forever”. This is a film done with passion and attention to detail, for example the way past history with Imam and Kyra is integrated into the storyline, and gorgeous to look at. It is a fine continuation of the Riddick universe, with the bonus touch of an ending that leaves you hungry for more instead of raising questions.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Raising Helen

Yet another time, director Garry Marshall has benefited from the strengths of his female leads to rescue one of his films from rambling storylines-induced schmaltz. With “Raising Helen”, we have a movie that’s a good 20 minutes too long with its 2 hrs running time, but Kate Hudson and, to a lesser degree but not far behind, Joan Cusack “save” the film from itself, their performances alone making us forgive the maudlin parts of the story.

This latest offering from Marshall (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, The Princess Diaries) shows a tiger doesn’t change its stripes as the director takes forever, through many detours, to once again present a modern-day fairy tale. In his latest film, 2001’s “Diaries”, it was the winsome Anne Hathaway, with an assist to Julie Andrews, who somehow made the predicament of going from nerdy klutz to gorgeous princess bearable and even sweet to watch. In “Raising Helen”, it is Kate Hudson who shines as the title character, a Manhattan modeling agency’s assistant whose life is turned upside down when she becomes the legal guardian to three children after their parents, including Helen’s sister, die in a car accident. Fans of the Global TV show “Wild Card” will notice a strong similarity in that premise, but I digress.

Much drama ensues in Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s screenplay, in a sometimes uneasy balance of genuine self-examination and artificially created conflict. Helen must leave her glitzy job after one model she was with allows herself to have her make-up “done” by the kids at a daycare, which of course means markers. In a ridiculous scene, she just empties her purse, closes her eyes then just lets the children have their fun when it’s painfully obvious far more than blush and eyeliner are used. Helen also moves to Queens with her new charges, 5 yr-old Sarah (Abigail Breslin), 10-yr old Henry (Spencer Breslin) and 15-yr old Audrey (Hayden Panettiere), where she finds them a school with a hunk of a principal, Pastor Dan (My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s John Corbett). Their next-door apartment neighbor is a nice Indian woman, also a mom, who turns into an amusing baseball bat-carrying motor mouth when it comes to evacuating undesirable individuals. And last but not least, Helen finds a job at a used car dealership, a plot element whose redeeming quality is to provide Marshall favorite Hector Elizondo with some funny scenes as the manager trying to make a decent TV commercial.

Hudson, who was so impressive in Almost Famous, really is the glue holding this film together. There is a scene where she confronts the rebellious (no surprise there) Audrey about her fake I.D. that is as convincing as can be, allowing Hudson’s talent as a dramatic actress to emerge once more. Along those lines, Cusack is excellent as Jenny, Helen’s older sister with two kids of her own who gradually comes to be accepting of the seemingly surprising decision to give Helen the guardianship instead of her.

There are little story arcs for Sarah, about learning to tie her shoelaces, and Henry, about how enjoying life doesn’t mean he would betray the memory of his parents, that didn’t register too much with me. Especially in Sarah’s case, they seemed shamelessly designed to wring a tear out of the audience. But if Marshall isn’t shy to play with moviegoers’ emotions, there’s no denying he lets his actors (usually actresses) shine, as they can handle the material expertly.

There is a case to be made for films like this one, ultimately fluffy but still hinting at the strength of individual resolve and the will to care for others besides oneself. “Raising Helen” works in spite of its shortcomings because of its very competent female roles and performances. It has a fairy tale worldview revealing the director’s signature, but given this framework, it’s also a charming little movie. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay


Life is wonderful for happy couple Paul (Greg Kinnear) and Jessica (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos) Duncan at the beginning of “Godsend”. He’s a high school teacher and she’s a photographer, and we first see them celebrating the 8th birthday of their son Adam (Cameron Bright). In one of those movie accidents that transpires more out of a cinematic need to set a story in motion than out of responsible and realistic behavior, Adam is killed in a traffic accident the next morning.

In creepy fashion and out of deepest left field, a mysterious scientist, Dr. Richard Wells (Robert De Niro), later approaches them at a cemetery while they’re planning their son’s funeral. He has illegally developed a technique where he can replicate a stem cell to create an identical foetus, which is to say, he offers to clone their son back to life.

The grief-stricken parents finally accept, although Paul does so very reluctantly. “You’d be gambling on me as much as I’d be gambling on you”, Wells says to them. Now I don’t know about you people, but this is exactly the kind of sentence that would make me think twice, then think some more. A human life is not exactly something that should bring forth discussions sounding like businessmen negotiating a merger.

Without revealing too much of the nonsensical developments that ensue, it centers on the “new” Adam experiencing violent nightmares after he passes the age at which he died. As Wells puts it, they have entered “uncharted territory” at that point. De Niro speaks most of his lines with his voice at half-volume, in a subdued tone that suggests he could just as well be talking about the stock market, which makes his character’s transformation near the end all the more jarring. There’s also something about a child’s drawing with a history (yeah, another one of those), a Sixth Sense-like ability to connect with the dead and a lot of worrying about cells somehow remembering a previous life. It alls creates a very underwhelming horror movie, feebly evoking “The Omen”, that allows little time to the extremely serious moral implications of its controversial premise.

Elements of the story are totally preposterous, most notably this secret, remote community where Dr. Wells runs the Godsend Institute and where Paul and Jessica had to relocate after accepting the cloning procedure. Who are the people living there or working for Wells, refugees from a new kind of witness protection program? Director Nick Hamm fails to build any sense of impending doom, and some scenes are allowed to drag on twice longer than they should while others will just bring question marks in the minds of the audience.

Kinnear and Romjin-Stamos nonetheless turn in solid performances worthy of a sharper script, and there’s an emotionally strong moment early on where Jessica, in the depths of the pain of losing her son, says that she doesn’t want another child, what she wants is the only one she had back.

The puzzling chain of events in the last 20 minutes or so is capped by a noncommittal ending that doesn’t really address anything. Some might agree with me that an earlier ending, just moments before the actual one, would have raised obvious questions but at least would have been more faithful to the direction the film had taken.

There is one line De Niro says with great conviction. After Paul angrily confronts him and threatens to “go public” with what he has done to Adam, Dr. Wells replies, with fire in his eyes: “What we have done…what we’ve done.” Food for thought.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Johnson Family Vacation

A little more than 20 years after Clark Griswold took the family on the road in “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, which had a number of good laughs, we get “Johnson Family Vacation”, which held promise for featuring Cedric the Entertainer (the hilarious old-time barber in the “Barbershop” movies) in the lead role. Fans of cross-America car trips gone wrong, I advise not to set your expectations too high, though the fault lies not with Cedric but with most of everything else. When the most memorable thing about a comedy is a dead-on remark about the loose definition of a hit album in today’s music industry early on, you know there was something missing.

Nate Johnson (Cedric) is an L.A. insurance salesman who gathers the troops for what he wants to be a family-strengthening car trek to the traditional Johnson family gathering in small-town Missouri. There’s his wife Dorothy (Vanessa Williams), who he’s been separated from for three months, daughters Nikki (Solange Knowles) and little Destiny (Gabby Soleil) and their aspiring rapper son D.J. (Lil’ Bow Wow). Nikki is the typically sexy-dressing, self-involved teenager who’s too busy talking fashion with her friend to hear the knock on the door, so it’s better to call her on her cell phone. D.J. is so annoying on the ride back from a car dealership before the trip begins that you wish he’d mysteriously lose his voice for the rest of the movie. He gets less irritating as it goes, but that’s not saying much. And Destiny, for some puzzling reason, has a make-believe dog that she sometimes makes her dad go after.

It’s the first screenplay for brothers Todd and Earl Jones and a first feature for director Christopher Erskin, who I gather, like so many others nowadays, comes from the world of music videos and commercials. The film is not all that bad, but certainly not a success in my book. It feels disconnected and the laughs are few and far between, with some objectionable parts. Perhaps the filmmakers saw humor in throwing CDs out the window (nobody will notice if the highway’s used as a trash can, right? Not to mention this family is apparently so well-off that it’s just a few CDs) during a let’s-play-this-not-that moment on the highway. I did not. There’s also a tasteless bit in a motel when Cedric inquires about locating an authentic Native American village, and a weird encounter with a “Duel”-style truck.

Steve Harvey, who plays Nate’s arrogant brother Mack at the family reunion, is left stranded with a cartoonish role with mercifully short appearances. The same can roughly be said of the ravishing Shannon Elizabeth, who plays a suspicious hitchhiker involved with some form of witchcraft that may or may not involve a pet alligator.

I did enjoy Cedric pulling double duty in the guise of fast-talking mechanic Uncle Earl, and there is the odd visually-inspired funny moment like the public phone in the middle of a cornfield. It’s not enough to rescue the movie, though. The actual family reunion, when we get there, seems to go on forever, especially coming on the trail of a less than enthralling journey. Close to the end, as he’s leaving the stage of the reunion’s talent show to Nate and his family, Mack tells the gathering, whatever they do, “Please don’t fall asleep”. I am sorry to report that at that point, I had been dangerously close to doing just that, and for several minutes.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay

Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed

The first impression one gets of “Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed” is that of a gigantic wave of silliness. It skips madly from one wacky development to the next (you don’t want to lose the little ones’ attention) but still, there a few genuine moments that cut through the CGI clutter so that not all is lost for the more mature viewers.

From the very first shots, where a swooping camera takes us, in full sensory overload roller-coaster mode, through the streets of Coolsville, we know this movie is not going to be the cinematic equivalent of a gentle stroll in the park. We soon arrive at the Coolsonian Museum for the grand opening of an exhibit dedicated to the various monster costumes captured by Mystery Inc. over the years. All hell breaks loose, however, when the Pterodactyl ghost (whose viewpoint we had in the opening just mentioned) comes alive, wreaks considerable havoc (in no small part thanks to perennial liabilities Scooby and Shaggy), steals a few costumes and escapes with an evil masked figure who looks like a distant and repudiated cousin of Darth Vader. “This is only the first rung in the ladder of your demise”, the evil figure warns with a booming, theatrical voice. And so the stage is set for a test of the gang’s mettle.

The master of the ghosts, if you will, later demands of Mystery Inc. that they simply abandon their crime-solving ways or else further chaos will be unleashed on the city. More drama is added when an ill-disposed TV reporter (Alicia Silverstone) turns the town against the gang by broadcasting a couple of way out of context Fred quotes.

Screenwriter James Gunn, as well as director Raja Gosnell, returns in this second Scooby effort. The cast is back as well as Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Velma (Linda Cardellini, who has more to work with this time) still have to coexist with expert bunglers Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) and his faithful sidekick Scooby-Doo. Gellar still gives purple a great name and gets to go Buffy-crazy in a few battles while Lillard deserves credit for portraying Shaggy with such abandon, especially given that his canine companion existed only in a virtual way while shooting.

There are brief respites here from the endless parade of monsters (some of which are admittedly quite cool like Captain Cutler, the Black Knight and Miner Forty-Niner) where the filmmakers try to inject the characters with some heartfelt emotion and some measure of introspection.

Now, that can only go so far in what is primarily an action romp for kids, but there’s a charm to this bunch that is enjoyable and a few quiet moments that work. Fred confronts self-doubt, although quite briefly, and Velma learns that less is more, and more truthful, as she deals with her emotions towards the museum’s curator (Seth Green). Shaggy and Scooby, who scored high on the laugh factor with the kids in the audience, are lovable goofballs whose antics create mounds of trouble but also reinforce their already unwavering friendship. If all of this sounds terribly corny, it is to an extent but it doesn’t make it any less relevant to point out, and there’s also a nice sequence where the gang reconvenes at their old high school clubhouse to reconnect with what made them successful in the first place.

This is not to say the film is entirely smooth sailing. Musical bits are thrown in at random with annoying regularity, and there’s just too much happening too quickly to maintain coherence even by Scooby standards. “Monsters Unleashed” also relies a little too much on computer-generated wizardry, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else than a fun time at the movies, and to that end it succeeds.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay