Eugene Weekly : Movies : 12.31.08


Bah Humbug
These Christmas releases don’t deserve your dough
by Molly Templeton

It seemed like such a good idea when it first hatched. Lots of movies open on Christmas; why don’t we review them all and make a sort of holiday movie spectacular out of it? Sounds fun, right? 

Right. It sounds fun until you find yourself spending nearly eight hours watching movies that barely reach the middle ground of quality — and often simply test the audience’s endurance (“We have another hour of this!” the man two seats from me whispered to his wife halfway through Valkyrie). But there is a positive side. This weekend-long experiment in watching more bad movies than usual reminded me that while the holiday dreck may be largely unbearable, there are still appealing 2008 films yet to arrive in Eugene: It’s possible I now await Wendy and Lucy, I’ve Loved You So Long and Let the Right One In with even greater anticipation. These hopes? They’re unquashable. Barely.

The Spirit (PG-13, 103 minutes, ) vaguely concerns the origin of, er, the Spirit (Gabriel Macht), a crimefighter who has a hard time staying dead (and whose suits-and-Chuck-Taylors style brings to mind David Tennant as Doctor Who), but Frank Miller’s film (based on Will Eisner’s comic) keeps losing its grasp on what the Spirit is and cares about. He begins and ends the movie lustily praising his city and all she means to him, but Miller is too distracted by the parade of babes, matching goons, ancient supernatural artifacts and hyper-stylized sets he’s whipped up to create anything like a sense of place. Or a story. Gotham this ain’t. The film is a mess, an inexplicable waste of time and talent. It’s incoherent and thinks it’s far more snappy and sexy than it is, yet when it gets to the point when a bored, droll Silken Floss (Scarlet Johansson, who might not be doing much acting here) is peering over the shoulder of mad scientist villain the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson at his very weirdest) at a tiny, squeaking head attached to a normal-sized foot … it gets oddly entertaining. Briefly. And then there’s the bit with the Nazi costumes and the melting kitten, which, to be honest, I may have found somewhat funny simply out of sheer desperation; anything is better than the Octopus bludgeoning the Spirit with a toilet while declaring “Toilets are always funny!” I beg to differ.

Look, I’ve had a dog. I’m admittedly more cat person than dog person, but I’ve bawled my eyes out over a dog more than once, and that counts real dogs as well as fictional ones (hello, The Art of Racing in the Rain). Dog stories always go to the same place, and if you don’t see that coming, I’m very sorry. I’m also sorry that despite the occasional cute puppy moment, Marley and Me (PG, 120 minutes, ) is two hours of standard-issue domestic dog-owning dramedy in which Jenny (Jennifer Aniston) and John Grogan (Owen Wilson) are shiny, blonde, well-off people who, despite being fairly intelligent folks, apparently couldn’t be bothered to consider training (or neutering) their naughty puppy before he became a full-sized dog who gnaws on everything in sight. But it’s not really about the dog, is it? It’s about life. The thing is, life changes people, and though Marley and Me takes place over more than a decade, John barely changes (though his paycheck and house appear to grow exponentially over the years). He doesn’t even get exhausted and harried after the couple’s second kid, as his wife does. He figures out that he’s a better columnist than reporter and that he’s more into kids than his bachelor friend Sebastian (Eric Dane, roughly playing his Grey’s Anatomy character with a different career). And that’s about it. As an escapist vision of suburban happiness, I suppose you could do worse — largely thanks to Aniston, whose talent for playing slightly frazzled, warm-hearted thirtysomethings is far better suited to this film than Owen Wilson’s detached presence.

I would rather watch The Spirit on repeat than have to suffer through the offensively inane Bedtime Stories (PG, 95 minutes, ) ever again. Not even the “Oh, it’s a children’s movie, lighten up” argument carries any weight here, as pretty much the only child-friendly thing about this film is the simple fact that there are children in it (and, briefly, a booger monster). This is a movie about (and presumably for) vindictive, self-centered jerks who think life owes them something — ideally it owes them the sweet girl next door and a high-paying job, among other things. Sure, Skeeter (Adam Sandler) does pull off one nice thing in the movie, but it’s just as self-serving as everything else he does. (The flat jabs at everyone from hippie-liberal moms to Paris Hilton feel needlessly nasty, too.) The movie’s nadir comes when Skeeter, in an attempt to win control of the giant hotel built where his father’s quaint motel once stood, explains his vision of a new theme hotel, and it sounds, well, suspiciously like Disneyland (of course it’s a Disney movie) — the only thing limiting your fun is your imagination, folks! But Bedtime Stories earns half a star simply for casting Russell Brand as Skeeter’s goofy waiter friend. Brand tones down his schtick a bit for this thinks-it’s-a-family-film, but his every appearance is pretty much all Bedtime Stories has going for it. 

Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie (PG-13, 120 minutes, ) is a strange bird; it’s competent, but I expect more from Singer (The Usual Suspects, X2). It’s also a great example of how a compelling central idea — the resistance of certain German army officers to Hitler’s rule — does not guarantee a compelling film. Valkyrie concerns a 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. It takes its title from an army operation that is rewritten to serve those hoping to turn Germany around. But we know from the start that the plan is doomed, meaning the movie’s stress and suspense must come not from the question of whether it fails, but the explanation of how it fails and who the people are who tried to carry it out in the first place. The explanation is elaborate but flat, and the people are simply pillars of good, doing the right thing for no reason other than that it is the right thing. Where he could have given us character development, connection, some reason to move beyond simply admiring these men’s bravery, Singer instead gives us excess detail: The film falters under a pile of shots of messages conveyed and phone calls connected. The cast — which includes Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp and Tom Wilkinson — is solid, but their roles are too similar, the layers of authority and level of investment in the plan all that sets one noble soul apart from the next. Well, and the fact that one of them is Tom Cruise, which is awfully hard to forget, eyepatch and missing hand be damned.