Sunday, July 26, 2009

Review: G-Force (***1/2)

Zach Galifianakis (Ben), Will Arnett (Kip Killian), Bill Nighy (Saber), Kelli Garner (Marcie), Piper Mackenzie Harris (Penny), Tyler Patrick Jones (Connor), Jack Conley (Agent Carter), Gabriel Casseus (Agent Trigstad), Justin Mentell (Terrell), Niecy Nash (Rosalita), Loudon Wainwright III (Grandpa Goodman). Featuring the voices of Sam Rockwell (Darwin), Penelope Cruz (Juarez), Nicolas Cage (Speckles), Tracy Morgan (Blaster), Jon Favreau (Hurley), Steve Buscemi (Bucky). Directed by Hoyt Yeatman. Rated PG (action, rude humor). 89 minutes.

In 2005, Disney released a film that was a glorious spectacle in the B-movie tradition. It was called "Sky High," and it was a dazzling mix of the "Harry Potter" series and "The Incredibles" that worked wonders and was that summer's most fun release by a mile, a joyous respite that worked as well as, but in different ways than, the darker releases that season, such as the final "Star Wars" film or the "Batman" reboot. In the same way, and with one minor but considerable flaw, "G-Force" is this year's answer. The film is in no way smart or sophisticated, but how can it be? It's about guinea pigs that are special agents with the FBI! The plot calls for a B-movie and "G-Force" delivers the goods.

The movie forms some sort of plot. Appliance manufacturer Leonard Saber is developing brand new technology to go along with his devices (including a specially-designed coffee maker); it will connect them using a radio frequency. But his inventions seemingly hide something more sinister: the operation reveals something called Clusterstorm, a plot to overrun the world with machines. On the case are the G-Force of the title, and they include: three guinea pigs named Darwin, Juarez, and Blaster and their mole Speckles. The team escape from the clutches of the FBI and are marooned in a pet shop. Here they meet Hurley, an unsure, slightly overweight guinea pig, desperate to leave the pen. After losing one of their own team members in an escape plan gone awry, team leader Darwin is keen on vengeance--and will stop at nothing to prevent global destruction.

If we still lived in the times of VHS, video tapes everywhere would probably be worn out watching "G-Force." It's just that type of movie. It reminds, in tone, of last year's "Meet Dave," except with better special effects and a much more sufferable first act. "Meet Dave" was neither as terrible as the trailers were nor as clever as the concept was. "G-Force," on the other hand, is much more involving than its concept would initially seem. The idea of guinea pigs as special agents is tired and juvenile, sort of like making a movie about Alvin and his fellow chipmunks, which did happen, to disastrous results. "G-Force" is the Second Coming in comparison and much cleverer than most kid-friendly espionage movies out there; it's the best of its kind since the underrated, kind-of-visionary gem "Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams" and trumps fare like both "Agent Cody Banks" movies, "Catch That Kid," and the unbearable "Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker," none of which have the wit or style of this film.

The G-Force is a likable troupe of guinea pigs and more characterized than you may think--with one exception. Leader Darwin, plagued by guilt over the loss of a good friend around the end of the first act, turns into the consummate movie hero, extremely likable, resourceful, and flawed. Sam Rockwell embues humanity into his role, which is one of the best voiceovers in a Disney film I've seen a long while. Agent Juarez is somewhat of an off-to-the-side role but Penelope Cruz does what she can and does it well, besides. As Hurley, Jon Favreau is hilarious and heartfelt, much the same way John Ratzenberger is in his many voiceovers for Pixar's films. Nicolas Cage's voice is completely unrecognizable as Speckles, the mole in two different ways, but he's terrific and almost photorealistic in execution.

If the film has a flaw, it is in the inclusion of Agent Blaster, voiced irritatingly by Tracy Morgan, who is underqualified for this role. They could've gotten Eddie Murphy and the role could probably have the potential to be a Donkey-type of beloved animated character. More intriguing is Steve Buscemi's virtual extended cameo as Bucky, a fellow petshop-mate of Hurley's, who is funnier with 10 minutes of screen time than Blaster is in the entire picture. My suggestion to the writers would be to switch those characters and the star rating might have been pushed up to four stars.

Luckily, Blaster only pauses the experience and doesn't bring it to a complete halt. Otherwise, the film is unadulterated fun and one of the better movies this summer. The action scenes are actually intense (something I didn't foresee), and the villain, Saber, is played with great relish by Bill Nighy. One might think Nighy is too good, but he impresses from frame one with a deliciously over-the-top performance that reminds of John Malkovich's Pascal Sauvage in the underrated "Johnny English" or Jim Broadbent's Inspector Butterman in the brilliant "Hot Fuzz" (which this film is the kid-version of). The other human actors are window-dressing, like Zach Galifianakis and an underused Will Arnett, but that is perfectly okay under the circumstances.

Director Hoyt Yeatman has directed his first feature after years of special effects work, but he proves himself worthy with this film, a kind of Michael Bay for the kiddos. He frames some of his action scenes as Bay would. The ending would have been derivative of "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," what with its Transformer made out of kitchen appliances, but it's practically as insane as some of the stuff in last month's action masterpiece. The special effects are nearly as accomplished and deliriously beautiful. That Oscar winner Scott Stokdyk (look him up) helped with effects is not surprising. Editor Mark Goldblatt has worked on such big-budget films as "Starship Troopers," "Armageddon," "Hollow Man," and "Bad Boys II," and he uses every tool in his arsenal here (that "G-Force" is better than those movies is perhaps more indicative of their deficiencies, but what the hey).

"G-Force" is a wonderful family film, one that is unexpectedly moving at times and nearly always funny; but it has that extra layer of ingenuity that most live-action family films from Disney have missing. This summer has presented disappointments, like "Terminator Salvation" and "Land of the Lost," both films with better advertising than this and another surprise, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." "G-Force" is a big success and should be seen by 7-year-olds everywhere. One of the shocking aspects about the movie is its refusal to pander to the age group and then treat them like imbeciles. There is a genuinely surprising twist at the end that kids may not like, but they will certainly understand it. It treats its target age with respect and doesn't condescend. That's all we can ask for.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Review: Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince (****)

Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Emma Watson (Hermione Granger), Jim Broadbent (Horace Slughorn), Michael Gambon (Albus Dumbledore), Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Maggie Smith (Minerva McGonagall), Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley), Jessie Cave (Lavender Brown), Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange), Robbie Coltrane (Rubeus Hagrid), Frank Dillane (Tom Riddle at 16), Hero Fiennes-Tiffin (Tom Riddle at 11), Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Warwick Davis (Professor Flitwick), Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley), Julie Walters (Molly Weasley), Natalia Tena (Nymphadora Tonks), David Thewlis (Remus Lupin), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), Freddie Stroma (Cormac McLaggen), James Phelps (Fred Weasley), Oliver Phelps (George Weasley), Amelda Brown (Mrs. Cole), Anna Shaffer (Romilda Vane), Elerica Gallagher (Waitress), Georgina Leonidas (Katie Bell), Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew), David Bradley (Argus Filch), Isabella Laughland (Leanne), Alfie Enoch (Dean Thomas). Directed by David Yates. Rated PG (scary images, violence, language, sensuality). 153 minutes.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," like "Star Trek" before it, represents this summer's biggest success. Not only is the film itself a masterwork (and boy, is it), but like the film that went as boldly as ever, this one doesn't simply center around amazing visual effects. It deals with matters of the heart, too, and crafts one of the best suspense thrillers in recent years. Shymalan and Hitchcock would be proud of some of the set pieces on display here. The sheer aptitude that clearly-gifted director David Yates uses to film what is probably the hardest PG-rating for any movie ever, or at least since "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" 25 years ago, is something to behold. Also, the film boasts the best cinematography of the year and certainly of the series.

Following the tragic death of his godfather Sirius Black, Harry Potter's summer between fifth and sixth years at Hogwarts is interrupted when Albus Dumbledore snatches him away to the nice village of Budleigh Babberton. Harry's mission: help convince Potions master hopeful Horace Slughorn to return to Hogwarts. More important are the memories that Slughorn holds of Lord Voldemort, so that Harry and Dumbledore can find Horcruxes--pieces of Voldemort's soul that, if destroyed, will be the end of him. Meanwhile, Harry himself battles another villain: affection, specifically for Ginny Weasley, Ron's younger sister. And Hermione and Ron have spats in between Ron's snogging with Lavender Brown.

There are two scenes in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" in which Hermione and Ron call Harry their best friend. It's this kind of connection that makes the film so special, more so than any visuals could. One scene in particular has Hermione pouring her heart out to Harry after Ron and Lav-Lav kiss for the first time. It's heart-wrenching and heart-warming in equal measure, because we know the friendship between them and Ron is as strong as any in the film medium. The hormones that are prevalent at the age of 16 are fierce and brutal (heck, they still are for me, four years later), and the film presents them in an uncompromising way. Luckily, there's hope yet. The last five minutes in particular are an exquisite capper on a trio of friendship that will most assuredly last a lifetime.

But it wouldn't be "Harry Potter" with the usual dazzle of special effects, and they are as accomplished as ever. The first scene has a thrilling and terrifying attack by Death Eaters on the helpless Muggles. The war has started. No one's safe. The effects used here are flawless, as are those in an equally scary attack on the Burrow (the Weasleys' house). The blurry, surreal murkiness of the transition into the crucial memory sequences couldn't be more perfect. The final sequence in a dank and dark cave is almost too realistic, with the disgusting inferi and the subsequent ring of fire Dumbledore conjures to ward them off indistinguishable from the actual-real surroundings.

The other tech credits are seamless. The musical score by Nicholas Hooper is essential to setting the mood for every scene and it does that beautifully, especially in the most tense of moments. The aforementioned cinematography by the great Bruno Delbonnel is sumptuous and utterly gorgeous, shrouding everything in a surreal light that matches the goings-on in the plot. Things at Hogwarts are not the same as they once were, and at the end, the situation is even more grave. The cinematography reflects that beautifully, especially in the emotion-driven ending. That Delbonnel has signed on to the two-part "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" gives me hope that they will be absolutely terrific-looking unlike anything else.

The actors are more than impressive. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint by now know these roles and could play them in their sleep, but luckily they don't. These are strong, committed performances by consummate professionals, not young-adult actors anymore, and the scenes of teenage hormones are beautifully played-out by all involved (also of note are equally strong takes from Bonnie Wright as Ginny and newcomer Jessie Cave as groupie Lavender Brown). Other actors of the generation include Tom Felton, as evil and conniving as ever as Draco Malfoy, with a new mission from the Dark Lord himself, and Evanna Lynch, as quirky and wise as ever in the now-historic role of Luna Lovegood (one of my personal favorite characters in the series).

But as good as the "kids" are, the adults are even better. Deserving of an Oscar nomination (and possible win) is Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. It's amazing to think that at one time I was unsure of his transition into the character, especially after the regal Richard Harris played the headmaster in the first two films. Now, though, I can't imagine anyone else playing this role better than Gambon, whose Dumbledore is a man willing to take whatever comes his way. As the wisest and most powerful wizard, it's something to behold when he becomes vulnerable in the last act; Gambon is shattering and unforgettable, a force of nature in what reminds me of Billy Crudup's devastating turn as Dr. Manhattan in "Watchmen." Alan Rickman is superbly icy in another of the year's great turns thus far. His Snape hasn't had much to do since the first film, only playing Snape in extended cameos. Snape doesn't even try to cover up his true colors by the end, and Rickman gives the character an extra layer that is unforeseen and a bit of foreshadowing for the final film in the series. And the great Jim Broadbent (one of my favorite actors ever since "The Borrowers" twelve years ago) is, well, great as Horace Slughorn, quirky and only a little conceited but with a smidge of something else when he talks about students he loved.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," as corny as it may sound, is ultimately about the power of a friendship among three people that comes around once in a blue moon. It's why the final sequence, implying a dangerous and frightening journey that they may not survive, is so beautiful. Ron and Hermione pledge their complete devotion to Harry's task as their own. The school is lost, the world is darkened by a pall of dread and gloom, but their friendship will last an entire lifetime, no matter what happens. And we all relate to it, because we all have at least one friend who is comparable (I know I do). The razzle-dazzle of special effects, the beauty of the cinematography, the pathos of the actors' performance--none of it would matter if the film didn't have that heart-wrenching element of truth and gravitas. This is one of the year's finest achievements.