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Thursday, Aug 16, 2007


If you ever wondered what Sixteen Candles, the John Hughes teen comedy from the mid-‘80s would look and sound like fashioned after the aesthetic mindset of someone like Kevin Smith, Superbad is the answer. Gloriously profane, single minded in its ‘anything for sex’ approach, and expert at capturing how real adolescents express themselves, this bookend presentation from the Judd Apatow party posse (in this case, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Greg Mottola) proves that 2007 definitely belongs to the former Freaks and Geeks patrol. Though not as consistently funny as June’s jocular Knocked Up, this far more ephemeral farce turns the last days of high school (ala Dazed and Confused) into a wickedly wild walk on the decidedly drunk and horny side of adolescence. It also shows that youth’s impracticality and fearless nature can be parlayed into one helluva good time.


Ever since they were small, Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill) have been buddies. Pals. Inseparable best friends. They’ve watched each other’s back, and supported one another through many of life’s pre-college pitfalls. But now senior year is almost over and the unthinkable is about to happen. Evan got into Darmouth. So did the dorky tag-along Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). But Seth must settle for State, meaning he will not be joining his associates in the Fall. And while they deny any possible problem with this arrangement, inside each guy is hurting. Luckily, a hot chick named Jules is throwing a party, and she wants Seth to provide the booze. Since he’s underage, he must rely on Fogell’s fake ID. Matters get a little complicated during the alcohol run, and before you know it, the police are involved, Seth and Evan hate each other, and everyone finds themselves miles away from the ribald revelry.


Like the best elements of the last three decades of big screen comedy, Superbad utilizes smart dialogue, brilliant situational satire, loads of gross out gags, and just a smidgen or post-millennial irony to turn growing up into a spectator sport. So laugh out loud funny at times that you wonder why other so-called humor fests are so haphazard and dull, this incredibly vulgar vamp is the antidote to the current crappy Hollywood excuses for sidesplitting (are you listening, Chuck and Larry???). There will be those that balk at all the boner humor, who hear Seth describe a grade school obsession with drawing male genitalia and cringe at the lack of subtlety in the material. But just as they proved this past June, no one understands the unspoken human dynamic, the part of us that we hide from the rest of the public, better than this clever crew. We may not want to admit it, but something like Superbad expertly exposes what we’re secretly thinking inside.


Granted, the movie has its missteps. The acquiescing cops, the loser law enforcers who end up playing patsies to all the teen shenanigans, really don’t work as characters or creative choices. Played by screenwriter Rogen and SNL’s Bill Hader, they’re very weak links in what is otherwise a solid satiric set up. After all, kids cracking up over their coming of age doesn’t need the support of stunted adults to justify its rule breaking logistics. While they provide some clever lines, they tend to drag the narrative down. Even more troublesome is the second act slip into an odd adult/adolescent standoff. When Evan and Seth accept a ride from a practically pedophilic passerby, his entire in-car conversation is shady. Once they arrive at the promised liquor-rich shindig, things turn ugly quickly. While the sequence does contain one of the movie’s best running ‘gags’ (manifesting all definitions of that word), it tends to destabilize the otherwise jovial juvenilia.

What does work here, and works brilliantly, mind you, is the interaction between Cera, Hill, and newcomer Mintz-Plasse. Years of sitcom saturation have convinced us that teenagers all talk like acerbic standups, using their limited time onscreen to provide worthless one-liners as substitutes for smarts. Here, Rogen and Goldberg give us the true sound of how sexually insecure males speak. Granted, the dialogue is overloaded with words that, two decades ago, kids wouldn’t be caught dead delivering (especially not to girls), but like all good observational humorists, these guys have decided to wisely change with the changing times. This gives Superbad a richness that underscores the complete lack of tact the characters exhibit. In addition, the last act return to their little boy roots is hilarious, since it illustrates how ill-prepared they really are for their future as adults. It’s a nice touch in a movie that spends a lot of time in outlandish excess.


While American Pie may claim the status as first film to make girls as gonzo as the guys pursuing them, Superbad is equally refreshing in this regard. It used to be that females were the object of horny male fantasy and relegated to eye candy, empty and vacuous without a significant emotional or psychological stance. True T and A, that was all. But thanks to a new, more knowing view about the battle of the sexes, ladies are just as lewd as the guys. In addition, the movie also comprehends the need to manufacture a kind of character recognizability. Mintz-Plasse gets the scene stealing sequence surrounding his fake ID (and the soon to be schoolyard mantra, “McLovin”) but we also get Hill’s hilarious lack of inner monologue and Cera stumblebum sweetness. Together they fuse in a way that makes anything they do seem interesting and engaging. If those crazy cops hadn’t shown up every 30 seconds to drag the movie off into the realm of the ridiculous, Superbad could stand as this decade’s American Graffiti. Or, at the very least, it’s Porky’s. This is one of the most insightful films about growing up lost and lusting every made.


Though it seems like a thoroughly modern experience, Superbad does have a delicious throwback mentality, a sense of humiliating history reminiscent of those days in back of the classroom, trading newly learned dirty jokes with your fellow classmates. It’s as smart as it is silly, as warm as it is wanton. There will be a few who shiver at the plethora of blue words, and when all is said and done, the narrative does seem a tad slight. We don’t really learn any major lessons here except friendship is forever and chicks dig dorks who get their butt kicked. Destined to make stars out of its quasi-celebrity cast, this will be a film many remember as their own rite of entertainment passage. If audiences weren’t convinced of the Apatow edge by the one-two punch of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up! , Superbad supplies the slam dunk to finalize the thesis. Unlike most makers of movie comedy, this is one group of guys who understand how to make viewers literally scream with laughter.


Superbad - Trailer



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Saturday, Aug 11, 2007


Where and when, exactly, did Neil Gaiman earn all this geek love credentials? It’s safe to say that, outside the insular realm of select comic book purists (a mighty force, for sure), his name barely garners a blip among mainstream media hawks. Yet his has always been a presence burbling around the pop culture surface – a well received British miniseries here, a couple of sold scripts to Hollywood there. Granted, there is no denying the impact of his Sandman series among graphic novel enthusiasts, and the remainder of his writings (prose, pen and ink, etc.) have only increased his formidable fanbase. Still, when did he become the oft-cited ‘next big thing’, and why would any studio risk their potential summer blockbuster dollars on a basically unproven act. Unfortunately, there’s no clear response from the late in the season release, Stardust.


As a flawed fractured fairy tale, this only average film sputters when it should soar. It saves up its best material for the final act confrontation between good and evil, and then never once doubts the outcome. As fantasy, it’s flimsy, simply regurgitating ideas and elements from past familiar fables. This would be fine if Gaiman, via screenwriters Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, had anything novel or quirky to add to the genre. But instead, he’s more serious than satiric, dishing out ‘dead clever’ conceits like they’re sweets at an orphanage. We’re supposed to grin at the ghostly visages of the King’s dead sons, each still wearing the manner of their demise. When the fabled three witches discover a new source of their much coveted immortality, we’re supposed to giggle at their glamour gal antics. From a scene stealing sequence of gay pirating (more on this in a moment) to a token take on honor and valor, Stardust wants you to leave happy, ever after. In this case, we’re only mildly amused.


It all starts with a stunted hero, the head over heels in obsession Tristan (Charlie Cox), who determines that he will bring a recent fallen star back to the object of his affection – in this case, the Renaissance fair version of a Hilton sister. When he makes it over “THE WALL” – the ancestral dividing line between his world and the kingdom of Stormhold (don’t ask) – he discovers that the celestial body has transformed into a maiden, the ineffectually ephemeral Yvaine (Claire Danes). Also interested in this newly arrived entity are the three witches Mormo, Empusa, and head heavy, Lamia (Michelle Pfieffer). By eating her heart, they can live forever. In addition, the remaining sons of the King (Peter O’Toole) are after a rare gem that will guide the next heir to the throne. Turns out, Yvaine has that too. So it’s an ersatz-epic journey across picturesque Scottish landscapes to save the ‘luminary’, find the stone, and keep the wicked wenches at bay.


With its A-list cast and big budget support, there’s no real reason for Stardust to slump so. After all, if you can’t make Michelle Pfieffer in full craggy cackle mode resonate as pure evil, or a coy Claire Danes radiate with ethereal beauty, there is something wrong with your vision. Part of the problem is obviously Gaiman. He’s cribbing from William Goldman (The Princess Bride) and some lesser sword and sorcery efforts (Stardust frequently feels like Krull combined with the worst elements of George Lucas’ labored Willow) to brace his otherwise stiff English lip. And to think – director Matthew Vaughn (responsible for the heralded Brit crime flick Layer Cake) actually turned down a chance to helm X-Men: The Last Stand to make this movie. True, that eventual Brett Ratner washout wasn’t the greatest example of the super hero genre, but it was far more effective at what it was trying to accomplish than this worn out whimsy.


Vaughn does swing for the rafters, hoping to earn some crowd pleasing points by featuring former Method mob man Robert DeNiro as the gayest buccaneer in the profitable lightning procurement trade. Putting on a macho façade for his typical tough guy crew, he secretly fancies hairdressing, tea parties, and his closet full of fancy dresses. Whether he’s swishing or swashbuckling (and sometimes, both), Scorsese’s go to guy is a sly setpiece stunt, a way of taking the audience’s mind off the previous hour of meandering Magic: The Blathering. He goes over like gangbusters, and it’s within these winning moments that we see the movie Stardust could have been. Mixing genres and tones is never a solid foundation for a film, and it requires a director of deft designs to find the mystical interconnections to make it all gel flawlessly. Vaughn is not quite in that vaunted league. He still thinks swordplay should be shot with one eye on the editing room, the other on the action.


Once De Niro disappears, Stardust cruises on his glorified gimmickry for quite a while. We get the standard “will they kiss” romantic rehash, the transformation of our lead from dork to debonair (thanks to his prissy pirate pal), and a couple of massive logic leaps (it takes Pfieffer’s witch 75 minutes to find our heroes, yet only one jump cut to immediately return to her castle?). During the aforementioned finale, something metaphysically surreal and outside the film occurs. When a special power makes its last act presence known, the viewer’s mind begins asking a simple question – why didn’t they do that before. Like clockwork, the movie steps up and anticipates this charge, delivering an explanation before moving on. Maybe Vaughn thought that was clever. Maybe it’s a jaundice critical eye looking carefully for all the plot holes. Yet it indicates the kind of slapdash feel that Stardust is steeped in. Unlike other, better examples of the fantasy film, the narrative feels more or less made up on the spot.


And this is perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome in any work of “once upon a time.” In most instances, an audience either buys into the premise or they don’t. They follow your invented logic and brand new legends or they’re lost, never to willingly return to the shores of this daydream nation. With other examples in the entertainment arena – Neverwhere, the Henson Company’s clever Mirrormask – it’s clear that Gaiman will be a fixture in film for sometime to come. Yet it’s his future productions that will most likely leave an imprint. Stardust, however, makes the major mistake of substituting weakness for the wistful. There are parts of this film that actually try to fly. The vast majority though is grounded in a level of labored levity that never provides the wings - or the wherewithal – to get airborne.



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Thursday, Aug 9, 2007


Chris Tucker is smart as Hell. Don’t believe it? Well, can you name another actor earning $25 million for doing the same thing he’s done for the last nine years – the EXACT same thing, mind you. In 1998, the African American comic moved from minor supporting roles in films like Jackie Brown and Dead Presidents to a starring stint alongside then hot Hong Kong action icon Jackie Chan. The movie, Rush Hour, directed by novice filmmaker Brett Ratner, went on to be a massive hit, spawning a sequel and a whole new career for the newly minted megastar. After Rush Hour 2 did similar boffo box office, Tucker’s professional path was clear: do nothing; wait around until the audience demands another dose of Detective James Carter; maximize the upfront money. It didn’t matter if Rush Hour 3 was a derivative take on the previous cross culture buddy pic. It would be time, once again, to give the people what they want.


And you know what – he’s worth it. Oh, don’t misunderstand. Rush Hour 3 is junk – witless, uncomplicated, consisting of disposable vignettes of vaudeville like burlesque followed by borderline racist returns to the days of Mantan Moreland. That last analogy is rather appropriate – Tucker’s Carter isn’t a clever or confident police officer. He’s a prop, sent into each and every scene as a low brow Greek chorus waiting to make with the urban smart-ass spiel. Instead of bugging his eyes and mangling the language like those outrageous and despicable portrayals of minorities past, he’s a post-modern pawn screaming his shrill one-liners about Michael Jackson and booty with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. He’s not an actor – he’s the Corbin-screeching character from The Fifth Element refitted with some styling clothes and a hip-hop swagger. And the audience just eats it up.


If there is any rationale for his outsized payday, it’s the fact that Tucker knows his demo. He’s not playing to suburbia, or the critics who seem to find nothing but fault in his donkey bray bravado. No, he’s directly connected to the hardworking, hope-driven people who, after paying their carefully controlled disposable income, merely want to sit back and have a good time. When he channels James Brown via the King of Pop during an opening setpiece underscored by Prince’s “Do Me Baby”, it’s not meant to have narrative or aesthetic significance. It’s a stand-up shout out to the people paying to see him. Similarly, he gets another onscreen song and dance when he tries to save a suspected informant by crooning Roberta Flack’s “The Closer I Get to You”. Tucker knows these crowdpleasing vanity fairs leave the fanbase reeling. This means that Rush Hour 3 as a thriller or other cinematic genre has to do very little to get by.


For those interested in the backdrop to all this buffoonery, Tucker and Chan reteam when an Asian ambassador to the World Criminal Court (???) is gunned down by an assassin. Turns out this hitman is working for the Triad, whose goal is to protect the identity of someone or something called the ‘Shao Shin’. All leads point toward France, and so our slightly ditzy duo is off to Paris to procure the mysterious item. There, they meet a sadistic police chief (a weird cameo from Roman Polanski), an American-hating cabby, and the standard array of misplaced Hong Kong killers. After a few dust-ups and a completely gratuitous car chase, our heroes end up at the top of the Eiffel Tower, where they must take on gun totting hoods, rescue the kidnapped daughter of the now hospitalized diplomat, and find an efficient way of tying all the loose ends together from their sloppy, shoestring plot.


Now, some will sneer and say that us ‘haters’ shouldn’t be so dismissive. After all, this is just some mindless fun fostered by a couple of likable screen gems. That being said, success breeds imitation, and if the studios ever figure out how to create another martial arts/mismatched personality pariah like this (watch out, Jet Li), we could find ourselves back in 1986. Indeed, much of Rush Hour 3 feels like a throwback to the days when lazy scriptwriters cooked up half-assed premises so that otherwise talented men and women could walk away with an easy paycheck and a bit of bankability on their resume. While the post-millennial versions are really no better (the Ocean’s films, for one), this trending back to the days of Gordon Gecko only works when you have something novel (Live Free or Die Hard) or naughty (Superbad) to say. 


Besides, the inherent value in this long delayed tre-quel could be summed up by the proverbial statement, ‘absence (in this case, from the Cineplex) makes the heart grow fonder’. Since Tucker chooses to stay outside the cultural fray until one of these immaculate paydays come along, he gets the benefit of perspective and popularity. Had he been making movie after movie, honing his craft and redefining his skills, his fans would be angry with such a treading water workout. But since they’ve had to wait nearly a decade to see their favorite funnyman act the fool, they’re willing to leave the lack of context at the turnstile. It’s the same, more or less, with Chan. After the mediocre combo of Shanghai Knights and The Medallion, he went back to Asia and continued his A-list career. Rush Hour 3 his first Hollywood film since the incredibly lax Around the World in 80 Days remake from 2004.


Even more disconcerting, the man has gotten OLD. Gone are the days when the genial Asian action hero looked like a bewildered little boy. The last decade seems to have dragged the majority of vitality out of his persona, replacing it with a quiet resolve that, if exploited properly, could lead to a late in life resurrection as a character actor. Yet people want to see him stunt it up, and time has apparently mandated the need for the heretofore verboten double. It’s obvious during the opening act car chase through LA (especially when “Chan” is crossing a busy freeway), and as part of the last act fight at the top of the Eiffel Tower. There is no begrudging the 53 year old a little help – he’s been a more than impressive daredevil for far too long. But it doesn’t bode well that Chan is in the last phase of his signature stage. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.


So, in what appears to be a case of either studio shrewdness or luck-induced synchronicity, New Line seems to be striking while the iron is as hot as its going to get. Besides, since they are fully aware of the film’s inherent silliness (it could be subtitled Abbot and Costello-san Meet the Chinese Mafia) and lack of sophistication, they are banking on the frequently potent paradigm known as “the lowest common denominator” to see them through. Success will not be based on the wit – after all, do audiences still find old white ladies talking jive and oily loser lotharios funny? – nor will it be founded on the hackneyed whodunit - see if you can’t guess the secret bad guy before the initial credits are complete. No, Rush Hour 3 will earn its scratch on the carefully controlled commerciality of Chris Tucker. Just don’t be surprised when, eight years and $30 million dollars from now, he comes crawling out of the woodwork for another anemic encore. It’s apparently all he, and this franchise, seem good at.


 


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Wednesday, Aug 8, 2007

Elizabeth Taylor in Dahomey, West Africa, 1967


The Comedians (1967)
Dir: Peter Glenville


The Burtons, after a string of colossal flops, (Cleopatra, The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper), were basking in the success of their bold collaboration with Mike Nichols—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—and were looking for another piece of daring, unconventional source material for their next project. The left-wing political maelstrom of Vietnam America may have motivated them to cast their eye onto a story of the horrors of Third World dictatorship. Graham Greene’s stories of flawed, convictionless British anti-heroes discovering their humanity in turbulent countries (The Third Man, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana) seemed to be a recipe for art-house success; in any case, they provided actors with memorable character roles and crackling, ironic dialogue. Torrid love amidst political unrest in the tropics was a formula that had been popular in Hollywood since Casablanca, only in Greene’s love affairs no one ever came out a hero. 


“The Comedians:”: Smith (Paul Ford), Jones (Alec Guinness), and Brown (Richard Burton)


Greene’s The Comedians tells of self-indulgent British and American expatriates emotionally going to pieces during the nightmarish regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1960s Haiti. It blended the aching bitterness of The End of the Affair with the postcolonial anxiety and malaise of The Heart of the Matter. Greene noticed that in times of utter hopelessness, people coped through humor and self-delusion. The comedians of the title are two Brits, Brown (Richard Burton) and Jones (Alec Guinness), and an American, Smith (Paul Ford).  The deliberate banality of their names echoes some bad men’s room joke (“Three men, Jones, Brown, and Smith, walk into a bar…”).  Their neurotic personalities, amidst the tragic scale of death and murder in Haiti, are meaningless, and their identities, are essentially interchangeable.


Brown has just returned from New York in a failed effort to sell the depilated hotel he inherited from his late mother. His real reason for coming back to Port-au-Prince is to resume his affair with the Brazilian Ambassador’s German wife, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor).  Smith is a do-gooding American politician, an ex-presidential candidate of ’48, who has come to Haiti to set up a school and health center devoted to vegetarianism in the slums. He and his wife, played by the extraordinary silent-film actress Lilian Gish, were Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement, whose ordeal in Mississippi, they believe, has prepared them for anything.  Jones is an amateur arms dealer who has come to supply American weapons to the Tontons Macoutes (Papa Doc’s sunglassed secret police). Unfortunately, his business partner in Miami has absconded the cash advance and fled, leaving Jones at the mercy of cold blooded criminals.  Jones is the catalyst of the story, and his attempted escape from the Tontons, is the farce that unseemingly unleashes a domino effect of mistaken murders and thwarted relationships.


Peter Glenville directing the voodoo ceremony scene


The director of the film was a talented veteran of British theatre, Peter Glenville. His 1965 film, Beckett, also starting Burton, and Peter O’Toole, made him a popular, “classy” filmmaker at the time.  But The Comedians would wind up finishing his career.  The movie was such a critical and financial failure, that Glenville would never work in Hollywood again. This is one of those unfortunate incidents where history is against an ambitious project. The Comedians opened in the wake of the Black Panther Movement of the late ‘60s, and the memory of the Civil Rights riots was still fresh.  Scenes of menacing black men in sunglasses assaulting white women, murdering people in broad daylight, were unsettling for American audiences—a reminder of latent dangers at home. 


The film’s lukewarm reception and the audience’s disappointment (most moviegoers were misled by the title, expecting to see the Burtons in romantic comedy of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson mold) caused it to be largely forgotten until the a recent box set of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s films for Warner Brothers. In hindsight, The Comedians was a daring picture for its time. The crew was, naturally banned from Haiti, and had to film in Dahomey, West Africa, where the blistering white heat and humidity can be sensed in nearly ever scene.  Greene’s screenplay is the taut, slyly ironic suspense-thriller he mastered writing, as with The Third Man.  The movie boasts an early, graceful performance from the young James Earl Jones, as a surgeon moonlighting as a rebel leader.  Actor-raconteur, Peter Ustinov, brings disarming pathos and tenderness to the relatively one-dimensional role of Taylor’s cuckolded husband.


The real star turn of the movie, however, does not come from the Burtons. They both give rather mediocre performances here (Burton is relentlessly gloomy, while Taylor is inauthentic and passive). No, it arrives in the form of Alec Guinness in the role of the hapless arms-dealer.  Jones was based on Greene’s former accountant, who embezzled thousands of pounds worth of Greene’s royalties and fled to South America.  A charismatic inveterate fraud, he was intended to come off as a sort of memento mori, a reminder to us of our own selfishness, of how we are willing to value liars and cheats so long as they entertain us.  Guinness adds a fey, music-hall insouciance to the role of Jones, a man who fabricates stories about being an exalted officer in WWII in order to win sympathy and trust from his clients; he’s the antithesis of his dutiful, hard-headed Col. Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai.  Jones is the weasel to Nicholson’s wounded lion.  Mendacious in part for survival, and in part, for pleasure, he’s only truly alive when he’s acting. It’s the kind of subtle comic performance that’s influenced a generation of British character actors, from John Hurt to Geoffrey Rush to Bill Nighy.  Some of the film’s most affecting moments involve Jones’ undoing; the scene where Brown and the rebel leader/surgeon trap Jones into leading a guerrilla revolt over a game of gin rummy at the ambassador’s mansion is priceless in its mordant black humor.



It’s a shame that The Comedians is not more widely seen and appreciated.  It’s not an outstanding film, but it’s a brave one in it’s own way.  Today’s audience may easily find it patronizing and colonial: a hot jungle hell of black magic and political corruption that serves as the backdrop for a group of prominent whites. But certain scenes stay with you: the unsettling young men in dark sunglasses who vandalize the funeral hearse of a dissident, small schoolchildren in starched white uniforms being led to watch a public execution, a crowded, smoke-filled voodoo ceremony where a live chicken is decapitated and the priest brandishes the blade in the air to point it to a sacrificial inductee.



If anyone has the balls to taunt a Third World tyrant, it would be a best-selling author and a celebrity power couple. Imagine Christopher Hitchens and ‘Brangelina’ collaborating on a movie about Kim Jong-ill. The Burtons-Greene partnership opened the world’s eyes to Haiti, made them take notice of the abuse of power and trust that was going on in this small island country.  Together they gave it color through a host of colorful characters, and their depiction of the nation—its poverty, its fetid jungles, its colonial French legacy, intoxicating voodoo rituals, the terrifying blackouts and nighttime raids of the Tontons Macoutes, gave an urgency to the country’s turmoil; The Comedians brought the horrors of Third World dictatorship to life for a complacent late 60s audience. At the time, sadly, few cared.


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Saturday, Aug 4, 2007


Underdog is so piecemeal it should come with a roll of duct tape. It’s so desperate to be everything to everyone that it ends up being very little to nobody in particular. Scripted by a committee that obviously didn’t contain a logician, a comedian, or someone adept at characterization, what we wind up with is a one trick dog and pony show without the little horse. As family films go, it’s about par for the pathetic course. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t care if it entertains – it just needs to recoup its minimal monetary outlay and guarantee a decent sell through return come DVD time. It’s hard to figure out what’s more insulting about this post-millennial live action update – the way it talks down to, and then plays perfunctorily, to its intended audience, or the opening credits callback to the original series, complete with material showing the classic cartoon icons we’ve come to know and love.


Forgoing the original animated series sense of serious heroics, this version of the crime-fighting cur begins with our hapless hound flunking some kind of police dog test. Picked up off the street by mad scientist Simon Barsinister and his conceited cohort, Cad, our perfectly ordinary pup becomes infused with mega-manipulated DNA, and before you know it, he’s talking, flying, and doing his damnedest to take a bite out of crime. Somehow, through contrivance or convenience, he ends up with widower ex-cop Dan Unger and his unhappy son Jack. At first, his domestic situation is perilous. Dan likes the mutt, but Jack could care less. Yet once he learns that his pet can converse, kick butt, and canvas the cityscape looking for lawlessness, our adolescent has a change of heart. They team together to rid Capital City of its occasional criminals, while fighting off the advances of Barsinister. Seems the brainiac has gone bonkers, and won’t rest until he has the newly crowned “Underdog”’s genetic material for some misguided course of world domination.


When you’re a genre – the kid’s flick – that has a hard enough time keeping one narrative conceit viable and floating in the air, trying to tackle several is creative suicide. Yet Underdog wants to walk along the course of the superhero film, the casual family drama, the retro-cool cartoon callback, and the basic boy and his dog spiel. Add in the whole anthropomorphized angle, the CGI spectacle, the grade school level humor, and the thriller-lite logistics and you’ve got the equivalent of a regurgitated Milk Bone. Indeed, there’s a real “insert idea” here dynamic at play in the film, a sense that someone came along and, for example, mandated a “father/son sitdown”, leaving the director to figure out how to wedge it in. It’s hard to fault Belgian Frederick Du Chau. He’s not really dealing with Shakespeare, and he does infuse the animal scenes with much of the magic he gave to the surprise sleeper Racing Stripes. Still, he’s not completely off the hook. He does let his action scenes veer wildly out of control, dominating the smaller facets of the film.


As for the cast, there are misguided decisions everywhere. The only clever choice was putting Peter Dinklage in the role of the psycho Simon Barsinister. While he never fully channels the animated evildoer’s maniacal menace, he is very good at stunted insanity. Unfortunately, he is given the attempted scene stealing of Patrick Warburton to work alongside. As Cad, the supposedly stupid sidekick, our pal Puddy is all over the map – cracking wise, playing dumb, attempting his own course of criminal mischief – and absolutely none of it works. He is so outside the whole Underdog ideal that you can literally see the sequences where he’s barely holding on. In the pinnacle role of human transponder, young Alex Neuberger is bad. Not ‘fall on his face, never work in show business again’ bad, but his performance argues a real inability to connect convincingly with the inanimate. This kid obviously had to work very closely with a regular dog (or a cardboard mock up) and his lack of inherent interest shows. It frequently feels like he’s merely repeating lines, not interacting with an intelligent pal.


And then there’s Jason Lee. First, a minor creative caveat – no matter how hard they tried, the creators of this cornball cash grab were never going to be able to match Wally Cox’s wonderful work on the animated series. The perfect pipsqueak, the bespectacled actor did an amazing job of both presenting Shoeshine Boy’s good natured wholesomeness and Underdog’s mutt machismo. Wisely, the movie takes the character in a different direction, and for what it’s worth, Lee is very good as the insecure hound who starts to recognize his own innate powers – its just not Underdog. He’s goofy, funny, personable, and zippy – he’s just not Underdog. In fact, the filmmakers would have been more honest with their audience had they changed the name of this film to Super–Bud (in honor of the long running athletic Golden Retriever franchise) and left it at that. It’s painful watching the story try to find ways to reference the cartoon (as when our hero mangles the English language looking for a way to say his noted catchphrase), and since it really wants to avoid the old school stance, it’s a more than mutual divorce.


In fact, what Disney should have done was step back for a moment and think this whole thing through. Instead of using Underdog for its foundation (obviously tagged for all the tie-in value, including name recognition and possible DVD offerings of the old show), they could have concocted their own talking dog adventure. They could have mined some of the same territory that Babe did, using the element of interspecies communication to anchor an entire animal oriented crime fighting unit. Like 2001’s Cats and Dogs, except with a sense of purpose, they could make their hero hound an undercover champion, playing fetch with his family by day, heading out into the city to stop crime at night. Tie it to the whole notion of what the phrase “man’s best friend” really means, and use the imagination that, at one time, made the House of Mouse famous to jumpstart your own kid-friendly franchise. Why sully a sentimental favorite with blatant product placement (General Mills) and tween tested poop jokes – especially when you have no real desire to replicate the original?


For the answer to these and other questions, there is no need to tune in tomorrow. Underdog is here today, and if the wee ones haven’t already inundated you with requests to hit the Cineplex, they will (or worse, demand a copy of their own come turnaround time). The featured beagle is very cute, endearing in a puppy dog eyes kind of way. Meshed with Lee’s likable personality, he becomes the companion every child would want. You can’t buy this kind of commercial drawing power – it’s instinctual in the prepubescent set. Though its lacks anything remotely novel or fresh, and fails to provide much in the way of adult-oriented laughs (unless you consider watching Jim Belushi’s aged behind bumble up some stairs the height of humor), the demographic will be delighted by Underdog’s zero-to-hero hokum. Who cares if the studio suits dropped the ball on this one: the little people pleasing pooch is right there, ready to fetch it all the way to the bank.


 


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