guppy's film reviews

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Year: 2006
Director: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Notable Actors: Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano
Score: A-
Summary: Twisted, smart comedy, very much worth seeing.

Little Miss Sunshine is a new comedy directed by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, which works much better than you'd think. It's the story of Olive, a little girl with beauty queen aspirations, and her dysfunctional family: Sheryl (Collette), Olive's mother, who is trying to hold her family together; Richard (Kinnear), her husband, who is obsessed with his own self-improvement plan; Frank, Sheryl's gay, suicidal Proust scholar brother; Dwayne (Dano), Sheryl's son, who has taken a vow of silence and absolutely loathes his entire family; and Olive's drug-abusing, foul-mouthed grandfather and pageant routine coach. The plot revolves around the family's mission to get Olive to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.

The most obvious concern here is that it was directed by a married couple. I'm happy to report that it's not a problem at all -- the directing is very solid, no complaints here. If you're like me and didn't like Steve Carell's last movie, I am again happy to say that this one fared much better. It's a smart movie that doesn't always go for the obvious joke, or the obvious plot device.

As you might expect, Sunshine is really about the characters, all of whom play pretty well together. The best dynamic is between uncle Frank and brother Dwayne, neither of whom are particularly happy people; they spend a good chunk of time commiserating, since Frank has been placed under Dwayne's supervision to make sure he doesn't try to kill himself again. Alan Arkin is also top-notch as the grandfather, who is a drug-abusing, porno-watching, foul-mouthed advice giver. The entire cast gives good performances; Arkin and Carell are probably the most interesting, though.

Sunshine clocks in at a pretty reasonable 101 minutes. It doesn't drag, but I did find myself checking the time once or twice. Some of the jokes get repeated a couple of times and wear a little thin, but for the most part the humor is fresh; similarly, once in a while something happens that really makes you cringe, which I don't generally care for, but I didn't have any consistent problems.

Little Miss Sunshine
is a very dark comedy with a great cast and great directing that thinks outside the box. It's worth your time and your nine bucks, so I recommend giving it a look.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby

Year: 2006
Director: Adam McKay
Notable Actors: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly
Score: B
Summary: Decent for a movie. Excellent for a Will Ferrell movie.


Talladega Nights is Will Ferrell's new NASCAR-based comedy. Will Ferrell is the titular Ricky Bobby, a driver with an obsession with being first. I'm not normally a fan of Will Ferrell, but Talladega Nights was pretty watchable.

The plot of Talladega is fairly predictable. Some setup aside, Ferrell is a champion racecar driver, teamed with his best friend since grade school, Cal Naughton, Jr. (John C. Reilly). His manager, however, fed up with Ferrell's attitude, hires a French driver for the team, and while trying to prove himself during a race, Ferrell crashes, and is traumatized.

Despite a run-of-the-mill story, Talladega succeeds in the details. I wasn't constantly laughing, but there were a lot of good jokes and setups, and a couple of them I did laugh uncontrollably at. The supporting cast is also very good, including Ricky's pit manager Lucius (Michael Clarke Duncan), Ricky's wife Carley (Leslie Bibb) and especially Ricky's teammate Cal. That's partly because they're funny, but mostly it's because they're memorable.

One of the reasons I don't like Will Ferrell is that he generally seems to play the same character in every movie -- a bizarre jerk who talks in a funny voice and has absolutely no sense of self-perception -- and I don't like that character very much. Ferrell succeeds on that score in Talladega Nights, which is a bit strange because he pretty much fits that description; he's not too bright, he has a vaguely Southern accent and he acts like a complete ass without realizing it. I think it's because the character feels less forced. Ricky's accent sounds much more natural than Mugatu's (Zoolander) weird voice, for example, and Ferrell seems much more comfortable with the role and less inclined to try to wring humor out of saying dumb things loudly as he has in past movies.

Reilly is probably the best of the supporting cast. He's a caricature -- he comes off as a rather dim, redneck NASCAR driver stereotype, which is presumably what he was going for. But he's a very likeable one and a lot of fun to watch.

The script is not bad, with occasional moments of brilliance, though I don't want to spoil them by recounting them here. A lot of the humor isn't based on jokes and funny lines but rather absurd situations; Ferrell himself is at the root of most of those, and there's a fantastic twist on one from Duncan.

The movie's biggest weakness is the cookie-cutter plot; you'll see most of it coming long before it happens. The story really isn't the point, though, so that's okay. Other than that, you'll need an appreciation for situational humor, since there aren't all that many laugh-out-loud lines; if you can manage that, you should enjoy Talladega. I do recommend not getting sucked into the hype, though; a lot of people are heralding it as one of the best comedies in recent years, and I'm not sure it warrants that acclaim.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Miami Vice

Year: 2006
Director: Michael Mann
Notable Actors: Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell
Score: B-
Summary: Decent movie, but not up to par for Mann. Feels a bit disjointed. Also, doesn't have much of an '80s feel -- not necessarily a negative, but likely against viewers' expectations.

Miami Vice is a film adaptation of the popular 1980s TV show of the same name. I've never seen the show, and I think that's a handicap as far as watching this movie is concerned.

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx play Sonny and Rico, the two main characters. I think this makes two films in which I've liked Colin Farrell, the other being Intermission. Foxx turns in a fine performance as usual but nothing exceptional. Farrell is much more interesting this time around, but that's not really Foxx's fault; Farrell's part is just meatier. Li Gong is Isabella, a fairly uninteresting henchman/love interest. The only other really memorable character is José Yero (John Ortiz), who is a nice balance of competent drug smuggler and sleazeball.

The plot centers around Sonny and Rico investigating a drug ring, deep undercover, after a mole blows the cover of the original investigation team. The film largely becomes a game of maintaining cover identities, proving loyalties and doublecrossing each other after that.

Vice has Michael Mann written all over it. It's detailed, it's gritty, it's fast-moving. Unfortunately, this may not be the place for all those things. For starters, the movie is long and you feel it. It's not boring, exactly, it's just that I was ready for it to end before it did. It's also so fast-paced that it's sometimes hard to tell what's going on. By and large, I appreciate that lack of hand-holding; it's one of my favorite things about some other films, like Chinatown. But I had a little more trouble following the plot of Vice than I did the others. It's by no means incomprehensible, but you've got to pay attention. I'm not sure exactly what the issue is. It may be the editing, which jumps around a lot. It may also be the script; Mann wrote and directed the film, and he may have forgotten that we're not all in his head and don't know exactly what he's thinking. There are also a couple of totally unnecessary sex scenes, which don't really advance the plot, and aren't very explicit, thus alienating both of the likely audiences for such scenes.

Vice seems to make the assumption that the viewers have watched the show and know the characters. That would probably have been a fair assumption to make twenty years ago. These days, though, a lot of us didn't grow up with it, myself included, and it makes us feel a little left out in the cold. Sonny and Rico are pretty fleshed out, and one can follow the movie without that familiarity, but there's a lot there that you won't get if you aren't already acquainted with the source material. Or so I'm told. For example, Foxx's wife is an intel analyst, but it's possible to miss that fact entirely since it has virtually no bearing on the plot. There are two more members of the team, but the exact structure is pretty nebulous.

I've mostly been focusing on the negatives so far, but there's a lot to like about it too. It's stylish, and Mann doesn't pull any punches. The violent scenes feel violent. The shady meet-ups feel suitably underground. I also liked the sets and the costumes. For the most part, it feels like Miami -- palm trees, dance clubs, and so forth. I did find the city and soundtrack a little jarring, though. I was expecting a 1980s feel, but the city feels too fast-paced and the soundtrack is too current. I suppose Mann was shooting for a more modern reinvention, so this is probably due to my expectations. Still, when the movie is called Miami Vice, I don't think those are unreasonable expectations to hold.

Miami Vice isn't a bad movie, exactly. But I expected a little better from Mann, and it's not as accessible as I'd like.


Welcome to guppy's film reviews. This site contains my reviews of selected films. It may also include DVD information if applicable and if I choose. The reviews are my opinions only. They are not meant to be taken as objective fact and they are no one's opinions but mine.

I am not a professional film critic. I am just a guy who likes watching movies and has strong opinions.


Year: 2005
Director: Joss Whedon
Notable Actors: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin
Score: A-
Summary: Great sci-fi film with the same heart as the show. Watching Firefly probably ought to be required before seeing this, though.


Serenity is fairly unusual. It is an extension of Joss Whedon's short-lived show Firefly. Firefly is often described as a "western in space," and while I initially shied away from that classification, I have to admit it's pretty accurate. The reason Serenity is unusual is that the show was cancelled after one season due to poor numbers (generally blamed on extremely poor marketing and a time slot that it never really stood a chance in), but the characters were adapted to a feature film (Serenity) after fan outcry, which is very uncommon.

The Firefly universe isn't too complicated, but for viewers who never saw the show, may be a bit confusing. It's set fairly far in the future. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) -- Mal for short -- is now the captain of a Firefly-class ship named Serenity, which does all kinds of work, mostly illegal. But before he captained Serenity, he was a sergeant in the Resistance, a group that opposed the federation of humanity under the Alliance, and lost. (The last great battle of that war was the Battle of Serenity Valley, where Mal and his command made their last stand, and for which the ship is named.) He retains much of his old prejudice. His lieutenant is Zoe (Gina Torres), who fought with him during the Resistance. They are joined by an oddly assorted but very talented crew.

I should warn readers in advance that it will be necessary to spoil a little bit of the series in order to give a synopsis of the plot. If you haven't seen the series, you should go watch that before continuing. The Cliff's Notes version of this review: Serenity is a very good movie that should be watched, but after seeing Firefly.

During the television series, Mal and his crew took on two passengers, doctor Simon (Sean Maher) and his not-quite-right sister River (Summer Glau). It is repeatedly suggested that they are fleeing the Alliance, mostly because of River, but the show never went into too much detail about why. I can only assume that the show's creators intended to explain things as the show went on, but the show was cancelled before they could.

Serenity mostly answers that question, plus a few others raised by the series. The best praise I can give Serenity is that it recaptures the same spirit that the TV show took. The characters are probably its best feature; they're full of the same verve as they were in Firefly, and just as likeable. Mal is front and center, but it's up in the air whether he's my favorite. In close competition with Mal is rough-and-ready, out-for-himself mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin), who is also spectacular. River also gets a lot more screen time, which makes sense since she's the focus of the plot. It always seemed like that would be the case in the show, eventually, but it was cancelled before it got that far.

The actors are generally very good too; the roles seem tailored for them. The weakest link as far as acting is concerned is Kaylee, and I almost feel bad for saying this because the character is so sweet; she's mostly fine, but she's not good at the backwater accent. It feels too forced, as if she has to consciously save herself from her good breeding.

The script is very good, and the dialogue is well-suited to the characters speaking it as they were established in Firefly. This is only natural, of course, since Joss Whedon headed up both projects. My only complaint with it is that there's a lot it doesn't wrap up, but that would have been impossible to do while maintaining a suitable length. It's a shame, though, because there will probably never be another chance to tell these stories. It at least does a good job of wrapping up the plots it starts on.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the script. First, I won't spoil the details, but I was very angry with the second-to-last major scene, and you probably will be too, because it's completely unnecessary. Second, there's a new character introduced whom the film treats as though we should already be well-acquainted with him even though he didn't exist in the show; the movie does an all right job with him, though. Third, and most important, if you haven't seen the show, there's a lot of background to absorb in a short span of time, and some that you probably won't get at all.

Serenity is one of the best science fiction films in years. But you really owe it to yourself to see Firefly first.

Review Index


Alphabetical by title

40-Year Old Virgin, The

Alpha Dog

Big Fish
Boondock Saints, The
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Bridge to Terabithia

Casino Royale
Corpse Bride

Departed, The





I Am Legend


Knocked Up

Little Miss Sunshine

Man of the Year
Miami Vice



Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End


Reno 911!: Miami

Simpsons Movie, The
Smokin' Aces
Stranger Than Fiction
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby
Transformers: The Movie







40-Year Old Virgin, The

Year: 2005
Director: Judd Apatow
Notable Actors: Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Seth Rogan
Score: C+
Summary: Horrendously overrated, not-very-entertaining comedy with only one joke to speak of.


I didn't like The 40-Year Old Virgin.

There. I said it. And I'm not sorry. Even if I am the only one.

Virgin is a film that isn't so much bad as it is totally unremarkable. It centers around Andy Stitzer (Carell), who works at a big-box electronics shop with a few of his friends. One day, Andy and his friends are sitting around talking, and it comes out that Andy, who is 40, has never had sex.

Whoops, I'm sorry. I just spoiled the only joke in the entire movie. Sorry.

I'm exaggerating, but not by much. The movie is pretty much one long joke: "Hey, look! Steve Carell is a virgin! Ha ha, get it?" It's not much of a joke to begin with, and once you get it, there's really not much left.

After that he meets a girl and blah blah blah you can pretty much see where it's going from there. I went to see Virgin because I was constantly hearing about how hysterically funny it was, and I can only conclude that our prudish culture has bred an entire generation of people to whom the very idea of sex is hilarious, because I think I chuckled maybe half a dozen times during the whole movie.

It's not Steve Carell's fault, and I'm sorry that this is his first big starring role, because Carell is really a very funny guy. His performance is well-suited to the script, hitting just the right amount of awkwardness to keep you from feeling too bad for him. Unfortunately, the material he was given to work with isn't that great. The rest of the cast does passably, but nothing really stands out; the movie is really meant as a vehicle for Carell.

The only part of the film particularly worth mentioning is the ending. Like the rest of the film, many people will tell you that it is riotously funny, and this is a dirty lie. It's not particularly funny; it's just over-the-top weird. Watch it and tell me that I'm not right. I double dog dare you. It definitely gets your attention, though.

Virgin is a dull waste of time that has somehow managed to snow thousands and thousands of people. I recommend skipping it, but statistics don't lie, so chances are you're going to like it anyway. Steve, please pick a better project next time.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


Year: 2005
Director: Dave McKean
Notable Actors: Stephanie Leonidas, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon
Score: A-
Summary: Wonderfully creative, by far the most imaginative thing I've seen in some time. Kind of all over the place.


I will preface this review with a warning. MirrorMask is not for everyone. It's definitely artsier fare than most moviegoers tend to watch, as suggested by its limited release mostly in indie theaters. If you can handle a fantastical, bizarre film, MirrorMask is definitely worth a watch.

MirrorMask is a collaborative effort between Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman. It is based on a story the two wrote together; Gaiman wrote the screenplay, and McKean directed it. The efforts of both are clearly visible in the resulting film.

The premise is a slightly bizarre twist on an otherwise fairly cliché setup. Helena (Leonidas) is a young girl whose family runs a traveling circus, and the night she and her mother have a big fight, her mother falls deathly ill. Helena blames herself, and that night, finds herself in a fantasy mirror world to her own. Some of the people bear strong resemblance to people in her own world, but they don't know her, and the rules of the other world are different. The plot develops from there, with the White Queen of the new world lying comatose, allowing her dark counterpart to become increasingly powerful. There are parallels drawn between this world and her own, some obvious metaphors and some less so.

The movie's visual style is definitely the first thing you'll notice. It is unmistakably the work of Dave McKean, whose extensive career includes the covers for Gaiman's famous Sandman comics. I found the visuals highly appealing, extremely creative and always attention-grabbing. The script is a good treatment of a fairly standard setup. The dialogue is its strongest suit, full of small, witty exchanges and a couple of entertaining recurring lines.

The only area where I think people may have problems with MirrorMask is that it's, well, very weird. It reminds me of a lot of the older fantastical films -- Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and the like, all films where a "normal" character found themselves suddenly in a world that didn't play by the rules they were used to.

If you're willing to invest a little thought, and you aren't put off by the prospect of a pretty atypical screenplay, MirrorMask is definitely worth a look. It's absolutely one of the most creative endeavors I've seen in years, and it's a lot of fun to watch, too.