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Monstrous fun

By Lady Liberty
web posted July 24, 2006

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

* out of ****

My Super Ex-GirlfriendI'm a big believer in movies as entertainment. Sure, movies can educate and move, too, but isn't entertainment really the point even if nothing else happens to serve in a given film? That's why you shouldn't find it too surprising that I actually looked forward to seeing My Super Ex-Girlfriend. I knew from the beginning I had no business expecting an Oscar-winner, but I did think I might be amused. It's good to know that I was half right: My Super Ex-Girlfriend is no Oscar-winner.

In the beginning scenes of My Super-Ex Girlfriend, we learn that mild mannered architect Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson) has now been six months without a girlfriend. This is a state of being that his best friend, Vaughn Haige (Rainn Wilson) is not inclined to let go on. As a result, Vaughn prods Matt to approach a woman (Uma Thurman) on the subway.

Though reluctant to interrupt the woman — who is quietly minding her own business as she reads — Matt moves to her side more to shut Vaughn up than for any other reason. Looking back at his pushy friend, he dutifully clears his throat and asks if he might buy her a cup of coffee sometime. The woman doesn't hesitate. She tells him, "No!" in no uncertain terms, and goes back to her book. But just as the train pulls into the station, a man rushes by and steals her purse on his way out the door. Without a thought, Matt gives chase.

When Matt eventually recovers her purse in a series of incidents combining both luck and determination, the woman relents. Introducing herself as Jenny Johnson, she agrees to have dinner with Matt. Vaughn is delighted, and so is Matt's pretty co-worker, Hannah (Anna Faris). Hannah hasn't been as pushy as Vaughn, but she's also delighted to see Matt moving on.

Fortunately for all concerned, Matt not only thinks Jenny is attractive, but he finds her interesting as well (albeit a bit odd). What Matt doesn't know is that his every move is being closely watched by the nefarious Professor Bedlam (Eddie Izzard). Of course, he also doesn't know that the mild-mannered Jenny Johnson is really the much loved superhero G-Girl, and that Professor Bedlam has his reasons for keeping tabs on her and anyone else — especially men — with whom she comes in contact.

Along with her super powers, Jenny turns out to be super insecure as well. Though Matt likes her, nothing could be enough to make up for her jealousy, possessiveness, and out of control temper. With Vaughn's advice to bolster him, Matt tries to let Jenny/G-Girl down gently. Needless to say, she doesn't take it well and is determined to exact revenge.

With looming crises on the job, Professor Bedlam's now overt interference, and fears of Jenny's next appearance in his life, Matt scarcely knows what to do next. Should he run away? Should he face Jenny's wrath? And what about his chances for any future relationships?

I'm not a big Luke Wilson fan, and this movie certainly didn't help his cause in my mind. He's okay, but I didn't buy his confusion or his courage in this film, and his comedic abilities are significantly less than those of his brother, Owen Wilson. Uma Thurman, on the other hand, is rarely less than stellar, and she doesn't disappoint here. She takes hold of the melodramatic script, chews it up and spits it out with aplomb, and smartly moves on to the next scene.

Rainn Wilson (perhaps best known as the geekish Dwight Schrute on NBC's hit comedy, The Office) is fine in his supporting role, as is Anna Faris. Wanda Sykes also puts in an appearance in a small role, though she plays pretty much the same character she always does. Eddie Izzard is the best of the supporting cast, and his own skills make him a worthy counterpart for Thurman's heroine.

Director Ivan Reitman (who has such comedy classics under his belt as Ghostbusters and Stripes) does an adequate job of putting the parts and pieces of performances and effects together. Writer Don Payne (among other things, his résumé boasts a number of episodes of TV's The Simpsons) has put together a script, however, that never quite lives up to its potential. The jokes ramp up just fine, but they fizzle before they get the laugh; the melodrama never quite reaches the point where it would be laughable, either. In fact, the only thing (aside from a couple of the performances) that works here is some of the special effects.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend had the potential to be one of those really silly movies that was really fun to watch (here's a really good place to mention Ghostbusters again). Instead, despite good performances and production values, this one just doesn't make it over the hump. That's too bad, because without that missing little extra "oomph," it's only silly and frankly not much of that.

FAMILY SUITABILTY: My Super Ex-Girlfriend is rated PG-13 for "sexual content, crude humor, language, and brief nudity." That's probably just about right. The sexual content isn't graphic, but it's there and more than once; the crude humor, language, and brief nudity aren't "in your face," but are probably unsuitable for kids younger than 11 or 12. In fact, 11 or 12 year-olds are probably just about the only age group that are actually going to like My Super Ex-Girlfriend. If your kids want to go, I can't argue strongly against them seeing it, but I'd recommend you buy yourself a ticket to something else.

Monster House

*** out of ****

Monster HouseAs a rule, I'm not a fan of animation or kids' movies. But it was a hot weekend, and theatres are air-conditioned, so...

The house the kids in the neighborhood all fear is right across the street from young JD (voiced by Mitchell Musso). JD has made it his business to keep a close eye on the house from the safe vantage point of his own bedroom window. That's how he happens to take note of the latest "victim" of the house and its cantankerous owner, Mr. Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi). "One more tricycle" he writes in his notebook as Nebbercracker confiscates a little girl's toy after she inadvertently rides it onto his lawn.

JD's parents (voiced by Catherine O'Hara and Fred Willard) take no notice of his upset or of the crying little girl running from the Nebbercracker house. They're busy packing the car for an overnight trip. Shouting cautions at their son as they pull out of the driveway, they remind him that the babysitter will be there soon. Arriving sooner still, though, is JD's best friend, Chowder (Sam Lerner). Chowder has a new basketball he wants to play with and JD seems willing to be distracted.

The two play briefly, but all too soon the ball gets away from Chowder and — you guessed it — bounces across the street and onto Nebbercracker's lawn. Chowder demands that JD retrieve the ball and JD lets himself be talked into it. But just as he's nearing the ball, Nebbercracker himself comes running out of the house, and starts yelling at poor JD. The boy doesn't know what to do, but just as Nebbercracker really gets going, he collapses and is taken away by an ambulance.

The boys are affected by this, but in different ways. Chowder sees Nebbercracker's absence as a positive thing, while JD feels guilty that he caused the old man to fall. It's just then that the babysitter, Zee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) pulls up in her ramshackle car. More concerned with her social life than with her charge, she gives JD her version of "the rules," and then proceeds to turn up the stereo and talk on the phone.

While JD and Chowder occupy themselves, Jenny (Spencer Lee) is selling candy door to door. The boys, who see her headed for Nebbercracker's door, run outside to stop her. She's having none of their nonsense about the house, though, but then she sees for herself and promptly joins the two in determining just what they ought to do next. In the end, from adults who don't believe them to ridiculous plans they come up with on their own, the kids are now committed to dealing with the "monster house" once and for all.

Filmed using motion capture techniques, Monster House is the most effective animation of that kind I've seen. Though incredible realism has been achieved (the character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, or King Kong himself in the recent remake), those achievements have been against a backdrop of reality. Polar Express, on the other hand, was animated using motion capture and presented within an entirely animated setting, and it made what I believe to be the critical mistake of trying to make its characters seem real. The technology simply isn't at that level (yet), and the deadness in the eyes and the plastic appearance of the skin was a disconcerting distraction at times, at least for me.

In Monster House, though, animators didn't try to make the characters look real. Their features are exaggerated. Their hair is a mop of noodle-like extensions coming off the scalp. The dog is a caricature. Since that was the case, the utter reality of their movements made the animation better while the general appearance didn't distract. The backgrounds (grass, fabric, wood) were real as all get-out, which also served as an enhancement. Motion capture was even used for the "monster house" itself, and while it's fair to say the house didn't look human, it really did look as if it were alive.

The vocal abilities of the actors contributed in no small way to the believability of the story despite the fact it was less believably about a house come to malevolent life. With a good script — not too complex for kids, but yet interesting enough to hold onto a more mature audience — and fine direction, everything in Monster House combined to create a whole even bigger and better than the sum of its parts.

While I was cognizant of the techniques being used for the movie, I was still caught up in the basic storyline, and was amused off and on as well as bemused throughout. Since I don't normally like movies aimed squarely at children, that's saying something. And while I don't imagine I'll be buying a copy when it comes out on DVD at a later date, I can honestly say I'm glad I bought my ticket, whatever my original reasons for doing so.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Monster House is rated PG for "scary images and sequences, thematic elements, some crude humor, and brief language," and it should be. This is not a movie for little ones. It's frankly much too frightening for that. Parents, one more time: this movie is much too scary for the littlest ones! The fact that it also deals with some fairly complex issues — lost loves, revenge, death, and wholesale destruction — isn't suited to small children, either. But because all of these elements are rendered in animation, and because the plot is kept relatively straightforward, I do think it would be okay for the average 7 year-old or so, unless he or she is particularly sensitive to nightmares. The even better news is that this is a movie you can take your kids to see and enjoy on its own merits for yourself.

Lady in the Water

** 1/2 out of ****

Lady in the WaterEver since the brilliant The Sixth Sense came out, I've been an unabashed M. Night Shyamalan fan. Unfortunately for Mr. Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense has proved to be the achievement against which all of his subsequent efforts have been measured. That they've fallen short is less a comment on his abilities than it is some twisted paean to his incredible earlier achievement (though in fairness some were better than others — Unbreakable, in particular, is underrated). Lady in the Water is Shyamalan's latest offering, and once again, critics are being unkind (to put it mildly).

Cleveland Heep (Paul Giamatti) is the caretaker of a middling-sized apartment building in Philadelphia. We meet him as we meet his building's newest tenant, Harry Farber (Bob Balaban). All along the way to Apartment 13B, Cleveland chats with Mr. Farber even as he greets existing tenants — Young-Soon Choi (Cindy Cheung), a young university student; Reggie (Freddy Rodriguez), a bodybuilder on a mission; and Mr. Leeds (Bill Irwin), who seems apart from others but who never-the-less maintains a watch on them.

Farber himself is a book and movie critic who's not impressed with anyone he meets, including Heep. He does, however, find himself just a little intrigued with Mrs. Bell (Mary Beth Hurt), a kindly woman whose empathy often sees her rescuing wounded animals. With Farber's promise to introduce himself to Mrs. Bell, Heep goes on to exterminate bugs and clean around the pool before calling it a night.

Darkness has fallen when Heep hears someone splashing in the pool after hours. He immediately runs out of his small caretaker's cottage to chastise the offender. Though it initially appears that no one is there, he eventually spots the young woman responsible. Heep gets her attention literally by accident, but once he has it, he's not entirely sure what to do with it. The girl tells him her name is Story (Bryce Dallas Howard), and he eventually learns she's a narf from a place she calls "the blue world."

Gradually, Heep learns a little more, and then more than he would like to. Among those things he'd just as soon not know about are the objects of Story's fears, toothy creatures she says are called scrunts. Hiding in the grass, their poisoned claws represent danger to men and narfs alike. The ever present scrunts will do all that they can to stop Story from succeeding in her mission. What makes it even more difficult for her and not incidentally for Heep is the fact she's not all that sure herself what it is she must accomplish or how it is she might manage to do so.

Heep, despite his reluctance and initial disbelief, finds himself wanting to help Story however he can. Knowing he can't manage on his own, Heep finds parts and pieces of what he needs from various tenants in his building. And it's his knowledge of those who live there, combined with his innate empathies, that give him the courage to try to protect Story and to help her find just what it is that she must do.

Paul Giamatti is a terrific actor (I'm one of those who still thinks he was robbed of an Oscar for his incredible performance in the superlative Sideways), and he's certainly very good here. Bryce Dallas Howard was herself singled out for a good deal of attention in her debut acting effort (another M. Night Shyamalan film, The Village), and she's also good this movie. In fact, the entire cast is quite good. The setting is interesting too, and the limited special effects are excellent.

M. Night Shyamalan is a very capable director (though a few of the camera angles here appeared forced for effect, others were sheer brilliance), and the edits here were just as nice and tight as they should have been. Shyamalan, however, also wrote the script, and it seems that that's what most critics are finding objectionable.

Some suggest the story isn't believable (Shyamalan has himself called the film a bedtime story, and has said it's based on a fantasy he made up for his own children); others lament that there's no twist or that too many explanations are offered. But it's my own feeling that the story isn't supposed to be real per se, and I don't think a fairy tale necessarily needs an overall twist (especially when the entire plot is filled with small surprises all along the way). And make no mistake: Lady in the Water is a fairy tale. In and of itself, of course it's not believable. Can you think of a fairy tale that is? (Consider sleeping for 100 years, being stalked by a talking wolf, or seeing yourself outfitted for a ball by fairy godmothers...do you really buy into any of it?)

The bottom line here is that Shyamalan doesn't need any defense I might offer his story. All that he needs is an audience that's willing to sit in a darkened theatre and — much as we used to do in our dimly lit childhood bedrooms — suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the tale. To say that I liked Lady in the Water might not be enough to convince you it's worth the price of a ticket. But I happened to see this movie with some friends. All of us have relatively different tastes in what we might consider a really good movie (not surprising from two women, one man, a 15 year-old girl, and an 18 year-old boy). And yet they liked this movie, too.

My own recommendation is that you see Lady in the Water with an open mind and the desire for a dark but redeeming bedtime story. I suspect that, if you do, you won't be any more disappointed than we were.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Lady in the Water is rated PG-13 for "some frightening sequences." It is, without question, too complicated and too intense for little ones. I'd suggest it's suitable for those of age 12 and up (unless they're particularly susceptible to nightmares about monsters or the like). While younger folk won't appreciate some of the more subtle humor (can I just say that it's pretty obvious that M. Night Shyamalan doesn't much like movie critics?), there's much here that they will enjoy. The fact that they'll learn something about human nature while they're at it not only gives Lady in the Water still something more in common with traditional fairy tales but makes it a better film as well.

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.


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