Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Replacement Killers

I've always thought that any work of art--film included--ought to be judged on the basis of what it attempts in relation to whatever genre it belongs to. So I would heartily disagree with film critics who bash action films because they're not "deep" enough or "complex" enough. Too much development can slow down the action, so for me the most important thing is whether a movie sustains its roller-coaster ride and provides interesting enough characters for us to care whether they live or die. And, of course, the universe that filmmakers create must be driven by some logic.

I'm not sure what audiences were expecting when Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat made his Hollywood debut, but "The Replacement Killers" delivers the same stylish, two-fisted (make that two blazing pistols) action that made the actor one of the genre's giants. Antoine Fuqua, who would go on to direct "Training Day," seems to have a pretty good handle on the Hong Kong action film, and the shots he frames, the edgy cuts, the breakneck pacing, and thumping back-music all provide proof.

But I'm also not sure that "The Replacement Killers" adds anything to the genre, or if it just takes those familiar elements and scrambles them a bit for our viewing pleasure. Certainly the plot is familiar. John Lee (Chow) is a hired killer whom we see casually walking into a club and taking out a Latino kingpin and all his thugs. He's not even close to that clichéd gunman who's suddenly lost his nerve. And yet, when Chinese crime boss Terence Wei (Kenneth Tsang) gives him another job--a cop Wei blames for his son's death--he can't pull the trigger. Make that won't, because frankly, if he does, there's no movie. Everything gets rolling when Wei gets wind of Lee's refusal and decides to sic a bunch of "replacement killers" on him and on the original target.

It's all pretty standard, and there's nothing unusual in the way of pyrotechnics or shoot-'em-ups, yet Ken Sanzel gives us a script that's just good enough and makes it better by including a prominent female character who turns out to be more interesting than most of the males posturing and blasting away at each other. In fact, Mia Sorvino ("Mighty Aphrodite") seems a natural as Meg Coburn, a tough-minded passport forger who's drawn into an uneasy partnership with Lee. Any character development rests squarely on how each sees the other, and she and Chow have a nice chemistry that makes us want to mentally climb into the car behind them and follow along on this crazy (but yes, predictable) ride. There's really not much more to say, the arc and trajectory of this plot are so simple.

There are a few moments, though, when a largely realistic tone and treatment gives way to comic-book style action--as when we first see the replacement killers. I mean, don't professional killers try to blend in? Not these guys. They dress like killers, sneer like killers, and stride through airport crowds as if they want everybody to know they're killers. Same with a few "Kung-Fu" moments when this Grasshopper interacts with an old master who's trying to help him. Yet, the film still holds plenty of appeal, and I think that mostly has to do with Sorvino and Chow.
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We Are Marshall

Oh, no, I hear you saying: Not another inspirational, true-life sports film! For the past dozen years or so, Hollywood has been grinding out these kind of flicks regularly, most of them following the same formula developed by "Rocky" all those years ago. A few of them I've enjoyed, like "The Rookie," "Invincible," and the underrated "The Greatest Game Ever Played." Most of them I have merely endured.

Now, we have "We Are Marshall," which must be the underdog story of all time, based as it is on one of the most tragic incidents in all of sports history. On November 14, 1970, the plane carrying the entire Marshall University football team, most of their coaches, and many of their supporters crashed on the way home to Huntington, West Virginia, killing everyone on board. The following season, with the urging of the town, Marshall regrouped, fielded a new team, and with renewed spirit helped to heal the community.

There is no question the actual incidents were stirring; the question is whether any film version of the experience could hope to capture the anguish, the excitement, or the elation of the real thing. In the case of "We Are Marshall," the 2006 fact-based movie of the circumstances, the answer is no, not quite. The fact is, once you understand what happened, which is pretty much as I explained it, there isn't a lot the film can do except rely on standard sports-movie stereotypes and clichés to tell the tale. So expect the usual private dramas, personal hardships, musical crescendos, clenched fists raised in the air, come-from-behind victories, and football fields of sentimentality to fill in the plot.

Then, there are the other questions. Like, of minor note, why is the film so long. I mean, it's 132 minutes. That is the kind of length usually reserved for epics, not sports stories. Of more serious weight, was the school's rush to get a new football program a tribute to the lost team, an attempt to restore the soul of the community, or a hasty decision made in the heat of loss? And most seriously, is the movie itself a salute to the school and community and their courage in going forward and rebuilding, or is it simply another of Hollywood's attempts to capitalize on what they see as a surefire grabber?

Certainly, one must always question Hollywood's motives; after all, people don't often associate the movie industry with pure humanitarianism. Still, in this case I think we have to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. "We Are Marshall" is sincere to a fault, and we should accept it for what it is--a genuine effort to show the best in people.

The first twenty minutes or so of the movie recount the disaster and its effect on the people of Huntington. This part of the story is heartbreaking. Following that is the most inspirational section of the film, when the school decides to rebuild its football program. This part is enough to bring tears to one's eyes, but it also means the story peaks too early and is never able to surpass that moment. Yet it has over an hour and a half to go.

Despite its best intentions, there is much in "We Are Marshall" that holds it back from being the best it can be. One such drawback is the simple detail that plagues so many other true-life sports stories: No matter how traumatic or uplifting the actual events, reality can still seem mundane on screen unless a movie delves deeply into the inner workings of its characters and brings them to life with vigor and force. That is partly the job of the scriptwriter, of course, but mostly the job of the director, in this instance McG (Joseph McGinty Nichol), whose previous claims to big-screen fame were the "Charlie's Angels" movies. I'm sorry; maybe it's just my bias against celebrities assuming pretentious single names. But in McG's case, it's probably more like his lack of imagination. He has the good sense to establish verisimilitude by shooting the film largely on the campus of Marshall University and sprinkling the soundtrack with an overlay of popular, identifiable music of the era from entertainers like Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater, Cat Stevens, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the Jackson 5. At the same time, he drops the ball by populating his story line with one-dimensional characters.

Even more unfortunate is the choice of Matthew McConaughey to play the lead character, Jack Lengyel, the coach who takes over a mostly freshman football team the season after the plane crash. McConaughey tries too hard to imitate the actual coach as well as inject a little color into the depiction, talking out of the side of his mouth and forever behaving like a cheerleader. He never comes across as either a real person or even a likeable person.
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Face/Off [Special Collector's Edition]

"The Killer" and "Hard-Boiled" are among my favorite action films. Watching Chow-Yun Fat dive through the air with a pair of pistols are almost iconic. It was with great anticipation that I went to watch his American action film "Face/Off" featuring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. I hoped to see some of the same magic that made many of his Hong Kong films classics. Nicolas Cage is a man that is more than believable shooting a pistol and although I was less than excited with Travolta´s performance in the unimpressive "Broken Arrow," I thought the pairing was a good one. Sure, "Broken Arrow" took away some of my admiration for John Woo, but the film did have some undeniably good action sequences and the trailers for "Face/Off" showed both Travolta and Cage performing pistol packing stunts.

For me, "Face/Off" was another disappointment from John Woo, but not nearly as much as "Broken Arrow." The film lacked the strong storytelling of so many of Woo´s Hong Kong classics. The "A Better Tomorrow" films, "The Killer," and "Hard Boiled" are far superior to anything Woo has crafted in America. I´m not sure if the big budgets are the problem, or if it is Woo trying to take a more ´American´ approach to filmmaking. Whatever it is, Woo doesn´t have the same magic when financed by American studios and with American stars. "Face/Off" had an intriguing plot device in the face-changing, but it never played out as strongly as it could have and after a while felt stale and uninteresting. Thankfully, the gunplay that was shown so heavily in the trailers was done incredibly well and while "Face/Off" isn´t as stellar in the storytelling department to Woo´s more classic pictures, it at least can rival the other titles in action and bullets.

The film was originally intended to be a Science Fiction adventure by John Woo. However, some economic decisions were made and the screenplay was pared down to be more of a human drama, but with a little science fiction to create the film´s interesting plot-twist. The plot twist is simple. The antagonist slips into the protagonist´s skin and visa versa. So the title "Face/Off" pertains to the fact that both stars´ characters had their faces off and swapped. It also pertains to the face-off between the two characters and their attempts at using each others identity to their own advantage and brings each other down by taking on the identity of the other. If it sounds confusing, it would be if you started to watch the film partway through it. In fact, it often comes off as being more silly than captivating and I´ve been about as enthused with the plot of "Face/Off" as I was with "Broken Arrow."

John Travolta is Sean Archer, an FBI agent who works to bring down international terrorists. His favorite target is Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage). Troy gunned down Archer´s young son a few years earlier and Archer wants nothing more than to bring down the man who caused his family so much pain and robbed him of his son. A dramatic encounter at an airport lands Castor and his brother Pollux (Alessandro Nivola) into FBI captivity. Castor is hurt and put into a coma, while Pollux is sent to a high security prison. Before Castor loses consciousness, he boasts to Archer that he has planted a bomb that will bring about massive loss of life to Los Angeles. Further evidence proves to Archer and his team that the bomb threat is very real and that Archer is going to have to find where the bomb is and diffuse it. With Castor in a coma, this proves problematic.

The world of science fiction introduces a series of surgery techniques and technology that allows Sean Archer to take on Castor Troy´s identity and infiltrate the prison and find out from Pollux the location of the bomb. This requires Castor´s face to be removed from his body and placed onto Archers. Of course, Archer needs to have his face removed as well. A few other incredible technologies are involved and before long, the physically larger Sean Archer is soon an exact double for Castor Troy; even taking on his vocal attributes. Unfortunately for Archer, Troy wakes up and realizes his face is missing. He discovers Archer´s and takes on the FBI agent´s identity.

Castor pays himself a visit in prison and works to free Pollux from prison, but placing Archer under tight security after the two fight. Castor becomes free to take part in Archer´s family and his FBI operation. Although others notice he behaves differently, not too many questions are asked. Meanwhile, Archer stages a dramatic escape as Troy and somehow lands back in Los Angeles from the oil-rig converted prison. He surrounds himself with Castor´s girlfriend and those Castor formerly worked with to create havoc. Archer is also introduced to Castor´s son; as it is believed Castor is Archer. Over at the Archer household, Castor has taken a liking to Archer´s wife and daughter and after diffusing the bomb to appear as a hero, begins to take out his enemies and plots to bring down the man in his skin by using the FBI´s force.

Without going too much deeper into the thin plot because of the difficulty of keeping Archer and Castor less confusing by explaining things, I´ll simply jump to the end of the story. Archer and Castor face off against each other in an explosive gunfight in a little church after Archer´s boss dies. The family becomes confused as to who is who and the wrong person is wounded. This leads to an entertaining and explosive boat chase where the two finally come to blows with fists and not pistols. Archer as Castor defeats Castor as Archer and he finds himself back with his family and the father of Castor´s son. The plot is simple, it is just hard to describe because of the identity twisting of the film.

Part of the reason for the plot´s silliness lies in the fact that the film is not what it was originally meant to be. This was supposed to be John Woo´s big science fiction epic. Instead, it is a character study of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. Through portions of the film, each actor takes on the traits of the other. This makes for some fun storytelling and both Cage and Travolta did well in portraying the other. However, by the time the film ended, these little traits were lost and the effect wasn´t as effective. It was a neat premise, but didn´t play out as well as it could have. I was pulled into the performances throughout the first half, but found the actors moving back into their skins by the end of the film.

Regardless of how silly the plot is, "Face/Off" is a ton of fun because of the high octane action and great gunfights. John Woo loves slow motion and stylish angles to show his action and "Face/Off" is full of the director´s trademarks. This is one of those movies where I enjoy watching it, but simply do not care much for the story. "Face/Off" would have been an incredible film with just a little plot work, but as it sits now, it is simply my favorite John Woo action film that was filmed in America. Two veteran and talented actors took on a challenge and mostly met that challenge. Woo was back on top of his game when it came to style and action, but substance was lacking. Not every movie is perfect and we don´t watch every movie for just the story. This is a movie where you just forget about story and relish in its action sequences. They are great action sequences.
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I Dream Of Jeannie: The Complete 4th Season

After a third-year slump, "I Dream of Jeannie" bounced back a bit by embracing the silliness and taking full advantage of the stars' comedic talents. Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden have great chemistry and comic timing as an easily flustered astronaut and the doting genie he found on an island one splashdown. Though the show only made it into the Nielsen Top-30 its first year, a kind of underground following of Eden navel-watchers emerged.

Censors wouldn't permit Eden's navel to be shown, and never have high-waisted pants caused such a stir, especially in an era of drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll. If "Bewitched" appealed to women because of Samantha's deus ex machina role in helping her husband solve his problems, "I Dream of Jeannie" was a hit with males because of Eden in that harem costume and the male-fantasy concept that drove the show. I mean, it's politically incorrect to admit it, but what guy wouldn't want a sexy genie to attend to his every wish and whim? It's sexist, of course, but if you can get past that, there's talent at work here. The material may be limiting--some routines are positively dumb--but Hagman, Eden, and their co-stars (Bill Dailey as swinging bachelor astronaut Roger Healey, and Hayden Rorke as the Air Force doctor who keeps trying to prove there's something up with Hagman) really make the most of it. In Season Three, it seemed as if every other episode was about jealousy. In Season Four, at least, the writers stretched a bit more.

Here's a rundown on the fourth season's 26 color episodes:

1) "U.F.Ohh! Jeannie"--It's Clampett time, as Tony and Roger are taken prisoner by a hillbilly family who think's they're Martians. Never mind that they're wearing American flags on their flight suits, the flying saucer-looking experimental craft is enough to dupe the dopes.

2) "Jeannie and the Wild Pipchicks"--In an era of hash brownies, why not a candy made by Jeannie's mother that turns people into superhumans, with the perfect '60s side effect: they lose all their inhibitions.

3) "Tomorrow is Not Another Day"--When Jeannie accidentally blinks tomorrow's newspaper for Tony instead of the one the paper boy lost, he sees that an astronaut has broken his leg, and breaks his neck trying to keep Roger from becoming a victim.

4) "Abdullah"--Jeannie's infant nephew comes to stay for a week of non-stop crying, which drives Tony nuts and puts the baby in the incapable hands of Roger.

5) "Have You Heard the One About the Used Car Salesman?"--After she has an accident and tries to get it fixed, Jeannie is cheated out of Tony's car and decides to expose the man as the crook he is.

6) "Djin, Djin, Go Home"--The infamous invisible dog episode, that has Hagman showing off his comic talents. Mrs. Bellows takes a shine to Jeannie's little dog, and after she "adopts" the orphan Tony has to get it back.

7) "The Strongest Man in the World"--When Tony knocks out a bunch of thugs defending Jeannie's honor (with a little help from his genie), a general who saw the whole thing tabs Tony to represent the Air Force in an Armed Forces boxing tournament.

8) "The Indispensable Jeannie"--Jeannie puts the house on auto-pilot when Tony sends here away because Dr. Bellows (Rorke) is going to be running extensive compatibility tests on the two astronauts. Auto-pilot as in "your wish is my command."

9) "Jeannie and the Top Secret Secret"--Jeannie thinks Tony is having an affair when he's engaged in top-secret meetings and finds himself next to an attractive woman on a plane.

10) "How to Marry an Astronaut"--Jeannie's dark-haired sister returns in this hokey, gimmicky episode involving a plan to help Jeannie hook up with her Master.

11) "Dr. Bellows Goes Sane"--Dr. Bellows develops Gladys Kravitz syndrome, where he discovers that if he says anything to anyone about the evidence he's documented about the strange goings on at Tony's house, he's the one people think is crazy.

12) "Jeannie the Guru"--A general's teenage daughter catches Jeannie blinking herself here and there and blackmails her into turning Tony's house into a "crash pad" for a bunch of flower children like herself.

13-14) "The Case of My Vanishing Master, Pts. 1-2"--More marriage farce as Tony is off on another secret mission, leaving a NASA double in his place . . . that Jeannie thinks is her Master.

15) "Ride 'Em Astronaut"--Jeannie becomes queen of a local supermarket and the Cocoa Beach Rodeo (yeah, right) after she's the millionth customer. The rodeo winner gets a date with the queen, and so Tony signs up (despite a fear of big animals) to save Jeannie from the brute who's favored to win her favors.

16) "Invisible House for Sale"--A misunderstanding about selling the house gets more complicated when a potential buyer is a NASA specialist.

17) "Jeannie, the Governor's Wife"--Jeannie pushes Tony into running for governor, and campaigns to beat the band in an episode that has Bellows skulking about again.

18) "Is There a Doctor in the House?"--Tony keeps falling asleep in mid-sentence, and Jeannie seeks help from her mother, who (shades of "Bewitched") might be behind the whole thing.

19) "Biggest Star in Hollywood"--This unique episode features the whole cast of "Laugh-In," as Jeannie is invited to appear on the show and Roger poses as her manager.

20) "The Case of the Porcelain Puppy"--Jeannie accidentally turns Tony's hat and briefcase into porcelain, and the cover story has Tony scrambling to turn out more amateur crockery.

21) "Jeannie for the Defense"--This one comes straight out of "The Andy Griffith Show" playbook. Tony, off on a fishing trip, gets caught in a speed trap and is victimized by another carload of people claiming personal injury.

22) "Nobody Loves a Fat Astronaut"--Sis is back again, this time meddling in Tony's moon mission.

23) "Around the Moon in 80 Blinks"--Jeannie tries to attend to her Master's cold while he's orbiting the moon.

24) "Jeannie-Go-Round"--Jeannie II traps her sister in a bottle and tries to steal Tony.

25) "Jeannie and the Secret Weapon"--Jeannie turns a top-secret project into a scale model, but the "toy" ends up in the hands of toy manufacturers, and Tony is in deep doo-doo.

26) "Blackmail Order Bride"--A sneaky reporter plants cameras and tape recorders all over Tony's house in an attempt to get evidence of the astronaut's guarded personal life.

The episodes are housed on four single-sided discs in two slim, clear-plastic keep-cases with an attractive (groovy flowers and pink and blue) slip-case--the perfect package for a show from this period.
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Thursday, September 6, 2007

Georgia Rule [Widescreen]

Wild, out of control party girl Lindsay Lohan plays a wild, out of control party girl in the dramedy "Georgia Rule." That´s either inspired casting or a recipe for disaster. In the case of "Georgia Rule", I´d say the percentage is about 40-60. James G. Robinson, CEO of Morgan Creek, the production company behind the film, certainly got sick of the teen starlet´s late-night partying. Production was delayed while she was hospitalized for "exhaustion." Robinson wrote a stern letter, which found its way to the press, blasting Lohan for her irresponsible behavior. Aside from juicy behind-the-scenes gossip, there really isn´t anything noteworthy about the film.

Lohan is Rachel Wilcox who is driven from San Francisco to the small Mormon town of Hull, Idaho by her mother, Lilly (Felicity Huffman). In Idaho, Rachel will spend the summer with her grandmother, Georgia (Jane Fonda), with the hopes that she´ll be able to straighten out the rambunctious youth. To say that Rachel isn´t pleased would be an understatement. The film begins with Rachel angrily walking down the middle of the road, refusing to get back into her mother´s car. Lilly drives off and Rachel takes a quick nap under a "Welcome to Idaho" billboard. Beefcake farm boy Harland (Garrett Hedlund) in his pick-up truck and Dr. Simon Ward (Dermot Mulroney), the local veterinarian, come across her and this won´t be the last time they run into each other.

Rachel arrives at grandmother´s house and it turns out she´s only met Georgia once at her grandfather´s funeral. Georgia immediately lays down several laws, her Georgia Rules. Georgia always eats her meals at regularly scheduled times and never deviates. If you´re late for dinner, you´ll have to wait for breakfast. Even though Georgia isn´t above using four-letter words, she´ll be darned if she´ll let Rachel take God´s name in vain. Georgia literally makes Rachel wash her mouth out with soap. Georgia also gets Rachel a job as Simon´s receptionist and becomes the talk of the local girls when she performs oral sex on Harland. These three generations of women are forced to confront each others´ pasts when a shocking secret comes out. During a county fair, Rachel, out of nowhere, confesses to being sexually abused by her stepfather, Arnold (Cary Elwes), at the age of twelve.

The film´s theatrical trailer and much of its marketing campaign make "Georgia Rule" out to be an amusing romp of a chick flick. The smiling faces on the front and back of the DVD cover don't help matters. The movie certainly starts out that way with quick, back-and-forth banter, but deals with some very dark themes. Much of the driving force behind "Georgia Rule" comes from the revelation of sexual abuse. Did it really happen or is this another in a long line of lies by Rachel? Lilly finds it a difficult issue to deal with and falls off the wagon, descending into a drunken stupor. Director Garry Marshall, best known for frothy comedic fare like "Pretty Woman" and "The Princess Diaries", tries to inject his more lighthearted sensibilities to temper the more serious aspects of the story. Simply put, it just doesn´t work. Amidst themes of statutory rape and alcoholism, Marshall sprinkles in quick shots of cute animals that really don´t make any sense. Some of the jokes about Rachel´s promiscuity aren´t that funny given what we know. Rachel fights with a young boy in one scene and instantly recoils when she notices his erection. In another scene, Rachel threatens to have sex with the boyfriends of the local girls that taunt her. Sorry if I don´t bust a gut. Lohan´s proclivities for drinking, smoking, and partying have definitely taken their toll on her voice which comes off as hoarse and even shrill in some scenes. She is at that age where a young actress tries to shed her family friendly image by tackling more mature roles. With "Georgia Rule" and the recent "I Know Who Killed Me", Lohan tries to graduate from her Disney roles, but both films proved to be box office duds and critical failures. Despite her off-screen antics, or perhaps because of them, Lohan pulls off a semi-decent performance from time to time. It´s obvious her game was improved by working with Felicity Huffman and Jane Fonda. Maybe the young lady has some acting chops in her. Dressed in frilly dresses or short shorts and Elvis-style sunglasses, Lohan´s look is very reminiscent of her idol, Ann-Margaret. While she may come off as glamorous, her co-stars are given the opposite treatment by the make-up department. Huffman looks extremely rough when she falls off the wagon while Fonda looks an awful lot like her father, Henry.
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Robot Chicken: Season Two [(Uncensored)]

It´s said television is a wasteland. The programs the major networks give you for "free" are awful and constantly aim for the lowest common denominator. Then there's all the crap you can pay to not watch. Seriously, why do people pay upwards of eighty bucks a month for channels like ABC Family or MTV? Thankfully, the popularity of television shows on DVD and downloads over the Internet have led to the lack of necessity for us to suckle at the teat of morally corrupt companies like Comcast or Dish Network. I once stated that "Robot Chicken," along with "Rescue Me" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," were the only reasons even to allow a cable box in your home or to have an eyesore of a dish bolted to the side of your house. But now with all three programs available on DVD, I'll have to alter that statement and say that "Robot Chicken" is one of the best reasons to own a DVD player.

"Robot Chicken" debuted on Cartoon Network's mature line of programming, "Adult Swim," back in 2005. Adult Swim's block of shows had been on the air for about four years at that point, and the majority of its flagship shows had either faded away ("Space Ghost Coast to Coast") or had hit a creative wall ("Aqua Teen Hunger Force," "Sealab 2021"). Sadly, their highest-rated shows were reruns of failed Fox sitcoms ("Family Guy" and "Futurama"). And even though those reruns gained both shows new leases on life ("Bender's Big Score" is going to be the holiday gift for all the nerds in your family), there simply weren't any new shows on Adult Swim worth watching. And then came "Robot Chicken."

While "Robot Chicken" is often credited to being created by former 90's actors Seth Green and Breckin Meyer, the real origins of the show can be traced back to "Robot Chicken" writer/director Tom Root and his contributions at Toyfare magazine. But I suppose saying the show is from the guys who starred in "Rat Race" is better than saying it's from one of the creators of "Twisted Toyfare Theater." Or maybe not. Either way, this twelve-minute show starring toys animated with stop-motion techniques featured in sketches as short as three seconds long is the greatest source of pop-culture themed humor available today. It's like a comedic version of the "Family Guy."

Featuring voice acting by anyone Meyer or Green have shared a Craft Food service table with, "Robot Chicken" is a virtual who's who of Hollywood, both young and old, or topical and forgotten. Where else will you see…er, hear...Scarlett Johansson alongside Dave Coulier? I am just glad to be living in a world where Phyllis Diller, Hulk Hogan, and Jimmy Kimmel have all appeared on the same show. Actually, if Kimmel could get Diller and Hogan to appear on his talk show on the same night, it would probably be the most hyped show he ever had. Come to think of it, is his show still on the air? Either way, why waste your time with it when you could be watching Season Two of "Robot Chicken," with all the bleeps taken out and toy nudity unblurred!
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R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour: Don't Think About It

R.L. Stine is often called the Stephen King of children´s literature. His Goosebumps series of novels were a phenomenal success and inspired a television series that aired on Fox in the mid 90´s. His spooky tales were drawn from Stine´s love of classic Hollywood horror films and "The Twilight Zone." I´ll admit to not being very knowledgeable about the author. I´ve never read any of his books though I vaguely remember watching an episode or two of "Goosebumps" and the 4D film, "R.L. Stine´s The Haunted Lighthouse," has been a longtime attraction at the Sea World in my hometown of San Diego. Stine´s latest venture is a series of direct-to-video movies based on his anthology collection, "The Haunted Hour."

Emily Osment, sister of "Sixth Sense" star Haley Joel, plays the lead role of Cassie Keller, a Goth girl who has just moved to a new town. She frustrates her parents with her non-traditional wardrobe and her constant bickering with her younger brother, Zack (Alex Winzenread). Zack is persistently afraid of not just the usual stuff like the dark or the slightly opened closet door but, he´s also afraid of trees, squirrels, and even his own action figures. At school, she bumps heads with Priscilla (Brittany Curran) who fulfills the role of mean, popular girl. Priscilla is also dating Sean (Cody Linley), a cute though not very bright boy that Cassie has her eyes on. Their feud begins with a snide remark by Priscilla in the cafeteria about Cassie´s look and it culminates at the Halloween dance where Priscilla is crowned Pumpkin Queen. Per tradition, Priscilla gets the honor of smashing open a giant, pumpkin piñata that Cassie secretly filled with cockroaches.

One day, Cassie comes across a mysterious new Halloween store at the end of a narrow alley. The store is filled with the usual spooky paraphernalia, candles, cobwebs, and jars filled with icky goop. The business is run by a man only referred to as The Stranger, played by the Jigsaw Killer himself, Tobin Bell. The Stranger points out a very special item for Cassie, a book called The Evil Thing. A warning is printed on the very first page of the book, "Don´t read this aloud." Cassie doesn´t think much of this until she´s told by her parents to baby sit Zack on Halloween night. Pestered by her brother one too many times, Cassie tries to spook the little guy by reading from the book. At the same time, Priscilla decides to get back at Cassie and forces Sean to tag along. Unbeknownst to them all, the book has unleashed a two-headed creature also called the Evil Thing which captures Zack and Priscilla. It is now up to Cassie and Sean to march off into the woods and kill the monster before it feeds the others to its babies.

Though I haven´t reached the age of old curmudgeon, I´m still 28 years-old and obviously not apart of the intended audience for "Don´t Think About It." The young actors in the film are noted as having made appearances in Disney Channel series like "The Suite Life with Zack & Cody" and "Hannah Montana." The young fans of those shows will likely enjoy the film. It has a direct-to-television feel to it and would fit in well on cable channels like Disney. The film was directed by Alex Zamm, the man behind the camera for the direct-to-video feature "Inspector Gadget 2" and the…ugh…Carrot Top vehicle, "Chairman of the Board." As such, don´t expect anything spectacular in terms of camerawork. The soundtrack is filled with the kind of generic pop songs that I would never listen to, but that the youngsters are probably familiar with. The special effects are fairly decent and not nearly as awful as you might think for a film like this. Zamm probably shows a little too much of the Evil Thing, but shoots it in quick bursts and in tight close-ups so as not to expose how mediocre it looks.

"Don´t Think About It" is a very simplistic and straightforward tale. The characters all fit into the standard roles of popular boy, outsider, and mean girl and they never advance beyond those descriptions. The story is just as simplistic. We know the nice, handsome boy will wind up with Cassie, Zack will face his fears, and the snotty girl will get her comeuppance. Big sister learns to get along with her little brother and all the plot threads are tied off neatly. Though there is a final coda that leaves things open-ended.
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